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Theory in Depth
Theory in Action
Analysis and Critical Response
Topics for Further Study
See Also


who controls government? Dictator

how is government put into power? Overthrow or Revolution

what roles do the people have? Devote life to dictator and the state

who controls production of goods? The state

who controls distribution of goods? The state

major figures Friedrich Nietzsche; Adolf Hitler

historical example of government Egypt, 1952–present

Political systems are often categorized according to the degree of freedom they afford their citizens or according to their degree of their responsiveness to citizen input. Democracies allow the most input; totalitarian systems stand at the extreme opposite end of the continuum. They offer the least amount of freedom and pay the least amount of attention to the voice of the people. In fact, as the name implies, totalitarian governments try to control the totality of human experience. A true totalitarian ruler attempts to take charge not only of the public life of the people, but also their personal and emotional lives. Until the advent of modern forms of travel, communication, and coercion, it would have been impossible to contemplate the total control of anything but a very small group of people. But, with mass media, electronic surveillance equipment, and prisons and torture facilities boasting the efficiency of advanced industrial operations, totalitarianism seemed within the grasp of leaders such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—men with a limitless desire for control. Totalitarianism is a form of government that emerged only in the twentieth century. So rapid was its rise, that by 1940, many people in Europe and America feared that totalitarianism might be able to overwhelm democratic peoples and governments. That fear proved to be unjustified because, by the end of the twentieth century, no country in the world practiced a full–blown totalitarian form of governance.

Before the rise of totalitarianism in the 1920s and 1930s, even the most powerful and oppressive governments would have been classified as authoritarian rather than totalitarian. Authoritarian governments acted in arbitrary and autocratic ways, but they did not attempt to exert control over every facet of people's lives. In the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s, a number of authoritarian regimes in Europe were headed by monarchs claiming absolute authority. Generally, however, they did not pretend to exercise absolute power or control. Almost to the end of the twentieth century, many Latin American regimes were headed by military leaders who ruled in a highly authoritarian manner. But, they did not try to intervene in the daily lives of citizens with the same degree of intensity characteristic of totalitarian governments. In Asia, for thousands of years, powerful monarchs and military rulers demanded compliance from their people. Like many other authoritarian leaders throughout history, they required absolute obedience from the people and they exercised the absolute power of life or death over their subjects. But, until the emergence of Maoism in China, they demanded compliance only in a limited portion of their subjects' lives and they used the sword only against people who posed a direct threat to their sovereignty or wealth.


c. 2600–2200 B.C.:      Egyptian Old Kingdom is ruled by pharaohs.

c. 1700 B.C.:      Hammurabi rules.

c. 1028 B.C.:      The Chou Dynasty controls northern China.

1507–1547:      Henry VIII of England reigns as king of England.

1740–86:      Frederick II, also known as Frederick the Great, rules as king of Prussia.

1821:      Frederick Hegel writes The Philosophy of Right.

1883:      Friedrich Nietzsche writes Thus Spake Zarathustra.

1939:      Getulio Vargas is placed in power by the Brazilian military.

1948:      The Purified Nationalist Party wins the parliamentary elections in South Africa.

1952:      Gamal Nasser takes power in Egypt through a coup.

1979:      The Ayatollah Khomeini establishes an Islamic theocracy in Iran.

At the beginning of the twenty–first century, most authoritarian governments were concentrated in the Middle East and Asia where monarchies and strong men or strong women continued to hold sway. In many of these authoritarian systems, for example Iraq, powerful leaders hoped to increase the wealth and military power of their countries without having to cope with the turmoil they believed accompanies political openness. To a large extent, those leaders cared little about the private sentiments of the people, as long as the people did not publicly oppose the policies of government.


The Ancient World

The ancient world was marked by a number of very large–scale states that exercised unchallenged control over some aspects of their peoples' lives. In ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China, powerful dynasties were able to use their power to mobilize vast numbers of people to participate in extensive public works schemes. Complex irrigation systems, enormous monuments, and large–scale agricultural operations were some of the projects that provided the economic and political foundations for these ancient empires. The social and psychological distance between the leaders and the common people was so great that the rulers could claim near divine power and stature. The authoritarian nature of these rulers' governments enabled them to provide their subjects with a level of security and economic well being otherwise unattainable at the time. Peoples of the ancient world could not increase their productive capacity through highly advanced technologies and machines that came only with the modern industrial revolution. But, the coordination they achieved by offering obedience to a despotic ruler allowed them to focus their energies in ways that resulted in astonishing material and social achievements.

The ancient despotic regimes were limited to regions where people were forced to settle in close proximity and where they had little chance to live elsewhere. For example, in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, people had to remain close to the major rivers in order to farm. This reality made it easier for rulers to exert tighter control over their subjects. What sets the ancient despotic regimes apart from modern totalitarian systems is the fact that the ancient governments never sought to mobilize the people politically. Ordinary people were expected to be nonpolitical and uninvolved in the ceremonies and rituals of the capital and the court. Common people were required to work for the state, not to identify with or have affection for the regime.

Although Ancient Greece witnessed the rise of democracy in Athens, many city states, and even Athens at times, were ruled by authoritarian regimes. Sometimes the regimes were headed by tyrants, leaders who had seized power and who had the power of life and death over their subjects. In Sparta, the entire citizen population between the age of twenty and thirty was mobilized into military groups called "phalanxes." The demands of these groups controlled an individual's entire life. The men lived in barracks, took common meals, and were forbidden to marry. Many Greeks admired the strength and discipline of Sparta that enabled its people to defend themselves effectively and to exert their control over neighboring regions.

Ancient Rome functioned as a republic for more than 400 years before the republican form of government gave way to an autocratic imperial structure. The transformation came in response to internal tensions and external challenges. As the Roman city–state expanded to dominate all of what is now Italy and then extend its control over the entire Mediterranean region, ambitious generals wielded increased power. Competing with the Senate, a body composed of hereditary aristocrats, the generals based their authority on an appeal to the masses. Although the Republic would not have measured up to the standards of modern democracies, Rome moved even more decisively to authoritarian rule with the establishment of the Empire under Augustus, who ruled from 27 B.C. until his death in 14 A.D. But, even under the emperors, Rome functioned as an authoritarian not as a totalitarian system. In large part, that was true because the Roman Empire regarded itself as a society governed by laws that protected the rights of the citizens. Furthermore, at least some of the emperors believed strongly in the need to submit themselves to the rules of virtue and morality. No matter how powerful their office, such men regarded themselves as servants and protectors of the people.

The Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, many European rulers thought of themselves as following in the footsteps of the great leaders of Rome. Virtue and law were now

defined by the church rather than by an appeal to ancient traditions or Roman gods. But the concept of ruling according to higher principles remained an important theoretical concept. While the claim to rule on behalf of natural law or divine ordination imposed moral restrictions on political behavior, medieval leaders made no concession to the voice of the people.

By the fifteenth century, a shift in rhetoric and practice took place. Starting with the Renaissance, princes and even churchmen in Italy regarded themselves as unchecked by morality, rules, or the people when it came to political behavior. The only limits on a prince was competition from other ambitious leaders or the threat of revolt from an oppressed citizenry. Morality was no longer an important constraint regulating political conduct.

After about 1500, early European nation states increasingly were ruled by powerful autocratic leaders who attempted to impose linguistic, religious, and political uniformity over divided societies. Assertive monarchs such as Henry VIII of England, his daughter Elizabeth I, and Louis XIV of France; divine right kings such as James I and Charles I of England; and enlightened despots such as Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick II of Prussia struggled to build the foundations of strong states. While their sometimes ruthless tactics resembled those of Renaissance rulers, their goals were the creation and protection of nations or empires, not just self promotion and personal power.

The Eighteenth and Ninteenth Centuries

Frederick the Great, who ruled Prussia from 1740 to 1786, is one example of these autocratic rulers. Frederick focused much of his energies on developing Prussia as a strong military state with a highly professional bureaucracy. The military and the bureaucracy served as two of the most important sources of his extensive authoritarian power. A man of the Enlightenment, Frederick attempted to rule according to the highest principles of reason. To some extent, he embodied the principles of Aristotle's ideal monarchy, where one individual ruled for the good of the whole. Although Frederick did not consult citizen voices, he tried to rule in a way that would benefit the people. Some of the benevolent and progressive measures he introduced in Prussia were the abolishment of using torture on criminals, strict prohibitions against bribing judges, the establishment of state–supported elementary schools, and the promotion of religious tolerance. On his own vast personal estates, which he owned as a feudal lord, he did away with capital punishment, reduced the amount of time peasants had to spend working for him instead of for themselves, and introduced scientific farming and forestry practices that increased production. In the nineteenth century, Otto von Bismarck, the autocratic German Chancellor continued in the tradition of Frederick. During his tenure in office from 1871 until 1890, Bismarck introduced many progressive social programs while working tirelessly to unify Germany and strengthen his country's military power.

The Modern World

In the twentieth century, a new kind of autocracy emerged. Using the tools of modern transportation, communication, surveillance, and psychology, men such as Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and Mao were able to control millions of peoples' lives in ways that would have been unthinkable or impossible in previous centuries. The political innovations of these men introduced a new type of governing that was given the label "totalitarian." Vicious, aggressive, and ideological, totalitarianism created its own morality. Mobilizing their citizens through propaganda and thought control, totalitarian leaders appeared to be intent on dominating other parts of the world as well as reshaping their own countries. In every case, totalitarian leaders were aggressively anti–democratic and anti–religious. They allowed no space for individual thought or criticism. Consequently, they allowed no room for an appeal either to individual liberties or to supernatural truth.

By the end of World War II, totalitarianism had collapsed in Germany and Italy. With the death of Stalin in 1953, totalitarianism in the form of Stalinism began to give way to authoritarianism in the Soviet Union as well. A similar pattern obtained in China after the death of Mao in 1976. In the Soviet Union, especially by the time Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, even authoritarianism came to be regarded as increasingly dysfunctional. At the beginning of the twenty–first century, authoritarian systems persisted in the Middle East; some parts of Asia such as China, Malaysia, and Vietnam; and Cuba. But, authoritarianism was increasingly under a shadow. South Africa, a racially divided nation governed in accordance with the principles of apartheid, voluntarily shifted to complete democracy in 1994. Even Iran, a nation run as a theocracy (where God is the ultimate ruler) was shifting to a pattern of incorporating popular opinion into government policy.

Iran Iran is illustrative of two important types of contemporary authoritarianism, one the more conventional modernizing authoritarianism, the other an authoritarianism guided by a fundamentalist ideology. The latter form has seemed especially threatening to people in the west. From 1941 until 1979, Iran was governed by an autocratic monarchy under Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. Accepting military and economic aid from the United States, the Shah set about to modernize his nation. A key part of his policy was limiting the influence of the imams, Muslim clerics who had great authority over the lives and thoughts of the people. Although Iran witnessed rapid economic growth that dramatically transformed the cities and greatly strengthened the country's infrastructure, not everyone benefited from the changes. Small shopkeepers, small farmers, and ordinary workers sometimes found life to be more difficult. Furthermore, the westernization that accompanied the economic changes was not welcomed by the conservative and largely Shiiti Muslim population. Iranians who were troubled by what was happening in their country often blamed the United States for America was the Shah's main supporter. However, because Iran operated as an authoritarian regime, the voices of citizen disapproval had no constructive outlet.

The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, an exiled radical Islamic cleric, took advantage of the growing discontentment to incite a revolution that succeeded in overthrowing the Shah in 1979. Now, Iran was governed by a new type of authoritarianism, a theocracy. Religious leaders, who interpreted God's will as revealed in the Koran, came to play a major role in politics. Mullahs (clerics) sat as powerful members of parliament. A Council of Guardians, Iran's supreme court, was a body of clerics who used the Koran, not the constitution, as the ultimate authority. Around the country, the Islamic Republican Party, the official party of the revolution, depended on clerics a party agents. At the top of the entire system, the Ayatollah Khomeini had the final word. And his word was based upon his concept of what God told him to say or do. Consequently, the Ayatollah's pronouncements could not be challenged.

The highly authoritarian nature of the Islamic Republic was evident in its internal and external policies. Internally, the Ayatollah's government moved harshly against dissidents. Intellectuals, people associated with the Shah's government, opposition politicians, and military leaders were arrested, imprisoned, and executed. People feared speaking against the regime and people feared conducting their private lives in ways that contradicted the mullahs' strict interpretation of Islamic law. Women, especially, were objects of religious supervision and control. Externally, Iran pursued an aggressive and militant policy. The United States, as the former backer of the Shah, was regarded as an especially "evil" state and labeled the "Great Satan" by the Ayatollah. In November of 1979, Iranian radicals stormed the American Embassy and took 52 people hostage. These people were held until January of 1981. Saudi Arabia, a conservative and, in the Ayatollah's view, apostate state, was also a target of Iranian anger. In 1987, the Ayatollah called for the overthrow of the Saudi government. Iran also conducted a protracted and bitter war with its neighbor Iraq. Although Iraq began the conflict—hoping to grab a piece of Iranian territory during the turmoil of the revolution—Iran regarded the conflict as a jihad or holy war.

As is characteristic of all fervent ideological or theological revolutions, the people and the country of Iran could not sustain the political intensity for long. Isolated internationally, suffering from economic decline internally, and facing increasing grumbling from moderate Iranians who wanted a more open political system, Iran's government moved back to the center. The first shift was from a rigid theocratic authoritarianism to a more pragmatic authoritarianism that relaxed the enforcement of religious laws and allowed for more openness of expression. This happened almost immediately after the death of the elderly Ayatollah in 1989. By the year 2000, Iran had installed a decidedly more moderate government that came to power as a result of relatively free and fair elections. While the majority of Iranians likely were content to be governed according to the principles of Islamic law, they desired more flexibility in how those laws were interpreted and they wanted more room to offer input to the government.

As the twenty–first century got under way, people in the West feared a dangerous conflict with an irrational Middle Eastern world filled with radical Islamic fundamentalists. A common concern was that these fundamentalists would set up governments filled with fanatics guided by a very narrow and xenophobic understanding of the Koran. The example of Iran suggests that enthusiasm for theocracy lasts about one generation. In the end, more pragmatic concerns push a nation to a more moderate, less authoritarian, and less aggressive form of government.


Terms such as authoritarianism and totalitarianism have been the subject of intense debates among many political scientists. Two sets of questions dominate this discussion. One revolves around the issue of definitions. What exactly is an authoritarian regime? What exactly is a totalitarian system? How are they the same and how do they differ? Is totalitarianism merely an extreme manifestation of authoritarianism or is it a fundamentally new and different phenomenon? Because definitions in a dictionary, encyclopedia, or text book are just reflections of the way both ordinary people and scholars use words, there is no precise or definitive explanation of the words. A second set of questions deals with the origins, functioning, and goals of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. What caused them to emerge? How do they operate? And, what do the leaders and subjects in such systems hope to achieve?

Defining Authoritarianism and Totalitarianism

Monarchies, oligarchies, dictatorships, military juntas, and tyrannies are all top–down systems in which the influence and will of the political elite vastly outweighs any input from citizens. A monarchy is ruled by a king or queen who took power because of heredity. In the modern world, most monarchs are symbols of national unity rather than people with real power. Oligarchies and military juntas are ruled by a small group of leaders, in the one case civilian, in the other military. Both may have come to power through extra–legal means. Dictatorships and tyrannies are both forms of one–person rule and in both cases the leader may have come toppled a previous government through force. In the modern world, both are regarded as pejorative titles.

Systems also differ according to the degree of control exercised by the leaders. For the purposes of this essay, authoritarian and totalitarian systems will be treated as variants of the large number of governments, both historical and contemporary, that privilege the voice and power of political leaders over the voice and power of the people. In theory, monarchies, oligarchies, dictatorships, military juntas, and tyrannies could fall into either category. There is disagreement among scholars about the precise nature of the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. But, there is a general consensus that totalitarianism seeks far greater control over people's lives. In contrast to totalitarian governments that accept no restrictions to their power, authoritarian systems are limited by their ability or desire to exert control over citizens. Frequently, these limitations are supported by long tradition and incorporated into law. Even very powerful authoritarian governments may operate within the framework of a constitution or a well–defined legal system. Many authoritarian systems allow people relative freedom in the area of religion, cultural life, or economic affairs. Authoritarian governments may respond very harshly if people try to involve themselves in politics. However, so long as citizens are obedient and do not openly challenge government policies, actions, and decisions, they may be left alone. Some authoritarian governments even tolerate rather pointed criticisms so long as those concerns are voiced in private or not expressed in a way that might incite widespread opposition. Totalitarian systems, on the other hand, attempt to extend their control and influence into every corner of people's lives. Through massive propaganda they even endeavor to dominate people's minds and emotions. For an authoritarian government, what people think in private may matter very little. For a totalitarian system, every aspect of life must be molded by the state.

Why Authoritarianism and Totalitarianism?

In addition to defining the two types of regimes, the study of authoritarian and totalitarian systems also examines their origins, functions, and goals. Sometimes they emerged out of a need to protect against disorder, decline, or disaster. The threat of enemy attack, an economic crisis, or a period of great social upheaval may cause a society to turn to strong leadership thought to have the ability to deal with great problems. Such leadership may insist that it needs exceptional powers and freedom of action to defend society against grave danger. The views of the leaders may be tolerated or even supported by a frightened, impoverished, or disoriented populace. This type of regime is more conservative in nature and is trying to protect the status quo. At other times, authoritarian or totalitarian governments may arise because the political elite and/or the people want to create a new society. This vision might reflect the desire for economic growth, social modernization, racial purity, political reform, or territorial expansion. In contrast to an authoritarian leader, who will be more restrained in his or her goals, a visionary totalitarian ruler seeks a complete and fundamental restructuring of an entire intellectual, social, political, economic, and military order.

Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes differ according to the degree of popular support or agreement they seek or demand. Authoritarian systems, in fact, may avoid mobilizing popular support for fear that public enthusiasm can be unmanageable. For example, during World War I, the tsarist government of Russia was reluctant to encourage public sentiment in support of the war effort. Top Russian officials worried that intense popular emotions could easily turn against the government itself. For many authoritarian systems, a passive and inactive citizenry is best. Totalitarian governments, however, insist on constant, public, and frenetic expressions of support and loyalty. Totalitarian systems organize vast public rallies and engineer massive voter turnouts in order to show the depth and breath of popular attachment to the leaders and their vision.


Convinced of the need for order, control, and hierarchy, thinkers in the Ancient World developed philosophical justifications for authoritarian regimes. Philosophers held that wisdom and virtue were not distributed equally throughout an entire population. Only a very few people had the capacity to rule well. Plato (428–348 B.C.) and Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) differed in their approaches to epistemology (methods of knowing and arriving at truth) and in their view of how much power should be invested in a ruler. But, both men believed that societies functioned best when governed by one virtuous and wise person (or very small group of people). Drawing on the model of the human body, Plato and Aristotle claimed that individual human beings were better off when the mind (reason and rationality) controlled both the spirit (ambition and drives) and the appetites (physical desires and lower passions). Plato and Aristotle said that in the same way the mind provided order, moderation, and harmony for the human body, the virtuous autocrat provided those qualities for the body politic.

Just as different parts of the body exhibited different qualities, so too society was composed of people with different skills and abilities. The governance of society should be entrusted not to everyone, as in a democracy, but only to those with the ability to lead. Plato stated this more starkly than Aristotle. Plato believed in absolute truth that existed prior to and outside human experience. This truth was not invented or changeable. For Plato, the best society was the society governed according to the principles of eternal truth. Plato contended that truth was accessible only to a few people. In his famous allegory of the cave, he likened human beings to men sitting in a large cave. With their backs to the cave's entrance, the men could see only the back wall. The cave was illuminated by a source of light coming from behind the men who were unable to turn around and actually see the light. Behind the men, between them and the light, puppet–like figures moved back and forth casting shadows on the wall of the cave. Throughout their entire existence, the vast majority of the seated men had never left the cave. Therefore, they had never seen anything but the shadows. They had never seen the true light; they had never seen the actual objects and animals represented by the puppets; and they had never even seen the puppets. Plato suggested that human beings were like the captives in the cave. Except for a very few who were able to go outside the cave, most saw reality and truth in a very indirect and shadowy manner. But, as in the cave, a few people in real life would be able to escape the limits of ordinary understanding. This small minority would be able to see

reality as it truly is, not just its imperfect reflection. Such people, argued Plato, had both a right and an obligation to rule.

Plato's concept of an extremely hierarchical and elitist pattern of leadership reflected what he observed in ancient Greek society where most people were not allowed to participate in politics. Like his fellow Greeks, Plato was convinced that the large majority of people—slaves, foreigners, women, and children— were incapable of making important decisions. Their proper role was to submit meekly to the dictates of their superiors. Plato's distrust of the people went much deeper than his disdain for the aforementioned non–citizens. He even believed that most citizens, and in his day citizens were a distinct minority of society, could not be trusted with government. Plato wrote that citizens who were workers and farmers were too ignorant and crude to be trusted with ruling. In general, he thought those who governed only should come from a hereditary ruling class.

Plato's authoritarian emphasis regarding who should rule was consistent with his description about how rulers ought to govern. He believed censorship and physical force were needed to protect society against disrespect and disorder. For example, he said government should not permit the use of stories from early Greek mythology because the accounts told by people like Homer presented the gods as immoral and prone to excess. Such stories would not be good influences on the people. Rather, the government should only allow narratives that taught self–discipline and obedience. Plato also held that it would be necessary for the leaders to lie to the people in order control their thoughts and actions. Just as a doctor might need to withhold the truth from a patient, so too the rulers would need to reshape the truth for the citizens who could not be trusted to deal with complex or difficult problems.

Comparing different systems of government, Plato said that authoritarian regimes were best. Nevertheless, Plato recognized that not all authoritarian governments were beneficial. He recommended monarchies and aristocracies, systems where governance was concentrated into the hands of a single virtuous person or in the hands of a very few virtuous people. But, he condemned despotisms, oligarchies, and plutocracies as systems that glorified war, money, fame, or the expression of raw passion. Plato viewed democracies, systems run by the uneducated and the poor majority, as undesirable. He regarded them as agreeable forms of anarchy that degenerated into despotism when people could no longer tolerate the chaos and aimlessness that reigned when a government merely catered to the selfish desires of the masses. Although heartless and cruel, the despot offered strength, order, and direction. Such control was preferable the self–serving instability of democracy.


While Plato believed he had developed his ideas about politics through a process of pure logic, Aristotle was more inclined to look at the real world to determine what worked and what did not. Nevertheless, like Plato he was deeply influenced by the social prejudices of his era. Closely associated with the Macedonian ruling family, Aristotle worked as the teacher of Alexander the Great. Aristotle agreed with Plato that men of virtue and high status were the best suited for ruling over society. In observing nature and society, Aristotle concluded that everything had its appropriate place in a predetermined hierarchy. Corruption was simply a situation when things were out of place. In the political world, corruption occurred with inferiors ruled superiors. Like Plato, Aristotle thought that wise and virtuous leaders were analogous to the mind in the human body. The body functioned best when the mind was in control; so too a society worked best when men of superior status were in control. Just as slaves, females, and animals were happier and better off when they are under the direction of a wise master, Aristotle thought, society was better off when an elite group managed political affairs. Aristotle did insist that the rulers treat their subjects with kindness and affection. But, he saw this friendship as the type of condescending benevolence similar to that a Greek citizen might feel toward his domestic animals, children, or wives.

Aristotle refined and simplified Plato's categories of government. He listed three forms of good government: kingship or royalty, aristocracy, and constitutional (a generic name for a system in which all citizens governed). These three forms were characterized by virtue, the ability to make wise and just decisions on behalf of the entire society. The three good types could degenerate into three bad forms: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. These three unjust forms were characterized by self–interest. Thus, a tyranny sought the interest of the single ruler, an oligarchy privileged the concerns of the wealthy minority, and a democracy was concerned only about the immediate needs of the unruly or unthinking masses of the poor.

