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Title:East European studies, neo-totalitarianism and social science theory PDF Logo
Authors:Mueller, Klaus
Issue Date:1997
Series/Report no.:Papers // WZB, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung P 97-004
Abstract:The relevance of sociological theory for explaining the recent dramatic changes in Eastern Europe is at hand. The impact of the downfall of communism has been compared with those Great Transformations along which sociology evolved as a science of crisis par excellence (Habermas). The actual elaboration of a sociological theory of post-communist transformation and its relation to East European studies is, nevertheless, anything but clear. The unexpected collapse of socialism was perceived as a failure of prognosis and led to self-critical debates in all social science disciplines. In this rethinking its basic concepts, sociology is exposed to pressure from different sides - above all from the polemic launched with the surprising revival of the theory of totalitarianism against the ,,liberalist social sciences across the board. Influential historians like Robert Pipes, Martin Malia, Robert Conquest, and Francois Furet followed by sociologists from Robert Nisbet to Seymour Lipset hold the fatal influence exerted by social science concepts on Eastern European and Soviet Studies during the last decades responsible for the whole intellectual disaster in Western Academe which became apparent after 1989. These approaches, as the neo-totalitarian accusation runs, elevated Soviet socialism to a modernization strategy and conceded a reform capacity which, in fact, was not available. Target of this critique are all attempts of a social history from below, sociological theories of action and especially the positivist illusion of modernization theory. Blinded by political motives, it is said, the insights of (neo-)totalitarianism theory into the inevitable collapse of communism were dismissed. In order to correctly draw the lines in the controversies between neototalitarianism theory and the social science approach, it is helpful to follow them along the changing career of the concept of totalitarianism thereby reconstructing the sociological arguments involved in the current discussion on the disintegration of socialist societies. On this line it will be argued (section 2), that the crisis of the classic theory of totalitarianism and the social science approach in Soviet studies did not follow from a politically motivated revisionism since the 1960s and 1970s. Analysing the socialist societies after 1945 was shaped from the very beginning by sociological, political science and economic models, which contrasted with fundamental assumptions of the classic concept of totalitarianism (section 3). The findings generated by this type of research as well as its limits are revealed when it comes to explaining the disintegration of Soviet socialism. The neo-totalitarianist's objection is correct that ranging socialism in an evolutionary scheme of ascending forms of society was problematic. This construction seems highly inadequate in view of the postcommunist crises and regressions (section 4). On the other hand, a coherent and self-reliant neo-totalitarianism theory is not visible (section 5). Instead the research on Eastern Europe after 1989 has seen an explosive growth of the social science approach in the course of which many revisionist theorems have been refuted, modified or confirmed. Nevertheless, the wave of social science theories entering the post-communist studies does not imply a way back to the golden age of classic modernization theory. The lesson to be learned from (neo-)totalitarianism theory concerns the stress it lays on domination and its specific irrationalities, variables which were indeed neglected by mainstream sociology and, after the Soviet breakdown, are ignored by the liberalist optimism of neoclassic reform programmes. The drama of the post-communist crises reminds us that there are no hidden hands and no evolutionary universals which would lead, quasi automatically, to modernity. On the other hand, the lesson to be learned from the social science approach is that even the most total totalitarianism did not result from a logic of history, but from certain constellations of interests, reciprocities between rulers and ruled, institutions of administration and value commitments, etc. which are quite accessible to a reconstruction in sociological terms.
Document Type:Working Paper
Appears in Collections:Publikationen von Forscherinnen und Forschern des WZB
Discussion Papers, Forschung bei der Präsidentin / beim Präsidenten, WZB

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