Philosophy 208 - 11.2.4 Totalitarian Forms of Government


Totalitarianism is a system of government that exercises complete control over its population in both personal and public life by eliminating free press and imposing censorship and mass surveillance, along with other social controls. In a totalitarian system, opposition to the state is prohibited, and repercussions for disobedience are generally severe. Totalitarianism can also take the form of autocracy, in which power is concentrated in the hands of an individual, through a dictatorship under a single leader. For example, in the 20th century, the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin (1878–1953) and the Italian Fascist regime under Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) were totalitarian regimes. A totalitarian system is different from tyranny, fascism, or communism, although there are enough similarities among these terms that the terms are often incorrectly used interchangeably.


Communism, an ideology that has engendered totalitarian governments, is largely associated with the Soviet Union (1922–1991) and the People’s Republic of China (1949–present). While traces of communist ideas can be found much earlier in history, modern communism springs from the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who called for a “dictatorship of the proletariat” to seize the means of production from private control and establish instead a system of labor and goods distribution that would benefit the working class.

In modern communist countries, the state owns the means of production, sets wages, regulates production, and controls prices. Although these countries may hold elections, the leadership of the ruling political partymonopolizes political power, dictating policies that cross over from public life into private life and severely restrict individual freedom. Between 1932 and 1933, for example, the leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, implemented an agrarian collectivization program in Ukraine. Stalin ordered that any family that owned 24 acres or more of land lose all their possessions and be deported to work camps in Siberia. Somewhere between four and seven million people starved to death.


Fascism is another ideology that produced totalitarian political systems. As an ideology, fascism is characterized by a strong sense of nationalism, a disdain for democratic principles, and a belief in social hierarchy (Soucy 2021). Fascism was largely popular during the time known as the interwar years, meaning the years between the two world wars (roughly 1920–1938), although the fascism of Italy and Germany continued through World War II (1939–1945) and fascism under Francisco Franco in Spain, which began in 1936, continued until 1975. In Italy, Benito Mussolini rose to power and established a fascist dictatorship beginning in 1925. The devastation caused by World War I (1914–1918), after which Europe struggled to rebuild and cope with food shortages and unemployment, created conditions that were ripe for the emergence of charismatic strongmen who promised to bring prosperity back to their nations.

It was during this same period that German citizens, suffering under heavy sanctions from the Allied powers at the close of World War I, embraced the leadership of Adolf Hitler, who was elected as Germany’s chancellor in 1933. Hitler quickly moved to consolidate power and establish himself as absolute dictator in what had formerly been a democratic country. Hitler’s National Socialism was a fascist ideology, with the added component of a genocidal program carried out against Jews and the Romani as well as other groups (Wiener Holocaust Library n.d.).

Hannah Arendt on Totalitarianism

In the seminal book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) argues that totalitarianism is a relatively new form of government that seeks to exert control over every aspect of not just social and political life but citizens’ personal lives as well. She says that a key difference between dictatorships, including those operating under fascism, and totalitarian regimes is that while the former assumes power and seeks to install members of its party in all offices of government, the latter includes a proliferation of the party into all arenas, including the state, the police, elite groups, and so forth. Furthermore, under a totalitarian system, laws are fungible, meaning they can change day by day. The ultimate goal of such regimes, Arendt says, is the eradication of any notion of the self as an individual in favor of the creation of the self as an extension of the government (Arendt 1951). The power of totalitarianism lies in the use of systematic violence to create a sense of total terror at the thought of countering the government and the dismantling of one’s capacity for independent thought until people are wholly dependent on the government. The survival of the regime depends on eliminating any factor of identity for individuals beyond that of “citizen”—although people under totalitarian rule are more captives than citizens.

Posed photograph of Hannah Arendt as a young woman.
Figure 11.4 Hannah Arendt wrote extensively on the origins and power of totalitarianism, following the upheaval and suffering caused by totalitarian regimes in the first half of the twentieth century. (credit: Portrait of Hannah Arendt in 1924; Wikimedia, Public Domain)

Table 11.1 summarizes these various forms of government.

Form of Government Description Examples
Monarchy Authority resides in one individual, who is the head of state Numerous, including past kingdoms, such as Spain and France, and modern kingdoms, such as Morocco
Aristocracy Authority is in the hands of a small number of individuals considered to be elite Greek class system, Indian caste system
Representative Government Individuals are chosen to represent the larger group Tribal democracies of Native American peoples; the majority of contemporary governments in North America, South America, and Europe
Totalitarianism Government limits individual freedom through controls over the press, mass surveillance, and other social controls Soviet Union under Stalin, Italian regime under Mussolini
Communism The state owns the means of production, sets wages, regulates production, and controls prices People’s Republic of China
Fascism Totalitarian political system characterized by a strong sense of nationalism, a disdain for democratic principles, and a belief in social hierarchy Germany under Hitler, Spain under Franco
Table 11.1 - Forms of Government

Write Like a Philosopher

View Hannah Arendt’s revisions to the introduction of the third edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism at the Library of Congress. Read through the hand-edited, typewritten manuscript. Then, answer these questions.

  • Arendt’s passion inspires every word she writes. She is obviously not impartial. What is Arendt’s attitude toward her topic?
  • What are the main points Arendt raises in her introduction?
  • Consider what you learned about critical thinking and logic in the chapter on critical thinking. Is Arendt’s passion an asset or a barrier to her ability to reason and write philosophy? Explain your reasoning.
  • What edits to the third edition does Arendt make? What is the purpose of those edits?
  • What can you learn from this manuscript about writing philosophy?

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax