A totalitarian régime or state attempts to control nearly every aspect of personal, economic, and political life. Benito Mussolini was the first to use the word totalitarian to describe his dictatorship positively, although it could have been used just as easily to describe the Soviet Union under such leaders as Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, who had seized power in Russia in 1917 and shared similar tendencies toward a complete restructuring and regimentation of society.

Totalitarian governments prohibit all activities contrary to the régime's goals of either a radical restructuring of society to create a new economic order (communism), institute racism (Nazism, or Croatian Ustaše), reconstitute human nature through fundamentalist religion (Taliban rule in Afghanistan), or some combination of these. They maintain power through secret police, propaganda, and suppression of open criticism of the regime, often through terroristic methods. Much as in George Orwell's fictional Nineteen Eighty-Four, the régime exploits real or imaginary threats to itself as threats to the people and as excuses for persecution of dissidents and other 'enemies of the people'. Due to the reputations of totalitarian states for mass murder, extreme repression, and militarism, the word totalitarian almost invariably implies opprobrium toward a particular government, and is often used selectively in asserting that one sort of dictatorship is less loathsome than another, as in contemporary disputes over the legitimacy and characteristics of the Chilean régime under Augusto Pinochet as opposed to Fidel Castro's Cuba.

The concept of totalitarianism encapsulates the characteristics of a number of twentieth-century régimes that mobilized entire populations in support of the state or an ideology. According to these historical approximations, totalitarian regimes are more repressive of pluralism and political rights than authoritarian ones. Even so, the gradation from 'authoritarian' to 'totalitarian' has no sharp delineation. Typically, the régime is both highly regimented as well as brutal, but neither brutality nor regimentation alone establishes that a régime is totalitarian. For example, Great Britain's economy during World War II was one of the most regimented ever, but this was solely for the purpose of survival of the political system (which still honored human rights and the democratic process and loosened many of these strictures when the war ended). Those criteria themselves have gradations. Some dictatorships are less brutal and repressive than others, even if they share many similarities of ideology.

Totalitarian régimes are phenomena exclusive to the twentieth century and later. All totalitarian régimes pose as the culmination of 'true' democracy as opposed to the liberal democracies that exercise the rule of law and respect property rights. All depend upon technologies of mass media, repression on an industrial scale, and mass surveillance impossible without the scientific advances of the late nineteenth century. Tyrants of earlier times such as Nebuchadnezzar, Nero, Ivan the Terrible, and Henry VIII lacked the means of suffocating individuality or preventing escape as do modern totalitarians; none of them posed as the expression of the popular will against tradition or would-be exploiters or oppressors.

During the Cold War, the term became popularized by many anti-communist commentators, and fell into common usage in the United States. Thus, some have used the term to describe just about any nationalist, imperialist, fascist and Communist regime as "totalitarian." However, some fascist regimes, such as Franco's Spain and Mussolini's Italy before World War II; some Communist regimes, such as Yugoslavia under Josip Broz Tito, and the People's Republic of China under Deng Xiaoping; and single-party regimes, such as Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek and Indonesia under Suharto may be said to have authoritarian rather than totalitarian characteristics. Some governments or political movements of unusual brutality (like Uganda under Idi Amin or Rwanda during its genocide) lack the control of economics or culture characteristic of a totalitarian system, even if the political system is as brutal as most totalitarian states.

Some scholars, such as Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, have moved beyond the tripartite typology of totalitarian, authoritarian, and democratic regimes without rejecting it entirely. Instead, they expand that typology by explicating "post-totalitarianism" as a distinctive regime-type characterizing regimes such as the post-Stalinist Soviet Union.


Totalitarian regimes

One can distinguish the totalitarian régime from all traditional tyrannies and absolute monarchies by the mobilization, possible only in the twentieth century, of entire populations in support of the state and a political ideology. The main examples of regimes considered totalitarian are Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, the Soviet Union, Ba'athist Iraq, Ba'athist Syria, Libya under the government of Muammar al-Qaddafi, the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, the Laotian Pathet Lao, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Totalitarian systems, however, may not be as monolithic as they appear, since they may hide a process in which several groups—the army, political leaders, industrialists, and others—compete for power and influence.

