Totalitarianism Research Paper

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Totalitarianism was a major concept of the twentieth century. Yet both its meaning and its application were contested. While most political scientists believed that the concept summarised well the key features of both Fascism (inc. Nazism) and Communism, historians such as Alan Bullock argued that the difference between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (particularly under Stalin) were such that it was misleading to use a single term to describe both. While there unquestionably were important distinctions between Fascism and Communism, particularly in terms of the role played by ideology, the predominant view nowadays is that the term is a useful short-hand way of describing a range of systems that, on balance, had more commonalities than differences. As will be demonstrated, while having much in common with authoritarianism, totalitarianism is conceptually distinct.

This research paper begins by considering the defining features of totalitarianism, and then outlines the development of the concept in terms of its historical and intellectual contexts. Following this is a brief evaluation of the concept. The final section concerns its relevance today and into the future.

1. Defining Features Of Totalitarianism

As suggested by the root of the word, totalitarianism refers to a system in which control of the population is greater—closer to ‘total’—than in any other type of system. It is the most extreme version of the subordination of the individual to the state and to a questionable notion of the collective. Totalitarian and authoritarian dictatorships have much in common, including a lack of respect for citizens’ rights, for the public accountability of political elites, and for the rule of law. But a totalitarian dictatorship is distinguishable from an authoritarian one in several ways (see Linz 1975).

First, ideology plays a far more significant role in the former than in the latter, even though many observers agree that ideology was less important in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany than in Stalin’s USSR and other communist states. While totalitarian ideology often makes use of the past, particularly national traditions, it is basically radical and future-oriented (‘chiliastic’ or ‘teleological’), whereas authoritarian regimes typically focus more on the past and continuity. It is also often overtly exclusionary, and arbitrarily identifies particular minority groups as ‘enemies’ of the state and/or the people (e.g., Jews and gays in Nazi Germany, or ‘the bourgeoisie’ or kulaks [rich peasants] in Stalin’s USSR), for whom life could become literally unbearable.

Another difference is that, in theory at least, the single political party plays a more prominent role in a totalitarian regime than in an authoritarian one. Third, authoritarianism relates primarily to a political system, and there is no necessary implication that the state is involved heavily in the economy. In contrast, most theorists of totalitarianism maintain that, while communist states generally controlled the economy much more than did fascist states, the overall level of state interference was much higher in totalitarian states than in authoritarian. Finally but importantly, totalitarianism was seen as a peculiarly twentieth century phenomenon. This was largely because it was not until then that the technological means for controlling and transporting populations existed. With the rapid development of the means of mass communication, notably the radio and cinema, citizens could be subject to a constant barrage of state propaganda in a manner that was not possible in earlier kinds of dictatorship. This, together with the much greater emphasis placed by totalitarian regimes on state-run education for all, meant that the state’s capacity for indoctrination (‘thought control’) reached qualitatively new levels.

Although there have been several comparative analyses of totalitarianism, the most widely cited are those of Friedrich and Brzezinski (1956, 1965). In the earlier study, these authors identified what they considered to be the six salient features of totalitarian regimes. These were an official, all-embracing, and chiliastic ideology; a single mass party, typically led by one man (the dictator); a system of terroristic police control (high levels of apparently arbitrary coercion); a near-complete monopoly of the means of communication; a near-complete monopoly of the means of armed combat; and central control of the entire economy. In the second edition of their book, this list was supplemented to include a commitment to expansionism and the administrative control of justice. One other distinguishing feature, emphasised particularly by Arendt (1951), is a high level of citizen alienation.

2. The Development Of The Concept

The concept of totalitarianism can be traced back to the 1920s; from 1925, Mussolini himself used it to describe the Italian fascist system, for instance. But the term was not in common usage in English until after the Second World War. As Brown (1999) points out, one of the first to alert the public to the differences between traditional authoritarian and the new totalitarian regimes was not a social scientist, but the novelist George Orwell. In Animal Farm (1945), Orwell focused on the hypocrisy and undemocratic nature of communism, while in Nineteen Eight-Four he highlighted the horrors of a society in which the notion of ends justifying means was taken to new extremes, and in which political elites could manipulate mass consciousness through high technology indoctrination. In this nightmare world, the goal of achieving a better society in the future was seen to override the concerns of ordinary individuals in the present.

Within the social sciences, it was primarily a number of scholars of German or East European origin who elaborated the concept and produced comparative analyses of its application in practice. While Arendt and Friedrich were of German origin, Brzezinski had Polish roots. These analysts, or members of their families, had often experienced the horrors of totalitarianism first hand. While fascism appeared to have been defeated by the end of the Second World War, Stalin’s USSR became stronger, with much of Eastern Europe coming under direct Soviet influence for the first time. One of the objectives of many scholars of totalitarianism was thus a normative one. They wanted not only to explain what it was and how it had arisen, but also to demonstrate that it was inherently evil, and why the West should resist it. In the climate of the early Cold War between liberal democracy and communism, such normative analyses found considerable resonance and support, especially in the USA.

