What is Totalitarianism? — Definition, Features, Criticism, Pros & Cons

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Definition Totalitarianism

The term totalitarianism has several meanings. Some claim that the word first originated in Italy; others claim it found its way into the Italian language from the French. Whatever the origin, French or Italian, the official philosopher of fascist theory, Giovanni Gentile, was said to have used the term on March 8, 1925, when he described it as "a total conception of life.".

In a similar vein, it was noted that Mussolini's first use of the word was in a speech on June 22, 1925, while attacking the remnants of the opposition in the chamber. He spoke "La nostra feroce volunta totalitaria (meaning the facist-fierce totalitarian will)". On the other hand, around the same time, liberal opponents of fascism were using the word as a term of opprobrium for dictatorial and dishonest political practices.

With time, the word became a favorite in Mussolini's vocabulary, used to describe the system that he claimed to have created and which he usually called "Lo stato totalitario," meaning the 'totalitarian state'.

In Germany, the use of the term total or totalitar by the National Socialists was short-lived. It was apparently first used in the military sense of total mobilization by Ernst Juenger in 1930, and shortly after the following year by Carl Schmitt, one of the main ideologists of national socialism, in discussing the nationalist socialist idea of the "totalitarian state." Hitler, it was noted, seldom used the word, and when compelled to use it, often added the prefix "so called." His own favorite word was 'authoritar' which he felt had a better appeal to a German audience.

Ever since, the word has been employed in different scholarly writings to describe fascist or communist regimes. In idealist views, since the end of World War II, the use of the word totalitarian by journalists, politicians, and writers on politics has become widespread, indiscriminate, and imprecise. It has been applied to a great variety of political regimes, viz., the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and fascist Italy, as well as to many regimes that have sprung up in imitation of them or as a result of the imposition by force of Soviet-dominated communist party rule.

Thus, there is a tendency to define it as a system of government in which the state controls every aspect of the lives of its citizens and in which there is no distinction between the public and private realms.

The difficulties associated with conceptualizing the term totalitarianism have led to the arbitrary use of the term in the description of systems, which, though they may share some similarities, are markedly different in content. The controversy surrounding the use of the term led to questions like

  • Should one term be used for the three political systems?
  • Are communism and fascism so different that no one term can properly embrace them both?
  • Can a term not be described as obsolete if the system to which it applies undergoes some change?

These questions can be answered if one can identify the salient features of totalitarian regimes.

Features of Totalitarianism

The first notable attempt to identify the baffling features of totalitarianism was made by Professor Carl J. Friedrich in 1954 (in the book The Unique Character in Totalitarian Society). This attempt was later extended in another work with Z. Brzezinski in 1956 (titled "Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy"). These authors came up with what later came to be known as the six-point syndrome, as features of totalitarian regimes. They are:

  • An official ideology to which everyone is supposed to adhere, focused on the perfect final state of mankind.
  • A single mass party, usually led by one man, organized hierarchically and either superior to or intertwined with the state machinery.
  • A technically conditioned near-complete monopoly of control, by the party and bureaucracy subordinate to it, of the effective use of all weapons of armed combat.
  • A near-complete monopoly was similarly exercised over all means of effective mass communication.
  • A system of physical or psychological terrorist police control.
  • Central control and direction of the entire economy.

These six-point syndromes attracted a variety of criticisms. For instance, the critics of detail contend that the six-point syndrome is not exhaustive in the sense that there are other important features that were not included.

  • A theory of world domination implied in the official ideology, and
  • The need for constant mass mobilization of effort.

Characteristics of a Totalitarian State (by Leonard Schapiro)

The second group of critics contends that the features listed by Friedrich and Brzezinski cannot be sustained as being particular to totalitarian regimes, as all the features can be found elsewhere, whether in the past or even in the present. 

In the views of Leonard Schapiro, a British academic and scholar of Russian politics, the six-point syndrome hampers analysis because it confuses two entirely different things: the characteristic features, which he preferred to call the contours of a polity, and the instruments of rule, the pillars.

Schapiro notes, for instance, that the party is an instrument of rule by the leader, while leadership is a central and distinctive contour of totalitarian government. He notes that he contours enables the map reader in the political wilderness to recognize a totalitarian regime and, as such, forms the distinctive features of totalitarian regimes. The contours include:

1. The Leader

The leader in this system is usually afflicted with the mania of indispensability. Hitler, for instance, proclaimed in a private conversation that no successor worthy of him was imaginable. Benito Mussolini confessed to Envil Ludwig that, in his view, there could be no second Duce, and Joseph Stalin (according to Kruschev) expressed fears of what his successors, who were as blind as kittens, would do without him.

Given this kind of thinking, the leaders made all attempts to make their person synonymous with the state or even above it, so that no law, body, or institution could topedo their 'will' as leaders. The typical examples of totalitarian leaders, viz., Adolf Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, made very good use of mass manipulation, propaganda, and ruthless methods in establishing and sustaining themselves in power.

Such and every one of them used the party to ride to power, after which they strove to transform the party from a hierarchical institution with a political life of its own unit, a band of obedient followers. The aim was to ensure that every party member was dependent on the leader alone for his continued power and influence.

2. The Subjugation of the Legal Order

This was evident in Nazi Germany, Mussolini's Italy, and Stalin's USSR. In Weimer, Germany, for instance, there is a basic norm: where there is a state, there is a legal order, and the legal order is the state in action. State and law are therefore one; every state is therefore a Rechtstaat.

Hitler tried to topedo this norm by making himself the füherstaat, which means leader-state, who derives his authority not from the state but from history, and as such, no court could pronounce on the validity of the fuhrer's will, only history.

