Defining Totalitarianism: Total control or Non-existence?

In Friedrich and Brzezinski’s “Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy” (1957), they posit that the two terms should be used interchangeably to define a regime that is led by a singular leader who agrees upon, if he himself does not create, all official state decisions. The leader is defined as an autokrator: “the ruler accountable only to himself.” (15) The main goal of a totalitarian leader, explained through the ideological-anthropological theory, is to attempt to create an utopian society through “total control of the everyday life of its citizens.” (16) To accomplish this vast goal, totalitarian rulers utilize the political tactic of “totalism”, which attempts to completely restructure mass society through an all-encompassing ideology using state terror, a centralized government and economy, and finally, a monopoly on communications and weapons. Friedrich and Brzezinski elaborate that totalism is only successfully employed with the use of modern technological and organizational bureaucratic devices. In the eyes of the totalitarian ruler, his absolute leadership would transform his weak country into a highly advanced nation. Stalin himself said, as Friedrich and Brzezinski quote, that he believed his vision of Soviet totalitarian society created the “perfect democracy”. However, Friedrich and Brzezinski see autocratic totalitarianism as attempting to replace pure democratic societies with their “perverted descendants”. (p. 26) They concur that, “the effort at total control, while not achieving such control, has highly significant human effects.” (17) As later historiographers would point out, this definition, among the first in the field, reduces totalitarianism in an overly-simplistic fashion. On a similar overly deconstructed note, they agree that fascism (here they include National Socialism) and communism, as the model totalitarian regimes led by Hitler and Stalin, are “basically alike”. (19)

On the other hand, Walter Lacqueur’s more contemporary commentary piece “Is There Now, or Has There Ever Been, Such a Thing as Totalitarianism?” (1985) completely overly complicates the definition of totalitarianism. While he attempts to create a ‘crude definition’ declaring totalitarianism as “any regime attracting 99% of the votes in an election”, (1) he does not create any sort of valid conclusion of what totalitarianism is — or if it even exists at all. While never settling on his own definition of totalitarianism, what he contributes through this article is historiographical comparison of multiple historians’ perspectives. In favor of Friedrich and Brzezinski’s six components of totalitarianism, he prefers Bracher’s four criteria, which he sees as the “shorter and simpler” as well as more accurate version, as he points out flaws in Friedrich and Brzezinski’s theory. Further, Lacqueur supports Bracher’s declaration of despotism and freedom as the “fundamental dividing line in recent history”. (3) Lacqueur then examines Linz’s comparison of authoritarianism versus totalitarianism; he cites the main differences as authoritarianism allowing pluralism while lacking the state-sponsored ideology and forced mass political participation directed from above, both characteristic in totalitarian regimes. While he successfully synthesizes multiple perspectives on totalitarianism into one piece, what Lacquer really over complicates is his application of totalitarianism to communism and the Soviet Union. He asserts early on that totalitarianism may be applied correctly to the character of nazism but not to the character of communism (2); he then spends a good amount of time deciding whether Lowenthal’s fascism-communism comparison or Hassner’s “post-totalitarianism authoritarianism” definition better aptly fits the Soviet bloc experience. While Friedrich and Brzezinski’s definition of totalitarianism is overly simplistic, at least it does not confuse through round-about arguments in the style of Lacqueur.

4 thoughts on “Defining Totalitarianism: Total control or Non-existence?

  1. Emily, while Friedrich and Brzezinski discuss totalitarianism through ideological-anthropological theory, there are many arguments against the theory. One of the arguments is in terms of the historical events and development of previous totalitarian like states. While in “Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy” Friedrich and Brzezinski argue there is no definite explanation to the rise of totalitarian dictatorship and that, “totalitarian dictatorship is a new phenomenon; there has never been anything quite like it before,” (19) do you think Laqueur, would argue against or for this statement? Do you think he would agree or disagree with the idea of totalitarian dictatorship being wholly a new form of government?

  2. I found it interesting to look at the opinions described in these articles specifically by focusing on the authors themselves. The Friedrich and Brzezinski article was written and published in 1957, while the Laqueur article was published in 1985. It’s clear that a lot of Friedrich and Brzezinski’s ideas were derived from a limited source of information. For instance, in Kershaw’s article the author mentions that newly available accounts of life from ordinary people have allowed scholars to better understand totalitarianism and what it entailed. Do you think that had Friedrich and Brzezinski had access to the information we have today that they would still maintain the position they asserted in their article?

  3. Although Lacqueur does not form an overtly obvious definition of totalitarianism, I believe he uses examples of authoritarian governments to form his own sort of definition. For example, he discusses Nazi communism and their use of totalitarianism. I appreciate this approach of writing, as I learn best from real-life application. By discussing countries that use, or don’t use totalitarianism, I get a broader, more complete view of the subject.

  4. Mia – Your first point is correct that Friedrich and Brzezinski point out serious objections to the ideological-anthropological theory. Primarily they object to pragmatic limitations, recognizing the impossibility of monitoring all citizens thoughts and actions. Secondarily, they object to comparative historical examinations, noting that previous states have attempted to influence the individuals and masses alike to act and think in unison. This disputes their central idea that the totalitarian 20th century regimes differ from any previous state governments attempts at total control. Despite their objections, I use the theory because at the same time they object to the theory, they chose to use the term “totalism” to distinguish the unanimous total control, destruction, and reconstruction of mass society that they feel defines modern totalitarian dictatorships from previous organized despotic regimes. In my opinion, their supported concept of totalism is in agreement with the ideological-anthropological theory, regardless of the objections they point out with it.
    To answer your question, I believe that Laqueur would agree with Friedrich and Brzezinski concept of totalitarianism as a never-seen-before style of dictatorship. Laqueur would agree that modern totalitarian regimes of the 20th century further social control in ways other regimes had not fathomed or attempted.

    Brawdyc – To answer your question, I believe that had Friedrich and Brzezinski had access to the same information as Lacqueur or Kershaw they would still maintain their position but they would elaborate upon it so it would not be as overly simplified as in the original article. In 1957, they declared the “crisis government” totalitarian regimes of WWII as new, more powerful autocracies than ever seen before in history. If they had the extent of information that Lacqueur or Kershaw had, their definition of totalitarian would likely be more developed.

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