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The quintessential totalitarians.
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Individuality is left out of their scheme of government. The State is all in all. Everything is referred to the production of force; afterwards, everything is trusted to the use of it. It is military in its principle, in its maxims, in its spirit, and in all its movements. The State has dominion and conquest for its sole objects — dominion over minds by proselytism, over bodies by arms.
Edmund Burke, on revolutionary France[1]

Totalitarianism is, in short, a rhetorical term deployed to indicate really repressive tyranny. More specifically, totalitarian political systems exercise extensive control over both private and political life while outlawing all forms of opposition. Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy before and during World War II, described his regime as the "Totalitarian State", which he defined as, "Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State".[2] Carl Schmitt, a German conservative jurist who later turned to supporting Nazism following the rise of Adolf Hitler, described and defended the legal basis of the Totalstaat, an all-powerful state apparatus built upon a collective definition of "friend" and "enemy."[3]

The difference between totalitarianism and authoritarianism can be rather fuzzy, especially if the former term is misused. However, a totalitarian regime will attempt to supplant all legal, social, and political traditions with its own ideology. By doing so, it will seize control over all aspects of social life, including the economy, the education system, arts, science, and the private lives and of its nation's citizens.[4] This power is then typically leveraged towards a singular goal, that being the development of industry, the elimination of an enemy group, or simple imperialism. Authoritarian governments, on the other hand, can lack an overarching ideology and exist within pre-existing legal and traditional frameworks.

To establish complete control over public and personal affairs, totalitarian regimes rely on cults of personality, censorship and dissemination of propaganda, and mass surveillance. With no laws or traditions restricting the state's power, human rights violations become commonplace, even torture, mass extrajudicial executions ,concentration camps, and even genocide.

The term "totalitarianism" became most popular across the Western world during the Cold War, as Western academics focused on the brutal rule of Joseph Stalin in order to describe the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc as totalitarian systems inherently at odds with Western democracy.[5] This view of the Eastern Bloc was headed by the US historian Richard Pipes, whose widely-publicized analysis of the USSR's origins convinced the US government, especially the Ronald Reagan administration, to consult him on relations with the Soviets.[6] Pipes and those like him stood in contrast to "revisionist" academics, who held that the totalitarian model was an over-simplified view of how the Soviet government worked, especially post-Stalin.[7] Polish-Israeli revisionist Moshe Lewin warned other historians not to "over-Stalinize" Soviet history by viewing every era of the country as having the same brutal characteristics of Stalin's regime.[8] Lewin instead said the phrase "bureaucratic absolutism" best described the post-Stalin USSR, as Soviet leaders gradually became reliant on the state bureaucracy to exercise their power.[9] In essence, the revisionist argument was that the post-Stalin USSR being "bad" didn't necessarily make it "totalitarian." This serves a broader lesson against rushing to classify regimes as totalitarian just because they happen to be enemy factions that inflict violence and misery upon their own people.


The term "totalitarianism" was coined in 1923 by Italian liberal antifascist Giovanni AmendolaWikipedia to describe the then-new Italian fascist regime of Benito Mussolini (who would have Amendola assassinated in 1926 in Cannes), describing it as "total political power which is exercised by the state", soon appropriated by prominent fascist ideologue Giovanni GentileWikipedia as a self-description referring to the structure and goals of the fascist state. It was supposed to provide "total representation of the nation and total guidance of national goals". Later, during the Cold War, it was popularized to designate regimes deemed most threatening: most communist regimes and the extinct fascist regime in Germany. Other fascist regimes like Franco's Spain and Salazar's Portugal, as well as a raft of other pro-Western tyrannies such as Pinochet's Chile and Pahlavi's Iran, were labeled as merely authoritarian.

Consistent with the Cold War construction of the term is the following: authoritarianism reflects a political ethos valuing the state's authority over its citizens' individual freedoms. A totalitarian state usually requires a defining ideology to justify its appropriation of the levers of power: extreme nationalism was the driving force behind Nazism; Russian communism in the case of the Soviet Union; and a puritanical form of Islam in the case of a theocracy such as Iran. China offers an interesting example of a totalitarian regime that has abandoned the practical ramifications of its ideology while retaining the power structures thus derived. Ba'athist regimes in Syria and Iraq have also been termed totalitarian. Under a totalitarian system, it's often not enough for the people to not question the dictator; they are also expected to go further and openly endorse and espouse the regime's ideology. (Totalitarianism is sometimes described as "theocracy without a god", and many writers have remarked on the tendency of authoritarian Communist ideology, in particular, to look, walk, and quack like religious faith.)

