Joseph Stalin (left), leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and Adolf Hitler (right), leader of the Greater German Reich — considered prototypical dictators of totalitarian regimes

Totalitarianism is a political system and a form of government that prohibits opposition political parties, disregards and outlaws the political claims of individual and group opposition to the state, and controls the public sphere and the private sphere of society. In the field of political science, totalitarianism is the extreme form of authoritarianism, wherein all socio-political power is held by a dictator, who also controls the national politics and the peoples of the nation with continual propaganda campaigns that are broadcast by state-controlled and by friendly private mass communications media.[1]

The totalitarian government uses ideology to control most aspects of human life, such as the political economy of the country, the system of education, the arts, the sciences, and the private-life morality of the citizens.[2] In the exercise of socio-political power, the difference between a totalitarian régime of government and an authoritarian régime of government is one of degree; whereas totalitarianism features a charismatic dictator and a fixed worldview, authoritarianism only features a dictator who holds power for the sake of holding power, and is supported, either jointly or individually, by a military junta and by the socio-economic elites who are the ruling class of the country.[3]


Contemporary background

Modern political science catalogues three régimes of government: (i) the democratic, (ii) the authoritarian, and (iii) the totalitarian.[4][5] Varying by political culture, the functional characteristics of the totalitarian régime of government are: political repression of all opposition (individual and collective); a cult of personality about The Leader; official economic interventionism (controlled wages and prices); official censorship of all mass communication media (the press, textbooks, cinema, television, radio, internet); official mass surveillance-policing of public places; and state terrorism.[1] In the essay "Democide in Totalitarian States: Mortacracies and Megamurderers" (1994) the American political scientist Rudolph Rummel said that:

Totalitarian dictator: The politician Kim Il Sung was the founding-father and leader (r. 1948–1994) of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, a communist totalitarian state based on the USSR.[6]

There is much confusion about what is meant by totalitarian in the literature, including the denial that such [political] systems even exist. I define a totalitarian state as one with a system of government that is unlimited, [either] constitutionally or by countervailing powers in society (such as by a Church, rural gentry, labor unions, or regional powers); is not held responsible to the public by periodic secret and competitive elections; and employs its unlimited power to control all aspects of society, including the family, religion, education, business, private property, and social relationships. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union was thus totalitarian, as was Mao's China, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Hitler's Germany, and U Ne Win's Burma.

Totalitarianism is, then, a political ideology for which a totalitarian government is the agency for realizing its ends. Thus, totalitarianism characterizes such ideologies as state socialism (as in Burma), Marxism–Leninism as in former East Germany, and Nazism. Even revolutionary Muslim Iran, since the overthrow of the Shah in 1978–79 has been totalitarian—here totalitarianism was married to Muslim fundamentalism. In short, totalitarianism is the ideology of absolute power. State socialism, Communism, Nazism, fascism, and Muslim fundamentalism have been some of its recent raiments. Totalitarian governments have been its agency. The state, with its international legal sovereignty and independence, has been its base. As will be pointed out, mortacracy is the result.[7][8]

Degree of control

In exercising the power of government upon a society, the application of an official dominant ideology differentiates the worldview of the totalitarian régime from the worldview of the authoritarian régime, which is "only concerned with political power, and, as long as [government power] is not contested, [the authoritarian government] gives society a certain degree of liberty."[3] Having no ideology to propagate, the politically secular authoritarian government "does not attempt to change the world and human nature",[3] whereas the "totalitarian government seeks to completely control the thoughts and actions of its citizens",[2] by way of an official "totalist ideology, a [political] party reinforced by a secret police, and monopolistic control of industrial mass society."[3]

Historical background

From the right-wing perspective, the social phenomenon of political totalitarianism is a product of Modernism, which the philosopher Karl Popper said originated from humanist philosophy; from the republic (res publica) proposed by Plato in Ancient Greece (12th c. BC – 600 AD), from G.F.W. Hegel's conception of the State as a polity of peoples, and from the political economy of Karl Marx in the 19th century[9]—yet historians and philosophers of those periods dispute the historiographic accuracy of Popper's 20-century interpretation and delineation of the historical origins of totalitarianism, because the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato did not invent the modern State.[10][11]

In the early 20th century, Giovanni Gentile proposed Italian Fascism as a political ideology with a philosophy that is "totalitarian, and [that] the Fascist State—a synthesis and a unity inclusive of all values—interprets, develops, and potentiates the whole life of a people."[12] In 1920s Germany, during the Weimar Republic (1918–1933), the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt integrated Gentile's Fascist philosophy of united national purpose to the supreme-leader ideology of the Fuhrerprinzip. In the mid 20th-century, the German academics Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer traced the origin of totalitarianism to the Age of Reason (17th c. – 18th c.), especially to the anthropocentrist proposition that: “Man has become the master of the world, a master unbound by any links to Nature, society, and history", which excludes the intervention of supernatural beings to earthly politics of government.[13]

