Political Theories for Students. Editor: Matthew Miskelly & Jaime Noce. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
Political systems are often categorized according to the degree of freedom they afford their citizens or according to their degree of their responsiveness to citizen input. Democracies allow the most input; totalitarian systems stand at the extreme opposite end of the continuum. They offer the least amount of freedom and pay the least amount of attention to the voice of the people. In fact, as the name implies, totalitarian governments try to control the totality of human experience. A true totalitarian ruler attempts to take charge not only of the public life of the people, but also their personal and emotional lives. Until the advent of modern forms of travel, communication, and coercion, it would have been impossible to contemplate the total control of anything but a very small group of people. But, with mass media, electronic surveillance equipment, and prisons and torture facilities boasting the efficiency of advanced industrial operations, totalitarianism seemed within the grasp of leaders such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—men with a limitless desire for control. Totalitarianism is a form of government that emerged only in the twentieth century. So rapid was its rise, that by 1940, many people in Europe and America feared that totalitarianism might be able to overwhelm democratic peoples and governments. That fear proved to be unjustified because, by the end of the twentieth century, no country in the world practiced a full-blown totalitarian form of governance.
Before the rise of totalitarianism in the 1920s and 1930s, even the most powerful and oppressive governments would have been classified as authoritarian rather than totalitarian. Authoritarian governments acted in arbitrary and autocratic ways, but they did not attempt to exert control over every facet of people’s lives. In the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s, a number of authoritarian regimes in Europe were headed by monarchs claiming absolute authority. Generally, however, they did not pretend to exercise absolute power or control. Almost to the end of the twentieth century, many Latin American regimes were headed by military leaders who ruled in a highly authoritarian manner. But, they did not try to intervene in the daily lives of citizens with the same degree of intensity characteristic of totalitarian governments. In Asia, for thousands of years, powerful monarchs and military rulers demanded compliance from their people. Like many other authoritarian leaders throughout history, they required absolute obedience from the people and they exercised the absolute power of life or death over their subjects. But, until the emergence of Maoism in China, they demanded compliance only in a limited portion of their subjects’ lives and they used the sword only against people who posed a direct threat to their sovereignty or wealth.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, most authoritarian governments were concentrated in the Middle East and Asia where monarchies and strong men or strong women continued to hold sway. In many of these authoritarian systems, for example Iraq, powerful leaders hoped to increase the wealth and military power of their countries without having to cope with the turmoil they believed accompanies political openness. To a large extent, those leaders cared little about the private sentiments of the people, as long as the people did not publicly oppose the policies of government.
The Ancient World
The ancient world was marked by a number of very large-scale states that exercised unchallenged control over some aspects of their peoples’ lives. In ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China, powerful dynasties were able to use their power to mobilize vast numbers of people to participate in extensive public works schemes. Complex irrigation systems, enormous monuments, and large-scale agricultural operations were some of the projects that provided the economic and political foundations for these ancient empires. The social and psychological distance between the leaders and the common people was so great that the rulers could claim near divine power and stature. The authoritarian nature of these rulers’ governments enabled them to provide their subjects with a level of security and economic well being otherwise unattainable at the time. Peoples of the ancient world could not increase their productive capacity through highly advanced technologies and machines that came only with the modern industrial revolution. But, the coordination they achieved by offering obedience to a despotic ruler allowed them to focus their energies in ways that resulted in astonishing material and social achievements.
The ancient despotic regimes were limited to regions where people were forced to settle in close proximity and where they had little chance to live elsewhere. For example, in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, people had to remain close to the major rivers in order to farm. This reality made it easier for rulers to exert tighter control over their subjects. What sets the ancient despotic regimes apart from modern totalitarian systems is the fact that the ancient governments never sought to mobilize the people politically. Ordinary people were expected to be nonpolitical and uninvolved in the ceremonies and rituals of the capital and the court. Common people were required to work for the state, not to identify with or have affection for the regime.
Although Ancient Greece witnessed the rise of democracy in Athens, many city states, and even Athens at times, were ruled by authoritarian regimes. Sometimes the regimes were headed by tyrants, leaders who had seized power and who had the power of life and death over their subjects. In Sparta, the entire citizen population between the age of twenty and thirty was mobilized into military groups called “phalanxes.” The demands of these groups controlled an individual’s entire life. The men lived in barracks, took common meals, and were forbidden to marry. Many Greeks admired the strength and discipline of Sparta that enabled its people to defend themselves effectively and to exert their control over neighboring regions.
Ancient Rome functioned as a republic for more than 400 years before the republican form of government gave way to an autocratic imperial structure. The transformation came in response to internal tensions and external challenges. As the Roman city-state expanded to dominate all of what is now Italy and then extend its control over the entire Mediterranean region, ambitious generals wielded increased power. Competing with the Senate, a body composed of hereditary aristocrats, the generals based their authority on an appeal to the masses. Although the Republic would not have measured up to the standards of modern democracies, Rome moved even more decisively to authoritarian rule with the establishment of the Empire under Augustus, who ruled from 27 B.C. until his death in 14 A.D. But, even under the emperors, Rome functioned as an authoritarian not as a totalitarian system. In large part, that was true because the Roman Empire regarded itself as a society governed by laws that protected the rights of the citizens. Furthermore, at least some of the emperors believed strongly in the need to submit themselves to the rules of virtue and morality. No matter how powerful their office, such men regarded themselves as servants and protectors of the people.
The Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages, many European rulers thought of themselves as following in the footsteps of the great leaders of Rome. Virtue and law were now defined by the church rather than by an appeal to ancient traditions or Roman gods. But the concept of ruling according to higher principles remained an important theoretical concept. While the claim to rule on behalf of natural law or divine ordination imposed moral restrictions on political behavior, medieval leaders made no concession to the voice of the people.
By the fifteenth century, a shift in rhetoric and practice took place. Starting with the Renaissance, princes and even churchmen in Italy regarded themselves as unchecked by morality, rules, or the people when it came to political behavior. The only limits on a prince was competition from other ambitious leaders or the threat of revolt from an oppressed citizenry. Morality was no longer an important constraint regulating political conduct.
After about 1500, early European nation states increasingly were ruled by powerful autocratic leaders who attempted to impose linguistic, religious, and political uniformity over divided societies. Assertive monarchs such as Henry VIII of England, his daughter Elizabeth I, and Louis XIV of France; divine right kings such as James I and Charles I of England; and enlightened despots such as Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick II of Prussia struggled to build the foundations of strong states. While their sometimes ruthless tactics resembled those of Renaissance rulers, their goals were the creation and protection of nations or empires, not just self promotion and personal power.
The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
Frederick the Great, who ruled Prussia from 1740 to 1786, is one example of these autocratic rulers. Frederick focused much of his energies on developing Prussia as a strong military state with a highly professional bureaucracy. The military and the bureaucracy served as two of the most important sources of his extensive authoritarian power. A man of the Enlightenment, Frederick attempted to rule according to the highest principles of reason. To some extent, he embodied the principles of Aristotle’s ideal monarchy, where one individual ruled for the good of the whole. Although Frederick did not consult citizen voices, he tried to rule in a way that would benefit the people. Some of the benevolent and progressive measures he introduced in Prussia were the abolishment of using torture on criminals, strict prohibitions against bribing judges, the establishment of state-supported elementary schools, and the promotion of religious tolerance. On his own vast personal estates, which he owned as a feudal lord, he did away with capital punishment, reduced the amount of time peasants had to spend working for him instead of for themselves, and introduced scientific farming and forestry practices that increased production. In the nineteenth century, Otto von Bismarck, the autocratic German Chancellor continued in the tradition of Frederick. During his tenure in office from 1871 until 1890, Bismarck introduced many progressive social programs while working tirelessly to unify Germany and strengthen his country’s military power.
The Modern World
In the twentieth century, a new kind of autocracy emerged. Using the tools of modern transportation, communication, surveillance, and psychology, men such as Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and Mao were able to control millions of peoples’ lives in ways that would have been unthinkable or impossible in previous centuries. The political innovations of these men introduced a new type of governing that was given the label “totalitarian.” Vicious, aggressive, and ideological, totalitarianism created its own morality. Mobilizing their citizens through propaganda and thought control, totalitarian leaders appeared to be intent on dominating other parts of the world as well as reshaping their own countries. In every case, totalitarian leaders were aggressively anti-democratic and anti-religious. They allowed no space for individual thought or criticism. Consequently, they allowed no room for an appeal either to individual liberties or to supernatural truth.
By the end of World War II, totalitarianism had collapsed in Germany and Italy. With the death of Stalin in 1953, totalitarianism in the form of Stalinism began to give way to authoritarianism in the Soviet Union as well. A similar pattern obtained in China after the death of Mao in 1976. In the Soviet Union, especially by the time Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, even authoritarianism came to be regarded as increasingly dysfunctional. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, authoritarian systems persisted in the Middle East; some parts of Asia such as China, Malaysia, and Vietnam; and Cuba. But, authoritarianism was increasingly under a shadow. South Africa, a racially divided nation governed in accordance with the principles of apartheid, voluntarily shifted to complete democracy in 1994. Even Iran, a nation run as a theocracy (where God is the ultimate ruler) was shifting to a pattern of incorporating popular opinion into government policy.
Iran is illustrative of two important types of contemporary authoritarianism, one the more conventional modernizing authoritarianism, the other an authoritarianism guided by a fundamentalist ideology. The latter form has seemed especially threatening to people in the west. From 1941 until 1979, Iran was governed by an autocratic monarchy under Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. Accepting military and economic aid from the United States, the Shah set about to modernize his nation. A key part of his policy was limiting the influence of the imams, Muslim clerics who had great authority over the lives and thoughts of the people. Although Iran witnessed rapid economic growth that dramatically transformed the cities and greatly strengthened the country’s infrastructure, not everyone benefited from the changes. Small shopkeepers, small farmers, and ordinary workers sometimes found life to be more difficult. Furthermore, the westernization that accompanied the economic changes was not welcomed by the conservative and largely Shiiti Muslim population. Iranians who were troubled by what was happening in their country often blamed the United States for America was the Shah’s main supporter. However, because Iran operated as an authoritarian regime, the voices of citizen disapproval had no constructive outlet.
