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Cold War and Post-Soviet Historiography

During the Cold War, the historiographies of the French and Russian Revolutions became intertwined. While Marxist historians had already begun to link them through the idea of revolutionary Jacobinism, ironically, it was the intellectual problems presented by Nazism that were instrumental in creating the main analytical paradigm. The Nazi and Fascist states were deemed, among other things to be all-embracing, and Mussolini’s proud boast that his movement was ‘totalitarian’ provided the term which came into use to describe aspects of the new phenomenon. One of the first to use this line of argument was Hannah Arendt. Almost as an afterthought, she added the Soviet system to the list of totalitarian states, thereby igniting a controversy that still persists. When J. L. Talmon identified a strain of elitist, coercive ‘democracy’, exemplified by Robespierre and Lenin, the linkages became even closer. Karl Popper had also produced a highly influential work entitled ‘The Open Society and its Enemies’, which traced Lenin’s supposedly dictatorial tendencies back to the ideas of Plato and Marx. At a less analytically elevated level, the totalitarian thesis became conventional thinking in the Cold War era (Gleason). However as the assumptions of the Cold War themselves came to be questioned in the 1960s under the impact of the Vietnam War, so revisionists began to criticise the totalitarian thesis. While the Stalin era was foremost in the minds of the totalitarians, the Lenin era was also subjected to comparable analyses (Pipes, Keep, Schapiro). It was historians of 1917 who began to break down the more extreme aspects of the totalitarian interpretation. Critics showed that the Bolshevik Party itself was far from united (Rabinowitch, Service) and that it supposedly had widespread support especially among ‘advanced’ workers (Smith, Rosenberg et al.). It was also argued that, while the developing Soviet state claimed to embrace all aspects of life, the reality meant that Soviet society, even under Stalin, was more diverse than the totalitarian thesis allowed. (Fitzpatrick, Getty, Thurston). The near-coincidence of the French bicentennial (1989) and the collapse of Soviet communism (1991) opened up an intensifying debate in which French ‘revisionists’ (Furet, Ozouf) developed a more ‘counter-revolutionary’ reading of the French revolution and, under the impact of wider archival access, historians of the Russian Revolution began to emphasise the ‘popular revolution’, local revolutions and the ‘kaleidoscope’ of revolutions at the expense of the Leninist and totalitarian grand narratives. (Figes, Read, Holquist, Hickey, Badcock, McDonald). As more conservative and neo-liberal tendencies took a tighter grip on western and post-Soviet political and cultural life, (inspired by Friedrich Hayek’s wartime polemic against Soviet-style socialism entitled The Road to Serfdom), so the almost self-evidently positive connotations of the concept of revolution were replaced by a darker and more ambiguous reading in which the counter-revolution and anti-revolutionary tendencies gained greater intellectual traction (Mayer).

Seminar Questions

  1. Why do revolutions that seek to answer the ‘social question’ go wrong according to Arendt? How does this philosopher and political theorist use history? Are you convinced by her interpretation and/or approach?
  2. How do Furet and Soboul differ in their approach to the French Revolution. On what historical grounds do they make their claims?
  3. What does the term ‘totalitarian’ mean? where did it come from? how applicable is it to the Russian Revolution? Is it applicable to the French Revolution?
  4. How did the high Cold War affect interpretations of the French and Russian Revolutions?

Core Reading


  • Hannah Arendt, ‘The Social Question’ in On Revolution (New York: Penguin, 1963), 59-114.
  • François Furet, ‘The Revolutionary Catechism’ in Interpreting the French Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981 [orig. 1978]), 81-131.
  • Albert Soboul, ‘Classes and Class Struggles during the French Revolution Classes and Class Struggles during the French Revolution,’ in Understanding the French Revolution, April Ane Knutson (trans) (New York: International Press, 1989).


  • Gleason, A Totalitarianism: the Inner History of the Cold War New York and Oxford 1998
  • Acton, Edward Rethinking the Russian Revolution London, New York, Melbourne, Auckland 1990
  • Mayer, Arno J. The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions Princeton 2001

Further Reading


  • J. L. Talmon, Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1970 [orig. 1952]). Several editions of this book are in the library.
  • Reinhart Koselleck, Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (Cambridge Mass., MIT Press, 1988 [orig. 1954]).
  • Karl Popper, Open Society and Its Enemies, 2 vols. (London: Routledge, 1945).
  • Hayek, Friedrich The Road to Serfdom (many eds)
  • Jacques Godechot, France and the Atlantic revolution of the eighteenth century, 1770-1799, Herbert H. Rowen (trans.) (New York: Free Press, 1965).
  • R. R. Palmer, The Age of Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959, 1964).

On the ‘anti-totalitarian’ current in France in the 1970s, see

  • Andrew Jainchill and Samuel Moyn, ‘Review: French Democracy between Totalitarianism and Solidarity: Pierre Rosanvallon and Revisionist Historiography’, Journal of Modern History, 76: 1 (2004), 107-154.
  • Michael Scott Christofferson, French Intellectuals Against the Left: The Antitotalitarian Moment of the 1970s (New York: Berghahn Books, 2004).


Revisionist accounts

  • Rabinowitch, A The Bolsheviks come to power, (London, 1979)chs
  • Fitzpatrick, S. The Russian Revolution Oxford 1982
  • Cohen, S. Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: a Political Biography (1888--1938) New York 1973
  • Cohen, S (ed) Rethinking the Soviet Experience