To some extent, Aristotle gave even greater scope than did Plato for the authoritarian rule of a virtuous individual. If such a person could be found, Aristotle said that his kingly reign would provide the best type of government. In fact, such a person should not be constrained by any law since he would embody virtue in such a complete form that no other person or statute would be able to provide superior guidance, advice, or criticism. Aristotle did, however, recognize that such an individual could be dangerous. He stated that a completely virtuous person should either be made ruler for life or expelled from society. Although Aristotle shared Plato's distrust of a government in which all citizens could participate, he conceded that a limited form of democracy might be best. He accepted the idea that involving the people might make the government more stable and more effective. Comparing government to a feast, he said even thought the guests might not cook as well as the chef, they were certainly in a good position to evaluate the work of the chef. While Aristotle wanted a man of virtue in charge of the government, he was willing to make a place for the voice of common citizens. By that concession, Aristotle took an important step away from authoritarianism.

From ancient times until well after the end of the Middle Ages, most political theorists accepted the notion that government needed to be firmly in the hands of an authoritarian leader. Christian thinkers, who dominated the development of political theory after the time of Constantine (died in 337 A.D.), borrowed their basic ideas from Plato and Aristotle. Although they substituted the word of God for the authority of reason, they tended to agree that the society required a powerful leader whose rule was unchallenged by the voice of the people. Some Christian political philosophers emphasized the idea that human evil required a strong state. Augustus, Bishop of Hippo from 395 until his death in 430, even went so far as to claim that the harshness of an authoritarian state was a justifiable punishment for people's sin. Defending a ruler's authority by appealing to an external, immutable, and unquestionable standard, Augustus believed that only a select few, or even just one individual, could claim the right to know and exercise the authority that came from God. Ordinary subjects had no right to provide input.


In the Muslim world, the political philosopher Alfarabi (c. 870–950) developed a similar political philosophy. Attempting to harmonize Islam and classical Greek political ideas, he drew heavily from Plato. Like Plato and Augustus, Alfarabi taught that there was a ultimate source of truth above human beings. To create a good government, one had to know this truth. Only then was good legislation possible. Only then was virtuous political action possible. In Alfarabi's view, it was critically important that a government's founder, initial law–makers, and successive leaders were faithful to divinely ordained truth. Adherence to eternal truth, not deference to the will of the people was essential for good government. Without a strong and good leader, a people would focus on their immediate, selfish concerns. In his book The Virtuous City, Alfarabi said that a good political system was guided by reason. In such a regime, people come together cooperatively, live virtuously, act nobly, and achieve happiness. But, Alfarabi said such a government required discipline and guidance. Only a few individuals had the ability and the proper upbringing to provide such leadership. Most people know the truth only imperfectly, and even then only after having had the truth explained to them by people with more wisdom and insight. Consequently, in a virtuous regime, a few will rule and the vast majority will acquiesce.

Throughout the Middle Ages, most political thinkers saw authoritarian rule as the best form of government. Some went so far as to suggest that even an unjust or predatory ruler could not be questioned. A bad ruler was legitimate because God must have selected a tyrant in order to punish a disobedient society. The authority of the ruler was complete. Yet, many pre–modern political philosophers called on the ruler to act kindly and gently, to rule the people with the love of a father. However, they also admonished leaders to punish evil with the strength of a father.

St. Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) believed that both deductive reason and evidence from the real world supported the idea of a single authoritarian leader. Using logic, Aquinas argued that just as God was the sole ruler in the spiritual world and just as the soul was the only ruler of an individual, so too people living in community should be led by one person, a king. Drawing on the evidence of actual observation, Aquinas concluded that people were social beings, not individuals who lived in isolation. If people were to live together, they needed direction. Without strong leadership, society would splinter and fall apart.

Not only did medieval philosophers such as Aquinas believe authoritarian rule was best, they were strongly opposed to revolt even if against an unjust ruler. While Aquinas agreed that a tyrant could not claim legitimacy, he seemed to suggest that only God had the right to remove an evil ruler. To people considering revolt, Aquinas pointed out that they could not be assured of success. If the uprising failed, the people would face severe reprisal and suffer even more than before. Even if the people succeeded in removing the tyrant, the society could easily descend into chaos. Or, the people could end up with an even worse tyrant. In spite of his strong support for authoritarianism, Aquinas agreed that a ruler had an obligation to work for the common good, to promote peace, and to overcome dissension within the community. Although he was unwilling to sanction the removal of a tyrant, he suggested that kings should be held accountable by a constitution. In holding those views, he was somewhat ahead of his time.

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), also believed an authoritarian system would best serve society. Known for his vivid descriptions of heaven and hell in The Divine Comedy, Dante developed his political ideas in De monarchia (1310). Referring to the concept that there is only one God over the universe, one head of a family, and one mind directing the body, Dante used the same arguments employed by Aquinas. Like Aquinas, he asserted that the authoritarian ruler should be a servant, not a tyrant. A staunch admirer of the ancient Roman Empire, Dante suggested that the entire world should be brought under the control of one authoritarian leader. The result, he said, would be universal peace. According to Dante, a world government under a single ruler would fulfill the promise of the angels who had announced the birth of Jesus by singing "Peace on Earth."

Niccolò Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) introduced a radical notion that removed moral restrictions on a

ruler's authority. Machiavelli said a ruler's only obligation was to maintain power. By making that argument, Machiavelli rejected the ancient and medieval views that a ruler deserved to be in office because of natural virtue, because of a superior understanding of justice, or because of God's will. It might seem that Machiavelli had weakened authoritarianism by undermining the foundational intellectual structures that had been used to justify the system. However, he strengthened authoritarianism by destroying the limits to a ruler's actions. For Machiavelli, what gave legitimacy was a ruler's own ability to exert power. Consequently, Machiavelli removed any religious or philosophical barriers against cruelty or deviousness on the part of a prince. But, while Machiavelli is often regarded as the father of the theory that the pursuit of power must be a leader's only goal, it must be recalled that he frequently reminded rulers of the need to win the loyalty and affection of the people. Without their support, a leader's power would erode and a ruler could fall. This need to keep the support of the people tempered the inclination to move from a benevolent authoritarianism to tyranny.

Thomas Hobbes

The British scholar Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was one of history's most articulate and persuasive champions of authoritarian government. Hobbes lived during an extremely turbulent time in European history when the authority of the church, the state, and philosophy were all being challenged. The Reformation had unleashed religious wars, Spain and England were locked in conflict—in fact Hobbes was born in the same year the British defeated the Spanish Armada—and England itself faced a long civil war that resulted in the beheading of King Charles I in 1649. An unapologetic supporter of royal power, Hobbes argued for a strong state whose powers could not be undermined by the people.

Seeking to apply logical mathematical and scientific principles to the study of politics, Hobbes rejected any Platonic or Aristotelian notion that some people are more virtuous and, therefore, more fit to rule. Like Machiavelli, he dismissed any appeal to innate reason or religion as justifications for authoritarian rule. But, instead of weakening a ruler's authority by removing traditional arguments supportive of kings or aristocrats, Hobbes greatly strengthened a ruler's claim to power.

Plato, Aristotle, and most medieval thinkers had based their defense of strong government on the belief in the inequality—intellectual, moral, spiritual— of human beings. Because of inequality, Plato and Aristotle held that a gifted or chosen individual (or perhaps a small elite group) had both a right and an obligation to govern in an autocratic fashion. Hobbes, however, believed in the near equality of all human beings. Although he acknowledged that some people were more powerful, more courageous, and more intelligent, he noted that even the weakest could find ways to kill or rob the strongest. For Hobbes, the underlying reality about all society was that every person experienced two closely linked emotions: a desire for power and a fear of death. The desire for power resulted in a savagery that led everyone to harbor a justifiable fear of being attacked, robbed, and destroyed. Hobbes described an imaginary "state of nature" to explain what life would be like if people were simply left to their own devices. Without the rules and protections of government, people would be in a perpetual state of war against each other. As a result, they could not conduct business, develop an intellectual or artistic life, organize society, or ever feel safe. Life would be "solitary, nasty, brutish, and short."

Thomas Hobbes believed the only way for people to escape the profound danger posed by their own brutal ambitions was for the people to covenant together and turn over all power to a sovereign. This transaction had to be both complete and irrevocable. The agreement or covenant—Hobbes called it a social contract—was made among the people themselves; the ruler had no part in arranging for the bargain that gave him complete power. As a result, the covenant could not undone by the people because they freely had relinquished all their rights to the ruler in an unconditional manner. Although Hobbes conceded that the sovereign might be an assembly (for example, something similar to the British Parliament), he believed a single monarch was best. In any case, the sovereign had to be indivisible and absolute.

In Hobbes' view, the sovereign could commit no injustice, the sovereign could not be punished or removed, and the sovereign had the right to use any means thought necessary to ensure peace and security. In the pursuit of order and security, the sovereign had a right to control the content of books and opinions, make laws at will, and hear and judge all legal cases. Hobbes recognized that government might, at times, make the people miserable. But, he argued that such misery was unavoidable and should be accepted.

The nature of Hobbes' authoritarian views are especially clear when he explained the relationship between government and the individual. Hobbes gave no room for questioning or challenging the government. He rejected the idea that a private individual had a right to rely on his or her conscience as a measure of good and evil. Only the law of the state could provide that standard. Therefore, Hobbes said it was not a sin to go against one's conscience if conscience came into conflict with the law. Education, discipline, and correction must be used by the sovereign to prevent people from advancing their own private judgements opposing official orthodoxy. While citizens must obey the law, the sovereign stood above the law. Hobbes reasoned that if the sovereign stood under the power of the law, then sovereignty would be diminished. Writing about wealth, Hobbes said that citizens had a right to protect their property against other citizens. But, they had no absolute right to any property needed by the sovereign.

Hobbes believed the power and authority of the sovereign should never be limited or divided. Any diminution of government sovereignty put the people at risk because their only security rested in the ability of the state to keep both internal and external peace. At one level, Hobbes' ideas apply equally to democratic and authoritarian states. Even in the most open modern democracies people are not free to disobey the law, take the law into their own hands, avoid paying taxes, or set up separate governments within a country. But, Hobbes is more justly regarded as a strong defender of authoritarianism than of the sovereignty of democratic systems. Certainly, he himself was uncomfortable with democratic sentiments. In spite of his support of an overwhelmingly strong government, Hobbes stopped short of totalitarianism. People should be free, he asserted, to live where they wished, pursue the jobs they selected, raise their children as they chose, determine who would inherit their wealth, and engage in commerce without government interference.

Frederick Hegel

The German Frederick Hegel (1770–1831), an admirer of Frederick the Great, returned to a more platonic notion of government and political authority. One of the most influential German philosophers of the nineteenth century, Hegel believed that the world was guided by an "Absolute Spirit" that he equated with Reason or an impersonal God. Throughout the millennia of human history, the Absolute became ever more visible and concrete. While earlier generations had thought of the Absolute in a spiritualized and rudimentary form, modern people had a much greater ability to see the Absolute clearly. While previously people had come into contact with the Absolute through God and religion, now they could see the Absolute concretely manifested in the state. For Hegel, there was no higher good in human society that a strong and just government.



In his book Leviathan (1651), Hobbes described what life would be like without a strong government. He wrote,

During the time men live without a common power [i.e. an authoritarian ruler] to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war: and such a war as is of every man against every man…In such condition, there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation or use of commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building;…no arts; no letters; no society and, which is the worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.

For people in the twenty–first century who are inclined to think of government as oppressive, intrusive, or inefficient, Hegel's views seem peculiar. Twenty–first century people must remember that Hegel lived after a period of great political and social turmoil marked by civil, religious, and expansionary wars. The emergence of powerful constitutional monarchies that brought peace, progress, and prosperity in the 1700s was regarded by Hegel as a near miraculous advancement. Hegel contrasted the state with the family and with civil society (business and community relationships and organizations). In the family setting people demonstrated support and respect for every member no matter how weak or unproductive, for example small children. But, they did not extend that to people who were not related to them. In business relationships, people reached out to everyone regardless of kinship. But, they do so in a very selfish and competitive manner. Only in the state, Hegel said, was everyone included and everyone treated with care.

In Hegel's view, by far the best state was the kind of stable, authoritarian regime he observed in his native Prussia. Ruled by a strong constitutional monarch, Prussia provided a proper balance between freedom and order. In his Philosophy of Right (1821), Hegel argued that people were truly free only when they fulfilled their duties to their fellow citizens. Hegel, who had witnessed the excesses of the French Revolution and of Napoleon, was skeptical of democracy and of imperial populism. He was also critical of the more cautious British form of democracy. By extending too much power to the voters, he said the British were flirting with a system that gave too little attention to duty and discipline. By increasing the authority of Parliament—a body beholden to the people—the British had eroded the ability of the monarchy to preserve the equilibrium between freedom and order. As a result, Hegel feared Britain would descend into mob rule.

Hegel grounded his argument for a strong authoritarian system in an appeal to the existence of superhuman Divine guidance that was gradually inspiring humans to create more perfect forms of government. He also grounded his argument in the claim that the Absolute desired the highest order of freedom for human beings. Thus, Hegel was a strong advocate of a benevolent authoritarianism. He should not be regarded as a precursor to Nazi totalitarianism. True, he supported the idea of a very strong ruler. But, he believed such a leader was guided by a reasonable higher purpose and that the purpose of government was justice for all citizens.

Friedrich Nietzsche

A more likely intellectual precursor to modern totalitarianism was the German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). A brilliant, but emotionally unstable individual, Nietzsche challenged the fundamental values of western civilization. He rejected rationalism, democracy, and religious love and compassion. In his view, those values merely promoted and protected the weak and unworthy. Reason, democracy, and religion upheld the ideas of good and evil, brotherhood, and pity for the disadvantaged. Using Darwin's logic of natural selection, Nietzsche argued that such "virtues" simply safeguarded the most useless and despicable characteristics of the human race. Laws, social customs, and religion were designed for the benefit of the least desirable human qualities. In Nietzsche's view, true humanity glorified strength and power, not impotence and restraint.


Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche was raised in a devout Protestant family in Germany. His father, who had gone insane, died in 1849, when Friedrich was five years old. A brilliant student, Nietzsche became an atheist when he attended university in Bonn and Leipzig. Even before he had completed his doctorate, he was appointed a professor at the University of Basel in 1869. Claiming to be the descendent of Polish nobility, he attempted to present himself as a person of elevated importance and vision. Severe health problems, perhaps psychosomatic, forced him to resign his university post in 1879. Addicted to opium, a drug he took to combat severe migraines, he fell into insanity in 1889. Although he published a number of writings during his lifetime, his sister edited and published much of his work after his death in 1900. An ardent anti–Semite, she reshaped his ideas by emphasizing Nietzsche's anti–Jewish concepts and sentiments.

In his book Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883), Nietzsche described a prophet named Zarathustra who lived alone in the mountains before returning to civilization in order to teach and enlighten his fellow human beings. Arriving in town, he entered a market where people had gathered to watch a man dance on a rope. Zarathustra told the people that their concepts of happiness, reason, virtue, justice, good and bad, pity, and self–satisfaction were merely obstacles to true freedom, power, and life. Lightening, frenzy, and passion were the stuff of real human life. Such life would come with a Superman (Ubermencsh). To Zarathustra's disappointment, the people laughed and said they wanted to see the rope dancer, not the superman. In other words, they were content with a fake replica of a true hero. Zarathustra compared the people to fleas, blinking but not seeing. Like fleas, ordinary people had no vision, no capacity to struggle for excellence, and no desire for anything beyond immediate material and social comforts. People only wanted to be part of a herd, to be equal, to be the same, to be entertained, to be reconciled.

In his disdain for morality based on compassion, kindness, and self–sacrifice, Nietzsche laid the groundwork for a tyrant such as Hitler. In The Antichrist, Nietzsche wrote:

What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome. [The true human being should seek] not contentedness but more power; not peace but war; not virtue but fitness….What is more harmful than any vice? Active pity for all the failures and all the weak.

A true Superman would not be bound by any constraints of custom, law, pity, or equity. Such constraints only stood in the way of authentic human achievement. Rejecting the limitations of religion or conventional ethics, Hitler exalted strength and power. Not only did Hitler admire Nietzsche, his troops sometimes carried copies of Nietzsche's writings.

Vladimir Lenin

Perhaps the most cogent twentieth–century defense of authoritarianism was written by Vladimir Lenin in What Is To Be Done (1902). Lenin argued that a dictatorial form of government was justified during and immediately after a period of Community revolution. A highly disciplined, secretive, and small clique of determined party activists would lead the people through a successful revolution. Afterwards, the same group would defend the revolution against its internal and external enemies. Nevertheless, Lenin regarded this strong system of government as a temporary necessity. Furthermore, the dictatorship had an historical and ideological obligation to rule on behalf of the proletariat (working class) and never for its own interests. While Lenin's failed to set up safeguards against the abuse of power, he certainly would not have favored the totalitarian regime Stalin built on the organizational and intellectual foundations Lenin established.


Authoritarian governments have been the most common political systems throughout most of human history. With the exception of the United States and England, almost all countries in the world were ruled by authoritarian systems even into the twentieth century. Although sometimes regarded as anachronistic or inefficient, authoritarian governments generally were not considered as political mistakes until World War II. Even then, only the most extreme authoritarian forms, such as Nazism in Germany and Stalinism in the Soviet Union, were renamed as totalitarian and were condemned as evil or uncivilized.


Italy was the first modern country to experiment with what became known as Fascism. After World War I, Italy fell under the spell of ex–journalist Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) who began the ultra nationalistic Fascist movement. Suffering from the aftermath of World War I and disillusioned with the ineffectiveness of democracy, Italians turned to a strong, charismatic leader who promised to restore their fortunes and their glory. Although a former socialist, Mussolini had no deep commitment to any

ideology except Italian nationalism. In 1919, he formed Fasci di Combattimento (combat groups) to build support for a new political movement that promised to strengthen and glorify the nation. The Latin term fascina refers to a bundle of sticks. Individually they are weak; tied together they are unbreakable).

Mussolini founded his combat groups at a time when peasants had attempted to confiscate land and when some workers had taken over factories. His call for order appealed to large industrialists, wealthy landowners, and the lower middle class who feared labor unions, socialism, and communism. Mussolini also garnered support from unemployed, including returning soldiers from World War I. Mussolini reached out to this growing segment of the population who were aimless and hopeless. Providing them with the security and identity that came from wearing a uniform and participating in mass rallies, Mussolini mobilized them by making them feel that they belonged and had power. Relying on black–shirted thugs drawn from the ranks of the disillusioned and unemployed, Mussolini used terror to intimidate opponents. Disgusted with the central government's ineffectiveness and lack of unity, the police stood by as his combat groups took control of Italian towns.

In the elections of 1921, Mussolini's Fascist Party won 35 of 535 seats in a badly divided parliament. On October 28, 1922, Fascists from all over the country marched on Rome in a show of force. Sympathetic to Mussolini, King Victor Emmanuel refused to authorize martial law to contain the Fascists. The King then asked Mussolini to form a new coalition government. With a toehold on power, Mussolini moved quickly to frighten or eliminate his opponents. In 1924, he assassinated a socialist member of parliament. Using a combination of political maneuvers, terror, and oratorical skills, Mussolini, known as Il duce (the chief), consolidated his control. After getting parliament to grant him extraordinary powers for a year, he moved to eliminate other parties, fill the bureaucracy with Fascist loyalists, and establish a Fascist militia and police managed by the Fascist Party and funded by the state. Lauding the virtues of the group over the individual, Mussolini promised to end civil conflict. He abolished labor unions, banned strikes and lockouts, and he organized workers, employers, and professionals into corporations. He also launched massive public works projects to encourage national pride and to provide employment for workers and contracts for businesses. Schools celebrated Fascist values and Mussolini encouraged a cult of personality. He also threatened or censored the press. Mussolini appealed to national pride by building an impractically large military and then using it to restore the Roman Empire. In 1936, he attacked Ethiopia and in 1939 he moved against Albania.

Once Hitler came to power, Mussolini allied himself politically with the German leader, not so much because he admired Germany, but because he so strongly detested democracy. His support for Hitler was never enthusiastic and Mussolini entered World War II on the side of the Nazis only after it appeared that Germany was winning the war. Militarily weak, Italy surrendered the Allied forces in September of 1943. For a time Mussolini headed a puppet government in northern Italy.

In the end, Mussolini failed to realize his dream of building a powerful nation in which the individual would be diminished and the state elevated. Terror, relentless propaganda, mass rallies, fiery speeches, appeals to the glory of the ancient Roman Empire, and external wars enabled him to construct the appearance of a strong state in which the Italian citizens supposedly found meaning and fulfillment. But, these proved to be a weak foundation upon which to construct a sound political system. In April of 1945, Mussolini was captured by Italian partisans and executed in Milan, the city where Fascism had begun.


In Germany, Adolph Hitler (1889–1945) presided over one of the most totalitarian systems of all history. Like Mussolini, Hitler exalted the state over the person. However, he added particularly noxious racial and militaristic elements to his doctrine. Hitler's ability to mobilize the total resources—economic, emotional, and military—of a nation may have been unparalleled in the history of the world. There are many similarities between the rise of Mussolini and Hitler. Disenchantment with democracy and economic hardship affected both German and Italy. However, the plight of Germany was much more severe. Defeated in World War I, Germany had been humiliated and overburdened by the terms of a very punitive peace treaty imposed by the Allies at Versailles. Not only did Germany have to pay reparations for having caused the war, German was also forced to disarm. Furthermore, the peace treaty demanded that Germany set up a new democratic government that came to be known as the Weimar Republic. The Weimar government proved absolutely ineffective. The result of the treaty of Versailles was enormous economic hardship, great hostility toward France and England, and deep antipathy toward democratic institutions. The situation was only made worse by the global economic depression that began in 1929. Massive unemployment, hyperinflation, an internal political crisis, and resentment toward neighboring countries caused the German people to look for a scapegoat and a savior. Hitler provided them with both.

After serving valiantly in World War I, Hitler returned to a disheartened and impoverished Germany. In Munich, he joined a racist, militarist party of malcontents. There, he polished his oratorical skills by condemning the Versailles treaty, the Weimar Republic, Communists, and Jews. By 1921, Hitler was selected as the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party. He created a private army known as storm troopers (SA) who not only protected Hitler but violently disrupted meetings of other political groups. From the start, Hitler based his power on his ability to motivate an audience and on the use of illegal force against rivals. To a nation mired in humiliation and despair, Hitler preached the superiority of the German Volk (people). The cause of German's suffering, he said, had nothing to do with the German people themselves. Rather, Jews and Communists were to blame. Under a visionary leader, Hitler announced, the German people could regain the glory rightfully theirs as descendants of a proud and superior Aryan race. He said that a special spirit dwelled in this people, whose destiny was to dominate and rule less noble peoples. Hitler's ideas about racial superiority and anti–Semitism were not his own creation. Many people all over Europe harbored such sentiments.

After failing to take power through a coup—the infamous Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 which landed him in prison for a year—Hitler worked to enter government through the political process. Using the apparatus of the Nazi party, he attracted members and supporters though a newspaper, a youth organization, and a propaganda division. He also relied on the persuasive power of violence exercised by the SA and an elite private military force known as the SS. As head of the party and the military organizations, Hitler took the title of Fuehrer (leader). The Nazi party grew rapidly under his leadership, especially after the 1929 economic crisis created massive unemployment in Germany. Now, Hitler appealed to a broad segment of the German population, not just to social misfits and racial bigots. In September of 1930, the Nazis won 6.5 million votes and by January of 1933, Hitler was appointed as the Chancellor (prime minister) as head of a coalition government.