In the essay "The 'Dark Forces', the Totalitarian Model, and Soviet History" (1987), by J.F. Hough,[14] and in the book The Totalitarian Legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution (2019), by Alexander Riley,[15] the historians said that the Russian Marxist revolutionary Lenin was the first politician to establish a sovereign state of the totalitarian model.[16][17][18] As the Duce leading the Italian people to the future, Benito Mussolini (r. 1922–1943) said that his dictatorial régime of government made Fascist Italy (1922–1943) the representative Totalitarian State: "Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State."[19] Likewise, in The Concept of the Political (1927), the Nazi jurist Schmitt used the term der Totalstaat (the Total State) to identify, describe, and establish the legitimacy of a German totalitarian state led by a supreme leader.[20]

American historian William Rubinstein wrote that:

The 'Age of Totalitarianism' included nearly all the infamous examples of genocide in modern history, headed by the Jewish Holocaust, but also comprising the mass murders and purges of the Communist world, other mass killings carried out by Nazi Germany and its allies, and also the Armenian genocide of 1915. All these slaughters, it is argued here, had a common origin, the collapse of the elite structure and normal modes of government of much of central, eastern and southern Europe as a result of World War I, without which surely neither Communism nor Fascism would have existed except in the minds of unknown agitators and crackpots.[21]

After the Second World War (1937–1945), U.S. political discourse (domestic and foreign) included the concepts (ideologic and political) and the terms totalitarian, totalitarianism, and totalitarian model. In the post-war U.S. of the 1950s, to politically discredit the anti-fascism of the Second World War as misguided foreign policy, McCarthyite politicians claimed that Left-wing totalitarianism was an existential threat to Western civilisation, and so facilitated the creation of the American national security state to execute the anti-communist Cold War (1945–1989) that was fought by client-state proxies of the US and the USSR.[22][23][24][25][26]



During the Russo–American Cold War (1945–1989), the academic field of Kremlinology (analysing politburo policy politics) produced historical and policy analyses dominated by the totalitarian model of the USSR as a police state controlled by the absolute power of the supreme leader Stalin, who heads a monolithic, centralised hierarchy of government.[27] The study of the internal politics of the politburo crafting policy at the Kremlin produced two schools of historiographic interpretation of Cold War history: (i) traditionalist Kremlinology and (ii) revisionist Kremlinology. Traditionalist Kremlinologists worked with and for the totalitarian model and produced interpretations of Kremlin politics and policies that supported the police-state version of Communist Russia. The revisionist Kremlinologists presented alternative interpretations of Kremlin politics and reported the effects of politburo policies upon Soviet society, civil and military. Despite the limitations of police-state historiography, revisionist Kremlinologists said that the old image of the Stalinist USSR of the 1950s—a totalitarian state intent upon world domination—was oversimplified and inaccurate, because the death of Stalin changed Soviet society.[28] After the Cold War and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, most revisionist Kremlinologists worked the national archives of ex–Communist states, especially the State Archive of the Russian Federation about Soviet-period Russia.[29][30]

Totalitarian model for policy

In the 1950s, the political scientist Carl Joachim Friedrich said that Communist states, such as Soviet Russia and Red China, were countries systematically controlled with the five features of the totalitarian model of government by a supreme leader: (i) an official dominant ideology that includes a cult of personality about the leader, (ii) control of all civil and military weapons, (iii) control of the public and the private mass communications media, (iv) the use of state terrorism to police the populace, and (v) a political party of mass membership who perpetually re-elect The Leader.[31]

In the 1960s, the revisionist Kremlinologists researched the organisations and studied the policies of the relatively autonomous bureaucracies that influenced the crafting of high-level policy for governing Soviet society in the USSR.[29] Revisionist Kremlinologists, such as J. Arch Getty and Lynne Viola, transcended the interpretational limitations of the totalitarian model by recognising and reporting that the Soviet government, the communist party, and the civil society of the USSR had greatly changed upon the death of Stalin. The revisionist social history indicated that the social forces of Soviet society had compelled the Government of the USSR to adjust public policy to the actual political economy of a Soviet society composed of pre–War and post–War generations of people with different perceptions of the utility of Communist economics for all the Russias.[32] Hence, Russian modern history had outdated the totalitarian model that was the post–Stalinist perception of the police-state USSR of the 1950s.[33]

Politics of historical interpretation

The historiography of the USSR and of the Soviet period of Russian history is in two schools of research and interpretation: (i) the traditionalist school of historiography and (ii) the revisionist school of historiography. Traditionalist-school historians characterise themselves as objective reporters of the claimed totalitarianism inherent to Marxism, to Communism, and to the political nature of Communist states, such as the USSR. Moreover, traditionalist historians criticise the politically liberal bias they perceive in the predominance of revisionist historians in academic publishing, and claim that revisionist-school historians also over-populate the faculties of colleges, universities, and think tanks.[34] Revisionist-school historians criticise the traditionalist school's concentration upon the police-state aspects of Cold War history, and so produce anti-communist history biased towards a right-wing interpretation of the documentary facts,[34] thus, the revisionist school dismiss traditionalist historians as the being the politically reactionary faculty of the HUAC school of scholarship about the Communist Party USA.[34]

