Totalitarianism is a type of governmental system in which the government exerts a domineering level of control over the population. The people themselves have few rights and little power. Totalitarianism is the most extreme form of authoritarianism and is considered an oppressive method of ruling a nation. It has several elements in common with Nazism and Stalinism. Totalitarian governments could arguably be considered the theological opposite of democratic governments, in which the power is vested in the people. Totalitarian countries are often also classified as dictatorship countries because they are ruled by a government, headed by either a single dictator or a group of people, that was not chosen by the people in free and fair elections. They are also considered fascist countries in most cases.
Elements of totalitarianism
Totalitarian governments control nearly every aspect of their citizens' public and private lives. There is no limit to what a totalitarian government can control because there are no checks or balances placed on the country's leaders. The government has complete power, while the country's citizens have little to no power, control, or freedom. The governments of totalitarian countries do not permit the people to participate in the choosing of governmental representatives or in any part of the political-decision-making process. Totalitarian countries maintain strict control over what is said about them and are against both freedom of speech and freedom of the press. People who speak out against the government are likely to be punished, possibly severely. Ideologies, beliefs, and religions that the government dislikes are often oppressed, forbidden, and/or outlawed in a totalitarian country.
Fear is another fundamental element of totalitarianism. Totalitarian leaders typically rule through fear and use it to keep the people from revolting and protesting. When a person lives in fear of government retaliation, they are unlikely to speak out against injustices. While democracies pride themselves on the way people can form and express their own reactions to the government, people who live in totalitarian regimes must agree—at least, on the surface—with everything the government says, does, and requires. Those who disagree with their totalitarian rulers cannot express their disagreement outwardly, lest they be punished. It becomes a matter of staying silent in order to stay safe. To ensure that people show complete alliance and compliance with the government, totalitarian rulers often utilize police forces (which often operate violently, in secret, and/or with little regard to the law) to ensure the population stays under control and does not act out.
The Six Defining Characteristics of Totalitarianism (Friedrich and Brzezinski, 1956):
- An elaborate guiding ideology [typcially focused around patriotism and loyalty to the state above all else]
- A single political party, typically led by a dictator
- Use of instruments of terror such as violence and secret police to control the population
- A government monopoly on weapons
- A government monopoly on means of communication (such as state-controlled media and heavy censorship)
- A state-controlled economy
In 1956, political scientists Carl Joachin Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski came up with a list of six characteristics that define totalitarianism (listed above). In 1968, French analyst and philosopher Raymond Aron created his own list. Aron's list has five entries: a one-party state in which the ruling party has a monopoly on all political activity, a state ideology that is regarded by the government as the only authority, an information monopoly that controls all mass media and distributes the official truth, a state-controlled economy in which the state owns most major economic entities, and an ideological terror machine that makes crimes out of economic or professional actions that the state finds disagreeable.
The origin of totalitarian countries
Benito Mussolini, the dictator who ruled Italy for many years, is traditionally credited for creating the first totalitarian state—although some sources indicate the term itself may have been first used to describe Mussolini's fascist ideology by other politicians such as Giovanni Amendola, Luigi Sturzo, or Giovanni Gentile. Mussolini initially called a government of this nature a totalitario in the early 1900s, his exact words being that a totalitarian state has a government in which "all [are] within the state, none [are] outside the state, [and] none [are] against the state."
It is worth noting that some scholars maintain that Mussolini's own Italian government failed to achieve true totalitarianism, for reasons including its relatively small population or the fact that it did not fully subdue the Catholic church. However, these concerns are largely academic, and by the time the Second World War was underway, totalitarianism was recognized as a viable government system. While Mussolini may have pioneered the modern totalitarian government, many other dictators have adopted it as well, including Adolf Hitler of Germany under Nazi rule; Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union; the Kim Dynasty of North Korea, and Mao Zedong of the People's Republic of China. Most of these regimes were formed as part of World War II or its aftermath. Most also failed within a decade (as displayed in the full table at the end of this page) and were replaced by a less restrictive form of government.
Totalitarian Governments that Still Exist:
- Afghanistan under Hibatullah Akhundzada as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (2021-present)
- China under Xi Jinping as the People's Republic of China (2013-present ) (disputed)
- Eritrea under Isaias Afwerki as the State of Eritrea (2001-present )
- North Korea - under the Kim regime as The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (1948-present )
- Turkmenistan - under Saparmurat Niyazov and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (1991-present)
As of early 2022, the countries of Afghanistan, Eritrea, North Korea, and Turkmenistan are the only nations in the world whose governments are generally considered to be totalitarian dictatorships. However, the Chinese government's activities in recent years have led many sources to conclude that China is either moving toward totalitarianism or has already adopted it. Scholars point to details such as China's persecution of the Uyghur people, extreme internet censorship, and heavy mass surveillance of its citizens' lives—as well as the high-profile case of tennis player Peng Shuai, who accused a government official of sexual misconduct, disappeared for weeks, then resurfaced with a notably different story as evidence that the government is returning to the totalitarian ways of former prime minister Mao Zedong.
One recent, arguably totalitarian regime that dominated headlines in its time but is rarely mentioned today is the Islamic State, whose names included the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (I.S.I.L.), the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (I.S.I.S.), and Daesh. This militant group took command of significant portions of Iraq and Syria and ruled over an estimated eight million people during its peak in 2015. However, the violent regime was never officially recognized by the United Nations as a replacement for the actual governments of Iraq or Syria, and by 2019 I.S.I.L. had lost almost all of its territory and power.