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The concept of Totalitarianism is a typology or ideal-type used by some political scientists to encapsulate the characteristics of a number of twentieth century regimes that mobilized entire populations in support of the state or an ideology. According to these historical approximations, totalitarian regimes are more repressive of pluralism and political rights than authoritarian ones. Under a totalitarian regime, the state controls nearly every aspect of the individual’s life. Totalitarian governments do not tolerate activities by individuals or groups such as labour unions that are not directed by the state’s goals. Totalitarian regimes maintain themselves in power through secret police, propaganda disseminated through the media, the elimination of open criticism of the regime, and use of terror tactics. Internal and external threats are created to foster unity through fear.

Benito Mussolini originally applied the term to his own regime (1922-1943) in Italy. Leon Trotsky applied the term to both fascism and Stalinism as “symmetrical phenomena” in his 1936 book Revolution Betrayed. Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) popularized the use of the term totalitarianism (notably in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism) in order to illustrate the commonalities between Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union.

During the Cold War, the term became popularized by many anticommunist commentators, and fell into common usage in the United States. Thus, some have used the term to describe just about any nationalist, imperialist, fascist and Communist regime as “totalitarian.” However, some fascist regimes, such as Franco’s Spain and Mussolini’s Italy before World War II; some Communist regimes, such as Yugoslavia under Tito, the People’s Republic of China under Deng Xiaoping, and Cuba under Fidel Castro; and single-party regimes, such as Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek and Indonesia under Suharto have authoritarian rather than totalitarian characteristics.

Some scholars, such as Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, have moved beyond the tripartite typology of totalitarian, authoritarian, and democratic regimes without rejecting it entirely. Instead, they expand that typology by explicating “post-totalitarianism” as a distinctive regime-type characterizing regimes such as the post-Stalinist Soviet Union.


Totalitarian Regimes

Regimes approximated as totalitarian have developed in the twentieth century through new techniques that mobilize entire populations in support of the state and a political ideology. The main examples of regimes considered totalitarian are Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Totalitarian systems, however, may not be as monolithic as they appear, since they may hide a process in which several groups—the army, political leaders, industrialists, and others—compete for power and influence.


Problems of Identification and Distinction

Both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany came into conflict with the “free world”, either directly and violently (World War II), or indirectly (the Cold War). Allied forces led by the Soviet Union and the United States (amongst others) liberated Germany on V-E Day. Arendt, in particular, draws parallels between fascism and Stalinism.

Since the fall of the Nazi regime in Germany, many other theorists in the United States and Western Europe have argued that similarities exist between the government of Nazi Germany and that of Stalin’s Soviet Union. In most cases, this has not taken the form of emphasising the perceived “socialism” of the National Socialists (Nazis) — mainly because this “socialism” appeared chiefly in Nazi propaganda and did not make any significant appearance in mature Nazi theory or practice — but of arguing that both Nazism and Stalinism represent forms of totalitarianism.

However, the concept of totalitarianism remains highly controversial. Most historians who study Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union accept it only with reservations. But some (usually neo-conservative) scholars argue that Nazism resembled Stalinism not only in its methods of rule, as suggested by Arendt and other theorists of totalitarianism, but also in that both systems ran “socialist” states. Those who hold this view point to the occasional statements of Nazi leaders that they were “socialists”, as well as the more anti-capitalist planks of the Nazi party program. They tend to ignore the anti-communist planks of that same program. Furthermore, the background of Benito Mussolini, founder of the Italian fascist movement, as a socialist before the First World War, has served to further the claim that the roots of fascism (of which Nazism allegedly represents a special form) lie in socialist thought. The aforementioned neo-conservative scholars also note the collectivist, statist nature of some parts of the Nazi enterprise, which they see as essentially socialist. Others disagree with this view, pointing out that collectivist and statist practices have existed in a wide variety of governments throughout human history — including some as old as Ancient Egypt — which have nothing to do with socialism. They further point to the fact that Nazi Germany allowed (and even encouraged) private enterprise.

