Countering the Radical Right

Totalitarianism in the twentieth century and beyond

A key under-studied area for analysis is how contemporary extreme right movements can also be seen as totalitarian. Indeed, it is not difficult to find examples of such.

Paul Jackson
27 August 2019, 5.26pm
Hitler and Mussolini, Munich, June 1940.
Wikicommons/Part of Eva Braun's Photo Albums. Some rights reserved.
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According to an old joke, while in a liberal democracy everything that is not forbidden is allowed, in a totalitarian system everything that has not been banned is compulsory. In George Orwell’s notorious anti-totalitarian novel 1984, an even more terrifying summary of life in a totalitarian system is offered, when the character Winston Smith is told by his mysterious interrogator O’Brien: ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever’.

For many, fascism and totalitarianism are synonymous, but the concept has a more complex history. Totalitarian states can be broadly summarised as non-democratic political systems that use modern tools such as the mass media, alongside a political police, to try to coordinate all aspects of life among an entire population. Examples that have been regularly cited in this connection range from Nazi Germany, to the USSR, to Communist China, while lesser-cited cases include Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It has been argued that current totalitarian states include North Korea and Iran. In other words, totalitarian states have been thought to emerge from a wide variety of revolutions in the twentieth century, created to secure the ideals of these revolutions in the political systems that were developed afterwards.

However, not all forms of modern authoritarianism should be seen as clear-cut cases of totalitarianism. Putin’s Russia does not really fit the totalitarian model. Its authoritarianism is based on manipulation through disinformation, rather than trying to instil belief in a single ideology, and many other authoritarian regimes do not neatly fit the totalitarian model either. Whether China is now totalitarian, or has become something else, remains open to debate. Nor are modern far right populists who engage in elections totalitarian in this regard, as they aim to manipulate democratic systems rather than overthrow them.

Most recent work on the concept now tends to argue that the study of totalitarianism is more complex that ascertaining whether a state is or is not totalitarian. Many political movements, as well as regimes, can be seen to have totalitarian qualities, though what exactly these are remain open for debate. Instead, totalitarianism can be seen a political aspiration. Alongside the powerful states of the interwar years, totalitarian fantasies can also be found animating many unsuccessful political movements that want to bring about fundamental change, and to somehow unify a society under a single revolutionary ideology. While usually far from power, these fantasies remain widespread within the more extreme fringes of the far right, as well as among left wing revolutionaries and even Islamists.

Interwar period

When totalitarianism started to be used during the interwar period, it was not necessarily seen as a pejorative. Early theorists included the Italian philosopher Giovanni Gentile, who was a staunch supporter of the Italian Fascist regime led by Mussolini. He used the term totalitario positively. For him, it indicated the ways Fascism would offer a new, total way of life to Italian people, an escape from the supposed decadence of the liberal democracy that governed Italy before Mussolini’s revolution.

Mussolini concurred, and stated, famously, ‘Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state’. Yet Fascist Italy was only ever an imperfect totalitarian society. Most significantly, it was unable to eliminate competition for hearts and minds from the Catholic Church, and the 1929 Lateran Pacts were a key example of compromise rather than usurpation of the Church. Moreover, Mussolini was himself deposed by King Vittorio Emmanuele, hardly the mark of a leader who had transcended all other bases of political authority.

With its rapid overthrow of democracy, and its creation of an all-powerful new leader figure in the form of Hitler the Fuehrer, many have seen the Nazi regime as the archetypal totalitarian state. Nazi Germany was certainly more totalitarian than Fascist Italy. Its powerful propaganda seemed to successfully mesmerise the masses, while its political police, the Gestapo, controlled all aspects of thought within the regime. The reality of course was far more complex. While powerful, propaganda was often seen far more critically in Germany than many first supposed. The Gestapo was also far less well resourced than the mythology suggested. Finally, the leader himself was often disconnected from decision-making and could be manipulated by those around him. Was this really the height of totalitarianism?

Nevertheless, thinkers of the interwar period such as Franz Borkenau started to deploy the term to analyse and criticise Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy as right wing expressions of totalitarianism, as well as the Soviet Union as its left wing variant, as a powerful new type of state. For Borkenau, a Marxist and one-time Communist himself, Germany and the USSR were both variants of the new type of totalitarian system born of the chaos and disruption of the First World War. Politicians such as Winston Churchill also used the term, again finding it useful for decrying the growing crisis facing democracy in Europe from the left as well as the right. Orwell was another who regularly used the term to contrast fascism and communism with his own ideal of democratic socialism.