Similarly, Stalin subjugated the legal order in the Soviet Union through the instrumentality of the revolution, which destroyed the legal system, which was part of the state and will now wither away in conformity with the Marxist doctrine of stateless society.

3. Control Over Private Property

The totalitarian state, in its ideology, asserts that the individual finds real fulfillment only in identification with the state or with the party, and as such, there can be no room for private moral judgment, which sets itself up against the form of public morality imposed by the state or party.

In the words of V.I. Lenin (1926),

We recognize nothing private; our morality is entirely subordinated to the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat.

4. Mobilization and Mass Legitimacy

One basic feature of totalitarian regimes is the manipulative use of the masses for the legitimization of fascist or totalitarian pursuits. In the exact words of Schapiro,

"Nothing provides a more convincing justification for terror than the claim constantly reiterated that the nation is pursuing some great and noble aim to which all effort must be constantly devoted and that this aim is being frustrated by internal and external enemies who must be destroyed."

Thus, for Nazi Germany, the enemy were the Jews and all others who could not trace their descent to the Aryan race. For communist states, the enemy was the bourgeoisie and all employers of labor and owners of capital. According to Mussolini,

...the masses are like war in my hands when I stir their faith. I feed myself to be a part of them. All the same, there persists in one a certain feeling of aversion, like that which the modeler feels for the clay he is molding.

These words of Mussolini summarize the manipulative skill of the fascist leaders over their subjects. Schapiro went further to identify the instruments of rule, which he called the 'Pillars', for the simple reason that these pillars, which are in reality institutional, have lost their identity as institutions since they do not enjoy any autonomy in totalitarian regimes, which is one attribute of institutions. These pillars are:

  • Ideology:

Defined by Schapiro as 'a system of beliefs that relate to fundamental political aims and are designed consciously or unconsciously to influence and direct the course of action of those who are within its sphere of influence". Thus the ideology of nationalism, which manifests in the mass hysteria and surrender to the leaders will, all share a common feature: the enemy (the Jews, the capitalists, the imperialists). He notes that a manipulated ideology serves three aims: legitimacy, anasthesia, and mobilization.

The leader of a totalitarian regime has a greater need for manipulated ideology, especially where there is no clearly visible and recognizable source of legitimate authority to which the leader can appeal, such as free elections or traditionally accepted dynastic claims. In the absence of such a legitimate basis of authority, it had to rely on some spurious abstract myths or symbols to lay claims to power.

Ideology made sense to the extent that it enabled the ruler to consolidate and perpetuate himself in power. To effect this, the leader has to enforce a monopoly of ideology by keeping out rival ideologies and by keeping out factual information and agreements that may challenge the official ideology. Such an ideology also serves to analyze or neutralize the moral revulsion against the atrocities and brutalities perpetuated by the leader.

  • The Party:

The party is a vital instrument of the leader in totalitarian states. In totalitarian states, the successful leader does not allow the party to rise to a position of preeminence so as not to be a rival to his pursuit of supreme power. Hence, all the attention of party members must be drawn to the leader as the source of power and not the party.

Stalin, for example, used a number of intimidating tactics, like the purges of 1938, to transform the CPSU into something that was more like a personal corps of adherents than a party. Similarly, Hitler used bold terrorist attacks to consolidate his position as the leader of the party and made sure that most of the powers enjoyed by the party reposed in him as the leader.

In the case of Mussolini, he saw his triumph on January 23, 1925, as a triumph of Mussolini over his rivals in the fascist party. A triumph of Mussolini as leader of the state. He regarded the party as a kind of reserve of obedient and malleable robots.

  • The State:

The state connotes three things.

First, a pattern of system and regularities—the complex of powers and rights through which properly appointed and only responsible officials exercise authority within a sphere strictly delimited by law.

Secondly, it means a complex of offices rather than individuals; the right to exercise authority over others flows from the particular office, whoever the individual who fills it may happen to be; it is legal rather than personal authority.

Thirdly, the notion of the state suggests regularity; the elements that make up the complex operate periodically according to rules that are fixed and which the holders of the various offices cannot transgress, or if they do transgress, can effectively be called to account.

However, in totalitarian 'facist' states, the leader personalizes the state and/or subordinates the state under his authority. For instance, Hitler tried to subordinate the state through the ideological manipulation that the state was under the party, which by inference means that if he was the leader of the party, the state was under him.

In the Stalinist Soviet Union, the party and his rule were highly personalized,  roughshodding over or ignoring institutions of every kind, viz., the Soviet Union, the courts, the trade union, government departments, etc. They were used and discarded at will.

Schapiro thus concludes that a totalitarian regime is essentially a leadership regime. Its ideology is in part a devise to give the leader the legitimacy that he lacks and in part an instrument to be used in order to overcome the resistance that he would otherwise meet from the state and society. The degree to which he is successful in his resistance to this tendency is the index of his prowess as a totalitarian leader. He must be victorious in this conflict in order to survive, which in effect means that the state and all that it entails atrophy, are left in abeyance, or are overlaid by the leader's apparatus of rule, which is quite distinct from the state.

For this reason, Schapiro surmised that it is more current to label such regimes as totalitarian regimes than totalitarian states since the state is either subjugated or sidetracked.

However, where the state is viewed differently from the way Schapiro describes it, Schapiro's conclusion will appear faulty. For instance, the Marxist school describes the state as an instrumentality of class dominance. This by inference means that whatever the leader employs for class dominance, viz., the party, ideology, etc., and even the leader's authority, represents the state or is synonymous with it.

Be that as it may, what Friedrick, Brzezinski, and Leonard Bertram Naman Schapiro did was enable us to identify totalitarian governments. Whether the features that identify them should be delineated into contours and pillars is a matter of perception and differences in the operationalization of terms.

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