Totalitarianism: Origins, Characteristics, Causes And Consequences

The  totalitarianism is a group of ideologies, political movements and regimes based on the state exercises total power, eliminating divisions and restrictions. Consequently, the freedom of citizens is almost completely eradicated, as totalitarian regimes eliminate free elections and censor freedom of thought.

Totalitarianisms are distinguished from autocratic regimes in that they are led or practiced by a single political party that behaves as a “single party.” This cancels out the other ideological manifestations and merges with other State institutions, thus constituting a radical hegemony.


Within totalitarianism, the figure of a main political character is usually exalted, whose power is unlimited and extends to all economic, political and social spheres.

As for authority, it is exercised through a strong hierarchical system that is driven by a mass movement in which it is desired to frame an entire society. It seeks to create a “perfect society” or a “new person”, based on the ideologies and values ​​that the single party sets.

To develop this idea, totalitarian regimes use the excessive use of propaganda together with different mechanisms and tools of social control, such as repression or the secret police.

Based on these factors, totalitarianism is not just a form of government but rather an organization of people who exercise power in an undemocratic manner. In general terms, this organization is characterized by the lack of recognition of human rights and the freedom of the individual.

Furthermore, totalitarianism not only denies individual rights and freedom but also ignores the dignity of the human being, denigrating or reducing its existence to the masses or social classes. Totalitarianism only recognizes man in his collective, alienated and manipulable character; hence its relationship with the concept of “social masses”.

Totalitarianism considers the State as an end in itself, so it radically maximizes it and suppresses the interests of the citizen. Benito Mussolini, emblematic representative of this ideology, said a phrase that explains it very well: “everything in and for the State.”


Relations of the term with Italian fascism

In order to establish the origin of the notion of totalitarianism, it is necessary to refer to the birth of Italian fascism, a movement closely linked to totalitarianism.

In fact, before the definition of “totalitarianism” appeared, the adjective “totalitarian” arose, and it is believed that the first to use it were Mussolini’s adversaries during the 1920s.

With the use of this term, opponents sought to stigmatize the oppressive regime of the Italian dictator. However, Mussolini used the situation to his advantage: he himself used the term but with positive connotations in order to provoke his opponents.

The dictator’s main ideologue, known as Giovanni Gentile, wrote a text that was widely quoted by Mussolini in which he established that for fascism nothing spiritual or human exists outside the State; consequently, fascism is completely totalitarian.

From adjective to noun

Later, the term returned to be used by a group of German intellectuals who repudiated the ideologies of Hitler; among them were Franz Neumann and Herbert Marcuse.

However, the first time the word “totalitarianism” was used as a noun was in 1941. Then the term spread from Germany and Italy to France and the United States, where many of the adversaries exiled by the Nazi regime were located.

In a parallel way, the term also began to circulate among the lines of opposition to Josef Stalin’s party, especially in the mouths of thinkers such as Boris Souvarine and Victor Serge.

Entrance to the academic world

The words “totalitarian” and “totalitarianism” arose out of political clashes, but they soon made a quick leap into the academic world because many of the regime’s opponents were intellectuals.

This factor influenced the production of a series of books that talk about totalitarianism, such as Integral Humanism , published by Jacques Maritain in 1936.

We also find the text The novelty of totalitarianism in the history of the West  (1940), written by Carlton Joseph Hayes. Similarly, one of the most famous authors who strongly criticized Stalin’s totalitarianism was George Orwell, whose most emblematic works were Rebellion on the Farm  (1945) and 1984 (1949).

During the Cold War, the first scientific theory about totalitarianism emerged. This can be found in the text The origins of totalitarianism  (1951) written by the political philosopher Hannah Arendt. This thinker was the first to unite Stalinism and Nazism under a single concept: that of totalitarianism.

Furthermore, in said text Arendt establishes that totalitarianism can be defined as the “radical suppression by the State of politics”, understanding the latter as an activity through which citizens are free to participate in power decisions .

With the eradication of politics, the State establishes a total depreciation towards individuals and turns them into dispensable artifacts.

Characteristics according to academic approaches

As a radical ideology, totalitarianism has a number of defining characteristics. However, these may vary depending on the philosophical approach or the different authors who speak about totalitarian regimes.

Next, the characteristics of totalitarianism are presented divided by the different academic approaches:

The Frankfurt school

One of the oldest opinions on totalitarianism was based on the Frankfurt school, where it was established that totalitarian regimes were characterized by their capacity for manipulation and persuasion through a series of epistemological transfer processes.

For philosophers like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, fascism and Nazism constitute a series of socio-political phenomena characterized by uniting power and consciousness, fusing them in a kind of synchronicity.

