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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.


The origins and the main stages of the idea of totali-
tarianism reflect the problems of interpretation and the
controversies surrounding the use of the term in social
science, history, and philosophy. From the beginning,
the concept of the total or totalitarian state and regime
is basic to Fascism and remains so, while its transfer
and application to Communist systems, i.e., the analogy
of a rightist and leftist totalitarianism poses manifold
problems. Earlier use of the term is rare and vague:
the “total war” signifies, in the period from the French
Revolution (Robespierre) to World War I (Ludendorff)
and II (Goebbels), the levée en masse (“universal con-
scription”) in its most radical form; Totalität (“organic
wholeness or unity”) is ascribed to the idea of the state
by Hegel or Adam Müller; “total revolution” is occa-
sionally to be found in the writings of Marx and

Yet Italian Fascism, for the first time, transformed
such general notions into the systematic terms totali-
and totalitarietà that were to describe and proph-
esy a radically new political phenomenon: the unity
of theory and action, of organization and consent in
state and society alike. It was Mussolini who first (and
then repeatedly) applied the idea in this sense to the
Fascist state, in a speech of October 28, 1925: Tutto
nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro
lo Stato
(“Everything in the State, nothing outside the
State, nothing against the State”). This formula was,
however, more than simply extreme etatism; at the
same time Mussolini and other leading Fascists pro-
claimed their feroce volontà totalitaria (“violent totali-
tarian will”) and talked about the “totalitarian program
of our Revolution.”

What this early vocabulary of Fascism meant, is
above all a political style of violence, determination,
unconditional and absolute action, of radical demands
and intolerance. The dual aspects of the idea of totali-
tarianism are clearly visible here, as later on, in other
non-Italian contexts: not only full and absolute power,
but also a political dynamism based on dictatorial
decision and permanent action, as an emanation and
confirmation of unlimited power. Both aspects, the
totalitarian-etatist (as presented dogmatically by Mus-
solini's Hegelian Philosopher-Minister G. Gentile) and
the totalitarian activist (leading into imperialist and
finally even racist radicalism) are present in the con-
cept of totalitarian policy. German National Socialism,
though under different national conditions, demon-
strates a similar combination of state-absolutist and
radical-absolutist revolutionary elements. But while the
Hitler regime realized a dictatorship of utmost radical
consequence, the rhetorical use and the philosophical
exposition of the idea of totalitarianism remained a
domain of the Italian fascists, whether it was concen-
trating on the etatist-institutional or (after 1933 and
influenced by the triumph of National Socialism in
Germany) on the dynamic radical-revolutionary mean-
ing of the concept. The leading role of the party as
a “movement,” the continuation of a revolution never
completed but in fact permanent was stressed, as
against the traditional party and state structure.

On the other hand, since the term “totalitarianism”
was applied by critical observers very early (1928) to
both Fascism and Communism, its comparative use was
not merely a product of the cold war after 1945, as
critics of the term have suggested. Distinction should
be made between the use of the term (negatively) by
liberal analysts (like G. H. Sabine, 1937) or (positively)
by political movements and systems posing as totali-
tarian: most emphatically Italian Fascism, National
Socialism chiefly during the first years of the Third
Reich (Hitler himself preferred the word autoritär).
Communists reduced the phenomenon of totalitarian-
ism to the confrontation of revolutionary and counter-
revolutionary systems. The Fascist theory of totalitar-
ianism in turn has never recognized the Soviet Union
as a totalitarian state, but instead as a class dictatorship
radically opposed to the Fascist idea of a unified and
classless society.