Hitler quickly consolidated his power. His SA and SS operatives attacked the meetings of other political parties. In February of 1933, the Reichstag (parliament) burned and Hitler blamed communists. In response to the fire, parliament granted him emergency powers and the constitution was suspended along with civil liberties. Now, the SA attacked communists, socialists, and liberals, thus intimidating and silencing political opposition. Government radio constantly warned of a communist conspiracy. After the passage of an Enabling Act granting his cabinet dictatorial powers for four years, Hitler moved to crush all potential sources of dissent. State assemblies were abolished and all regional government was brought under the direct supervision of the central Ministry of the Interior. Trade unions were put under strict government control. Hitler purged the civil service, universities, and the court system of all non–Aryans and dissenters. He decreed that the government could intervene in legal proceedings to stop cases or to adjust sentences considered too lenient. Furthermore, a new secret police, the Gestapo, began arbitrarily to arrest, torture, and imprison opponents of the regime. In 1936, the Gestapo officially was declared to be above the law. In an effort to stifle all independent voices, Hitler exerted great pressure against the Catholic and Protestant churches. In fact, he established a Reich Church that supported Nazi doctrines of racial superiority and that recognized Hitler as the Fuehrer. Radio and newspapers were censored and editors were required to be Aryans. Teachers, from elementary schools to universities, had to swear an oath of allegiance to the government. Hitler also exerted rigid control over the Nazi party and the army. Although not as extensive as Stalin's purges, Hitler's murderous attacks eliminated many top party and military officials in 1934.

While Hitler's totalitarian regime was not reluctant to use coercion, it also promised and delivered welcome benefits to the German people. Elaborate public celebrations and rallies restored pride in the nation and the people. Hitler's policies rebuilt the German economy. Public works projects, tax cuts for industries, and most of all rearmament returned millions of Germans to work. By 1936, the unemployment rate had dropped to one million people. Compared to the economic recovery rate in the rest of Europe and America, this was a phenomenal success. Hitler's success won the affection of the German people and the respect, even sometimes the admiration, of others in Europe or America.

Hitler's totalitarian vision included building the glory of Germany by territorial expansion and by conquering or exterminating supposed enemies of the state and of the German people. In 1938, he announced that Germany would rearm, thus making Germany the equal of England and France, and that he would bring all German peoples under his protection and rule. In that year he annexed Austria and German–speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. In 1939, claiming that the superior German race needed living space, he launched an attack on Poland and began World War II. Using the same argument, in 1941 he invaded Russia. His conquest of France in 1940 was justified, in part, as a necessary effort to save that country from the evils of democracy and racial impurity. Internally, Hitler pursued his policy of elevating the Aryan race by exterminating Jews, mentally handicapped people, Gypsies, and homosexuals. Although Hitler saw Nazism as a constructive ideology that would build a master race, his philosophy was nihilistic and ended with the military defeat of Germany in 1945.

The Soviet Union

In the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) ruled in a totalitarian manner. Drawing on the ideology of Marx and Lenin, Stalin insisted on controlling every aspect of his subjects' lives. Nevertheless, his totalitarianism was different from that of Hitler or Mussolini. While those two men exalted the state for its own sake, Stalin used totalitarian techniques to build and defend his country. To some extent, Stalin resembled his tsarist predecessors who faced difficult challenges. Like the tsars, Stalin had to bring unity to an empire of very diverse peoples, he had to develop the country economically, and he had to defend Russia's long and porous borders. Also, like the tsars, Stalin wanted to increase his country's world standing and prestige. Stalin took over a country badly defeated in World War I and a country with no history of democracy. Autocracy, so extreme that it became totalitarian, was a natural step for Stalin and his cohorts.

A secretive, cunning, and ambitious man, authoritarianism fit Stalin's personality and nationalistic goals. Appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1922, he took over full control when Lenin died in 1924. Previously regarded as a functionary rather than a visionary, he consolidated his position by appointing loyal supporters to key positions. One by one, he then vilified rival party leaders and had them removed from their positions and expelled from the Communist Party. Relying less on personal charisma than either Mussolini or Hitler, Stalin used the apparatus of the Communist Party and the government bureaucracy to exert control over politics, the economy, social life, education, culture, and religion.

Stalin regarded improving the economy and the military as his two main challenges. In the area of agriculture, he forcefully introduced mechanization and collectivization into a previously backward system. Forcing Russian peasants onto large state–managed or state–owned farms, Stalin transformed farming into an enterprise that took on many characteristics of industry. Division of labor, machines (tractors, combines, trucks), and enormous mono–culture fields were all intended to boast production and reduce the number of people needed for farm work. Stalin used the rural regions' excess food and surplus labor to support rapid industrialization in the cities of the Soviet Union. He was willing to use brutal force to achieve his goals. Millions of people were compelled to relocate to cities or to places such as Siberia where there was great potential for mining and forestry. Millions of peasants starved because the grain they produced was shipped to urban areas to feed factory workers or exported abroad to obtain hard currency. People who complained or resisted were eliminated or sent to prison camps run by the secret police. All over the country, forced labor was used in the construction of roads, railroads, canals, dams, bridges, and electrical lines.

Stalin's ultimate goal was to build an industrial base that could provide machinery for Soviet agriculture and provide equipment and transport for the Soviet military. In World War I, a pitifully weak infrastructure and industrial complex had left Russia so weak that soldiers went to war without adequate shoes, weapons, ammunition, or food. Stalin wanted to ensure that the Soviet Union did not face the same catastrophe ever again. With the help of reckless military decisions on the part of Hitler and the fierceness of the Russian winter, Stalin's rebuilt Soviet military was able to withstand and defeat the German war machine in World War II. The Soviet victory was perhaps the decisive factor in bringing an end to World War II.

The cost of Stalin's totalitarianism was enormous. As many people died under Stalin as under Hitler. Between five to ten million peasants were killed or deported to Siberia. In 1932–1933, food shortages in the rural areas, shortages caused because the government commandeered too much grain, resulted in perhaps five million deaths, especially among women and children in the Ukraine. In 1950, an estimated ten million people were living in Siberian prison camps and during the entire period when Stalin ruled, twenty million people had been sent to Siberia. Dissent was not tolerated. People suspected of criticizing Stalin were arrested—often in the middle of the night—and tortured, imprisoned, or shot. Top party members or military generals did not escape Stalin's vindictiveness and suspicion. Leon Trotsky, a close associate of Lenin, was forced into exile and then killed by one of Stalin's agents in Mexico in 1940. Thousands were killed in the Great Purge of 1934 when innocent people were forced to confess disloyalty to the party and the nation.

While the sufferings and deaths were devastating to the nation, the intellectual conformity was also harmful. Artists and authors feared producing work that did not glorify Stalin, the Soviet state, heroic farmers or factory workers, or valiant soldiers. As a result, art and literature stultified. Economists, historians, sociologists, and philosophers felt equally constrained. Even though the hard sciences fared better, largely because they produced results with military or industrial applications, even disciplines such as physics had to be cautious. For example, uncomfortable with the ambiguity implicit in Einstein's theory of relativity, Stalin banned its teachings.

In spite of his brutality, when Stalin died in 1953, people wept openly on the streets of Moscow. A harsh tyrant, he was also regarded as a great patriot whose efforts had saved the Soviet Union from defeat in World War II. Not only had Stalin's strategies won the war, they also enabled the Soviet Union to rebuild after the war. Although the Soviet industrial capacity had been reduced by 50 percent during the war, the government's ability to conscript labor and direct resources made it possible for the country to regain its capacity to produce coal, steel, heavy equipment, and military hardware. By the 1960s, the Soviet Union was a superpower.

Soviet leaders after Stalin gradually relaxed their control of their citizens. While they continued to manage the economy through the use of five year plans, an openness to the west and a willingness to entertain a limited number of critical opinions began to transform the character of central authority. Mikhail Gorbachev, who took power in 1985, moved the Soviet Union decisively away from any vestiges of totalitarianism.


Following the victory of the communists in 1949, China constructed the twentieth century's fourth great totalitarian regime. Combining the fanatic emphasis on popular mobilization behind a charismatic leader that had characterized Italy and Germany with the extreme focus on economic development that preoccupied the Soviet Union, Mao Tse–tung (1893–1976), attempted to enlist a nation of 1 billion people to dedicate their lives to his vision. Like Italy, Germany, and Russia, China had no historical experience with a successful democracy. Furthermore, in the 1800s, China had been exploited and humiliated by the West, the cradle of liberalism and democracy. In the twentieth century, China was torn by civil strife among warlords. Then, in 1937 Japan invaded China. As a result of the upheavals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Chinese longed for a political system that would protect and develop their nation. Since the Chinese traditionally had regarded themselves as culturally superior to the rest of the world, the desire to restore their political fortunes was especially urgent.

After World War II, the Chinese communists gained control of the country. One of the defining events in the history of their movement had been the Long March which began in 1933. Surrounded by their enemies, the Nationalists, the Communists led by Mao Tse–tung had trekked for thousands of miles through remote mountains to avoid defeat. Although nearly 75,000 people are said to have died in the course of the march, those who survived came to believe that any obstacle could be overcome by sheer determination and courageous leadership. After 1949, the Communists applied the same discipline and resolve to restoring their nation.

The Communists faced an enormous challenge. Devastated by years of war and bad government, China was an impoverished country with little infrastructure and almost no industry. This created a theoretical problem for the communists since Marxism held that real revolution must be based on an uprising of an alienated and oppressed industrial worker class. Encouraged by Mao Tse–tung, the Chinese communists decided to create a revolution from the top down. Furthermore, they decided to base their revolution on the peasantry, a class that Marx considered to be politically inactive or reactionary. At first, Mao and his associates tried to implement their reforms through relatively benign tactics. In 1949, they began land reforms by redistributing some of the land held by wealthy peasants. In 1952, they moved to collectivization, a scheme that encouraged peasants to pool their land voluntarily. These programs did not increase agricultural production or reallocate the land as much as the communists had hoped. Therefore, in 1958, Mao declared a guerrilla war against economic backwardness. During the Great Leap Forward, 120 million households were placed into about 25,000 People's Communes. These communes replaced the family, the village, and private economic enterprise. In an attempt to dramatically increase production, millions of peasants were organized into work teams terracing fields, building earthen dams, constructing roads, and making schools. Instead of using heavy earth moving equipment, the peasants accomplished these tasks with simple baskets, hoes, tampers, and shovels. In a highly publicized endeavor, the rural communes even built simple blast furnaces to produce pig iron.

This massive economic and social transformation was accomplished under the direction of communist party activists (cadres) who coaxed and coerced people into action. Although proclaimed an unqualified success, the Great Leap was actually a disaster. Unhappy peasants sabotaged some of the projects; in order to meet production targets for making pig iron, peasants sometimes melted down metal tools; and floods and droughts ruined crops from 1959 until 1961. Nevertheless, many top communist party officials believed the Great Leap had been a success because commune managers and local bureaucrats distorted their annual reports so as not to be shamed before their superiors.

The Cultural Revolution Undaunted by the shortcomings of the Great Leap, Mao mobilized the people for a Cultural Revolution that took place from 1966 until 1969. While the Great Leap had been designed to transform the economy, the Cultural Revolution was intended to conquer traditional Chinese culture that emphasized looking to the past and to the elders for guidance. Traditional Chinese culture had also valued private economic gain that advanced either an individual or a family. Convinced that such perspectives blocked the road to progress, Mao encouraged young people to criticize all people in authority except people in the army. Teachers, government administrators, scientists, and even very senior communist party leaders were challenged and humiliated by waves of youth known as Red Guards travelling around the country. Carrying copies of Mao's sayings in little red books, they threw the country into chaos for much of the late 1960s. During the Cultural Revolution, university education came to a standstill and prominent leaders in business, education, and government were forced to work in menial jobs in factories or in the communes. For example, Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997), the general secretary of the party's Central Committee and China's future leader, had to work in a restaurant. So great was the humiliation, that a number of people committed suicide. Mao's goal was to reinvigorate the revolutionary spirit that he thought was needed to eradicate old habits of thought that prevented China from attaining its potential. He also wanted to prevent creeping tendencies toward the individualistic inclinations of capitalism. Just as the Long March had hardened an older generation of communists, the Cultural Revolution would toughen the younger generation. In Mao's view, revolution would need to be permanent. Only then could "capitalist roaders" be thwarted.

In actuality, the Cultural Revolution plunged the country into chaos. Only the intervention of the People's Liberation Army in 1969 restored order to the nation. Nevertheless, a number of highly placed Chinese leaders, including Mao's wife Jiang Qing, wanted to continue the fervor of the Cultural Revolution. When Mao died in 1976, a quarrel erupted between the radicals known as the Gang of Four and moderate pragmatists such as Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. The moderates, who prevailed in the end, believed that China could not be transformed through sheer will power and by ignoring global economic realities. Although claiming to revere Mao, they began to reorient the economy along the lines of the free market. Although remaining loyal to communism, Deng distanced the government from Mao. Deng said correct theory was less important than practical results. "It does not matter," he asserted, "whether the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice." By the end of the twentieth century, China was no longer a totalitarian state. Some would even argue that it had ceased being an orthodox communist state because so much of the economy had been liberalized. However, China remained decidedly authoritarian. The ruling elite continued to exert tight control. Although they allowed a great deal of economic freedom, they continued to resist political freedom. In comparing the stability and prosperity of China with the instability and economic decline evident in Russia, the twenty–first–century Chinese leadership believed it was fully justified in insisting on authoritarian control.


In the Middle East, Egypt is one modern state exhibiting many characteristics of authoritarianism. Authoritarianism seems natural both to Egypt's leaders and citizens. Going back thousands of years to the time of the Pharaohs, Egypt has been led by exalted rulers far removed from the masses. Even in the twentieth century, the Egyptian political system presents the leader as a father figure who guides, disciplines, and rewards. The Egyptian president is the center of a network of power and decision making. The rank and power of other people within the system are determined by their proximity to the president. Some Egyptian presidents cultivated a cult of personality. Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970), who ruled from 1952 until 1970, was known as "Father Gamal," "Destroyer of Imperialism," and "Hero of Heroes." Less charismatic, Anwar Sadat (1918–1981), president from 1972 until 1981, encouraged the use of titles such as "Hero of the Crossing," and "Hero of Peace."

The great authority of Egypt's chief executive is facilitated by the low level of political awareness on the part of the rural masses known as fellahs. More than 50 percent of the nation's people live in self– contained peasant villages. Concerned primarily about local issues, these people often knew little of national politics. While government must be careful not to offend the fellah population, the peasants have minimal direct impact on policy.

Rather than competitive elections, the coup d'état and presidential appointment have served as the way to assume power in Egypt. The leadership team controlling Egypt throughout the last half of the twentieth century has had close links the group that came to power through a military coup in 1952. The 1952 coup was not a popular revolution, but the work of a small military clique acting "on behalf of the nation." These leaders saw discipline, not democratic participation, as the best way to advance Egypt. To them, economic development and national power have been far more important than popular political participation.

Modern Egyptian presidents run the government as a general would run an army. The president initiates all major legislation, conducts foreign policy (Sadat negotiated the Camp David Accords in complete secrecy), runs the army, and issues decrees that have the authority of law. The president can call a public referendum to amend the constitution, can be elected to an unlimited number of six–year terms, and can invoke "emergency powers" to override the constitution in times of threat to the country. He also controls the security offices, controls the nation's dominant political party, and removes and reassigns high–level officials to prevent them from building a base of support. The Egyptian presidents do listen to the opinions of close advisors and they consider the debates of the National Assembly. Then, they personally make decisions that the bureaucracy and the military are required to implement. Under Hosni Mubarak (1928– ), the group of advisors has been expanded to include more than senior government and military figures. Newspaper editors, business leaders, university and religious leaders, heads of chambers of commerce are among the people with whom he consults regularly. This move suggests that authoritarianism, unlike totalitarianism, can build a foundation upon which democracy eventually could stand.

In Egypt's authoritarian climate, opposition parties are fragmented and extremely weak. At times, Egyptian presidents have banned or severely controlled the parties. In general, parties are used by the president to mobilize support; they are not primarily intended to debate, challenge, articulate interests, or present viable candidates for election. The National Democratic Party, the government party, controls about 75 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. Because no parties are allowed to form on the basis of class, region, or religion, Islamic parties are prohibited. Such parties would pose the greatest threat to the authoritarian dominance of the ruling party.


In Latin America, Brazil is but one of many countries that have been governed by authoritarian regimes. Like Egypt, Brazil has an authoritarian history and authoritarian neighbors. Also, like Egypt, Brazil has been pursuing ambitious development and modernization goals. This environment makes it easier to consider authoritarianism as natural, normal, and practical. The largest and most powerful nation in Latin America in area, population, and gross national income, Brazil was ruled by authoritarian leaders from its inception as a nation until 1985 when a military junta handed power back to elected civilian officials.

Brazil began its existence as an autocracy. First colonized by Portugal, the country was dominated by Europeans who had no intention of encouraging democracy. Unlike North American settlers, who believed in limited government, the importance of the individual, and capitalism, Portuguese and Spanish settlers looked to military strongmen—caudillos—as the people best suited to direct social, economic, and political affairs. From 1807, Brazil was governed as a monarchy until that form of government was toppled by a military coup in 1889. Although military leaders periodically turned over government to popularly elected presidents, such leaders ruled in an autocratic fashion. Furthermore, the army was quick to step in anytime it felt the country was becoming unstable. Over the years, the chief goal of the Brazil's authoritarian leaders has been to maintain order. A second important goal has been economic development and modernization. Liberty and equality were not regarded as essential. Maintaining order and encouraging economic progress are tasks that Brazil's governing elite has not often been willing to entrust to the uncertainties and instabilities of democracy. Since the 1920s, this ruling elite has been composed of the middle class business people and progressive military officers. These two groups believed they needed to band together to impose reform and modernization on their nation. They believed they were acting on behalf of the people and in opposition to conservative elements in Brazil that stood in the way of progress.

The presidency of Getulio Vargas (1883–1954) is one example of authoritarian rule in Brazil. Installed after the military seized power in order to prevent a civil war sparked by rival politicians, Vargas ruled from 1930 until 1945. Although he actually stood for election in 1933, he refused to leave office at the end of his term in 1937. Suspending the constitution, he governed as a benevolent, but fascist dictator. As an authoritarian ruler he banned political parties, he curtailed freedom of the press, and he organized society into representative groups that supposedly spoke for the people. Thus, instead of participating in politics through democratic institutions that they established or joined freely, business people, landowners, workers, and bureaucrats communicated with government through organizational leaders selected by the president of the country. Vargas did not, however, use his powers only in regressive ways. He pushed for labor reforms including the recognition of labor unions, minimum wages, and a limited work week. He also supported land reform and the nationalization of natural resources. In addition, he greatly expanded the public school system. These are measures the more conservative elements of society, including the church and wealthy land owners, had opposed.

Vargas' administration was followed by nearly 20 years of democracy. But, even that democracy was established by military decree after army generals organized a coup in 1945. Then, in 1964, the military again engineered a coup after becoming disgusted with the corruption and ineffective economic policies of popularly elected presidents. Now, instead of using the façade of a civilian president, either elected or appointed, the military ruled Brazil themselves. During their tenure, the Brazilian military government stressed economic growth and stability. Rather than attempting to manage the economy directly, they appointed civilian technocrats. In order to stimulate industrialization, they secured large foreign loans and attracted significant amounts of foreign investment. Under the guidance of the military and their economic experts, Brazil became a major exporter of primary products such as soybeans, iron ore, and copper. Brazil also produced manufactured goods, mainly for third world markets. The sale of automobiles, airplanes, small arms, and construction (for example building dams in Iraq and Angola) all contributed to Brazil's economic miracle. Brazil's economy grew at a rate of about 10 percent per year until the mid–1970s. But, the miracle came at the expense of workers and the poor whose salaries were controlled and whose public services were curtailed. Any real criticism of official economic policies was suppressed. Placing restrictions on the press, running roughshod over human rights, and eliminating political opponents on both the right and the left, Brazil's military government prevented open opposition to the technocrats' economic programs.

In the end, however, the Brazilian military leaders lost faith in authoritarian rule. Gradually, they turned away from the use of torture, opened the door for competing political parties, and allowed the press, labor unions, and the church to criticize government policies. By the mid–1970s, the military junta permitted local elections. But, it was an economic crisis in the mid–1980s that brought an even greater political shift. In the 1980s, the high price of oil on world markets and the $100 billion debt the country incurred in order to invest in economic modernization placed an unacceptable strain on Brazil's economy. The economic strain resulted in an enormous increase in resentment toward the military leaders. Increasingly they decided they would be better off without the burdens of governing. Consequently, in 1985, the military allowed country–wide elections and Brazil returned to democracy.


Although by the end of the twentieth century, there were no defenders of totalitarianism, a number of advocates for authoritarianism remained. In the Middle East and Asia—notably China— authoritarian leaders claimed the destabilizing side effects of modernization required the steady hand of powerful authoritarian government. Many authoritarian leaders wanted to introduce economic liberalization and at the same time shield their societies from the political turmoil they feared would accompany rapid economic and social transition. Democracy, they argued, was not up to that task. In fact, in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, many policy makers and political theorists in the United States supported that perspective. Somewhat ironically, development experts in democratic America regarded autocratic models, for example Brazil's military regime, as successes. Development theorists held that the key to meaningful development was the implementation of bold economic, educational, and social reforms and the use of a strong authoritarian governments to control any dissent from people who did not benefit from the "improvements." Some Americans suggested that democracy was too weak a political system to achieve real progress in the modern world. Consequently, both in Vietnam and in Central America, the United States government promoted economic and social development at the same time it supported strongmen dictators. That policy was repeated elsewhere in Africa and Asia.

As the twenty–first century began, however, there was a growing consensus around the world that, in the long run, authoritarianism was unworkable. The main problem with authoritarianism was that by not allowing informational feedback through the democratic process, the system was unable to correct mistakes. Also, authoritarianism, especially if applied to the economic realm was simply too complicated. For decades the Soviet Union had attempted to manage the entire economy through central planning offices located in Moscow. Although central planning promised efficiencies and a more rational allocation of national resources, in the end it proved ineffective and unworkable. The Chinese communists came to the same realization. Thus, by the 1990s, both China and Russia had moved away from centralized control of the economy.

By the year 2000, it was evident that efforts to bring economic progress come into conflict with attempts to exert authoritarian control over civil society. In the modern world, openness is essential for economic development. The Internet, faxes, satellite TV, cell phones, and international travel that are required to remain competitive in the economic realm make it impossible for vibrant economies to close out the world and control thought. Modern governments have discovered that it is impossible to contain popular opinion and dissent unless they force their people to live in a completely insular fashion. Cambodia under Pol Pot, North Korea under Kim Sung II, and Afganistan under the Taliban chose that path with disastrous economic consequences. The result is poverty and eventual political collapse.

Because of the interconnected nature of the modern world, especially in the economic domain, the pattern has been that totalitarian or theocratic governments move gradually away from the excesses of centralized control to a milder form of authoritarianism mixed with democracy. In the Soviet Union, the KGB actually promoted reform and openness because intelligence experts understood the outside world and realized that the Soviet Union would be left behind economically and technologically if their system remained overly autocratic.

George Orwell

While many twentieth–century professors and government experts have challenged the practicality of non–democratic systems, the best known and most influential modern critic of authoritarianism and totalitarianism was neither a political scientist nor a policy maker. That person was a socialist novelist who took the pen name George Orwell. Orwell (1903– 1950) did more than anyone else in the twentieth century to shape popular notions about the dehumanizing effects of overly controlling government systems. In his novels Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949), Orwell painted a vividly grim picture of totalitarian regimes. Stalin's Soviet Union was the obvious target of both books, but Orwell was also concerned that milder forms of government, even Britain's, could become oppressive while presenting a front of benevolence.

