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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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In the strict sense of terminology, the concept of
Totalitarianism originated with and was applied to
Fascism in Italy, to National Socialism in Germany,
and to the consolidation of Stalinism in Russia. Related
to a specific form and state of modern dictatorship as
developed during the 1920's and '30's the concept of
totalitarianism became increasingly controversial after
the transformations following Stalin's death (1953).
Comparison of past Fascist regimes and evolving
Communist systems posed many new problems of in-
terpretation and methodology. This comparison was
even more complicated by the fact that after World
War II, when most of the standard works on totali-
tarianism were published, the discussion became
closely related to the confrontations of the cold war.
Hence, many mid-century critics denounced totalitar-
ianism as a purely polemical term, an instrument of
anti-ideology rather than a useful means of political

Though this growing criticism of the concept of
totalitarianism refers to specific contemporary constel-
lations as well as to deep differences between Fascism
and Communism, the fact remains that modern dic-
tatorship in its most elaborate forms is an important
topic of comparative analysis. The search for common
features and for a general theory explaining the struc-
ture and practice of such regimes has not only pro-
duced a wealth of pertinent material and inter-
pretations, but at the same time has sharpened the eye
for similarities and differences alike. This results in
efforts to distinguish various types of totalitarianism
rather than completely to abolish the idea itself. Com-
munist theory has of course never adopted the term
in its general sense but has always aimed at expanding
the notion of Fascism by applying it very broadly to
non-Communist states and “capitalistic” societies of
various forms.

Aside from such ideological and propagandistic con-
troversies, another question seems important whenever
the concept of totalitarianism is discussed in a compar-
ative analysis. The question is whether the structure
and workings of “totalitarian” regimes can be seen as
basically different from “classical” dictatorship, i.e.,
despotism or tyranny as described time and again since
the days of Plato and Aristotle. Most definitions of
totalitarianism concentrate on the fact that modern
dictatorship tends to an extreme model of centralized,
uniform control of all provinces of political, social, and
intellectual life. This tendency leads far beyond older
forms of absolutism and autocracy. A phenomenon of
the twentieth century, totalitarianism is seen as pri-
marily conditioned and facilitated by modern industrial-
ism and technology in the “age of the masses.” Modern
organization, communication, and propaganda offer
the means for all-embracing controls, for total mobil-
izing, and for terrorist regimentation (Gleichschaltung)
of the life and thinking of every citizen as never before
in history.

As a political system, totalitarianism appears to be
a concrete product of the crises following World War


I. The emergence of Fascism and National Socialism
as well as of Communism is clearly bound to the politi-
cal and socioeconomic results and to the ideological
confrontations associated with the war and its after-
math. At the same time, all the regimes tending to
totalitarian forms of government are distinguished from
older forms of absolutism and dictatorship by their
ambiguous relation to modern democracy. While prin-
cipally opposed to a pluralistic system of representative
parliamentarism, such regimes claim a higher form of
popular government and democratic legitimacy. This
is demonstrated in the staged approval by plebiscite
or acclamation of the acts of a Leader or of a monopoly
party claiming to represent the volonté générale (“gen-
eral will”) in state and society. Different as the his-
torical conditions, the social and national framework,
the ideological positions and aims may be, the common
denominator of totalitarianism is to be found in the
methods and practice of ruling, in the techniques of

First of all, totalitarian regimes deny the right of
existence to competing political parties and groups as
well as to individual freedom; tolerating autonomous
sectors of life and culture would be a contradictio in
While the ideological superstructure may aim
at a higher, definite form of freedom for all, the actual
consequence is the abolition of personal liberties and
the negation of all activities outside the state with
respect to the regime. Individuals and groups are to
be integrated into a closed, compulsory system defined
in terms of a future order of state and society, and
dynamized by an ideological sense of mission for a
greater nation, a better race, a dominating class. This
corresponds to the total monopoly of the government
by a party, political clique, or a Leader. Decorated
with the attributes of infallibility, these supreme rulers
demand a pseudoreligious worship by the masses; the
party—or the Leader—is always right, constitutes the
new dogma of a total consensus, a complete identity
between leadership and population.

The ideal-type definition of totalitarianism offers of
course no more than a framework for a concrete anal-
ysis; but this is true for the concepts of social and
political science in general. There are three main in-
dices by which similarities and differences among
totalitarian dictatorships may be measured: how they
come to power, how they interpret themselves, and
how they develop, when compared with other tran-
sitory or developmental dictatorships.

As to the first question, a distinction has been made
between pseudolegal (Fascist) and revolutionary (Com-
munist) seizure of power; yet in all cases a Putschist,
coup d'état
technique in completing the process of
power seizure was at work, while the degree and form
of veiling and legalizing differed. As to the second
question, the situation seems reversed: Fascist and Nazi
self-interpretation largely endorsed totalitarianism,
while Communist ideology tended to avoid totalitarian
terminology in justifying the claim for exclusive power;
but this made little difference as soon as Stalin suc-
ceeded in supplanting party rule by one-man leader-
ship. The third question evidently poses the main
problems. Even Fascism and National Socialism show
different stages of development, the Italian version
lasting almost twice as long; yet both ended prema-
turely, by a military defeat from outside effecting the
death of the Leaders. On the other hand, the Stalin
regime was one important stage in a much longer
process; after 1953, adherence to the Leader gave way
again to one-party rule.

From such observations, the prime importance of
Party-Leader relations for determining the type of
dictatorship becomes evident. Moreover, any definition
and application of the concept of totalitarianism de-
pends on which historical frame of reference is used.
In this respect three main groups of interpretation may
be noticed. The one confines totalitarianism to the
period from 1922 to 1953, reaching from Mussolini's
advent to Stalin's death. Another school of thought
emphasizes the Fascist character of totalitarianism,
with the consequence of either limiting it to the
“Fascist period” between the wars, or even extending
it to all “fascistoid” tendencies and right-wing dicta-
torships before or after World War II. In a much
broader sense, totalitarianism is defined as a tendency
inherent in all modern states aiming at a perfectionist
management of socioeconomic crisis, and development
by means of political and ideological monopoly of
power, be it in the name of capitalist or socialist
one-way solutions. This last interpretation seems more
appropriate to a comparative analysis asking for com-
mon traits in the exercise and sanction of power.

Totalitarian politics can indeed be reduced to a
syndrome of traits based on four main arguments that
characterize the sociopolitical structure and the ideo-
logical justification of a system: (1) an official ideology
of exclusive and comprehensive claim based upon rad-
ical rejection of some aspects of the past and chiliastic
claims for the future; (2) a centralized, unitary mass
movement claiming classless equality but organized
hierarchically as a single, monopolistic party under
authoritarian leadership; (3) full control of the means
of communication and coercion; and (4) the bureau-
cratic direction, via state control or socialization, of
the economy and social relations. While a more differ-
entiated view of totalitarian politics no longer keeps
to the fiction of a monolithic, conflict-free rule, the
distinction between modern and “classical” dictator-


ship remains clear: absolute, exclusive ideology, legal-
ized terror justified by chiliastic promises, control of
state and society by means of force, the forming of
a “new man” to arise from such a perfect order, the
negation of further conflicts and the suppression of
opposition in favor of ideo-political unity and techno-
logical efficiency, and the irrational equation of oli-
garchical leadership with the interests of the “whole,”
the Volksgemeinschaft (“community of the people”) or
the workers and peasant class.