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From left to right, top to bottom: Joseph Stalin, former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; Adolf Hitler, former Fuhrer of Germany; Mao Zedong, former Chairman of the Communist Party of China; Benito Mussolini, former Duce of Italy; and Kim Il-sung, the Eternal President of North Korea Historical totalitarian leaders.jpg
From left to right, top to bottom: Joseph Stalin, former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; Adolf Hitler, former Führer of Germany; Mao Zedong, former Chairman of the Communist Party of China; Benito Mussolini, former Duce of Italy; and Kim Il-sung, the Eternal President of North Korea

Totalitarianism is a term for a political system or form of government that prohibits opposition parties, restricts individual opposition to the state and its claims, and exercises an extremely high degree of control over public and private life. It is regarded as the most extreme and complete form of authoritarianism. In totalitarian states, political power has often been held by autocrats who employ all-encompassing campaigns in which propaganda is broadcast by state-controlled mass media. [1]


Totalitarian regimes are often characterized by extensive political repression, a complete lack of democracy, widespread personality cultism, absolute control over the economy, massive censorship, mass surveillance, limited freedom of movement (most notably freedom to leave the country) and widespread use of state terrorism. Other aspects of a totalitarian regime include the use of concentration camps, repressive secret police, religious persecution or state atheism, the common practice of executions, fraudulent elections (if they take place), possible possession of weapons of mass destruction and potentially state-sponsored mass murder and genocides. Historian Robert Conquest describes a totalitarian state as one which recognizes no limit on its authority in any sphere of public or private life and it extends that authority to whatever length is feasible. [1]

The concept was first developed in the 1920s by both Weimar jurist and later Nazi academic Carl Schmitt and concurrently the Italian fascists. Italian fascist Benito Mussolini said: "Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state". Schmitt used the term Totalstaat in his influential 1927 work The Concept of the Political on the legal basis of an all-powerful state. [2] The term gained prominence in Western anti-communist political discourse during the Cold War era as a tool to convert pre-World War II anti-fascism into post-war anti-communism. [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]

Totalitarian regimes are different from other authoritarian regimes. The latter denotes a state in which the single power holder—an individual "dictator", a committee or a junta or an otherwise small group of political elite—monopolizes political power. "[The] authoritarian state [...] is only concerned with political power and as long as it is not contested it gives society a certain degree of liberty". [8] Authoritarianism "does not attempt to change the world and human nature". [8] In contrast, a totalitarian regime attempts to control virtually all aspects of the social life, including the economy, education, art, science, private life and morals of citizens. Some totalitarian governments may promote an elaborate ideology: "The officially proclaimed ideology penetrates into the deepest reaches of societal structure and the totalitarian government seeks to completely control the thoughts and actions of its citizens". [9] It also mobilizes the whole population in pursuit of its goals. Carl Joachim Friedrich writes that "a totalist ideology, a party reinforced by a secret police, and monopoly control of [...] industrial mass society" are the three features of totalitarian regimes that distinguish them from other autocracies. [8]

In politics

John Connelly argues that totalitarianism is a useful word, but that the old 1950s theory about it is defunct among scholars:

The word is as functional now as it was 50 years ago. It means the kind of regime that existed in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the Soviet satellites, Communist China, and maybe Fascist Italy, where the word originated. [...] Who are we to tell Václav Havel or Adam Michnik that they were fooling themselves when they perceived their rulers as totalitarian? Or for that matter any of the millions of former subjects of Soviet-type rule who use the local equivalents of the Czech totalita to describe the systems they lived under before 1989? It is a useful word and everyone knows what it means as a general referent. Problems arise when people confuse the useful descriptive term with the old "theory" from the 1950s. [10]

Early usage

The notion that totalitarianism is total political power which is exercised by the state was formulated in 1923 by Giovanni Amendola, who described Italian Fascism as a system which was fundamentally different from conventional dictatorships. [9] The term was later assigned a positive meaning in the writings of Giovanni Gentile, Italy's most prominent philosopher and leading theorist of fascism. He used the term totalitario to refer to the structure and goals of the new state, which was to provide the "total representation of the nation and total guidance of national goals". [11] He described totalitarianism as a society in which the ideology of the state had influence, if not power, over most of its citizens. [12] According to Benito Mussolini, this system politicizes everything spiritual and human: "Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state". [9] [13]

One of the first people to use the term totalitarianism in the English language was the Austrian writer Franz Borkenau in his 1938 book The Communist International, in which he commented that it united the Soviet and German dictatorships more than it divided them. [14] The label totalitarian was twice affixed to Nazi Germany during Winston Churchill's speech of 5 October 1938, before the House of Commons in opposition to the Munich Agreement, by which France and Great Britain consented to Nazi Germany's annexation of the Sudetenland. [15] Churchill was then a backbencher MP representing the Epping constituency. In a radio address two weeks later, Churchill again employed the term, this time applying the concept to "a Communist or a Nazi tyranny". [16]

José María Gil-Robles y Quiñones, the leader of the historic Spanish reactionary party called the Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right (CEDA), [17] declared his intention to "give Spain a true unity, a new spirit, a totalitarian polity" and went on to say: "Democracy is not an end but a means to the conquest of the new state. When the time comes, either parliament submits or we will eliminate it". [18] General Francisco Franco was determined not to have competing right-wing parties in Spain and CEDA was dissolved in April 1937. Later, Gil-Robles went into exile. [19]

George Orwell made frequent use of the word totalitarian and its cognates in multiple essays published in 1940, 1941 and 1942. In his essay "Why I Write", he wrote: "The Spanish war and other events in 1936–37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it". He feared that future totalitarian regimes could exploit technological advances in surveillance and mass media in order to establish a permanent and world-wide dictatorship, which would be incapable of ever being overthrown, writing: "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever". [20]

During a 1945 lecture series entitled "The Soviet Impact on the Western World" (published as a book in 1946), the pro-Soviet British historian E. H. Carr claimed: "The trend away from individualism and towards totalitarianism is everywhere unmistakable" and that Marxism–Leninism was by far the most successful type of totalitarianism as proved by Soviet industrial growth and the Red Army's role in defeating Germany. According to Carr, only the "blind and incurable" could ignore the trend towards totalitarianism. [21]

In The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) and The Poverty of Historicism (1961), Karl Popper articulated an influential critique of totalitarianism: in both works, he contrasted the "open society" of liberal democracy with totalitarianism and argued that the latter is grounded in the belief that history moves toward an immutable future in accordance with knowable laws.[ citation needed ]

Cold War

In The Origins of Totalitarianism , Hannah Arendt argued that Nazi and Communist regimes were new forms of government and not merely updated versions of the old tyrannies. According to Arendt, the source of the mass appeal of totalitarian regimes is their ideology, which provides a comforting, single answer to the mysteries of the past, present and future. For Nazism, all history is the history of race struggle and for Marxism–Leninism all history is the history of class struggle. Once that premise is accepted, all actions of the state can be justified by appeal to nature or the law of history, justifying their establishment of authoritarian state apparatus. [22]

In addition to Arendt, many scholars from a variety of academic backgrounds and ideological positions have closely examined totalitarianism. Among the most noted commentators on totalitarianism are Raymond Aron, Lawrence Aronsen, Franz Borkenau, Karl Dietrich Bracher, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert Conquest, Carl Joachim Friedrich, Eckhard Jesse, Leopold Labedz, Walter Laqueur, Claude Lefort, Juan Linz, Richard Löwenthal, Karl Popper, Richard Pipes, Leonard Schapiro and Adam Ulam. Each one of these describes totalitarianism in slightly different ways, but they all agree that totalitarianism seeks to mobilize entire populations in support of an official party ideology and is intolerant of activities which are not directed towards the goals of the party, entailing repression or state control of business, labour unions, non-profit organizations, religious organizations, and minor political parties. At the same time, many scholars from a variety of academic backgrounds and ideological positions criticised the theorists of totalitarianism. Among the most noted are Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merlau-Ponty, Benjamin Barber and Louis Althusser. They thought that totalitarianism was connected to Western ideologies and associated with evaluation rather than analysis. The concept became prominent in Western anti-communist political discourse during the Cold War era as a tool to convert pre-war anti-fascism into postwar anti-communism. [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]

In 1956, the political scientists Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski were primarily responsible for expanding the usage of the term in university social science and professional research, reformulating it as a paradigm for the Soviet Union as well as fascist regimes. [23] Friedrich and Brzezinski argue that a totalitarian system has the following six, mutually supportive, defining characteristics: [23] [ page needed ]

  1. Elaborate guiding ideology.
  2. Single mass party, typically led by a dictator.
  3. System of terror, using such instruments as violence and secret police.
  4. Monopoly on weapons.
  5. Monopoly on the means of communication.
  6. Central direction and control of the economy through state planning.

In the book titled Democracy and Totalitarianism (1968), French analyst Raymond Aron has outlined five criteria for a regime to be considered as totalitarian: [24] [ page needed ]

  1. A one-party state where one party has a monopoly on all political activity.
  2. A state ideology upheld by the ruling party that is given status as the only authority.
  3. State information monopoly that controls mass media for distribution of official truth.
  4. State controlled economy with major economic entities under the control of the state.
  5. Ideological terror that turns economic or professional actions into crimes. Violators are exposed to prosecution and to ideological persecution.

Totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union had initial origins in the chaos that followed in the wake of World War I and allowed totalitarian movements to seize control of the government while the sophistication of modern weapons and communications enabled them to effectively establish what Friedrich and Brzezinski called a "totalitarian dictatorship". [23] [ page needed ] Some social scientists have criticized Friedrich and Brzezinski's totalitarian approach, arguing that the Soviet system, both as a political and as a social entity, was in fact better understood in terms of interest groups, competing elites, or even in class terms (using the concept of the nomenklatura as a vehicle for a new ruling class). These critics pointed to evidence of the widespread dispersion of power, at least in the implementation of policy, among sectoral and regional authorities. For some followers of this pluralist approach, this was evidence of the ability of the regime to adapt to include new demands. However, proponents of the totalitarian model claimed that the failure of the system to survive showed not only its inability to adapt, but the mere formality of supposed popular participation. [25]

The German historian Karl Dietrich Bracher, whose work is primarily concerned with Nazi Germany, argues that the "totalitarian typology" as developed by Friedrich and Brzezinski is an excessively inflexible model and failed to consider the "revolutionary dynamic" that Bracher asserts is at the heart of totalitarianism. [26] Bracher maintains that the essence of totalitarianism is the total claim to control and remake all aspects of society combined with an all-embracing ideology, the value on authoritarian leadership and the pretence of the common identity of state and society, which distinguished the totalitarian "closed" understanding of politics from the "open" democratic understanding. [26] Unlike the Friedrich-Brzezinski definition, Bracher argued that totalitarian regimes did not require a single leader and could function with a collective leadership, which led the American historian Walter Laqueur to argue that Bracher's definition seemed to fit reality better than the Friedrich-Brzezinski definition. [27] Bracher's typologies came under attack from Werner Conze and other historians, who felt that Bracher "lost sight of the historical material" and used "universal, ahistorical concepts". [28]

In his 1951 book The True Believer , Eric Hoffer argues that mass movements like Stalinism, fascism and Nazism had a common trait in picturing Western democracies and their values as decadent, with people "too soft, too pleasure-loving and too selfish" to sacrifice for a higher cause, which for them implies an inner moral and biological decay. He further claims that those movements offered the prospect of a glorious future to frustrated people, enabling them to find a refuge from the lack of personal accomplishments in their individual existence. The individual is then assimilated into a compact collective body and "fact-proof screens from reality" are established. [29]

The above stance may be connected to a religious fear for Communists. Paul Hanebrink has argued that many European Christians started to fear Communist regimes after the rise of Hitler, stating: "For many European Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, the new postwar 'culture war' crystallized as a struggle against communism. Across interwar Europe, Christians demonized the Communist regime in Russia as the apotheosis of secular materialism and a militarized threat to Christian social and moral order". [30] For him, Christians saw Communist regimes as threat to their moral order and hoped to lead European nations back to their Christian roots by creating an anti-totalitarian census, which defined Europe in the early Cold War. [31]

Post-Cold War

In the 1990s, [32] François Furet used the term totalitarian twins to link Nazism and Stalinism. [33] [34] [35] Eric Hobsbawm criticized Furet for his temptation to stress a common ground between two systems of different ideological roots. [36]

In the field of Soviet history, the totalitarian concept has been disparaged by the revisionist school, some of whose more prominent members were Sheila Fitzpatrick, Jerry F. Hough, William McCagg, Robert W. Thurston and J. Arch Getty. [37] Although their individual interpretations differ, the revisionists have argued that the Soviet state under Joseph Stalin was institutionally weak, that the level of terror was much exaggerated and that—to the extent, it occurred—it reflected the weaknesses rather than the strengths of the Soviet state. [37] Fitzpatrick argued that the Stalinist purges in the Soviet Union provided an increased social mobility and therefore a chance for a better life. [38] [39] In the case of East Germany, Eli Rubin has also argued that East Germany was not a totalitarian state, but rather a society shaped by the confluence of unique economic and political circumstances interacting with the concerns of ordinary citizens. [40]

Isaias Afwerki (right), the rebel-leader-turned-president who has ruled Eritrea as a totalitarian dictatorship since the 1990s News Photo 021210-D-2987S-057.jpg
Isaias Afwerki (right), the rebel-leader-turned-president who has ruled Eritrea as a totalitarian dictatorship since the 1990s

Writing in 1987, Walter Laqueur said that the revisionists in the field of Soviet history were guilty of confusing popularity with morality and of making highly embarrassing and not very convincing arguments against the concept of the Soviet Union as a totalitarian state. [42] Laqueur argued that the revisionists' arguments with regard to Soviet history were highly similar to the arguments made by Ernst Nolte regarding German history. [42] Laqueur asserted that concepts such as modernization were inadequate tools for explaining Soviet history while totalitarianism was not. [43]

Laqueur's argument has been criticized by modern revisionist historians such as Paul Buhle, who claim that Laqueur wrongly equates Cold War revisionism with the German revisionism. The latter reflected a "revanchist, military-minded conservative nationalism". [44] Moreover, Michael Parenti and James Petras have suggested that the totalitarianism concept has been politically employed and used for anti-communist purposes. Parenti has also analysed how "left anti-communism" attacked the Soviet Union during the Cold War. [45] For Petras, the CIA funded the Congress for Cultural Freedom in order to attack "Stalinist anti-totalitarinism". [46] More recently, Enzo Traverso has attacked the creators of the concept of totalitarianism as having invented it to designate the enemies of the West. [47] Thus, calling Stalin totalitarian instead of authoritarian has been asserted to be a high-sounding but specious excuse for Western self-interest, just as surely as the counterclaim—that alleged debunking of the totalitarian concept may just be a high-sounding but specious excuse for Russian self-interest. For Domenico Losurdo, totalitarianism is a polysemic concept with origins in Christian theology and that applying it to the political sphere requires an operation of abstract schematism which makes use of isolated elements of historical reality to place fascist regimes and the Soviet Union in the dock together, serving the anti-communism of Cold War-era intellectuals rather than reflecting intellectual research. [48] Other scholars, among them F. William Engdahl, Sheldon Wolin and Slavoj Žižek, have linked totalitarianism to capitalism and liberalism and used concepts such as inverted totalitarianism, [49] totalitarian capitalism [50] and totalitarian democracy. [51] [52] [53]

In the 2010s, Richard Shorten, Vladimir Tismaneanu and Aviezer Tucker argued that totalitarian ideologies can take different forms in different political systems, but all of them focus on utopianism, scientism or political violence. They think that both Nazism and Stalinism emphasised the role of specialisation in modern societies and saw polymathy as a thing of the past. Both also claimed to have statistical scientific support for their claims which led to a strict ethical control of culture, psychological violence and persecution of entire groups. [54] [55] [56] Their arguments have been criticised by other scholars due to their partiality and anachronism. Juan Francisco Fuentes treats totalitarianism as an "invented tradition" and the use of the notion of "modern despotism" as a "reverse anachronism". For Fuentes, "the anachronistic use of totalitarian/totalitarianism involves the will to reshape the past in the image and likeness of the present". [57]

Other studies try to link modern technological changes with totalitarianism. According to Shoshana Zuboff, economic pressures of modern surveillance capitalism are driving the intensification of connection and monitoring online with spaces of social life becoming open to saturation by corporate actors, directed at the making of profit and/or the regulation of action. [58] Toby Ord has found Orwell's fears of totalitarianism as a notable early precursor to modern notions of anthropogenic existential risk, the concept that a future catastrophe could permanently destroy the potential of Earth-originating intelligent life due in part to technological changes, creating a permanent technological dystopia. Ord states that Orwell's writings show his concern was genuine rather than just a throwaway part of the fictional plot of Nineteen Eighty-Four . Ord notes how Orwell argued in 1949 that "[a] ruling class which could guard against (four previously enumerated sources of risk) would remain in power permanently". [59] Bertrand Russell also wrote in 1949 that "modern techniques have made possible a new intensity of governmental control, and this possibility has been exploited very fully in totalitarian states". [60]

The Economist has described China's developed Social Credit System under Chinese Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping's administration, to screen and rank its citizens based on their personal behavior, as "totalitarian". [61] [62] [63] [64] Opponents of China's ranking system say that it is intrusive and is just another way for a one-party state to control the population. The New York Times compared Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping's cult of personality and his ideology Xi Jinping Thought to that of Mao Zedong during the Cold War. [65] Supporters say that it will make for a more civilized and law-abiding society. [66] Zuboff considers it instrumentarian rather than totalitarian. [67] Other emerging technologies that have been postulated to empower future totalitarianism, include brain-reading, contact tracing and various applications of artificial intelligence. [68] [69] [70] [71] Philosopher Nick Bostrom has noted a possible trade-off, namely that some existential risks might be mitigated by a powerful permanent world government, but that such power could in turn enhance any existential risks associated with permanent dictatorship. [72]

In architecture

Downtown Ashgabat, Turkmenistan Official visit of the President to Turkmenistan 07.jpg
Downtown Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Non-political aspects of the culture and motifs of totalitarian countries have themselves often been labeled innately totalitarian. In 2009, Theodore Dalrymple, a British author, physician and political commentator, has written for City Journal that brutalist structures are an expression of totalitarianism given that their grand, concrete-based design involves destroying gentler, more-human places such as gardens. [73] In 1949, author George Orwell described the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four as an "enormous, pyramidal structure of white concrete, soaring up terrace after terrace, three hundred metres into the air". Columnist Ben Macintyre of The Times wrote that it was "a prescient description of the sort of totalitarian architecture that would soon dominate the Communist bloc". [74] In contrast to these views, several authors have seen brutalism and socialist realism as modernist art forms which brought an ethos and sensibility in art. [75] [76]

Another example of totalitarianism in architecture is the panopticon, a type of institutional building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The concept of the design is to allow a watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without their being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. It was invoked by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish as a metaphor for "disciplinary" societies and their pervasive inclination to observe and normalize. [77] Foucault's Panopticon theory has been criticised by David W. Garland for providing little theoretical basis for the possibility of resistance within this "totalitarian" prison. [78]

See also

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Further reading