4 minute read


Totalitarian Characteristics

A conventional way of describing totalitarianism is to present a list of characteristics common to Italian Fascism, German National Socialism, and Soviet Bolshevism. (Other regimes may also be included—notably, Chinese Communism under the rule of Mao, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), and Pol Pot's "Democratic Cambodia.") But how capacious should that portmanteau be? In Totalitarianism, published in 1954, Carl Friedrich itemized five elements, which, in a subsequent collaboration with Zbigniew Brzezinski, he increased to six. Yet, before that, Arthur M. Hill concocted fifteen points that Norman Davies, in Europe: A History (1997), expanded to seventeen. Recurrently mentioned features of totalitarianism include the following:

  • A revolutionary, exclusive, and apocalyptical ideology that announces the destruction of the old order—corrupt and compromised—and the birth of a radically new, purified, and muscular age. Antiliberal, anticonservative, and antipluralist, totalitarian ideology creates myths, catechisms, cults, festivities, and rituals designed to commemorate the destiny of the elect.
  • A cellular, fluid, and hydralike political party structure that, particularly before the conquest of state power, devolves authority to local militants. As it gains recruits and fellow believers, the party takes on a mass character with a charismatic leader at its head claiming omniscience and infallibility, and demanding the unconditional personal devotion of the people.
  • A regime in which offices are deliberately duplicated and personnel are continually shuffled, so as to ensure chronic collegial rivalry and dependence on the adjudication of the one true leader. To the extent that legal instruments function at all, they do so as a legitimizing sham rather than a real brake on the untrammeled use of executive power. Indeed, the very notion of "the executive" is redundant since it presupposes a separation of powers anathema to a totalitarian regime.
  • Economic-bureaucratic collectivism (capitalist or state socialist) intended to orchestrate productive forces to the regime's predatory, autarchic, and militaristic goals.
  • Monopolistic control of the mass media, "professional" organizations, and public art, and with it the formulation of a cliché-ridden language whose formulaic utterances are designed to impede ambivalence, nuance, and complexity.
  • A culture of martial solidarity in which violence and danger (of the trenches, the street fight, etc.) are ritually celebrated in party uniforms, metaphors ("storm troopers," "labor brigades"), and modes of address ("comrade"). Youth are a special audience for such a culture, but are expected to admire and emulate the "old fighters" of the revolution.
  • The pursuit and elimination not simply of active oppositionists but, and more distinctively, "objective enemies" or "enemies of the people"—that is, categories of people deemed guilty of wickedness in virtue of some ascribed quality such as race or descent. Crimes against the state need not have actually been committed by the person accused of them. Hence the "hereditary principle" in North Korea where punishment is extended to three generations (the original miscreants, their children, and their grandchildren). Under totalitarianism, it is what people are, more than what they do that marks them for punishment. As Stéphane Courtois observes, "the techniques of segregation and exclusion employed in a 'class-based' totalitarianism closely resemble the techniques of 'race-based' totalitarianism" (p. 16). Soviet and Chinese Marxism may have claimed to represent humanity as a whole, but only a humanity divested first of millions—classes, categories—who were beyond the pale of Marxist doctrine. Its universalism was thus always, like National Socialism, an exclusive affair.
  • Continual mobilization of the whole population through war, ceaseless campaigns, "struggles," or purges. Moreover, and notwithstanding ideological obeisance to ineluctable laws of history and race, totalitarian domination insists on febrile activity. The mercurial will of the leader and the people as a whole must constantly be exercised to produce miracles, combat backsliding, and accelerate the direction of the world toward its cataclysmic culmination.
  • The pervasive use of terror to isolate, intimidate, and regiment all whom the regime deems menacing. Charged with this task are the secret police rather than the army, which typically possesses significantly fewer powers and less status than it does under a nontotalitarian dictatorship or "authoritarian" regime.
  • The laboratory of totalitarian domination is the concentration camp. The experiment it conducts aims to discover the conditions under which human subjects become fully docile and pliable. In addition, a slave labor system exists side by side with a racial and/or class-oriented policy of genocide. In Nazi Germany, Jews were the principal objective enemy—over six million were murdered—but there were others such as Slavs and Gypsies. In the Soviet Union, key targets of annihilation or mass deportation were Cossacks (from 1920), kulaks (especially between 1930–1932), Crimean Tartars (1943), Chechens, and Ingush (both in 1944). The Great Purge of 1937–1938 is estimated to have killed close to 690,000 people, but this is dwarfed by the systematically induced famine in Ukraine in 1932–1933, thought to have killed around six million. Pol Pot's Cambodian Communist Party had a similar penchant for mass extermination, as did the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Mao: the Chairman boasted that 700,000 perished in the 1950–1952 campaign against "counterrevolutionaries." The CCP targeted landlords and intellectuals, and through a policy of accelerated modernization created the famine of the Great Leap Forward that claimed around 30 million victims.

It should be noted that there is widespread disagreement among commentators about whether Italian Fascism is properly classified as a totalitarian system. Hannah Arendt and George Kennan thought otherwise. Mussolini's regime, on such accounts, is best comprehended as an extreme form of dictatorship or, according to Juan Linz, a species of "authoritarianism." Though preeminent, it shared power with other collective actors such as the monarchy, the military, and the Catholic Church in a way that was utterly alien to National Socialism and Bolshevism. Official anti-Semitism was less intense and less vigorously policed. And Mussolini was domestically ousted in a way that indicates a far more precarious grip on power than either Hitler or Stalin evinced.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Thallophyta to ToxicologyTotalitarianism - Origins, Trajectory, Causation, Totalitarian Characteristics, The Coherence Of Totalitarianism, Criticisms And Responses