Totalitarianism is a political system or a form of government that prohibits opposition parties, restricts individual opposition to the state and its claims, and exercises an extremely high degree of control over public and private life. It is regarded as the most extreme and complete form of authoritarianism. Political power in totalitarian states has often been held by autocrats which employ all-encompassing propaganda campaigns broadcast by state-controlled mass media.
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Totalitarian regimes are often characterized by extensive political repression, a complete lack of democracy, widespread personality cultism, absolute control over the economy, restriction of speech, mass surveillance, and widespread use of state terrorism. Other aspects of a totalitarian regime includes the use of concentration camps, repressive secret police, religious persecution or state atheism, extensive practice of capital punishment, possible possession of WMDs, fraudulent elections (if they take place), and potentially state-sponsored mass murder and genocides. Historian Robert Conquest describes a totalitarian state as one recognizing no limits to its authority in any sphere of public or private life and which extends that authority to whatever length feasible.
The concept was first developed in the 1920s by both Weimar jurist (and later Nazi academic) Carl Schmitt and, concurrently, the Italian fascists. Italian fascist Benito Mussolini said "Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state". Schmitt used the term Totalstaat in his influential 1927 work on the legal basis of an all-powerful state, The Concept of the Political. The term gained prominence in Western anti-communist political discourse during the Cold War era as a tool to convert pre-war anti-fascism into postwar anti-communism.
Totalitarian regimes are different from other authoritarian regimes. The latter denotes a state in which the single power holder—an individual "dictator", a committee or a junta or an otherwise small group of political elite—monopolizes political power. "[The] authoritarian state [...] is only concerned with political power and as long as that is not contested it gives society a certain degree of liberty". Authoritarianism "does not attempt to change the world and human nature". In contrast, a totalitarian regime attempts to control virtually all aspects of the social life, including the economy, education, art, science, private life and morals of citizens. Some totalitarian governments may promote an elaborate ideology: "The officially proclaimed ideology penetrates into the deepest reaches of societal structure and the totalitarian government seeks to completely control the thoughts and actions of its citizens". It also mobilizes the whole population in pursuit of its goals. Carl Joachim Friedrich writes that "a totalist ideology, a party reinforced by a secret police, and monopoly control of [...] industrial mass society" are the three features of totalitarian regimes that distinguish them from other autocracies.
Early uses of the term
The notion of totalitarianism as a "total" political power by the state was formulated in 1923 by Giovanni Amendola, who described 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, which were 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: "Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state".
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 it united the Soviet and German dictatorships more than it divided them. The label "totalitarian" was twice affixed to the Hitler regime during Winston Churchill's speech of October 5, 1938 before the House of Commons in opposition to the Munich Agreement, by which France and Great Britain consented to Nazi Germany's annexation of the Sudetenland. Churchill was then a backbencher MP representing the Epping constituency. In a radio address two weeks later, Churchill again employed the term, this time applying the concept to "a Communist or a Nazi tyranny".
José María Gil-Robles y Quiñones, the leader of the historic Spanish reactionary party called the Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right (CEDA) declared his intention to "give Spain a true unity, a new spirit, a totalitarian polity" and went on to say: "Democracy is not an end but a means to the conquest of the new state. When the time comes, either parliament submits or we will eliminate it". General Francisco Franco was determined not to have competing right-wing parties in Spain and, in April 1937, CEDA was dissolved. Later Gil-Robles went into exile.
George Orwell made frequent use of the word totalitarian and its cognates in multiple essays published in 1940, 1941 and 1942. In his essay Why I Write, he wrote: "The Spanish war and other events in 1936–37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it".
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: "The trend away from individualism and towards totalitarianism is everywhere unmistakable" and that Marxism–Leninism was by far 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.
In The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) and The Poverty of Historicism (1961), Karl Popper 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 race struggle and for Marxism all history is the history of class struggle. Once that premise is accepted, all actions of the state can be justified by appeal to nature or the law of history, justifying their establishment of authoritarian state apparatus.
In addition to Arendt, many scholars from a variety of academic backgrounds and ideological positions have closely examined totalitarianism. Among the most noted commentators on totalitarianism are Raymond Aron, Lawrence Aronsen, Franz Borkenau, Karl Dietrich Bracher, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert Conquest, Carl Joachim Friedrich, Eckhard Jesse, Leopold Labedz, Walter Laqueur, Claude Lefort, Juan Linz, Richard Löwenthal, Karl Popper, Richard Pipes, Leonard Schapiro and Adam Ulam. Each one of these describes totalitarianism in slightly different ways, but they all agree 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, non-profit organizations, religious organizations and buildings and political parties.
Cold War anti-totalitarianism
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 Soviet Union as well as fascist regimes. Friedrich and Brzezinski argue in that a totalitarian system has the following six, mutually supportive, defining characteristics:
- Elaborate guiding ideology.
- Single mass party, typically led by a dictator.
- System of terror, using such instruments as violence and secret police.
- Monopoly on weapons.
- Monopoly on the means of communication.
- Central direction and control of the economy through state planning.
Totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union had initial origins in the chaos that followed in the wake of World War I and allowed totalitarian movements to seize control of the government while the sophistication of modern weapons and communications enabled them to effectively establish what Friedrich and Brzezinski called a "totalitarian dictatorship". Some social scientists have criticized Friedrich and Brzezinski's anti-totalitarian approach, arguing that the Soviet system, both as a political and as a social entity, was in fact better understood in terms of interest groups, competing elites, or even in class terms (using the concept of the nomenklatura as a vehicle for a new ruling class). These critics pointed to evidence of the widespread dispersion of power, at least in the implementation of policy, among sectoral and regional authorities. For some followers of this pluralist approach, this was evidence of the ability of the regime to adapt to include new demands. However, proponents of the totalitarian model claimed that the failure of the system to survive showed not only its inability to adapt, but the mere formality of supposed popular participation.
The German historian Karl Dietrich Bracher, whose work is primarily concerned with Nazi 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. 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 than the Friedrich-Brzezinski definition.
In his book The True Believer, Eric Hoffer argues that mass movements like Stalinism, 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. The individual is then assimilated into a compact collective body and "fact-proof screens from reality" are established.
Paul Hanebrink has also argued that many European Christians started to fear Communist regimes after the rise of Adolf Hitler: "For many European Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, the new postwar ‘culture war’ crystallized as a struggle against communism. Across interwar Europe, Christians demonized the Communist regime in Russia as the apotheosis of secular materialism and a militarized threat to Christian social and moral order." For him, Christians saw Communist regimes as threat to their moral order and hoped to lead European nations back to their Christian roots by creating an anti-totalitarian census, which defined Europe in the early Cold War.
In the 1990s, François Furet used the term "totalitarian twins" to link Stalinism and Nazism. Eric Hobsbawm criticized Furet for his temptation to stress a common ground between two systems of different ideological roots.
In the field of Soviet history, the totalitarian concept has been disparaged by the revisionist school, some of whose more prominent members were Sheila Fitzpatrick, Jerry F. Hough, William McCagg, Robert W. Thurston and J. Arch Getty. Though their individual interpretations differ, the revisionists have argued that the Soviet state under Joseph Stalin was institutionally weak, that the level of terror was much exaggerated and that—to the extent it occurred—it reflected the weaknesses rather than the strengths of the Soviet state. Fitzpatrick argued that the Stalin's purges in the Soviet Union provided an increased social mobility and therefore a chance for a better life.
Writing in 1987, Walter Laqueur said that the revisionists in the field of Soviet history were guilty of confusing popularity with morality and of making highly embarrassing and not very convincing arguments against the concept of the Soviet Union as a totalitarian state. Laqueur argued that the revisionists' arguments with regard to Soviet history were highly similar to the arguments made by Ernst Nolte regarding German history. Laqueur asserted that concepts such as modernization were inadequate tools for explaining Soviet history while totalitarianism was not.
Laqueur's argument has been criticized by modern revisionist historians, such as Paul Buhle, who claim that Laqueur wrongly equates Cold-war revisionism with the German revisionism. The latter reflected a "revanchist, military-minded conservative nationalism". More recently, Enzo Traverso has attacked the creators of the concept of totalitarianism as having invented it to designate the enemies of the West. Thus, calling Stalin totalitarian instead of authoritarian has been asserted to be a high-sounding but specious excuse for Western self-interest, just as surely as the counterclaim—that alleged debunking of the totalitarian concept may just be a high-sounding but specious excuse for Russian self-interest. For Domenico Losurdo, totalitarianism is a polysemic concept with origins in Christian theology, and that applying it to the political sphere requires an operation of abstract schematism which makes use of isolated elements of historical reality to place fascist regimes and the USSR in the dock together, serving the anti-communism of Cold War-era intellectuals rather than reflecting intellectual research. Other scholars, such as F. William Engdahl, Sheldon Wolin and Slavoj Žižek, have linked totalitarianism to capitalism and liberalism and used concepts, such as totalitarian democracy, inverted totalitarianism or totalitarian capitalism.
In the 2010s, Vladimir Tismaneanu, Richard Shorten and Aviezer Tucker argued that totalitarian ideologies can take different forms in different political systems, but all of them focus on utopianism, scientism or political violence. They think that both Nazism and Soviet Communism emphasised the role of specialisation in modern societies and saw polymathy as "a thing of the past"; both claimed to have statistical scientific support for their claims, which led to a strict "ethical" control of culture, psychological violence and persecution of entire groups. Their arguments have been criticised by other scholars due to their partiality and anachronism. For instance, Juan Francisco Fuentes treats totalitarianism as an “invented tradition” and the use of notion of “modern despotism” as a “reverse anachronism”. For Fuentes, “the anachronistic use of totalitarian/totalitarianism involves the will to reshape the past in the image and likeness of the present.”