In Germany, different from Italy, the idea of a “total
state” was developed before the Nazi seizure of power
(and even outside the Nazi Party) by political lawyers
and theorists like Carl Schmitt; it was the antiliberal,
antipluralistic consequence of a parliamentary democ-
racy in crisis, the Weimar Republic. In the crucial
period of 1932-33 this concept of a strong, monocratic
state was applied to the new reality of the Hitler
regime. Yet for this very reason, after an initial inflation
of writings on the total state, it never became official
doctrine (as in Fascism). Some protagonists of state
absolutism were even suspected of contradicting the
revolutionary and racist dynamism of National Social-

On the other hand, the structure and politics of the
Third Reich corresponded, as no other dictatorial sys-
tem, to the idea of totalitarian organization, power,


and ideology. In fact, since the rise of the SS-state over
the traditional state and legal system, the wartime
regime of National Socialism with its policy of mobili-
zation and expansion, of persecution, terror, and exter-
mination, of a declared “total war” was meant to be
as totalitarian as possible, even though the result was
a guided chaos. Totalitarian order and efficiency turned
out to consist of a system of arbitrary decisions and
a state-party dualism, under the sole will of the Leader.
But if the idea of the monolithic order of the totali-
tarian Leader system did not correspond to reality, it
still was real as the principle dominating the reorga-
nization of state and society. Much as we know today
about the chaotic, improvised state of the Third Reich,
its basic drive toward totalitarian organization and mo-
bilization still presents the most appropriate point of
departure for an analysis of National Socialism.

Does this Leader principle also hold true after a
critical analysis of the Stalinist system? Communist
theory never adopted the terminology of totalitarian-
ism to explain or legitimize the rule of the dictator
or the alleged dictatorship of the proletariat. But the
idea to represent a more perfect, true form of democ-
racy, at times even claimed by Hitler, does not in itself
contradict the totalitarian character of a political
movement or system. Indeed totalitarianism differs
from former types of dictatorship by its capacity to
handle democratic formulas and fictions, while using
all the possibilities of modern communication and
technology to manipulate the consent or submission
of the masses. This pseudodemocratic base of totali-
tarian systems should however not be mistaken for
reality, as is done by both conservative critics who
explain totalitarianism simply as the consequence of
democracy, and by apologists of Communist or Fascist
systems who praise the “democratic” quality of plebi-
scites and acclamations. The very fact that the ruling
clique or leader seek to legitimize their dictatorship
by appeals to mass support does not prove the demo-
cratic quality of a regime but signifies the specific form
of mass dictatorship in a democratic age. Thus the
range of the idea of totalitarianism is not only a matter
of definition but depends on the question, whether it
is restricted to systems that proclaim to be (or become)
totalitarian, or extended as a tool of critical analysis
and comparison, to dictatorial systems with a different
vocabulary and dogma. In the first case, the idea of
totalitarianism would be no more than a rather curious
piece of exaggerated power philosophy, typical of the
self-styled superman attitude of Mussolini's Fascism,
with little explanatory value as to the working of the
Fascist system, and even less of the Hitler regime. In
the second case, however, the idea of totalitarianism
must be further developed to signify and explain the
basic structural elements of modern, post-democratic
dictatorship, independent of its self-interpretation as
radical or progressive, democratic or revolutionary, left
or right.


As a critical concept to compare and analyze modern
dictatorships, the idea of totalitarianism cannot be
defined by a philological compilation of the uses and
connotations of the term. Yet most attempts at a typol-
ogy comprising the main elements of totalitarian sys-
tems have foundered on the contradiction between
historical and systematic analysis. This criticism has
been directed against the well-known theory of Carl
J. Friedrich and Z. K. Brzezinski: its rigid form is easily
attacked on the ground that more differentiated em-
pirical evidence does not fit into the axiomatic scheme.
Evidently modern dictatorship cannot be reduced to
a few variables. A synopsis of various typologies rang-
ing from Sigmund Neumann, Franz L. Neumann, and
Hannah Arendt to Robert Tucker and Leonard
Schapiro would offer a wider range of features and
variables for comparisons capable of dealing with sys-
tems of very different historical and intellectual, eco-
nomic and social conditions. Such a typology, while
operating on various levels of comparison, presents a
more complicated, less perspicuous picture than the
gross equation of Fascist and Communist systems. But
it remains the only way to reconcile social theory and
historical evidence, and to save the concept of totali-
tarianism as a useful tool from its uncritical friends
and its adversaries alike.