Problems of identification and distinction

Both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany came into conflict with the "free world", either directly and violently (World War II), or indirectly (the Cold War). Allied forces led by the Soviet Union and the United States (amongst others) defeated Germany on V-E Day.

Since the fall of the Nazi regime in Germany, many theorists in the United States and Western Europe have argued that similarities exist between the government of Nazi Germany and that of Stalin's Soviet Union. Hannah Arendt, in particular, draws parallels between fascism and Stalinism. In most cases, this has not taken the form of emphasising the alleged "economic" aspects of the two countries but of arguing that both Nazism and Stalinism represent forms of totalitarianism. The distinction often made between communism and National Socialism that the Nazis allowed capitalists to profit from ostensibly free enterprise ignores that ownership of enterprises in Nazi Germany was precarious at best; the government could expropriate, regulate, and dispose of any private property at will from any real or perceived enemies (especially Jews), and exacted bribes and "contributions" from owners and managers to an extent that property ownership was largely superficial.

The comparison is often disputed on the basis of Nazism's theoretical and practical relationship to communism. Since the Nazis were belligerent anti-Marxists, it is thought that they are incongruous with the socialist tradition as emblemized by French Revolutionaries or Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis revered the nationalist operas of Wagner, particularly the Ring Cycle, and found heroes in history such as Frederick the Great or the Teutonic Knights. Conversely, the Nazis rejected and even reviled typical socialist cultural and historical traditions such as the celebration of the French Revolution and the 1848 Revolutions or the lore of workers' struggles in momentous strikes and protests. The Nazis condemned and rejected the eighteenth and nineteenth century revolutionary movements and blamed these events for destroying traditional values and social relations. They also saw these revolutions as part of a Jewish conspiracy, since those revolutions resulted (inter alia) in the emancipation of the Jews.

However, "Jewish Bolshevism" was not the only anti-semitic theme of tirades against political opponents. Paradoxically, "Jewish plutocrats" and "liberals" were also seen as effecting a parasitic drain on the German worker. Above all, Nazi propaganda appropriated much of the rhetoric of Marxism on the working class and imposed as extensive a regimentation of personal life as under Marxism-Leninism and Stalinism, even if the Nazis treated communism as the ultimate expression of evil. The Nazis had for decades claimed the mantle of "true" socialism much as communists claimed to be instituting "true" democracy.

The hierarchical nature of the anti-modern corporatism espoused by Nazism and other forms of fascism contrasts directly with the egalitarianism espoused by most forms of socialism. Kershaw argues that the Nazis opposed egalitarianism, had an elitist view of society and asserted that in competition amongst citizens the superior individual would emerge on top. However, the same might be said of those countries, such as the Soviet Union, also labeled totalitarian but often accepted as representing communism or socialism. Egalitarianism would seem to connote much more in theory than applicable comparisons of existing states. Moreover, if humanity is separated into ostensibly "economic" classes, something agreed as apparent between both Nazis and communists, then a practice of ostracizing, killing, or destroying classes and individuals in those classes can not properly described as egalitarian even in theory, as the dead and shackled aren't likely to think highly of their established equality.

Much of this debate ultimately revolves around the question of the meaning of the term socialism as well as corporatism, making argument on the subject frequently as much about semantics as about actual substantive differences. If socialism is defined down rather narrowly to encompass a specific political tradition rather than a socioeconomic worldview applicable more widely, then the analysis of similarity in modern totalitarianism boils down to an antiseptic view of police state tactics. As well, many ascribe the essential racist qualities of Nazism to a far-right leaning, but this accepts without question a definition of right-wing as nationalist, racist, or otherwise chauvinist in character. Moreover it ignores the nationalist characters of many communist movements and leaders (such as Ho Chi Minh), and even Joseph Stalin himself.

Theories of totalitarianism

The relationship between totalitarianism and authoritarianism also remains controversial: some see totalitarianism as an extreme form of authoritarianism, while others argue that they differ completely.

Some political analysts, notably so-called neo-conservatives such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, contend that although both types of governments can behave extremely brutally to political opponents, in an authoritarian government the government's efforts focus mostly on those classified as political opponents, and the government has neither the will nor, often, the means to control every aspect of an individual's life. In a totalitarian system, the ruling ideology requires that every aspect of an individual's life become subordinated to the state, including education, occupation, income, recreation and religion, often even including family relationships. Personal survival links to the regime's survival, and thus the concepts of "the state" and "the people" become merged. This is also called the carceral state — like a prison.