After World War II

After the Second World War, as thinkers tried to understand the legacy of fascism and the on-going nature of the Soviet Union, totalitarianism developed a more complex set of connotations. Early postwar theorists included Hannah Arendt, whose 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism remains an important text in the literature on the topic to this day. The book was divided into three sections, the first two of which focused on anti-Semitism and European imperialism, respectively.

For Arendt, developments such as the Dreyfus Affair in France highlighted the new ways in which nationalism was becoming combined with powerful denunciations of Jewish people. Meanwhile, the impact of nineteenth century colonialism, again fuelled by nationalism, helped to establish the legitimacy of pseudo-scientific ideas of race and domination, as well as expansionism. So by the twentieth century, Europe had bred powerful forces for demonising sectors of society, developed a powerful new ideal for the state, and was convinced of its natural superiority while encouraging aspirations for ever greater growth.

The Origins of Totalitarianism concluded by assessing how these forces culminated in the rise of totalitarianism epitomised by the Soviet Union and the Nazi regime. For Arendt, Italian Fascism was not really totalitarian, while her main focus was on Nazi Germany, not the USSR. Both these regimes were alike in using extreme force and terror to enforce their expansive visions. Yet their totalitarianism was also predicated on the isolation and fragmentation of society, and succeeded by offering atomised individuals powerful yet simplified ideologies that were steeped in new forms of collective affinity. Totalitarianism arose when this fragmentation was exploited by a state newly willing to divide society and impose its will through extreme terror.

Karl Popper was another thinker of this period who tried to capture the nature of totalitarianism, presenting it as a powerful new threat to liberalism. His classic articulation of this came in The Open Society and its Enemies. For Popper, it had ancient roots: totalitarianism could be traced back to Plato. He critiqued Plato’s vision of the ideal society as one run by a philosopher king, as explored in the Socratic dialogue The Republic.

Popper went on to argue that more recent philosophers who, like Plato, were also opponents of the open society included Hegel and Marx. He suggested they were guilty of historicism, and offered dangerous visions of a new society based on their interpretations of the past. The idea that history has discoverable ‘laws’ that point to a new and better future blinded Marx and others to the implications of their political solutions when put into practice, he argued. These ‘laws’ ultimately led to a closed, totalitarian society. For Popper, this was to be resisted, and he staunchly defended the idea of the open society. His works remain classic articulations of the ideals of liberalism.

Other early theorists of totalitarianism included Carl Friedrich And Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose 1957 book Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy offered another perspective on the phenomenon. They offered a model of totalitarian states that coalesced around six key areas: an overarching, all-encompassing ideology; a single party state; a police force willing to use terror to enforce the will of the state and its ideological vision; a monopoly on communications to manage this society; a monopoly on weapons within the state; and a centrally directed economy to work in the interest of the state. Raymond Aron’s book Democracy and Totalitarianism, based on a series of lectures given at the Sorbonne in 1957 and 1958, set out a similar model.

Such qualities could be seen in several prescient examples, most obviously Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Friedrich and Brzezinski’s model of the totalitarian state proposed deep similarities between these systems, and in the era of the Cold War it strove to establish the idea that there was little difference between the regime responsible for the Holocaust and the regime the West now found itself in conflict with. Given the more propagandistic connotations found in the many simplifications of such analysis during the Cold War, the term fell out of favour among many academics.

Their critics

Historians began to explore the lived realities of totalitarian regimes, and found the stark picture offered by early theories of totalitarianism problematic. In her work on Stalinism, historian of communism Sheila Fitzpatrick highlighted the term but said that it gave too much credit to the power of the Soviet political systems, blinding people to its weaknesses and limitations. For her, the regime’s use of terror actually marked its lack of lack of control over Soviet society. Similarly, historians of the Nazi regime, often described as structuralists or functionalists, started to recognise its chaotic and messy dynamics, and so found themselves at odds with older interpretations based on the totalitarian model, though the term was usually not rejected entirely. Eric Hobsbawm, when discussing François Furet’s analysis of Communism in the twentieth century, stressed that the term totalitarianism disguised the fact that, though superficially similar, communist and fascist states were radically different, ‘like swallows and bats’.

