Characteristics of Totalitarianism Research Paper Starter

Characteristics of Totalitarianism

(Research Starters)

Many researchers and writers have chosen to define totalitarianism by establishing specific criteria that highlight its most prominent characteristics. The term “totalitarianism” is first examined and questioned as to its meaning; once it becomes clear that the meaning is anything but clear, the crux of this paper is to describe the criteria used to define totalitarianism. This includes looking at the criteria from various viewpoints that are essentially political and social. Once the criteria are established and the ramifications are more fully explored, the paper briefly explains the basic role of technology, and arrives at the conclusion that fear and a false reality are the two essential ingredients for creating a totalitarian system.

Keywords Communism; Ideology; Marxism; Nazism; Proletariat; Secret Police; Silent Majority; Totalitarianism

Characteristics of Totalitarianism


Exploring the Word, Totalitarianism

Totalitarianism is a frequently used term that many assume has a clear definition. However, upon examining the concept more closely for its particular meaning, totalitarianism becomes increasingly obfuscated; it becomes confusing whether totalitarianism is synonymous - partially or entirely, and in what way - with other terms such as "dictatorship," "despotism," "tyranny," "fascism" "authoritarian regime" etc. Does totalitarianism have a unique meaning? This is why Rabinbach (2006) asks whether the term totalitarianism is useful at all, and he also asks some important questions that point out the lack of clarity in our assumed understanding of totalitarianism:

Is it [totalitarianism] an exact description or merely an epithet directed against all enemies of liberalism and democracy? Unlike most terms in our political vocabulary, totalitarianism was coined in the twentieth century to describe a specifically modern phenomenon. Is it compelling shorthand, as some of its first theorists insisted, used to argue that modern tyranny is unique because it is more invasive, more reliant on the total assent of the "masses" and on terror than old-fashioned despotism? Is it a "project," as Hannah Arendt famously argued, an experiment in "fabricating" humanity according to the laws of biology or history? Is it an ideal type (in the Weberian sense) to which no real-world dictatorship actually conforms? Or can the term only be defended negatively - it represents the ultimate rejection of pluralism, legality, democracy, and Judeo-Christian morality? (Rabinbach, 2006, p. 77).

Because it is difficult to supply a clear and concise definition to the term, many researchers and writers have chosen to define "totalitarianism" by establishing specific criteria that highlight the most prominent characteristics of totalitarianism; however, this method presents its own problems. For example, once we establish such criteria, then we must interpret historical circumstances in order to demonstrate that a given government fits the set criteria - which is by no means an exact science. Also, as the semantic and etymological meanings of the term imply, we should ask in what way or ways is totalitarianism total (Latin totus, entire, all)? And is the concept an all-or-none principle, such that a government must fulfill all the criteria and is thus completely and unquestionably totalitarian, or does the concept allow for some middle ground so that a government can fit most of the criteria, and is therefore mostly totalitarian? What about half-totalitarian, or somewhat totalitarian? These are the kinds of questions we must ask when determining the exact meaning of "totalitarianism," and when endeavoring to correctly apply that meaning.

Developing a valid and agreed upon set of criteria is most important, and then we may examine the criteria for theoretical and ideological underpinnings - philosophical, political, social, economic, etc. - that create the totalitarian system. We should also consider whether there is a difference between the terms "totalitarian government" and "totalitarian system," since using the word "system" may encompass both the government as well as its counterpart: the individuals comprising a totalitarian society. Another interesting aspect to establishing criteria is that, depending on the area of emphasis (i.e., government or society) the criteria vary - though, as we will see, all the criteria seem to complement each other. Birch (2007) offers a traditionally accepted set of criteria (based on the ideas of Friedrich and Brzezinski) consisting of six standard features of totalitarianism:

• An official ideology

• Domination by a single party, usually led by a dictator

• A terroristic police force to eradicate dissent

• A monopoly on the means of communication

• A monopoly on violence

• State control of economic life (Birch, 2007, p. 154).