The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, an exiled radical Islamic cleric, took advantage of the growing discontentment to incite a revolution that succeeded in overthrowing the Shah in 1979. Now, Iran was governed by a new type of authoritarianism, a theocracy. Religious leaders, who interpreted God’s will as revealed in the Koran, came to play a major role in politics. Mullahs (clerics) sat as powerful members of parliament. A Council of Guardians, Iran’s supreme court, was a body of clerics who used the Koran, not the constitution, as the ultimate authority. Around the country, the Islamic Republican Party, the official party of the revolution, depended on clerics a party agents. At the top of the entire system, the Ayatollah Khomeini had the final word. And his word was based upon his concept of what God told him to say or do. Consequently, the Ayatollah’s pronouncements could not be challenged.
The highly authoritarian nature of the Islamic Republic was evident in its internal and external policies. Internally, the Ayatollah’s government moved harshly against dissidents. Intellectuals, people associated with the Shah’s government, opposition politicians, and military leaders were arrested, imprisoned, and executed. People feared speaking against the regime and people feared conducting their private lives in ways that contradicted the mullahs’ strict interpretation of Islamic law. Women, especially, were objects of religious supervision and control. Externally, Iran pursued an aggressive and militant policy. The United States, as the former backer of the Shah, was regarded as an especially “evil” state and labeled the “Great Satan” by the Ayatollah. In November of 1979, Iranian radicals stormed the American Embassy and took 52 people hostage. These people were held until January of 1981. Saudi Arabia, a conservative and, in the Ayatollah’s view, apostate state, was also a target of Iranian anger. In 1987, the Ayatollah called for the overthrow of the Saudi government. Iran also conducted a protracted and bitter war with its neighbor Iraq. Although Iraq began the conflict—hoping to grab a piece of Iranian territory during the turmoil of the revolution—Iran regarded the conflict as a jihad or holy war.
As is characteristic of all fervent ideological or theological revolutions, the people and the country of Iran could not sustain the political intensity for long. Isolated internationally, suffering from economic decline internally, and facing increasing grumbling from moderate Iranians who wanted a more open political system, Iran’s government moved back to the center. The first shift was from a rigid theocratic authoritarianism to a more pragmatic authoritarianism that relaxed the enforcement of religious laws and allowed for more openness of expression. This happened almost immediately after the death of the elderly Ayatollah in 1989. By the year 2000, Iran had installed a decidedly more moderate government that came to power as a result of relatively free and fair elections. While the majority of Iranians likely were content to be governed according to the principles of Islamic law, they desired more flexibility in how those laws were interpreted and they wanted more room to offer input to the government.
As the twenty-first century got under way, people in the West feared a dangerous conflict with an irrational Middle Eastern world filled with radical Islamic fundamentalists. A common concern was that these fundamentalists would set up governments filled with fanatics guided by a very narrow and xenophobic understanding of the Koran. The example of Iran suggests that enthusiasm for theocracy lasts about one generation. In the end, more pragmatic concerns push a nation to a more moderate, less authoritarian, and less aggressive form of government.
Theory in Depth
Terms such as authoritarianism and totalitarianism have been the subject of intense debates among many political scientists. Two sets of questions dominate this discussion. One revolves around the issue of definitions. What exactly is an authoritarian regime? What exactly is a totalitarian system? How are they the same and how do they differ? Is totalitarianism merely an extreme manifestation of authoritarianism or is it a fundamentally new and different phenomenon? Because definitions in a dictionary, encyclopedia, or text book are just reflections of the way both ordinary people and scholars use words, there is no precise or definitive explanation of the words. A second set of questions deals with the origins, functioning, and goals of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. What caused them to emerge? How do they operate? And, what do the leaders and subjects in such systems hope to achieve?
Defining Authoritarianism and Totalitarianism
Monarchies, oligarchies, dictatorships, military juntas, and tyrannies are all top-down systems in which the influence and will of the political elite vastly outweighs any input from citizens. A monarchy is ruled by a king or queen who took power because of heredity. In the modern world, most monarchs are symbols of national unity rather than people with real power. Oligarchies and military juntas are ruled by a small group of leaders, in the one case civilian, in the other military. Both may have come to power through extra-legal means. Dictatorships and tyrannies are both forms of one-person rule and in both cases the leader may have come toppled a previous government through force. In the modern world, both are regarded as pejorative titles.
Systems also differ according to the degree of control exercised by the leaders. For the purposes of this essay, authoritarian and totalitarian systems will be treated as variants of the large number of governments, both historical and contemporary, that privilege the voice and power of political leaders over the voice and power of the people. In theory, monarchies, oligarchies, dictatorships, military juntas, and tyrannies could fall into either category. There is disagreement among scholars about the precise nature of the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. But, there is a general consensus that totalitarianism seeks far greater control over people’s lives. In contrast to totalitarian governments that accept no restrictions to their power, authoritarian systems are limited by their ability or desire to exert control over citizens. Frequently, these limitations are supported by long tradition and incorporated into law. Even very powerful authoritarian governments may operate within the framework of a constitution or a well-defined legal system. Many authoritarian systems allow people relative freedom in the area of religion, cultural life, or economic affairs. Authoritarian governments may respond very harshly if people try to involve themselves in politics. However, so long as citizens are obedient and do not openly challenge government policies, actions, and decisions, they may be left alone. Some authoritarian governments even tolerate rather pointed criticisms so long as those concerns are voiced in private or not expressed in a way that might incite widespread opposition. Totalitarian systems, on the other hand, attempt to extend their control and influence into every corner of people’s lives. Through massive propaganda they even endeavor to dominate people’s minds and emotions. For an authoritarian government, what people think in private may matter very little. For a totalitarian system, every aspect of life must be molded by the state.
Why Authoritarianism and Totalitarianism?
In addition to defining the two types of regimes, the study of authoritarian and totalitarian systems also examines their origins, functions, and goals. Sometimes they emerged out of a need to protect against disorder, decline, or disaster. The threat of enemy attack, an economic crisis, or a period of great social upheaval may cause a society to turn to strong leadership thought to have the ability to deal with great problems. Such leadership may insist that it needs exceptional powers and freedom of action to defend society against grave danger. The views of the leaders may be tolerated or even supported by a frightened, impoverished, or disoriented populace. This type of regime is more conservative in nature and is trying to protect the status quo. At other times, authoritarian or totalitarian governments may arise because the political elite and/or the people want to create a new society. This vision might reflect the desire for economic growth, social modernization, racial purity, political reform, or territorial expansion. In contrast to an authoritarian leader, who will be more restrained in his or her goals, a visionary totalitarian ruler seeks a complete and fundamental restructuring of an entire intellectual, social, political, economic, and military order.
Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes differ according to the degree of popular support or agreement they seek or demand. Authoritarian systems, in fact, may avoid mobilizing popular support for fear that public enthusiasm can be unmanageable. For example, during World War I, the tsarist government of Russia was reluctant to encourage public sentiment in support of the war effort. Top Russian officials worried that intense popular emotions could easily turn against the government itself. For many authoritarian systems, a passive and inactive citizenry is best. Totalitarian governments, however, insist on constant, public, and frenetic expressions of support and loyalty. Totalitarian systems organize vast public rallies and engineer massive voter turnouts in order to show the depth and breath of popular attachment to the leaders and their vision.
Convinced of the need for order, control, and hierarchy, thinkers in the Ancient World developed philosophical justifications for authoritarian regimes. Philosophers held that wisdom and virtue were not distributed equally throughout an entire population. Only a very few people had the capacity to rule well. Plato (428-348 B.C.) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) differed in their approaches to epistemology (methods of knowing and arriving at truth) and in their view of how much power should be invested in a ruler. But, both men believed that societies functioned best when governed by one virtuous and wise person (or very small group of people). Drawing on the model of the human body, Plato and Aristotle claimed that individual human beings were better off when the mind (reason and rationality) controlled both the spirit (ambition and drives) and the appetites (physical desires and lower passions). Plato and Aristotle said that in the same way the mind provided order, moderation, and harmony for the human body, the virtuous autocrat provided those qualities for the body politic.
Just as different parts of the body exhibited different qualities, so too society was composed of people with different skills and abilities. The governance of society should be entrusted not to everyone, as in a democracy, but only to those with the ability to lead. Plato stated this more starkly than Aristotle. Plato believed in absolute truth that existed prior to and outside human experience. This truth was not invented or changeable. For Plato, the best society was the society governed according to the principles of eternal truth. Plato contended that truth was accessible only to a few people. In his famous allegory of the cave, he likened human beings to men sitting in a large cave. With their backs to the cave’s entrance, the men could see only the back wall. The cave was illuminated by a source of light coming from behind the men who were unable to turn around and actually see the light. Behind the men, between them and the light, puppet-like figures moved back and forth casting shadows on the wall of the cave. Throughout their entire existence, the vast majority of the seated men had never left the cave. Therefore, they had never seen anything but the shadows. They had never seen the true light; they had never seen the actual objects and animals represented by the puppets; and they had never even seen the puppets. Plato suggested that human beings were like the captives in the cave. Except for a very few who were able to go outside the cave, most saw reality and truth in a very indirect and shadowy manner. But, as in the cave, a few people in real life would be able to escape the limits of ordinary understanding. This small minority would be able to see reality as it truly is, not just its imperfect reflection. Such people, argued Plato, had both a right and an obligation to rule.
