Term Paper: Totalitarian Government

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Totalitarian Governments

Although no exact definition of "totalitarianism" exists, it generally refers to an extreme form of authoritarian government in the modern times. Totalitarian governments are different from the 'classical' dictatorships that have existed and have been described by philosophers and intellectuals since the time of Plato and Aristotle. In fact many historians consider totalitarianism to be a uniquely 20th century phenomenon that gained ascendancy during the period between the two World Wars. In modern totalitarian governments, the state intrudes into all facets of society, including the daily life of its citizens by seeking to control the economics, politics, values, and beliefs of its population to an extent that the distinction between state and society is erased. The conditions that contribute to the evolution of totalitarian governments are hard to pin-point but the history of the 20th century and the prevalent socio-economic conditions in the countries where such regimes took hold in the wake of World War I provide us with some clue. This paper examines the conditions that contribute to the evolution of such governments and the variables that distinguish totalitarianism from other forms of government. It also identifies and discusses specific totalitarian countries that provide case studies of the rise of totalitarianism.

Conditions that Lead to Totalitarianism

There is no single cause that leads to totalitarianism although its theoretical roots have been traced to the political theories of Plato, Hobbes, Rousseau and Marx at different times. Some theorists have even suggested that the rapidity, with which totalitarian governments have arisen in modern times, indicates that "there is something in human nature to which they correspond and on which they draw for their moral energy." (Scruton 1998) That "something," according to Scruton is an overwhelming sense of 'resentment' among the people which is exploited and stoked by a group of people (usually the elite) to embark on the path of a totalitarian government.

More often, totalitarianism is the result of a number of historical forces that happen to come together at a single point in time. The post-World War I period in Europe was one such time. The War had caused untold destruction in the countries where it was fought and the reparations imposed on Germany by the victorious Allied powers as well as the one-side Versailles Treaty further exacerbated the situation. All these factors led to severe social, political and economic crises in Europe. When the liberal democratic governments in most of the European countries failed to effectively tackle the severe economic and social problems such as the Great Depression of the 1930s, the concept of alternate forms of government started to attract a receptive audience. Russia was plunged into the October 1917 Bolshevik revolution even before the war had ended. Others such as Italy and Germany were soon to follow a different path on the road to totalitarianism.

There is, of course, some controversy about whether Marxism, on which the Russian Revolution was based, professes totalitarianism. Most Marxist writers insist that in the totalitarian state of the left "force is used only in order to quicken the pace of man's progress to perfection and social harmony." (Talmon 1960) Unlike the totalitarian state of the right which assumes human nature as weak and corrupt and justifies the use of force as necessary to control the unruly masses. Karl Marx's concept of a truly Communist system also envisioned the ultimate formation of a utopian state in which no government existed. The catch, however, was that the Soviet Communism never reached that 'ultimate' stage. What the initial phase of communism in Russia -- the so-called 'dictatorship of the Proletariat' degenerated into was Stalinism; and Stalinism was nothing more than the worst kind of totalitarianism.

While the Communist ideology may be somewhat ambivalent about the concept of totalitarianism, the other leading authoritarian political philosophies of the time, i.e., fascism and National Socialism (Nazism) were not: they openly professed a totalitarian system of government; scorned at the 'sloppy' liberalism of democracy and the considered Bolshevism as the greatest 'scourge' known to mankind.

Hence the conditions that lead to totalitarianism are likely to resemble the socio-economic conditions that existed in Europe after the end of the First World War -- widespread chaos, social, political and economic crises along with a belief that the existing social and political structure was unworkable. In such an environment, it is easy for people to feel deep resentment towards real or imaginary enemies and to find scapegoats for the unsatisfactory conditions. Yearning for a strong leader who would lead the nation out of its predicament and extreme patriotism often accompanies such feelings, resulting in popular support for the setting up of a totalitarian regime.

Several contemporary thinkers and writers have written about the modern phenomenon of totalitarianism, prominent among them were George Orwell and Hannah Arendt. Both the writers drew parallels between the Soviet Communist regime and the fascist governments in Germany and Italy. Arendt in particular has dwelt on the conditions that lead to totalitarianism in her monumental "Origins of Totalitarianism" (1951), relating the development of totalitarianism to 19th-century anti-Semitism and imperialism and seeing its growth as the outcome of the disintegration of the traditional nation-state. (Arendt 1966) Orwell, on the other hand, was fearful that the specter of totalitarianism would come to dominate the whole world and most of writings reflect that fear.

Variables that Distinguish Totalitarian Governments from Other Forms of Government

Totalitarian governments differ from other forms of government in a number of ways. While they obviously differ most conspicuously from liberal-democratic governments, they are also distinguishable from dictatorship, despotism, or tyranny. Unlike all other forms of governments, totalitarian governments seek to replace all the existing political, legal, and social institutions with new ones. Such disruption of the existing order is considered necessary to mold the people into a single unified movement. Typically, a single mass political party is created, headed by a charismatic leader, through which the people are mobilized. In this way, totalitarian regimes have a much more pervasive effect on the society of a nation than mere dictatorships and despotic regimes. ("Totalitarianism," Britannica 2003)

The totalitarian state is characterized by its single minded pursuit of a particular goal, be it industrialization or conquest, to the exclusion of all others. It mobilizes all its resources for achieving 'the goal,' regardless of the costs. Most of its policies flow out of the obsession to achieve the goal. Even the ideology that is propounded by a totalitarian state revolves around the attainment of its goal. The pronouncement of a state ideology is considered necessary to garner popular support and such support for the ideology is used to declare any dissent as evil and worthy of being crushed mercilessly. (Ibid.)

Another distinguishing feature of a totalitarian government is that the members of the ruling party are the elite of the nation. This was true even in the supposedly classless society of the Communist regimes in which the Communist Party members became the privileged class in a hierarchical organization.

Totalitarian governments are also characterized by suppression of old religious and social ties which are replaced by artificial ties to the state and its official ideology. Diversity and individualism are discouraged so that the people can be goaded into embracing the ideology of the state. The objective is mass conformity of the majority to the beliefs and behavior sanctioned by the state and to cow down the rest into submission.

All the tools and resources available to a government are used to achieve its goals. Morality and ideals such as human rights take a back-seat in the pursuit of the state's goal and is justified by the state ideology. Violence is often made part of state policy, and is considered necessary for controlling internal dissent and for use against a group of people who are prosecuted after being blamed for the ills of the country.

Advanced scientific and industrial technologies are fully utilized by totalitarian governments for achieving total subjugation of the population. For example, all mass communication sources such as newspapers, magazines, books, radio and television, theater, and motion pictures, is centrally controlled and directed by the government. Censorship and effective propaganda techniques are the key in controlling the thought process of the people. All the people who are involved in the mass communication process, e.g., writers, actors, composers, or poets are required to be licensed so that only the party-line and officially sanctioned information and ideology reaches the public. ("Characteristics of Totalitarianism," n.d.)

All means, such as the secret police, a centrally controlled economy and the sources of weapons are used by totalitarian governments to keep a tight lid on all possible dissent. Totalitarian states, unlike even the so-called police states, allow the police to operate without the constraints of laws and regulations. A secret-police (e.g., Gestapo and the KGB) terrorizes the population of a totalitarian state through the use of institutions such as the concentration camp, torture, kangaroo-court trials, and forced public confessions.

A centrally controlled economy is an essential feature of all totalitarian… [END OF PREVIEW]

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