Various totalitarian systems, however, have different ideological goals. For example, of the states most commonly described as totalitarian—the Soviet Union under Stalin, Nazi Germany, and the People's Republic of China under Mao—the Communist regimes of the Soviet Union and China sought the universal fulfillment of humankind through the establishment of a classless society (see communism); German National Socialism, on the other hand, attempted to establish the superiority of the so-called Aryan race.
Despite the many differences among totalitarian states, they have several characteristics in common, of which the two most important are: the existence of an ideology that addresses all aspects of life and outlines means to attain the final goal, and a single mass party through which the people are mobilized to muster energy and support. The party is generally led by a dictator and, typically, participation in politics, especially voting, is compulsory. The party leadership maintains monopoly control over the governmental system, which includes the police, military, communications, and economic and education systems. Dissent is systematically suppressed and people terrorized by a secret police. Autocracies through the ages have attempted to exercise control over the lives of their subjects, by whatever means were available to them, including the use of secret police and military force. However, only with modern technology have governments acquired the means to control society; therefore, totalitarianism is, historically, a recent phenomenon.
By the 1960s there was a sharp decline in the concept's popularity among scholars. Subsequently, the decline in Soviet centralization after Stalin, research into Nazism revealing significant inefficiency and improvisation, and the Soviet collapse may have reduced the utility of the concept to that of an ideal or abstract type. In addition, constitutional democracy and totalitarianism, as forms of the modern state, share many characteristics. In both, those in authority have a monopoly on the use of the nation's military power and on certain forms of mass communication; and the suppression of dissent, especially during times of crisis, often occurs in democracies as well. Moreover, one-party systems are found in some nontotalitarian states, as are government-controlled economies and dictators.
There is no single cause for the growth of totalitarian tendencies. There may be theoretical roots in the collectivist political theories of Plato Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Karl Marx. But the emergence of totalitarian forms of government is probably more the result of specific historical forces. For example, the chaos that followed in the wake of World War I allowed or encouraged the establishment of totalitarian regimes in Russia, Italy, and Germany, while the sophistication of modern weapons and communications enabled them to extend and consolidate their power.
See E. Fromm, Escape from Freedom (1941, repr. 1960); H. Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1958, new ed. 1966); C. J. Friedrich and Z. K. Brezinski, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (2d ed. 1967); M. Curtis, ed., Totalitarianism (1979); S. P. Soper, Totalitarianism: A Conceptual Approach (1985); H. Buchheim, Totalitarian Rule (1962, tr. 1987); A. Gleason, Totalitarianism (1995).
Totalitarian regimes attempt to "atomize" society and destroy all independent nonpolitical institutions. However, neither the Italian fascists nor the Nazis completely "destroyed their respective social structures", for which reason, these countries "could rapidly return to normalcy" after defeat in World War II. In contrast, all attempts to reform the regime in the USSR, "led to nowhere because every nongovernmental institution, whether social or economic, had to be built from scratch. The result was neither reform of Communism nor establishment of democracy, but a progressive breakdown of organized life", according to Richard Pipes.
According to most scholars the first totalitarian regimes were formed in the 20th century, which include Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Soviet Union and, in some way, the Empire of Japan during the first part of the Shōwa era. Some other regimes are more commonly described as dictatorships rather than totalitarian systems. They include Spain under Franco, Portugal under Salazar, as well as others. Some scholars argue that totalitarianism has existed centuries prior, such as in ancient China under the political leadership of Prime Minister Li Si who helped the Qin dynasty unify China. Li Si adopted the political philosophy of Legalism as the ruling philosophical thought of China and restricted political activities and destroyed all literature and killed scholars who did not support Legalism. Totalitarianism was also used by the Spartan state in Ancient Greece. Its “educational system” was part of the totalitarian military society.The oligarchy running the state machine dictated every aspect of life, including the rearing of children.
Influential scholars such as Lawrence Aronsen, Richard Pipes, Leopold Labedz, Franz Borkenau, Walter Laqueur, Sir Karl Popper, Eckhard Jesse, Leonard Schapiro, Adam Ulam, Richard Löwenthal, Hannah Arendt, Robert Conquest, Karl Dietrich Bracher, Carl Joachim Friedrich, and Juan Linz have each described totalitarianism in a slightly different way. Common to all definitions is the attempt to mobilize entire populations in support of the official state ideology, and the intolerance of activities which are not directed towards the goals of the state, entailing repression or state control of business, labour unions, churches or political parties.
According to historian Stanley Payne, the first use of the term is by Giovanni Gentile, Italy’s most prominent philosopher and leading theorist of fascism. He used the term “totalitario” to refer to the structure and goals of the new state. The new state was to refer to “total representation of the nation and total guidance of national goals.”
While originally referring to an 'all-embracing, total state,' the label has been applied to a wide variety of regimes and orders of rule in a critical sense. Isabel Paterson, in The God of the Machine (1943) used the term in connection with the collectivist societies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. During a 1945 lecture series entitled The Soviet Impact on the Western World (turned into a book in 1946) , the pro-Soviet British historian E. H. Carr claimed that "The trend away from individualism and towards totalitarianism is everywhere unmistakable", that Marxism was the by far the most successful type of totalitarianism as proved by the Red Army's role in defeating Germany and Soviet industrial growth and and that only the "blind and incurable" ignored the trend towards totalitarianism. Sir Karl Popper, in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) and The Poverty of Historicism (1961) developed an influential critique of totalitarianism: in both works, he contrasted the "open society" of liberal democracy with totalitarianism, and argued that the latter is grounded in the belief that history moves toward an immutable future, in accord with knowable laws. During the Cold War period, the term gained renewed currency, especially following the publication of Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Arendt argued that Nazi and Communist regimes were completely new forms of government, and not merely updated versions of the old tyrannies. According to Arendt, the source of the mass appeal of totalitarian regimes was their ideology which provided a comforting, single answer to the mysteries of the past, present, and future. For Nazism, all history is the history of racial struggle; and, for Marxism, all history is the history of class struggle. Once that premise was accepted by the public, all actions of the regime could be justified by appeal to the Law of History or Nature.