Born in India, where his father worked for the British colonial administration, Orwell returned to England for his secondary education. He did not attend university, but instead spent time working for the colonial police in India and living with the poor in London and Paris. A socialist, his goal was to learn about the plight of the underprivileged and to develop his skills as a writer. In 1936, he went to Spain to fight on the side of the socialists against the dictator Francisco Franco. Back in England, he worked as an editor and writer until he died of TB in 1950.

1984 describes a dreary totalitarian society. The year is 1984, far in the future from when Orwell wrote. The place is England, now called Airstrip One, part of vast country named Oceania (England, North America, South Africa, and Australia). Two other huge countries, both totalitarian as well, rule the rest of the world. At all times, one of the countries, although never the same one, is Oceania's ally, the other its mortal enemy. The book's main character, Winston Smith, is a writer in the Ministry of Truth. Winston's job is to rewrite records such as old newspaper articles so that they conform to whatever the government says is the truth. In Oceania, the thought and actions of party members are molded and closely monitored by the state. In every room, a TV screen spews forth a constant barrage of propaganda while a hidden camera spies on an individual's every activity. As in the Soviet Union, where pictures of Stalin were ubiquitous, portraits of Big Brother were ever in view. The goal of government was to make every person believe that Big Brother loved and cared for them and to believe, in turn, that they loved Big Brother.

Orwell's portrayal of Oceania bore all the traits of twentieth century totalitarianism. Thought control (either through peaceful propaganda or the violence of the Thought Police), purges, forced confessions, spying, torture, mass rallies, and compulsory citizen activities were all designed to shape the hearts and minds of an unthinking population. Doublespeak, a language that called forced labor "joycamps" and labeled the War Department, the Ministry of Love, twisted falsehood into truth. If Big Brother said two plus two equaled five, people were obligated to accept that as fact. An external enemy also served to unify the people in support of Big Brother. The constant struggle against an enemy enabled government to justify the country's low standard of living and tight economic rationing imposed by the authorities. Mandatory Two Minute Hate drills and a more formal Hate Week against Oceania's foes were used by government to divert people's attention away from the dismal realities of their own life.

While Winston Smith was a low–level party member, as in the Soviet Union the great majority of Oceania's population were not party members. The "proles"—the term was an obvious reference to the proletariat or working class—lived in oppressive poverty. Although Big Brother did not attempt to monitor their thought or actions with the same degree of intensity as for party members, the proles had no time or energy to think about politics. Work, easy sex, and mindless entertainment filled their days.

George Orwell's 1984 has been read by millions of readers around the world. Even people with little knowledge of political theory or government policies came to regard totalitarianism as dismal, cruel, aggressive, and hypocritical. Although claiming to govern for the good of the people, totalitarian leaders were exposed by Orwell as self–serving predators. In Orwell's view, not only did they insist on political obedience, they extracted the very humanity of their victims. Clearly, George Orwell intended to condemn Soviet, and also German, totalitarianism. Nevertheless, the fact that Airstrip One is England indicates that he was issuing a prophetic warning to the people of his own country. Totalitarianism could be in their future. And, they could be brainwashed to love it.

Hannah Arendt

On the academic front, the German political thinker Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) did the most to define totalitarianism and to claim it as an entirely novel and evil political phenomenon. Focusing on Nazism in Germany and Communism in Russia, she claimed that Hitler and Stalin had introduced an entirely new type of political system that previously had not existed. Totalitarianism, she argued, developed out of the breakdown of social structures and ideals that had characterized Europe in the nineteenth century. With the chaos of World War I, the economic crisis following the war, the migration of millions of people, and the decline of stable political systems, the citizens of Europe were plunged into hopelessness and deep anxiety. They felt profoundly lonely, rootless, and superfluous. To them, the world seemed both meaningless and inexplicable. Furthermore, the people had no faith that their leaders would be able to do anything to remedy the tragic emptiness that so dominated their lives.

According to Arendt, totalitarianism offered a suicidal solution for the grim void of post–World War I Europe. People such as Hitler and Stalin provided people with direction and meaning. Both Hitler and Stalin embodied evil in a form so radical and absolute that they introduced political forms unlike anything the world had ever experienced before. The evil of Nazism, Arendt argued, surpassed the evil of any previous regime. This evil was more than just an exaggerated self–interest, greed, lust for power, cowardice, or resentment. The evil of Nazi totalitarianism was an unmitigated passion for destruction (nihilism). First, the Nazi's believed they needed to completely destroy the existing world in order to create the new world to which they aspired. Second, by exercising the power of destruction, the Nazis demonstrated their own unlimited power. Why, Arendt, asked did the Nazis need the death camps and why did they engineer the Holocaust? Certainly not for any rational political or military advantage. From a practical point of view, the death camps were a liability. But, as a symbol of complete power and domination, the death camps served the Nazi's aims. The death camps allowed the Nazis to treat others as sub–human and to inflict infinite revenge on other human life. By their despicable acts, the Nazis were attempting to escape their own feelings of smallness and impotence. Ordinary people responded in a supportive way because they too wanted to escape their weakness.

Because both the Nazi leaders and the followers lost their ability to see the humanity in those they classified as sub human, they were able to extinguish those people without any feelings of remorse or discomfort. Just as the vast power difference between humans and insects allows most people to kill such creatures with no thought, so too the Nazis were able to kill undesirables in a routine, meticulous, and unemotional manner. While the Nazis exterminated people such as Jews and Gypsies, they effectively destroyed the humanity and individuality of all the German people. For Arendt, one of the ways to prevent totalitarianism was to encourage free citizens to participate in politics. Citizens who took an active role in the political realm would not allow a totalitarian regime to control their minds, emotions, and conscience. They would not lose themselves to a state trying to obliterate the humanity of all its subjects.


Hannah Arendt

Born in Germany in 1906, Hannah Arendt was a brilliant philosophy student. Arendt received her doctorate from the University of Heidelberg in 1928. Among her teachers was Karl Jaspers, a scholar who focused much of his work on the issue of human freedom. A Jew, Arendt left Germany in 1933, the year Hitler came to power. Arendt lived in France until 1941 when she moved to the United States where she would be out of the reach of Nazi authorities. In America she taught at the University of Chicago and the New School for Social Research in New York. Deeply troubled by what she saw in Russia and Germany, Arendt devoted her life to teaching and writing about the topics of totalitarianism and freedom. In her view, totalitarianism was a new and evil reality that had not existed before the twentieth century. Hannah Arendt's most famous book was The Origins of Totalitarianism first published in 1951. Arendt died in 1975.

Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski

Although many social scientist are critical of the highly moralistic tone of Arendt's writing, they are virtually unanimous in their belief that totalitarianism is immoral and that authoritarianism is impractical in today's complex and interconnected world. A classic definition of totalitarianism and authoritarianism, a definition contained in book written in the 1950s, still expresses the antipathy most contemporary scholars feel toward non–democratic systems. In their frequently cited book Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (1956), Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski attempted to provide a more neutral and less ideologically loaded definition of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. However, they label the cluster of characteristics that identify totalitarian regimes as a "syndrome." Thus, like Arendt, they say that non– democratic governments are diseased or aberrant political phenomenon.

According to Friedrich and Brzezinski, totalitarian regimes exhibit the following: first, an official ideology that every citizen is expected to accept in their outward behavior and inner belief. Second, a single mass party led by a single individual. Leaders of this party serve as exalted and unchallenged interpreters of the truth. Third, a highly organized police system that uses modern technology to terrorize and spy on the population. Fourth, centralized supervision, control, and censorship of the mass media. Fifth, a ban on private citizens possessing weapons or explosives. Sixth, central control of the economy through highly structured regulation or direct ownership. Explicitly and implicitly, the Friedrich and Brzezinski list condemned totalitarianism as a violation of fundamental human rights. Humans, they suggested, were not creatures to be manipulated or tools to be use in the pursuit of some larger end. Individual human being counted more than any cause, no matter how noble.

Looking at the Friedrich and Brzezinski list, one could argue that non–totalitarian governments, especially in times of crisis, exhibit some of the same characteristics. Such thinking merely highlights the fact that totalitarian regimes are simply harsh exaggerations of authoritarian systems. While authoritarian systems allow some space for independent private and even civic thought and activity, totalitarian governments do all they can to consume and control the totality of their citizen's existence. While authoritarian leaders may want to restructure society and change cultural values, totalitarians rulers aspire to impose transformations so sweeping that the old is completely eradicated. While authoritarian governments tolerate no open disagreement, totalitarian regimes require active obedience and acclimation. The Friedrich and Brzezinski list also suggests that even democratic systems could move in that direction. That was George Orwell's fear.


  • Look at the Divine Right Kings or the Enlightened Despots of early modern Europe. Did the solid administrative, legal, and bureaucratic structures put in place by such monarchs provided a needed foundation for the subsequent emergence of democracy?
  • Why are most of the contemporary world's functioning monarchies in the Middle East?
  • Look at the connection between religion and authoritarianism or totalitarianism. Does religion limit a ruler's authority and power (because there is a higher power) or does religion strengthen a leader's power (because now the leader can claim to speak for God)?



Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism, San Diego, New York, and London: Harcourt Brace Jonvanovich, 1951.

Aristotle, Politics, in Ebenstein, William and Alan Ebenstein. Great Political Thinkers, Plato to the Present, New York: Harcourt College Publishers, 2000.

Ebenstein, William and Alan Ebenstein. Great Political Thinkers, Plato to the Present, New York: Harcourt College Publishers, 2000.

Friedrich, Carl J., and Zbigniew K. Brzezinski. Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1956.

Magstadt, Thomas M. Nations and Governments, Comparative Politics in Regional Perspective, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Nietzsche, Friedrich, Thus Spake Zarathustra, in Ebenstein, William and Alan Ebenstein. Great Political Thinkers, Plato to the Present, New York: Harcourt College Publishers, 2000.

Orwell, George. 1984, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949.

Plato. The Republic, in Ebenstein, William and Alan Ebenstein. Great Political Thinkers, Plato to the Present, New York: Harcourt College Publishers, 2000.

Further Readings

Aburish, Said K. The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud, New York: Saint Martin's, 1995. An Arab's critical evaluation of how the Saudi authoritarian regime serves its own needs rather than those of the people.

Bakhash, Shaul. The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution, San Bernardino, California: Borgo Press, 1991. Detailed account of the internal political maneuvering that went on inside the Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran.

De Klerk, F.W. The Last Trek — A New Beginning, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. First–hand account by South Africa's last authoritarian President. De Klerk oversaw his nation's transition to democracy.

Deutscher, Isaac. Stalin: A Political Biography, New York: Vintage Books, 1960. Older, but classic study of Stalin that describes him more as an autocratic Russian nationalist than as an expansionist and revolutionary communist.

Hunter, Wendy. Eroding Military Influence in Brazil: Politicians against Solider, Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. Study of the tension between democracy and authoritarianism in Brazil. Hunter suggests that the desire of politicians for money and power helped the erode the power of the military.

Springborg, Robert. Mubarak's Egypt: Fragmentation of the Political Order, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1989. Discussion of the difficulties of maintaining control in Egypt.


Communism, Fascism, Nationalism


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Totalitarianism is a concept rooted in the horror of modern war, revolution, terror, genocide, and, since 1945, the threat of nuclear annihilation. It is also among the most versatile and contested terms in the political lexicon. At its simplest, the idea suggests that despite Fascist/Nazi "particularism" (the centrality of the nation or the master race) and Bolshevist "universalism" (the aspiration toward a classless, international brotherhood of man), both regimes were basically alikewhich, as Carl Friedrich noted early on, is not to claim that they were wholly alike. Extreme in its denial of liberty, totalitarianism conveys a regime type with truly radical ambitions. Its chief objectives are to rule unimpeded by legal restraint, civic pluralism, and party competition, and to refashion human nature itself.

Coined in May 1923 by Giovanni Amendola, totalitarianism began life as a condemnation of Fascist ambitions to monopolize power and to transform Italian society through the creation of a new political religion. The word then quickly mutated to encompass National Socialism, especially after the Nazi "seizure of power" in 1933. By the mid-1930s, invidious comparisons among the German, Italian, and Soviet systems as totalitarian were becoming common; they increased considerably once the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed in 1939. Meanwhile, recipients of the totalitarian label took different views of it. Although, in the mid 1920s, Benito Mussolini and his ideologues briefly embraced the expression as an apt characterization of their revolutionary élan, Nazi politicians and propagandists saw a disconcerting implication. Granted, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, during the early 1930s, had a penchant for cognate expressions such as "total state"; so, too, did sympathetic writers such as Ernst Forsthoff and Carl Schmitt. At around the same time, Ernst Jünger was busy expounding his idea of "total mobilization." But "totalitarianism" was treated with greater circumspection. The Volksgemeinschaft (national community), Nazi spokesmen insisted, was unique: the vehicle of an inimitable German destiny based on a national, racially based, rebirth. Totalitarianism suggested that German aspirations were a mere variant on a theme; worse, a theme that current usage extrapolated to the Bolshevist foe.

Once Fascism and Nazism were defeated, a new global conflict soon emerged, and with it a reinvigorated role for "totalitarianism." Anxiety over Soviet ambitions in Europe prompted Churchill's use of the term twice in his "Iron Curtain" speech on March 5, 1946, at Fulton, Missouri. A year later, the Truman Doctrine entrenched the word in American foreign policy and security jargon. Then the Cold War took its course, punctuated by the Berlin Airlift, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Sino-Soviet treaties, the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Hungarian, Czech, and Polish uprisings. At each turn, the language of totalitarianism received a further boost, though there were significant national variations in the credence it received. In the United States, the language of totalitarianism, despite dissenting voices, had wide appeal across the political spectrum. In France, by contrast, it had practically none until the decay of existentialism and the appearance of Solzhenitsyn's work on the Soviet Gulag triggered a major attitudinal shift. Postwar Germany represents an intermediate case: officially sanctioned by the Federal Republic, totalitarianism became the focus of major intellectual controversy from the late 1960s onward.

Even periods of engagement with the Soviet Unionnotably détente and the Ronald ReaganMikhail Gorbachev dialoguestimulated debate over totalitarianism. Some commentators optimistically announced its softening and demise, while others deplored collaborating with the totalitarian enemy. During the Soviet Union's last decade, Western academics and foreign policy experts argued over the distinction between two kinds of regime. Authoritarian regimes (sometimes also called "traditional" or "autocratic") typified the apartheid state in South Africa, Iran under the Pahlavis, and the South American military juntas. Though hierarchical, vicious, and unjust, they had limited goals, and they left large parts of society (religious practice, family, and work relations) untouched. Conceivably, they were capable of reformist evolution toward representative government. In contrast, totalitarian regimes were depicted as utopian, inherently expansionist, and indelibly tyrannical, an evil empire. Treating them as normal states was folly. Meanwhile, in central Europe, embattled oppositionists during the late 1970s and 1980s were coining terms that suggested novel permutations on the classical model. "Posttotalitarian" regimes, suggested Václav Havel in The Power of the Powerless (1978), retained a brutal apparatus of coercion but were no longer able to enthuse their populations with faith. Resistance required puncturing a hollow, mechanically recited ideology by everyday acts of noncompliance and by "living in truth" (that is, by speaking and acting honestly).

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, twenty-first-century Islamism and the "war against terror" continued to keep the idea of totalitarianism salient. Yet if all these experiences are inseparable from the discourse of totalitarianism, its longevity has also been promoted by three rather different factors. One factor is the term's elasticity. It can be applied either to institutions or to ideologies, to governments or to movements, or to some combination of all of these. Additionally, it can be invoked to delineate an extant reality or a desire, myth, aim, tendency, experiment, and project. Total and its cognates (totality, total war, etc.) are commonplaces of the current age, so it is unsurprising that totalitarianism is also one. A second factor, more important still, is the role played by journalists, novelists, poets, playwrights, and filmmakers in publicly disseminating the images of totalitarian domination. Their role was to ensure that totalitarianism never became a recondite, academic term but one central to the vernacular of educated people. Totalitarianism was a buzzword of political journalism before it received, in the late 1940s and 1950s, searching treatment by social science and political theory. Its first literary masterpiece was Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon (1941) with its sinister portrayal of the Communist confessional. Many great works on a similar theme followed, making totalitarianism vivid and unforgettable to readers electrified by the pathos and terror such writing evoked.

Still, no novelist is more responsible for the notion that totalitarianism penetrates the entire human personality, dominating it from within, than George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair, 19031950). That view appeared nothing less than prescient when stories later circulated in the 1950s about "brainwashing" of captured prisoners of war (POWs) during the Korean War. Orwell deserves a special place in any historical audit of totalitarianism for another reason. Nineteen Eighty Four (1949) introduced terms"Thought Police," "Big Brother," "Doublethink"that have since entered the English language as unobtrusively as those of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. So long as his work appears in the secondary school and university curricula, totalitarianism as an idea will survive. In a similar way, no one is more responsible for informing a general public about the Soviet Gulag than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (b. 1918). To his extraordinary novels, memoirs, and what he called "experiments in literary investigation," one may add the work of Osip Mandelstam, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Souvarine, and Boris Pasternak. Each bequeathed a searing portrait of the depravity and recklessness of "totalitarian" systems.

Finally, totalitarianism's endurance as a term owes much to its capacity for provocative and counterintuitive application. It was not only heterodox Marxists such as Herbert Marcuse who indicted modern pluralist regimes for a systemically imbecilic, one-dimensional, and totalitarian mass culture. Liberals such as Friedrich Hayek also warned in 1944 of totalitarian developmental tendenciesparticularly the fetish with state planning and interventionthat were paving the "road to serfdom." Many critics of the New Deal took a similar view; Herbert Hoover notoriously called Franklin Delano Roosevelt a "totalitarian liberal." Also disquieting was the sociologist Erving Goffman's contention in Asylums (1961) that Nazi death camps were broadly comparable to widely accepted "total institutions" such as the asylum, prison, barracks, and orphanage. The implication was that totalitarianism was not an exotic species of regime "over there" but a legitimized institution or trend deeply embedded within modernity as a whole.

Origins, Trajectory, Causation

Theorists of totalitarianism take very different views of its origins. For some, Hannah Arendt foremost among them, totalitarianism is radically new, an unprecedented development that attended Europe's economic, political, and moral ruination during and after World War I. From this perspective, attempts to locate a long-established lineage of totalitarianism are fundamentally mistaken. So, too, are analogies of totalitarianism with Caesarist, Bonapartist, and other dictatorial regimes. Totalitarianism is conjunctural or unique, not an extreme version of something previously known. The point of using the term is precisely to show the novelty of the regime type and the crisis it denotes. Other writers, conversely, believe that totalitarianism has deeper roots. Hence it might be said that totalitarianism is a perverted outgrowth of the Martin Luthersanctioned authoritarian state, or an exaggerated legacy of tsarist intolerance. Or it might be agued that "totalitarian dictatorship" is ancient, prefigured in the Spartan state or the Roman imperial regime of Diocletian (r. 284305). That was the judgment of Franz Neumann, who in addition claimed that National Socialism had revived the "fascist dictatorship" methods of the fourteenth-century Roman demagogue Cola di Rienzo. Nor, according to still others, should totalitarianism be understood as an exclusively occidental institution. Karl Wittfogel in Oriental Despotism (1957) found "total power" in the hydraulic governance of ancient China. And while sinologists have major reservations about describing Maoism as totalitarian, victims such as Harry Wu, imprisoned for nineteen years in the Chinese Laogai, exhibit no such compunction. Totalitarianism has also been located in Africa, for instance, in the rule of Shaka Zulu, while the Soviet Union itself was often depicted as a hybrid entity, more "Asian" than Western.

The search for the roots of totalitarian ideas, as distinct from institutions, has generated yet another fertile literature. Karl Popper found protototalitarianism in Plato. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno spied a totalitarian dialectic evolving out of an "Enlightenment" fixation on mathematical formalization, instrumental reason, and the love of the machine. J. L. Talmon discovered a creedal, "totalitarian democracy" arising from one tendency among eighteenth-century philosophies. Enunciated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778), Morelly (fl. mid-eighteenth century), and Gabriel Bonnot de Mably (17091785); radicalized by the French Revolution, especially during its Jacobin phase; reincarnated in the Babouvist conspiracy, "totalitarian democracy" amounted to a leftist "political messianism" that preached the arrival of a new order: homogenous, egalitarian, yet supervised by a virtuous revolutionary vanguard able to divine the general will. This reminds one of Alexis de Tocqueville's observation, in The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution (1856), that the Revolution's "ideal" was nothing less than "a regeneration of the whole human race. It created an atmosphere of missionary fervor and, indeed, assumed all the aspects of a religious revival." That "strange religion," he continued, "has, like Islam, overrun the whole world with its apostles, militants, and martyrs" (p. 44).

Tocqueville's reference to Islam was deliberately discomfiting. It reminded his audience of what a modern "enlightened" European revolution shared with a declining Oriental civilization. Less than a century later, Bertrand Russell augmented that idea when he suggested that Bolshevism was like Islam, while John Maynard Keynes, in lapidary mood, remarked that "Lenin [was] a Mahomet, and not a Bismarck." Yet since Al Qaeda's suicide attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, a growing number of commentators have contended that it is modern Islam, or at least the current of Islamism associated with the legacy of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudi Wahhabite movement, with which previous European revolutions are best compared. On this account, twenty-first century Islamist (and perhaps Ba athi) ideology, practice, and organization bear many disquieting parallels with National Socialism and Bolshevism.

Modern Islamism is a radical movement in which pluralism is anathema, and in which politics itself is derided as a sphere of venality. To that extent it mirrors Islamic doctrine more generally since the suras of the Koran make no categorical or principled distinction between public and private spheres: every duty emanates from God alone. The state has no independent authority. Among Islamist militants, the substitute for political institutions is, above all, the fellow-feeling and camaraderie bestowed by membership of a secret society and the existential tests that confront the believer. "Muslim totalitarianism" reconfigures the capillary, decentralized organization of its Western precursors. Islamist militants combine the conspiratorial anti-Semitism of the Nazis (for whom they entertain a nostalgic admiration) with the pan-territorial ambitions of Bolshevik universalism. Islamist language is also replete with millenarian images of struggle, merciless destruction, and "sacred terror." Bent on purifying the world of Zionism, liberalism, feminism, and Crusader (U.S.) hegemony, Islamist ideology articulates a mausoleum culture of submission, nihilism, suicidal martyrdom for the cause, and mythological appeal to a world about to be reborn. That archaic demands for the reestablishment of the hallowed caliphate are pursued with all the means modern technology affords is consistent with the "reactionary modernism" of earlier totalitarian movements.

Such totalitarian parallels or intellectual lineages do not satisfy those who insist that family resemblance is no substitute for attributable historical causation. And since the early 1950s it has frequently been acknowledged that theorists of totalitarianism are much more adept at constructing morphologies than they are at establishing the precise relationship of totalitarian regimes to one another. François Furet argued this point eloquently, claiming too that Arendt's hodgepodge reconstruction of totalitarianism's career had failed to explain the "very different origins" of fascism and communism. Like Ernst Nolte, Furet was convinced that a "historico-genetic" approach to these movements was required to supplement the standard typological one. Like Nolte, as well, he believed that Bolshevism and National Socialism were historically linked, still a taboo contention among many leftists. Yet Furet disagreed with Nolte's contention that, essentially, National Socialism was a reaction to Bolshevism, a defensive if evil posture that gained credibility owing to the disproportionate influence of Jews in Marxist and socialist parties. According to Furet, the genealogical relationship between Bolshevism and National Socialism was not principally cause and effect. Each had its own endogenous history. The two movements' affinity derived instead from the fact that both of them (and Italian Fascism tooMussolini was once a revolutionary socialist) emerged from the same "cultural" atmosphere: a late-nineteenth-, early-twentieth-century milieu suffused with "hatred of the bourgeois world." Deep and bitter loathing of that world was well established before World War I and thus also before the October Revolution. Equally, German anti-Semitism did not require Jews to be major spokesmen and leaders of the left to be an object of detestation. Anti-Semitism was already firmly established before Bolshevism erupted, because Jews were seen as a vanguard of democracy itself. Bourgeois democracy was the common enemy of totalitarian movements: the "communist sees it as the breeding ground of fascism, while the fascist sees it as the antechamber of Bolshevism (Furet and Nolte, p. 33)."

