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 controlPage 189 | Top of Article 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 requiringPage 190 | Top of Article 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.
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.
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.
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 beingPage 194 | Top of Article 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.
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.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3447400322