Totalitarianism, Authoritarianism, and Fascism

What Is the Difference?

Members of the Italian youth fascist organisation, the Balilla.
Members of the Italian youth fascist organisation, the Balilla. Chris Ware / Getty Images

Totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and fascism are all forms of government characterized by a strong central rule that attempts to control and direct all aspects of individual life through coercion and repression.

All nations have an official type of government as designated in the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook. However, a nation’s own description of its form of government can often be less than objective. For example, while the former Soviet Union declared itself a democracy, its elections were not “free and fair”, as only one party with state-approved candidates was represented. The USSR is more correctly classified as a socialist republic.

In addition, the boundaries between various forms of government can be fluid or poorly-defined, often with overlapping characteristics. Such is the case with totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and fascism.

What Is Totalitarianism?

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in Munich, Germany September 1937.
Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in Munich, Germany September 1937. Fox Photos/Getty Images

Totalitarianism is a form of government in which the state’s power is unlimited and controls virtually all aspects of public and private life. This control extends to all political and financial matters as well as the attitudes, morals, and beliefs of the people.

The concept of totalitarianism was developed in the 1920s by Italian fascists. They attempted to spin it positively by referring to what they considered totalitarianism’s “positive goals” for society. Still, most Western civilizations and governments quickly rejected the concept of totalitarianism and continue to do so today.

One distinctive feature of totalitarian governments is the existence of an explicit or implied national ideology—a set of beliefs intended to give meaning and direction to the entire society.

According to Russian history expert and author Richard Pipes, Fascist Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini once summarized the basis of totalitarianism as, “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

Examples of characteristics that might be present in a totalitarian state include:

  • Rule enforced by a single dictator
  • The presence of a single ruling political party
  • Strict censorship, if not total control of the press
  • Constant dissemination of pro-government propaganda
  • Mandatory service in the military for all citizens
  • Mandatory population control practices
  • Prohibition of certain religious or political groups and practices
  • Prohibition of any form of public criticism of the government
  • Laws enforced by secret police forces or the military

Typically, the characteristics of a totalitarian state tend to cause people to fear their government. Rather than trying to allay that fear, totalitarian rulers encourage it and use it to ensure the people’s cooperation.

Early examples of totalitarian states include Germany under Adolf Hitler and Italy under Benito Mussolini. More recent examples of totalitarian states include Iraq under Saddam Hussein and North Korea under Kim Jong-un.

According to Russian history expert and author Richard Pipes, Fascist Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini used the term “totalitario” to in the early 1920s to describe the new fascist state of Italy, which he further described as “all within the state, none outside the state, none against the state.” By the beginning of World War II, totalitarian had become synonymous with absolute and oppressive single-party rule.

Totalitarianism is typically distinguished from dictatorship, autocracy, or tyranny by its goals of replacing all existing political institutions with new ones and elimination of all legal, social, and political traditions. Totalitarian governments typically pursue a special goal, such as industrialization or imperialism, intended to mobilize the population in its favor. Regardless of the economic or social cost, all resources are devoted to achieving the special goal. Every government action is explained in terms of realizing the goal. This allows a totalitarian state the widest latitude of action of any form of government. No dissent or internal political differences are allowed. Because pursuit of the goal is the foundation for the totalitarian state, achievement of the goal can never be acknowledged.

What Is Authoritarianism?

Fidel Castro smokes a cigar in his office in Havana, Cuba, circa 1977.
Fidel Castro circa 1977. David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images 

An authoritarian state is characterized by a strong central government that allows people a limited degree of political freedom. However, the political process, as well as all individual freedom, is controlled by the government without any constitutional accountability

In 1964, Juan José Linz, Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Political Science at Yale University, described the four most recognizable characteristics of authoritarian states as:

  • Limited political freedom with strict government controls imposed on political institutions and groups like legislatures, political parties, and interest groups
  • A controlling regime that justifies itself to the people as a “necessary evil” uniquely capable of coping with “easily recognizable societal problems” such as hunger, poverty, and violent insurgency
  • Strict government-imposed constraints on social freedoms such as suppression of political opponents and anti-regime activity
  • The presence of a ruling executive with vague, shifting, and loosely-defined powers

Modern dictatorships such as Venezuela under Hugo Chávez and Cuba under Fidel Castro typify authoritarian governments. 

