This would be my only plausible take on it. The term was essentially coined and invented to describe Stalin. The most logical argument to me would be that this is a bad term because it didn’t go ‘these are the conditions which fit this term, does the Stalin-Era USSR fit them?’ but instead went ‘what Stalin is doing in the Stalin-Era USSR, that’s the definition of Totalitarianism.’
So I talked to her last night, and it turns out this really was the assignment. What she didn’t tell me is that she had to prepare both sides of the argument, and only found out the day of class which side she had to take.
She got the easy part, and just had to rebut the kids who said he wasn’t a totalitarian—which they couldn’t back up, even with any of the things mentioned here. Not sure how they get graded on something like this, but she got the A for her explanation of why he was a totalitarian. She had no idea what the other kids got–she said they came across like they hadn’t prepared at all for the assignment, but that may just because they were given an indefensible position to prepare for.
So we’ll probably never know for sure what this teacher was looking for.
I had read there was a “revisionist” school in Soviet studies which is in contrast to the “the Soviet Union was totalitarian” approach. But I didn’t really understand what little I read.
There are certain aspects of the assignment that make sense individually, but to put them together in this fashion seems really bad.
To the good:
- It does make sense to have students defend an indefensible position. It teaches them to think creatively about how to make persuasive arguments outside of their normal biases, and might help them recognize that even absurd claims can have arguments that appear reasonable at first glance, and so see through them.
- It does make sense to have a debate where the students have to prepare both sides and only find out at the end which side they have to defend. It teaches them again to see both sides of an issue and find counters to their own arguments.
To the bad:
it is totally unfair to put those two assignments together. Those who are lucky enough to get the defensible side are tested on none of the challenges that made the defend the indefensible exercise worth while. Having a math test where have the class get’s 2+2 and the other half get quadratic equations is not fair even if they were assigned to know both.
For something with a strong moral implications and potential for revisionist history as Stalin’s reign in Russia, you want to be absolutely sure that you aren’t spreading false propaganda. Forcing a student to generate and spread it themselves is even worse. If you want to make them defend absurd claims, there are plenty of less morally fraught ideas to choose from, say for example “Resolved: clothes should be illegal”.
Thomas was obviously a communist since he effectively ousted the Fat Director ( Sir Topham Hatt) and forced the nationalisation of Sodor’s railways.
You think Stalinists are hardcore online, wait til you cross the Thomas the Tank Engine fandom. I made the joke that the fact they said “The Fat Controller” back in the day and now they say “Sir Topham Hatt” is an example of capitalist revisionism as “Fat Controller” was encouraging kids to pour scorn on their capitalist overlords. I got corrected pretty sharpish, let me tell you
You could very reasonably argue that the entire concept of “totalitarianism” is fundamentally bogus, and that the question is meaningless on that ground.
It was conceptualized as distinct from and worse than “authoritarianism”, which described a system of undemocratic, dictatorial government, which did not attempt to exercise any authority over other aspects of life, such as religion, economics, or culture. Of course, there has never been a dictatorship which didn’t try to control those aspects, so the distinction is, at best, one of degree rather than kind, and, at worst, completely meaningless. The distinction isn’t taken seriously by most political scientists today.
In practice, it was most widely used by American Cold Warriors to justify their hypocrisy in denouncing human rights violations in Communist countries while supporting equally evil regimes in their own client states.
I suppose one could take the angle that Stalin wasn’t inherently totalitarian. Perhaps he wasn’t born that way, and likely didn’t aspire to be what he became, but instead it was thrust upon him as the only recourse to try to align his country with the modern era. It’s weak, but I don’t see another approach that even hints at being a good argument.