Publication Date

April 1, 1997

I understand "totalitarianism" not as a defined category of political analysis, but as a term that suggests a whole series of political questions, focusing on the nature of freedom, justice, and coercion, and on the means to achieve them, which may be answered in various ways. In other words, it is more a can of worms than a category. Although I teach my course primarily to upper-division and graduate students, it can readily be adapted for courses on 20th-century history and even Western civilization.

The questions traditionally regarded as important and divisive in discussions of totalitarianism have in the past centered on the viability of the so-called totalitarian model. There have been essentially two objections to it. The first was that the totalitarian model, defined fundamentally in terms of Zbigniew Brzezinski and Carl J. Friedrich's six characteristics, was a product of the Cold War.1 It unjustifiably assimilated communism to fascism, concentrating alleged structural parallels and failing to differentiate the Enlightenment-derived ideology of communism from the atavism and bestiality of fascism. The ideological difference was crucial; even under Stalin, Soviet Communism could be distinguished (if at times with difficulty) from Hitler’s National Socialism. Nor was the totalitarian model a useful analytical tool for scholars, because it was highly normative (as well as descriptive), saturated in Cold War condemnation of communism.

The second fundamental objection was that the lens of the totalitarian model focused entirely on decisions made at the center, assuming that investigating implementation at the local level was of-at best-marginal importance, because studying the totalitarian leader, party, and ideology was virtually all that mattered; there was no input from Soviet society, for example, into what amounted to the "black box" of decisionmakers.

As my idea developed from a rather sketchy article to a book project, I could see that it was going to be very different from the account of the arguments about the "totalitarian model" that I had originally envisaged, and it continued to expand in scope as I learned more. Far from having been created in the 1940s (and productive of controversy only after 1960), the term "totalitarianism" had been invented in the early 1920s and had an extensive history in the period before 1940. It had been given a brilliant treatment, foreshadowing many later analyses, by an Italian Fascist philosopher, Giovanni Gentile; Hitler disliked it, not because it seemed critical of his regime's practice, but because it suggested that Nazi Germany was comparable to Fascist Italy.

The term had played a role in the early, bitter struggles between Christian Democrats and Communists in Italy. It had been at the heart of intellectual-political controversies in Germany much like those in the United States, and it had played a crucial role in the liberation struggles in Poland and Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. In sum, I started out to write a brief history of a stage in kremlinology and found myself writing something approaching an intellectual history of the Cold War.

All this is to say that I developed my interest in the idea of totalitarianism not out of fascination with it as an analytical tool, nor out of a desire to expose it as a weapon in the Cold War, but as suggesting a significant dimension of the intellectual history of the 20th century. Thus, when I decided to make a course out of my project, my objective was to try and discern how the idea of "totalitarianism" came into existence, who used it, when, and for what purposes, and what questions underlay the arguments about whether it was a good lens through which to view Germany or the Soviet Union.


Various meanings of the term "totalitarianism" have strong connections to 19th-century philosophers: to Hegel, Marx, and, in a different way, to Nietzsche. Looking first at the early phase of the term's history in Germany and Italy, I initially hoped to get my students to read something by Giovanni Gentile, despite the extraordinary difficulties of his Hegelian idiom. In addition to the way he laid out the far-reaching implications of the category, I wanted to use him to make clear to students how Hegel's formulations were crucial to concepts of totality, as well as to totalitarianism, to creating the political, economic, and social world as a unified, self-sufficient all-encompassing system. But I was unable to find the right text, as published expositions of gentile's understanding of totalitarianism did not give students (generally entirely inexperienced with Hegel) enough to work with.

Instead I assigned Carl Schmitt's The Concept of the Political (1976) to accompany my chapters on the term’s early usage in Italy and Germany. Schmitt, a National Socialist fellow traveler, saw the international order as utterly conflictual and regarded the welfare states of Europe as flaccid and decadent. It was his view that states existed only to protect national communities from the “enemies” by which they were necessarily surrounded. His theory of international relations could ultimately be boiled down to the straightforward opposition of “friends” and “enemies.” He wanted to revive the executive state of ancien regime Europe and expand its powers further until it became totalitarian. Together, Gentile and Schmitt suggest an ambiguity in the development of totalitarianism in the 19205 and 19305. Some theorists (and proponents) understood -the new kind of state that seemed to be appearing as merely a ferocious reworking of the states of the old regime, to eliminate their executive weakness and social reformism. For others, the totalitarian state was an entirely new order, born out of the bankruptcy of liberalism and the evolving industrial order. These terminological ambiguities have endured from that day to this.

The Soviet Union as a Totalitarian State

A landmark in the history of the totalitarian concept came when it was first systematically applied not only to Fascist states but to the Soviet Union. We can date this development to 1934, when the onset of purging in both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany persuaded a number of journalists and scholars that these purges resulted from other, and deeper, similarities. The vehicle I have used to help students understand this development is Arthur Koestler’s famous novel, Darkness at Noon (1941).