The Economist has described China's developed Social Credit System to screen and rank its citizens based on their personal behavior as "totalitarian". China's Social Credit System was first announced in 2014 and aims to introduce the idea that "Keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful" according to a government document that guided the ideology of the plan. By 2020, the Social Credit System should be fully operational and mandatory for millions of people across the country. Just like a credit score, a person's social score can move up and down depending on the way that they act. Opponents of China's ranking system say that it is intrusive and is just another way for a one-party state to control the population. Supporters of this new system say that it will make for a more civilized and law-abiding society. The New York Times compared Xi Jinping Thought, the PRC's ruling ideology and cult of personality, to that of Mao Zedong during the Cold War.
Totalitarianism in architecture
Non-political aspects of the culture and motifs of totalitarian countries have themselves often been labeled innately "totalitarian". For example, Theodore Dalrymple, a British author, physician and political commentator, has written for City Journal that brutalist structures are an expression of totalitarianism given that their grand, concrete-based design involves destroying gentler, more-human places such as gardens. In 1949, author George Orwell described the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four as an "enormous, pyramidal structure of white concrete, soaring up terrace after terrace, three hundred metres into the air". Columnist Ben Macintyre of The Times wrote that it was "a prescient description of the sort of totalitarian architecture that would soon dominate the Communist bloc". In contrast to these views, several authors have seen brutalism and socialist realism as modernist art forms, which brought an ethos and sensibility in art.
Another example of totalitarianism in architecture is the Panopticon, a type of institutional building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century. The concept of the design is to allow a watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without their being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. It was invoked by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish as metaphor for "disciplinary" societies and their pervasive inclination to observe and normalise. Foucault's Panopticon theory has been criticised by David W. Garland for providing little theoretical basis for the possibility of resistance within this "totalitarian" prison.
- Conquest, Robert (1999). Reflections on a Ravaged Century. p. 74. ISBN 0-393-04818-7.
- Schmitt, Carl (1927). The Concept of the Political (German: Der Begriff des Politischen) (1996 University of Chicago Press ed.). Rutgers University Press. p. 22. ISBN 0-226-73886-8.
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- Achim Siegel, The totalitarian paradigm after the end of Communism: towards a theoretical reassessment, 1998, p. 200 "Concepts of totalitarianism became most widespread at the height of the Cold War. Since the late 1940s, especially since the Korean War, they were condensed into a far-reaching, even hegemonic, ideology, by which the political elites of the Western world tried to explain and even to justify the Cold War constellation"
- Nicholas Guilhot, The democracy makers: human rights and international order, 2005, p. 33 "The opposition between the West and Soviet totalitarianism was often presented as an opposition both moral and epistemological between truth and falsehood. The democratic, social, and economic credentials of the Soviet Union were typically seen as "lies" and as the product of a deliberate and multiform propaganda...In this context, the concept of totalitarianism was itself an asset. As it made possible the conversion of prewar anti-fascism into postwar anti-communism
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- Churchill, Winston, Speech to the House of Commons, October 5, 1938: "We in this country, as in other Liberal and democratic countries, have a perfect right to exalt the principle of self-determination, but it comes ill out of the mouths of those in totalitarian states who deny even the smallest element of toleration to every section and creed within their bounds." "Many of those countries, in fear of the rise of the Nazi power, ... loathed the idea of having this arbitrary rule of the totalitarian system thrust upon them, and hoped that a stand would be made."
- Churchill, Winston, Radio Broadcast to the United States and to London, October 16, 1938
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- Friedrich, Carl and Brzezinski, Zbigniew Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy Harvard University Press, 1956
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- "Furet, borrowing from Hannah Arendt, describes Bolsheviks and Nazis as totalitarian twins, conflicting yet united." Singer, Daniel, The Nation (April 17, 1995)
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the totalitarian nature of Stalin's Russia is undeniable
- "The government of Nazi Germany was a fascist, totalitarian state." Grobman, Gary M.
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- Fitzpatrick, Sheila, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)
- Laqueur, Walter The Fate of the Revolution: Interpretations of Soviet history from 1917 to the Present (New York: Scribner's, 1987) p. 228
- Laqueur, Walter The Fate of the Revolution: Interpretations of Soviet history from 1917 to the Present (New York: Scribner's, 1987) p. 233.
- Paul Buhle and Edward Francis Rice-Maximin (1995), William Appleman Williams: The Tragedy of Empire. Psychology Press, p. 192. ISBN 0-34-912056-0
- Enzo Traverso (2001), Le Totalitarisme: Le XXe siècle en débat. Poche. ISBN 978-2020378574
- Richard Shorten "Modernism and Totalitarianism: Rethinking the Intellectual Sources of Nazism and Stalinism, 1945 to the Present", Palgrave, 2012; Vladimir Tismaneanu, “The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century”, University of California Press, 2012; Aviezer Tucker "The Legacies of Totalitarianism: A Theoretical Framework", Cambridge University Press, 2015.
- Juan Francisco Fuentes, “How Words reshape the Past: The ‘Old, Old Story’ of Totalitarianism”, Politics, Religion & Ideology, 2015, p. 15.
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- Michel Foucault (2012). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. pp. 207–207.
- David Garland (1990). Punishment and Modern Society. p. 17.
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- Franz Borkenau, The Totalitarian Enemy (London: Faber and Faber 1940).
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- Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics (in particular March 7, 1979 course).
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