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Totalitarianism is a term employed by political scientists, especially those in the field of comparative politics, to describe modern regimes in which the state regulates nearly every aspect of public and private behavior. Totalitarianism emerged in the twentieth century because the means for total social control did not exist before that time. These systems moved beyond authoritarian control. They attempted to mold citizens into a certain desirable type, whether they be proletarian laborer or pure Aryan. In this regard, these new totalitarian systems represented a new political phenomena that moved beyond previous state ends.


Definition of Totalitarianism

Totalitarianism emerged in the twentieth century as a heuristic term to describe a seemingly common set of state strategies across a wide spectrum of societies. Consequently, there is no single definition. The most influential scholars of totalitarianism, such as Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, Carl Friedrich, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Juan Linz have each described totalitarianism in a slightly different way. Common to all definitions is the attempt by a state to mobilize entire populations in support of the official state ideology, and the intolerance of activities which are not directed towards the goals of the state, entailing repression or state control of business, labor unions, churches or political parties. Totalitarian regimes or movements attempt a systematic destruction of civil society, maintaining themselves in political power by means of secret police, propaganda disseminated through the state-controlled mass media, personality cult, regulation and restriction of free discussion and criticism, single-party state, the use of mass surveillance, and widespread use of terror tactics.

Critics of the concept say that the term lacks explanatory power. They argue that governments which may be classified as totalitarian often lack characteristics said to be associated with the term. They may not be as monolithic as they appear from the outside, if they incorporate several groups, such as the army, political leaders, industrialists, which compete for power and influence. In this sense, these regimes may exhibit pluralism through the involvement of several groups in the political process.[1]

Civil society and democracy

Civil society is composed of the totality of voluntary civic and social organizations and institutions that form the basis of a well-functioning society as opposed to the force-backed structures of a state (regardless of that state's political system) and commercial institutions.

The literature on links between civil society and democracy have their root in early liberal writings like those of Alexis de Tocqueville. However they were developed in significant ways by twentieth-century theorists like Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, who identified the role of civil society in a democratic order as vital.[2]

They argued that the political element of many civil society organizations facilitates better awareness and a more informed citizenry, who make better voting choices, participate in politics, and hold government more accountable as a result.[2] The statutes of these organizations have often been considered micro-constitutions because they accustom participants to the formalities of democratic decision making.

More recently, Robert Putnam has argued that even non-political organizations in civil society are vital for democracy. This is because they build social capital, trust and shared values, which are transferred into the political sphere and help to hold society together, facilitating an understanding of the interconnectedness of society and interests within it.[3]

In democracy, civil society actors have now obtained a remarkable amount of political power without anyone directly electing or appointing them.[4] Finally, other scholars have argued that, since the concept of civil society is closely related to democracy and representation, it should in turn be linked with ideas of nationality and nationalism [5]

States that have been labeled as totalitarian demonstrate an intolerance toward activities which are not directed towards the goals of the state, entailing repression or state control of business, labor unions, churches or political parties. Totalitarian regimes or movements generally operate by suppressing civil society. In the place of the social bonds fostered through civil society, they maintain themselves in political power by a variety of different means, including the use of the secret police, propaganda disseminated through the state-controlled mass media, heavy emphasis on ideology, sometimes including a cult of personality, regulation and restriction of free discussion and criticism, single-party state, the use of mass surveillance, and widespread use of terror tactics.

Usage of the term

The term, employed in the writings of the philosopher Giovanni Gentile, was popularized in the twentieth century by the Italian fascists under Benito Mussolini. The original meaning of the word as described by Mussolini and Gentile (G. Gentile and B. Mussolini in "La dottrina del fascismo," 1932) was a society in which the main ideology of the state had influence, if not power, over most of its citizens. According to them, thanks to modern technologies like radio and the printing press, which the state could use to spread its ideology, most modern nations would naturally become totalitarian.

While originally referring to an 'all-embracing, total state', the label has been applied to a wide variety of regimes and orders of rule in a critical sense. Karl Popper, in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) and The Poverty of Historicism (1961) developed an influential critique of totalitarianism: in both works, he contrasted the "open society" of liberal democracy with totalitarianism, and argued that the latter is grounded in the belief that history moves toward an immutable future, in accord with knowable laws. During the Cold War period, the term gained renewed currency, especially following the publication of Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism (1957). Arendt argued that Nazi and Stalinist regimes were completely new forms of government, and not the updated versions of the old tyrannies. According to Arendt, the source of the mass appeal of totalitarian regimes was their ideology, which provided comforting, single answers to the mysteries of the past, present and future. For Marxism all history is the history of class struggle, and for Nazism all history is the history of race struggle. Once that premise was accepted by the public all actions of the regime could be justified by appeal to the Law of History or Nature.[6]

Cold War-era research

The political scientists Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski were primarily responsible for expanding the usage of the term in university social science and professional research, reformulating it as a paradigm for the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin as well as fascist regimes. For Friedrich and Brzezinski, the defining elements were intended to be taken as a mutually supportive organic entity comprised of the following: an elaborating guiding ideology; a single mass party, typically led by a dictator; a system of terror; a monopoly of the means of communication and physical force; and central direction and control of the economy through state planning. Such regimes had initial origins in the chaos that followed in the wake of the World War I, at which point the sophistication of modern weapons and communications enabled totalitarian movements to consolidate power in Italy, Germany, and Russia.