Such states are characterized by the extent of their subversion of the rule of law, with the police and judiciary acting as direct instruments of control and providing no meaningful check or balance upon the ruling elite. Media outlets are subordinated to the faithful promotion of the defining ideology, and as the state matures, this tends to be reinforced with coordinated programs of indoctrination within the education system. Dissent is often brutally repressed, and extrajudicial executions are common. Virtually all totalitarian regimes have scapegoats on which they blame all their problems, and any members of said scapegoated group can expect to face intense repression on behalf of the state. Other common features include fostering a cult of personality around the head of state and rampant corruption due to the arbitrary enforcement of laws and statutes.

Carl J. Friedrich and Zbigniew K. Brzezinski, in their book Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy, summarized the six traits of totalitarian dictatorships as follows:[10]:21

The “syndrome,” or pattern of interrelated traits, of the totalitarian dictatorship consists of an ideology, a single party typically led by one man, a terroristic police, a communications monopoly, a weapons monopoly, and a centrally directed economy. Of these, the last two are also found in constitutional systems…

In an abstract sense, totalitarianism can be distinguished from authoritarianism by its ideological scope; generally, the 'authority' in an authoritarian system is primarily concerned with having and keeping absolute political and military power over a group or groups of people, while a more totalitarian approach would be seen from an authority who is primarily concerned with extending the reach of their power to control each individual citizen.

An authoritarian would use their power to crush the powerless, even in nominally democratic countries or sub-nations, while a totalitarian is essentially a control freak who wants to dominate how people think in service to such authority. There can be no democracy in a totalitarian state, but authoritarian democracies (or illiberal democracies as they're sometimes called) sometimes have to adhere to at least procedural democracy, even if there is little to no substantive democracy. As another example, authoritarian regimes typically allow opposing ideologies and organizations to exist, but do everything in their power to keep the opposition utterly powerless and irrelevant. Totalitarian regimes do not even allow the possibility of opposing thought to take shape in everyday life.

Hannah Arendt, among others, offers the concept of totalitarianism attempting to maintain a "fictitious world" in which the totalitarian ideology dominates perceptions of reality, with actual reality being irrelevant. (On this view, contempt for reality becomes a defining feature of totalitarianism, if not its basis, and the term post-truth acquires extremely ominous implications.)

As a result, totalitarianism tends to be marked by heavy scapegoating of an imagined external enemy (in Communist terms, 'the international bourgeoisie', or the international Jewish conspiracy for Nazis) accompanied by violent hostility specifically targeting adherents of the ideology who deviate even in small ways, these to be identified as being as one with the imagined enemy (Mensheviks and non-Communist socialists being termed 'fascist' or 'fascist hirelings').



  • The Kingdom of Italy, later the Italian Social Republic, under Duce Benito Mussolini of the National Fascist Party, later the Republican Fascist Party. Followed Italian fascism and Sanespolcrismo. 1922-1945 (fell to the Allies).
  • The Nazi Germany under Führer Adolf Hitler of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Followed Nazism. 1933-1945 (surrendered to the Allies).
  • The (First) Slovak Republic under Jozef Tiso of the Slovak People’s Party. Followed clerical fascism. 1939-1945 (fell to the Allies and reabsorbed into Czechoslovakia).
  • The Kingdom of Romania under Conducâtor Ion Antonescu and Horia Sima of the Iron Guard. Followed clerical fascism and Legionarism. 1940-1944 (couped by King Michael).
  • The Independent State of Croatia under Poglavnik Ante Pavelić of the Ustaše. Followed a variant of clerical fascism called Croatian socialism and Croatian ultranationalism. 1941- 1945 (surrendered to the Allies).
  • The Quisling regime in Norway under Reichskommissars Josef Terboven and Franz Böhme and Fører Vidkun Quisling of Nasjonal Samling. Followed fascism and Norwegian nationalism. 1942 - 1945 (dissolved).
  • The (Second) Kingdom of Hungary under Leader of the Nation Ferenc Szálasi of the Arrow Cross Party. Followed Hungarism. 1944 - 1945 (dissolved).
  • Francoist Spain under Caudillo Francisco Franco of the FET y de las JONS. Followed Francoism. 1936 - 1955 (reformed to authoritarianism), 1975 (transitioned to democracy).



