Is “totalitarianism” a thing?

Hannah Arendt’s most important contribution to political theory was her book on totalitarianism, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Her models were Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union; in fact, she writes that “up to now we know only two authentic forms of totalitarian domination: the dictatorship of National Socialism after 1938, and the dictatorship of Bolshevism since 1930” (420). She wanted to understand how these regimes came to be, whether there were large historical forces that favored their emergence in the twentieth century, and the role that ideology, leadership, and power played in their execution. Her central idea was that totalitarianism is fundamentally an ideological system of thought adopted by a Leader and a network of “elite totalitarian organizations” who work single-mindedly to carry out the prescriptions of the ideology. In Nazi Germany the ideology was spelled out in Mein Kampf; in the Soviet Union it was Stalin’s version of Bolshevism — “socialism in one country” and the idea that every sacrifice is justified for the sake of future communist utopia. But Arendt remains surprisingly indefinite about how she conceptualizes totalitarianism. Here is the most succinct description that she offers of totalitarianism, and it occurs in the final chapter:

In the preceding chapters we emphasized repeatedly that the means of total domination are not only more drastic but that totalitarianism differs essentially from other forms of political oppression known to us such as despotism, tyranny and dictatorship. Wherever it rose to power, it developed entirely new political institutions and destroyed all social, legal and political traditions of the country. No matter what the specifically national tradition or the particular spiritual source of its ideology, totalitarian government always transformed classes into masses, supplanted the party system, not by one-party dictatorships, but by a mass movement, shifted the center of power from the army to the police, and established a foreign policy openly directed toward world domination. (460)

The features mentioned here are total domination, distinctness from other forms of despotism, entirely new political institutions, destruction of social, legal, and political traditions of the country, mass movement, power in the hands of the secret police, and a foreign policy aimed at world domination. The Nazi and Soviet regimes are the central cases, so the reader is invited to understand that “totalitarianism is what regimes like these twentieth-century disasters share in common”. Racism, terror, propaganda, mass-politics, and ambitions of global conquest are mentioned by Arendt in the course of her narrative, but this falls short of a definition, and gives no idea about the political structure and mechanisms of the political systems she intends to study. Arendt doesn’t provide a clear, diagrammatic definition or discussion of totalitarianism as a functional political system. 

So what does “total domination” come down to? It involves the idea of erasing all individual differences and creating a new form of human nature — SS man, Communist man — in which the individual’s creativity and spontaneity — freedom — are erased, and the individual becomes the embodiment of the ideology. It involves the idea of fully implementing the details of a worldview, perhaps mythological, that can be impressed upon every human being. What is maximal about totalitarian regimes is their complete effort to quench human freedom and independence of mind and action.

How does this domination take place? Through regulation, indoctrination, surveillance, terror, coercion, and extermination. Arendt gives extended treatments of three features of Nazi and Soviet regimes: the prominence of party and “front” organizations; the prominence and ubiquity of the organs of the secret police; and the extermination and concentration camps which serve, beyond their function of extermination, to extinguish the humanity of their inmates. 

Is this enough to constitute a theory of totalitarianism as a form of government? It is not. Absolutist monarchy in France in the sixteenth century too asserted unfettered power and authority over its subjects, but of course this was a charade. The French crown lacked the tools of control and repression that would permit it to exercise unlimited dominion, and French society embodied social groups that possessed enough social and political power to insulate themselves from the unwelcome demands of the king. The Catholic Church, the aristocracy and landed classes, the merchants, even the emerging urban population and their cousins in the countryside possessed meaningful mechanisms for securing themselves against capricious or ruinous demands from the monarch. This isn’t to say that the French monarchs had little power, but it is to say they lacked the ability to completely dominate the rest of society. 

The aspirations of the National Socialist state in Germany and the Soviet state went vastly beyond these limits. Each state built the apparatus of surveillance and coercion that was needed in order to exercise total control over society. And each state likewise built powerful and effective mechanisms of propaganda and thought control of their populations that made the challenges of social control easier to surmount. The cult of the leader and the ideologies of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and Communist utopianism were designed to secure some measure of willing acceptance from their populations, just as the marches, music, and images of fascist Italy were designed to elicit support for the fascist government and Mussolini. The elaboration of the apparatus of the bureaucracies of the secret police, the gathering of secret files, and the terrifying knock in the night rounded out the picture of the bureaucracy of total control. Orwell captured some aspects of this emerging system and Koestler articulated others (link).