Plato’s concept of an extremely hierarchical and elitist pattern of leadership reflected what he observed in ancient Greek society where most people were not allowed to participate in politics. Like his fellow Greeks, Plato was convinced that the large majority of people—slaves, foreigners, women, and children— were incapable of making important decisions. Their proper role was to submit meekly to the dictates of their superiors. Plato’s distrust of the people went much deeper than his disdain for the aforementioned non-citizens. He even believed that most citizens, and in his day citizens were a distinct minority of society, could not be trusted with government. Plato wrote that citizens who were workers and farmers were too ignorant and crude to be trusted with ruling. In general, he thought those who governed only should come from a hereditary ruling class.
Plato’s authoritarian emphasis regarding who should rule was consistent with his description about how rulers ought to govern. He believed censorship and physical force were needed to protect society against disrespect and disorder. For example, he said government should not permit the use of stories from early Greek mythology because the accounts told by people like Homer presented the gods as immoral and prone to excess. Such stories would not be good influences on the people. Rather, the government should only allow narratives that taught self-discipline and obedience. Plato also held that it would be necessary for the leaders to lie to the people in order control their thoughts and actions. Just as a doctor might need to withhold the truth from a patient, so too the rulers would need to reshape the truth for the citizens who could not be trusted to deal with complex or difficult problems.
Comparing different systems of government, Plato said that authoritarian regimes were best. Nevertheless, Plato recognized that not all authoritarian governments were beneficial. He recommended monarchies and aristocracies, systems where governance was concentrated into the hands of a single virtuous person or in the hands of a very few virtuous people. But, he condemned despotisms, oligarchies, and plutocracies as systems that glorified war, money, fame, or the expression of raw passion. Plato viewed democracies, systems run by the uneducated and the poor majority, as undesirable. He regarded them as agreeable forms of anarchy that degenerated into despotism when people could no longer tolerate the chaos and aimlessness that reigned when a government merely catered to the selfish desires of the masses. Although heartless and cruel, the despot offered strength, order, and direction. Such control was preferable the self-serving instability of democracy.
While Plato believed he had developed his ideas about politics through a process of pure logic, Aristotle was more inclined to look at the real world to determine what worked and what did not. Nevertheless, like Plato he was deeply influenced by the social prejudices of his era. Closely associated with the Macedonian ruling family, Aristotle worked as the teacher of Alexander the Great. Aristotle agreed with Plato that men of virtue and high status were the best suited for ruling over society. In observing nature and society, Aristotle concluded that everything had its appropriate place in a predetermined hierarchy. Corruption was simply a situation when things were out of place. In the political world, corruption occurred with inferiors ruled superiors. Like Plato, Aristotle thought that wise and virtuous leaders were analogous to the mind in the human body. The body functioned best when the mind was in control; so too a society worked best when men of superior status were in control. Just as slaves, females, and animals were happier and better off when they are under the direction of a wise master, Aristotle thought, society was better off when an elite group managed political affairs. Aristotle did insist that the rulers treat their subjects with kindness and affection. But, he saw this friendship as the type of condescending benevolence similar to that a Greek citizen might feel toward his domestic animals, children, or wives.
Aristotle refined and simplified Plato’s categories of government. He listed three forms of good government: kingship or royalty, aristocracy, and constitutional (a generic name for a system in which all citizens governed). These three forms were characterized by virtue, the ability to make wise and just decisions on behalf of the entire society. The three good types could degenerate into three bad forms: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. These three unjust forms were characterized by self-interest. Thus, a tyranny sought the interest of the single ruler, an oligarchy privileged the concerns of the wealthy minority, and a democracy was concerned only about the immediate needs of the unruly or unthinking masses of the poor.
To some extent, Aristotle gave even greater scope than did Plato for the authoritarian rule of a virtuous individual. If such a person could be found, Aristotle said that his kingly reign would provide the best type of government. In fact, such a person should not be constrained by any law since he would embody virtue in such a complete form that no other person or statute would be able to provide superior guidance, advice, or criticism. Aristotle did, however, recognize that such an individual could be dangerous. He stated that a completely virtuous person should either be made ruler for life or expelled from society. Although Aristotle shared Plato’s distrust of a government in which all citizens could participate, he conceded that a limited form of democracy might be best. He accepted the idea that involving the people might make the government more stable and more effective. Comparing government to a feast, he said even thought the guests might not cook as well as the chef, they were certainly in a good position to evaluate the work of the chef. While Aristotle wanted a man of virtue in charge of the government, he was willing to make a place for the voice of common citizens. By that concession, Aristotle took an important step away from authoritarianism.
From ancient times until well after the end of the Middle Ages, most political theorists accepted the notion that government needed to be firmly in the hands of an authoritarian leader. Christian thinkers, who dominated the development of political theory after the time of Constantine (died in 337 A.D.), borrowed their basic ideas from Plato and Aristotle. Although they substituted the word of God for the authority of reason, they tended to agree that the society required a powerful leader whose rule was unchallenged by the voice of the people. Some Christian political philosophers emphasized the idea that human evil required a strong state. Augustus, Bishop of Hippo from 395 until his death in 430, even went so far as to claim that the harshness of an authoritarian state was a justifiable punishment for people’s sin. Defending a ruler’s authority by appealing to an external, immutable, and unquestionable standard, Augustus believed that only a select few, or even just one individual, could claim the right to know and exercise the authority that came from God. Ordinary subjects had no right to provide input.
In the Muslim world, the political philosopher Alfarabi (c. 870-950) developed a similar political philosophy. Attempting to harmonize Islam and classical Greek political ideas, he drew heavily from Plato. Like Plato and Augustus, Alfarabi taught that there was a ultimate source of truth above human beings. To create a good government, one had to know this truth. Only then was good legislation possible. Only then was virtuous political action possible. In Alfarabi’s view, it was critically important that a government’s founder, initial law-makers, and successive leaders were faithful to divinely ordained truth. Adherence to eternal truth, not deference to the will of the people was essential for good government. Without a strong and good leader, a people would focus on their immediate, selfish concerns. In his book The Virtuous City, Alfarabi said that a good political system was guided by reason. In such a regime, people come together cooperatively, live virtuously, act nobly, and achieve happiness. But, Alfarabi said such a government required discipline and guidance. Only a few individuals had the ability and the proper upbringing to provide such leadership. Most people know the truth only imperfectly, and even then only after having had the truth explained to them by people with more wisdom and insight. Consequently, in a virtuous regime, a few will rule and the vast majority will acquiesce.
Throughout the Middle Ages, most political thinkers saw authoritarian rule as the best form of government. Some went so far as to suggest that even an unjust or predatory ruler could not be questioned. A bad ruler was legitimate because God must have selected a tyrant in order to punish a disobedient society. The authority of the ruler was complete. Yet, many pre-modern political philosophers called on the ruler to act kindly and gently, to rule the people with the love of a father. However, they also admonished leaders to punish evil with the strength of a father.
St. Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) believed that both deductive reason and evidence from the real world supported the idea of a single authoritarian leader. Using logic, Aquinas argued that just as God was the sole ruler in the spiritual world and just as the soul was the only ruler of an individual, so too people living in community should be led by one person, a king. Drawing on the evidence of actual observation, Aquinas concluded that people were social beings, not individuals who lived in isolation. If people were to live together, they needed direction. Without strong leadership, society would splinter and fall apart.
Not only did medieval philosophers such as Aquinas believe authoritarian rule was best, they were strongly opposed to revolt even if against an unjust ruler. While Aquinas agreed that a tyrant could not claim legitimacy, he seemed to suggest that only God had the right to remove an evil ruler. To people considering revolt, Aquinas pointed out that they could not be assured of success. If the uprising failed, the people would face severe reprisal and suffer even more than before. Even if the people succeeded in removing the tyrant, the society could easily descend into chaos. Or, the people could end up with an even worse tyrant. In spite of his strong support for authoritarianism, Aquinas agreed that a ruler had an obligation to work for the common good, to promote peace, and to overcome dissension within the community. Although he was unwilling to sanction the removal of a tyrant, he suggested that kings should be held accountable by a constitution. In holding those views, he was somewhat ahead of his time.
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), also believed an authoritarian system would best serve society. Known for his vivid descriptions of heaven and hell in The Divine Comedy, Dante developed his political ideas in De monarchia (1310). Referring to the concept that there is only one God over the universe, one head of a family, and one mind directing the body, Dante used the same arguments employed by Aquinas. Like Aquinas, he asserted that the authoritarian ruler should be a servant, not a tyrant. A staunch admirer of the ancient Roman Empire, Dante suggested that the entire world should be brought under the control of one authoritarian leader. The result, he said, would be universal peace. According to Dante, a world government under a single ruler would fulfill the promise of the angels who had announced the birth of Jesus by singing “Peace on Earth.”
Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) introduced a radical notion that removed moral restrictions on a ruler’s authority. Machiavelli said a ruler’s only obligation was to maintain power. By making that argument, Machiavelli rejected the ancient and medieval views that a ruler deserved to be in office because of natural virtue, because of a superior understanding of justice, or because of God’s will. It might seem that Machiavelli had weakened authoritarianism by undermining the foundational intellectual structures that had been used to justify the system. However, he strengthened authoritarianism by destroying the limits to a ruler’s actions. For Machiavelli, what gave legitimacy was a ruler’s own ability to exert power. Consequently, Machiavelli removed any religious or philosophical barriers against cruelty or deviousness on the part of a prince. But, while Machiavelli is often regarded as the father of the theory that the pursuit of power must be a leader’s only goal, it must be recalled that he frequently reminded rulers of the need to win the loyalty and affection of the people. Without their support, a leader’s power would erode and a ruler could fall. This need to keep the support of the people tempered the inclination to move from a benevolent authoritarianism to tyranny.
