AskDefine | Define totalitarian

Dictionary Definition

totalitarian adj
1 characterized by a government in which the political authority exercises absolute and centralized control; "a totalitarian regime crushes all autonomous institutions in its drive to seize the human soul"- Arthur M.Schlesinger, Jr.
2 of or relating to the principles of totalitarianism according to which the state regulates every realm of life; "totalitarian theory and practice"; "operating in a totalistic fashion" [syn: totalistic]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A system of government where the people have virtually no authority and the state wields absolute control of every aspect of the country, socially, financially and politically. For example a dictatorship such as the Nazi regime.


Extensive Definition

Totalitarianism (or totalitarian rule) is a concept used to describe political systems where a state regulates nearly every aspect of public and private life. The term is usually applied to Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany or hard-line communist regimes, such as Stalinist Russia, Democratic Kampuchea or North Korea. 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, central state-controlled economy, regulation and restriction of free discussion and criticism, the use of mass surveillance, and widespread use of terror tactics.


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 and Benito Mussolini. They described totalitarianism as a society in which the ideology of the state had influence, if not power, over most of its citizens. . According to Mussolini, this system politicizes everything spiritual and human
Influential scholars such as Lawrence Aronsen, Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, Carl Friedrich, and Juan Linz have each described totalitarianism in a slightly different way. Common to all definitions is the attempt to mobilize entire populations in support of the official state ideology, and the intolerance 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.

Examples of the term's use

While originally referring to an 'all-embracing, total state,' the label has been applied to a wide variety of regimes and orders of rule in a critical sense. Isabel Paterson, in The God of the Machine (1943) used the term in connection with the collectivist societies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Karl Popper, in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) and The Poverty of Historicism (1961) developed 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 accord with knowable laws. During the Cold War period, the term gained renewed currency, especially following the publication of Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Arendt argued that Nazi and Stalinist regimes were completely 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 was their ideology which provided 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 was accepted by the public, all actions of the regime could be justified by appeal to the Law of History or Nature.

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 under Joseph Stalin as well as fascist regimes. For Friedrich and Brzezinski, the defining elements were intended to be taken as a mutually supportive organic entity comprised 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 in Italy, Germany, and Russia.
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, yet imaginary, 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.

Criticism and recent work with the concept

In the social sciences, the approach of Friedrich and Brzezinski came under criticism from scholars who argued 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 popular support for the regime and 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. Its proponents do not agree on when the Soviet Union ceased to be describable as totalitarian.
The notion of "post-totalitarianism" was put forward by political scientist Juan Linz . For certain commentators, such as Linz and Alfred Stepan, the Soviet Union entered a new phase after the abandonment of mass terror upon Stalin's death. Discussion of "post-totalitarianism" featured prominently in debates about the reformability and durability of the Soviet system in comparative politics.
As the Soviet system disintegrated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it became clear that totalitarian systems are intrinsically unstable. That was not obvious earlier for some researchers. Several decades earlier, for example, in 1957, Bertram Wolfe claimed that the Soviet Union faced 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."
In recent work, Slovenen philosopher and critic Slavoj Žižek has aimed at the concept of totalitarianism itself, claiming that its political usage is purely ideologically-driven. In his collection of five essays "Did somebody say Totalitarianism?", Žižek rethinks the usage of this notion and suggests that it functions as a "tamer of free radicals".

Political usage

While the term fell into disuse during the 1970s among many Soviet specialists, other commentators found the typology not only useful for the purposes of classification but for guiding official policy. In her 1979 essay for Commentary, "Dictatorships and Double Standards", Jeane Kirkpatrick argued that a number of foreign policy implications can be drawn by distinguishing "totalitarian" regimes from autocracies in general. According to Kirkpatrick, typical autocracies are primarily interested in their own survival, and as such have allowed for varying degrees of autonomy regarding elements of civil society, religious institutions, court, and the press. On the other hand, under totalitarianism, no individual or institution is autonomous from the state's all-encompassing ideology. Therefore, U.S. policy should distinguish between the two and even grant support, if temporary, to non-totalitarian autocratic governments in order to combat totalitarian movements and promote U.S. interests. Kirkpatrick's influence, particularly as foreign policy adviser and United Nations ambassador, was essential to the formation of the Reagan administration's foreign policy and her ideas came to be known as the "Kirkpatrick Doctrine."

Communism and Fascism

According to Richard Pipes, the political ideology of Hitler was "deeply affected by the Russian Revolution, negatively as well as positively. Negatively, the triumph of Bolshevism in Russia and its attempts to revolutionize Europe provided Hitler with a justification for his visceral anti-Semitism, and the specter of a "Judeo-Communist" conspiracy with which to frighten the German people. Positively, it helped him in his quest for dictatorial power by teaching him the techniques of crowd manipulation and furnishing him with the model of a one-party, totalitarian state". Hitler admitted that he had "learned a great deal from Marxism". He conceded that
"The whole of National Socialism is based on it. Look at the workers' sports clubs, the industrial cells, the mass demonstrations, the propaganda leaflets written specifically for the comprehension of the masses; all these methods of political struggle are essentially Marxist in origin. All I had to do is take over these methods and adopt them for our purpose... National Socialism is what Marxism might have been if it could have broken its absurd and artificial ties with a democratic order".
Mussolini also acknowledged this connection: "In the whole negative part, we are alike. We and Russians are against the liberals, against democrats, against parliament".. Leading Soviet communist Nikolai Bukharin observed that the political methods of fascism were "a complete applications of Bolshevik tactics, and especially those of Russian Bolshevism, in the sense of the rapid concentration of forces and energetic action of a tightly structured military organization" including the system of local Party committees, mobilization, and pitiless destruction of enemies
The term "Totalitarian Twins" was used by François Furet to link Communism and Fascism.
Gary M. Grobman wrote:
Michael Parenti both acknowledged and criticized the linkage:
  • Both the Italian fascists and the Nazis consciously tried to imitate the left: youth organizations, mass mobilizations, rallies, parades, banners, symbols, slogans, uniforms. And I think for this reason, too, many mainstream writers treat fascism and communism as totalitarian twins. But most workers and peasants could tell the difference. Industrialists and bankers could tell the difference. And certainly the communists and the fascists could tell the difference.
  • Central to Furet's argument is the belief that in a Europe shaken by World War I, Communism and Fascism were propping each other up. ... The Nazi-Soviet pact is for him perfect proof of complicity between the two systems.
  • While the totalitarian nature of Stalin's Russia is undeniable, I find the thesis of "totalitarian twins" both wrong and unproductive. ("Exploiting a Tragedy, or Le Rouge en Noir")



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totalitarian in Chinese: 極權主義

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