« Back to Glossary Index

refers to an authoritarian political system or state that regulates and controls nearly every aspect of the public and private sectors. Totalitarian regimes establish complete political, social, and cultural control over their subjects, and are usually headed by a charismatic leader. In general, Totalitarianism involves a single mass party, typically led by a dictator; an attempt to mobilize the entire population in support of the official state ideology; and an intolerance of activities which are not directed towards the goals of the state, usually entailing repression and state control of business, labour unions, churches and political parties. A totalitarian regime is essentially a modern form of authoritarian state, requiring as it does an advanced technology of social control.

Totalitarian regimes or movements tend to offer the prospect of a glorious, yet imaginary, future to a frustrated population, and to portray Western democracies and their values as decadent, with people too soft, too pleasure-loving and too selfish to sacrifice for a higher cause. They maintain themselves in political power by various means, including secret police, propaganda disseminated through the state-controlled mass media, personality cults, the regulation and restriction of free speech, single-party states, the use of mass surveillance and the widespread use of intimidation and terror tactics.

Totalitarianism is not necessarily the same as a dictatorship or autocracy, which are primarily interested in their own survival and, as such, may allow for varying degrees of autonomy within civil society, religious institutions, the courts and the press. A totalitarian regime, on the other hand, requires that no individual or institution is autonomous from the state’s all-encompassing ideology. However, in practice, Totalitarianism and dictatorship often go hand in hand.

The term “Totalitarismo” was first employed by “the philosopher of Fascism” Giovanni Gentile (1875 – 1944) and Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945) in mid-20th century Fascist Italy. It was originally intended to convey the comforting sense of an “all-embracing, total state”, but it soon attracted critical connotations and unflattering comparisons with Liberalism and democracy.

Totalitarianism does not necessarily align itself politically with either the right or the left. Although most recogized totalitarian regimes have been Fascist and ultra-Nationalist, the degraded Communism of Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China were equally totalitarian in nature, and the phrase “Totalitarian Twins” has been used to link Communism and Fascism in this respect.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt sought to provide an historical account of the forces that crystallized into totalitarianism. For Arendt, totalitarianism was a form of governance that eliminated the very possibility of political action. Totalitarian leaders attract both mobs and elites, take advantage of the unthinkability of their atrocities, target “objective enemies” (classes of people who are liquidated simply because of their group membership), use terror to create loyalty, rely on concentration camps, and are obsessive in their pursuit of global primacy.

Arendt was not interested in detailing the causes that produced totalitarianism. Nothing in the nineteenth century—indeed, nothing in human history—could have prepared us for the idea of political domination achieved by organizing the infinite plurality and differentiation of human beings as if all humanity were just one individual. Arendt believed that such a development marked a grotesque departure from all that had come before.

Here are some excerpts:

Totalitarianism is never content to rule by external means, namely, through the state and a machinery of violence; thanks to its peculiar ideology and the role assigned to it in this apparatus of coercion, totalitarianism has discovered a means of dominating and terrorizing human beings from within.

It has fequently been pointed out that totalitarian movements use and abuse democratic freedoms in order to abolish them. This is not just devilish cleverness on the part of the leaders or childish stupidity on the part of the masses. Democratic freedoms may be based on the equality of all citizens before the law; yet they acquire their meaning and function organically only where the citizens belong to and are represented by groups or form a social and political hierarchy.

Terror can rule only absolutely over men who are isolated against each other… Therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about. Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result. This isolation is, as it were, pretotalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insomuch as power always comes from men acting together…; isolated men are powerless by definition.

While isolation concerns only the political realm of life, loneliness oncerns human life as a whole. Totalitarian government, like all tyrannies, certainly could not exist without destroying the public realm of life, that is, without destroying by isolating men, their political capacities. But totalitarian domination as a form of government is new in that it is not content with this isolation and destroys private life as well. It bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.

History of Totalitarianism

It can be argued that Totalitarianism existed millennia ago in ancient China under the political leadership of Prime Minister Li Si(280 – 208 B.C.), who helped the Qin Dynasty unify China. Under the ruling Legalism philosophy, political activities were severely restricted, all literature destroyed, and scholars who did not support Legalism were summarily put to death.

Something very similar to Totalitarianism was also in force in Sparta, a warlike state in Ancient Greece, for several centuries before the rise of Alexander the Great in 336 B.C. Its “educational system” was part of the totalitarian military society and the state machine dictated every aspect of life, down to the rearing of children.

The rigid caste-based society which Plato described in his “Republic” had many totalitarian traits, despite Plato’s stated goal (the search for justice), and it was clear that the citizens served the state and not vice versa. In his “Leviathan” of 1651, Thomas Hobbes envisioned an absolute monarchy exercising both civil and religious power, in which the citizens are willing to cede most of their rights to the state in exchange for security and safety. Niccolò Machiavelli’s “The Prince” touched on totalitarian themes, arguing that the state is merely an instrument for the benefit of the ruler, who should have no qualms at using whatever means are at his disposal to keep the citizenry suppressed.

Most commentators consider the first real totalitarian regimes to have been formed in the mid-20th Century, in the chaos following World War I, at which point the sophistication of modern weapons and communications enabled totalitarian movements to consolidate power in:

  • Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin (1878 – 1953), from 1928 to 1953.
  • Italy under Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945), from 1922 to 1943.
  • Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler (1889 – 1945) from 1933 to 1945.
  • Spain under Francisco Franco (1892 – 1975), from 1936 to 1975.
  • Portugal under António de Oliveira Salazar (1889 – 1970), from 1932 to 1974.

Other more recent examples, to greater or lesser degrees, include: the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong, North Korea under Kim Il Sung, Cuba under Fidel Castro, Cambodia under Pol Pot, Romania under Nicolae Ceau’escu, Syria under Hafez al-Assad, Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini and Iraq under Saddam Hussein.