New semantics

In 1980, in a book review of How the Soviet Union is Governed (1979), by J.F. Hough and Merle Fainsod, William Zimmerman said that "the Soviet Union has changed substantially. Our knowledge of the Soviet Union has changed, as well. We all know that the traditional paradigm [of the totalitarian model] no longer satisfies [our ignorance], despite several efforts, primarily in the early 1960s (the directed society, totalitarianism without police terrorism, the system of conscription) to articulate an acceptable variant [of Communist totalitarianism]. We have come to realize that models which were, in effect, offshoots of totalitarian models do not provide good approximations of post–Stalinist reality [of the USSR]."[33] In a book review of Totalitarian Space and the Destruction of Aura (2019), by Ahmed Saladdin, Michael Scott Christofferson said that Hannah Arendt's interpretation of the USSR after Stalin was her attempt to intellectually distance her work from "the Cold War misuse of the concept [of the origins of totalitarianism]" as anti-Communist propaganda.[35]

In the essay, "Totalitarianism: Defunct Theory, Useful Word" (2010), the historian John Connelly said that totalitarianism is a useful word, but that the old 1950s theory about totalitarianism is defunct among scholars, because “The word is as functional now as it was fifty years ago. It means the kind of régime that existed in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the Soviet satellites, Communist China, and maybe Fascist Italy, where the word originated. . . . Who are we to tell Václav Havel or Adam Michnik that they were fooling themselves when they perceived their rulers as totalitarian? Or, for that matter, any of the millions of former subjects of Soviet-type rule who use the local equivalents of the Czech [word] totalita to describe the systems they lived under before 1989? [Totalitarianism] is a useful word, and everyone knows what it means as a general referent. Problems arise when people confuse the useful descriptive term with the old 'theory' from the 1950s."[36]

In Revolution and Dictatorship: The Violent Origins of Durable Authoritarianism (2022), the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way said that nascent revolutionary régimes usually became totalitarian régimes if not destroyed with a military invasion. Such a revolutionary régime begins as a social revolution independent of the existing social structures of the state (not political succession, election to office, or a military coup d'état) and produces a dictatorship with three functional characteristics: (i) a cohesive ruling class comprising the military and the political élites, (ii) a strong and loyal coercive apparatus of police and military forces to suppress dissent, and (iii) the destruction of rival political parties, organisations, and independent centres of socio-political power. Moreover, the unitary functioning of the characteristics of totalitarianism allow a totalitarian government to perdure against economic crises (internal and external), large-scale failures of policy, mass social-discontent, and political pressure from other countries.[37] Some totalitarian one-party states were established through coups orchestrated by military officers loyal to a vanguard party that advanced socialist revolution, such as the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma (1962),[38] Syrian Arab Republic (1963),[39] and Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (1978).[40]


Early usages


In 1923, in the early reign of Mussolini's government (1922–1943), the anti-fascist academic Giovanni Amendola was the first Italian public intellectual to define and describe Totalitarianism as a régime of government wherein the supreme leader personally exercises total power (political, military, economic, social) as Il Duce of The State. That Italian fascism is a political system with an ideological, utopian worldview unlike the realistic politics of the personal dictatorship of a man who holds power for the sake of holding power.[2]

Il Duce Benito Mussolini was supreme leader of Fascist Italy (1922–1943).

Later, the theoretician of Italian Fascism Giovanni Gentile ascribed politically positive meanings to the ideological terms totalitarianism and totalitarian in defence of Duce Mussolini's legal, illegal, and legalistic social engineering of Italy. As ideologues, the intellectual Gentile and the politician Mussolini used the term totalitario to identify and describe the ideological nature of the societal structures (government, social, economic, political) and the practical goals (economic, geopolitical, social) of the new Fascist Italy (1922–1943), which was the "total representation of the nation and total guidance of national goals."[41] In proposing the totalitarian society of Italian Fascism, Gentile defined and described a civil society wherein totalitarian ideology (subservience to the state) determined the public sphere and the private sphere of the lives of the Italian people.[12] That to achieve the Fascist utopia in the imperial future, Italian totalitarianism must politicise human existence into subservience to the state, which Mussolini summarised with the epigram: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state."[2][42]

Hannah Arendt, in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, contended that Mussolini's dictatorship was not a totalitarian regime until 1938.[43] Arguing that one of the key characteristics of a totalitarian movement was its ability to garner mass mobilization, Arendt wrote:

"While all political groups depend upon proportionate strength, totalitarian movements depend on the sheer force of numbers to such an extent that totalitarian regimes seem impossible, even under otherwise favorable circumstances, in countries with relatively small populations.... [E]ven Mussolini, who was so fond of the term "totalitarian state," did not attempt to establish a full-fledged totalitarian regime and contented himself with dictatorship and one-party rule."[44]

For example, Victor Emmanuel III still reigned as a figurehead and helped play a role in the dismissal of Mussolini in 1943. Also, the Catholic Church was allowed to independently exercise its religious authority in Vatican City per the 1929 Lateran Treaty, under the leadership of Pope Pius XI (1922–1939) and Pope Pius XII (1939–1958).