While the People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao Zedong was considered a totalitarian state, modern-day China is more accurately described as an authoritarian state because its citizens are now allowed some limited personal freedoms.

Authoritarian leaders exercise power arbitrarily and without regard to existing laws or constitutional limitations, and typically cannot be replaced by citizens through freely conducted elections. The right to create opposing political parties that might compete for power with the ruling group is either limited or prohibited in authoritarian states. In this manner, authoritarianism stands in fundamental contrast to democracy. However, it differs from totalitarianism in that authoritarian governments typically lack a guiding national ideology or goal and tolerate some diversity in social organization. Without the power or necessity to mobilize the entire population in pursuit of national goals authoritarian governments tend to exercise their power within more-or-less predictable limits. Examples of authoritarian regimes, according to some scholars, include the pro-Western military dictatorships that existed in Latin America and elsewhere in the second half of the 20th century.

Totalitarian Vs. Authoritarian Governments

In a totalitarian state, the government’s range of control over the people is virtually unlimited. The government controls nearly all aspects of the economy, politics, culture, and society. Education, religion, the arts and sciences, and even morality and reproductive rights are controlled by totalitarian governments.

While all power in an authoritarian government is held by a single dictator or group, the people are allowed a limited degree of political freedom.

What Is Fascism?

Dictator Benito Mussolini and Fascist Party leaders during the March on Rome
Dictator Benito Mussolini and Fascist Party leaders during the March on Rome. Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

Rarely employed since the end of World War II in 1945, fascism is a form of government combining the most extreme aspects of both totalitarianism and authoritarianism. Even when compared to extreme nationalistic ideologies, fascism is typically considered to be at the far-right end of the political spectrum.

Fascism is characterized by the imposition of dictatorial power, government control of industry and commerce, and the forcible suppression of opposition, often at the hands of the military or a secret police force. Fascism was first seen in Italy during World War I, later spreading to Germany and other European countries during World War II.

The Foundations of Fascism

The foundation of fascism is a combination of ultranationalism—an extreme devotion to one’s nation over all others—along with a widely held belief among the people that the nation must and will be somehow saved or “reborn.” Rather than working for concrete solutions to economic, political, and social problems, fascist rulers divert the peoples’ focus, while winning public support, by elevating the idea of a need for a national rebirth into a virtual religion. To this end, fascists encourage the growth of cults of national unity and racial purity.

In pre-World War II Europe, fascists movements tended to promote the belief that non-Europeans were genetically inferior to Europeans. This passion for racial purity often led fascist leaders to undertake mandatory genetic modification programs intended to create a pure “national race” through selective breeding. 

Historically, the primary function of fascist regimes has been to maintain the nation in a constant state of readiness for war. Fascists observed how rapid, mass military mobilizations during World War I blurred the lines between the roles of civilians and combatants. Drawing on those experiences, fascist rulers strive to create a rabidly nationalistic culture of “military citizenship” in which all citizens are willing and prepared to take on some military duties during times of war, including actual combat.

In addition, fascists view democracy and the electoral process as an obsolete and unnecessary obstacle to maintaining constant military readiness. They also consider a totalitarian, one-party state as the key to preparing the nation for war and its resulting economic and social hardships.

Today, few governments publicly describe themselves as fascist. Instead, the label is more often used pejoratively by those critical of particular governments or leaders. The term “neo-fascist," for example, describes governments or individuals espousing radical, far-right political ideologies similar to those of the World War II fascist states.

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Longley, Robert. "Totalitarianism, Authoritarianism, and Fascism." ThoughtCo, Dec. 5, 2022, Longley, Robert. (2022, December 5). Totalitarianism, Authoritarianism, and Fascism. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Totalitarianism, Authoritarianism, and Fascism." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).