The British scholar Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was one of history’s most articulate and persuasive champions of authoritarian government. Hobbes lived during an extremely turbulent time in European history when the authority of the church, the state, and philosophy were all being challenged. The Reformation had unleashed religious wars, Spain and England were locked in conflict—in fact Hobbes was born in the same year the British defeated the Spanish Armada—and England itself faced a long civil war that resulted in the beheading of King Charles I in 1649. An unapologetic supporter of royal power, Hobbes argued for a strong state whose powers could not be undermined by the people.
Seeking to apply logical mathematical and scientific principles to the study of politics, Hobbes rejected any Platonic or Aristotelian notion that some people are more virtuous and, therefore, more fit to rule. Like Machiavelli, he dismissed any appeal to innate reason or religion as justifications for authoritarian rule. But, instead of weakening a ruler’s authority by removing traditional arguments supportive of kings or aristocrats, Hobbes greatly strengthened a ruler’s claim to power.
Plato, Aristotle, and most medieval thinkers had based their defense of strong government on the belief in the inequality—intellectual, moral, spiritual— of human beings. Because of inequality, Plato and Aristotle held that a gifted or chosen individual (or perhaps a small elite group) had both a right and an obligation to govern in an autocratic fashion. Hobbes, however, believed in the near equality of all human beings. Although he acknowledged that some people were more powerful, more courageous, and more intelligent, he noted that even the weakest could find ways to kill or rob the strongest. For Hobbes, the underlying reality about all society was that every person experienced two closely linked emotions: a desire for power and a fear of death. The desire for power resulted in a savagery that led everyone to harbor a justifiable fear of being attacked, robbed, and destroyed. Hobbes described an imaginary “state of nature” to explain what life would be like if people were simply left to their own devices. Without the rules and protections of government, people would be in a perpetual state of war against each other. As a result, they could not conduct business, develop an intellectual or artistic life, organize society, or ever feel safe. Life would be “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Thomas Hobbes believed the only way for people to escape the profound danger posed by their own brutal ambitions was for the people to covenant together and turn over all power to a sovereign. This transaction had to be both complete and irrevocable. The agreement or covenant—Hobbes called it a social contract—was made among the people themselves; the ruler had no part in arranging for the bargain that gave him complete power. As a result, the covenant could not undone by the people because they freely had relinquished all their rights to the ruler in an unconditional manner. Although Hobbes conceded that the sovereign might be an assembly (for example, something similar to the British Parliament), he believed a single monarch was best. In any case, the sovereign had to be indivisible and absolute.
In Hobbes’ view, the sovereign could commit no injustice, the sovereign could not be punished or removed, and the sovereign had the right to use any means thought necessary to ensure peace and security. In the pursuit of order and security, the sovereign had a right to control the content of books and opinions, make laws at will, and hear and judge all legal cases. Hobbes recognized that government might, at times, make the people miserable. But, he argued that such misery was unavoidable and should be accepted.
The nature of Hobbes’ authoritarian views are especially clear when he explained the relationship between government and the individual. Hobbes gave no room for questioning or challenging the government. He rejected the idea that a private individual had a right to rely on his or her conscience as a measure of good and evil. Only the law of the state could provide that standard. Therefore, Hobbes said it was not a sin to go against one’s conscience if conscience came into conflict with the law. Education, discipline, and correction must be used by the sovereign to prevent people from advancing their own private judgements opposing official orthodoxy. While citizens must obey the law, the sovereign stood above the law. Hobbes reasoned that if the sovereign stood under the power of the law, then sovereignty would be diminished. Writing about wealth, Hobbes said that citizens had a right to protect their property against other citizens. But, they had no absolute right to any property needed by the sovereign.
Hobbes believed the power and authority of the sovereign should never be limited or divided. Any diminution of government sovereignty put the people at risk because their only security rested in the ability of the state to keep both internal and external peace. At one level, Hobbes’ ideas apply equally to democratic and authoritarian states. Even in the most open modern democracies people are not free to disobey the law, take the law into their own hands, avoid paying taxes, or set up separate governments within a country. But, Hobbes is more justly regarded as a strong defender of authoritarianism than of the sovereignty of democratic systems. Certainly, he himself was uncomfortable with democratic sentiments. In spite of his support of an overwhelmingly strong government, Hobbes stopped short of totalitarianism. People should be free, he asserted, to live where they wished, pursue the jobs they selected, raise their children as they chose, determine who would inherit their wealth, and engage in commerce without government interference.
The German Frederick Hegel (1770-1831), an admirer of Frederick the Great, returned to a more platonic notion of government and political authority. One of the most influential German philosophers of the nineteenth century, Hegel believed that the world was guided by an “Absolute Spirit” that he equated with Reason or an impersonal God. Throughout the millennia of human history, the Absolute became ever more visible and concrete. While earlier generations had thought of the Absolute in a spiritualized and rudimentary form, modern people had a much greater ability to see the Absolute clearly. While previously people had come into contact with the Absolute through God and religion, now they could see the Absolute concretely manifested in the state. For Hegel, there was no higher good in human society that a strong and just government.
For people in the twenty-first century who are inclined to think of government as oppressive, intrusive, or inefficient, Hegel’s views seem peculiar. Twenty-first century people must remember that Hegel lived after a period of great political and social turmoil marked by civil, religious, and expansionary wars. The emergence of powerful constitutional monarchies that brought peace, progress, and prosperity in the 1700s was regarded by Hegel as a near miraculous advancement. Hegel contrasted the state with the family and with civil society (business and community relationships and organizations). In the family setting people demonstrated support and respect for every member no matter how weak or unproductive, for example small children. But, they did not extend that to people who were not related to them. In business relationships, people reached out to everyone regardless of kinship. But, they do so in a very selfish and competitive manner. Only in the state, Hegel said, was everyone included and everyone treated with care.
In Hegel’s view, by far the best state was the kind of stable, authoritarian regime he observed in his native Prussia. Ruled by a strong constitutional monarch, Prussia provided a proper balance between freedom and order. In his Philosophy of Right (1821), Hegel argued that people were truly free only when they fulfilled their duties to their fellow citizens. Hegel, who had witnessed the excesses of the French Revolution and of Napoleon, was skeptical of democracy and of imperial populism. He was also critical of the more cautious British form of democracy. By extending too much power to the voters, he said the British were flirting with a system that gave too little attention to duty and discipline. By increasing the authority of Parliament—a body beholden to the people—the British had eroded the ability of the monarchy to preserve the equilibrium between freedom and order. As a result, Hegel feared Britain would descend into mob rule.
Hegel grounded his argument for a strong authoritarian system in an appeal to the existence of superhuman Divine guidance that was gradually inspiring humans to create more perfect forms of government. He also grounded his argument in the claim that the Absolute desired the highest order of freedom for human beings. Thus, Hegel was a strong advocate of a benevolent authoritarianism. He should not be regarded as a precursor to Nazi totalitarianism. True, he supported the idea of a very strong ruler. But, he believed such a leader was guided by a reasonable higher purpose and that the purpose of government was justice for all citizens.
A more likely intellectual precursor to modern totalitarianism was the German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). A brilliant, but emotionally unstable individual, Nietzsche challenged the fundamental values of western civilization. He rejected rationalism, democracy, and religious love and compassion. In his view, those values merely promoted and protected the weak and unworthy. Reason, democracy, and religion upheld the ideas of good and evil, brotherhood, and pity for the disadvantaged. Using Darwin’s logic of natural selection, Nietzsche argued that such “virtues” simply safeguarded the most useless and despicable characteristics of the human race. Laws, social customs, and religion were designed for the benefit of the least desirable human qualities. In Nietzsche’s view, true humanity glorified strength and power, not impotence and restraint.
In his book Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883), Nietzsche described a prophet named Zarathustra who lived alone in the mountains before returning to civilization in order to teach and enlighten his fellow human beings. Arriving in town, he entered a market where people had gathered to watch a man dance on a rope. Zarathustra told the people that their concepts of happiness, reason, virtue, justice, good and bad, pity, and self-satisfaction were merely obstacles to true freedom, power, and life. Lightening, frenzy, and passion were the stuff of real human life. Such life would come with a Superman (Ubermencsh). To Zarathustra’s disappointment, the people laughed and said they wanted to see the rope dancer, not the superman. In other words, they were content with a fake replica of a true hero. Zarathustra compared the people to fleas, blinking but not seeing. Like fleas, ordinary people had no vision, no capacity to struggle for excellence, and no desire for anything beyond immediate material and social comforts. People only wanted to be part of a herd, to be equal, to be the same, to be entertained, to be reconciled.
In his disdain for morality based on compassion, kindness, and self-sacrifice, Nietzsche laid the groundwork for a tyrant such as Hitler. In The Antichrist, Nietzsche wrote:
What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome. [The true human being should seek] not contentedness but more power; not peace but war; not virtue but fitness….What is more harmful than any vice? Active pity for all the failures and all the weak.
A true Superman would not be bound by any constraints of custom, law, pity, or equity. Such constraints only stood in the way of authentic human achievement. Rejecting the limitations of religion or conventional ethics, Hitler exalted strength and power. Not only did Hitler admire Nietzsche, his troops sometimes carried copies of Nietzsche’s writings.
Perhaps the most cogent twentieth-century defense of authoritarianism was written by Vladimir Lenin in What Is To Be Done (1902). Lenin argued that a dictatorial form of government was justified during and immediately after a period of Community revolution. A highly disciplined, secretive, and small clique of determined party activists would lead the people through a successful revolution. Afterwards, the same group would defend the revolution against its internal and external enemies. Nevertheless, Lenin regarded this strong system of government as a temporary necessity. Furthermore, the dictatorship had an historical and ideological obligation to rule on behalf of the proletariat (working class) and never for its own interests. While Lenin’s failed to set up safeguards against the abuse of power, he certainly would not have favored the totalitarian regime Stalin built on the organizational and intellectual foundations Lenin established.
