Totalitarianism (or totalitarian rule) refers to authoritarian political systems where the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible. Totalitarian regimes stay in power through all-encompassing propaganda campaigns disseminated through the state-controlled mass media, use of a single party usually defined by political repression, personality cultism, control over the economy, regulation and restriction of speech, mass surveillance, and widespread use of terror. The concept of totalitarianism was first developed in a positive sense in the 1920s by the Italian fascists, and became prominent in Western anti-communist political discourse during the Cold War era in order to highlight perceived similarities between Nazi Germany and other fascist regimes on the one hand, and Soviet communism on the other.
- Somebody once declared that the only two political theories that are completely consistent are anarchy and totalitarianism. Anarchy fully embraces the concept of self, totalitarianism fully rejects that concept. Statism always degenerates into totalitarianism.
- Darrell Anderson, in "What Is Liberty?"
- The totalitarian attempt at global conquest and total domination has been the destructive way out of all impasses. Its victory may coincide with the destruction of humanity; wherever it has ruled, it has begun to destroy the essence of man. Yet to turn our backs on the destructive forces of the century is of little avail.
The trouble is that our period has so strangely intertwined the good with the bad that without the imperialists' "expansion for expansion's sake," the world might never have become one; without the bourgeoisie's political device of "power for power's sake," the extent of human strength might never have been discovered; without the fictitious world of totalitarian movements, in which with unparalleled clarity the essential uncertainties of our time have been spelled out, we might have been driven to our doom without ever becoming aware of what has been happening.
And if it is true that in the final stages of totalitarianism an absolute evil appears (absolute because it can no longer be deduced from humanly comprehensible motives), it is also true that without it we might never have known the truly radical nature of Evil.
- Totalitarianism begins in contempt for what you have. The second step is the notion: “Things must change—no matter how, Anything is better than what we have.” Totalitarian rulers organize this kind of mass sentiment, and by organizing it articulate it, and by articulating it make the people somehow love it. They were told before, thou shalt not kill; and they didn’t kill. Now they are told, thou shalt kill; and although they think it’s very difficult to kill, they do it because it’s now part of the code of behavior. They learn whom to kill and how to kill and how to do it together. This is the much talked about Gleichschaltung—the coordination process. You are coordinated not with the powers that be, but with your neighbor—coordinated with the majority. But instead of communicating with the other you are now glued to him. And you feel of course marvelous. Totalitarianism appeals to the very dangerous emotional needs of people who live in complete isolation and in fear of one another.
- Hannah Arendt, Hannah Arendt: From an Interview. Comments made in 1974 during an interview with the French writer Roger Errera and published in October 26, 1978 issue of The NewYork Review of Books Interview. Copyright © 1978 Mary McCarthy West, Trustee. Archived via Wayback Machine of the Internet Archive on February 22, 2017.
- Stalin...[has] compelled us to pass the judgement we had hitherto refused to register. His Russia is a totalitarian state, like another, as brutal towards the rights of others, as careless of its plighted word. If this man ever understood the international creed of socialism, he long ago forgot it. In this land the absolute power has wrought its customary effects of corruption.
- H. N. Brailsford, Reynold's News (3 December 1939) , as quoted The Last Dissenter: H.N. Brailsford and His World,by F. M. Leventhal (p. 269).
- There isn’t any difference in totalitarian states. I don’t care what you call them, Nazi, Communist or Fascist…
- Harry S. Truman, (Comment on May 13, 1947), Public Papers of the President of the United States, Harry S. Truman. Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President, January 1 to December 31, 1947 (Washington D.C., 1963), p. 238
- Nationalism leads to totalitarianism, and totalitarianism leads to idolatry. It becomes not a principle of politics but a new religion and, let me add, a false religion.
- The power of the Executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers, is in the highest degree odious and is the foundation of all totalitarian government whether Nazi or Communist.
- People who live in the post-totalitarian system know only too well that the question of whether one or several political parties are in power, and how these parties define and label themselves, is of far less importance than the question of whether or not it is possible to live like a human being.
- Václav Havel, in "The Power of the Powerless" in Living in Truth (1986)
- We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all — though naturally to differing extents — responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery. None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators. … Those who rebelled against totalitarian rule and those who simply managed to remain themselves and think freely, were all persecuted. We should not forget any of those who paid for our present freedom in one way or another.
- Václav Havel, in his New Year's address, Prague (1 January 1990)
- Societies such as ours that once had democratic traditions or periods when relative openness was possible are often the most easily seduced into totalitarian systems because those who rule and build totalitarian structures continue to pay outward fealty to the ideals, practices and forms of the old system.
- Some of the worst tyrannies of our day genuinely are "vowed" to the service of mankind, yet can function only by pitting neighbor against neighbor. The all-seeing eye of a totalitarian regime is usually the watchful eye of the next-door neighbor. In a Communist state love of neighbor may be classed as counter-revolutionary.
- Eric Hoffer, in The Ordeal of Change (1963), Ch. 11: Brotherhood
- It is probably true that business corrupts everything it touches. It corrupts politics, sports, literature, art, labor unions and so on. But business also corrupts and undermines monolithic totalitarianism. Capitalism is at its liberating best in a noncapitalist environment.
- Eric Hoffer, in "Thoughts of Eric Hoffer, Including: 'Absolute Faith Corrupts Absolutely,'" in The New York Times Magazine (25 April 1971), p. 50.
- The Savior who wants to turn men into angels is as much a hater of human nature as the totalitarian despot who wants to turn them into puppets.
