In a totalitarian regime, the state controls nearly every aspect of the individual's life. Totalitarian governments do not tolerate activities by individuals or groups such as labor unions that are not directed by the state's goals. Totalitarian regimes maintain themselves in power through secret police, propaganda disseminated through the media, the elimination of open criticism of the regime, and use of terror tactics. Internal and external threats are created to foster unity through fear.
The concept of totalitarianism is a typology or ideal-type used by some political scientists to encapsulate the characteristics of a number of twentieth century regimes 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.
Benito Mussolini originally applied the term to his own regime (1922-1943) in Italy. Leon Trotsky applied the term to both fascism and Stalinism as "symmetrical phenomena" in his 1936 book Revolution Betrayed . Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) popularized the use of the term totalitarianism (notably in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism) in order to illustrate the commonalities between Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union.
During the Cold War, the term became popularized by many anticommunist 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 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 have authoritarian rather than totalitarian characteristics.
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.
Regimes approximated as totalitarian have developed in the twentieth century through new techniques that mobilize 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 under Joseph Stalin. 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. Arendt, in particular, draws parallels between fascism and Stalinism.
Since the fall of the Nazi regime in Germany, many other 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. 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.
However, the concept of totalitarianism remains highly controversial. Most historians who study Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union accept it only with reservations. But some (usually anti-socialist) scholars argue that Nazism resembled Stalinism not only in its methods of rule, as suggested by Arendt and other theorists of totalitarianism, but also in that both systems ran "socialist" states. Those who hold this view point to the statements of Nazi leaders that they were "socialists", as well as the anti-capitalist planks of the Nazi party program and policy. Furthermore, the background of Benito Mussolini, founder of the Italian fascist movement, as a socialist before the First World War, has served to further the claim that the roots of fascism (of which Nazism allegedly represents a special form) lie in socialist thought. The aforementioned neo-conservative scholars also note the collectivist, statist nature of some parts of the Nazi enterprise, which they see as essentially socialist. Others disagree with this view, pointing out that collectivist and statist practices have existed in a wide variety of governments throughout human history — including some as old as Ancient Egypt — which have nothing to do with socialism. They further point to the fact that Nazi Germany allowed (and even encouraged) private enterprise.
Others dispute this theory, largely 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. 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.
In fact, "Jewish Bolshevism" was a prime theme of tirades against political opponents, as was, paradoxically, "Jewish plutocrats" and "liberals". This was symptomatic of a dichotomy in which Jews were often viewed in this point of time in history as representing at once both a "[[reactionary]" (capitalist) and "radical" (communist) group.
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. Critics would respond that the same is true of those countries, such as the Soviet Union, also labeled totalitarian. Egalitarianism would seem to connote much more in theory than applicable comparisons of existing states. Moreover, if humanity is separated into ostensibly "economic" classes (as Nazis agreed with communists on), then a practice of ostracizing, killing, or destroying such 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. As well, many ascribe the essential racist qualities of Nazism to a "far right" leaning, but this presupposed a meaning 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 Stalin himself. See: right-wing.
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, have studied the various distinctions between totalitarianism and authoritarianism. They argue that while 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" glorified as the legitimator of the regime. Many regimes often considered totalitarian fit this model — for example, those of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Il-Sung. Partially for this reason, some scholars do not consider the post-Stalin Soviet Union and most of the Warsaw Pact nations as totalitarian. When those governments fell, however, many intellectuals and average citizens of the countries argued that they had indeed experienced totalitarianism. This has made more popular the belief that totalitarianism frequently features a charismatic leader but does not require one.
Still, one can reasonably argue that all totalitarian systems do seem to necessarily require the presence of a living human absolute leader at all times and do expect a certain type of guidance for nearly every aspect of life from that leader. Regardless of whether or not a newly installed leader of a totalitarian regime may happen to possess a certain natural charisma or not, the totalitarian system seems to tend to attempt to systematically impose this charisma onto the leader.
Critics of the concept of totalitarianism often argue that there is no clear distinction between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, and that such a distinction is only artificially created by those who wish to make certain dictatorships appear better than others, or those who wish to justify their alliance with (or support of) certain dictators rather than others.
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. 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 & actions belong to something higher than themselves. Society is then intimately interconnected with the state as its limiting factor, based upon how all those conditions of life gave rise to it for them to be free to have their own interests benefit it as much as themselves, and can only act through the means that society has as the interest of that resultant state rather than any interests the people hold generally. Thus, this kind of Totalitarianism originated as a term for an idea meant to represent an opposition to both socialism and liberalism.
Validity of the theory of totalitarianism
A theory of totalitarianism (or rather, several such theories) was developed by historians and political scientists in democratic countries during the second half of the 20th century. The theory appeared solid until the 1980s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union overturned many established ideas about "totalitarianism". 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 Soviet 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 claimed that "peaceful evolution" toward capitalism was possible in the Soviet bloc.
Despite a lack of accurate predictions in the past and having missed on comparative measurement of repression, 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 the "Axis of Evil" defined by George W. Bush and neoconservative foreign policy analysts in the West.
Totalitarianism in fiction
George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is the most famous portrayal of totalitarian dystopia. Other noteworthy examples include Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Yevgeny Zamyatin's We and, a more contemporary work, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.
Last updated: 10-24-2005 03:57:30