Totalitarian Characteristics

A conventional way of describing totalitarianism is to present a list of characteristics common to Italian Fascism, German National Socialism, and Soviet Bolshevism. (Other regimes may also be includednotably, Chinese Communism under the rule of Mao, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), and Pol Pot's "Democratic Cambodia.") But how capacious should that portmanteau be? In Totalitarianism, published in 1954, Carl Friedrich itemized five elements, which, in a subsequent collaboration with Zbigniew Brzezinski, he increased to six. Yet, before that, Arthur M. Hill concocted fifteen points that Norman Davies, in Europe: A History (1997), expanded to seventeen. Recurrently mentioned features of totalitarianism include the following:

  • A revolutionary, exclusive, and apocalyptical ideology that announces the destruction of the old ordercorrupt and compromisedand the birth of a radically new, purified, and muscular age. Antiliberal, anticonservative, and antipluralist, totalitarian ideology creates myths, catechisms, cults, festivities, and rituals designed to commemorate the destiny of the elect.
  • A cellular, fluid, and hydralike political party structure that, particularly before the conquest of state power, devolves authority to local militants. As it gains recruits and fellow believers, the party takes on a mass character with a charismatic leader at its head claiming omniscience and infallibility, and demanding the unconditional personal devotion of the people.
  • A regime in which offices are deliberately duplicated and personnel are continually shuffled, so as to ensure chronic collegial rivalry and dependence on the adjudication of the one true leader. To the extent that legal instruments function at all, they do so as a legitimizing sham rather than a real brake on the untrammeled use of executive power. Indeed, the very notion of "the executive" is redundant since it presupposes a separation of powers anathema to a totalitarian regime.
  • Economic-bureaucratic collectivism (capitalist or state socialist) intended to orchestrate productive forces to the regime's predatory, autarchic, and militaristic goals.
  • Monopolistic control of the mass media, "professional" organizations, and public art, and with it the formulation of a cliché-ridden language whose formulaic utterances are designed to impede ambivalence, nuance, and complexity.
  • A culture of martial solidarity in which violence and danger (of the trenches, the street fight, etc.) are ritually celebrated in party uniforms, metaphors ("storm troopers," "labor brigades"), and modes of address ("comrade"). Youth are a special audience for such a culture, but are expected to admire and emulate the "old fighters" of the revolution.
  • The pursuit and elimination not simply of active oppositionists but, and more distinctively, "objective enemies" or "enemies of the people"that is, categories of people deemed guilty of wickedness in virtue of some ascribed quality such as race or descent. Crimes against the state need not have actually been committed by the person accused of them. Hence the "hereditary principle" in North Korea where punishment is extended to three generations (the original miscreants, their children, and their grandchildren). Under totalitarianism, it is what people are, more than what they do that marks them for punishment. As Stéphane Courtois observes, "the techniques of segregation and exclusion employed in a 'class-based' totalitarianism closely resemble the techniques of 'race-based' totalitarianism" (p. 16). Soviet and Chinese Marxism may have claimed to represent humanity as a whole, but only a humanity divested first of millionsclasses, categorieswho were beyond the pale of Marxist doctrine. Its universalism was thus always, like National Socialism, an exclusive affair.
  • Continual mobilization of the whole population through war, ceaseless campaigns, "struggles," or purges. Moreover, and notwithstanding ideological obeisance to ineluctable laws of history and race, totalitarian domination insists on febrile activity. The mercurial will of the leader and the people as a whole must constantly be exercised to produce miracles, combat backsliding, and accelerate the direction of the world toward its cataclysmic culmination.
  • The pervasive use of terror to isolate, intimidate, and regiment all whom the regime deems menacing. Charged with this task are the secret police rather than the army, which typically possesses significantly fewer powers and less status than it does under a nontotalitarian dictatorship or "authoritarian" regime.
  • The laboratory of totalitarian domination is the concentration camp. The experiment it conducts aims to discover the conditions under which human subjects become fully docile and pliable. In addition, a slave labor system exists side by side with a racial and/or class-oriented policy of genocide. In Nazi Germany, Jews were the principal objective enemyover six million were murderedbut there were others such as Slavs and Gypsies. In the Soviet Union, key targets of annihilation or mass deportation were Cossacks (from 1920), kulaks (especially between 19301932), Crimean Tartars (1943), Chechens, and Ingush (both in 1944). The Great Purge of 19371938 is estimated to have killed close to 690,000 people, but this is dwarfed by the systematically induced famine in Ukraine in 19321933, thought to have killed around six million. Pol Pot's Cambodian Communist Party had a similar penchant for mass extermination, as did the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Mao: the Chairman boasted that 700,000 perished in the 19501952 campaign against "counterrevolutionaries." The CCP targeted landlords and intellectuals, and through a policy of accelerated modernization created the famine of the Great Leap Forward that claimed around 30 million victims.

It should be noted that there is widespread disagreement among commentators about whether Italian Fascism is properly classified as a totalitarian system. Hannah Arendt and George Kennan thought otherwise. Mussolini's regime, on such accounts, is best comprehended as an extreme form of dictatorship or, according to Juan Linz, a species of "authoritarianism." Though preeminent, it shared power with other collective actors such as the monarchy, the military, and the Catholic Church in a way that was utterly alien to National Socialism and Bolshevism. Official anti-Semitism was less intense and less vigorously policed. And Mussolini was domestically ousted in a way that indicates a far more precarious grip on power than either Hitler or Stalin evinced.

The Coherence of Totalitarianism

Since the 1950s, the majority of academic commentators who favor the term have acknowledged that totalitarianism was never fully successful in its quest for complete domination. (Critics of the concept of totalitarianism are considered in the final section of this entry.) This was the key intuition of David Riesman in his correspondence with Hannah Arendt (he read in manuscript the last part of The Origins of Totalitarianism [1951]). It was also a theme of the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System and its literary offspringnotably, Alex Inkeles and Raymond Bauer's The Soviet Citizen: Daily Life in a Totalitarian Society (1961). To that extent, as Daniel Bell remarked, totalitarianism was always a concept in search of reality. Unlike political philosophers, moreover, social scientists tend to see totalitarianism as an ideal-type, a one-sided model constructed for research purposes, which also suggests that totalitarianism in the flesh can be of greater or lesser virulence. Studies of inmate camp "culture" lend further credence to the oxymoronic concession that totalitarianism had its limits. Tsvetan Todorov and Anne Applebaum show that even under conditions expressly designed to expunge all traces of solidarity, acts of "ordinary virtue" persisted. Hence there were always people who maintained their dignity (by keeping as clean as they could), who cared for others (sharing food, tending the sick), and who exercised the life of the mind (by reciting poetry, playing music, or committing to memory camp life so as to allow the possibility of its being fully documented later). Michel Mazor's luminous, yet astonishingly objective, autobiographical account of the Warsaw Ghetto (The Vanished City, 1955) expresses a similar message of hope. Survivors of death camps and Gulags have typically conveyed a different message, however. Crushed by a merciless regime determined to exterminate not only an individual's life, but the concept of humanity itself, inmates endured a vertiginous "gray zone" of collaboration and compromise.

Any list of totalitarian features, such as the one itemized above, raises an obvious question: What gives the typology its coherence? Or, to put the matter differently, is there some property that furnishes the whole with its master logic or integral animation? Two frequently rehearsed, and related, answers are discernible. The first takes up the pronounced totalitarian attachment to the will, dynamism, and movement. As early as 1925, Amendola was struck by the "wild radicalism" and "possessed will" of the Italian Fascists. Mussolini himself spoke proudly of "la nostra feroce volonta totalitaria" ("our fierce totalitarian will"). And the virtue of "fanaticism," "will," and "the movement" for the nation's well-being was tirelessly rehearsed by Hitler and Goebbels, as it was later by Mao. Yundong (movement, campaign) was among the most salient ideas of the Chairman, who specifically emphasized the importance of chaos. Sinologist Michael Schoenhals observes that in its original Maoist sense (since disavowed by Deng Xiaoping and his successors, who prefer to speak of an incremental fazhan or "development"), yundong entails the deliberate "shattering of all regular standards," the suspension of all stabilizing rules, norms, and standards that may apply in ordinary times. The goals of this regularized suspensionthere were sixteen major national "movements" between 1950 and 1976were to orchestrate hatred against the Party's latest enemy (often previously hallowed figures within the Party), to arouse superhuman efforts in support of economic targets, and incessantly to combat "revisionism" and the emergence of new elites. The Soviet Union during the heyday of Stalinism exhibited similar characteristics, as Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago explains:

The point is, Larissa Fyodorovna, that there are limits to everything. In all this time something definite should have been achieved. But it turns out that those who inspired the revolution aren't at home in anything except change and turmoil: that's their native element; they aren't happy with anything that's less than on a world scale. For them, transitional periods, worlds in the making, are an end in themselves.

The centrality of flux and activism to the idea of totalitarianism is integral to classical academic accounts of the phenomenon. It prompted Franz Neumann, in Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism (1942), to call the Third Reich a "movement state," and Ernst Fraenkel to describe it as a "dual state" in which the "normal" functions of the legal and administrative apparatus were constantly undermined by Party "prerogative"Fraenkel's term for the maelstrom of feverish Nazi initiatives that unleashed bedlam without respite. Similarly, Sigmund Neumann entitled his comparative study of the Nazi, Fascist, and Bolshevist hurricanes Permanent Revolution: The Total State in a World at War (1942).

Still, the most influential account along these lines was that proffered by Hannah Arendt. Totalitarianism, she argued, was a mode of domination characterized far less by centralized coordination than by unceasing turbulence. To confuse totalitarianism with dictatorship or to see it as a type of dictatorship (or even state) was to miss a fundamental distinction. Once consolidated, dictatorshipsfor instance, military juntastypically become routinized and predictable, domesticating and detaching themselves from the movements that were their original social basis. Totalitarian regimes, in contrast, rise to power on movements that, once installed in office, employ motion as their constitutive "principle" of domination. The volcanic will of the leader whose next decision could nullify all previous ones; rule by decree rather than law; the continual manufacture of new enemies; police institutions, Gulags, and death camps whose only purposes are to transform citizens into foes and transform individuals into an identical species and then into corpses: All these features characterize a regime-type of eternal transgression. "Terror," remarks Arendt, is itself "the realization of the law of movement; its chief aim is to make it possible for the force of nature or of history to race freely through mankind, unhindered by any spontaneous human action" (p. 465). Indeed, it is the grotesque destructiveness and futility of totalitarian systems, their attack on every norm that might anchor human life in something stable, that makes them so resistant to methodical analysis.

A second thread that runs through discussions about totalitarianism is the pagan ardor that Fascism, National Socialism, and Bolshevism were capable of generating. Once more, Amendola was a pioneer in this line of interpretation, calling Fascism a "war of religion" that demands total devotion. More sympathetically, the philosopher Giovanni Gentile, ghost-writer of Mussolini's "The Doctrine of Fascism" (1932), stressed the new movement's penetrative spirit. Of special significance was the myth of rebirth: the creation of a new nation or a world without classes, and the formation of a selfless New Man or Woman, untainted by decrepit habits. Fascism, Mussolini avowed, was the author of the Third Italian Civilization (the previous two being the Roman Empire and the Renaissance). Nazi ideology was also replete with notions of national redemption, the spirit of a rejuvenated people, and even the divine mission of the SS. World War I, and the community of front-line soldiers (Frontsgemeinschaft ) or "trenchocracy" it witnessed, was typically identified as the crucible of this steely resurrection. Coup d'état strategizing, the battles to defeat the Whites during the civil war, and the perennial trumpeting of the class struggle, promoted a similar mentality among the Bolshevik leaders.

Commentators who stress the mythological component of totalitarianismwriting of "ersatz religions," "political religions," the "myth of the state," the "sacralization of politics," and "palingenesis"include Raymond Aron, Albert Camus, Ernst Cassirer, Norman Cohn, Waldemar Gurian, Jacob Talmon, and Eric Voegelin. Worthy successors are Michael Burleigh, Roger Griffin, and Emilio Gentile. Gentile, while desisting from the view that political religion is the most important element of totalitarianism, nonetheless affirms that it is "the most dangerous and deadly weapon" in its ideological arsenal (p. 49). Civic religions, such as those found in the United States and France, are different from political religions because they celebrate a republican concept of freedom and law. Church and state are separated, but each has its legitimate sphere of activity. In contrast, the sacralization of politics under totalitarian rule, together with its liturgies, festivals, and cults, is marked by the deification of the leader; idolatrous worship of the state, which arrogates to itself the exclusive right to determine Good and Evil; marginalization or destruction of traditional religion; orgiastic mass rallies; immortalization of the party fallen; the appeal to sacrifice; and the cult of death. Interpretations of totalitarianism that emphasize political religion have one notable implication. They suggest that totalitarianism is best understood not as a singular event, or a unique set of institutions, but as a recurrent possibility of the modern world shorn of its customary restraints.

Criticisms and Responses

At the risk of simplification, criticisms of the concept of totalitarianism may be divided into two main, though overlapping, types: moral-political and scientific. The first type of criticism takes different forms but often hinges on the argument that totalitarianism was employed during the Cold War as an ideological weapon of a particularly Manichaean, self-serving, and self-righteous kind. Starkly dividing the world into liberal democratic white-hats and communist black-hats, Abbott Gleason remarks, conveniently omitted the extent to which Western governments supported military and other regimes with bleak and bloody human-rights records. Describing military juntas as authoritarian rather than totalitarian made no difference to the people they murdered. A twist on this criticism, found among American disciples of the Frankfurt School, is that liberal democracy itself is not in principle the antithesis of totalitarianism, because both are disastrous permutations of "Enlightenment modernity." A rather different objection is that totalitarianism is an opportune way for former collaborators of Nazism, Bolshevism, and so forth, to dodge responsibility for their actions. Its exculpatory value turns on the claim that "resistance was impossible" or that "we were all brainwashed." Yet the charge of double standards is also made by those, such as Martin Malia, who vehemently defend the pertinence of totalitarianism as a label. Disavowing that term all too often means denying the evil symmetry of Nazism and Bolshevism. By recapitulating earlier leftist dogmasthat genuine antifascism required support for the Soviet Union, that comparisons with Nazi Germany are unacceptable because they play into the hands of U.S. imperialismsuch denials can become an expedient means of rescuing Marxism from its real, sanguinary history. In a similar way, loose talk of the "dialectic of Enlightenment" is less a challenge to common sense than it is a meretricious affront to its very existence. In any case, the term totalitarianism preceded the Cold War by more than two decades.

Scientific objections to totalitarianism as an idea typically focus on a diverse set of issues. Critics argue that the notion is mistaken because:

  • Totalitarianism is a fictive Orwellian dystopia instead of an empirical reality. The Soviet system, for instance, "did not exercise effective 'thought control,' let alone ensure 'thought conversion,' but in fact depoliticized the citizenry to an astonishing degree" (Hobsbawm, p. 394). Official Marxism was unspeakably dull and irrelevant to the lives of most people.
  • Totalitarianism is a misnomer because in neither the Soviet Union nor Nazi Germany was terror total. Instead it was always focused on particular groups. In the Soviet Union, terror formed a radius in which danger was greatest the nearer one was to power and purge. In Germany, once active domestic opposition to the Nazis was defeated, and Jews were deported to the camps, most citizens existed at peace with a regime they deemed legitimate. The majority would never have considered themselves as terrorized by it. Distinguishing between seasoned adversaries and pesky grumblers, the undermanned Gestapo rarely intruded into normal life. Denunciation by citizens of one another was a more effective means of garnering information than the prying eye of the security state.
  • The theory of totalitarianism fails to specify a mechanism to explain the internal transition of the Soviet Union and China to nontotalitarian phases. Indeed, the very evolution of such regimes toward humdrum routinization flies in the face of the idea that totalitarianism is above all a movement that cannot be pacified, and is the antithesis of all forms of political normality.
  • Totalitarian regimes are too heterogeneous for them to be classified under a single rubric. Under Mao, for instance, the People's Liberation Army was a more powerful organ of control than the security forces, while Mao's prestige was periodically checked, and occasionally deflated, by other CCP leaders. The contrasts between Hitler and Joseph Stalin are, Ian Kershaw suggests, even more telling. While Stalin was a committee man who ascended to rule within a recently established system, Hitler was a rank outsider, strongly averse to bureaucratic work of all kinds. Similarly, while Stalin was an interventionist micromanager, Hitler had little to do with the actual functioning of government. People did not so much directly follow his detailed orders, of which there were few, as second guess what he wanted them to achieve, thereby "working toward the Führer." Then again, Hitler was a spectacular and mesmerizing orator; Stalin's words were leaden by comparison. Mass party purges characterize one system, but not the other (the liquidation of the Röhm faction in 1934 was a singular event). And finally the systems over which the men prevailed had a different impetus. Stalin's goal of rapid modernization was, some say, a humanly understandable, if cruelly executed, objective; that the end justifies the means is a standard belief of all tyrants. Conversely, the mass slaughter of the Jews and others was, for Hitler, an end in itself, unquestionably irrational if not insane.

All these objections are themselves the targets of rebuttal. Modernization at the expense of the nation it is intended to benefit seems hardly rational. Its victims rarely thought so. And did not Hitler, too, think in terms of instrumental means and ends? The goal was a purified Aryan civilization, regenerate, martial, manly, and beautiful. To achieve it, putative nonhumans had to vanish from the face of the earth. Moreover, the transitions that Soviet and Chinese Communism witnessed by no means nullify the totalitarian model. They only appear to do so, Victor Zaslavsky argues, because of failure to distinguish between "system building" and "system maintenance" phases; the latter represents a more stable development, but one still mired in the militarization of society and mass surveillance. Where previous thinkers have erred is in identifying the "system building" stage with totalitarianism tout court. Finally, critics of the total-itarian model often object to it on spurious grounds. For to argue that totalitarianism was never systematic in its rule, never fully synchronized, but rather "chaotic," "wasteful," and "anarchic" is hardly a criticism of those such as Arendt who made such attributes pivotal to their theory. In good measure, her emphasis on movement is vindicated even by those who employ a different terminology. Examples include "regimes of continuous revolution" (enunciated by Michael Mann) and "cumulative radicalization" (preferred by Hans Mommsen).


As a vehicle for condemnation as well as analysis, totalitarianism is likely to remain a vibrant idea long into the twenty-first century. Its extension to radical Islam is already evident. And as a potent reminder of the terrible deeds of which humans are capable, the concept has few conceptual rivals. Principled disagreements as well as polemics about its value continue to mark its career. Present dangers, and anxious debates about how they should best be characterized, suggest that the age of totalitarianism is not yet over.

See also Authoritarianism ; Communism ; Fascism ; Nationalism .


Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: A History. New York: Doubleday, 2003.

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. 1951. Reprint, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1968.

Rich, acute, idiosyncratic, puzzling, seminal. Baehr, Peter, and Melvin Richter, eds. Dictatorship in History and Theory: Bonapartism, Caesarism, and Totalitarianism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Berman, Paul. Terror and Liberalism. New York: Norton, 2003. On "Muslim totalitarianism."

Burleigh, Michael. The Third Reich: A New History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.

Canovan, Margaret. Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Unsurpassed analysis of Arendt's multilayered theory of totalitarianism.

Chandler, David. Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot's Secret Prison. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Courtois, Stéphane, et al. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. 1997. Reprint, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. Foreword by Martin Malia. Contains chapters devoted to the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, North Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Central and Southeastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa.

Friedrich, Carl J., ed. Totalitarianism: Proceedings of a Conference Held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, March 1953. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954. Contributors include Karl W. Deutsch, Erik H. Erikson, Waldemar Gurian, Alex Inkeles, George F. Kennan, Harold D. Lasswell, and Bertram D. Wolfe.

Friedrich, Carl J., and Zbigniew K. Brzezinski. Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy. 2nd rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965. Lucid and influential.

Furet, François, and Ernst Nolte. Fascism and Communism. Translated by Katherine Golsan. 1998. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001. A model of civilized debate by two of the twentieth century's foremost historians.

Gentile, Emilio. "The Sacralization of Politics: Definitions, Interpretations, and Reflections on the Question of Secular Religion and Totalitarianism." Translated by Robert Mallett. Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions 1, no. 1 (2000): 1855.

Gleason, Abbott. Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Excellent overall account which, despite its title, actually starts in the 1920s. My references to Giovanni Amendola come from this source.

Griffin, Roger, ed. Fascism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Ably edited collection that stresses Fascism's ideological core in "palingenesis"the myth of rebirth.

Hobsbawm, Eric. Age of Extremes. New York: Pantheon, 1994.

Kershaw, Ian, and Moshe Lewin, eds. Stalinism and Nazism: Dictatorships in Comparison. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Includes essays by Michael Mann and Hans Mommsen.

Kirkpatrick, Jeane. Dictatorships and Double Standards: Rationalism and Reason in Politics. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

Lifka, Thomas E. The Concept "Totalitarianism" and American Foreign Policy, 19331949. New York: Garland, 1988.

Lifton, Robert Jay. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. New York: Norton, 1961. Rich empirical study of Chinese Communist "brainwashing."

Linz, Juan J. Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes. Boulder, Colo.: Rienner, 2000. A rigorous analysis that distinguishes among a variety of authoritarian regimes.

Menze, Ernest A., ed. Totalitarianism Reconsidered. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat, 1981. Contains two essays by Karl Dietrich Bracher.

Nathan, Andrew. China's Transition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Schapiro, Leonard. Totalitarianism. New York: Praeger, 1972.

Schoenhals, Michael, ed. China's Cultural Revolution, 19661969: Not a Dinner Party. Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe, 1996.

Talmon, Jacob L. The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. 1952. Reprint, Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1985. A classic within the genre concerned with "political religion."

Todorov, Tsvetan. Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps. Translated by Arthur Denner and Abigail Pollak. New York: Owl, 1997.

Zaslavsky, Victor. "The Katyn Massacre: 'Class Cleansing' as Totalitarian Praxis." Translated by Joseph Cardinale. Telos 114 (1999): 67107. Robust critique of the Frankfurt School's "dialectic of Enlightenment" approach; argues for two phases of totalitarian development.

Peter Baehr


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Problems of definition

Totalitarian systems

Origins and causes


Totalitarianism is a twentieth-century term that did not come into general or academic use until the late 1930s because the political phenomena meant to be described by it had not attracted specific attention until then. The Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (1930-1935), for instance, has no entry entitled “totalitarianism.” The first citation of the word “totalitarian” by the Oxford English Dictionary (Supplement) of 1933 comes from the Contemporary Review of April 1928: “Fascism renounces its function as a totalitarian regime, and enters the electoral field on equal footing with its adversaries.” The Times (London) followed suit in November 1929: “A reaction against parliamentarism … in favor of a ’totalitarian’ or unitary state, whether Fascist or Communist.” These first two occurrences recorded in the dictionary point to the association, still often made today, between totalitarianism, fascism and communism, and rule by a single party.

Problems of definition

The novelty of the term lends support to those students of the subject who regard totalitarianism as a unique creation of the twentieth century, without historical precedent. Friedrich, for example, defines totalitarianism as a “syndrome” of six mutually related clusters of characteristic features: a single mass party, usually led by a charismatic leader; an official ideology; party control of the economy, mass communications, and means of effective armed combat; and a system of terroristic police control. Several of these features evidently could not be developed without the instruments provided by the modern technology of communications, transportation, and armaments, for example, “a technologically conditioned near-complete monopoly of control … of all means of effective mass communication, such as the press, radio, motion pictures, and so on” (American Academy of Arts and Sciences 1954, p. 53). A similar monopoly of all means of effective armed combat and terroristic police control depend upon the same advanced technology. Even the official ideology of the single mass party could hardly focus on “chiliastic claims as to the ’perfect’ final society of mankind” unless modern technology had let the perfection of human society appear to be feasible. From this point of view, the crucial difference between earlier forms of absolutism, tyranny, or dictatorship and contemporary totalitarianism is found in the totality of control achieved by the latter, previously unattainable, at least for large societies, without the instruments of modern technology.

