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Related to Economic totalitarianism: Totalitarian state


(tōtăl'ĭtâr`ēənĭzəm), a modern autocratic government in which the state involves itself in all facets of society, including the daily life of its citizens. A totalitarian government seeks to control not only all economic and political matters but the attitudes, values, and beliefs of its population, erasing the distinction between state and society. The citizen's duty to the state becomes the primary concern of the community, and the goal of the state is the replacement of existing society with a perfect society.

Various totalitarian systems, however, have different ideological goals. For example, of the states most commonly described as totalitarian—the Soviet Union under Stalin, Nazi Germany, and the People's Republic of China under Mao—the Communist regimes of the Soviet Union and China sought the universal fulfillment of humankind through the establishment of a classless society (see communismcommunism,
fundamentally, a system of social organization in which property (especially real property and the means of production) is held in common. Thus, the ejido system of the indigenous people of Mexico and the property-and-work system of the Inca were both communist,
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); German National SocialismNational Socialism
or Nazism,
doctrines and policies of the National Socialist German Workers' party, which ruled Germany under Adolf Hitler from 1933 to 1945.
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, on the other hand, attempted to establish the superiority of the so-called Aryan race.


Despite the many differences among totalitarian states, they have several characteristics in common, of which the two most important are: the existence of an ideology that addresses all aspects of life and outlines means to attain the final goal, and a single mass party through which the people are mobilized to muster energy and support. The party is generally led by a dictatordictator,
originally a Roman magistrate appointed to rule the state in times of emergency; in modern usage, an absolutist or autocratic ruler who assumes extraconstitutional powers. From 501 B.C. until the abolition of the office in 44 B.C., Rome had 88 dictators.
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 and, typically, participation in politics, especially voting, is compulsory. The party leadership maintains monopoly control over the governmental system, which includes the police, military, communications, and economic and education systems. Dissent is systematically suppressed and people terrorized by a secret police. Autocracies through the ages have attempted to exercise control over the lives of their subjects, by whatever means were available to them, including the use of secret police and military force. However, only with modern technology have governments acquired the means to control society; therefore, totalitarianism is, historically, a recent phenomenon.

By the 1960s there was a sharp decline in the concept's popularity among scholars. Subsequently, the decline in Soviet centralization after Stalin, research into Nazism revealing significant inefficiency and improvisation, and the Soviet collapse may have reduced the utility of the concept to that of an ideal or abstract type. In addition, constitutional democracydemocracy
[Gr.,=rule of the people], term originating in ancient Greece to designate a government where the people share in directing the activities of the state, as distinct from governments controlled by a single class, select group, or autocrat.
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 and totalitarianism, as forms of the modern state, share many characteristics. In both, those in authority have a monopoly on the use of the nation's military power and on certain forms of mass communication; and the suppression of dissent, especially during times of crisis, often occurs in democracies as well. Moreover, one-party systems are found in some nontotalitarian states, as are government-controlled economies and dictators.


There is no single cause for the growth of totalitarian tendencies. There may be theoretical roots in the collectivist political theories of PlatoPlato
, 427?–347 B.C., Greek philosopher. Plato's teachings have been among the most influential in the history of Western civilization. Life

After pursuing the liberal studies of his day, he became in 407 B.C. a pupil and friend of Socrates. From about 388 B.
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 Jean Jacques RousseauRousseau, Jean Jacques
, 1712–78, Swiss-French philosopher, author, political theorist, and composer. Life and Works

Rousseau was born at Geneva, the son of a Calvinist watchmaker.
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, and Karl MarxMarx, Karl,
1818–83, German social philosopher, the chief theorist of modern socialism and communism. Early Life

Marx's father, a lawyer, converted from Judaism to Lutheranism in 1824.
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. But the emergence of totalitarian forms of government is probably more the result of specific historical forces. For example, the chaos that followed in the wake of World War I allowed or encouraged the establishment of totalitarian regimes in Russia, Italy, and Germany, while the sophistication of modern weapons and communications enabled them to extend and consolidate their power.