Theory in Action
Authoritarian governments have been the most common political systems throughout most of human history. With the exception of the United States and England, almost all countries in the world were ruled by authoritarian systems even into the twentieth century. Although sometimes regarded as anachronistic or inefficient, authoritarian governments generally were not considered as political mistakes until World War II. Even then, only the most extreme authoritarian forms, such as Nazism in Germany and Stalinism in the Soviet Union, were renamed as totalitarian and were condemned as evil or uncivilized.
Italy was the first modern country to experiment with what became known as Fascism. After World War I, Italy fell under the spell of ex-journalist Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) who began the ultra nationalistic Fascist movement. Suffering from the aftermath of World War I and disillusioned with the ineffectiveness of democracy, Italians turned to a strong, charismatic leader who promised to restore their fortunes and their glory. Although a former socialist, Mussolini had no deep commitment to any ideology except Italian nationalism. In 1919, he formed Fasci di Combattimento (combat groups) to build support for a new political movement that promised to strengthen and glorify the nation. The Latin term fascina refers to a bundle of sticks. Individually they are weak; tied together they are unbreakable).
Mussolini founded his combat groups at a time when peasants had attempted to confiscate land and when some workers had taken over factories. His call for order appealed to large industrialists, wealthy landowners, and the lower middle class who feared labor unions, socialism, and communism. Mussolini also garnered support from unemployed, including returning soldiers from World War I. Mussolini reached out to this growing segment of the population who were aimless and hopeless. Providing them with the security and identity that came from wearing a uniform and participating in mass rallies, Mussolini mobilized them by making them feel that they belonged and had power. Relying on black-shirted thugs drawn from the ranks of the disillusioned and unemployed, Mussolini used terror to intimidate opponents. Disgusted with the central government’s ineffectiveness and lack of unity, the police stood by as his combat groups took control of Italian towns.
In the elections of 1921, Mussolini’s Fascist Party won 35 of 535 seats in a badly divided parliament. On October 28, 1922, Fascists from all over the country marched on Rome in a show of force. Sympathetic to Mussolini, King Victor Emmanuel refused to authorize martial law to contain the Fascists. The King then asked Mussolini to form a new coalition government. With a toehold on power, Mussolini moved quickly to frighten or eliminate his opponents. In 1924, he assassinated a socialist member of parliament. Using a combination of political maneuvers, terror, and oratorical skills, Mussolini, known as Il duce (the chief), consolidated his control. After getting parliament to grant him extraordinary powers for a year, he moved to eliminate other parties, fill the bureaucracy with Fascist loyalists, and establish a Fascist militia and police managed by the Fascist Party and funded by the state. Lauding the virtues of the group over the individual, Mussolini promised to end civil conflict. He abolished labor unions, banned strikes and lockouts, and he organized workers, employers, and professionals into corporations. He also launched massive public works projects to encourage national pride and to provide employment for workers and contracts for businesses. Schools celebrated Fascist values and Mussolini encouraged a cult of personality. He also threatened or censored the press. Mussolini appealed to national pride by building an impractically large military and then using it to restore the Roman Empire. In 1936, he attacked Ethiopia and in 1939 he moved against Albania.
Once Hitler came to power, Mussolini allied himself politically with the German leader, not so much because he admired Germany, but because he so strongly detested democracy. His support for Hitler was never enthusiastic and Mussolini entered World War II on the side of the Nazis only after it appeared that Germany was winning the war. Militarily weak, Italy surrendered the Allied forces in September of 1943. For a time Mussolini headed a puppet government in northern Italy.
In the end, Mussolini failed to realize his dream of building a powerful nation in which the individual would be diminished and the state elevated. Terror, relentless propaganda, mass rallies, fiery speeches, appeals to the glory of the ancient Roman Empire, and external wars enabled him to construct the appearance of a strong state in which the Italian citizens supposedly found meaning and fulfillment. But, these proved to be a weak foundation upon which to construct a sound political system. In April of 1945, Mussolini was captured by Italian partisans and executed in Milan, the city where Fascism had begun.
In Germany, Adolph Hitler (1889-1945) presided over one of the most totalitarian systems of all history. Like Mussolini, Hitler exalted the state over the person. However, he added particularly noxious racial and militaristic elements to his doctrine. Hitler’s ability to mobilize the total resources—economic, emotional, and military—of a nation may have been unparalleled in the history of the world. There are many similarities between the rise of Mussolini and Hitler. Disenchantment with democracy and economic hardship affected both German and Italy. However, the plight of Germany was much more severe. Defeated in World War I, Germany had been humiliated and overburdened by the terms of a very punitive peace treaty imposed by the Allies at Versailles. Not only did Germany have to pay reparations for having caused the war, German was also forced to disarm. Furthermore, the peace treaty demanded that Germany set up a new democratic government that came to be known as the Weimar Republic. The Weimar government proved absolutely ineffective. The result of the treaty of Versailles was enormous economic hardship, great hostility toward France and England, and deep antipathy toward democratic institutions. The situation was only made worse by the global economic depression that began in 1929. Massive unemployment, hyperinflation, an internal political crisis, and resentment toward neighboring countries caused the German people to look for a scapegoat and a savior. Hitler provided them with both.
After serving valiantly in World War I, Hitler returned to a disheartened and impoverished Germany. In Munich, he joined a racist, militarist party of malcontents. There, he polished his oratorical skills by condemning the Versailles treaty, the Weimar Republic, Communists, and Jews. By 1921, Hitler was selected as the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party. He created a private army known as storm troopers (SA) who not only protected Hitler but violently disrupted meetings of other political groups. From the start, Hitler based his power on his ability to motivate an audience and on the use of illegal force against rivals. To a nation mired in humiliation and despair, Hitler preached the superiority of the German Volk (people). The cause of German’s suffering, he said, had nothing to do with the German people themselves. Rather, Jews and Communists were to blame. Under a visionary leader, Hitler announced, the German people could regain the glory rightfully theirs as descendants of a proud and superior Aryan race. He said that a special spirit dwelled in this people, whose destiny was to dominate and rule less noble peoples. Hitler’s ideas about racial superiority and anti-Semitism were not his own creation. Many people all over Europe harbored such sentiments.
After failing to take power through a coup—the infamous Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 which landed him in prison for a year—Hitler worked to enter government through the political process. Using the apparatus of the Nazi party, he attracted members and supporters though a newspaper, a youth organization, and a propaganda division. He also relied on the persuasive power of violence exercised by the SA and an elite private military force known as the SS. As head of the party and the military organizations, Hitler took the title of Fuehrer (leader). The Nazi party grew rapidly under his leadership, especially after the 1929 economic crisis created massive unemployment in Germany. Now, Hitler appealed to a broad segment of the German population, not just to social misfits and racial bigots. In September of 1930, the Nazis won 6.5 million votes and by January of 1933, Hitler was appointed as the Chancellor (prime minister) as head of a coalition government.
Hitler quickly consolidated his power. His SA and SS operatives attacked the meetings of other political parties. In February of 1933, the Reichstag (parliament) burned and Hitler blamed communists. In response to the fire, parliament granted him emergency powers and the constitution was suspended along with civil liberties. Now, the SA attacked communists, socialists, and liberals, thus intimidating and silencing political opposition. Government radio constantly warned of a communist conspiracy. After the passage of an Enabling Act granting his cabinet dictatorial powers for four years, Hitler moved to crush all potential sources of dissent. State assemblies were abolished and all regional government was brought under the direct supervision of the central Ministry of the Interior. Trade unions were put under strict government control. Hitler purged the civil service, universities, and the court system of all non-Aryans and dissenters. He decreed that the government could intervene in legal proceedings to stop cases or to adjust sentences considered too lenient. Furthermore, a new secret police, the Gestapo, began arbitrarily to arrest, torture, and imprison opponents of the regime. In 1936, the Gestapo officially was declared to be above the law. In an effort to stifle all independent voices, Hitler exerted great pressure against the Catholic and Protestant churches. In fact, he established a Reich Church that supported Nazi doctrines of racial superiority and that recognized Hitler as the Fuehrer. Radio and newspapers were censored and editors were required to be Aryans. Teachers, from elementary schools to universities, had to swear an oath of allegiance to the government. Hitler also exerted rigid control over the Nazi party and the army. Although not as extensive as Stalin’s purges, Hitler’s murderous attacks eliminated many top party and military officials in 1934.
While Hitler’s totalitarian regime was not reluctant to use coercion, it also promised and delivered welcome benefits to the German people. Elaborate public celebrations and rallies restored pride in the nation and the people. Hitler’s policies rebuilt the German economy. Public works projects, tax cuts for industries, and most of all rearmament returned millions of Germans to work. By 1936, the unemployment rate had dropped to one million people. Compared to the economic recovery rate in the rest of Europe and America, this was a phenomenal success. Hitler’s success won the affection of the German people and the respect, even sometimes the admiration, of others in Europe or America.
Hitler’s totalitarian vision included building the glory of Germany by territorial expansion and by conquering or exterminating supposed enemies of the state and of the German people. In 1938, he announced that Germany would rearm, thus making Germany the equal of England and France, and that he would bring all German peoples under his protection and rule. In that year he annexed Austria and German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. In 1939, claiming that the superior German race needed living space, he launched an attack on Poland and began World War II. Using the same argument, in 1941 he invaded Russia. His conquest of France in 1940 was justified, in part, as a necessary effort to save that country from the evils of democracy and racial impurity. Internally, Hitler pursued his policy of elevating the Aryan race by exterminating Jews, mentally handicapped people, Gypsies, and homosexuals. Although Hitler saw Nazism as a constructive ideology that would build a master race, his philosophy was nihilistic and ended with the military defeat of Germany in 1945.