Historians such as Ian Kershaw, Hans Mommsen, and Joachim Fest argue that the origins of the Nazi Party lie in the far-right nationalist and racist movements that existed in Germany in the post-World War I period as well as in older movements such as the Thule Society. Hitler, Goebbels and the Nazi ideologues consistently rejected any and all of the traditions of nineteenth and early twentieth century German socialism as articulated by Karl Marx, Ferdinand Lassalle, Karl Kautsky, August Bebel and others. Rather, such historians agree that the intellectuals to whom the Nazis looked from the beginning (whether Nietzsche or Houston Stewart Chamberlain) stood consistently to the right of centre, implying that the intellectual origins of Nazism lie in right-wing nationalist and racist thought, not in the socialist tradition. Further, the cultural and political traditions the Nazis celebrated did not belong to the socialist tradition. Hitler and the Nazis revered the nationalist operas of Wagner, particularly The Ring Cycle, and found heroes in history such as Frederick the Great or the Teutonic Knights. Conversely, the Nazis rejected and even reviled socialist cultural and historical traditions such as the celebration of the French Revolution and the 1848 Revolutions or the lore of workers’ struggles in momentous strikes and protests. The Nazis condemned and rejected the eighteenth and nineteenth century revolutionary movements and blamed these events for destroying traditional values and social relations. They also saw these revolutions as part of a Jewish conspiracy, since those revolutions resulted (inter alia) in the emancipation of the Jews.

The hierarchical nature of the anti-modern corporatism espoused by Nazism and other forms of fascism contrasts directly with the egalitarianism espoused by most forms of socialism. Kershaw argues that the Nazis opposed egalitarianism, had an elitist view of society and asserted that in competition amongst citizens the superior individual would emerge on top.

Much of this debate ultimately revolves around the question of the meaning of the term socialism, making argument on the subject frequently as much about semantics as about actual substantive differences.


Theories of Totalitarianism

The relationship between totalitarianism and authoritarianism also remains controversial: some see totalitarianism as an extreme form of authoritarianism, while others argue that they differ completely.

Some political analysts, notably neo-conservatives such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, have studied the various distinctions between totalitarianism and authoritarianism. They argue that while both types of governments can behave extremely brutally to political opponents, in an authoritarian government the government’s efforts focus mostly on those classified as political opponents, and the government has neither the will nor, often, the means to control every aspect of an individual’s life. In a totalitarian system, the ruling ideology requires that every aspect of an individual’s life become subordinated to the state, including education, occupation, income, recreation and religion, often even including family relationships. Personal survival links to the regime’s survival, and thus the concepts of “the state” and “the people” become merged. This is also called the carceral state — like a prison.

Some analysts have argued that totalitarianism requires a cult of personality around a charismatic “great leader” glorified as the legitimator of the regime. Many regimes often considered totalitarian fit this model — for example, those of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Il-Sung. Partially for this reason, some scholars do not consider the post-Stalin Soviet Union and most of the Warsaw Pact nations as totalitarian. When those governments fell, however, many intellectuals and average citizens of the countries argued that they had indeed experienced totalitarianism. This has made more popular the belief that totalitarianism frequently features a charismatic leader but does not require one.

Still, one can reasonably argue that all totalitarian systems do seem to necessarily require the presence of a living human absolute leader at all times and do expect a certain type of guidance for nearly every aspect of life from that leader. Regardless of whether or not a newly installed leader of a totalitarian regime may happen to possess a certain natural charisma or not, the totalitarian system seems to tend to attempt to systematically impose this charisma onto the leader.

Critics of the concept of totalitarianism often argue that there is no clear distinction between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, and that such a distinction is only artificially created by those who wish to make certain dictatorships appear better than others, or those who wish to justify their alliance with (or support of) certain dictators rather than others.

The original sense in which “totalitarian” was coined, least viable for its connotations today but pertinent to understanding the context of its earliest instances, was for representing the state through Giovanni Gentile’s philosophy. For him, ‘Totalitarian’ was the condition of the state in which all activities of civil society, inadvertently or not, ultimately lead to, and therefore perpetually exist in, something resembling a state. Within that consideration, therefore, is an express and underlying need for advancement to come through synthesis of every quality of society through recognition in policy and by official mandate of everything which can take part within the sphere of human living, by the state.

The state is then an attempt to expand and magnify the every interest of its demographic as being reciprocal with the state to where their interests & actions belong to something higher than themselves. Society is then intimately interconnected with the state as its limiting factor, based upon how all those conditions of life gave rise to it for them to be free to have their own interests benefit it as much as themselves, and can only act through the means that society has as the interest of that resultant state rather than any interests the people hold generally. Thus, this kind of Totalitarianism originated as a term for an idea meant to represent an opposition to both socialism and liberalism.

di Luca Lanticina

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