This definitional approach to totalitarianism as a historically unique system of government creates certain difficulties for systematic political analysis. If each of the interrelated traits must be present before a system can be labeled totalitarian, how can one classify political systems along a spectrum running from one extreme, the ideal type of totalitarianism, to the other, the ideal type of its opposite, perhaps constitutional democracy? And what could one say about developing countries that have not even begun industrialization but whose governments are accused of the widespread use of coercion and repression? A number of postcolonial regimes in the developing areas have been subject to such charges. Although they show some traits of the totalitarian syndrome, they lack the technological base allegedly required to facilitate total control. In fact, such regimes often claim to be using aspects of the syndrome to further technological modernization. If they are totalitarian, it is not because they are industrialized but because they want to achieve industrialization.

Among recent studies, Barrington Moore’s avoids the difficulties of the definitional approach in the search for totalitarian elements in preindustrial societies (1958, chapter 2). Emphasizing the coercive or repressive aspects of totalitarianism and the tendency, suggested by the root “total,” to control as many human activities as possible, Moore distinguishes between centralized and decentralized, or “popular,” totalitarianism. Among preindustrial examples of centralized totalitarianism, he cites the regime of the Zulu chief Shaka, the Ch’in dynasty in China, and the Maurya dynasty in India. Calvin’s Geneva had elements of both centralized and popular totalitarianism. In both situations, bureaucracy, espionage and denunciation, terror, and thought control are employed in the pursuit of a single goal, such as conquest, defense against the enemy, or the prevention or promotion of social change (Moore 1958, p. 75).

John H. Kautsky in part adapts these suggestions to the analysis of totalitarianism and the future of politics in the developing countries (1962, chapter 4). He conceives of totalitarianism “merely as a set of methods used, under certain circumstances, by a group or several groups in control of a government in order to retain that control” (1962, p. 91). In developing countries, he distinguishes between the totalitarianism of the aristocracy and its allies and that of the intellectuals.

Totalitarian systems

The most promising way to gain an understanding of totalitarianism is to compare those systems to which the term is usually applied both to one another and to their nontotalitarian opposites.

Nazi Germany under Hitler and the Soviet Union under Stalin are usually regarded as prototypal totalitarian systems, to which Communist China has been added more recently. Although the term itself was first applied by Mussolini to his fascist state, his rule of Italy—in retrospect, and in comparison with its National Socialist German and Communist Russian contemporaries—is not usually described as totalitarian. Nor does the term apply to other fascist or dictatorial regimes, such as those of Horthy in Hungary, Pilsudski in Poland, Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal, and Peron in Argentina. Disagreement prevails about the proper classification of smaller member states of the Soviet bloc. Are Poland, Hungary, North Vietnam, or Cuba genuinely totalitarian on their own or merely under the direct or indirect control of the totalitarian rulers of the Soviet Union or China? The futility of this question again points to the inherent difficulties of the definitional approach.

Communists themselves naturally reject the label of totalitarianism, which scholars, publicists, and propagandists of the West have tried to pin on them. But the communists do not return the charge by calling their opponents “totalitarians.” Rather, they call them “capitalists,” “imperialists,” or “colonialists” and call their systems of government “minority dictatorships of the bourgeoisie.” Since the Marxists conceive of the first postrevolutionary stage toward socialism and communism as the dictatorship of the proletariat, the communists evidently object not to dictatorship itself but to minority dictatorship, which they regard as reactionary or nonprogressive. They remain silent on the issue of totality of control. In this they resemble some non-Marxists who consider the trend toward totality of political control a common feature of all industrial societies, regardless of ideological persuasion.

Distinctive features. The most distinctive features of the three major political systems of the twentieth century that have generally been considered totalitarian may be listed, in descending order of distinctiveness: (1) commitment to a single, positively formulated substantive goal— such as industrialization, racial mastery, or proletarian unity—and a concomitant lack of commitment to maintenance of procedural stability; (2) unpredictability and uncertainty, resulting from the condition of procedural flux, under which yesterday’s hero is today’s traitor and today’s loyal behavior becomes tomorrow’s subversion; (3) the large-scale use of organized violence by military and paramilitary forces and uniformed and secret police; parallel efforts (4) to bring into line or suppress organizations and associations not geared to the substantive aim of the regime and (5) to enforce universal participation in public organizations dedicated to the single goal; and (6) universalization of the goal toward the remaking of all mankind in the image of the totalitarian system itself.

Operational commitment to an ideology is omitted from the list, because this also characterizes systems not generally classified as totalitarian. Many democratic socialists, for example, seem as firmly committed to their ideology as Nazis or Stalinists to theirs. The difference lies not in the commitment to but in the content of the ideologies. All three of these ideologies changed over time, although by different processes. Similarly, adherents of many organized religions also demonstrate ideological commitment. Moreover, in the cold war repeated efforts have been made, particularly in the United States, to fashion an ideology for the “free world” with which to combat the Soviet ideology. The aim of these efforts is to marshal popular commitment to the values incorporated in the new ideology, but it is not to further the establishment of totalitarianism in the West. Ideological commitment consequently does not appear to be a distinctive feature of totalitarianism.

The six apparently distinctive features will now be examined in ascending order of distinctiveness.

Universalism. Universalization of the single substantive goal of the system toward the reshaping of all mankind in its image is listed as the least distinctive aspect of prototypal totalitarianism because clearly nontotalitarian regimes have at times displayed a similar orientation. Like their occasional tendency toward ideologism, this seems related to economic, cultural, and social conditions increasingly prevalent in all modern or modernizing societies.

Woodrow Wilson’s negative and procedural goal of “making the world safe for democracy” seemed reasonable to many people of the Western world. After World War n, both the United States and the Soviet Union, and other modern industrial states, presented the more backward societies— whose elites eagerly responded—with different models of modernization. With varying degrees of success, both the Western powers and the Soviet bloc offered economic and technical aid to the developing countries to promote this transformation. Immediately after the war, both the United States and the Soviet Union worked more directly toward the goal of reforming in their own image those countries that they ruled by military occupation. In any case, the shrinkage of distances brought about by advances in the technology of communications and transport has been leading to a reduction of substantive economic, cultural, and social differences among political systems. In awareness of this, both of the great contenders in the cold war have naturally exerted themselves toward shaping the anticipated new, more or less homogenized character of all mankind in their own image rather than in their adversary’s.

Forced participation. Enforced general participation in public organizations is especially marked under totalitarianism. This would be particularly obvious if voting participation were taken as the only index, since both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany came close to enforcing almost 100 per cent participation at the polls, whereas in constitutional democracies only between 40 and 80 per cent of the electorate normally vote.

Apart from such formal practices as voting, however, the technology of communications has not only facilitated but made inevitable inclusion of the entire population in the political, or at least the “public,” process. In principle, it makes relatively little difference whether radio and television networks and the press are operated by the state and the single party, as in the Soviet Union, by private enterprise under government regulation, as in the United States, or under some mixed arrangement, as in Great Britain. In all modern societies, the tendency is toward forcing greater individual attention to public matters and eroding the sphere of privacy, although the Soviet Union has moved further in this direction than the United States, and the United States further than the United Kingdom.

Suppression of associations. The suppression of organizations not dedicated to the substantive goal of the regime manifests itself as the concomitant of the enforced political coordination (Gleich-schaltung) of associations whose existence antedates the establishment of the regime. The effort to coordinate is, in turn, an aspect of enforced participation. In constitutional systems, coordination and suppression are used mainly in crises and emergencies. In Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Communist China, they were in constant evidence—although to varying degrees depending on the persistence and relative innocuousness, in different periods, of organizations like churches. But even in the United States during the cold war, efforts have been made to enlist a wide range of organizations—from churches and charitable associations, through economic interest groups, to sports clubs—in the anticommunist struggle. Communist organizations and their fellow travelers have been subjected to legal disabilities.

In wartime, coordination and suppression are carried much further, even in constitutional democracies, which then in effect become constitutional dictatorships. In such circumstances, however, suppressed organizations are usually outlawed according to established, previously and publicly known procedures. By contrast, in Nazi Germany, for example, the suppression of private associations was achieved by a variety of procedures not previously known to the public, so that their future remained permanently unpredictable to members. This difference is meant to suggest that procedural instability, discussed below, is a more distinctive feature of totalitarianism than the suppression of private organizations.

Violence. The widespread use of organized violence still more clearly distinguishes the systems most frequently designated as totalitarian. In the eyes of the leaders, military and police violence on a large scale is made necessary, and therefore justified, by the urgency with which they pursue the goal to whose attainment the whole system is geared. Nazi extermination camps and the liquidation of the kulaks under Stalin illustrate this point. Although the violence in the first instance is directed against classes of the internal population, like Jews or remnants of the bourgeoisie, these classes are usually identified by the regime with an external enemy. In constitutional systems in peacetime, violence has not been used by governments against segments of the domestic population on a scale anywhere approaching the cited illustrations. Even in wartime, when constitutional democracies found it necessary to set up relocation camps for population groups identified by race, nationality, or sympathy with the enemy (Japanese Americans in the United States, German refugees in the United Kingdom), due process was observed to varying degrees and few acts of brutality were recorded.

Although the over-all internal use of violence is a function of totalitarian trends, this seems to be less true of the scope of police functions, which appear to be more closely connected with antecedent traditions of the polity than with the totalitarian orientation of a particular regime. Measured purely in terms of the scope of police functions, including the use of secret police and informers, France and Germany have been police states at least since the beginning of the nineteenth century, and France probably more so than Germany. But after Hitler came to power in Germany, the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo), which had previously operated as an arm of the constitutional Prussian government, became a dreaded instrument of terror because it no longer operated according to known procedures, including a system of appeals to higher public authorities. It is, therefore, the style of police functions, rather than their scope, that distinguishes totalitarian regimes.

Less distinctive of totalitarianism than the scope and style of internal violence is external violence, despite the effort to link the objects of both. In their foreign relations, totalitarian and nontotali-tarian governments use similar types of force because both work with the same technological conditions and because they have generally expected to fight each other. As in the case of Western attempts to forge an ideology, it is felt that one must “fight fire with fire.” It was the United States that first used the destructive power of the atomic bomb against Japanese cities. In the cold war, American and Soviet leaders have professed equal readiness to employ hydrogen bombs against each other, although neither has faced the possibility of nuclear war with as much equanimity as the Chinese Communists apparently have.

The contemplation or actual use of massive violence against outside enemies tends to deaden sentiments against its internal application. When millions, including one’s fellow citizens, are being slaughtered or kept in foreign prison camps during war, the liquidation or imprisonment in concentration camps of whole sectors of one’s own society loses some of its monstrousness. When the extermination of hundreds of millions or, indeed, the total end to human life as the result of a nuclear holocaust becomes a realistic possibility, and when government planners think in terms of preserving in shelters the persons most valuable for the eventual regeneration of society after such a catastrophe, the use of total internal violence can be accepted more easily than was the case perhaps even during World War n. Thus, there seems to be a clear relation between the quality and quantity of international violence and prevailing trends toward totalitarianism. Since both totalitarian and nontotalitarian systems exist in the same international environment of potential massive violence, with its ramifications for internal politics, the use of organized violence on a wide scale is listed as a feature less distinctive of totalitarianism than unpredictability resulting from procedural instability.

Unpredictability. Unpredictability and uncertainty was the rule of life for ordinary men and for both high and low members of the dominant party under Hitler and Stalin. Although Hitler never bothered to abrogate or replace the Weimar constitution, under which he came into office as chancellor, an enabling act passed by the Reichstag in March 1933 made it possible for him, under color of legality, to amend the constitution by decree to the point of its utter transformation. Hitler himself became supreme lawgiver (oberster Rechtsherr); his will was “law,” and his mind provided such constitutional provisions as Germany had under his rule. Whenever he changed his mind, he could also have changed not only the personnel but the most basic institutions of party and state. And although Stalin, in 1936, elaborately provided the Soviet Union with the constitution named after him, he never allowed it to become the framework of political processes. Stalin not only constantly changed his personnel and remade institutions but he also kept the interpretation of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism in a condition of continuous flux, controlled only by himself. Communist China’s Mao Tse-tung seems to have presided over a similar process, for example, by first promulgating and then revoking the doctrine of “letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend.”

In none of these cases was there either a regular publicly known procedure for effecting change or means by which individuals could anticipate which institutions or policies would be changed, and when. Stalin, in particular, skillfully manipulated and exploited this uncertainty. He would, for instance, appear to be moving to the ideological left, thereby enticing others to go even further in that direction through attempted imitation of the leader, and then apparently execute an extreme swing to the right, leaving his former followers ideologically exposed and ready for liquidation. The feeling of uncertainty created by such maneuvers probably contributed much more to the atmosphere of terror, which is generally associated with totalitarianism, than did the massive internal use of organized violence. Uncertainty meant, among other things, that the victims of liquidation might not know the reasons for their fate and, more important, that those who wanted to avoid liquidation in the future had no rational means for doing so. They could escape from the dilemmas of uncertainty neither by withdrawing from politics, because of enforced participation, nor by mouthing the current party line, because that would expose them to condemnation for merely mechanical commitment. Repeated executions of chiefs of the secret police can serve as a paradigm for this process. In nontotalitarian police states, by contrast, one chief of secret police often serves for several decades in that post.

Although unpredictability and uncertainty are the most distinctive features of the totalitarian characteristics discussed so far, they are also the ones most likely to be moderated, or even eliminated, in political systems that retain or develop the other totalitarian traits. And although nontotalitarian systems sometimes seem to be developing the other features discussed, even long-established totalitarian systems seem to move away from unpredictability and toward more constitutional methods. For example, the longest-lived of the prototypal regimes, the Soviet Union, has emphasized “socialist legality” in the post-Stalin period, and some students of Soviet affairs have noticed the emergence of more clearly discernible social groups— party, bureaucracy, the military, management, and others—that may be trying to stabilize relations between one another and the internal operating procedures within each. This has been explained as a result of the objective demands of efficiency in any modern industrial system. Uncertainty may bring about greater productivity out of fear of reprisals, but once a point of diminishing returns has been passed, it may actually interfere with planning for the single, substantive goal and, in general, reduce the leadership’s capacity for total control.

The single goal. Ruthless pursuit of a single, positively formulated goal is the most distinctive common denominator of totalitarianism. Nontotali-tarian systems, to the extent that they articulate their goals at all, are either committed to a plurality of goals, such as those listed in the preamble to the constitution of the United States, or concentrate on such procedural goals as the settlement of conflicts, or state their substantive goals negatively, for example, the prevention of foreign domination. Excessive preoccupation with procedural goals can lead to bureaucratic or parliamentary routinization, as when the parliamentry opposition goes through the motions of opposing every government proposal only for the sake of observing parliamentary procedures and irrespective of any actual interest in the substantive issue. This cannot lead to totalitarianism in its usual meaning.

On the other hand, the single-minded pursuit of a positive substantive goal, such as racial hegemony, the dictatorship of the proletariat, or the rapid industrialization of a backward economy, in utter disregard of all other possible goals, is characteristic of totalitarianism. All the resources of the system are ruthlessly harnessed to the attainment of the one great goal. An ideology is constructed to explain all reality with reference to this goal and to the obstacles encountered on the road toward it. Whatever is considered efficient with respect to overcoming these obstacles is done. Whatever is considered distracting from this single-mindedness of purpose is condemned and eliminated. As a result, no procedures are worked out for the resolution of disagreements. All disagreement within the system is identified as evil. Internal politics is, therefore, banned. But when unanticipated new substantive problems arise, as they inevitably do in the ever-changing modern environment, then there is a lack of adaptive procedures by means of which these problems can be tackled and disagreements about them resolved. The elite, as well as ordinary people, lack experience with or commitment to such workable procedures. For the same reason, the leadership cannot admit the achievement of its original goal, since to pursue this aim is its only raison dêtre.

Sigmund Neumann (1942) aptly described totalitarianism as “permanent revolution,” since under totalitarianism the fundamental procedures of political adaptation are in continuous flux. The most distinctive aspect of constitutional systems, by contrast, is the comparatively procedural bias of sources of authority prevailing in them and the relatively strong procedural commitment of their leaders. These leaders rise to the top more because they are identified with the rules of the political game than because they have gained fame by bringing their supporters economic, cultural, or social advancement. It follows that the constitutional democracies most susceptible to totalitarianism are those in which top leadership is based upon substantive achievement, like military glory, cultural contributions to an ethnic group, great wealth. Germany and France illustrate the latter hypothesis; Great Britain and the United States, the former.

Origins and causes

Explanations of the rise of totalitarianism vary according to conceptions of the phenomenon. Those who focus on centralized, total control point to the complexities of modern societies and, more particularly, of modern economies. They often link socialism with totalitarianism and, for example, underline the inclusion of socialism in the title of Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ party. They also emphasize the totalitarian potential of the “creeping socialism” allegedly hiding behind the welfare policies of contemporary nontotalitarian states with mixed economies. Although this explanation may be consistent with assertions of the totalitarian distinctiveness of economic centralization and bureaucratization, it fails to account for the quite untotalitarian character of more or less socialist welfare regimes, such as those of Great Britain under the Labour party, India under the Congress party, Denmark and Sweden, and of various new African countries with governments committed to “African socialism.”

A second type of explanation relates totalitarianism to the rise of the masses to political participation and to the great military and economic catastrophes of the twentieth century. These disasters eroded whatever commitment to older values the masses may have had and, along with this, also weakened private organizations, thereby “atomizing” the masses and making them easy prey for totalitarian manipulators. Adherents of this theory usually emphasize the features of enforced participation and suppression of private organizations. The totalitarian distinctiveness of these features seems to be backed up by these explanations, but they do not account for the failure of similarly afflicted mass societies like the United States to develop the more distinctive and more vicious features of totalitarianism.

A third category of explanation traces the origin of totalitarianism in the realm of political philosophy, for example, as the logical conclusion of doctrines of majority rule or as the final development of Rousseau’s concept of the general will. Because Marxism belongs to both these lines of descent and the prototypal totalitarian ideologies have related themselves, either positively or negatively, to Marxism, a heavy burden of blame is placed upon Marxism. But such explanations exaggerate the independent influence of philosophies and ignore the ideological diversity of totalitarianism and, indeed, of the modern world. Why did neither the English-speaking countries, as heirs to the modern advocates of liberal majoritarianism, nor the French-speaking countries, as heirs to Rousseau, become totalitarian? Or, if all are believed to be moving in that direction, is not the concept of totalitarianism devoid of the minimal specificity of meaning required of useful tools of comparison and analysis?

A fourth theory relates the origins of totalitarianism to anti-Semitism and to racial imperialism, especially in South Africa (Arendt 1951). It emphasizes the utter unpredictability of the Nazi and Soviet systems, stresses the role of secrecy and the secret police, and suggests that the dictators are not motivated by utilitarian pursuit of their stated goals but by a desire to eliminate the capacity to distinguish fact from fiction and to persuade mankind of the superfluousness of human beings. This interpretation, by assuming that the dictators intended to bring about the effects ascribed to their rule, overlooks the extent to which they themselves may have been victims of the uncertainty they created. This explanation of the origins of totalitarianism also fails to account for the rise of totalitarianism in some countries, say, Germany and Russia, and its absence in others, say, Great Britain, France, and Italy.

These unsatisfactory explanations suggest that the greatest problem for future research on the topic of totalitarianism is the utility of the concept itself. The two systems that have so far provided subject matter for major case studies of totalitarianism—Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union —were strikingly dissimilar in many respects considered important by most scholars who use the concept. In many other important respects, each of them resembled nontotalitarian systems. And this critique ignores Communist China, whose inclusion would go still further in showing the undiscriminating nature of the concept “totalitarianism.” The word, which first gained popular currency through anti-Nazi propaganda during World War Ii, later became an anti-Communist slogan in the cold war. Its utility for propaganda purposes has tended to obscure whatever utility it may have had for systematic analysis and comparison of political entities.

As the social sciences develop more discriminating concepts of comparison, as the developing political systems discover that the invention of new methods of modernization may obviate their need for slavishly copying more coercive methods from models whose experience is no longer relevant, and as, hopefully, the more glaring differences between the major parties to the cold war begin to wither away, use of the term “totalitarianism” may also become less frequent. If these expectations are borne out, then a third encyclopedia of the social sciences, like the first one, will not list “totalitarianism.”

Herbert J. Spiro

[See also Communism; Dictatorship; Fascism; Ideology; National Socialism. Other relevant material may be found in Democracy; Government; and Personality, Political.]


American Academy of Arts and Sciences 1954 Totalitarianism. Edited with an introduction by Carl J. Friedrich. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. -” Proceedings of a conference held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, March 1953.

Arendt, Hannah (1951) 1958 The Origins of Totalitarianism. 2d enl. ed. New York: Meridian.

Arendt, Hannah 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking.

Brzezinski, Zbigniew K. 1962 Deviation Control: A Study in the Dynamics of Doctrinal Conflict. American Political Science Review 56:5-22.

Cobban, Alfred 1939 Dictatorship: Its History and Theory. New York: Scribner.

Friedrich, Carl J.; and Brzezinski, Zbigniew K. 1956 Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Kautsky, John H. 1962 Political Change in Underdeveloped Countries: Nationalism and Communism. New York: Wiley.

Moore, Barrington jr. 1954 Terror and ProgressUSSR: Some Sources of Change and Stability in the Soviet Dictatorship. Harvard University, Russian Research Center Studies, No. 12. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Moore, Barrington jr. 1958 Political Power and Social Theory: Six Studies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Neumann, Franz L. (1942) 1963 Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933-1944. 2d ed. New York: Octagon Books.

Neumann, Fkanz L. 1957 Notes on the Theory of Dictatorship. Pages 233-256 in Franz L. Neumann, The Democratic and the Authoritarian State: Essays in Political and Legal Theory. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Neumann, Sigmund 1942 Permanent Revolution: The Total State in a World at War. New York: Harper.

Nolte, Ernst (1965) 1966 Three Faces of Fascism: Action Frangaise, Italian Fascism, National Socialism. New York: Holt. -” First published in German.

Rossiter, Clinton L. 1948 Constitutional Dictatorship: Crisis Government in the Modern Democracies. Princeton Univ. Press.

Spiro, Herbert J. 1962 Comparative Politics: A Comprehensive Approach. American Political Science Review 56:577-595.

Talmon, J. L. 1952 The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy. Boston: Beacon.

Utis, O. 1952 Generalissimo Stalin and the Art of Government. Foreign Affairs 30:197-214.


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Totalitarianism was the term employed by the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini (1883–1945), who took power in 1922, to describe the new type of regime he hoped to, and by 1927 partially did, establish in Italy. Although Mussolini did not invent the term, he brought it into common usage, and generations of political leaders, intellectuals, and scholars have continued to employ it, not in the positive sense that Mussolini intended, but as a description of a political system fundamentally at odds with basic human values.

Paradoxically, Italian fascism never did become truly totalitarian in the sense that the term itself indicates. That is, it was never able to establish total control over the entire range of social, economic, and political institutions that regulate society. Indeed, it is questionable that any totalitarian system has ever completely succeeded in this regard, and one must turn to such totalitarian novels as George Orwell's 1984 (1949) to find something approaching such total forms of control. Two regimes, however, did come very close to an "Orwellian" perfection: Germany between 1933 and 1945 under Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and the Soviet Union between 1924 and 1953 under Joseph Stalin (1879–1953). Both have remained the primary examples of totalitarian rule in practice and provided the key source of inspiration for not only novelistic treatments of totalitarianism, but also its scholarly treatment.