- Eric Hoffer, in Reflections on the Human Condition (1973) Section 13
- We take for granted the need to escape the self. Yet the self can also be a refuge. In totalitarian countries the great hunger is for private life. Absorption in the minutiae of an individual existence is the only refuge from the apocalyptic madhouse staged by maniacal saviors of humanity.
- Eric Hoffer, in Reflections on the Human Condition (1973) Section 55
- Béranger represents the modern man. He is a victim of totalitarianism — of both kinds of totalitarianism, of the Right and of the Left. When Rhinoceros was produced in Germany, it had fifty curtain calls. The next day the papers wrote, “Ionesco shows us how we became Nazis.” But in Moscow, they wanted me to rewrite it and make sure that it dealt with Nazism and not with their kind of totalitarianism. In Buenos Aires, the military government thought it was an attack on Perónism.
- Eugène Ionesco, on the anit-totalitarian themes in one of his plays, in "Eugene Ionesco, The Art of Theater No. 6" interviewed by Shusha Guppy, in Paris Review (Fall 1984), No. 93
- I have never been to the Right, nor have I been a Communist, because I have experienced, personally, both forms of totalitarianism. It is those who have never lived under tyranny who call me petit bourgeois.
- Eugène Ionesco, in "Eugene Ionesco, The Art of Theater No. 6" interviewed by Shusha Guppy, in Paris Review (Fall 1984), No. 93
- The destructive work of totalitarian machinery, whether or not this word is used, is usually supported by a special kind of primitive social philosophy. It proclaims not only that the common good of 'society' has priority over the interests of individuals, but that the very existence of individuals as persons is reducible to the existence of the social 'whole'; in other words, personal existence is, in a strange sense, unreal. This is a convenient foundation for any ideology of slavery.
- Leszek Kołakowski, "Totalitarianism and the Virtue of the Lie", as quoted in Is God Happy? Selected Essays (2013), Basic Books, p. 57
- The fallacy is to believe that under a dictatorial government you can be free inside. Quite a number of people console themselves with this thought, now that totalitarianism in one form or another is visibly on the up-grade in every part of the world. Out in the street the loudspeakers bellow, the flags flutter from the rooftops, the police with their tommy-guns prowl to and fro, the face of the Leader, four feet wide, glares from every hoarding; but up in the attics the secret enemies of the regime can record their thoughts in perfect freedom — that is the idea, more or less.
- George Orwell, in "As I Please," Tribune (28 April 1944)
- …the totalitarian states, whether of the fascist or the communist persuasion, are more than superficially alike as dictatorships, in the suppression of dissent, and in operating planned and directed economies. They are profoundly alike.
- Walter Lippmann, The Good Society, Transaction Publications (2005) p. 89. First published in 1937.
- It does not matter whether the right to govern is hereditary or obtained with the consent of the governed. A State is absolute in the sense which I have in mind when it claims the right to a monopoly of all the force within the community, to make war, to make peace, to conscript life, to tax, to establish and dis-establish property, to define crime, to punish disobedience, to control education, to supervise the family, to regulate personal habits, and to censor opinions. The modern State claims all of these powers, and, in the matter of theory, there is no real difference in the size of the claim between communists, fascists, and democrats.
- Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Morals, News Brunswick: NJ, Transaction Publishers (1982) p. 80. First published in 1929.
- The Spanish war and other events in 1936-7 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.
- George Orwell, in "Why I Write," Gangrel (Summer 1946)
- Totalitarianism … does not so much promise an age of faith as an age of schizophrenia. A society becomes totalitarian when its structure becomes flagrantly artificial: that is, when its ruling class has lost its function but succeeds in clinging to power by force or fraud. Such a society, no matter how long it persists, can never afford to become either tolerant or intellectually stable. It can never permit either the truthful recording of facts or the emotional sincerity that literary creation demands. But to be corrupted by totalitarianism one does not have to live in a totalitarian country. The mere prevalence of certain ideas can spread a kind of poison that makes one subject after another impossible for literary purposes. Wherever there is an enforced orthodoxy — or even two orthodoxies, as often happens — good writing stops. This was well illustrated by the Spanish civil war. To many English intellectuals the war was a deeply moving experience, but not an experience about which they could write sincerely. There were only two things that you were allowed to say, and both of them were palpable lies: as a result, the war produced acres of print but almost nothing worth reading.
- Since 1930 I had seen little evidence that the USSR was progressing towards anything that one could truly call Socialism. On the contrary, I was struck by clear signs of its transformation into a hierarchical society, in which the rulers have no more reason to give up their power than any other ruling class. Moreover, the workers and intelligentsia in a country like England cannot understand that the USSR of today is altogether different from what it was in 1917. It is partly that they do not want to understand (i.e. they want to believe that, somewhere, a really Socialist country does actually exist), and partly that, being accustomed to comparative freedom and moderation in public life, totalitarianism is completely incomprehensible to them.
- Strangely, it is always America that is described as degenerate and 'fascist', while it is solely in Europe that actual dictatorships and totalitarian regimes spring up.
- The economic dictatorship of the monopolies and the political dictatorship of the totalitarian state are the outgrowth of the same political objectives, and the directors of both have the presumption to try to reduce all the countless expressions of social life to the mechanical tempo of the machine and to tune everything organic to the lifeless machine of the political apparatus.
- Rudolf Rocker, in Anarcho-Syndicalism (1938), Ch. 1 "Anarchism: Its Aims and Purposes"
- From the point of view of fundamental human liberties there is little to choose between communism, socialism, and national socialism. They all are examples of the collectivist or totalitarian state … in its essentials not only is completed socialism the same as communism but it hardly differs from fascism.
- Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, The Socialist Tragedy, Macmillan (1951), pp. 241-242