Vaclav Havel poster.
Vaclav Havel poster.
Flickr/Jacob Bøtter. Some rights reserved.

In the late 1970s, the Czechoslovak critic of communism, Vaclav Havel, helped to develop another key piece of terminology, ‘post-totalitarianism’, to describe the contradictory world of European communism. In his essay The Power of the Powerless, he argued that post-totalitarianism was a form of totalitarianism where the powerful become subordinated to a blind, automatic instinct to preserve the system. This system had, however, become meaningless, and he explained communist totalitarianism had become ‘a world of appearances, a mere ritual, a formalised language deprived of semantic contact with reality and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality.’

Others, such as Juan Linz, also discussed the importance of post-totalitarianism, and used it to reflect on the development of transitions away from totalitarianism. Recently, Patrick McEachern argued that North Korea is now best seen as post-totalitarian, a state where a type of non-democratic pluralism has emerged.

The totalitarianism concept has now been revisited by historians, and reworked in new ways that help move beyond the problems found in some of its more polemical Cold War usages. In The Totalitarian Experiment in Twentieth Century Europe, David Roberts argued for the need to understand better the historical differences between contrasting forms of totalitarianism, to comprehend how each ended in failure. Jerzy Borejsza and Klaus Ziemer’s edited volume Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes in Europe, meanwhile, offers a panoramic set of essays on the history, legacy and memory of totalitarian projects in twentieth century Europe. In another important survey of the value of the term, Peter Grieder argues totalitarianism can retain its usefulness as a concept as long as it is used carefully, and flexibly. The critique that it fails to capture every aspect of regimes such as Nazi Germany, the USSR or the Soviet satellite states of central and Eastern Europe certainly does not mean it should be rejected out of hand.

Moreover, a number of analysts have now extended the term beyond fascism and communism. The idea that forms of Islamism could be totalitarian is a key turn that has developed in recent times. Jeffrey Bale has stressed that totalitarian qualities can be found in Islamist movements, again underscoring that totalitarian tendencies can be found beyond states as well as within them. Bassam Tibi’s book Islam and Islamism devoted a chapter to totalitarianism, stating ‘Political Islam is a totalitarian ideology that presents itself as … a kind of magic answer for all of the problems – global and local, socioeconomic or value-related – in the crisis-ridden world of Islam.’ For Tibi, the totalitarianism of Islamism is ultimately found at the ideological level.

Totalitarian movements

Others have also focused on totalitarianism and ideology, helping to explore the potential for totalitarian political movements, as well as regimes. New approaches include Richard Shorten’s Modernism and Totalitarianism, a book that argues communist and fascist totalitarianisms had its roots in modern, anti-Enlightenment thinking. While fascist and communist variants of totalitarianism were quite distinct, for Shorten their ideologies both sought to develop an anthropological revolution and create a new man.

In Roger Griffin’s edited book Fascism, Totalitarianism and Political Religion, Thomas Linehan presented the British Union of Fascists as a totalitarian movement, seeking to create the type of totalitarian state that other fascist movements more successfully brought about. Similarly, in the same book Radu Ioanid argued that the Romanian Iron Guard was another important totalitarian movement of the interwar period.

With this in mind, a key under-studied area for analysis is how contemporary extreme right movements can also be seen as totalitarian. Indeed, it is not difficult to find examples of such groups where totalitarian ideals animate activism. Many users of the most recent neo-fascist online spaces, such as and idealise new types of fascist states while praising the fascist past. Within such contemporary fascisms, myriad descriptions of society facing an existential threat unless a new, totalising political system is adopted proliferate.

As in previous generations, these totalitarian fantasies can appeal to those who oppose democracy, and feel they are isolated and living in an atomised society. The nature and appeal of such totalitarian visions remains important to understand, even if they are not likely to lead to new totalitarian states. They help motivate contemporary fascists, give activism a purpose, and allow them to see in the past powerful examples of the types of society they wish to create. One new direction for totalitarian theorists is to build on the idea of the totalitarian movement and use this to explore the ideological dynamics of contemporary far right extremism in its quest for a new man and a new society.

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