One of the first people to use the term totalitarianism in the English language was 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.[45] The label totalitarian was twice affixed to Nazi Germany during Winston Churchill's speech of 5 October 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.[46] 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."[47]


José María Gil-Robles y Quiñones, the leader of the historic Spanish reactionary party called the Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right (CEDA),[48] 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."[49] General Francisco Franco was determined not to have competing right-wing parties in Spain and CEDA was dissolved in April 1937. Later, Gil-Robles went into exile.[50]

Politically matured by having fought and been wounded and survived the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), in the essay "Why I Write" (1946), the socialist George Orwell said, "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." That future totalitarian régimes would spy upon their societies and use the mass communications media to perpetuate their dictatorships, that "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever."[51]


In the aftermath of the Second World War (1937–1945), in the lecture series (1945) and book (1946) titled The Soviet Impact on the Western World, the British historian E. H. Carr said that "the trend away from individualism and towards totalitarianism is everywhere unmistakable" in the decolonising countries of Eurasia. That revolutionary Marxism–Leninism was the most successful type of totalitarianism, as proved by the USSR's rapid industrialisation (1929–1941) and the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945) that defeated Nazi Germany. That, despite those achievements in social engineering and warfare, in dealing with the countries of the Communist bloc only the "blind and incurable" ideologue could ignore the Communist régimes' trend towards police-state totalitarianism in their societies.[52]

Cold War

Anti-totalitarian: Hannah Arendt thwarted the totalitarian model Kremlinologists who sought to co-opt the thesis of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) as American anti–Communist propaganda that claimed that every Communist state was of the totalitarian model.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), the political scientist Hannah Arendt said that, in their times in the early 20th century, corporate Nazism and soviet Communism were new forms of totalitarian government, not updated versions of the old tyrannies of a military or a corporate dictatorship. That the human emotional comfort of political certainty is the source of the mass appeal of revolutionary totalitarian régimes, because the totalitarian worldview gives psychologically comforting and definitive answers about the complex socio-political mysteries of the past, of the present, and of the future; thus did Nazism propose that all history is the history of ethnic conflict, of the survival of the fittest race; and Marxism–Leninism proposes that all history is the history of class conflict, of the survival of the fittest social class. That upon the believers' acceptance of the universal applicability of totalitarian ideology, the Nazi revolutionary and the Communist revolutionary then possess the simplistic moral certainty with which to justify all other actions by the State, either by an appeal to historicism (Law of History) or by an appeal to nature, as expedient actions necessary to establishing an authoritarian state apparatus.[53]

True belief

In The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), Eric Hoffer said that political mass movements, such as Italian Fascism (1922–1943), German Nazism (1933–1945), and Russian Stalinism (1929–1953), featured the common political praxis of negatively comparing their totalitarian society as culturally superior to the morally decadent societies of the democratic countries of Western Europe. That such mass psychology indicates that participating in and then joining a political mass movement offers people the prospect of a glorious future, that such membership in a community of political belief is an emotional refuge for people with few accomplishments in their real lives, in both the public sphere and in the private sphere. In the event, the true believer is assimilated into a collective body of true believers who are mentally protected with "fact-proof screens from reality" drawn from the official texts of the totalitarian ideology.[54]


In "European Protestants Between Anti-Communism and Anti-Totalitarianism: The Other Interwar Kulturkampf?" (2018) the historian Paul Hanebrink said that Hitler's assumption of power in Germany in 1933 frightened Christians into anti-communism, because for European Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, the new postwar 'culture war' crystallized as a struggle against Communism. Throughout the European interwar period (1918–1939), right-wing totalitarian régimes indoctrinated Christians to demonize the Communist régime in Russia as the apotheosis of secular materialism and [as] a militarized threat to worldwide Christian social and moral order".[55] That throughout Europe, the Christians who became anti-communist totalitarians perceived Communism and communist régimes of government as an existential threat to the moral order of their respective societies; and collaborated with Fascists and Nazis in the idealistic hope that anti-communism would restore the societies of Europe to their root Christian culture.[56]

Totalitarian model

In the U.S. geopolitics of the late 1950s, the Cold War concepts and the terms totalitarianism, totalitarian, and totalitarian model, presented in Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (1956), by Carl Joachim Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski, became common usages in the foreign-policy discourse of the U.S. Subsequently established, the totalitarian model became the analytic and interpretational paradigm for Kremlinology, the academic study of the monolithic police-state USSR. The Kremlinologists analyses of the internal politics (policy and personality) of the politburo crafting policy (national and foreign) yielded strategic intelligence for dealing with the USSR. Moreover, the U.S. also used the totalitarian model when dealing with fascist totalitarian régimes, such as that of a banana republic country.[57] As anti–Communist political scientists, Friedrich and Brzezinski described and defined totalitarianism with the monolithic totalitarian model of six interlocking, mutually supporting characteristics:

