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.

Totalitarianism: Can a definition be reached?

Friedrich and Brzezinski define totalitarianism in a way that is often disagreed upon by others. They state it is an autocracy that is adapted to an industrial society. The ruler has ultimate power and none can challenge his decrees or rulings. Also, that it is only with modern technology and mass democracy that these regimes were able to come about. Totalitarian regimes can undergo changes, but never disappears. The only instance that causes it to crumble is war with outside powers.
“Totalitarian Revisited: Nazism and Stalinism in Comparative Perspective” by Ian Kershaw, disagrees with the definition of totalitarianism by Friedrich and Brzezinski. Kershaw states the term itself is dynamic and a transitional event, defining only one part of an authoritarian dictatorship. It can lead to the collapse of a system, as with Nazi Germany, or can lead to a systematic government, as was adopted by Soviet Russia. The author makes sure to note it is not a system in itself, and is not “compatible with the stabilization of a political system” (32). Once a system is stabilized, it is no longer totalitarian. In his conclusion, Kershaw reiterates that totalitarianism is a revolutionary, violent, and transitional period not the regime itself.
Friedrich and Brzezinski state fascist and communist dictatorships are almost one in the same. Kershaw argues that Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany are completely different, and can only be compared during Stalin’s reign, if at all because after Stalin’s death the government gained relative stability, and the revolutionary goals became less of a motivation and more rhetoric. Even Nazi Germany can only be compared in its beginnings to other fascist movements, beyond 1933 it is a whole new radical branch of fascism.
Walter Laqeur, in his article, “Is There Now, or Has There Ever Been, Such a Thing as Totalitarianism?” demonstrates another view on totalitarianism. In his article, he states the differences between a totalitarian regime and a dictatorship are the use of propaganda and social control, mobilization of the masses, ideology, and a monopolistic state-party. There is an agreement with Friedrich and Brzezinski in regards to the leader having unchallenged rule, however, according to Laqeur, the leader himself does not always make the decisions, but all are made by the center, and none without the approval of the leader. The article has a statement that helps explain why it is so difficult to define totalitarianism; “all democracies are alike, while tyrannies are tyrannies in different ways.” Each is unique, and thus is difficult to find one all encompassing definition.