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—and defining different forms of government isn't as easy as it might seem. 

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 were 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.

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 freedoms, 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, or 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 or 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.

Totalitarian Versus 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, 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?

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 like Marxism and anarchism, 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.

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 had 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.