For the Frankfurt school, totalitarianism feeds on irrational prejudices that are latent in the deepest substratum of the masses. Consequently, these regimes feed on the intellectual deficiencies of the masses considered unthinking.

It is important to add that for Theodor Adorno totalitarianism is based on a mystification of thought, in which reason loses its ability to understand and perceive the other and considers him as an enemy.

For example, the collective irrationalization resulting from mass society feeds on irrational fears such as xenophobia or misogyny.

The writer and philosopher Hannah Arendt

This author is the best known writer in relation to information management on totalitarianism, so its precepts and characteristics are used and recognized worldwide.

In his works Arendt establishes that a factor that characterizes totalitarianism is its need for a “tribal nationalism” that responds to a primitive and irrational need to protect the autochthonous, the patriotic and the “pure”.

For example, in the Nazi Party this “tribal nationalism” can be found in the need to preserve the “Aryan race”, discrediting other human beings who do not fit in with these racial peculiarities.

The abuse of propaganda material

For Arendt, totalitarianism uses excessive propaganda to express its radical ideologies through a logical language that hides a mythological or prophetic language.

That is to say, it creates a whole propaganda fantasy in order to build a collective imagination that is seductive for the public, especially for the mass considered non-thinking.

For example, in the case of the Nazi Party, the propaganda focused on highlighting an alleged Jewish conspiracy that required the defense of the “indigenous” German people.

The sociologist and political scientist Raymond Aron

For Aron, totalitarianism is characterized by the creation of an ideology whose application aims to totally dominate society.

In his text Democracia y totalitarismo (1965) he defined five factors that determine totalitarian regimes:

– The creation of a single party that has a monopoly on all political activities.

– This party is armed and protected by an ideology that allows it to absorb all authority.

– The State creates a monopoly over the media and persuasion in order to censor and manipulate all information.

– The economy is controlled entirely by the State, so it seeks to eradicate private companies.

– All activity is politicized; for example, the arts are placed at the service of ideology. If there is any failure in the system, this is considered an attack against the ideology and the party.


According to Hannah Arendt, there are several causes or factors that can foster the emergence of a totalitarian regime.

For example, this author explains that a group of individuals or a person becomes an easy target for totalitarian thought when their own beliefs are accepted as absolute truths, abandoning the capacity for tolerance with what they discern from their opinion.

Regimes of this type thrive on this lack of tolerance, since they base their political foundations on a narrative constituted by a “you against us”. After this intolerance with respect to the other has occurred, the regime must only isolate the mass from other thoughts, truncating access to the different ways of thinking.

Another cause of the rise of totalitarianism is found in the fact that human beings, due to their primitive instinct, need to discern between “the good guys and the bad guys.”

This binary necessity can be corroborated, for example, in the success of soap operas or superhero movies, in which good and evil constantly confront each other without intermediate positions.

In conclusion, the main cause of the rise of totalitarian regimes is a radical intolerance that feeds on primitive and collective binary impulses.

Major totalitarian governments

Throughout the history of humanity there have been various governments or regimes of a totalitarian nature. 

This type of ideology was especially strengthened in the Old Continent during the world wars, which resulted in a strong disappointment along with the death of many innocents and a hundred social and psychological problems.

One of the main totalitarian governments was that of Benito Mussolini in Italy, who inaugurated the model and introduced the term. Along the same lines, he was followed by Adolf Hitler, who led totalitarianism and fascism in Germany. 

Remarkable is also the government of Francisco Franco in Spain, whose mandate was one of the longest in the history of dictators, or the totalitarianism exercised by Lenin and Stalin in Russia, of whose horrors there are still reminiscences.

As for the totalitarianism developed in the East, it should be added Mao Zedong, who is attributed the highest number of deaths in the entire history of mankind due to an ideology.


The consequences of totalitarian regimes are very varied and range from individual as well as collective aspects, in all cases of great importance. The most relevant repercussions are listed below:

– During the course of totalitarian governments, wars and civil confrontations become constant. This results in a notable loss of human life and a deterioration of the economy and of public and social services.

– Totalitarianism sharply fragments the relations of the country that experiences this regime with the other nations of the world.

– In countries where totalitarianism predominates, individual rights are eliminated along with guarantees and human freedoms. Consequently, totalitarian regimes bring with them an overwhelming amount of human losses. For example, during Stalin’s government it is estimated that about 60 million people died.

– Another consequence is the establishment of violence and torture caused by false accusations constituted by opinions that differ from the ideals promoted by the totalitarian state.

– The complete censorship of the media and other information sources results in an increase in intolerance, ignorance and misinformation. Once the totalitarian regime is over, this type of cultural control leaves a deep wound in the social structure of the country where totalitarianism occurred.


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