The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Science

Authors: Bogdanor
Summary: This entry, in approximately 1625 words, explains totalitarianism's origins and usage as a political term, discusses the academic debate about totalitarianism, and emphasizes the concept's significance in the context of future world order.
Totalitarianism originated as a reference to Mussolini in the early 1920's and has been used as a political term since World War I. Most particularly, the term applies to Italian fascism, German National Socialism and Soviet Stalinism. Totalitarianism has proved problematic as a term and tool of political analysis because many view it as merely a polemical anti-ideology.
The first question posed by the academic debate concerns differences between contemporary and classical totalitarian structures and functions. The modern totalitarian model generally centralizes and regiments all aspects of political, social and intellectual life. Additionally, the modern form presents itself as a model of popular sovereignty superior to democracy. All totalitarian regimes share one fundamental feature: one party or ruling ideology claims and seizes exclusive leadership rights.
Another academic concern revolves around the dictatorship of the proletariat. This totalitarian model is justified based on its goal of mass freedom. It achieves this goal by turning ideology into political religion. The masses are organized, indoctrinated, mobilized and ritualized into submissive yet seemingly voluntary consensus.
The many crises constantly erupting in the modern world evoke concerns for the future based on historical experience. These crises present potential opportunities for would-be dictators. Only a few decades ago, over one third of the world's citizens were ruled under totalitarian systems, and as George Orwell warned, such totalitarian domination continues to be a very real, foreseeable consequence.