What Is Totalitarianism? Definition and Examples

Illustration of totalitarianism’s control of the press.
Illustration of totalitarianism’s control of the press. Paparazzit/Getty Images

Totalitarianism is a form of government that prohibits opposing political parties and ideologies, while controlling all aspects of the public and private lives of the people. Under a totalitarian regime, all citizens are subject to the absolute authority of the state. Here we will examine the political and philosophical perspectives of totalitarianism, as well as its level of prevalence in the modern world.

Key Takeaways: Totalitarianism

  • Totalitarianism is a system of government under which the people are allowed virtually no authority, with the state holding absolute control.
  • Totalitarianism is considered an extreme form of authoritarianism, in which government controls almost all aspects of the public and private lives of the people.
  • Most totalitarian regimes are ruled by autocrats or dictators.
  • Totalitarian regimes typically violate basic human rights and deny common freedoms in maintaining total control over their citizens. 

Totalitarianism Definition

Often regarded as the most extreme form of authoritarianism, totalitarianism is generally identified by dictatorial centralized rule dedicated to controlling all public and private aspects of individual life, to the benefit of the state, through coercion, intimidation, and repression. Totalitarian states are typically ruled by autocrats or dictators who demand unquestioned loyalty and control public opinion through propaganda distributed via government-controlled media. An even darker description of living under totalitarianism comes from George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984, when the main character Winston Smith is told by Thought Police interrogator O’Brien, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.”

Totalitarianism vs. Authoritarianism

Both totalitarianism and authoritarianism depend on quashing all forms of individual freedom. However, their methods of doing so differ. Through largely passive techniques such as propaganda, authoritarian states work to win the blind, voluntary submission of their citizens. In contrast, totalitarian regimes employ extreme measures such as secret police forces and imprisonment to control the private and political lives of their citizens. While totalitarian states typically demand a practically religious loyalty to a single highly developed ideology, most authoritarian states do not. Unlike totalitarian states, authoritarian states are limited in their ability to force the entire population to adopt and pursue the regime’s goals for the nation.

Characteristics of Totalitarianism

While they differ individually, totalitarian states have several characteristics in common. The two most notable characteristics shared by all totalitarian states are an overarching ideology addressing all aspects of life as the means of attaining the state’s final goal, and a single, all-powerful political party, usually led by a dictator.

Actors Edmond O'Brien and Jan Sterling with a Big Brother poster behind them in a still from the film version of George Orwell's novel '1984.’
Actors Edmond O'Brien and Jan Sterling with a Big Brother poster behind them in a still from the film version of George Orwell's novel '1984.’. Columbia TriStar/Getty Images

While there is only one platform, participation in the political system, especially voting, is mandatory. The ruling party controls all aspects and functions of government, including the use of a secret police force to brutally suppress dissent. The government itself is riddled with the duplicity of roles and functions, creating a hopelessly complex bureaucracy creating a false impression of a non-existent separation of powers—the antithesis of totalitarian regimes. 

Mandatory Devotion to a State Ideology

All citizens are required to adopt and serve a single apocalyptical ideology dedicated to defeating a shadowy and corrupt old order to be replaced by a new, racially pure, utopian society. Renouncing all traditional forms of political orientation—liberal, conservative, or populist—the totalitarian ideology demands a virtually religious and unconditional personal devotion to a single charismatic leader.

Unwavering and total loyalty to both the regime’s ideology and its leader are demanded. Total obedience to authority is required and enforced through physical intimidation and the threat of imprisonment. Citizens are made to be aware that they are under constant surveillance. Individual thought is discouraged and publicly ridiculed as a potential threat to the goals of the state ideology. As often attributed to totalitarian Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?” All basic liberties, such as the freedoms of speech and assembly, are denied and punishable.

State Control of Media

Totalitarian governments control all mass media, including art and literature. This control enables the regime to produce a constant stream of propaganda designed to “gaslight” the people and prevent them from realizing the hopelessness of their situation. Often riddled with clichéd, confusing catchphrases, this propaganda is typified by the poster created by the totalitarian government depicted in George Orwell’s classic novel 1984: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

State Control of the Economy

To further its predatory militaristic goals, totalitarian regimes own and control all aspects of the economy, including capital and all means of production. The personal economic incentives of capitalism are thus rendered impossible. Theoretically unburdened by the independent thought and effort required to succeed under a capitalistic system, individual citizens are free to concentrate solely on furthering the regime’s ideological goals.

A System of Terror and Constant War

Domestic terrorism conducted in support of the regime against dissidents is celebrated through the wearing of party uniforms and the use of complimentary metaphors for terrorists such as “storm troopers,” “freedom fighters,” or “labor brigades.” To further rally universal support for their ideology, totalitarian regimes strive to convince all individuals that they are civilian soldiers in an endless war, against an often loosely-defined evil enemy.

History

As early as 430 BCE, a system of rule resembling totalitarianism was applied in the ancient Grecian state of Sparta. Established under King Leonidas I, Sparta’s “educational system” was essential to its totalitarian society, in which every aspect of life, down to the rearing of children, was dedicated to maintaining the state’s military might. In his “Republic,” written around 375 BCE, Plato described a rigidly caste-based totalitarian society in which the citizens served the state and not vice versa. In Ancient China, the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE) was ruled by the philosophy of Legalism, under which political activity was virtually prohibited, all literature was destroyed, and those who opposed or questioned Legalism were executed.