The Soviet Union
In the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) ruled in a totalitarian manner. Drawing on the ideology of Marx and Lenin, Stalin insisted on controlling every aspect of his subjects’ lives. Nevertheless, his totalitarianism was different from that of Hitler or Mussolini. While those two men exalted the state for its own sake, Stalin used totalitarian techniques to build and defend his country. To some extent, Stalin resembled his tsarist predecessors who faced difficult challenges. Like the tsars, Stalin had to bring unity to an empire of very diverse peoples, he had to develop the country economically, and he had to defend Russia’s long and porous borders. Also, like the tsars, Stalin wanted to increase his country’s world standing and prestige. Stalin took over a country badly defeated in World War I and a country with no history of democracy. Autocracy, so extreme that it became totalitarian, was a natural step for Stalin and his cohorts.
A secretive, cunning, and ambitious man, authoritarianism fit Stalin’s personality and nationalistic goals. Appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1922, he took over full control when Lenin died in 1924. Previously regarded as a functionary rather than a visionary, he consolidated his position by appointing loyal supporters to key positions. One by one, he then vilified rival party leaders and had them removed from their positions and expelled from the Communist Party. Relying less on personal charisma than either Mussolini or Hitler, Stalin used the apparatus of the Communist Party and the government bureaucracy to exert control over politics, the economy, social life, education, culture, and religion.
Stalin regarded improving the economy and the military as his two main challenges. In the area of agriculture, he forcefully introduced mechanization and collectivization into a previously backward system. Forcing Russian peasants onto large state-managed or state-owned farms, Stalin transformed farming into an enterprise that took on many characteristics of industry. Division of labor, machines (tractors, combines, trucks), and enormous mono-culture fields were all intended to boast production and reduce the number of people needed for farm work. Stalin used the rural regions’ excess food and surplus labor to support rapid industrialization in the cities of the Soviet Union. He was willing to use brutal force to achieve his goals. Millions of people were compelled to relocate to cities or to places such as Siberia where there was great potential for mining and forestry. Millions of peasants starved because the grain they produced was shipped to urban areas to feed factory workers or exported abroad to obtain hard currency. People who complained or resisted were eliminated or sent to prison camps run by the secret police. All over the country, forced labor was used in the construction of roads, railroads, canals, dams, bridges, and electrical lines.
Stalin’s ultimate goal was to build an industrial base that could provide machinery for Soviet agriculture and provide equipment and transport for the Soviet military. In World War I, a pitifully weak infrastructure and industrial complex had left Russia so weak that soldiers went to war without adequate shoes, weapons, ammunition, or food. Stalin wanted to ensure that the Soviet Union did not face the same catastrophe ever again. With the help of reckless military decisions on the part of Hitler and the fierceness of the Russian winter, Stalin’s rebuilt Soviet military was able to withstand and defeat the German war machine in World War II. The Soviet victory was perhaps the decisive factor in bringing an end to World War II.
The cost of Stalin’s totalitarianism was enormous. As many people died under Stalin as under Hitler. Between five to ten million peasants were killed or deported to Siberia. In 1932-1933, food shortages in the rural areas, shortages caused because the government commandeered too much grain, resulted in perhaps five million deaths, especially among women and children in the Ukraine. In 1950, an estimated ten million people were living in Siberian prison camps and during the entire period when Stalin ruled, twenty million people had been sent to Siberia. Dissent was not tolerated. People suspected of criticizing Stalin were arrested—often in the middle of the night—and tortured, imprisoned, or shot. Top party members or military generals did not escape Stalin’s vindictiveness and suspicion. Leon Trotsky, a close associate of Lenin, was forced into exile and then killed by one of Stalin’s agents in Mexico in 1940. Thousands were killed in the Great Purge of 1934 when innocent people were forced to confess disloyalty to the party and the nation.
While the sufferings and deaths were devastating to the nation, the intellectual conformity was also harmful. Artists and authors feared producing work that did not glorify Stalin, the Soviet state, heroic farmers or factory workers, or valiant soldiers. As a result, art and literature stultified. Economists, historians, sociologists, and philosophers felt equally constrained. Even though the hard sciences fared better, largely because they produced results with military or industrial applications, even disciplines such as physics had to be cautious. For example, uncomfortable with the ambiguity implicit in Einstein’s theory of relativity, Stalin banned its teachings.
In spite of his brutality, when Stalin died in 1953, people wept openly on the streets of Moscow. A harsh tyrant, he was also regarded as a great patriot whose efforts had saved the Soviet Union from defeat in World War II. Not only had Stalin’s strategies won the war, they also enabled the Soviet Union to rebuild after the war. Although the Soviet industrial capacity had been reduced by 50 percent during the war, the government’s ability to conscript labor and direct resources made it possible for the country to regain its capacity to produce coal, steel, heavy equipment, and military hardware. By the 1960s, the Soviet Union was a superpower.
Soviet leaders after Stalin gradually relaxed their control of their citizens. While they continued to manage the economy through the use of five year plans, an openness to the west and a willingness to entertain a limited number of critical opinions began to transform the character of central authority. Mikhail Gorbachev, who took power in 1985, moved the Soviet Union decisively away from any vestiges of totalitarianism.
Following the victory of the communists in 1949, China constructed the twentieth century’s fourth great totalitarian regime. Combining the fanatic emphasis on popular mobilization behind a charismatic leader that had characterized Italy and Germany with the extreme focus on economic development that preoccupied the Soviet Union, Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976), attempted to enlist a nation of 1 billion people to dedicate their lives to his vision. Like Italy, Germany, and Russia, China had no historical experience with a successful democracy. Furthermore, in the 1800s, China had been exploited and humiliated by the West, the cradle of liberalism and democracy. In the twentieth century, China was torn by civil strife among warlords. Then, in 1937 Japan invaded China. As a result of the upheavals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Chinese longed for a political system that would protect and develop their nation. Since the Chinese traditionally had regarded themselves as culturally superior to the rest of the world, the desire to restore their political fortunes was especially urgent.
After World War II, the Chinese communists gained control of the country. One of the defining events in the history of their movement had been the Long March which began in 1933. Surrounded by their enemies, the Nationalists, the Communists led by Mao Tse-tung had trekked for thousands of miles through remote mountains to avoid defeat. Although nearly 75,000 people are said to have died in the course of the march, those who survived came to believe that any obstacle could be overcome by sheer determination and courageous leadership. After 1949, the Communists applied the same discipline and resolve to restoring their nation.
The Communists faced an enormous challenge. Devastated by years of war and bad government, China was an impoverished country with little infrastructure and almost no industry. This created a theoretical problem for the communists since Marxism held that real revolution must be based on an uprising of an alienated and oppressed industrial worker class. Encouraged by Mao Tse-tung, the Chinese communists decided to create a revolution from the top down. Furthermore, they decided to base their revolution on the peasantry, a class that Marx considered to be politically inactive or reactionary. At first, Mao and his associates tried to implement their reforms through relatively benign tactics. In 1949, they began land reforms by redistributing some of the land held by wealthy peasants. In 1952, they moved to collectivization, a scheme that encouraged peasants to pool their land voluntarily. These programs did not increase agricultural production or reallocate the land as much as the communists had hoped. Therefore, in 1958, Mao declared a guerrilla war against economic backwardness. During the Great Leap Forward, 120 million households were placed into about 25,000 People’s Communes. These communes replaced the family, the village, and private economic enterprise. In an attempt to dramatically increase production, millions of peasants were organized into work teams terracing fields, building earthen dams, constructing roads, and making schools. Instead of using heavy earth moving equipment, the peasants accomplished these tasks with simple baskets, hoes, tampers, and shovels. In a highly publicized endeavor, the rural communes even built simple blast furnaces to produce pig iron.
This massive economic and social transformation was accomplished under the direction of communist party activists (cadres) who coaxed and coerced people into action. Although proclaimed an unqualified success, the Great Leap was actually a disaster. Unhappy peasants sabotaged some of the projects; in order to meet production targets for making pig iron, peasants sometimes melted down metal tools; and floods and droughts ruined crops from 1959 until 1961. Nevertheless, many top communist party officials believed the Great Leap had been a success because commune managers and local bureaucrats distorted their annual reports so as not to be shamed before their superiors.
The Cultural Revolution
Undaunted by the shortcomings of the Great Leap, Mao mobilized the people for a Cultural Revolution that took place from 1966 until 1969. While the Great Leap had been designed to transform the economy, the Cultural Revolution was intended to conquer traditional Chinese culture that emphasized looking to the past and to the elders for guidance. Traditional Chinese culture had also valued private economic gain that advanced either an individual or a family. Convinced that such perspectives blocked the road to progress, Mao encouraged young people to criticize all people in authority except people in the army. Teachers, government administrators, scientists, and even very senior communist party leaders were challenged and humiliated by waves of youth known as Red Guards travelling around the country. Carrying copies of Mao’s sayings in little red books, they threw the country into chaos for much of the late 1960s. During the Cultural Revolution, university education came to a standstill and prominent leaders in business, education, and government were forced to work in menial jobs in factories or in the communes. For example, Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), the general secretary of the party’s Central Committee and China’s future leader, had to work in a restaurant. So great was the humiliation, that a number of people committed suicide. Mao’s goal was to reinvigorate the revolutionary spirit that he thought was needed to eradicate old habits of thought that prevented China from attaining its potential. He also wanted to prevent creeping tendencies toward the individualistic inclinations of capitalism. Just as the Long March had hardened an older generation of communists, the Cultural Revolution would toughen the younger generation. In Mao’s view, revolution would need to be permanent. Only then could “capitalist roaders” be thwarted.
