Again and again in this book, the term ‘totalitarianism’ has served as a historiographical beacon. We have seen how ‘revisionism’ was construed as totalitarianism's other in the historiographical fights of the 1980s. We encountered Moshe Lewin's flirtation with the term, and his groping for alternatives, before exploring the work of Richard Pipes, a major proponent of understanding the Soviet Union as ‘totalitarian’. We demonstrated how the unrevisionist revisionist, Sheila Fitzpatrick, used the concept, while arguing against the
Revolution (1990), and Russia under the Bolshevik Regime (1993) – elaborated a coherent vision of the origins of Stalinist totalitarianism out of the traditions of Russian patrimonialism and imperialism. 7 To Pipes, Stalinism was the essence of Bolshevik totalitarianism, a fusion of revolutionary practice with Russian culture. Pipes was also one of the founding fathers of the study of nations in the Soviet context. Finally, Pipes was an anti-Soviet public intellectual, pundit and policy adviser – a part of his career beyond the topic of this book. 8 His public work
Debates on Stalinism gives an up-to-date, concise overview of major debates in the history of Stalinism. It introduces readers to changing approaches since the 1950s, and more broadly to scholarly views on this society reaching back to the 1930s. It argues that writing the history of Stalinism is not only about the Soviet past. It is also centrally shaped by current anxieties and concerns of the scholars studying it. In short, there is a politics of writing the history of Stalinism. Combining biographical investigation of leading historians with thematic and chronological analysis of major topics of study, Debates on Stalinism uncovers the history of these politics. The book provides a snapshot of the state of the field and suggests possible future avenues of further research.
From the late 1930s to the end of the 1940s a high-profile group of mostly Christian intellectuals met to discuss the related crises of totalitarianism, war and cultural decline in the democratic West. Brought together by the leading missionary and ecumenist Joseph H. Oldham, the group included prominent writers, thinkers, activists and scholars, among them T. S. Eliot, John Middleton Murry, Karl Mannheim, John Baillie, Alec Vidler, H. A. Hodges, Christopher Dawson, Kathleen Bliss and Michael Polanyi. Among its wider circle of correspondents and supporters were the era’s most influential Christian authors and thinkers – such as Reinhold Niebuhr, William Temple, Jacques Maritain, Dorothy L. Sayers and C. S. Lewis. The participants in the Oldham group saw faith as a uniquely powerful resource for cultural and social renewal, and they sought to integrate diverse Christian viewpoints, reconcile faith and secular society, and reshape post-war British society. In an ‘age of extremes’ they pursued a variety of ‘middle ways’ with regard to topics such as the social relevance of faith, the relationship of Christianity to secularity, the legitimacy of capitalism, the role of State planning, the value of patriotism, the meaning of freedom and the value of egalitarianism.
If revisionism did not break the original frame built by the totalitarian pioneers of the study of Stalinism, neither did subsequent scholarship. In the 1990s, historians became interested in the subjective aspect of Stalinism: how was it experienced by individuals? A related group explored a comparative angle: how different was Stalinism to other modern societies? Others moved into the post-war years and soon the Second World War. Finally, ‘totalitarianism’ was reinvented as a term, a revival which was eased by the compatibility of most ‘revisionist’ and
must protect democratic institutions that had subjected political power to principles of justice. 45 Democracy and the freedoms of expression and association were at the heart of Murry’s vision of ‘the free society’. 46
However, liberal freedoms alone were neither a bulwark against totalitarianism nor a route to a Christian society. Political freedoms were seen as insufficient without social justice and a consensus on the purpose of freedom. Civil liberties were, Oldham stressed, only ‘half the picture’, and weakened by poverty and inequality. 47 Baillie agreed
totalitarianism became a standard Christian trope across the 1930s. 28 At Oxford 1937, the ‘secularist revolt’ and subsequent birth of materialist ‘cults’ were seen as decisive cultural forces. 29 A CCFCL document argued that ‘spiritual realities’ had been replaced by ‘the supremacy of nation, race or class’. 30 At an SCM conference in 1938, Moberly warned that a British totalitarianism might result from ‘secularisation’ or a ‘Godless self-containedness’. 31 A religious vacuum had been filled by the worship of dictators and the deification of nation, party, class or Volk
1930s and throughout the 1940s with planning and even with aspects of Communism. The group’s commitment to planning, even in the carefully hedged form that it took, is striking in light of British Christians’ general scepticism about the State. Indeed, the expansion of State power throughout the West had become central to ecumenical analyses of ‘totalitarianism’ in the 1930s. Planning, it was feared, too easily became idolatry. The totalitarian State, Oldham wrote in 1935, ‘lays claim to man in the totality of his being’, thus denying the independence of religion
’s account of the state of exception. The way to make the argument, however, is through Agamben’s
precursor, and Olson’s contemporary, Hannah Arendt.
In 1950, the year of ‘Projective Verse’, Arendt published The Origins
of Totalitarianism. The purpose of the book was to trace the origins of
Totalitarian government back through the gradual consolidation of the
idea of the nation as the defining political entity of the modern age. As
she outlined her intention in her preface, the book:
was written … to discover the hidden mechanics by which all traditional elements of our
After the Second World War, John Baillie, in What Is Christian Civilisation? (1945), expressed a key conviction of the Oldham group. As a review of the book noted, Baillie saw the problems of the age as rooted in the ‘disturbance of the traditional intellectual outlook’ and the ‘simultaneous disturbance of the traditional social life of the community’. 1 There were many urgent efforts, like Baillie’s, to rethink Christianity amid the ‘disturbances’ of the 1930s and 1940s: the crisis of liberalism, the rise of totalitarianism, the