  1. Elaborate guiding ideology.
  2. One-party state
  3. State terrorism
  4. Monopoly control of weapons
  5. Monopoly control of the mass communications media
  6. Centrally directed and controlled planned economy[58]

Criticism of the totalitarian model

Anti-totalitarian: the American political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski popularised combating Left-wing totalitarianism in U.S. foreign policy.[36]

As traditionalist historians, Friedrich and Brzezinski said that the totalitarian régimes of government in the USSR (1917), Fascist Italy (1922–1943), and Nazi Germany (1933–1945) originated from the political discontent caused by the socio-economic aftermath of the First World War (1914–1918), which rendered impotent the government of Weimar Germany (1918–1933) to resist, counter, and quell left-wing and right-wing revolutions of totalitarian temper.[59] Revisionist historians noted the historiographic limitations of the totalitarian-model interpretation of Soviet and Russian history, because Friedrich and Brzezinski did not take account of the actual functioning of the Soviet social system, neither as a political entity (the USSR) nor as a social entity (Soviet civil society), which could be understood in terms of socialist class struggle among the professional élites (political, academic, artistic, scientific, military) seeking upward mobility into the nomenklatura, the ruling class of the USSR. That the political economics of the politburo allowed measured executive power to regional authorities for them to implement policy was interpreted by revisionist historians as evidence that a totalitarian régime adapts the political economy to include new economic demands from civil society; whereas traditionalist historians interpreted the politico-economic collapse of the USSR to prove that the totalitarian régime of economics failed because the politburo did not adapt the political economy to include actual popular participation in the Soviet economy.[60]

The historian of Nazi Germany, Karl Dietrich Bracher said that the totalitarian typology developed by Friedrich and Brzezinski was an inflexible model, for not including the revolutionary dynamics of bellicose people committed to realising the violent revolution required to establish totalitarianism in a sovereign state.[61] That the essence of totalitarianism is total control to remake every aspect of civil society using a universal ideology—which is interpreted by an authoritarian leader—to create a collective national identity by merging civil society into the State.[61] Given that the supreme leaders of the Communist, the Fascist, and the Nazi total states did possess government administrators, Bracher said that a totalitarian government did not necessarily require an actual supreme leader, and could function by way of collective leadership. The American historian Walter Laqueur agreed that Bracher's totalitarian typology more accurately described the functional reality of the politburo than did the totalitarian typology proposed by Friedrich and Brzezinski.[62]

Dynasty of totalitarians: The Syrian Arab Republic (Syria) has been ruled by the generational dictatorships of Hafez al-Assad (r. 1971–2000) and his son Bashar al-Assad (r. 2000 – ) since the late Cold War of the 1970s.[63][64][65]

In Democracy and Totalitarianism (1968) the political scientist Raymond Aron said that for a régime of government to be considered totalitarian it can be described and defined with the totalitarian model of five interlocking, mutually supporting characteristics:

  1. A one-party state where the ruling party has a monopoly on all political activity.
  2. A state ideology upheld by the ruling party that is given official status as the only authority.
  3. A state monopoly on information; control of the mass communications media to broadcast the official truth.
  4. A state-controlled economy featuring major economic entities under state control.
  5. An ideological police-state terror; criminalisation of political, economic, and professional activities.[66]

Post–Cold War

President Isaias Afwerki has ruled Eritrea as a totalitarian dictator since the country's independence in 1993.[67]
Flag of the Islamic State, which is a self-proclaimed caliphate that demands the religious, political, and military obedience of Muslims worldwide

Laure Neumayer posited that "despite the disputes over its heuristic value and its normative assumptions, the concept of totalitarianism made a vigorous return to the political and academic fields at the end of the Cold War."[68] In the 1990s, François Furet made a comparative analysis[69] and used the term totalitarian twins to link Nazism and Stalinism.[70][71][72] Eric Hobsbawm criticised Furet for his temptation to stress the existence of a common ground between two systems with different ideological roots.[73] In Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?: Five Interventions in the (Mis)Use of a Notion, Žižek wrote that "[t]he liberating effect" of General Augusto Pinochet's arrest "was exceptional", as "the fear of Pinochet dissipated, the spell was broken, the taboo subjects of torture and disappearances became the daily grist of the news media; the people no longer just whispered, but openly spoke about prosecuting him in Chile itself."[74] Saladdin Ahmed cited Hannah Arendt as stating that "the Soviet Union can no longer be called totalitarian in the strict sense of the term after Stalin's death", writing that "this was the case in General August Pinochet's Chile, yet it would be absurd to exempt it from the class of totalitarian regimes for that reason alone." Saladdin posited that while Chile under Pinochet had no "official ideology", there was one man who ruled Chile from "behind the scenes", "none other than Milton Friedman, the godfather of neoliberalism and the most influential teacher of the Chicago Boys, was Pinochet's adviser." In this sense, Saladdin criticised the totalitarian concept because it was only being applied to "opposing ideologies" and it was not being applied to liberalism.[35]