In actuality, the Cultural Revolution plunged the country into chaos. Only the intervention of the People’s Liberation Army in 1969 restored order to the nation. Nevertheless, a number of highly placed Chinese leaders, including Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, wanted to continue the fervor of the Cultural Revolution. When Mao died in 1976, a quarrel erupted between the radicals known as the Gang of Four and moderate pragmatists such as Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. The moderates, who prevailed in the end, believed that China could not be transformed through sheer will power and by ignoring global economic realities. Although claiming to revere Mao, they began to reorient the economy along the lines of the free market. Although remaining loyal to communism, Deng distanced the government from Mao. Deng said correct theory was less important than practical results. “It does not matter,” he asserted, “whether the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” By the end of the twentieth century, China was no longer a totalitarian state. Some would even argue that it had ceased being an orthodox communist state because so much of the economy had been liberalized. However, China remained decidedly authoritarian. The ruling elite continued to exert tight control. Although they allowed a great deal of economic freedom, they continued to resist political freedom. In comparing the stability and prosperity of China with the instability and economic decline evident in Russia, the twenty-first-century Chinese leadership believed it was fully justified in insisting on authoritarian control.
In the Middle East, Egypt is one modern state exhibiting many characteristics of authoritarianism. Authoritarianism seems natural both to Egypt’s leaders and citizens. Going back thousands of years to the time of the Pharaohs, Egypt has been led by exalted rulers far removed from the masses. Even in the twentieth century, the Egyptian political system presents the leader as a father figure who guides, disciplines, and rewards. The Egyptian president is the center of a network of power and decision making. The rank and power of other people within the system are determined by their proximity to the president. Some Egyptian presidents cultivated a cult of personality. Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970), who ruled from 1952 until 1970, was known as “Father Gamal,” “Destroyer of Imperialism,” and “Hero of Heroes.” Less charismatic, Anwar Sadat (1918-1981), president from 1972 until 1981, encouraged the use of titles such as “Hero of the Crossing,” and “Hero of Peace.”
The great authority of Egypt’s chief executive is facilitated by the low level of political awareness on the part of the rural masses known as fellahs. More than 50 percent of the nation’s people live in self- contained peasant villages. Concerned primarily about local issues, these people often knew little of national politics. While government must be careful not to offend the fellah population, the peasants have minimal direct impact on policy.
Rather than competitive elections, the coup d’état and presidential appointment have served as the way to assume power in Egypt. The leadership team controlling Egypt throughout the last half of the twentieth century has had close links the group that came to power through a military coup in 1952. The 1952 coup was not a popular revolution, but the work of a small military clique acting “on behalf of the nation.” These leaders saw discipline, not democratic participation, as the best way to advance Egypt. To them, economic development and national power have been far more important than popular political participation.
Modern Egyptian presidents run the government as a general would run an army. The president initiates all major legislation, conducts foreign policy (Sadat negotiated the Camp David Accords in complete secrecy), runs the army, and issues decrees that have the authority of law. The president can call a public referendum to amend the constitution, can be elected to an unlimited number of six-year terms, and can invoke “emergency powers” to override the constitution in times of threat to the country. He also controls the security offices, controls the nation’s dominant political party, and removes and reassigns high-level officials to prevent them from building a base of support. The Egyptian presidents do listen to the opinions of close advisors and they consider the debates of the National Assembly. Then, they personally make decisions that the bureaucracy and the military are required to implement. Under Hosni Mubarak (1928- ), the group of advisors has been expanded to include more than senior government and military figures. Newspaper editors, business leaders, university and religious leaders, heads of chambers of commerce are among the people with whom he consults regularly. This move suggests that authoritarianism, unlike totalitarianism, can build a foundation upon which democracy eventually could stand.
In Egypt’s authoritarian climate, opposition parties are fragmented and extremely weak. At times, Egyptian presidents have banned or severely controlled the parties. In general, parties are used by the president to mobilize support; they are not primarily intended to debate, challenge, articulate interests, or present viable candidates for election. The National Democratic Party, the government party, controls about 75 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. Because no parties are allowed to form on the basis of class, region, or religion, Islamic parties are prohibited. Such parties would pose the greatest threat to the authoritarian dominance of the ruling party.
In Latin America, Brazil is but one of many countries that have been governed by authoritarian regimes. Like Egypt, Brazil has an authoritarian history and authoritarian neighbors. Also, like Egypt, Brazil has been pursuing ambitious development and modernization goals. This environment makes it easier to consider authoritarianism as natural, normal, and practical. The largest and most powerful nation in Latin America in area, population, and gross national income, Brazil was ruled by authoritarian leaders from its inception as a nation until 1985 when a military junta handed power back to elected civilian officials.
Brazil began its existence as an autocracy. First colonized by Portugal, the country was dominated by Europeans who had no intention of encouraging democracy. Unlike North American settlers, who believed in limited government, the importance of the individual, and capitalism, Portuguese and Spanish settlers looked to military strongmen—caudillos—as the people best suited to direct social, economic, and political affairs. From 1807, Brazil was governed as a monarchy until that form of government was toppled by a military coup in 1889. Although military leaders periodically turned over government to popularly elected presidents, such leaders ruled in an autocratic fashion. Furthermore, the army was quick to step in anytime it felt the country was becoming unstable. Over the years, the chief goal of the Brazil’s authoritarian leaders has been to maintain order. A second important goal has been economic development and modernization. Liberty and equality were not regarded as essential. Maintaining order and encouraging economic progress are tasks that Brazil’s governing elite has not often been willing to entrust to the uncertainties and instabilities of democracy. Since the 1920s, this ruling elite has been composed of the middle class business people and progressive military officers. These two groups believed they needed to band together to impose reform and modernization on their nation. They believed they were acting on behalf of the people and in opposition to conservative elements in Brazil that stood in the way of progress.
The presidency of Getulio Vargas (1883-1954) is one example of authoritarian rule in Brazil. Installed after the military seized power in order to prevent a civil war sparked by rival politicians, Vargas ruled from 1930 until 1945. Although he actually stood for election in 1933, he refused to leave office at the end of his term in 1937. Suspending the constitution, he governed as a benevolent, but fascist dictator. As an authoritarian ruler he banned political parties, he curtailed freedom of the press, and he organized society into representative groups that supposedly spoke for the people. Thus, instead of participating in politics through democratic institutions that they established or joined freely, business people, landowners, workers, and bureaucrats communicated with government through organizational leaders selected by the president of the country. Vargas did not, however, use his powers only in regressive ways. He pushed for labor reforms including the recognition of labor unions, minimum wages, and a limited work week. He also supported land reform and the nationalization of natural resources. In addition, he greatly expanded the public school system. These are measures the more conservative elements of society, including the church and wealthy land owners, had opposed.
Vargas’ administration was followed by nearly 20 years of democracy. But, even that democracy was established by military decree after army generals organized a coup in 1945. Then, in 1964, the military again engineered a coup after becoming disgusted with the corruption and ineffective economic policies of popularly elected presidents. Now, instead of using the façade of a civilian president, either elected or appointed, the military ruled Brazil themselves. During their tenure, the Brazilian military government stressed economic growth and stability. Rather than attempting to manage the economy directly, they appointed civilian technocrats. In order to stimulate industrialization, they secured large foreign loans and attracted significant amounts of foreign investment. Under the guidance of the military and their economic experts, Brazil became a major exporter of primary products such as soybeans, iron ore, and copper. Brazil also produced manufactured goods, mainly for third world markets. The sale of automobiles, airplanes, small arms, and construction (for example building dams in Iraq and Angola) all contributed to Brazil’s economic miracle. Brazil’s economy grew at a rate of about 10 percent per year until the mid-1970s. But, the miracle came at the expense of workers and the poor whose salaries were controlled and whose public services were curtailed. Any real criticism of official economic policies was suppressed. Placing restrictions on the press, running roughshod over human rights, and eliminating political opponents on both the right and the left, Brazil’s military government prevented open opposition to the technocrats’ economic programs.
In the end, however, the Brazilian military leaders lost faith in authoritarian rule. Gradually, they turned away from the use of torture, opened the door for competing political parties, and allowed the press, labor unions, and the church to criticize government policies. By the mid-1970s, the military junta permitted local elections. But, it was an economic crisis in the mid-1980s that brought an even greater political shift. In the 1980s, the high price of oil on world markets and the $100 billion debt the country incurred in order to invest in economic modernization placed an unacceptable strain on Brazil’s economy. The economic strain resulted in an enormous increase in resentment toward the military leaders. Increasingly they decided they would be better off without the burdens of governing. Consequently, in 1985, the military allowed country-wide elections and Brazil returned to democracy.
Analysis and Critical Response
Although by the end of the twentieth century, there were no defenders of totalitarianism, a number of advocates for authoritarianism remained. In the Middle East and Asia—notably China— authoritarian leaders claimed the destabilizing side effects of modernization required the steady hand of powerful authoritarian government. Many authoritarian leaders wanted to introduce economic liberalization and at the same time shield their societies from the political turmoil they feared would accompany rapid economic and social transition. Democracy, they argued, was not up to that task. In fact, in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, many policy makers and political theorists in the United States supported that perspective. Somewhat ironically, development experts in democratic America regarded autocratic models, for example Brazil’s military regime, as successes. Development theorists held that the key to meaningful development was the implementation of bold economic, educational, and social reforms and the use of a strong authoritarian governments to control any dissent from people who did not benefit from the “improvements.” Some Americans suggested that democracy was too weak a political system to achieve real progress in the modern world. Consequently, both in Vietnam and in Central America, the United States government promoted economic and social development at the same time it supported strongmen dictators. That policy was repeated elsewhere in Africa and Asia.
