Totalitarianism (or totalitarian rule) is a concept used to describe political systems whereby a state regulates nearly every aspect of public and private life. Totalitarian regimes or movements maintain themselves in political power by means of an official all-embracing ideology and propaganda disseminated through the state-controlled mass media, a single party that controls the state, personality cults, control over the economy, regulation and restriction of free discussion and criticism, the use of mass surveillance, and widespread use of state terrorism.


The notion of Totalitarianism as "total" political power by state was formulated in 1923 by Giovanni Amendola who criticized Italian Fascism as a system fundamentally different from conventional dictatorships. The term was later assigned a positive meaning in the writings of Giovanni Gentile, Italy’s most prominent philosopher and leading theorist of fascism. He used the term “totalitario” to refer to the structure and goals of the new state. The new state was to provide the “total representation of the nation and total guidance of national goals.” He described totalitarianism as a society in which the ideology of the state had influence, if not power, over most of its citizens. According to Benito Mussolini, this system politicizes everything spiritual and human: The concept of totalitarianism emerged in the 1920's and 1930's, although it is frequently and mistakenly seen as developing only after 1945 as part of anti-Soviet propaganda during the cold war.

“ Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state. ”

Difference between authoritarian and totalitarian states

According to Karl Loewenstein, "the term 'Authoritarian' denotes a political organization in which the single power holder - an individual person or 'dictator', an assembly, a committee, a junta, or a party monopolizes political power. The term 'Authoritarian' refers rather to the structure of government than to the structure of society. An Authoritarian regime confines itself to political control of the state.

"The governmental techniques of a totalitarian regime are necessarily Authoritarian. But a totalitarian regime does much more. It attempts to mold the private life, soul, and morals of citizens to a dominant ideology. The officially proclaimed ideology penetrates into every nook and cranny of society; its ambition is total.

"Totalitarian regimes seek to destroy civil society i.e. communities that operate independently of the State. Neither the Italian fascists nor the Nazis completely 'destroyed their respective social structures', and so these countries 'could rapidly return to normalcy' after defeat in World War II. In contrast, attempts to reform the regime in the USSR 'led to nowhere because every non-governmental institution, whether social or economic, had to be built from scratch. The result was neither reform of Communism nor establishment of democracy, but a progressive breakdown of organized life'".

In a comment about the similarity of religion to totalitarianism Christopher Hitchens has said "the urge to ban and censor books, silence dissenters, condemn outsiders, invade the private sphere, and invoke an exclusive salvation is the very essence of the totalitarian".[5]

Examples of the term's use

One of the first to use the term "totalitarianism" in the English language was the Austrian writer Franz Borkenau in his 1938 book The Communist International, in which he commented that more united the Soviet and German dictatorships than divided them.[6] Isabel Paterson, in The God of the Machine (1943), used the term in connection with the collectivist societies of the Soviet Union and National Socialist Germany. During a 1945 lecture series entitled The Soviet Impact on the Western World (published as a book in 1946), the pro-Soviet British historian E. H. Carr claimed that "The trend away from individualism and towards totalitarianism is everywhere unmistakable", and that Marxism was much the most successful type of totalitarianism, as proved by Soviet industrial growth and the Red Army's role in defeating Germany. Only the "blind and incurable" could ignore the trend towards totalitarianism, said Carr.

Sir Karl Popper, in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) and The Poverty of Historicism (1961), articulated an influential critique of totalitarianism: in both works, he contrasted the "open society" of liberal democracy with totalitarianism, and argued that the latter is grounded in the belief that history moves toward an immutable future, in accordance with knowable laws.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt argued that Nazi and Communist regimes were new forms of government, and not merely updated versions of the old tyrannies. According to Arendt, the source of the mass appeal of totalitarian regimes is their ideology, which provides a comforting, single answer to the mysteries of the past, present, and future. For Nazism, all history is the history of racial struggle; and, for Marxism, all history is the history of class struggle. Once that premise is accepted, all actions of the regime could be justified by appeal to Nature or the Law of History.

Scholars such as Lawrence Aronsen, Richard Pipes, Leopold Labedz, Franz Borkenau, Walter Laqueur, Sir Karl Popper, Eckhard Jesse, Leonard Schapiro, Adam Ulam, Richard Löwenthal, Hannah Arendt, Robert Conquest, Karl Dietrich Bracher, Carl Joachim Friedrich and Juan Linz describe totalitarianism in slightly different ways. They all agree, however, that totalitarianism seeks to mobilize entire populations in support of an official state ideology, and is intolerant of activities which are not directed towards the goals of the state, entailing repression or state control of business, labour unions, churches or political parties.

Cold War-era research

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

The German historian Karl Dietrich Bracher, whose work is primarily concerned with National Socialist Germany, argues that the "totalitarian typology" as developed by Friedrich and Brzezinski is an excessively inflexible model, and failed to consider the “revolutionary dynamic” that Bracher asserts is at the heart of totalitarianism. Bracher maintains that the essence of totalitarianism is the total claim to control and remake all aspects of society combined with an all-embracing ideology, the value on authoritarian leadership, and the pretence of the common identity of state and society, which distinguished the totalitarian "closed" understanding of politics from the "open" democratic understanding.[10] Unlike the Friedrich-Brzezinski definition Bracher argued that totalitarian regimes did not require a single leader and could function with a collective leadership, which led the American historian Walter Laqueur to argue that Bracher's definition seemed to fit reality better then the Friedrich-Brzezinski definition.

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

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