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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.]


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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 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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totalitarianism (tōtăl´Ĭtâr´ēənĬzəm), a modern autocratic government in which the state involves itself in all facets of society, including the daily life of its citizens. A totalitarian government seeks to control not only all economic and political matters but the attitudes, values, and beliefs of its population, erasing the distinction between state and society. The citizen's duty to the state becomes the primary concern of the community, and the goal of the state is the replacement of existing society with a perfect society.

Various totalitarian systems, however, have different ideological goals. For example, of the states most commonly described as totalitarian—the Soviet Union under Stalin, Nazi Germany, and the People's Republic of China under Mao—the Communist regimes of the Soviet Union and China sought the universal fulfillment of humankind through the establishment of a classless society (see communism); German National Socialism, on the other hand, attempted to establish the superiority of the so-called Aryan race.


Despite the many differences among totalitarian states, they have several characteristics in common, of which the two most important are: the existence of an ideology that addresses all aspects of life and outlines means to attain the final goal, and a single mass party through which the people are mobilized to muster energy and support. The party is generally led by a dictator and, typically, participation in politics, especially voting, is compulsory. The party leadership maintains monopoly control over the governmental system, which includes the police, military, communications, and economic and education systems. Dissent is systematically suppressed and people terrorized by a secret police. Autocracies through the ages have attempted to exercise control over the lives of their subjects, by whatever means were available to them, including the use of secret police and military force. However, only with modern technology have governments acquired the means to control society; therefore, totalitarianism is, historically, a recent phenomenon.

By the 1960s there was a sharp decline in the concept's popularity among scholars. Subsequently, the decline in Soviet centralization after Stalin, research into Nazism revealing significant inefficiency and improvisation, and the Soviet collapse may have reduced the utility of the concept to that of an ideal or abstract type. In addition, constitutional democracy and totalitarianism, as forms of the modern state, share many characteristics. In both, those in authority have a monopoly on the use of the nation's military power and on certain forms of mass communication; and the suppression of dissent, especially during times of crisis, often occurs in democracies as well. Moreover, one-party systems are found in some nontotalitarian states, as are government-controlled economies and dictators.


There is no single cause for the growth of totalitarian tendencies. There may be theoretical roots in the collectivist political theories of Plato Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Karl Marx. But the emergence of totalitarian forms of government is probably more the result of specific historical forces. For example, the chaos that followed in the wake of World War I allowed or encouraged the establishment of totalitarian regimes in Russia, Italy, and Germany, while the sophistication of modern weapons and communications enabled them to extend and consolidate their power.


See E. Fromm, Escape from Freedom (1941, repr. 1960); H. Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1958, new ed. 1966); C. J. Friedrich and Z. K. Brezinski, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (2d ed. 1967); M. Curtis, ed., Totalitarianism (1979); S. P. Soper, Totalitarianism: A Conceptual Approach (1985); H. Buchheim, Totalitarian Rule (1962, tr. 1987); A. Gleason, Totalitarianism (1995).

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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

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