In the early 2010s, Richard Shorten, Vladimir Tismăneanu, and Aviezer Tucker posited that totalitarian ideologies can take different forms in different political systems but all of them focus on utopianism, scientism, or political violence. They posit that Nazism and Stalinism both emphasised the role of specialisation in modern societies and they also saw polymathy as a thing of the past, and they also stated that their claims were supported by statistics and science, which led them to impose strict ethical regulations on culture, use psychological violence, and persecute entire groups.[75][76][77] Their arguments have been criticised by other scholars due to their partiality and anachronism. Juan Francisco Fuentes treats totalitarianism as an "invented tradition" and he believes that the notion of "modern despotism" is 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."[78]

Other studies try to link modern technological changes to totalitarianism. According to Shoshana Zuboff, the economic pressures of modern surveillance capitalism are driving the intensification of connection and monitoring online with spaces of social life becoming open to saturation by corporate actors, directed at the making of profit and/or the regulation of action.[79] Toby Ord believed that George Orwell's fears of totalitarianism constituted a notable early precursor to modern notions of anthropogenic existential risk, the concept that a future catastrophe could permanently destroy the potential of Earth-originating intelligent life due in part to technological changes, creating a permanent technological dystopia. Ord said that Orwell's writings show that his concern was genuine rather than just a throwaway part of the fictional plot of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In 1949, Orwell wrote that "[a] ruling class which could guard against (four previously enumerated sources of risk) would remain in power permanently."[80] That same year, Bertrand Russell wrote that "modern techniques have made possible a new intensity of governmental control, and this possibility has been exploited very fully in totalitarian states."[81]

In 2016, The Economist described China's developed Social Credit System under Chinese Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping's administration, to screen and rank its citizens based on their personal behavior, as totalitarian.[82] Opponents of China's ranking system say that it is intrusive and it is just another tool which a one-party state can use to control the population. Supporters say that it will transform China into a more civilised and law-abiding society.[83] Shoshana Zuboff considers it instrumentarian rather than totalitarian.[84] Other emerging technologies that could empower future totalitarian regimes include brain-reading, contact tracing, and various applications of artificial intelligence.[85][86][87][88] Philosopher Nick Bostrom said that there is a possible trade-off, namely that some existential risks might be mitigated by the establishment of a powerful and permanent world government, and in turn the establishment of such a government could enhance the existential risks which are associated with the rule of a permanent dictatorship.[89]

North Korea is the only country in East Asia to survive totalitarianism after the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994 and handed over to his son Kim Jong-il and grandson Kim Jong-un in 2011, as of today in the 21st century.[3]

Religious totalitarianism


Flag of the Taliban

The Taliban is a totalitarian Sunni Islamist militant group and political movement in Afghanistan that emerged in the aftermath of the Soviet–Afghan War and the end of the Cold War. It governed most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and returned to power in 2021, controlling the entirety of Afghanistan. Features of its totalitarian governance include the imposition of Pashtunwali culture of the majority Pashtun ethnic group as religious law, the exclusion of minorities and non-Taliban members from the government, and extensive violations of women's rights.[90]

The Islamic State is a Salafi-Jihadist militant group that was established in 2006 by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi during the Iraqi insurgency, under the name "Islamic State of Iraq". Under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the organization later changed its name to the "Islamic State of Iraq and Levant" in 2013. The group espouses a totalitarian ideology that is a fundamentalist hybrid of Global Jihadism, Wahhabism, and Qutbism. Following its territorial expansion in 2014, the group renamed itself as the "Islamic State" and declared itself as a caliphate[a] that sought domination over the Muslim world and established what has been described as a "political-religious totalitarian regime". The quasi-state held significant territory in Iraq and Syria during the course of the Third Iraq War and the Syrian civil war from 2013 to 2019 under the dictatorship of its first Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who imposed a strict interpretation of Sharia law.[94][95][96][97]


See also: National Catholicism

Portrait of Francisco Franco

Francoist Spain (1936–1975), under the dictator Francisco Franco, has been characterized as a totalitarian state until at least the 1950s by scholars. Franco was portrayed as a fervent Catholic and a staunch defender of Catholicism, the declared state religion.[98] Civil marriages that had taken place in the Republic were declared null and void unless they had been validated by the Church, along with divorces. Divorce, contraception and abortions were forbidden.[99] According to historian Stanley G. Payne, Franco had more day-to-day power than Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin possessed at the respective heights of their power. Payne noted that Hitler and Stalin at least maintained rubber-stamp parliaments, while Franco dispensed with even that formality in the early years of his rule. According to Payne, the lack of even a rubber-stamp parliament made Franco's government "the most purely arbitrary in the world."[100] However, from 1959 to 1974 the "Spanish Miracle" took place under the leadership of technocrats, many of whom were members of Opus Dei and a new generation of politicians that replaced the old Falangist guard.[101] Reforms were implemented in the 1950s and Spain abandoned autarky, reassigning economic authority from the isolationist Falangist movement.[102] This led to massive economic growth that lasted until the mid-1970s, known as the "Spanish miracle". This is comparable to De-Stalinization in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, where Francoist Spain changed from being openly totalitarian to an authoritarian dictatorship with a certain degree of economic freedom.[103]