Further Insights

Totalitarian Criteria

Marková (1997) contributes some additional, related characteristic features that are essential elements for forming a totalitarian system, but her set of criteria, like others to be discussed below, view these totalitarian elements from another perspective. If we look at the above criteria, they are all from a point of view examining the form and function of the state or government, but there are sociological and psychological features relating to society which can establish a different, yet complementary, set of criteria. This is the main reason that various writers explain and define totalitarianism in different ways.

Manipulation of the Collective Memory

Marková's first totalitarian characteristic is that human memory is manipulated so that history can be reinterpreted and rewritten in a way that supports the totalitarian state - sometimes by interpreting history through the filter of its ideology, as was the case for all the countries comprising the former Soviet Union. Marková (1997) observes that, for the individual and the community, our understanding of the past is essential in forming a sense of identity. The author notes that we consider the past as something real and tangible, so that "building on the past, recycling and preserving something one already knows provides a sense of security" (13). By manipulating an individual's sense of past, the individual's perception of the future can be reshaped. If history is gradually reshaped so that it is fundamentally replaced by another history, this can in turn substitute one future for another future. According to Marková, this is why Marxist collectivism endeavored to "obliterate memory and to replace the remembered history by another, artificially created, history" (Marková, 1997, p. 13).

For example, many of the countries of Eastern Europe that were occupied by Nazi Germany historically celebrated the Soviet Union's "liberation" of their nations from Nazi occupation. After these satellite countries experienced revolutions and became truly independent from Soviet influence, their historians gradually reinterpreted national histories such that history textbooks today generally express the viewpoint that Russians "occupied" or controlled these nations after the Germans, and the term "liberation" was simply a matter of Communist propaganda. This contemporary historical viewpoint could not be found in books or schools during the years that these smaller Communist countries were part of the Soviet Union; at that time, their history books interpreted past events through a Marxist viewpoint that was the Soviet Communist perspective. In turn, this interpretation of history pointed to a bright and golden future wherein the Proletariat would create a perfect, egalitarian government of the people. This is a prime example of what Marková means when she claims that revising history creates a certain viewpoint of the future.

A Terroristic

Marková's second basic totalitarian feature relates to the existence of a terroristic police force to eradicate dissent. However, Marková presents this idea from a psychological and sociological viewpoint rather than a political and governmental viewpoint. She writes that, "promoting distrust among neighbours was another effective way of destroying communities" (1997, p. 14). This is the central sociological aspect of a secret police; it erodes local communities since it destroys personal trust among members of society. According to Marková, under Communism this secretive organization "not only actively persecuted undesirable individuals but they also created an atmosphere of fear by fostering the impression that they control everybody and everything" (14). As could be expected, a repressive organization that promotes a totalitarian system's protection and continuity at the expense of individual rights keep its functions a secret so that its activities cannot be regulated by law. The Center for the Study of Democracy argues that this explains why, under the Soviet Union, "the secret service's status and its organizational rules were determined through classified decrees, decisions, and regulations of the governing party or state bodies" (Center for the Study of Democracy, 2006, p. 59). This was how Communist powers manipulated the law and the legal system; they were not accountable to citizens or laws since their activities, including their violations of basic human rights, were kept secret. Thus, the secret police secretly kept their classification of files on individuals under investigation, and also of how and why they gathered their information; even the organization's status and functions remained off the record (Center for the Study of Democracy, 2006, p. 59).

Through such methods, the secret police were quite effective in creating a sense of paranoia among individuals. No one could trust other members in society because the totalitarian system stood between each. One never knew whether another person, even one's next door neighbor, was a secret police informant, and one could not know whether "one's flat was actually bugged and whether or not telephone conversations were listened to" (Marková, 1997, p. 14). Thus a mindset of paranoia, grounded in a sense of fear, psychologically controlled individuals in their totalitarian society, and the secret police played a central role in propagating that sense of paranoia and fear.


Hannah Arendt believes the only way terror can rule a society is by effectively dividing and conquering enough individuals. Arendt (1976) writes that terror presses, like a wall, the "masses of isolated...

(The entire section is 4655 words.)