Not all observers, of course, accepted the validity of the Soviet-German comparison. It appeared quite plausible across the center of the political spectrum. On the Left, however, there was fierce disagreement between those more or less under Trotsky's influence-who believed that the Soviet Union had betrayed the Revolution and become totalitarian-and the relatively pro-Soviet remainder, who largely rejected the term.

At first, those who accepted the similarity had nothing like a systematic typology. Most took note of the new and invasive technological means of domination: the hostility to liberalism, the totalitarian vocabulary of conflict, the single party, and the dictator. Those who fought the characterization emphasized that the roots of Soviet Marxism lay in the humane values of the Enlightenment (as opposed to fascism, which "denied humanity"). A large part of the 1930s Left also accepted the Marxist idea that fascism could better be understood not as something similar to communism, but as its opposite (as, for example, the rule of the big bourgeoisie with the parliamentary mask torn off)

Koestler's Darkness at Noon complements these arguments. It suggests the power of the communist idea to generate idealism and self-sacrifice, but at the same time demonstrates the profound degeneration of revolutionary practice when democracy is systematically denied. The conclusion of the novel vividly suggests that the point had been reached when the terrorism of Hitler and Stalin could not be distinguished.

Totalitarianism and Neoclassical Economics

Proceeding chronologically, we soon encounter another major theme in the term's history: the effort by neoclassical economists to explain totalitarianism not primarily as a product of ideological militarism and utopianism, but as centrally the result of a mistaken attempt to substitute a planned economy for the workings of the free market. The preferred text here is Friedrich Hayek's extraordinarily influential The Road to Serfdom (1944). I also spend a good deal of time on its reception, especially in the United States, where it rapidly established itself as the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of conservatives opposed to the New Deal and the Fair Deal.

For the early phases of the Cold War itself, I assign Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). It is one of the few books that nearly all students have read, which is a great advantage, as we are able to look at some of the inventions and coinages of the book (“newspeak”, “doublethink”), see the sources of Orwell’s basic tableau and how he derived it, and discuss some of the criticisms of the book made from the Left by Isaac Deutscher and Raymond Williams—as the expression of Orwell’s peculiar hangups, or “the convulsive fear of communism,” characteristic of the early days of the Cold War.2

The Question of Origins

By this time my students have notice that none of the writers who had earlier used the term spent much time on how this extraordinary new kind of state had come into existence, nor had they agreed even remotely about causes. It is interesting to contrast, for this purpose, J. L. Talmon's work, especially The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (1952), with Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951).

Arendt's big book is extraordinarily difficult to follow, let alone to teach. After several pedagogical failures, I discovered that standing at the blackboard and encouraging students to map the terrain got better results. Writing down the key terminology and the major themes—diagramming her arguments, as it were—enabled (in fact, forced) students to come to grips with the large picture. Students come away with an additional sense of the problematics of the term when they see such totally different accounts of how it originated. Talmon roots the concept in the French Enlightenment, essentially in Rousseau's concept of the "general will," whereas Arendt discusses racism, anti-semitism, and imperialism. The French philosophes are totally absent from her account.

The Totalitarian Model

Finally, about half way through the semester, the class arrives at the point at which I and others had once thought the subject of "totalitarianism" began: with Brzezinski and Friedrich's Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy, specifically with the authors’ attempt to systematize the concept into a “syndrome” or “model” based on the six interrelated characteristics mentioned above. I use class time for two essential projects: understanding why just these six characteristics were chosen and how they function together in a “syndrome” (in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts); and looking at the debate that stemmed from their book among American scholars.

To deal properly with this topic, the class must understand a bit about the evolution of the Soviet Union after Stalin and how that affected the rather static six characteristics, and also the changing climate of opinion in the United States since the 1950s. Changing attitudes about Soviet totalitarianism, that is, depend not merely on evolving criticisms of a category, but on profound changes in how Americans light of their politics and themselves in the world. To point out the contrast maximally, Secretary of State Dean Acheson and philosopher Herbert Marcuse (in One-Dimensional Man [1964], for example) had profoundly different ideas about what was “totalitarian,” and one can’t get at those differences by just studying political theory or how the USSR evolved.

The Question of China

The successful 1949 Communist revolution in China naturally posed the question of whether China, too, had become totalitarian. One way of examining this question is to look at the way Western scholars characterized China between 1949 and the Cultural Revolution, focusing on the brainwashing episodes during the Korean War, which had such a profound impact on American public opinion. For the film-minded, a wonderful accompaniment to my text is The Manchurian Candidate, based on the novel by Richard Condon, which brilliantly dovetails American fears of loss of control and alien invasion with the enigmatic and frightening new Communist menace in China. Such a treatment has the additional advantage of reinforcing in students’ minds that the category of totalitarianism is not always and everywhere the same, and that its meaning can vary with the differing historical situations of those who use it. My basic text is usually Robert J. Lifton’s excellent Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (1961).