What initially was so striking about these regimes was the genuine horror they created. In Hitler's Germany, six million Jews were annihilated in death camps, as well as gypsies (Roma), homosexuals, and others deemed unfit by a regime intent on initiating rule by the "racially pure Aryan type" (a mythical racial category of non-Jewish Caucasians). Under Stalin, millions of kulaks or rich peasants and others were killed—the estimates vary widely—in an effort to collectivize agriculture (to turn private farm plots into collectively run enterprises) as a first step toward full communism . Clearly, something completely irrational and terrifying had occurred that, were it to be prevented in the future, needed to be understood.

Such understanding was particularly important to the Western European and Anglo-American countries. They had evolved not only democratic forms of government, but also a panoply of constitutionally protected rights that supposedly precluded such totalitarian forms of control. These liberal democracies (democracies with constitutionally protected rights) were products of the Enlightenment (the eighteenth-century emphasis on science and rationality), and the expectation was that liberty and democracy would be the wave of the future. The rise of the Hitlerian and Stalinist totalitarian systems challenged in the profoundest way this optimistic belief in political progress.

Shortly after World War II (1939–1945), therefore, increasing numbers of scholars began to analyze these two systems in an attempt to explain and understand the nature of totalitarianism. Although their excessive violence was obvious to everyone, their inner workings were not. Most important was the issue of their uniqueness as forms of government. Were they simply extreme examples of tyranny or some equivalent category such as despotism, autocracy , or dictatorship, or were they something entirely new? While there never was complete agreement on these issues, it was generally conceded that totalitarian regimes could not be compared to simple forms of tyranny, and that at least some of their key elements could be specified.

characteristics of regimes

Perhaps the most well-known analysis of totalitarian regimes, at least by political scientists, is that of Carl J. Friedrich and Zbigniew K. Brzezinski who in their Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (1956) listed six components of totalitarian systems that make them unique. Others, both before and after publication of this work, suggested other factors that should be considered. Although complete agreement on the defining characteristics of totalitarianism has never existed, the following would receive general if not universal consensus.

An official and all-embracing ideology. An ideology in the simplest terms is simply a more or less coherent set of social, economic, and political beliefs. In this sense, all peoples may be said to possess an ideology. Totalitarian ideologies, however, are official belief systems promulgated by the ruling elite and requiring public adherence by their subjects. Moreover, they are "utopian" worldviews specifying some final goal or end for all humankind that legitimizes the absolute authority of the regime. In Hitler's Germany the goal was the creation of a "master race"; in Stalin's Soviet Union it was the creation of a communist society.

A one-party system. Liberal democracies of the Western European and Anglo-American type are premised on the idea of political competition between two or more political parties. Citizens in these systems, therefore, have a choice in electing those who will govern them. Totalitarian systems, however, are characterized by the existence of one-party rule legitimized by appeal to the official ideology. In Germany the National Socialist German Workers Party—the Nazis—asserted its sole right to rule as the only party capable of creating a world Aryan order. In the Soviet Union the Communist Party asserted an equivalent right on the basis of its capacity to create a world communist system. In reality, one-party rule in these systems became the rule of one man, Hitler or Stalin, and it appears that totalitarian systems seem inevitably to become the rule of one or a small elite within the party.

george orwell's 1984

English novelist and essayist George Orwell (pseudonym of Eric Blair, 1903–1950) created a stir in 1949 when he published his satirical novel 1984, which explored the dangers of mass control of individual's lives through state-enforced political conformity. The book describes a future world dominated by totalitarian states that were perpetually at war.

The book's protagonist is an Englishman named Winston Smith who lives under the rule of a totalitarian government that stays in power by maintaining a permanent state of war, misrepresenting the truth and rewriting history to suit its current interests. Smith acts against the government and is arrested by the "Thought Police." Once in prison he is tortured for his transgressions against the party leader, "Big Brother," and is forced to take part in a re-education program aimed at wiping out his will to think independently.

Many scholars wonder whether the book was intended as a warning based on the recent European past or was expressing Orwell's pessimism about the consequences of the Cold War, then in its early stages. Orwell, a democratic socialist, had witnessed the rise of totalitarian dictatorships in Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union, and as a volunteer fighter for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) had personally experienced the Communist takeover and undermining of the anti-Fascist resistance in that conflict.

Many of the terms and phrases Orwell used in the book have become common terminology in modern politics, such as "newspeak," "doublethink," and "Big Brother is watching you."

The imposition of terror. For many, although not all analysts of totalitarianism, terror is perhaps its most notable, unquestionably its most frightening, characteristic. Certainly, it was fundamental to the existence of the two model regimes just presented; in both Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union terror was pervasive. Although the use of threats, coercion, and violence against opponents of a regime is unfortunately not uncommon in many types of political systems, this alone does not constitute terror. Terror is the pervasive threat of violence against the entire population including the ruling group itself. This is accomplished by the creation of a secret police and a corresponding network of informers that permeates the entire society. Since no one can be certain that they are not being watched, and since even innocent statements might be construed as antiregime, fear is pervasive. Terror thus insures that any opposition to the official ideology and one-party rule is precluded.

Mass mobilization of the population. All nondemocratic or authoritarian regimes attempt to suppress political opposition, but they do not require for their existence positive support. In totalitarian systems, however, such support is crucial, so much so that without it they could not exist. For this reason, all are expected to affirm the official ideology that legitimizes one-party rule or, more accurately, the authority of the ruling elite. Hence, in a variety of ways—through control of schools, cultural groups, labor unions and other such organizations, and a pervasive system of propaganda—the entire population is mobilized to this end.

Lack of genuine pluralism. Liberal democracies are based on a pluralistic society, that is, one composed of a variety of social, economic, political, and cultural groups. These provide that diversity of opinions and interests without which the franchise and constitutional protection of rights would be meaningless. Totalitarian systems, by contrast, are mass (socially undifferentiated) societies. Groups and organizations do exist, but they are not independent of state and party control. Labor unions, for example, do not articulate the interests of the workers, but are expected to encourage the workers to sacrifice for the good of society as determined by the party elite. Such a socially undifferentiated society is created by, and crucial to, the imposition of ideology through terror and mass mobilization.

It should be added that the one certain factor in the existence of totalitarian systems is modern technology, particularly the technology of modern mass communications. Without this, the kinds of totalistic control they impose would be impossible. For this reason, totalitarianism must be understood as a twentieth-century phenomenon, as a product of modern industrial society. To equate totalitarian systems with earlier forms of autocracy such as the absolute monarchies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, therefore, is to engage in a fundamental misreading of history. Apart from the fact that the political infrastructure of these earlier systems was entirely different than that which has supported totalitarian regimes (e.g., mass-based political parties did not yet exist), the technology required for total forms of control was entirely absent.

Whether or not a regime can be characterized as totalitarian depends on the extent to which these key characteristics exist and interact. Scholars of totalitarianism differ on this issue. Perhaps the most famous—and controversial—view is that of Hannah Arendt who in her The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) stressed the link between ideology and terror as the defining characteristic of totalitarianism, at least as it applied to the Hitlerian and Stalinist regimes. For Arendt, terror is the means to carry out the "logic of the idea" inherent in the ideology, thus confirming the truth of the logic in practice. Under Hitler, for example, the truth of the racist premise that the Jews are a dying race is confirmed by killing them. Under Stalin, the truth of the triumph of communism is confirmed by the liquidation of all those supposedly opposed to that end, in reality of all those opposed to Stalin.

Others have stressed the conjunction of other factors as the essence of totalitarianism. Friedrich and Brzezinski, for example, emphasize the technological basis of mass control characteristic of totalitarian societies. Juan Linz, in his Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes (2000), considers the link between ideology, party, and mass mobilization to be the fundamental basis of totalitarianism. Yet others have variously stressed the unique role of party leader, or mass society, or some combination of these as key to the existence of totalitarian systems. What is generally conceded, however, is that whatever factors are stressed, they must form an interconnected whole. One or two of them in isolation does not constitute a totalitarian system. Many regimes are based on one-party rule, for example, but that alone does not make them totalitarian.

authoritarian control

Political systems that possess only some of the characteristics of totalitarianism such as one-party rule, or possess them only in a limited way—an undeveloped pluralism, for example—are best described as authoritarian rather than totalitarian. These types of systems are particularly common, although not exclusively so, in undeveloped or developing countries where the historical and cultural basis of liberal democracy is lacking. They are of various types, depending on the particular circumstances, and may involve rule by the military, landed oligarchies, newly formed bureaucratic and technocratic elites, or some combination of these. Typically, the kind of positive support for the regime required in totalitarian systems is lacking or more limited in authoritarian systems. Scholars who have studied these types of systems have proposed various classifications schemes to describe them, but all agree that, however conceptualized, they must clearly be distinguished from totalitarian systems.

Making these distinctions in practice is not always that easy, however. What some scholars deem totalitarian based on the particular characteristics they consider important, other scholars might view as authoritarian. Certainly, the regimes of Hitler and Stalin were totalitarian, but others are not always so clearly defined. Moreover, some regimes are best described as partially or quasi-totalitarian, falling somewhere between the "ideal type" of authoritarian or totalitarian system. Some of the Eastern European communist states, created by the Soviet Union after World War II, were transformed into totalitarian systems of the Stalinist type. Communist Yugoslavia, however, which remained independent of Soviet control, would best be described as authoritarian.

benito mussolini (1883–1945)

Born in Predappio, Italy, Benito Mussolini rose to power and headed the Italian government from 1922 to 1943, becoming the first fascist dictator of twentieth-century Europe. Mussolini dreamed of building an empire and launched several invasions. After his troops suffered heavy losses in World War II (1939–1945), however, he was deposed and executed.

Highly intelligent, Mussolini studied philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), formulated his own political ideology, and gained a reputation as a gifted journalist. In 1919 he founded the Fasci di Combattimento (a fascist political organization) and in 1921 won a seat in parliament. Highly charismatic, Mussolini gained a following, positioning himself as a revolutionary nationalist and the man who could solve Italy's economic and political crises. In 1922 he became the Italian premier, and by the mid-1920s he had installed himself as a dictator.

During Mussolini's time in power secret police forces roamed the streets to weed out opposition. He also took control of the press and schools and promoted fascism as a more stable ideology than democracy.

Mussolini joined the fray in World War II as an ally of Nazi Germany but suffered losses and was removed from power in 1943. Two years later he was captured and swiftly executed.

Subsequently, communist China under the leadership of Mao Tse-Tung (1893–1976) beginning in 1949 established a totalitarian regime, but with Mao's death in 1976 China has become increasingly less totalitarian if not authoritarian. Cuba is perhaps best described as falling somewhere between totalitarian and authoritarian, while North Korea belongs on the totalitarian end of the spectrum. Cambodia under the rule of Pol Pot (1925–1998) and the Khmer Rouge or Cambodian communists (1975–1979) clearly was totalitarian. Among fascist regimes, only Hitler's Germany was truly totalitarian. Mussolini's Italy is probably best described as authoritarian, as is General Francisco Franco's (1892–1975) Spain between 1939 and 1975. Most nondemocratic regimes in the contemporary

world, whether in posttotalitarian societies such as China or in Third World developing societies, are more likely to be authoritarian than totalitarian.

causes of totalitarianism

If the precise characteristics of totalitarianism have remained somewhat controversial, so too has the issue of its origins. What precisely are the causes of totalitarianism? Some have pointed to personal psychological factors, asserting that it is the charismatic personality of the totalitarian leader who sways the masses into granting him total power. Hitler is the most notable model for this view, but it is not a view shared by contemporary scholars of totalitarianism. No one person could create the structure of a totalitarian system without other factors being present. Some have argued that intellectual factors are the cause, blaming thinkers such as Georg W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and even Plato for the rise of totalitarianism, a view also not shared by most scholars. Apart from the fact that it places too much emphasis on the power of ideas to shape social and political reality, it is a view that involves a fundamental misreading of these thinkers. Marx (1818–1883), to take the most obvious example, was not a totalitarian thinker anymore than these other thinkers. His concept of communism was that of a stateless society ruled locally and communally, the precise opposite of a totalitarian system. The totalitarian party was the creation of the Russian communist leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870–1924) in 1917, and more particularly Stalin, long after Marx was dead. That Marx was used ideologically to justify the totalitarian rule of the Communist Party and Stalin is certainly true, but Marx could hardly be said to have been the cause of Soviet totalitarianism.

For most scholars, the sources of totalitarianism are rooted in profound social, economic, and political factors that transcend mere personality or the intellectual influence of some particular thinker. This certainly was the case for both Nazi Germany and communist Russia. Both arose out of the wreckage of World War I (1914–1918), which in Russia led to the Bolshevik (communist) Revolution of 1917 and in Germany to the eventual collapse of the postwar liberal democratic Weimar Republic and the seizure of power by the Nazis in 1933. Russia, which was ruled by czarist (monarchical) autocracies until the 1917 revolution, had almost no experience with liberal democracy. Germany's experience was also quite limited, and the Weimar constitution was never fully accepted by significant elements of the population. In addition, postwar economic hardships put enormous economic burdens on both countries, and the great worldwide depression beginning in 1929 exacerbated theses problems. Totalitarianism was a response to these multiple economic and political crises. Paradoxically, both regimes derived part of their legitimacy by claiming to be a bulwark against the other's ideological pretensions, but the conflict between bolshevism and fascism reflected much deeper economic and political problems and was merely the ideological cover for two totalitarian regimes that were in fact politically alike.

The lessons of totalitarianism are clear. Totalitarian regimes have emerged during periods of political and economic crisis in countries where liberal democratic institutions are weak or nonexistent. It is for this reason that developing countries without a culture of a liberal democracy are most susceptible to totalitarian solutions, of shifting from typical authoritarian patterns into totalitarianism. Where liberal democratic institutions are strong—where basic rights, party competition, competing ideologies, and pluralism are protected and encouraged—totalitarianism is not a likely solution to crisis situations. This should not lead citizens in liberal democracies such as the United States to be complacent, however. The increasing lack of political participation, the rise of mass consumer culture, the growing technological control of personal information, and other such trends have led more than one critic to point to the potential dangers of totalitarianism even in those liberal democracies that are its very antithesis.

See also: Germany; Hitler, Adolf; Italy; Political Party Systems; Russia; Stalin, Joseph.


Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism, rev. ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

De Grand, Alexander J. "Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany: The "Fascist' Style of Rule." In Historical Connections, eds. Tom Scott, et al. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Friedrich, Carl J., and Zbigniew K. Brzezinski. Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy, 2nd ed., rev. by Carl J. Friedrich. New York: Praeger, 1965.

Halberstam, Michael. Totalitarianism and the Modern Conception of Politics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

Linz, Juan J. Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2000.

O'Kane, Rosemary H. T. Paths to Democracy: Revolution and Totalitarianism. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.

Orwell, George. 1984, (1949). New York: Knopf, 1992.

Shapiro, Leonard. Totalitarianism. New York: Praeger, 1972.

Talmon, Jacob Leib. The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. New York: Praeger, 1960.

Brian Nelson


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Totalitarianism is a term employed by social scientists to describe a type of political regime that arose in the twentieth century. What is said to distinguish this type of regime from traditional forms of nondemocratic authority such as tyranny or dictatorship is the ability of the totalitarian state to establish and maintain a highly integrated social system that controls nearly every aspect of public and private life.

Social scientists have developed a theoretical model to delimit five essential features underlying this unique political system. First, the totalitarian state is organized around an all-encompassing ideology that subordinates all aspects of society to the logic of a teleological process that promises to culminate in the attainment of a perfect and final stage of humanity. In order to achieve the revolutionary goal, the totalitarian project systematically eliminates constraints on state power. In this manner, a totalitarian state aims to establish a permanent state of emergency (wherein the rule of law is suspended) as a legal norm, thus, in effect, codifying arbitrary power.

Second, totalitarianism destroys all social, legal, and political traditions that precede it. It transforms a pluralistic party system into the rule of a single mass party headed usually by a single dictator. The party aims to transform the ensemble of social relations into an integrated social totality by a process of perpetual revolution.

Third, if this perpetual revolution is to be carried out successfully, it must institutionalize a highly coordinated use of terror that shifts the epicenter of power from the army to the police. Totalitarian use of terror suppresses not only political opposition and all groups and ideas not subordinate to the substantive goals of the state, but also all social space traditionally beyond state control that exists among citizens. Such use of terror produces an environment within which individuals live with an extremely high level of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Fourth, such a regime monopolizes not only the armed forces, but all forms of mass communication as well. Seizing control over the means of communication allows the state to socialize and mobilize different segments of the population through the dissemination of mass propaganda. This mobilization entails the participation of individuals in state-sponsored social and political organizations that stage events and campaigns that often target an enemy of the state, usually entire categories of citizens that must be eliminated. Finally, the totalitarian state seeks central control and direction of the economy.

The two outstanding historical examples of totalitarian states are Nazi Germany, particularly during the years of World War II (19391945), and Stalinist Russia (19271953). Although most commentators agree on the totalitarian nature of these two states, there is no general consensus on what other states can be declared totalitarian, but such a list could arguably include fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini (19221943); Communist China, particularly during the Cultural Revolution (19661976); Khmer Rouge Cambodia (19751979); Augusto Pinochets Chile (19731989); the Argentine military regime of the 1970s; and North Korea since 1953.


There are a number of possible causes of the rise of totalitarian states. An historically specific explanation has it that the political and economic chaos in Europe that followed World War I (19141918) created a climate of fear and resentment that some popular governments and movements exploited in order to seize or consolidate state power. Fascist totalitarian regimes (Mussolinis Italy and Nazi Germany) aimed at diverting attention from class conflict by ruthlessly repressing political strife and labor unrest and promoting a form of nationalism in the name of interclass solidarity. Communist systems, on the other hand, sought to end class struggle and inaugurate a classless utopia by repressing those opinions and actions deemed antithetical to a workers state.

Another argument holds that industrialization eroded traditional social values and familial, social, and professional bonds, thereby creating a gap that was then filled by the development of a modern mass society; the latter came to be distinguished by a uniform style of life reinforced by propaganda, advertising, and mass entertainment. In such a society, individuals severed from tradition become alienated and highly susceptible to totalitarian manipulation.

An explanation popular with libertarian theorists argues that the roots of totalitarianism can be found in the gradual growth of socialism in all industrial societies. Such theorists argue that because socialism requires states to direct and control the economy, it lays the groundwork for the eventual subordination, regulation, and domination of all aspects of public and private life.

Another explanation sees a connection between the rise of totalitarianism and the influence exerted by certain traditions in political philosophy that promote a theoretical justification for the creation and preservation of an ideal state. Jean-Jacques Rousseaus concept of a general will and G. W. F. Hegels exposition of absolute spirit in the state are often included in a larger historical narrative that isolates the origins of totalitarianism in the Enlightenment philosophers equation of reason with the transformative powers of technology. An alternative explanation views the rise of totalitarianism as part and parcel of European imperialism and racism.

Totalitarianism differs from its equally nondemocratic and modern counterpart, authoritarianism. Whereas the former is concerned with revolutionizing the entirety of social relations, the latter is principally concerned only with exercising and maintaining direct political control. Authoritarian states do not reach into the private sphere, at least to the same extent as their totalitarian counterparts. Authoritarian states thus allow elements of civil society such as religious organizations, schools, private nonpolitical associations, and the press to retain a relative degree of autonomy. Seeking above all to ensure their own political survival, authoritarian states have neither the will nor the resources to control all aspects of social, economic, and individual life. It should be noted, however, that the theoretical distinction between these two kinds of states tends to falter when applied to actual countries. However, the inadequacy of the distinction in this context does often serve to illuminate the extent to which its use is primarily determined by the political perspective of the analyst. For example, during the cold war, conservative commentators were likely to see left-wing dictatorships as totalitarian and their right-wing counterparts as authoritarian. Analyses of the right-wing military regimes of South Americas Southern Cone have since questioned this easy demarcation.


Although the term totalitarian was first coined by the Italian fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile in 1925, it did not come into widespread use in the social sciences until the 1940s. During this period Hannah Arendt, Carl Friedrich, and Zbigniew Brezinski were primarily responsible for expanding the use of the term so that it could serve as a means of understanding the excessive repression associated with Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. During the cold war the concept played a pivotal role in the formation of U.S. containment policy directed toward the Soviet Union and other communist and/or socialist states. It then fell into disuse during the 1960s, particularly among Western Sovietologists, either because it was seen as lacking conceptual rigor or, more likely, because it was viewed as more an ideological than an analytical form of typology. Nevertheless, the term was revived a decade later by neoconservative theorist Jeane Kirkpatrick, who sought to influence U.S. foreign policy makers by arguing that although totalitarian states were incapable of transforming themselves into democracies, their authoritarian counterparts could be refashioned into liberal democraciesor at least into nonthreatening realpolitik allies in the U.S. attempt to contain global communism. The appositeness of this argument abruptly expired in the wake of the unanticipated implosions of the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc allies in the late twentieth century.

In the opening years of the twenty-first century, however, the term was redefined yet again, this time by leftist theorists who pointed to the encroachment of capitalist markets into an increasing number of sectors of liberal democratic states. This growing depoliticization of public space is viewed as indicative of a new kind of totalitarianism.

Some critics charge that the concept of totalitarianism does not account for the different forms of social totality that may exist, not all of which are tyrannical; that is, that the concept tends to conflate all forms of social totality (the expansion of the public sphere into the private) with statist totality (one where the state controls all aspects of life). However, other forms of social totality, such as communitarianism (in which individuals tend to see in the public realm the fulfillment of their private interests) and involuntary totality (one where pluralistic compromise requires public power to seep into the private realm, such as with the modern welfare state), enjoy widespread support. The conceptual weakness of the concept of totalitarianism lies in its reliance on the abstract liberal democratic bifurcation of society into public and private spheres, an analytical division that seems to grow less rather than more distinct when submitted to historical and theoretical scrutiny.

The concept of totalitarianism has also been faulted for overstating the monolithic nature of the regimes it explains. According to such critics, totalitarian states are more likely to resemble a fragmented authoritarianism, where power is dispersed pluralistically among competing elites situated at various levels of government, instead of being derived from any single and totalizing source or idea. Viewed in this manner, totalitarianism no longer functions as an accurate or adequate tool to explain non-democratic regimes. Some critics have also noted that the term readily lends itself to certain ideological and propagandistic programs; according to one argument, the concept of totalitarianism functions in liberal democratic societies as a way of preempting any theory or practice aimed at an egalitarian transformation of social and political relations. Known as the blackmail of totalitarianism, this tactic holds that any achievements associated with a sociopolitical movement with aspirations for expanding equality would inevitably usher in a new reign of terror. Critics note that this blackmail attempts to limit the very possibility of egalitarian politics by isolating it as antidemocratic.

Other scholarship also has called into question the traditional juxtaposition of totalitarianism to constitutional democracy. The latter limits the power and authority of the state in order to promote pluralism, whereas the former obliterates the distinction between the state and civil society in order to consolidate its power. However, upon closer inspection, certain similarities between totalitarianism and modern mass democracy are discernible. In both, the state possesses a monopoly of military and police force. Both control certain forms of mass communication and suppress dissent, particularly in times of crisis. Some theorists have noticed that by the early twenty-first century, democracies, not unlike their totalitarian counterparts, have invoked with increasing frequency the state of emergency as a means of preserving the legal norm. Also, as noted originally by Alexis de Tocqueville, modern democracies often engender a high level of conformity to repressive and irrational standards of social behaviora feature also found in totalitarian states. What this suggests is that, in its own way, the modern mass democracy may be just as adept as totalitarianism at placing effective limits on individual freedom. In this sense, democracy and totalitarianism share certain features that have become hallmarks of a technically advanced mass society.