But the term began to lose some of its popularity by the 1960s, even in the USA (see Friedrich et al. 1969). Many now felt that it was inappropriate to use the same term to describe both Stalin’s and Khrushchev’s USSR, for instance, especially since the latter was by the early 1960s referring to his predecessor’s crimes against the Soviet population. The term became even less fashionable in the early-1970s, when the relationship between the Soviet bloc and the West entered a more constructive phase, known as detente (lit. a reduction in tension). At about the same time, scholars such as Jerry Hough in the USA and Gordon Skilling in Canada began publishing articles and books, based on solid research, that suggested there might be a limited form of pluralism emerging in the Soviet Union.

But in the aftermath of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia of 1968, according to Rupnik (1988), many intellectuals in what is nowadays known as Central and Eastern Europe began to use the term totalitarianism in a different way from that favored by Western (esp. American) observers. These East Europeans tended to focus less on political institutions, and more on the political use of language—not merely to indoctrinate citizens, but to limit the scope of discussion (discourse) and hence the parameters within which thought could roam. They also criticized the methods used by totalitarian—here, basically meaning communist—regimes for suppressing knowledge of the past that did not suit those regimes. Totalitarianism was, thus, seen to be intent on destroying historical memories, and hence culture, that did not suit the rulers.

3. The Usefulness Of The Concept

As indicated, totalitarianism has been criticized for over-generalization about regimes that some analysts consider too diverse to be grouped together under one heading. To Italy and Germany, for instance, could be added several other countries that were fascist or quasi-fascist at some point during the 1930s and 1940s, including Croatia, Hungary, Japan, and Romania. Among communist states, there were substantial differences between, for instance, the relatively liberal and outward-looking Yugoslavia or Hungary and the far more orthodox and isolationist Albania or North Korea. The point also pertains in some cases to significant changes within one country over time. Is the concept, therefore, too broad to be useful?

There is considerable variety among systems usually labeled ‘liberal democracies,’ yet few would advocate abandoning the term; most accept that there is more in common between these systems than there are differences. Much the same can be said of totalitarian systems. The term is particularly useful if it is used as an ideal type, rather than as a model. The former is taken here to mean a pure form of an idea, against which actual regimes are measured. While the concept of a model has diverse meanings, it refers here to an attempt to encapsulate the salient features of a given system or type of system in a structured, schematic way. If totalitarianism is used as an ideal type, it is possible to say that a given country is more or less totalitarian than another, or more totalitarian at one time than at another. Using totalitarianism in this way overcomes one of the most frequent criticisms of the concept, namely that it is statically descriptive and lacks any internal dynamism.

4. Totalitarianism Today And Tomorrow

The concept of totalitarianism has experienced a limited resurgence of popularity since the collapse of communist power in 1989–91, especially among Central and East Europeans. When the communists were in power in that region, generally it was forbidden to suggest publicly that they were totalitarian dictatorships. Indeed, most of these countries officially claimed to be ‘socialist’ democracies. Since the early-1990s—and in some more liberal communist states even before that—many critics of the old regime regularly have referred to their countries’ pasts (until the late-1980s) as totalitarian. Although this usage of the word is often loose and little more than a term of abuse, it has led some scholarly analysts to argue that the concept may have been abandoned prematurely during the Cold War (see Siegel 1998), and that, liberalization phases and certain changes notwithstanding, most communist states remained fundamentally totalitarian until their collapse.

While there are no overtly fascist regimes at present (2000), there remain five communist ones (PR China, Cuba, DPR Korea, Laos, Vietnam), and these are sometimes still described as totalitarian. Moreover, while it might be true that globalization and the Internet are rendering it ever more difficult for individual governments to control their populations in ways they sometimes did in the twentieth century, it is possible that governments will catch up with the technological revolution and harness it to new totalitarian objectives. The rise of the extreme right (neofascism) in several European countries—including Austria, France, and Germany—from the 1990s means that it would be ingenuous to consign totalitarianism to the rubbish bin of history. It may yet rear its ugly head again.


  1. Arendt H 1951 The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1st edn. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York
  2. Brown A 1999 The study of Totalitarianism and Authoritarianism. In: Barry B M, Brown A, Hayward J E S (eds.) The British Study of Politics in the Twentieth Century. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
  3. Friedrich C J, Brzezinski Z 1956, 1965 Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy, 1st and 2nd edn. rev. Harvard, Cambridge, MA
  4. Friedrich C J, Curtis M, Barber B 1969 Totalitarianism in Perspective: Three Views. Pall Mall Press, London
  5. Linz J J 1975 Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes. In: Greenstein F I, Polsby N W (eds.) Handbook of Political Science, Vol. 3. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA
  6. Rupnik J 1988 Totalitarianism revisited. In: Keane J (ed.) Ci il Society and the State. Verso, London
  7. Schapiro L 1972 Totalitarianism. Pall Mall Press, London
  8. Siegel A (ed.) 1998 The Totalitarian Paradigm after the End of Communism. Rodopi, Amsterdam
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