What is Totalitarianism

In the simpler explanation, ideology drives a system of totalitarianism that seeks to control all aspects of the political system, the economic system and the social systems. The mechanisms used include terror and propaganda, mostly in overwhelming and incredibly intrusive forms.

The word “totalitarianism” was believed to be used sometime in 1925 by Giovanni Gentile, an Italian philosopher, during the early days of the Italian facist movement.

The ideology refers to striving for the “perfect final stage of mankind” (Freidrich/Brzezienski, 1956). The leader is one person who, so far in history, all have been male. There is only one political party that is injected into the bureaucracy and works throughout the government. In Democracy, there are multiple power centers and the rule of law that applies to all leaders. In Democracy, there is focus on the individual in terms of rights and obligations, while in totalitarianism, there is focus on society as the be all and end all of human endeavor and rights.

The military and law enforcement (armed forces) are under monopolistic control as is the mass media and communications systems. The economy is under central control and direction and terroristic measures are used to police the population. The mass media is used to “brainwash” citizens, while communications are used to identify dissidents and to aid in taking action against them.

Totalitarian forms of government are unique in their 20th century origins and persist today. The most historically famous totalitarian governments were the Facist Italian government under Mussolini. Hitler denied facist rule, as did Stalin, yet Nazism and Stalinism serve as the other two totalitarian examples of the 20th Century.

Mussolini actually played a loose game with the founding principles of Fascism, with exception of using his journalism background to refine facist propaganda to further facist ideology in ways that influenced even Hitler. His economic policy was corporatism and was not as focused and he limited Italian police terrorism as an activity.

Stalin focused on the Communist party, building and strengthening it as the most powerful and sole political entity. The rest of his regime is debated as a mix of other things, especially Marxism and Leninism.

Hitler, like Mussolini and along with Goebbels, was a master of propaganda and furthering his racist and nationalist ideologies through the written word and through other mass media outlets. Otherwise, his regime was more of a messy series of developments as he went up against the hard headed Prussian military tradition and an economy that would not be controlled until well into WWII.

One basis for profound fear of totalitarianism has been the three major historical examples and the gross, violent, sadistic and inhumane ways of enforcing their power. One basis for fear of a totalitarianism like effect in liberalized democracies is that there is a tendency to have the government regulate, propagandize through social engineering, control the economy through taxation, to support capitalistic corporations, and to eliminate differences between people, creating a homogenized society.

This fear belies the reality of liberalized democracies, where pluralization of political power centers, control over excesses by the military and law enforcement, economic diversity, social tolerance and the rule of law are also strong imperatives in liberal democracy.

Reference: Gilbert Pleuger, “Totalitarianism”, New Perspective Vol 9,  No 1