By means of literature and cinema, totalitarianism has made its way into the popular imagination. An entire literary genre known as dystopian literature is dedicated to nightmarish representations of totalitarian systems. These depictions are crafted largely through the satirizing of certain trends in contemporary society. The major texts of this genre include Yevgeny Zamyatins We (1922), Aldous Huxleys Brave New World (1931), and George Orwells 1984 (1949). These three works vary in their views as to what elements in contemporary society are most totalitarian. Zamyatin criticizes the desire for technological efficiency and routine rooted in industrial societies by depicting the world as a single state dedicated to the static mathematical and technological routinization of all life. Huxleys novel targets the fetish of youth, the dangers of consumerism, and the manipulations of the human psyche built into commercial societies, especially the United States. Orwells 1984 most directly targets Stalinist totalitarianism, but also includes satirical references to British capitalism. Orwells novel is the most controversial of the three works, largely because of its mobilization during the cold war as a political attack on all utopian visions. Cinematic representations of totalitarianism include Bernardo Bertoluccis Il Conformista ( The Conformist, 1970), Ridley Scotts Blade Runner (1982), and Terry Gilliams Brazil (1985). Whereas Bertolucci and Gilliam, in quite different ways, tackle totalitarianism from the perspective of the individuals longing for escape, Scott depicts the loss of humanity in a world dominated politically by large, manipulative corporate interests. Cinematic representations of totalitarianism share the diversity and nightmarish elements of their literary cousins.

SEE ALSO Authoritarianism; Mussolini, Benito; Repressive Tolerance; Tito (Josip Broz); Tyranny of the Majority; Union of Soviet Socialist Republics


Agamben, Giorgio. 2005. State of Exception. Trans. Kevin Attell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Arendt, Hannah. 1951. Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Friedrich, Carl, and Zbigniew Brezinski. 1956. Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Friedrich, Carl, Michael Curtis, and Benjamin Barber. 1969. Totalitarianism in Perspective: Three Views. New York: Praeger.

Graziano, Frank. 1992. Divine Violence: Spectacle, Psychosexuality, and Radical Christianity in the Argentine Dirty War. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Jacoby, Russell. 2005. Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kirkpatrick, Jeane. 1982. Dictatorships and Double Standards: Rationalism and Reason in Politics. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Zizek, Slavoj. 2002. Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions on the (Mis)Use of a Notion. London: Verso.

Kevin Cameron


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The most important meaning of the term totalitarianism (totalitaria in Italian) resided in the way it was used to link communism with German National Socialism (Nazism) during the second half of the twentieth century, especially in the United States, Germany, and finally France. But the term had a considerable prehistory. It was coined by an Italian journalist, Giovanni Amendola, on the eve of the march on Rome in the spring of 1923, to characterize Benito Mussolini's (1883–1945) proposed alteration of Italy's election law to give the winning party a massive legislative majority. Over the next several years the term became popular among Mussolini's left-wing critics, who used the term increasingly broadly to characterize fascism as a whole, with a particular stress on the movement's pseudo-religious fanaticism, emphasis on will, and hostility to pluralism. The term also appealed to the fascists themselves: in particular to the philosopher Giovanni Gentile (1875–1944). The Duce himself used the term proudly, initially to evoke fascism's "wildness" and "ferocity," and subsequently to characterize the Italian fascist state's ambition to absorb every aspect of human life into itself.

This rather Hegelian statist usage played a role in the way the terms total and totalitarian were used in Germany, where they migrated from Italy in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The writer Ernst Jünger (1895–1998), however, influenced by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844–1900) and by his own experiences at the front in World War I, used the term to evoke a universal, collectivist industrial order on a planetary scale, which he rather paradoxically combined with German nationalism. Of particular importance in the German usage of totalitarian, however, was the vocabulary of the political philosopher Carl Schmitt (1888–1985). Contending that the liberal state in 1920s Europe had spinelessly given itself over to placating the masses with material welfare, Schmitt called for the creation in Germany of a totalitarian or total state, in the sense of a political entity militantly hostile to the liberal or social democratic welfare state and devoted to a ruthless defense of power politics, in the spirit of the most extreme forms of traditional authoritarianism. In Germany itself the discussion about whether National Socialism was totalitarian or not soon ended. Adolf Hitler did not care for the term, which suggested to him an Italian comparison that he rejected, and also seemed to leave out of account National Socialist racism, which he placed at the center of the Third Reich's mission.

The term began to be systematically applied to the Soviet Union only in the mid-1930s, when journalists and academics, some of them political refugees from Italy or Germany, began to notice similarities between the Soviet Union, on the one hand, and Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, on the other, despite what appeared to be their profound ideological differences. The "purging" that began in both Germany and the Soviet Union in 1933–1934 appears to have helped focus the minds of observers on these similarities. Other commonalities between Germany and the USSR were political dictatorship, the absolute rule of a single mass party, state control of the economy, and a cult of force and violence.

Between 1935 and 1940 the question of whether the Soviet Union was really the same sort of entity as Germany and Italy was widely discussed and passionately contested among politically conscious populations in Western Europe and the United States. The arguments were particularly bitter on the political Left, where the Soviet experiment continued to have strong adherents, even as liberal criticism of Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) gained ground. By the late 1930s Leon Trotsky (1879–1940) was claiming in exile that Stalin had "betrayed" the Russian Revolution; both Trotsky and his followers were increasingly willing to call the Soviet Union "totalitarian." This facilitated broader acceptance of the term on the Left, at the cost, however, of embroiling the term in the sectarian disputes between "Trotskyists" and Stalinists.


During World War II, comparatively few anti-Nazis found the Soviet-German comparison politically constructive or appetizing, with the Red Army and the Russian people bearing such a high percentage of the war's burden. But after the Cold War was under way the term enjoyed a spectacular revival, particularly in the United States. It was used by political figures in the Truman administration (1945–1950) to sell their new anti-Soviet policies. It continued to be used in the anticommunist journalism of writers like Arthur Koestler (1905–1983), Albert Camus (1913–1960), Dwight Macdonald (1906–1982), and George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair, 1903–1950). And it was at the heart of major academic studies like The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) by Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) and Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (1956) by the Harvard professors Carl J. Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski. These volumes had a profound influence on highbrow readership, even as the term totalitarianism became coin of the realm in the newspapers. Arendt's profound if eccentric classic located the preconditions for the rise of totalitarianism in the decay of the Europe of national states in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and so was of limited utility in the Cold War. Friedrich and Brzezinski's stout monograph had a profound influence on Soviet studies over several generations. It distinguished sharply between totalitarianism's extreme claims on the individual and the "ordinary" authoritarianisms of the past. Having some of the attributes of a field guide, it listed and analyzed six attributes by which in combination a totalitarian state could be recognized: (1) a single ideology; (2) a single elite mass party; (3) a technically conditioned near monopoly of control of the means of armed combat; (4) a similar control of all means of communication; (5) a comparable control of the economy; (6) and a system of "terroristic" police control.

Over time, Friedrich and Brzezinski's account proved vulnerable to several lines of criticism. It was not helpful in accounting for changes in the Soviet-style systems it analyzed, something that became important with the onset of destalinization. A society either was or was not totalitarian when analyzed strictly within the confines of their "syndrome" or model. Other critics, led by Robert Tucker of Princeton, complained that the source base was too small, examples too few in number. If one analyzed Soviet (or Polish, or Hungarian) political praxis based on a model drawn from Nazi and Soviet politics there would seem to be a limit on what new information one might discover about the system.

But more influential than these intellectual criticisms was the changing political climate in Europe and the United States as the Cold War consensus waned and the 1960s dawned. The Friedrich-Brzezinski account of totalitarianism presupposed a profound difference between the polities of the "free world" and the totalitarian states. It could be and often was used, implicitly or explicitly, to justify the Cold War. But what if the United States was just as oppressive in its Latin American sphere of influence as the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, as radicals began to argue in the 1960s? Or what if American enslavement to consumerism and technology blinded its citizens to any serious creative alternative to capitalism as it presently existed? Was that not a kind of totalitarianism too, as Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) argued in One Dimensional Man (1964)? But this kind of "totalitarianism" certainly had nothing to do with the Brzezinski-Friedrich model.

In both France and Germany there was powerful opposition to the American version of "Soviet totalitarianism." In France belief in the evolutionary possibilities of the Soviet Union was coeval with the intellectual domination of Jean-Paul Sartre's (1905–1980) tortuously noncommunist leftism. Among major figures, only Camus and the conservative liberal Raymond Aron (1905–1983) steadfastly criticized Soviet totalitarianism. Not until the appearance in France of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's (b. 1918) Gulag Archipelago in the 1970s did the hegemony of Sartrian pro-Sovietism begin to dissipate.

Hostility in Germany to the Nazi-Soviet comparison as the basis for understanding the Soviet Union as "totalitarian" came later and lasted somewhat longer. The idea that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were joint archetypes of a new and dreadful kind of polity was initially appealing to the conservative leadership of West Germany, as it served simultaneously to criticize the Soviet enemy and delegitimize the East German rival. But hostility on the German Left grew rapidly after 1960, as West German society underwent a spasm of radicalism not unlike that occurring in the United States at almost exactly the same time.

Conflicts were somewhat more muted in Italy, if not in England, where pro-Soviet attitudes had deeply penetrated official circles. But the idea of Soviet totalitarianism was much more important in Eastern Europe, where anti-Soviet intellectuals found it a powerful semantic weapon in their long struggle against Soviet domination. Theorists like Leszek Kołakowski (b. 1927) in Poland and Václav Havel (b. 1936) in Czechoslovakia made the term the centerpiece of their efforts to attack Soviet socialism (now grotesquely referred to at home as "really existing socialism") and to delegitimize the Soviet Union's East European empire. In this long struggle, the term became strongly associated with Solidarity in Poland and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. The term's revival in the United States during the Reagan years (1981–1989) had a strong domestic political dimension: to show that American liberalism had lost the will to truly confront the evils of communism.

Since the end of the Soviet Union the term totalitarianism has gradually fallen into disuse, or at least lost its analytical significance. It enjoyed some vogue in Russia during the 1990s, as it became possible for Russians to use the term about the Soviet past. But in the early twenty-first century, the distinction between totalitarianism and authoritarianism no longer has the cutting-edge significance it seemed to embody during the years when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union pillaged and terrorized Europe.

See alsoAnticommunism; Antifascism; Communism; Fascism; Nazism.


Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. 1951. New York, 1973.

Friedrich, Carl J., and Zbigniew K. Brzezinski. Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy. Cambridge, Mass., 1956.

Gleason, Abbott. Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War. New York, 1995.

Halberstam, Michael, Totalitarianism and the Modern Conception of Politics. New Haven, Conn., 1999.

Abbott Gleason


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Totalitarianism is defined as a political system or regime in which the government seeks total control of society. This requires breaking down all the intermediate associations of civil society or turning them into agencies of the government, so that all that exists are, on the one hand, atomistic individuals and, on the other, the unity of the state.

Totalitarian systems have significant implications for science, technology, and ethics. Totalitarian governments rely on communications technology to spread an official ideology and to monitor subjects, while totalitarian control of the economy creates major hurdles to technological invention and innovation. Scientists face numerous ethical challenges in totalitarian systems, from ideological conditions often imposed on their research (a rejection of Jewish science in Germany and the promotion of Trofim Lysenko's genetics of the inheritance of acquired characteristics in the Soviet Union) to the kinds of projects on which they may be required to do research.

Features of Totalitarianism

The two classic scholarly examinations of totalitarianism are Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzesinski's Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (1956). Friedrich and Brzesinski identify totalitarianism as a unique political order, opposed to democracy yet distinct from authoritarianism and dictatorship, and characterized by six key features. The first is an official ideology. In totalitarian systems, this ideology includes a blueprint for remaking society, either in ethnic or racial terms (as in the case of fascism) or in class terms (as in the case of communism) as well as justification for the monopoly of political power.

The second basic feature is a single mass political party, usually with a single leader, with a monopoly of political power. This group is part of the total penetration of society by the rulers. Other rival group identities in society—religious organizations, voluntary associations, other political parties—are either destroyed or brought under the control of the party.

The third characteristic is the existence of a secret police force and rule through the development of terror in the population. Because the leaders of the political system seek to penetrate and remake society, they are ruthless in dealing with political and cultural opponents. Any autonomous organization of activities is seen as a threat and all who are not active in their support of the ruling party are possible targets of harassment by the secret police. Even active, and loyal, party members are not immune, however. The purges of the Communist Party under Stalin, for example, were aimed at party members who were deemed not diligent enough in their identification and condemnation of potential threats to the system.

The fourth feature is its monopoly over the means of communication. Although it is impossible to control all forms of communication, totalitarian regimes seek to limit the autonomous flow of information. Control over information is a crucial component in solidifying the ideology in the minds of the population—facilitating the establishment of legitimacy for the leaders, justifying its monopoly of political power, and creating support for its social blueprint.

The fifth characteristic, highlighted by Friedrich and Brzezinski, is the monopoly over weapons in society. This is not a feature unique to totalitarian systems (many democracies control access to weapons by the general population). It is, however, a necessary feature of totalitarian control.

The final feature is a centrally controlled economy. Control over the economy serves three purposes. First it assures the social blueprint; economic development can be structured in the way most supportive of the plan for remaking society, and the workplace can be used as an arena for socializing the masses in support of the system. Second it assures access by the state to the resources it requires to maintain power at home and expand its influence abroad. Finally, and perhaps most important, a centrally planned economy makes people dependent on the state. Thus, while arguably economically inefficient, a planned economy is politically efficient.

Arendt proposed a similar description of totalitarianism, emphasizing its ability to atomize the population (controlling the ability of the population to engage in group activities autonomous from the party or the state) and its effective use of ideology. The development of a mass adherence to official ideology is essential for the formation of legitimacy in totalitarian systems. Control over communications—particularly the educational system and mass media—made the development of such adherence theoretically possible.

Totalitarianism in Practice

In practice totalitarianism has never achieved the complete penetration and control of society. Although people were careful in public, and often went through the motions of participating in state-sponsored mobilization efforts, they led separate public and private lives. Terror crept into the private lives of individuals—one had to be extremely leery of speaking ill of the government even among one's good friends—but people also partook in the activities of normal life: shopping, attending the ballet, walking in the park, and so on.

Because the ideal differed from the reality of totalitarian life, some political scientists and many social historians (see, for example, writings by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Stephen Cohen) criticized the totalitarian model for overemphasizing politics, underemphasizing the role of society, and assuming a system of tight, top down control devoid of political and social conflict. The totalitarian model of politics assumed that everyone was completely controlled and atomized, and that leaders never responded to society. But in the Soviet case, leaders sometimes appealed to constituencies, and policies were, at times, sparked by initiatives from below.

The three examples in the real world that came closest to approaching the totalitarian ideal have been Adolph Hitler's Nazi Germany (1933–1945), Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union (1929–1953), and, more recently, the Taliban-run system in Afghanistan. None of these, however, achieved full realization of the totalitarian ideal. These three cases provide helpful examples of three forms of totalitarianism: fascism, communism, and Islamism. Friedrich and Brzezinski argue that fascist and communist dictatorships were basically alike, though one can identify different points of emphasis between the two forms of government. Fascism is a form of totalitarianism that emphasizes racial and/or ethnic superiority, engages in militarism, and argues for the need for a dominant state to develop the capacity of the superior race and/or ethnic group. According to Barrington Moore (1966), fascism develops as the result of an alliance among the state, the land-owning elite, and the industrial bourgeoisie. Communism emphasizes the remaking of society to eliminate economic exploitation through state control of the means of production. Moore argues—ironically, given Karl Marx's prediction of workers' revolutions in the most economically developed countries—that communism developed where the lack of a middle class and the presence of a large and disgruntled peasantry allowed revolutionary leaders to seize control of the government in the name of destroying the old economic order. In both forms of totalitarianism in practice, increasing control over the economy and society were justified through the claim that one or more groups (for example, capitalists or Jews) were enemies of the people.

Islamism is a more recent variant of totalitarianism. Its ideology is anti-western, critical of modernization, and emphasizes the dominance of Islamic law—as interpreted by the leaders—over society.

Science, Technology, and Ethics

The totalitarian goal to penetrate and remake society completely has significant implications for science and technology. The control and monitoring that characterized totalitarianism shaped the practice of science dramatically. In the ideal totalitarian system, scientists are less free than in any other type of system to pursue their research as they see fit. Scientific research and related technological advances become the property of the party-state. This situation poses ethical dilemmas for scientists. On the one hand, the likelihood that the fruits of their labor could be used in unpleasant ways by the state creates a disincentive for scientists. On the other hand, working through the official scientific channels is the only way for such scientists to conduct their research. Thus, although in practice scientists in systems with totalitarian features conducted pioneering research, such scientists were limited both by the imperatives of the totalitarian ideology and by their personal ethical concerns about the consequences of their research.

Technology is a necessary tool in the transformation of tyranny into totalitarianism. Friedrich and Brzezinski emphasize technology in their discussion of totalitarianism, arguing that this type of political system could only have arisen in an era of modern technology. They highlighted the role of technology in allowing control over communications and making possible large scale economic planning, as well as in facilitating the monitoring of everyday life by the secret police. Totalitarian governments direct scientists to develop such technology.

Though technology is a necessary part of a modern totalitarian state, technology was not easily absorbed into the totalitarian system in practice. Not all technological products of scientific research found a receptive audience in the party-state bureaucracy. The economic planning approach that was a feature of the Soviet system, for example, made it difficult to incorporate technology. Many economic planners feared the introduction of new technology because of the uncertainty that accompanied the introduction. As a result, when there was a clear goal to increase production, and when this increase could be achieved through the addition of more inputs into the system (extensive growth), the totalitarian planning system worked fairly well. As the global economy moved in the direction of growth resulting from technology-driven improvements in efficiency (intensive growth), the Soviet planning system lagged behind.

Finally technologically-conditioned improvements in communication posed serious problems for totalitarian systems. While technology made monitoring of large numbers of citizens possible in the middle part of the twentieth century, the growth of fax machines, personal computers with printers, cellular telephones, and Internet connections by the early twenty-first century, provided citizens in dictatorial countries with access to information from outside the country and enabled them to compose and spread antigovernment messages quickly and relatively anonymously. Technology may allow Big Brother more ways to monitor citizens, but it also provides citizens more opportunities to engage in subversive activities.


SEE ALSO Arendt, Hannah;Authoritarianism;Conservatism;Fascism.


Arendt, Hannah. (1951). The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Cohen, Stephen. (1985). Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics and History since 1917. New York: Oxford University Press.

Easton, David. (1965). A Framework for Political Analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. (1986). "New Perspectives on Stalinism." Russian Review 45(October): 357–373.

Friedrich, Carl, and Zbigniew Brzezinski. (1956). Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Moore, Barrington, Jr. (1966). Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Boston: Beacon Press.


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The concept of totalitarianism was used to describe the more extreme forms of the hypertrophic states of the twentieth century, with their ideologies, elaborate mechanisms of control, and uniquely invasive efforts to diminish or even obliterate the distinction between public and private. The term was coined in the early 1920s, in Fascist Italy, by Mussolini's opponents and was expanded in the early 1930s to include National Socialist Germany. Although the term was coined by opponents of Fascism and early usages were largely hostile, it was also episodically employed by supporters of the Italian and German regimes, such as Giovanni Gentile and Mussolini himself, to differentiate their governments from the allegedly decadent liberal regimes they so detested. The very early Italian usages connoted extreme violence, but as Italian Fascism evolved from its movement phase and became an ideology of government, the term increasingly suggested the intent of the state to absorb every aspect of human life into itself. This notion was in harmony with the philosophy of Giovanni Gentile. The term was most systematically and positively used in Germany by Carl Schmitt, but Hitler eventually forbade its positive use, since it evoked an Italian comparison, which he disliked.

Even in the 1920s and early 1930s, there were a number of people who suggested that the Soviet Union bore certain similarities to both Italy and Germany. After Hitler's blood purge in 1934, the similarities between the Soviet Union, Germany, and Italy became the subject of frequent and systematic comparison; after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (1939), such comparisons became widespread. Only in strongly pro-communist circles was there an understandable reluctance to conclude that the Soviet Union had degenerated so badly that it could be compared with Nazi Germany.

In the aftermath of World War II, however, this comparison came to dominate the term's usage, right up to the end of the Cold War. The Truman administration suddenly began discussing the Soviet Union as a totalitarian regime when it had to justify the strongly anti-Soviet turn in American foreign policy that began in 1947, expressed most vividly in the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.

Prewar usages in the 1920s and 1930s had been unsystematic and largely journalistic, though such dedicated students of Russia as William Henry Chamberlin had compared the Soviet Union and Germany more systematically as early as 1935. But World War II and the development of the Cold War created a community of Russian experts in academia, where the term became thoroughly institutionalized in the early 1950s. The first systematic and grand-scale comparison, however, was not by an American academic, but by a German-Jewish émigré, Hannah Arendt, whose brilliant but uneven Origins of Totalitarianism was a sensation when it appeared in 1951. The most influential academic treatment of the term was Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy by Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski, which appeared in 1956 and had a long and controversial life. Brzezinski and Friedrich's account provided what was variously called a syndrome and a model to classify states as totalitarian. To be accounted, a state had to exhibit six features: an all-encompassing ideology; a single mass party, typically led by one man; a system of terror; a near-monopoly on all means of mass communication; a similar near-monopoly of instruments of force; and a centrally controlled economy.

Although Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy achieved wide acceptance in the 1950s, the restricted nature of its comparison, as well as the changing political times, made it highly controversial in the following two decades, with most of the academic community turning against it. Its fate was intimately bound up with the Cold War, which lost its broad base of popular support among Western academics and intellectuals during the 1960s. The viability of a term as value-laden as totalitarianism, in light of the demand for analytical rigor in the social sciences, was now considered highly debatable. In addition, as American historians of Russia became more and more enamored of social history, the focus of the totalitarian point of view on the politics of the center seemed far too restrictive for their research agenda, which was more focused on the experiences of ordinary people and everyday life, especially in the provinces.

During the Reagan years, the term was revived by neoconservatives interested in a more aggressive political and military challenge to the Soviet Union and also in distinguishing the Soviet Union and its satellites from the (allegedly less radical) rightist states whom the Reagan administration regarded as allies against Communism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the term has become less politically charged and seems to be evolving in a more diffuse fashion to suggest closed or antidemocratic states in general, particularly those with strong ideological or religious coloration.

See also: autocracy


Arendt, Hannah. (1973). The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Friedrich, Carl J., and Brzezinski, Zbigniew. (1965). Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gleason, Abbott. (1995). Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press.

Halberstam, Michael. (2000). Totalitarianism and the Modern Concept of Politics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Havel, Vaclav. (1985). "The Power of the Powerless." In The Power of the Powerless: Citizens Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe, ed. John Keane. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Lifka, Thomas E. (1988). The Concept "Totalitarianism" and American Foreign Policy, 19331949. New York: Garland.

Orwell, George. (1949). 1984. New York: New American Library.

Abbott Gleason


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647. Totalitarianism

  1. Animal Farm animals revolt against the despotism of Farmer Jones, but their leader sets up an equally totalitarian regime. [Br. Lit.: Orwell Animal Farm ]
  2. Clockwork Orange, A depicts a future state that enforces conformity and crushes all heresy and rebellion. [Br. Lit.: Anthony Burgess Clockwork Orange ]
  3. Darkness at Noon Communists accused of having betrayed party principles are imprisoned, tortured, and executed. [Br. Lit.: Weiss, 117]
  4. Oceania totalitarian state dominated by Big Brothers omnipresence. [Br. Lit.: George Orwell 1984]


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totalitarianism Form of government in which the state tries to acquire total control of every aspect of social and individual activity or thought, by means of controlling the mass media, suppression of opposition, and the often violent use of the police or army. The term arose in the 1920s to describe Italian fascism and has since been applied to Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and many other states. See also authoritarianism