This means first of all that there can be no short
definition of totalitarianism that will cover the pioneer
example of the idea, Fascist Italy, together with
Hitlerism and Stalinism. Instead certain features can
be discerned as “typical,” which then or now may also
be discerned in other dictatorships (in Latin America,
the Balkans, Spain, and notably China). The most im-
portant characteristic remains, in all cases, the extraor-
dinary position of the Leader. His rise is of course
bound to the general conditions allowing for dictatorial
rule, but the character of a totalitarian system is un-
thinkable apart from Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, or
Franco and Mao. They rank as historical forces above
any other factor, including ideology or doctrine which
they use at will; this applies also to the use of Marxism
by Stalin, quite contrary to attempts to distinguish
principally between Fascist and Communist systems
on the ground of their profound ideological differences.
Hitler's neglect or violation of basic ideas of National
Socialism or the contradictory insertion of a Leader
cult into Marxism is ample proof of the dominating,
all-important role of the Leader; it is typical also of


his relationship to the (allegedly omnipotent) party as
well as to all other agencies of power and influence.
Either by purges or through the tactics of divide et
the Leader maintains a monopoly position—
least successfully defended by Mussolini—that makes
all authority derive from and depend on his arbitrary
will, and not even on the will of the seemingly omnip-
otent one party.

It is the “Leader” state, indispensable as the one-
party system may be for any totalitarian regime, that
determines the real power structure of such dictator-
ship, whatever qualities may be ascribed to its aims,
or doctrines. Here more than anywhere else the com-
mon totalitarian rationale is superior to any distinctions
made between left or right, progressive or reactionary
regimes. One may indeed conclude that the totalitarian
character which allows for close comparison of differ-
ent regimes is dependent on a cluster of forces in which
the Leader supersedes party and ideology; conse-
quently, Leninist or post-Stalinist dictatorship has to
be defined in more specific terms.

The same applies to the unlimited power of the
Leader versus state and law. This explains the typical
coexistence of extremely arbitrary acts with adminis-
trative and legal continuity, in the sense of a “dual
state” (E. Fraenkel) in which order and chaos, stability
and revolution form a pair. In reality, such a dualism
was only tolerated to provide pseudolegal cover for
arbitrary actions, with no legal security or predicta-
bility available outside the will of the Leader. This was
clearly the case in both the Hitler and the Stalin re-
gimes, with only superficial differences of more pseudo-
legal (the German tradition) or more revolutionary
camouflage; again Mussolini, while following the same
line, was least successful in view of the powerful rem-
nants of monarchy and church in Italy, despite his

Another important feature also distinguishing totali-
tarian systems from older forms of dictatorship, is the
degree to which individual and private life is controlled
and subjugated to a “new morality” of collective be-
havior. The regime demands quite openly the complete
politicizing of all realms of life, and its success in
performing this part of totalitarian control reveals the
degree to which the regime is able to realize its claim
to fuse state and society, party and people, individual
and collective into the ideal of total unity. It is here
that ideology aims to perform its central function: to
justify or even glorify the violation and abolition of
existing laws and morals in favor of higher goals of
national and racist, or social and class-oriented ideals
of community, again in the sense of a totality of means
and ends superseding individual sacrifices and sub-
limating terror and crime when they are used in the
service of the “whole” to which totalitarian ideology
is geared.

It has become clear how important in this connec-
tion the pseudodemocratic appearance must be for a
regime claiming total consent. To uphold the fiction
of a volonté générale embodied in the regime of one
leader and one party, as opposed to the empirical truth
that different individuals and groups naturally ask for
representation in different parties and power agencies,
a totalitarian regime could not be satisfied with older
techniques of autocratic rule by military repression or
religious sanction. It is only by ruling in the name of
the people that modern dictatorship can expect the
more or less voluntary support of the masses which
is necessary for large-scale mobilization and effective
functioning. This is helped by the extensive use of
modern propaganda, concentrating mainly on the
glorification of the Leader and on the manipulation
of his charismatic and pseudoreligious qualities. Among
the basic preconditions of totalitarian dictatorship
ranges the pseudodemocratic fiction that by mass
meetings and other emotional processes of communi-
cation the individual is directly linked to, and repre-
sented by, the Leader—without the need of interme-
diate agencies like free parliaments or interest groups:
it is the fiction of direct mass democracy.