Modern Examples of Totalitarianism

Collage of totalitarian leaders (each row - left to right) Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Benito Mussolini, and Kim Il-sung.
Collage of totalitarian leaders (each row - left to right) Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Benito Mussolini, and Kim Il-sung. General Iroh/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Most historians consider the first truly totalitarian regimes to have been formed during the chaotic aftermath of World War I when the rapid modernization of weapons and communications enabled totalitarian movements to exert their control. In the early 1920s Italian fascist Benito Mussolini coined the term “totalitario” to characterize the new fascist state of Italy, ruled under his philosophy of, “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” A few well-known examples of totalitarian regimes during this period include:

Soviet Union Under Joseph Stalin

Coming to power in 1928, Joseph Stalin’s secret police force had eliminated all potential opposition within the Communist Party by 1934. During the ensuing Great Terror in 1937 and 1938, millions of innocent Soviet citizens were either arrested and executed or sent to labor camps. By 1939, the Soviet people were so fearful of Stalin that mass arrests were no longer necessary. Stalin ruled as the absolute dictator of the Soviet Union throughout World War II and until his death in March 1953. 

Italy Under Benito Mussolini

After rising to power in 1922, Mussolini’s Fascist police state eliminated virtually all constitutional and political restraints on his power. In 1935, Italy was declared a totalitarian state by the Doctrine of Fascism: “The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism is totalitarian …” Through propaganda and intimidation, Mussolini built a nationalistic fervor, convincing all “loyal” Italians to abandon their individualism and willingly die for their leader and the Italian state. In 1936, Mussolini agreed to join Nazi Germany as one of the Axis Powers of World War II

Germany Under Adolf Hitler

Soldiers join hands to form a Nazi blockade.
Soldiers join hands to form a Nazi blockade. Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Between 1933 and 1945, dictator Adolf Hitler transformed Germany into a totalitarian state where nearly all aspects of life were controlled by the government—the Third Reich. Through genocide and mass murder, Hitler’s totalitarian regime strove to turn Germany into a racially pure military superpower. Starting in 1939, from 275,000 to 300,000 German citizens with mental or physical disabilities were murdered. During the Holocaust between 1941 and 1945, Hitler’s Einsatzgruppen “mobile killing squads” along with German armed forces murdered some six million Jews across Germany and German-occupied Europe. 

People's Republic of China Under Mao Zedong

Chinese communist Mao Zedong, also known as Chairman Mao, ruled the People’s Republic of China from 1949 until he died in 1976. From 1955 to 1957, Mao’s Anti-Rightist Campaign resulted in the persecution of as many as 550,000 intellectuals and political dissidents. In 1958, his Great Leap Forward agricultural to industrial conversion economic plan resulted in a famine that caused the deaths of over 40 million people. In 1966, Chairman Mao declared the Chinese Cultural Revolution, 10 years of class warfare marked by the destruction of countless cultural artifacts and the rise of Mao’s adoring “cult of personality.” Despite his nearly God-like popularity, Mao’s Cultural Revolution resulted in the deaths of thousands to millions of people. 

Current Totalitarian States

According to most authorities, North Korea and the East African state of Eritrea are the world’s only two nations recognized as still having totalitarian forms of government.

North Korea

Established as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948, North Korea remains the world’s longest-lasting totalitarian state. Currently ruled by Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s government is considered one of the most repressive in the world by Human Rights Watch, maintaining power through brutality and intimidation. Propaganda is widely used to support the government’s totalitarian ideology of Juche, the belief that true socialism can be achieved only through universal loyalty to a strong and independent state. Although North Korea’s constitution promises human rights, freedom of expression is restricted and the people are constantly supervised. The same constitution contradictorily defines North Korea as “a dictatorship of people’s democracy.” Politically, the constitutionally recognized Workers’ Party of Korea enjoys legal supremacy over any other political parties.

Eritrea

Since gaining full independence in 1993, Eritrea has remained a totalitarian one-party dictatorship. Under President Isaias Afwerki, national legislative and presidential elections have never been held and none are anticipated. While Afwerki has dismissed the allegations as politically motivated, Human Rights Watch has condemned Eritrea’s human rights record as one of the worst in the world. Falsely claiming to be on a constant “war footing” with neighboring Ethiopia, Afwerki’s totalitarian government uses mandatory, indefinite military or civilian national service to control the Eritrean people. According to Human Rights Watch, the entire working life of many Eritreans is spent serving the government.

Sources 

  • Schäfer, Michael. “Totalitarianism and Political Religions.” Oxford: Psychology Press, 2004, ISBN 9780714685298.
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  • Fitzpatrick, Sheila. “Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, ISBN 9780195050004.
  • Buckley, Chris. "China Enshrines 'Xi Jinping Thought,' Elevating Leader to Mao-Like Status." The New York Times, October 24, 2017.
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  • “World Report 2020.” Human Rights Watch.