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.

The Importance of Totalitarianism

Friedrich and Brzezinski utilized the term totalitarian dictatorship to separate the governments of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia from other autocracies in “Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy.”  In the words of Friedrich and Brzezinski the totalitarian dictatorship “emerges as a system of rule for realizing totalist intentions under modern political and technical conditions”, or put more simply, a system of complete control using modern technology and infrastructure (17).  Published in the 1950s “Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy” lost credibility with its false prophecy that the only way to neutralize a totalitarian state was from an external conflict with the destabilization of the Soviet state in the 1980s.

Totalitarian dictatorship for Laqueur in “Is there now, or has there ever been, such a thing as Totalitarianism?” existed only within a specific time and place: the regime of National Socialism in Germany and the rule of Stalin in Soviet Russia.  Moving beyond Nazi Germany and Stalin’s dictatorship in Soviet Russia, the governments shift away from a totalitarian state and towards a more relaxed authoritarian system.  Kershaw in “Totalitarianism Revisited: Nazism and Stalinism in Comparative Presence,” stipulated that totalitarianism existed as a “phase” in Stalin-ruled Russia and the beginning of Nazi Germany.  Both of these definitions, as opposed to Friedrich and Brzezinski’s, have roughly thirty more years of Stalinist Russia to examine whilst making comparisons with Nazi Germany.  Laqueur and Kershaw, therefore, remain united in challenging the initial definition of totalitarianism as an institution that can only be changed by an external war.

The common thread of all three of the definitions presented by the authors relied on the flexibility and variability of the concept totalitarianism.  Neither of the more modern authors completely disregards totalitarianism, just tweaks the initial concept to gain new meaning.  In this way the word becomes a representation for the continuing study and historiography of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.