Eastern Europe

It is of central importance to see how Europeans dealt with the cultural conflicts of the Cold War, from the late 1940s to the end of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. Of a large number of possible books dealing with Cold War controversies in western Europe, I recommend Albert Camus's The Rebel (1956), partly because of its closeness to Talmon’s argument, and partly because it restores the centrality of Hegel (and Marx). In teaching Camus, the difficulty, clearly, is to bridge the gap between the Jacobins, Marquis de Sade, and the surrealists on the one hand, and political polemics between Right and Left in postwar France, Germany, and Italy on the other. So we examine how Camus came to write The Rebel, then analyze its reception, focusing on the split between Sartre and Camus, and then look carefully at Camus’s text.

I spend more time on Eastern Europe, because the contrast with attitudes on the other side of the Iron Curtain is so instructive. For the Polish case I assign Czeslaw Milosz's The Captive Mind (1953), and for Czechoslovakia a collection of essays, of which the title piece is Vaclav Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless” (1985). While using these books to get at the specific East European experience, I return to the theme of how changing one’s life situation can alter the way politics employing a similar vocabulary are conceived and acted out. In the West, people on the Left tended to be reluctant to call the Soviet Union totalitarian, in large part because of the damage such a harsh categorization of the Soviet Union did to all revolutionary and even seriously reformist politics.

In Poland and Czechoslovakia (Hungary and East Germany were slightly different cases), the experience of Soviet occupation early on destroyed any reluctance to characterize the Soviet Union in the most extreme terms. The notion that the Soviet Union was totalitarian became a rhetorical staple of Polish, Czech, and Slovak dissidence, and became in fact the center of their analysis of the situation after 1968. The liberationist strategies worked out by Solidarity in Poland and by Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia were explicitly designed to take back space from totalitarian hegemony and to build a "civil society" that might ultimately be developed into something often described (especially by Czechs) as a "parallel polis." In the 1970s, when these strategies were being formulated, no one had any idea how quickly Soviet occupation would end.

The notion that Poles and Czechs were under totalitarian dominion was an effective tool for mobilizing, indeed creating, public opinion. So enthusiastic were these intellectuals about the term that they continued to employ it even after it became clear that their situation had changed markedly since Stalin's death. A kind .of "social contract" now prevailed in Poland and Czechoslovakia, in which the population might live more or less in peace if they kept their noses out of opposition politics. Terror would now be employed only in extreme cases and normally in incremental doses. Even a slow increase in consumption was tacitly promised by the regimes.

Milosz's vivid polemic powerfully recreated early Cold War culture in Eastern Europe, demonstrating "the totalitarian temptation" with which the early Communist regime supplemented its terror, especially toward intellectuals, in Poland. Havel's marvelous essay showed the situation in the 1970s, as Czechoslovakia was moving into the period of "semi-totalitarianism" or, more frequently, "post-totalitarianism."

Havel brilliantly sketched out the cynical, hollow world of the Soviet imperium near the end of its days. No one believed in the ideology any longer, either among the rulers or the ruled. But neither group could get along without it, since it alone could theoretically account for the absurd, upside-down world in which everybody lived. Havel suggested that people should simply determine to "live in truth" instead of "living a lie," and he demonstrated how one might begin to do that, using the case .of a grocer who might simply refuse to display the poster that the Party had given him proclaiming "Workers of the world, unite." Havel's essay also had an inspirational impact in Poland during the last decade of Communist rule.

Neoconservative Usage

A final problem involves looking at the self-conscious revival of the totalitarianism- authoritarianism controversy that raged during the Reagan presidency. As background one needs to describe the rise of neo-conservatism and the intellectual realignment in American politics connected to it. What I use is a collection of essays by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, especially the title essay, "Dictatorships and Double Standards" (1982). I end the course by suggesting that neither the proponents nor the opponents of the totalitarian Soviet Union remotely foresaw its rapid collapse, a fact that has hitherto evoked both scorn and wonder, but that remains unexplained. I do, however, make sure my students pay attention to George Kennan's interesting statement made back in 1947 that if "anything were to occur to disrupt the unity and efficacy of the party as a political instrument, Soviet Russia might be changed overnight from one of the strongest to one of the weakest and most pitiable of national societies."3

By way of a conclusion, let me recall the central point of the course I teach. Since the term totalitarianism came into existence in 1923, it has helped focus public debate in Germany, France, and the United States on the most central political issues of the century: the nature of, justice, and revolution. Ultimately, the point is to understand the intellectual framework in which these issues were debated, a framework which has rapidly become distant, almost unintelligible to students only a few years after the end of the Soviet Union. Teachers must now help keep this intellectual world alive for a new generation.


1. In brief compass, their “six basic features” were (1) an elaborate ideology; (2) a single mass party typically led by one man; (3) a system of terror; (4) effective party/government control of all means of mass communication; (5) a similar monopoly of weapons of armed combat; and (6) centralized, bureaucratic direction/control of the economy. Zbigniew Brzezinski and Carl J. Friedrich, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (Praeger, 1966), page 22.

2. Isaac Deutscher, “The Mysticism of Cruelty,” in his Heretics and Renegades (Jonathan Cape. 1955), page 35

3. George Kennan, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” reprinted in Alex Inkeles and Kent Geiger, eds., Soviet Society: A Book of Readings (Houghton Mifflin. 1961), page 97.

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