Some analysts have argued that totalitarianism requires a cult of personality around a charismatic "great leader" (even "dear leader") glorified as the legitimator of the regime. Many regimes often considered totalitarian fit this model — for example on a global scale of politics, those of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Nicolae Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Qaddafi, Hafez al-Assad, Kim Il-Sung, and Kim Jong Il. Partially for this reason, some scholars, notably those with socialist sympathies, do not consider the post-Stalin Soviet Union and most of the Warsaw Pact nations as totalitarian. Other analysts, however, argued that the presence of a strong cult of personality is a cultural characteristic or even a transient one, and is not a required trait of totalitarianism. In any case, when those régimes fell, many intellectuals of the countries have substantiated the claim they had indeed experienced totalitarianism. This seem to have validated the belief that totalitarianism frequently features a charismatic leader but does not require one.

Still, one can reasonably argue that a leader with an absolute power at all times for guidance of nearly every aspect of life is a useful political device of a totalitarian régime. Whether or not a newly installed leader of a totalitarian regime possesses natural charisma or not, the totalitarian system often acts as if the leader possesses it.

Philosophical considerations

The original sense in which totalitarian was coined, least viable for its connotations today but pertinent to understanding the context of its earliest instances, was for representing the state through Giovanni Gentile's philosophy. For him, totalitarian was the condition of the state in which all activities of civil society, inadvertently or not, ultimately lead to, and therefore perpetually exist in, something resembling a state, e.g., Statist Totalitarianism. Within that consideration, therefore, is an express and underlying need for advancement to come through synthesis of every quality of society through recognition in policy and by official mandate of everything which can take part within the sphere of human living, by the state.

The state is then an attempt to expand and magnify the every interest of its demographic as being reciprocal with the state to where their interests and actions belong to something higher than themselves. Society is then intimately interconnected with the state as its limiting factor. Central concentration of power from elites and then to lesser sub-citizen classes. One can only act towards the goals that the state values, rather than any interests the people hold generally.

Validity of the theory of totalitarianism

Several theories of totalitarianism were developed by historians and political scientists in democratic countries during the second half of the 20th century. They appeared solid until the late 1980s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union and other communist bloc nations overturned many established ideas. Although there is little doubt that theories of totalitarianism have shaped and continue to shape U.S. foreign policy and journalistic discussion, the actual predictive value of totalitarianism as a theory is disputable.

The collapse of the Eastern bloc tested numerous aspects of the theory of totalitarianism. Many decades earlier, in 1957, theorist Bertram Wolfe claimed that Soviet society had all power flowing to the top with no challenge or change possible from society at large. He called it a "solid and durable political system dominating a society that has been totally fragmented or atomized," one which will remain "barring explosion from within or battering down from without."

Most classic theories of totalitarianism left out even the possibility of an "explosion from within" as mentioned by Bertram Wolfe. These were largely discredited when the Soviet Union fell completely without an invasion from outside.

Contrasting theories argued that there continued to be bases inside Soviet society for change, and that it is unrealistic to think that any one man or state could concentrate power in such a way as to make those bases of change irrelevant. From opposite sides of the political spectrum, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Mao Zedong both claimed that "peaceful evolution" toward capitalism was possible in the Eastern bloc.

Despite fundamental disagreement over the applicability of the term, references to the theory of totalitarianism are still commonly made today, especially in the form of using the word "totalitarian" to refer to North Korea, Iran, and (Ba'athist) Iraq in the "Axis of Evil" defined by George W. Bush and neo-conservative foreign policy analysts in the West.

Totalitarianism in fiction

Totalitarian dystopias include George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Ayn Rand's Anthem, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Max Barry's Jennifer Government. Two of John Barnes' novels, Candle and The Sky So Big and Black, treat the threat of a hegemonic software program One True that takes control of individual human minds and entire human societies. Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago also features totalitarianism.


de:Totalitarismus es:Totalitarismo et:Totalitarism fi:Totalitarismi fr:Totalitarisme he:טוטליטריזם it:Totalitarismo ja:全体主義 nl:Totalitarisme no:Totalitarisme pl:Totalitaryzm pt:Totalitarismo


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