The German historian Karl Dietrich Bracher, whose work is primarily concerned with Nazi Germany, argues that the "totalitarian typology" as developed by Friedrich and Brzezinski is an excessively inflexible model, and failed to consider the “revolutionary dynamic” that Bracher asserts is at the heart of totalitarianism . Bracher maintains that the essence of totalitarianism is the total claim to control and remake all aspects of society combined with an all-embracing ideology, the value on authoritarian leadership, and the pretence of the common identity of state and society, which distinguished the totalitarian "closed" understanding of politics from the "open" democratic understanding. Unlike the Friedrich-Brzezinski definition Bracher argued that totalitarian regimes did not require a single leader and could function with a collective leadership, which led the American historian Walter Laqueur to argue that Bracher's definition seemed to fit reality better then the Friedrich-Brzezinski definition.
Eric Hoffer in his book The True Believer argues that mass movements like Communism, Fascism and Nazism had a common trait in picturing Western democracies and their values as decadent, with people "too soft, too pleasure-loving and too selfish" to sacrifice for a higher cause, which for them implies an inner moral and biological decay. He further claims that those movements offered the prospect of a glorious, yet imaginary, future to frustrated people, enabling them to find a refuge from the lack of personal accomplishments in their individual existence. Individual is then assimilated into a compact collective body and "fact-proof screens from reality" are established.
The notion of "post-totalitarianism" was put forward by political scientist Juan Linz . For certain commentators, such as Linz and Alfred Stepan, the Soviet Union entered a new phase after the abandonment of mass terror upon Stalin's death. Likewise, the German political scientist Richard Löwenthal argued that in the Soviet Union in the years after Stalin’s death in 1953 saw the emergence of a system Löwenthal called variously "authoritarian bureaucratic oligarchy" or “post-totalitarian authoritarianism”. Writing in 1986, Löwenthal contended the development of “post-totalitarianism” in the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe meant "Those countries have not gone from tyranny to freedom, but from massive terror to a rule of meanness, ensuring stability at the risk of stagnation. Discussion of "post-totalitarianism" featured prominently in debates about the reformability and durability of the Soviet system in comparative politics.
As the Soviet system disintegrated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it became clear that totalitarian systems are intrinsically unstable. That was not obvious earlier for some researchers. Several decades earlier, for example, in 1957, Bertram Wolfe claimed that the Soviet Union faced no challenge or change possible from society at large.
From a historical angle, the totalitarian concept has been criticized. Historians of the Nazi period inclined towards a functionalist interpretation of the Third Reich such as Martin Broszat, Hans Mommsen and Ian Kershaw have been very hostile or lukewarm towards the totalitarianism concept, arguing that the Nazi regime was far too disorganized to be ever be toalitarian. In the field of Soviet history, the concept has disparaged by the "revisionist" school, a group of mostly American left-wing historians, some of whose more prominent members are Sheila Fitzpatrick, Jerry F. Hough, William McCagg, Robert W. Thurston,and J. Arch Getty. Through their individual interpretations differ, the revisionists have argued that the Soviet state under Stalin was institutionally weak, that the level of terror was much exaggerated, and that to the extent it occurred, it reflected the weaknesses rather the strengths of the Soviet state. Fitzpatrick argued that since to the extent that there was terror in the Soviet Union, since it provided for increased social mobility, and thus far from being a terrorized society, most people in the Soviet Union supported Stalin's purges as a chance for a better life. Writing in 1987, Walter Laqueur commented that the revisionists in the field of Soviet history were guilty of confusing popularity with morality, and of making highly embarrassing and not very convincing arguements against the concept of the Soviet Union as totalitarian state. Laqueur argued the revisionists' arguements with regards to Soviet history were highly similar to the arguements made by Ernst Nolte in regards to German history. Laqueur asserted that concepts such modernization were inadquate tools for explaining Soviet history while totalitarianism was not.
According to Richard Pipes, the political ideology of Hitler was "deeply affected by the Russian Revolution, negatively as well as positively. Negatively, the triumph of Bolshevism in Russia and its attempts to revolutionize Europe provided Hitler with a justification for his visceral anti-Semitism, and the specter of a "Judeo-Communist" conspiracy with which to frighten the German people. Positively, it helped him in his quest for dictatorial power by teaching him the techniques of crowd manipulation and furnishing him with the model of a one-party, totalitarian state". Hitler admitted that he had "learned a great deal from Marxism" and asserted that:
Mussolini also acknowledged this connection: "In the whole negative part, we are alike. We and Russians are against the liberals, against democrats, against parliament". Leading Soviet communist Nikolai Bukharin observed that the political methods of fascism were "a complete applications of Bolshevik tactics, and especially those of Russian Bolshevism, in the sense of the rapid concentration of forces and energetic action of a tightly structured military organization" including the system of local Party committees, mobilization, and pitiless destruction of enemies
Gary M. Grobman wrote:
Michael Parenti both acknowledged and criticized the linkage:
Daniel Singer wrote: