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Totalitarianism is a political concept where the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible.[1] Totalitarian regimes stay in political power through rule by one leader and an all-encompassing propaganda campaign, which is disseminated through the state-controlled mass media, a single party that is often marked by political repression, personality cultism, control over the economy, regulation and restriction of speech, mass surveillance and widespread use of terror. A distinctive feature of totalitarian governments is an "elaborate ideology, a set of ideas that gives meaning and direction to the whole society".[2]

The concept was first developed in the 1920s by the Weimar German jurist and later Nazi academic Carl Schmitt as well as Italian fascists. According to Benito Mussolini, this system politicizes everything spiritual and human: "Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state". Schmitt used the term Totalstaat in his influential work on the legal basis of an all-powerful state, The Concept of the Political (1927).[3]

Totalitarian regimes are different from authoritarian ones. 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 that is not contested it gives society a certain degree of liberty".[4] Authoritarianism "does not attempt to change the world and human nature".[4] 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. "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".[5] 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.[4]


Early concepts and useEdit

The notion of totalitarianism as a "total" political power by the state was formulated in 1923 by Giovanni Amendola, who described Italian Fascism as a system fundamentally different from conventional dictatorships.[5] 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 were to provide the “"otal representation of the nation and total guidance of national goals".[6] He described totalitarianism as a society in which the ideology of the state had influence, if not power, over most of its citizens.[7] According to Benito Mussolini, this system politicizes everything spiritual and human: "Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state".[5] He further stated: "We must finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess. We must condemn once and for all the formula 'chess for the sake of chess', like the formula 'art for art's sake'. We must organize shockbrigades of chess-players, and begin immediate realization of a Five-Year Plan for chess".[8]

One of the first 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.[9] The label "totalitarian" was twice affixed to the Hitler regime during Winston Churchill's speech of October 5, 1938[10] 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. 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".[11]

The leader of the historic Spanish reactionary[12] conservative party called the Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right 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".[13]

George Orwell made frequent use of 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".[14]

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. Only the "blind and incurable" could ignore the trend towards totalitarianism, said Carr.[15]

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.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt argued that Nazi and state 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 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.[16]

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 state ideology and is intolerant of activities which are not directed towards the goals of the state, entailing repression or state control of business, labour unions, non-profit organizations, churches or political parties.

Cold WarEdit

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.[17][18][19][20][21]

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. Friedrich and Brzezinski argue that a totalitarian system has the following six, mutually supportive, defining characteristics:

  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.

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". Some social scientists have criticized Friedrich and Brzezinski's 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).[22] These critics pointed to evidence of popular support for the regime and 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.

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.[23] 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.[23] 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.[24]

In his 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.[25]

Later researchEdit

In the 1990s, François Furet used the term "totalitarian twins"[26] to link Stalinism[27] and Nazism.[28]

In the field of Soviet history, the totalitarian concept has been disparaged by the "revisionist" school, some of whose more prominent members are Sheila Fitzpatrick, Jerry F. Hough, William McCagg, Robert W. Thurston and J. Arch Getty.[29] Though 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.[29] Fitzpatrick argued that the Stalin's purges in the Soviet Union provided an increased social mobility and therefore a chance for a better life.[30][31]

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.[32] Laqueur argued that the revisionists' arguments with regard to Soviet history were highly similar to the arguments made by Ernst Nolte regarding German history.[32] Laqueur asserted that concepts such as modernization were inadequate tools for explaining Soviet history while totalitarianism was not.[33]

Totalitarianism in architectureEdit

Non-political aspects of the culture and motifs of totalitarian countries have themselves often been labeled innately "totalitarian". For example, 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.[34] 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".[35]

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 eighteenth 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 metaphor for "disciplinary" societies and their pervasive inclination to observe and normalise.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Conquest, Robert (1999). Reflections on a Ravaged Century. p. 74. ISBN 0-393-04818-7. 
  2. ^ "Government and Law". Volume Library 1. The Southwestern Company. 2009. p. 11. 
  3. ^ Schmitt, Carl (1927). The Concept of the Political (German: Der Begriff des Politischen) (1996 University of Chicago Press ed.). Rutgers University Press. p. 22. ISBN 0-226-73886-8. 
  4. ^ a b c Radu Cinpoes, Nationalism and Identity in Romania: A History of Extreme Politics from the Birth of the State to EU Accession, p. 70.
  5. ^ a b c * Richard Pipes (1995), Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, New York: Vintage Books, Random House Inc., p. 243, ISBN 0394502426 
  6. ^ Payne, Stanley G., Fascism: Comparison and Definition (UW Press, 1980), p. 73
  7. ^ Gentile, Giovanni and Benito Mussolini in "La dottrina del fascismo" (1932)
  8. ^ Conquest, Robert, The Great Terror: A Reassessment (Oxford University Press, 1990) ISBN 0-19-507132-8, p. 249
  9. ^ Nemoianu, Virgil, "Review of End and Beginnings" pp. 1235–38 from MLN, Volume 97, Issue #5, December 1982, p.1235.
  10. ^ Churchill, Winston, Speech to the House of Commons, October 5, 1938: "We in this country, as in other Liberal and democratic countries, have a perfect right to exalt the principle of self-determination, but it comes ill out of the mouths of those in totalitarian states who deny even the smallest element of toleration to every section and creed within their bounds." "Many of those countries, in fear of the rise of the Nazi power, ... loathed the idea of having this arbitrary rule of the totalitarian system thrust upon them, and hoped that a stand would be made."
  11. ^ Churchill, Winston, Radio Broadcast to the United States and to London, October 16, 1938
  12. ^ Mann, Michael (2004). Fascists. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 331. ISBN 9780521831314. 
  13. ^ Paul Preston. The Spanish Civil War: reaction, revolution and revenge. 3rd edition. W. W. New York, New York: Norton & Company, Inc, 2007. 2006 pp. 64.
  14. ^ Orwell, George, "Why I Write", Gangrel (Summer) 1946.
  15. ^ Laqueur, Walter, The Fate of the Revolution, New York: Scribner, 1987, p. 131.
  16. ^ Dana Richard Villa (2000), The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt. Cambridge University Press, pp. 2–3. ISBN 0-521-64571-9
  17. ^ Defty, Brook (2007). Britain, America and Anti-Communist Propaganda 1945–1953. Chapters 2–5. The Information Research Department. 
  18. ^ Achim Siegel, The totalitarian paradigm after the end of Communism: towards a theoretical reassessment, 1998, p. 200 "Concepts of totalitarianism became most widespread at the height of the Cold War. Since the late 1940s, especially since the Korean War, they were condensed into a far-reaching, even hegemonic, ideology, by which the political elites of the Western world tried to explain and even to justify the Cold War constellation"
  19. ^ Nicholas Guilhot, The democracy makers: human rights and international order, 2005, p. 33 "The opposition between the West and Soviet totalitarianism was often presented as an opposition both moral and epistemological between truth and falsehood. The democratic, social, and economic credentials of the Soviet Union were typically seen as "lies" and as the product of a deliberate and multiform propaganda...In this context, the concept of totalitarianism was itself an asset. As it made possible the conversion of prewar anti-fascism into postwar anti-communism
  20. ^ David Caute, Politics and the novel during the Cold War, 2009, pp. 95–99
  21. ^ George A Reisch, How the Cold War transformed philosophy of science: to the icy slopes of logic, 2005, pp. 153–54
  22. ^ Laqueur, Walter, The Fate of the Revolution: Interpretations of Soviet history from 1917 to the Present (New York: Scribner's, 1987) pp. 186–89, 233–34
  23. ^ a b Kershaw, Ian The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation, London: Arnold; New York p. 25.
  24. ^ Laqueur, Walter The Fate of the Revolution: Interpretations of Soviet history from 1917 to the Present, New York: Scribner's, 1987 p. 241
  25. ^ Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Harper Perennial Modern Classics (2002), ISBN 0-06-050591-5, pp. 61, 163
  26. ^ "Furet, borrowing from Hannah Arendt, describes Bolsheviks and Nazis as totalitarian twins, conflicting yet united." Singer, Daniel, The Nation (April 17, 1995)
  27. ^ "The totalitarian nature of Stalin's Russia is undeniable." Singer, Singer,The Nation
  28. ^ "The government of Nazi Germany was a fascist, totalitarian state." Grobman, Gary M.
  29. ^ a b Laqueur, Walter The Fate of the Revolution: Interpretations of Soviet history from 1917 to the Present (New York: Scribner's, 1987) pp. 225–27
  30. ^ Laqueur, Walter, The Fate of the Revolution: Interpretations of Soviet history from 1917 to the Present (New York: Scribner's, 1987) pp. 225, 228
  31. ^ Fitzpatrick, Sheila, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)
  32. ^ a b Laqueur, Walter The Fate of the Revolution: Interpretations of Soviet history from 1917 to the Present (New York: Scribner's, 1987) p. 228
  33. ^ Laqueur, Walter The Fate of the Revolution: Interpretations of Soviet history from 1917 to the Present (New York: Scribner's, 1987) p. 233
  34. ^ Theodore Dalrymple (Autumn 2009). "The Architect as Totalitarian". City Journal. Retrieved January 5, 2010. 
  35. ^ Ben Macintyre (March 30, 2007). "Look on those monuments to megalomania, and despair". The Times. Retrieved January 5, 2010. [dead link]

