Totalitarianism (20TH CENTURY)

Theory of despotic government.

Totalitarian regimes are characterized by an ambition for permanence; attempted total control over all aspects of the lives of their subjects; concentration of power in a single leader; and use of mass propaganda and public ritual.

The theory of totalitarianism attempts to generalize from the characteristics of the German Nazi and Soviet Stalinist regimes, and to create a more widely applicable descriptive category. When it began to be applied to right-wing military regimes, conservative theorists devised the notion of authoritarianism to distinguish such regimes from the totalitarian pure type.

David Miller et al., eds, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (Oxford, 1987)

Totalitarianism is a concept[1][2] for a form of government or political system 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. In totalitarian states, political power has often been held by autocrats who employ all-encompassing campaigns in which propaganda is broadcast by state-controlled mass media.[3]

Totalitarian regimes are often characterized by extensive political repression, a complete lack of democracy, widespread personality cultism, absolute control over the economy, massive censorship, mass surveillance, limited freedom of movement (most notably freedom to leave the country) and widespread use of state terrorism. Other aspects of a totalitarian regime include the use of concentration camps, repressive secret police, religious persecution or state atheism, the common practice of executions, fraudulent elections (if they take place), possible possession of weapons of mass destruction and potentially state-sponsored mass murder and genocides. Historian Robert Conquest describes a totalitarian state as one which recognizes no limit on its authority in any sphere of public or private life and it extends that authority to whatever length is feasible.[3]

Totalitarianism 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 proclaimed: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” Schmitt used the term Totalstaat in his influential 1927 work The Concept of the Political on the legal basis of an all-powerful state.[4] The term gained prominence in Western anti-communist political discourse during the Cold War era as a tool to convert pre-World War II anti-fascism into post-war anti-communism.[5][6][7][8][9]

Totalitarian regimes are different from other authoritarian regimes. The latter denotes a state in which the single power holder, usually an individual dictator, a committee, a junta or an otherwise small group of political elite, monopolizes political power. In this sense, “the authoritarian state […] is only concerned with political power and as long as it is not contested it gives society a certain degree of liberty.”[10] Radu Cinpoes writes authoritarianism “does not attempt to change the world and human nature.”[10] In contrast, Richard Pipes writes 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, with “[t]he officially proclaimed ideology” penetrating “into the deepest reaches of societal structure and the totalitarian government seeks to completely control the thoughts and actions of its citizens.”[11] It also mobilizes the whole population in pursuit of its goals. Carl Joachim Friedrich wrote 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.”

2 thoughts on “Totalitarianism (20TH CENTURY)

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