The city of Geneva under John Calvin's leadership has also been characterised as totalitarian by scholars.[104][105][106]

Revisionist school of Soviet-period history

Soviet society after Stalin

The death of Stalin in 1953 voided the simplistic totalitarian model of the police-state USSR as the epitome of the totalitarian state.[107] A fact common to the revisionist-school interpretations of the reign of Stalin (1927–1953) was that the USSR was a country with weak social institutions, and that state terrorism against Soviet citizens indicated the political illegitimacy of Stalin's government.[107] That the citizens of the USSR were not devoid of personal agency or of material resources for living, nor were Soviet citizens psychologically atomised by the totalist ideology of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union[108]—because "the Soviet political system was chaotic, that institutions often escaped the control of the centre, and that Stalin's leadership consisted, to a considerable extent, in responding, on an ad hoc basis, to political crises as they arose."[109] That the legitimacy of Stalin's régime of government relied upon the popular support of the Soviet citizenry as much as Stalin relied upon state terrorism for their support. That by politically purging Soviet society of anti–Soviet people Stalin created employment and upward social mobility for the post–War generation of working class citizens for whom such socio-economic progress was unavailable before the Russian Revolution (1917–1924). That the people who benefited from Stalin's social engineering became Stalinists loyal to the USSR; thus, the Revolution had fulfilled her promise to those Stalinist citizens and they supported Stalin because of the state terrorism.[108]

German Democratic Republic (GDR)

In the case of East Germany, (0000) Eli Rubin posited that East Germany was not a totalitarian state but rather a society shaped by the confluence of unique economic and political circumstances interacting with the concerns of ordinary citizens.[110]

Writing in 1987, Walter Laqueur posited 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.[111] Laqueur stated that the revisionists' arguments with regard to Soviet history were highly similar to the arguments made by Ernst Nolte regarding German history.[111] For Laqueur, concepts such as modernisation were inadequate tools for explaining Soviet history while totalitarianism was not.[112] Laqueur's argument has been criticised by modern "revisionist school" historians such as Paul Buhle, who said that Laqueur wrongly equates Cold War revisionism with the German revisionism; the latter reflected a "revanchist, military-minded conservative nationalism."[113] Moreover, Michael Parenti and James Petras have suggested that the totalitarianism concept has been politically employed and used for anti-communist purposes. Parenti has also analysed how "left anti-communists" attacked the Soviet Union during the Cold War.[114] For Petras, the CIA funded the Congress for Cultural Freedom to attack "Stalinist anti-totalitarianism."[115] Into the 21st century, Enzo Traverso has attacked the creators of the concept of totalitarianism as having invented it to designate the enemies of the West.[116]

According to some scholars, calling Joseph 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 allegedly debunking the totalitarian concept may 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 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 Soviet Union in the dock together, serving the anti-communism of Cold War-era intellectuals rather than reflecting intellectual research.[117]

See also


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  1. ^ Caliphate claim of "Islamic State" group is disputed and declared as illegal by traditional Islamic scholarship.[91][92][93]