Further readingEdit

  • Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1958, new ed. 1966).
  • John A. Armstrong, The Politics of Totalitarianism (New York: Random House, 1961).
  • Peter Bernholz, "Ideocracy and totalitarianism: A formal analysis incorporating ideology." Public Choice 108, 33–75, 2001.
  • Peter Bernholz, "Ideology, sects, state and totalitarianism. A general theory". In: H. Maier and M. Schaefer (eds.): Totalitarianism and Political Religions, Vol. II (Routledge, Abingdon Oxon and New York, 2007), 246–70.
  • Franz Borkenau The Totalitarian Enemy, London, Faber and Faber 1940.
  • Karl Dietrich Bracher “The Disputed Concept of Totalitarianism,” pp. 11–33 from Totalitarianism Reconsidered edited by Ernest A. Menze (Port Washington, N.Y. / London: Kennikat Press, 1981), ISBN 0804692688.
  • Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics (in particular March 7, 1979 course).
  • Carl Friedrich and Z. K. Brzezinski, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (2nd ed. 1967).
  • Zhelyu Zhelev, The Fascism, 1982.
  • Guy Hermet, with Pierre Hassner and Jacques Rupnik, Totalitarismes (Paris: Éditions Economica, 1984).
  • Abbott Gleason Totalitarianism: The Inner History Of The Cold War, New York: Oxford University Press, (1995), ISBN 0195050177.
  • Jeane Kirkpatrick, Dictatorships and Double Standards: Rationalism and reason in politics (1982).
  • Walter Laqueur The Fate of the Revolution Interpretations of Soviet History From 1917 to the Present, London: Collier Books, (1987) ISBN 002034080X.
  • Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems Of Democratic Transition And Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, And Post-Communist Europe, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, (1996), ISBN 0801851572.
  • Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War (1944).
  • Ewan Murray. Shut Up: Tale of Totalitarianism (2005).
  • Stanley G. Payne, A History of Fascism (Routledge, 1996).
  • Robert Jaulin L'Univers des totalitarismes (Paris: Loris Talmart, 1995).
  • Rudolf Rocker. Nationalism and Culture. 1937.
  • Giovanni Sartori, The Theory of Democracy Revisited (Chatham, N.J: Chatham House, 1987)
  • Wolfgang Sauer, "National Socialism: totalitarianism or fascism?" The American Historical Review, Volume 73, Issue #2 (December 1967): 404–24.
  • Leonard Schapiro, Totalitarianism (London: The Pall Mall Press, 1972).
  • Marcello Sorce Keller, “Why is Music so Ideological, Why Do Totalitarian States Take It So Seriously”, Journal of Musicological Research, XXVI (2007), no. 2–3, pp. 91–122.
  • J. L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, (1952).
  • Slavoj Žižek, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? (London: Verso, 2001).

External linksEdit