Totalitarianism Essay

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Totalitarianism in its simplest sense designates the all-embracing total state. In its narrowest application it refers exclusively to Nazi Germany and to the Stalinist period of the Soviet Union. As a concept, however, it emerged originally in connection with Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, and its frame of reference historically expanded to include the diverse range of communist regimes that evolved in the post-Second World War era. More recently, some commentators have sought to bring Islamic-inspired political extremism into the same orbit. Totalitarianism, arguably, represents a continuing problem for society insofar as the conditions for its emergence are modern: they are a combination of technological possibilities and radically future-oriented political aims. Its event also discloses uncomfortable questions about the character of human nature, the status of moral progress, and confidence in science as an unmitigated good for the improvement of human affairs.

The meaning of totalitarianism is usefully understood in contrast with authoritarianism. The latter term became, in the course of the 20th century, increasingly inadequate to cover the kinds of political regime standing in need of a more specific typology. Totalitarianism came to refer not only to absolute power, but to the attempt to mobilize entire populations in the service of an “ideology,” an end requiring the regulation of both public and private behavior and issuing ultimately in the use of terror and acts of mass murder. The contrast with authoritarianism also illuminates more recent attempts to refine the concept. The earliest literature on totalitarianism sought to enumerate the whole range of all its institutional features. This typically clustered together the combination of traits displayed by all polities plausibly described as totalitarian. Most prominently, these were the single-party system; the deployment of sophisticated methods of propaganda and surveillance; the state’s control of all public associations, including the churches; and the controlled economy. Such a model was, however, open to criticism. Where control, in practice, fell short of being complete, or where purported cases of totalitarianism failed to meet the definitional requirements in each and every detail, the scope of both its purchase and its utility became considerably reduced.

One tack taken in the light of this was, for some, to argue for a clearer conception in Max Weber’s sense of an ideal type, an abstraction to which no real-world polity actually corresponds. More lately, the original model has instead been revised according to a twofold contention. The first aspect of this is the limitation of the earlier understanding by an overemphasis on mechanisms of rule. The second is that it is in thrall to a false image of totalitarianism that still views it as the commitment, on the part of elites, to increase the power of the state as an end in itself. Rather, an increasing consensus affirms that it is the ideological dimension in which resides the real source of commonality between regimes with a valid claim to being both identified as totalitarian and conceptually distinct from authoritarianism. In part this is paradoxical. A long-standing grievance with the totalitarian thesis is that it is wrong-headed to bracket together (right-wing) fascist and (left-wing) communist systems. Nonetheless, the new consensus centrally highlights the historically unprecedented attempt to use the available apparatus of a modern state to fabricate a new form of society. On this view, whether the regime succeeds in mobilizing its citizens to actively participate in this effort, or whether it is obliged simply to impose it by force, does not disrupt this definitional core. In this sense, totalitarianism is a composite blend of diverse intellectual elements that may be identified, most minimally, as utopianism, scientism, and revolutionary violence. In practice, its legitimation draws on all of these diverse currents of thought, and equally each frames the project of transformation that it seeks to enact. The two things are in fact inextricably linked: the claim to legitimacy turns on the promise to bring into being the glorious new dawn.

Totalitarianism of both the right and left draws selectively on utopian ideas. From one direction it derives from a specific vision of the community imagined via a blueprint, proposed with the aim of exposing the degeneracy of contemporary society, and intimately linked with a belief in the need for a complete transformation of human nature. Communism, for instance, conceived class oppression as the root of all wrongs and accordingly sought to eliminate all class differences, while National Socialism saw the corruption of the present as being embedded in racial impurity and was thereby animated by the quest to achieve racial unity. In this connection, some commentators have observed a millenarian variant of utopianism at work, located in the aim of realizing a kind of earthly paradise.

In its second composite element, totalitarianism embraces the modern scientific worldview. The historical destiny that the projected utopia is predicated upon rests on (pseudo)scientific laws of social and political change that grant a privileged status, as determinants of progress, to class, race, or nation. Typically, the single totalitarian party poses as the interpreter of these historical forces that, conceived as inevitable, are in principle beyond human control. Yet, in “acting out” the struggle envisaged, totalitarian regimes vigorously set out to remake social and political reality in line with this conception, finally by murderously removing from the community the entire range of its socially and racially defined enemies. In so doing totalitarianism meets with a last strand, that of revolutionary violence. The earliest intimation of this possibly appeared in the Terror of the French Revolution and, while characteristically evident in totalitarianism in its initial phase on taking power, violence is also intrinsic to its dynamic and often perceived in almost religious terms as a cleansing source.


  1. Arendt, Hannah. 2004. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Schocken.
  2. Friedrich, Carl and Zbigniew Brzezinski. 1961. Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy. New York: Praeger.
  3. Gleason, Abbott. 1997. Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
  4. Tormey, Simon. 1995. Making Sense of Tyranny: Interpretations of Totalitarianism. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press.

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