Further reading

  • Arendt, Hannah (1958). The Origins of Totalitarianism (Second Enlarged ed.). New York, USA: Meridian Books. LCCN 58-11927.
  • Armstrong, John A. The Politics of Totalitarianism (New York: Random House, 1961).
  • Béja, Jean-Philippe (March 2019). "Xi Jinping's China: On the Road to Neo-totalitarianism". Social Research: An International Quarterly. 86 (1): 203–230. doi:10.1353/sor.2019.0009. S2CID 199140716. ProQuest 2249726077. Archived from the original on December 3, 2022.
  • Bernholz, Peter. "Ideocracy and totalitarianism: A formal analysis incorporating ideology", Public Choice 108, 2001, pp. 33–75.
  • Bernholz, Peter. "Ideology, sects, state and totalitarianism. A general theory". In: H. Maier and M. Schaefer (eds.): Totalitarianism and Political Religions, Vol. II (Routledge, 2007), pp. 246–270.
  • Borkenau, Franz, The Totalitarian Enemy (London: Faber and Faber 1940).
  • Bracher, Karl Dietrich, "The Disputed Concept of Totalitarianism," pp. 11–33 from Totalitarianism Reconsidered edited by Ernest A. Menze (Kennikat Press, 1981) ISBN 0804692688.
  • Congleton, Roger D. "Governance by true believers: Supreme duties with and without totalitarianism." Constitutional Political Economy 31.1 (2020): 111–141. online
  • Connelly, John. "Totalitarianism: Defunct Theory, Useful Word" Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 11#4 (2010) 819–835. online.
  • Curtis, Michael. Totalitarianism (1979) online
  • Devlin, Nicholas. "Hannah Arendt and Marxist Theories of Totalitarianism." Modern Intellectual History (2021): 1–23 online.
  • Diamond, Larry. "The road to digital unfreedom: The threat of postmodern totalitarianism." Journal of Democracy 30.1 (2019): 20–24. excerpt
  • Fitzpatrick, Sheila, and Michael Geyer, eds. Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared (Cambridge University Press, 2008).
  • Friedrich, Carl and Z. K. Brzezinski, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (Harvard University Press, 1st ed. 1956, 2nd ed. 1965).
  • Gach, Nataliia. "From totalitarianism to democracy: Building learner autonomy in Ukrainian higher education." Issues in Educational Research 30.2 (2020): 532–554. online
  • Gleason, Abbott. Totalitarianism: The Inner History Of The Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), ISBN 0195050177.
  • Gray, Phillip W. Totalitarianism: The Basics (New York: Routledge, 2023), ISBN 9781032183732.
  • Gregor, A. Totalitarianism and political religion (Stanford University Press, 2020).
  • Hanebrink, Paul. "European Protestants Between Anti-Communism and Anti-Totalitarianism: The Other Interwar Kulturkampf?" Journal of Contemporary History (July 2018) Vol. 53, Issue 3, pp. 622–643
  • Hermet, Guy, with Pierre Hassner and Jacques Rupnik, Totalitarismes (Paris: Éditions Economica, 1984).
  • Jainchill, Andrew, and Samuel Moyn. "French democracy between totalitarianism and solidarity: Pierre Rosanvallon and revisionist historiography." Journal of Modern History 76.1 (2004): 107–154. online
  • Joscelyne, Sophie. "Norman Mailer and American Totalitarianism in the 1960s." Modern Intellectual History 19.1 (2022): 241–267 online.
  • Keller, Marcello Sorce. "Why is Music so Ideological, Why Do Totalitarian States Take It So Seriously", Journal of Musicological Research, XXVI (2007), no. 2–3, pp. 91–122.
  • Kirkpatrick, Jeane, Dictatorships and Double Standards: Rationalism and reason in politics (London: Simon & Schuster, 1982).
  • Laqueur, Walter, The Fate of the Revolution Interpretations of Soviet History From 1917 to the Present (London: Collier Books, 1987) ISBN 002034080X.
  • Menze, Ernest, ed. Totalitarianism reconsidered (1981) online essays by experts
  • Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War (Yale University Press, 1944).
  • Murray, Ewan. Shut Up: Tale of Totalitarianism (2005).
  • Nicholls, A.J. "Historians and Totalitarianism: The Impact of German Unification." Journal of Contemporary History 36.4 (2001): 653–661.
  • Patrikeeff, Felix. "Stalinism, Totalitarian Society and the Politics of 'Perfect Control'", Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, (Summer 2003), Vol. 4 Issue 1, pp. 23–46.
  • Payne, Stanley G., A History of Fascism (London: Routledge, 1996).
  • Rak, Joanna, and Roman Bäcker. "Theory behind Russian Quest for Totalitarianism. Analysis of Discursive Swing in Putin's Speeches." Communist and Post-Communist Studies 53.1 (2020): 13–26 online.
  • Roberts, David D. Totalitarianism (John Wiley & Sons, 2020).
  • Rocker, Rudolf, Nationalism and Culture (Covici-Friede, 1937).
  • Sartori, Giovanni, The Theory of Democracy Revisited (Chatham, N.J: Chatham House, 1987).
  • Sauer, Wolfgang. "National Socialism: totalitarianism or fascism?" American Historical Review, Volume 73, Issue #2 (December 1967): 404–424. online.
  • Saxonberg, Steven. Pre-modernity, totalitarianism and the non-banality of evil: A comparison of Germany, Spain, Sweden and France (Springer Nature, 2019).
  • Schapiro, Leonard. Totalitarianism (London: The Pall Mall Press, 1972).
  • Selinger, William. "The politics of Arendtian historiography: European federation and the origins of totalitarianism." Modern Intellectual History 13.2 (2016): 417–446.
  • Skotheim, Robert Allen. Totalitarianism and American social thought (1971) online
  • Talmon, J. L., The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (London: Seeker & Warburg, 1952).
  • Traverso, Enzo, Le Totalitarisme : Le XXe siècle en débat (Paris: Poche, 2001).
  • Tuori, Kaius. "Narratives and Normativity: Totalitarianism and Narrative Change in the European Legal Tradition after World War II." Law and History Review 37.2 (2019): 605–638 online.
  • Žižek, Slavoj, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? (London: Verso, 2001). online