Stalinism as a Totalitarian Society: Geoffrey Hosking's Socio-Cultural History

By Edele, Mark | Kritika, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Stalinism as a Totalitarian Society: Geoffrey Hosking's Socio-Cultural History


Edele, Mark, Kritika


Geoffrey Hosking's oeuvre should not exist. Not, at least, according to the dominant interpretation of the historiographical development of the field of Soviet history. (1) According to this "grand narrative" (to use a once-fashionable 1970s term), the writing of the history of the Soviet Union outside the object of study itself marched according either to a Hegelian dialectic or to the logic of "paradigm shifts" (to use a now-fashionable 1960s term). First came the dominance of the "totalitarian paradigm" in the 1950s and 1960s. Notions vary about the extent to which this school was scholarly in the first place or only an expression of "Cold War ideology," but most observers agree that this was an approach focusing on ideology, high politics, and the state. (2) In either case, it was "overcome" or "replaced" by a new group, the so-called "revisionists," mostly social historians and often of a distinctively new-left political bent. Politics and ideology gave way, or so the story goes, to social causes, social dynamics, class analysis, and the investigations of groups. Third, sometime in the 1990s (or, quite possibly exactly in 1995), came either the synthesis overcoming the revisionist-totalitarian dialectic or the advent of the new paradigm of "post-revisionism." A new generation of scholars--with the aid of French philosophy, new cultural history, personal diaries, and, sometimes, the newly opened archives--sailed to new frontiers of knowledge, now combining the histories from above and from below with a newly found interest in everyday politics and ideology. (3)

This story is, of course, a tool of career advancement for those telling it. (4) More important for our purpose here, it is also an immensely U.S.-centered history. (5) Little wonder, then, if a London-based historian should not fit the mold. Much of Hosking's work should not have existed, because he combined "totalitarianism" with "social history" long before the Weltgeist should have been able to think such thoughts. He also should not have done this because he was of the wrong generation. Not a Young Turk, he should have left combining the thesis and the antithesis to younger minds with a career to forge, a name to make, and a paradigm to shift. That he failed to do so, and that few seemed to notice, tells us much indeed about the communication breakdowns across the Atlantic.

Insofar as I am throwing stones here, it should be noted that I, too, am sitting in the glass house. As a partial product of the American graduate school system, I, too, was affected by this blindness toward British scholarship. Hosking's work was not on my reading list for the comprehensive exams ("orals") marking entrance to candidature in the U.S. system. His work appeared neither in the bibliographies of my doctoral dissertation nor in the book emerging from it. (6) This might still be excusable, as his writing on the subject of veterans is limited. (7) My second book, however, unknowingly reproduced as its title one of Hosking's chapter headings in his History of the Soviet Union, while mentioning the work only in passing. (8)

I cannot plead ignorance. As long as it was in print, I used Hosking's book as the textbook for my own course on the history of Soviet society. I wrote and graded quizzes on it and discussed it in lectures, and I still consider it superior to most alternatives. The reason for the omission was, rather, the gulf between the American and the British discussion. Stalinist Society is, among other things, an argument with major tenets of the U.S. debate--in particular, the hegemony of cultural history and the marginalization of social and economic explanations. Hosking's work simply did not fit into this context. Partially, this incompatibility is rooted in genre. Like many British scholars, he excels at a form which is foreign to U.S. scholarship--the intelligent, scholarly history for nonspecialists. His books are not "textbooks" in the American sense, although they can be used in the college classroom. …

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