  • The Soviet Union and its satellite states (Mongolia, Finnish Democratic Republic, and the entire Eastern Bloc) under General Secretary Joseph Stalin and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Famines and purges to the extent of genocide petered out after Stalin died. Followed Marxism-Leninism and Stalinism. 1924 - 1956 (de-Stalinization), 1991 (dissolution).
  • The People's Socialist Republic of Albania under First Secretary Enver Hoxha and the Party of Labour of Albania. Apparently admired by that well-known commie sadist saint, Mother Teresa. Followed Hoxhaism and Stalinism. 1946 - 1985 (Hoxha's death), 1991 (democratic elections).
  • East Germany under the Socialist Unity Party. Followed Marxism-Leninism. 1949 - 1989 (Peaceful RevolutionWikipedia), 1990 (reunification with West Germany
  • China under Chairman Mao Zedong (possibly extending into the short reign of his immediate successor Hua GuofengWikipedia) and the Communist Party of China. Followed Maoism and Marxism-Leninism. 1954 - 1976 (Mao's death), 1981 (Hua Guofeng forced from power).
  • People’s Republic of Peru Shining Path-occupied territories in Peru under Chairman Gonzalo. Followed Marxism-Leninism-Maoism and Gonzalo Thought. Formed in 1969, its last remaining active faction has distanced itself from the Shining Path.
  • Democratic Kampuchea under General Secretary Pol Pot and the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Unique in that their leaders were almost anonymous. Followed an odd blend of agrarian socialism and Khmer ultranationalism. 1975 - 1978 (Soviet-backed Vietnamese invasion).
  • The Socialist Republic of Romania under General Secretaries Gheroghe Gheorghiu-Dej and Nicolae Ceaușescu and the Romanian Communist Party. Followed Marxism-Leninism, national communism, neo-Stalinism, and Romanian nationalism. 1947 - 1991 (abolition).


  • North Korea under the Kim family and the Workers' Party of Korea. Follows Kimilsungism–Kimjongilism, Songun ("military-first"), and Juche, which is a syncretic (officially communist) hodge-podge distilled from disparate ideologies, including Korean ultranationalism, Stalinism, Maoism, Confucianism, Shōwa Statism, European Fascism, and even an imperial cult. Established in 1948 with Soviet help.
  • The Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma under President Ne Win and the Burma Socialist Programme PartyWikipedia. Followed the Burmese Way to SocialismWikipedia ideology. 1962 - 1988 (replaced via coup with something equally horrid - the military junta known as the Naypyidaw).
  • Syria under Hafez Assad (deceased) and Bashar al-Assad and the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party – Syria Region. Follows neo-Ba'athism and Assadism.[11] Established in 1963 via a coup by the Ba'ath Party.
  • The Libyan Arab Republic and later the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (yes, really) under Brotherly Leader (yes, really) Muammar al-Gaddafi. Followed the Third International TheoryWikipedia. 1971 - 2011 (Gaddafi killed).
  • Ba'athist Iraq under Saddam Hussein and the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party – Iraq Region. Bitter rival to the regime in Syria. Followed neo-Ba'athism, Saddamism, and Iraqi nationalism. 1979 - 2003 (invaded by and fell to a US-led coalition).[12]:5-30
  • Eritrea under President Isaias Afwerki and the People's Front for Democracy and Justice. Nicknamed "Africa's North Korea". Follows a blend of Eritrean nationalism, socialism, and extreme anti-Ethiopian sentiments. Established in 1991 after achieving independence from Ethiopia.
  • Turkmenistan under Saparmurat Niyazov, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, and his son Serdar Berdimuhamedow. Established in 1991 after gaining independence from the Soviet Union.

Came and/or coming close[edit]

  • Chinese emperor Qin Shi HuangWikipedia under legalism arguably tried to apply elements of totalitarianism by suppressing regional differences in everything from cultural practices to weights and measures, ordering all earlier histories to be burned, tightly controlling the economy, and encouraging total loyalty to the state (including censorship and reward for denunciation). Some historians have called him history's first totalitarian dictator.[13] 221 BC - 210 BC (Qin Shi Huang's death).
    • Later, the regime of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek built a personality cult around him and underwent series of purges and show trials against political opponents under the "White Terror", lasting until 1987 in Taiwan. The only reason that he never went full totalitarian was due to not having control of the entire country, and his party was undermined by insubordination and corruption. 1947 - 1987 (martial law repealed).
    • The CCP under Xi Jinping and Xi Jinping Thought and Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. He was mired in a factional war with wannabe dictator Jiang Zemin, one of his predecessors and leader of the elitist Shanghai clique who pushed for the Tiananmen Square massacre. To consolidate his rule, Xi launched an anti-corruption campaign that purged over a million party officials, who actually were corrupt but mainly ran afoul of the Chinese president by being tied to Jiang. Now that Jiang is dead, then all he needs is a massive movement away from emulating his predecessor Mao. Jinping came to power in 2012.
  • The Confederate States of America (Ended)
  • One of the few pre-20th century cases where a regime came close to totalitarianism examples is the French First Republic under the Jacobins and their Reign of Terror,Wikipedia following a form of "radical egalitarianism", i.e. a vague form of extremely authoritarian proto-socialism. Its features included both nationalism and egalitarian appeals, as well as claims to embody true liberty and the people. 1793 - 1794.
  • The Inca Empire. (Ended)
  • Indonesia under Suharto's New Order and their reinterpretation of "Pancasila" (Ended)
  • Iran under Ali Khamenei (Current)
  • Fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini and Italian Fascism inspired the very concept of totalitarianism as mentioned above, but while he came very close, he couldn't fully turn Italy totalitarian because the Catholic Church still had some autonomy. (Ended)
  • Imperial Japan under Hideki Tojo, Emperor Shōwa under Imperial Rule Assistance Association and Shōwa Statism. (Ended)
  • Russia under Vladimir Putin by March 2022, when he invaded Ukraine. (Current)
  • Saudi Arabia under the House of Saud and Wahhabism, although there are limited reforms in 2017 curbing the power of the religious police (Current)
  • Apartheid-era South Africa (Ended)
  • Ancient Sparta. (Ended)

