Stalinism in retrospect : Hannah Arendt
History and Theory
criminality, evil, Stalin, Stalinism, subjective factor, totalitarianism
Established writers whose reputation is affixed to a particular line of argument are typically ill disposed to change their minds in public. Some authors sincerely believe that the historical record vindicates them. Others are determined that the historical record will vindicate them. Still others ignore the historical record. Among students of totalitarianism, no one had more at stake reputationally than Hannah Arendt. It is not just that The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) established her as the premier thinker on its topic. It is also that totalitarianism, as she understood it, ribbons through all of her subsequent books, from the discussion of “the social” in The Human Condition (1958) to the analysis of thinking in the posthumously published The Life of the Mind (1978). How ready was she to adapt or to change entirely arguments she had first formulated as early as the mid-to-late 1940s? “Stalinism in Retrospect,” her contribution to Columbia University's Seminar on Communism series, offers a rare opportunity to answer, at least partially, this question.
Arendt's foil was the publication of recent books on Stalin and the Stalin era by three Russian witnesses: Nadezhda Mandelstam, Roy Medvedev, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. According to Arendt, the books meshed with her own theoretical conception of Bolshevism while changing the “whole taste” of the period: they contained new insights into the nature of totalitarian criminality and evil. “Stalinism in Retrospect” documents Arendt's arguments and challenges to them by a number of the seminar's participants. Of particular note is the exchange between her and Zbigniew Brzezinski, an expert on the Soviet Union, a major interpreter of totalitarianism in his own right, and soon to be President Carter's National Security Advisor (January 1977–January 1981). Notes by the editor, Peter Baehr, offer a critical context for understanding Arendt's argument.
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Edited with notes by Peter BAEHR
Weber, M., & Baehr, P. (2015). Stalinism in retrospect: Hannah Arendt. History and Theory, 54(3), 353–366. doi: 10.1111/hith.10764