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Introduction | History of Totalitarianism
Introduction Back to Top

Totalitarianism 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, labor 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 recognized 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.

History of Totalitarianism Back to Top

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 Ceausescu, Syria under Hafez al-Assad, Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini and Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

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