Separatist held territories[edit]

  • Abkhazia — A separatist territory in Georgia with regressive policies when it comes to ethnicity and gender; has fought two wars against Georgia. (Current)
  • South Ossetia — A separatist territory in Georgia with a dose of ethnic nationalism. It is infamous for the ethnic cleansing of non-Ossetians in the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. (Current)
  • Transnistria — A Russian backed separatist sliver of land that is a legal part of Moldova. Its society is much like the old Soviet Union, repressive policies and all. (Current)
  • Unrecognized Russia-backed Donetsk People's RepublicWikipedia and Luhansk People's RepublicWikipedia in eastern Ukraine. (Current)


  • Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Their ideologies vary on the surface, with Oceania following English Socialism (or "Ingsoc"), Eurasia following neo-Bolshevism, and Eastasia following Obliteration of the Self (or "Death Worship"), but in practice, they are virtually indistinguishable. This fact is not lost on their rulers, who use doublethink to get the masses to believe that the other guys are their total antithesis. They are also notable for transcending Fascism and Communism, occupying such an eldritch, non-Euclidian area between the horsehoe's prongs that they can only be described as non-specifically totalitarian. They even go so far as to demean the fascisms and communisms of the past, claiming that they fell precisely because they cared about things like racial purity, communal ownership, or really anything besides remaining in power. (Possibly Ended)
  • The Nazi-dominated, puppet United States of America in the east and the Japanese-dominated Pacific States of America in the wake of an Axis victory in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle
  • The Republic of Gilead from Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.
  • The World State from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. (Current)
  • The One State from Yevgeny Zamyatin's We.
  • Norsefire from Alan Moore's V for Vendetta. (Ended)
  • Animal Farm/Manor Farm[14] from George Orwell's Animal Farm. (Current)
  • Nazi government in Wolfenstein: The New Order and Wolfenstein 2: New Colossus. In these games the Nazis use ancient Jewish technology to defeat the Allied Forces in World War 2. Once the war concludes Nazi Germany turns on Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. As one would expect from an far right racist regime they actively engage in the genocide of Jews, Arabs, Blacks, LGBT+ people and disabled people. However the power of the Nazi government weakens due to resistance groups taking up arms and actively fight back against their oppressor.

See also[edit]


  1. Under Section 3.2.47
  2. Delzell, Charles F. (Spring 1988). "Remembering Mussolini". The Wilson Quarterly. Washington, D.C.: Wilson Quarterly. 12 (2): 127. JSTOR 40257305
  3. Carl Schmitt. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  4. Totalitarianism, Authoritarianism, and Fascism. ThoughtCo.
  5. Davies, Sarah; Harris, James (2005). "Joseph Stalin: Power and Ideas". Stalin: A New History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-1139446631.
  6. Historian: Richard Edgar Pipes. Alpha History.
  7. Lenoe, Matt (June 2002). "Did Stalin Kill Kirov and Does It Matter?". The Journal of Modern History. 74 (2): 352–380. doi:10.1086/343411. ISSN 0022-2801. S2CID 142829949.
  8. Cohen, Stephen F.; English, Robert; Kraus, Michael; Lih, Lars T.; Sharlet, Robert (Spring 2011). "Moshe Lewin". Slavic Review. Cambridge University Press. 70 (1): 242.
  9. Lewin, Moshe. "Why the World Needs to Know About the Soviet Past". Le Monde diplomatique.
  10. Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy by Carl J. Friedrich & Zbigniew K. Brzezinski (1965) Frederick A. Praeger. Second edition.
  11. Syria: the point of no return: The battle between President Assad's regime and the Free Syrian Army is a life-or-death struggle. But whatever its outcome, this is a civil war being fought on a faultline that threatens the entire Middle East by Martin Chulov (29 Aug 2012 15.00 EDT) Th Guardian.
  12. The Ba'thification of Iraq: Saddam Hussein's Totalitarianism by Aaron M. Faust (2015) University of Texas Press. ISBN 978-1-4773-0557-7.
  13. See the Wikipedia article on Legalism.
  14. See the Wikipedia article on Napoleon (Animal Farm).