There is another perspective along which these questions might be posed that focuses not on “totalitarianism” but considers the wider range of authoritarian states that were involved in the conflicts of the twentieth century, including fascism, military dictatorship, and authoritarian rule. Mussolini, Franco, and Tōjō Hideki all created authoritarian state apparatuses, each of which had both similarities with the Nazi German state and important differences. And, significantly, Spanish Fascism under Franco maintained a shaky neutrality in World War II. Arendt is quite definite that totalitarianism is different from authoritarian single-party rule, and it is distinct from fascism. Totalitarianism involves a radical upturning of society and politics that goes vastly beyond anything imagined by other tyrannies. 

After the first World War, a deeply antidemocratic, pro-dictatorial wave of semi-totalitarian and totalitarian movements swept Europe; Fascist movements spread from Italy to nearly all Central and Eastern European countries (the Czech part of Czechoslovakia was one of the notable exceptions); yet even Mussolini, who was so fond of the term “totalitarian state,” did not attempt to establish a full-fledged totalitarian regime and contented himself with dictatorship and one-party rule. Similar non-totalitarian dictatorships sprang up in prewar Rumania, Poland, the Baltic states, Hungary, Portugal and Franco Spain. (310)

How are these political forms distinct from totalitarianism? Here is Arendt’s way of distinguishing them: 

Once a party dictatorship has come to power, it leaves the original power relationship between state and party intact; the government and the army exercise the same power as before, and the “revolution” consists only in the fact that all government positions are now occupied by party members. (420) 

A totalitarian regime, by contrast, refuses to merge with the apparatus of the state; instead, all real power is retained within the organizations of the movement (Nazi Party or Communist Party in the USSR). 

All real power is vested in the institutions of the movement, and outside the state and military apparatuses. It is inside the movement, which remains the center of action of the country, that all decisions are made; the official civil services are often not even informed of what is going on, and party members with the ambition to rise to the rank of ministers have in all cases paid for such “bourgeois” wishes with the loss of their influence on the movement and of the confidence of its leaders. (420)

An important expert on totalitarianism in the past half century is Juan Linz, author of Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes (1974; republished with a new introduction 2000). An earlier paper, “An Authoritarian Regime: Spain” (1964) is a highly interesting and informative presentation of Linz’s analytical framework (link). Referring to C. J. Friedrich’s analysis of totalitarianism, Linz defines the concept of totalitarianism in terms of five key features:

an official ideology … , a single mass party unquestioningly dedicated to the ideology, near complete control of mass media, complete political control of the armed forces, and a system of terroristic police control not directed against demonstrable enemies only. In another version central control and direction of the economy is added. (296-297)

In a review of Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes Ronald Francesco (link) suggests an additional set of questions to be posed about how authoritarian (or totalitarian) regimes actually work: 

What would we want to know about non-democratic regimes if we were completely ignorant of past research? One would argue that we would like to know how these regime sustain themselves, particularly in the presence of dissent. How much repression is enough to stifle dissent? Where is the point at which members and supporters of the state defect from it? What are the vulnerabilities of these regimes? How do they collapse? (186)

These are the right questions to ask, and Arendt’s book does not pose them at all. (Here is a prior post from 2008 that attempts to pose these kinds of questions about authoritarian power today.)

So — is totalitarianism a thing? It seems fairly clear that Arendt’s concept of totalitarianism does not really serve as a theory of the political and governmental realities of authoritarianism in the twentieth century. It is more akin to an extended case study of two horrific examples. Linz is right in the article mentioned above, that we need to have a more developed treatment of authoritarianism as a regime type. So we might answer the guiding question here by stating that “totalitarianism is not a social kind”, a recurring political regime type. But it is also evident that Arendt’s book serves well to capture what was distinctive and singular about both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union — the single-minded prominence of the political ideology of the party in power, and the efforts by that party and its leader to impose the prescriptions of the ideology on the population and the world through the most murderous means imaginable. One might hope to incorporate Arendt’s insights into a more general theory of authoritarian politics by paying attention to her insights into some of the specifics of the regimes she studies — the ambition of promulgating a totalizing ideology throughout the whole population, the techniques of ideological propaganda, the use of mass terror, the creation of vast systems of secret-police surveillance and repression, and the creation of parallel systems of power between party and state apparatus. 

(Readers who want a more extensive discussion will find Peter Baehr’s entry on “Totalitarianism” in the New Dictionary of the History of Ideas to be a detailed and highly useful resource (link).)

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