See E. Fromm, Escape from Freedom (1941, repr. 1960); H. Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1958, new ed. 1966); C. J. Friedrich and Z. K. Brezinski, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (2d ed. 1967); M. Curtis, ed., Totalitarianism (1979); S. P. Soper, Totalitarianism: A Conceptual Approach (1985); H. Buchheim, Totalitarian Rule (1962, tr. 1987); A. Gleason, Totalitarianism (1995).


a form of political rule, especially in modern times, in which power is centralized, and above all is able to penetrate into all corners and all aspects of social life.

Benjamin Barber's (1969) assertion that the term has been a ‘conceptual harlot …belonging to no one but at the service of all’, may be correct. Use of the term has often been heavily overladen with ideology, and often associated with sweeping evaluation rather than careful description and analysis. However, the main characteristics of totalitarian rule compared with previous forms of‘absolute’ or despotic rule, and in comparison with most modern forms of democratic government, are clear. They are outlined by Friedrich (1954) as follows:

  1. an ideology of totalism;
  2. a single party committed to the ideology usually led by one person, who rules as a DICTATOR;
  3. a fully developed secret police;
  4. state monopolistic control of: (i) mass communications, (ii) all organizations, including all economic organizations, and all weapons, the means of violence.

Such a system thus possesses means of SURVEILLANCE and terror on a scale simply unavailable to premodern regimes (compare ABSOLUTISM, ORIENTAL DESPOTISM), the use of which it justifies on grounds of national interest, and in terms of general ideologies, including RACISM, NATIONALISM AND COMMUNISM. (As Tolstoy prophetically observed, ‘imagine Genghis Khan with a telephone’.) Because of these ideologies, and since totalitarianism is often based on SOCIAL MOVEMENTS which may enjoy wide support, it will rarely survive if based on force alone.

It is in the sharpness of the distinction often drawn between modern forms of totalitarianism and other modern forms of democratic government that the difficulties lie in use of the concept. One reason why too sharp a distinction is misplaced is that a totalizing tendency, including the use of general systems of surveillance, exists as a feature of all modern states. Furthermore, in totalitarian as well as non-totalitarian regimes, it is an ideology of democracy, in the sense of‘the rule of the many’, that acts as a justification for the requirement for involvement and support that exists in both types of regime. In non-totalitarian regimes, of course, such a totalizing tendency is offset by the institutionalized acceptance of political opposition. However, even this distinction can be taken too far, if the assumption is made that no forms of opposition exist or can ever be effective in totalitarian systems. The presence of opposition in some form must be seen as an inherent feature of all systems. Compare LIBERAL DEMOCRACY.



a school of bourgeois political thought that justifies statism and authoritarianism. Various philosophers in the past have viewed the state as an all-encompassing entity; they included Hobbes (“the state is a Leviathan”) and Hegel. Totalitarianism was most widely accepted when fascism was developing as a result of the general crisis of capitalism; it became the official ideology of fascist Germany and Italy. Bourgeois liberal ideologists used the conceptual framework of totalitarianism to make a critical evaluation of the fascist regimes.

During the cold war, anticommunist propaganda referred to socialist states as totalitarian, slanderously equating them with fascist states and opposing them to “democratic, ” “free” societies. Even today, reactionary bourgeois politicians and ideologists attempt to use the concept of totalitarianism for anticommunist purposes.

The doctrine of totalitarianism is currenty discredited in the eyes of the masses and has lost its influence in the West; however, the sharpening of social contradictions in capitalist countries is reviving totalitarian, fascist tendencies. The struggle against the ideology and practice of totalitarianism is one of the most important tasks facing the communist movement and Marxist-Leninist social science.


Marushkin, B. I. Istoriia ipolitika. Moscow, 1969.
Shabad, B. A. Krizis ideologii antikommunizma. Moscow, 1973.
Sovremennyi antikommunizm: Politika, ideologiia. Moscow, 1973.



Animal Farm
animals revolt against the despotism of Farmer Jones, but their leader sets up an equally totalitarian regime. [Br. Lit.: Orwell Animal Farm]
Clockwork Orange, A
depicts a future state that enforces conformity and crushes all heresy and rebellion. [Br. Lit.: Anthony Burgess Clockwork Orange]
Darkness at Noon
Communists accused of having betrayed party principles are imprisoned, tortured, and executed. [Br. Lit.: Weiss, 117]
totalitarian state dominated by Big Brother’s omnipresence. [Br. Lit.: George Orwell 1984]