In conclusion, the justification and usefulness of the
concept of totalitarianism seems quite independent of
the occasional misuse of the term in the service of cold
war and other propaganda. If there is no doubt about
some basic differences between Fascism and Commu-
nism in the realm of ideological goals and social policy,
the distinction between right and left totalitarianism
is much harder to establish in the actual working of
systems like the Hitlerian or Stalinist; at the same time,
the similarities of basic features of rule are striking.
While those systems seem to be a matter of the past
and history may not repeat itself, basic components
of the idea of totalitarianism remain present in our age
of democracy, of mass movements and profound social
change. This is a potential to be mobilized by future
Leaders whenever social crisis, emotional need for
security, and ideological conviction, and the hunger
for power coincide in the belief that only by concen-
trating all forces in one power agency and by com-
pletely subduing individual freedom to the chiliastic
promises of a political movement and its deified
leaders, can the problems of modern society be solved.
In this way, the idea of totalitarianism is not a phe-
nomenon of the past bound to the unique constellation
of the interwar period, but is part of the modernizing
process of nations and societies in the age of mass
democracy, bureaucracy, and pseudoreligious ideolo-



A. Aquarone, L'organizzazione dello Stato totalitario
(Turin, 1965). H. Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 2nd
ed. (New York, 1957). J. A. Armstrong, The Politics of Totali-
(New York, 1961). R. Aron, Démocratie et totali-
(Paris, 1964). K. D. Bracher, The German Dictator-
(New York, 1970); idem, with W. Sauer and G. Schulz,
Die nationalsozialistische Machtergreifung (Köln, 1962).
Z. K. Brzezinski, The Permanent Purge (Cambridge, Mass.,
1956); idem, Ideology and Power in Soviet Politics (New
York, 1962). H. Buchheim, Totalitäre Herrschaft (Munich,
1962). N. Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millenium (London,
1957). W. Ebenstein, Totalitarianism (New York, 1962). M.
Fainsod, How Russia is Ruled, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Mass.,
1963). E. Fraenkel, The Dual State (New York, 1941). C. J.
Friedrich, ed., Totalitarianism (Cambridge, Mass., 1954);
idem, with Z. K. Brzezinski, Totalitarian Dictatorship and
2nd ed. (Cambridge, Mass., 1965); idem, “The
Changing Theory and Practice of Totalitarianism,” Il Po-
33 (1968), 53ff. D. L. Germino, The Italian Fascist
Party in Power
(Minneapolis, 1959). J. A. Gregor, The Ideol-
ogy of Fascism
(New York, 1969). W. Kornhauser, The Poli-
tics of Mass Society
(London, 1960). W. Laqueur and G.
Mosse, eds. International Fascism 1920-1945 (New York,
1966). A. G. Meyer, The Soviet Political System (New York,
1965). B. Moore, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democ-
(New York, 1966). F. L. Neumann, Behemoth, 2nd ed.
(New York, 1944). S. Neumann, Permanent Revolution (New
York, 1942). G. H. Sabine, A History of Political Theory (New
York, 1937). L. Schapiro, “The Concept of Totalitarianism,”
Survey, No. 73 (1969), 93ff.; idem, with J. W. Lewis, “The
Roles of the Monolithic Party under the Totalitarian
Leader,” China Quarterly, 40 (1969), 39ff.; idem, The Origin
of the Communist Autocracy
(London, 1955). B. Seidel and
S. Jenker, eds., Wege der Totalitarismus-Forschung (Darm-
stadt, 1968). J. L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian De-
(Boston, 1952); idem, Political Messianism (New
York, 1960). R. C. Tucker, The Soviet Political Mind (New
York, 1963); idem, “The Dictator and Totalitarianism,”
World Politics, 17 (1965), 555ff.


[See also Authority; Crisis in History; Democracy; Despo-
tism; Nation; State.]