As the twenty-first century began, however, there was a growing consensus around the world that, in the long run, authoritarianism was unworkable. The main problem with authoritarianism was that by not allowing informational feedback through the democratic process, the system was unable to correct mistakes. Also, authoritarianism, especially if applied to the economic realm was simply too complicated. For decades the Soviet Union had attempted to manage the entire economy through central planning offices located in Moscow. Although central planning promised efficiencies and a more rational allocation of national resources, in the end it proved ineffective and unworkable. The Chinese communists came to the same realization. Thus, by the 1990s, both China and Russia had moved away from centralized control of the economy.
By the year 2000, it was evident that efforts to bring economic progress come into conflict with attempts to exert authoritarian control over civil society. In the modern world, openness is essential for economic development. The Internet, faxes, satellite TV, cell phones, and international travel that are required to remain competitive in the economic realm make it impossible for vibrant economies to close out the world and control thought. Modern governments have discovered that it is impossible to contain popular opinion and dissent unless they force their people to live in a completely insular fashion. Cambodia under Pol Pot, North Korea under Kim Sung II, and Afganistan under the Taliban chose that path with disastrous economic consequences. The result is poverty and eventual political collapse.
Because of the interconnected nature of the modern world, especially in the economic domain, the pattern has been that totalitarian or theocratic governments move gradually away from the excesses of centralized control to a milder form of authoritarianism mixed with democracy. In the Soviet Union, the KGB actually promoted reform and openness because intelligence experts understood the outside world and realized that the Soviet Union would be left behind economically and technologically if their system remained overly autocratic.
While many twentieth-century professors and government experts have challenged the practicality of non-democratic systems, the best known and most influential modern critic of authoritarianism and totalitarianism was neither a political scientist nor a policy maker. That person was a socialist novelist who took the pen name George Orwell. Orwell (1903-1950) did more than anyone else in the twentieth century to shape popular notions about the dehumanizing effects of overly controlling government systems. In his novels Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949), Orwell painted a vividly grim picture of totalitarian regimes. Stalin’s Soviet Union was the obvious target of both books, but Orwell was also concerned that milder forms of government, even Britain’s, could become oppressive while presenting a front of benevolence.
Born in India, where his father worked for the British colonial administration, Orwell returned to England for his secondary education. He did not attend university, but instead spent time working for the colonial police in India and living with the poor in London and Paris. A socialist, his goal was to learn about the plight of the underprivileged and to develop his skills as a writer. In 1936, he went to Spain to fight on the side of the socialists against the dictator Francisco Franco. Back in England, he worked as an editor and writer until he died of TB in 1950.
1984 describes a dreary totalitarian society. The year is 1984, far in the future from when Orwell wrote. The place is England, now called Airstrip One, part of vast country named Oceania (England, North America, South Africa, and Australia). Two other huge countries, both totalitarian as well, rule the rest of the world. At all times, one of the countries, although never the same one, is Oceania’s ally, the other its mortal enemy. The book’s main character, Winston Smith, is a writer in the Ministry of Truth. Winston’s job is to rewrite records such as old newspaper articles so that they conform to whatever the government says is the truth. In Oceania, the thought and actions of party members are molded and closely monitored by the state. In every room, a TV screen spews forth a constant barrage of propaganda while a hidden camera spies on an individual’s every activity. As in the Soviet Union, where pictures of Stalin were ubiquitous, portraits of Big Brother were ever in view. The goal of government was to make every person believe that Big Brother loved and cared for them and to believe, in turn, that they loved Big Brother.
Orwell’s portrayal of Oceania bore all the traits of twentieth century totalitarianism. Thought control (either through peaceful propaganda or the violence of the Thought Police), purges, forced confessions, spying, torture, mass rallies, and compulsory citizen activities were all designed to shape the hearts and minds of an unthinking population. Doublespeak, a language that called forced labor “joycamps” and labeled the War Department, the Ministry of Love, twisted falsehood into truth. If Big Brother said two plus two equaled five, people were obligated to accept that as fact. An external enemy also served to unify the people in support of Big Brother. The constant struggle against an enemy enabled government to justify the country’s low standard of living and tight economic rationing imposed by the authorities. Mandatory Two Minute Hate drills and a more formal Hate Week against Oceania’s foes were used by government to divert people’s attention away from the dismal realities of their own life.
While Winston Smith was a low-level party member, as in the Soviet Union the great majority of Oceania’s population were not party members. The “proles”—the term was an obvious reference to the proletariat or working class—lived in oppressive poverty. Although Big Brother did not attempt to monitor their thought or actions with the same degree of intensity as for party members, the proles had no time or energy to think about politics. Work, easy sex, and mindless entertainment filled their days.
George Orwell’s 1984 has been read by millions of readers around the world. Even people with little knowledge of political theory or government policies came to regard totalitarianism as dismal, cruel, aggressive, and hypocritical. Although claiming to govern for the good of the people, totalitarian leaders were exposed by Orwell as self-serving predators. In Orwell’s view, not only did they insist on political obedience, they extracted the very humanity of their victims. Clearly, George Orwell intended to condemn Soviet, and also German, totalitarianism. Nevertheless, the fact that Airstrip One is England indicates that he was issuing a prophetic warning to the people of his own country. Totalitarianism could be in their future. And, they could be brainwashed to love it.
On the academic front, the German political thinker Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) did the most to define totalitarianism and to claim it as an entirely novel and evil political phenomenon. Focusing on Nazism in Germany and Communism in Russia, she claimed that Hitler and Stalin had introduced an entirely new type of political system that previously had not existed. Totalitarianism, she argued, developed out of the breakdown of social structures and ideals that had characterized Europe in the nineteenth century. With the chaos of World War I, the economic crisis following the war, the migration of millions of people, and the decline of stable political systems, the citizens of Europe were plunged into hopelessness and deep anxiety. They felt profoundly lonely, rootless, and superfluous. To them, the world seemed both meaningless and inexplicable. Furthermore, the people had no faith that their leaders would be able to do anything to remedy the tragic emptiness that so dominated their lives.
According to Arendt, totalitarianism offered a suicidal solution for the grim void of post-World War I Europe. People such as Hitler and Stalin provided people with direction and meaning. Both Hitler and Stalin embodied evil in a form so radical and absolute that they introduced political forms unlike anything the world had ever experienced before. The evil of Nazism, Arendt argued, surpassed the evil of any previous regime. This evil was more than just an exaggerated self-interest, greed, lust for power, cowardice, or resentment. The evil of Nazi totalitarianism was an unmitigated passion for destruction (nihilism). First, the Nazi’s believed they needed to completely destroy the existing world in order to create the new world to which they aspired. Second, by exercising the power of destruction, the Nazis demonstrated their own unlimited power. Why, Arendt, asked did the Nazis need the death camps and why did they engineer the Holocaust? Certainly not for any rational political or military advantage. From a practical point of view, the death camps were a liability. But, as a symbol of complete power and domination, the death camps served the Nazi’s aims. The death camps allowed the Nazis to treat others as sub-human and to inflict infinite revenge on other human life. By their despicable acts, the Nazis were attempting to escape their own feelings of smallness and impotence. Ordinary people responded in a supportive way because they too wanted to escape their weakness.
Because both the Nazi leaders and the followers lost their ability to see the humanity in those they classified as sub human, they were able to extinguish those people without any feelings of remorse or discomfort. Just as the vast power difference between humans and insects allows most people to kill such creatures with no thought, so too the Nazis were able to kill undesirables in a routine, meticulous, and unemotional manner. While the Nazis exterminated people such as Jews and Gypsies, they effectively destroyed the humanity and individuality of all the German people. For Arendt, one of the ways to prevent totalitarianism was to encourage free citizens to participate in politics. Citizens who took an active role in the political realm would not allow a totalitarian regime to control their minds, emotions, and conscience. They would not lose themselves to a state trying to obliterate the humanity of all its subjects.
Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski
Although many social scientist are critical of the highly moralistic tone of Arendt’s writing, they are virtually unanimous in their belief that totalitarianism is immoral and that authoritarianism is impractical in today’s complex and interconnected world. A classic definition of totalitarianism and authoritarianism, a definition contained in book written in the 1950s, still expresses the antipathy most contemporary scholars feel toward non-democratic systems. In their frequently cited book Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (1956), Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski attempted to provide a more neutral and less ideologically loaded definition of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. However, they label the cluster of characteristics that identify totalitarian regimes as a “syndrome.” Thus, like Arendt, they say that non- democratic governments are diseased or aberrant political phenomenon.
According to Friedrich and Brzezinski, totalitarian regimes exhibit the following: first, an official ideology that every citizen is expected to accept in their outward behavior and inner belief. Second, a single mass party led by a single individual. Leaders of this party serve as exalted and unchallenged interpreters of the truth. Third, a highly organized police system that uses modern technology to terrorize and spy on the population. Fourth, centralized supervision, control, and censorship of the mass media. Fifth, a ban on private citizens possessing weapons or explosives. Sixth, central control of the economy through highly structured regulation or direct ownership. Explicitly and implicitly, the Friedrich and Brzezinski list condemned totalitarianism as a violation of fundamental human rights. Humans, they suggested, were not creatures to be manipulated or tools to be use in the pursuit of some larger end. Individual human being counted more than any cause, no matter how noble.
Looking at the Friedrich and Brzezinski list, one could argue that non-totalitarian governments, especially in times of crisis, exhibit some of the same characteristics. Such thinking merely highlights the fact that totalitarian regimes are simply harsh exaggerations of authoritarian systems. While authoritarian systems allow some space for independent private and even civic thought and activity, totalitarian governments do all they can to consume and control the totality of their citizen’s existence. While authoritarian leaders may want to restructure society and change cultural values, totalitarians rulers aspire to impose transformations so sweeping that the old is completely eradicated. While authoritarian governments tolerate no open disagreement, totalitarian regimes require active obedience and acclimation. The Friedrich and Brzezinski list also suggests that even democratic systems could move in that direction. That was George Orwell’s fear.