More Thoughts on Reading ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’: The Enigma of Stalin


In her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt notes numerous similarities between Nazi Germany, on the one hand, and the Soviet Union under Stalin on the other. In particular, the use of terror – that is, the violent persecution of whole sections of the population – which Arendt sees as the defining characteristic of totalitarianism. (According to Arendt, the Soviet Union became totalitarian in 1930, whereas Nazi Germany didn’t become fully totalitarian until the Second World War.) According to Arendt, the aim of this terror is “total domination”, which will eventually lead to some ultimate goal: in the case of Nazi Germany, “world conquest”; in the case of Stalinist Russia, “world revolution”. I think Arendt was right about the first, but wrong about the second. It seems to me that Stalin pretty much gave up on world revolution after Hitler came to power in Germany (and maybe before then). Whet, then, was Stalin’s aim? Some have suggested that it was rapid industrialization, but Arendt argues that Stalin’s purges actually hampered industrial development. Scientists, engineers, and managers were swept up in the purges, depriving Soviet industry of needed expertise. Others have argued that Stalin was paranoid, although this fails to explain the deep trust that Stalin showed towards Hitler. (Stalin refused to believe his agents when they told him that Germany was preparing to invade the Soviet Union. According to Krushchev, Stalin suffered a nervous breakdown when he was informed of the attack.)

So, what was Stalin’s aim? It seems he enjoyed wielding power as an end in itself. He persecuted people because he could. At the time of his death, he was planning another massive purge, one that would begin by targeting Jews. It’s hard to see what this could possibly have accomplished. After Stalin’s death, the purge plans were dropped, and the Gulag was emptied out. According to Arendt, the Soviet Union ceased to be totalitarian at this point, reverting to a one-party dictatorship.

One is struck by how much Stalin’s personality drove events in the Soviet Union. As someone who has always been critical of the “Great Man” view of history, I find this troubling. As a Marxist, I have always tried to take as strictly materialist approach to historical events, but there seems to be times when this approach becomes inadequate.

3 Responses to “More Thoughts on Reading ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’: The Enigma of Stalin”

  1. les Says:

    yeah, stalin and “world revolution” don’t seem to go together in the same sentence. in fact, it was stalin and his cronies who introduced the phrase “socialism in one country” back in 1924. however, if you want a good literary excursion into the kind of totalitarian society stalin helped create, read “children of the arbat” and “fear” by anton rybakov, which are set during the period of the great purges.

  2. les Says:

    oops! that’s “anatoly” not anton. and as to the great man (or maybe great villian) theory of history, isn’t that just another way of phrasing the whole perplexing and probably unanswerable question of structure vs. agency?

    • The Spanish Prisoner Says:

      It is perhaps unanswerable. Arendt heavily emphasizes the importance of agency, although she does acknowledge structure as a factor.

      Thanks for pointing out those books to me. I will have to put them on my reading list.

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