Eric Hoffer in his book The True Believer argues that mass movements like Communism, Fascism, and Nazism had a common trait in picturing Western democracies and their values as decadent, with people "too soft, too pleasure-loving and too selfish" to sacrifice for a higher cause, which for them implies an inner moral and biological decay. He further claims that those movements offered the prospect of a glorious, yet imaginary, future to frustrated people, enabling them to find a refuge from the lack of personal accomplishments in their individual existence. The individual is then assimilated into a compact collective body and "fact-proof screens from reality" are established.[7]

Criticism and recent work with the concept

In the social sciences, the approach of Friedrich and Brzezinski came under criticism from scholars who argued that the Soviet system, both as a political and a social entity, was in fact better understood in terms of interest groups, competing elites, or even in class terms (using the concept of the nomenklatura as a vehicle for a new ruling class). These critics pointed to evidence of popular support for the regime and widespread dispersion of power, at least in the implementation of policy, among sectoral and regional authorities. For some followers of this 'pluralist' approach, this was evidence of the ability of the regime to adapt to include new demands. However, proponents of the totalitarian model claimed that the failure of the system to survive showed not only its inability to adapt but the mere formality of supposed popular participation. Its proponents do not agree on when the Soviet Union ceased to be describable as totalitarian.

The notion of "post-totalitarianism" was put forward by political scientist Juan Linz. For certain commentators, such as Linz and Alfred Stepan, the Soviet Union entered a new phase after the abandonment of mass terror on Stalin's death. Discussion of "post-totalitarianism" featured prominently in debates about the reformability and durability of the Soviet system in comparative politics.

As the Soviet system disintegrated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, opponents of the concept claimed that the transformation of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, and its subsequent sudden collapse, demonstrated that the totalitarian model had little explanatory value for researchers. Several decades earlier, for example, Bertram Wolfe in 1957 claimed that the Soviet Union faced no challenge or change possible from society at large. He called it a "solid and durable political system dominating a society that has been totally fragmented or atomized," one which will remain "barring explosion from within or battering down from without." Many classic theories of totalitarianism discounted the possibility of such change, however, later theorists not only acknowledged the possibility but in fact encouraged and welcomed it. Any suggestions of the indefinite stability of states labeled totalitarian among proponents of the term were largely discredited when the Soviet Union fell by the wayside.

Political usage

While the term fell into disuse during the 1970s among many Soviet specialists, other commentators found the typology not only useful for the purposes of classification but for guiding official policy. In her 1979 essay for Commentary, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," Jeane Kirkpatrick argued that a number of foreign policy implications can be drawn by distinguishing "totalitarian" regimes from autocracies in general. According to Kirkpatrick, typical autocracies are primarily interested in their own survival, and as such have allowed for varying degrees of autonomy regarding elements of civil society, religious institutions, court, and the press. On the other hand, under totalitarianism, no individual or institution is autonomous from the state's all-encompassing ideology. Therefore, U.S. policy should distinguish between the two and even grant support, if temporary, to non-totalitarian autocratic governments in order to combat totalitarian movements and promote U.S. interests. Kirkpatrick's influence, particularly as foreign policy adviser and United Nations ambassador, was essential to the formation of the Reagan administration's foreign policy and her ideas came to be known as the "Kirkpatrick Doctrine."[8]

See also


  1. Peter Burnham, "Totalitarianism," The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics. Ed. Iain McLean and Alistair McMillan (Oxford University Press, 2003).
  2. 2.0 2.1 G. Almond, and S. Verba. The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes And Democracy In Five Nations. (Sage, 1989).
  3. R. Putnam. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions In Modern Italy. (Princeton Univ. Press, 1993).
  4. John Agnew, "Democracy and Human Rights" in R.J. Johnston, Peter J. Taylor, and Michael J. Watts (eds.) Geographies of Global Change. (Blackwell, 2002).
  5. Graham Pollock, "Civil Society Theory and Euro-Nationalism," Studies In Social & Political Thought 4 (March 2001): 31-56.
  6. Dana Richard Villa. The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt. (Cambridge University Press, 2000, ISBN 0521645719), 2-3.
  7. Eric Hoffer. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2002, ISBN 0060505915), 61, 163.
  8. Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," Commentary (October 1979)


  • Agnew, G. "Democracy and Human Rights" in R.J. Johnston, Peter J. Taylor, and Michael J. Watts, eds. Geographies of Global Change, 2nd ed, Wiley-Blackwell, 2002. ISBN 0631222863
  • Almond, Gabriel, and Sidney Verba. The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes And Democracy In Five Nations. Sage, [1965] 1989. ISBN 0803935587
  • Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Schocken, 2004. ISBN 9780805242256
  • Armstrong, John A. The Politics of Totalitarianism. New York: Random House, 1961.
  • Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics.
  • Friedrich, Carl and Z. K. Brzezinski. Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy, 2nd ed. 1967.
  • Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2002, ISBN 0060505915
  • Kirkpatrick, Jeane, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," Commentary (October 1979)
  • Kirkpatrick, Jeane. Dictatorships and Double Standards: Rationalism and reason in politics. Holiday house. 1983. ISBN 9780671492663
  • Linz, Juan, and Alfred Stepan. Problems of Democratic Consolidation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1996. ISBN 9780801851575
  • Pollock, Graham, "Civil Society Theory and Euro-Nationalism," Studies In Social & Political Thought 4 (March 2001): 31-56
  • Popper, Karl. The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol 1. revised ed. [1945]. 1971. Princeton University Press, ISBN 0691019681. Vol. 2. ISBN 069101972X
  • Popper, Karl. The Poverty of Historicism, 2nd ed. [1961]. re-issue. (Routledge Classics) New York: ISBN 0415278465
  • Putnam, Robert, Robert Leonardi, and Raffaella Y. Nanetti. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions In Modern Italy. Princeton Univ. Press, 1993. ISBN 0691037388
  • Talmon, J. L. The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. New York: W W Norton & Co. 1970. ISBN 9780393005103
  • Villa, Dana Richard. The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt. Cambridge University Press, 2000, ISBN 0521645719


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