Difference Between Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes

Authoritarianism & Totalitarianism

Authoritarianism is a form of government characterized by strong central power and limited political freedoms. Individual freedoms are subordinate to the state and there is no constitutional accountability under an authoritarian regime. Juan Linz‘s influential 1964 description of authoritarianism characterized authoritarian political systems by four qualities:

  • limited political pluralism; that is, such regimes place constraints on political institutions and groups like legislatures, political parties, and interest groups;
  • a basis for legitimacy based on emotion, especially the identification of the regime as a necessary evil to combat “easily recognizable societal problems” such as underdevelopment or insurgency;
  • minimal social mobilization most often caused by constraints on the public such as suppression of political opponents and anti-regime activity;
  • informally defined executive power with often vague and shifting powers.

Totalitarianism is a political system in which the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible. A distinctive feature of totalitarian governments is an “elaborate ideology, a set of ideas that gives meaning and direction to the whole society”.

The concept of totalitarianism was first developed in the 1920s by the Weimar German jurist, and later Nazi academic, Carl Schmitt, and Italian fascists. Schmitt used the term, Totalstaat, in his influential work on the legal basis of an all-powerful state, The Concept of the Political (1927). The concept became prominent in Western political discourse as a concept that highlights similarities between Fascist states and the Soviet Union.

What are the differences between Authoritarianism, Totalitarianism, and Fascism?

Totalitarianism and Fascism are forms of authoritarianism, which is governance by an authority without the option of questioning whatever the authority orders. The distinctions between the three are mostly a matter of political theory, applying these labels is usually done very loosely and, in my opinion, badly.

An authoritarian government is any ruling political unit in which the person or group in power tells everyone else what to do, more or less without recourse. Monarchies without parliament and in which the monarch actually rules, as well as military governments and dictatorships of the left and the right can all be correctly identified as authoritarian. Most workplaces are authoritarian, too; the boss tells you what to do, or else. Similarly, most families have an authoritarian streak, as do schools. The basic idea is that what is done is not put to a vote: someone commands, and others obey. Authoritarian governments, as you might imagine, can cover a very wide range of power regimes.

Totalitarian rule is called this because the power of those who govern extends to every aspect of life and society; in other words, total rule. They tell you what to say, what to think, where to live, what to study, where to work, etc. Obviously, because of the difficulty of controlling large populations minutely, no pure form of totalitarian government has ever existed. However, Soviet Communism, German Nazism, and Italian Fascism attempted to be totalitarian for very different reasons.

All of this brings us to Fascism, which is the historical movement of Benito Mussolini, who ruled Italy as a dictator from 1929 to 1943. The word “fascism” comes from the Latin fasces, a bundle of rods tied around an ax; the members of the movement conceived of themselves as a tightly wound bundle of people who figuratively chopped down whatever stood in the way of their ideas. These ideas included the revival of Italy’s glory as the center of the Roman Empire. It was a nationalist and ultra-conservative movement similar and allied to German Nazism and Spanish Falangism, yet distinctly Italian.

Because Fascism came to power first, its name became a shorthand for any right-wing authoritarian regime and for the supporters of such rule. The concept has also been twisted completely out of shape by rhetorical abuse. For example, Reaganism and Thatcherism (USA and UK in the 1980s), although ideologically in harmony with many fascist ideas, have been called fascist even though they operated in a political environment in which at least a pretense of democratic representation was maintained.

Totalitarianism is a form of government in which the state’s power is unlimited and controls virtually all aspects of public and private life. This control extends to all political and financial matters as well as the attitudes, morals, and beliefs of the people.

The concept of totalitarianism was developed in the 1920s by Italian fascists. They attempted to spin it positively by referring to what they considered totalitarianism’s “positive goals” for society. Still, most Western civilizations and governments quickly rejected the concept of totalitarianism and continue to do so today.

One distinctive feature of totalitarian governments is the existence of an explicit or implied national ideology—a set of beliefs intended to give meaning and direction to the entire society.

According to Russian history expert and author Richard Pipes, Fascist Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini once summarized the basis of totalitarianism as, “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

Examples of characteristics that might be present in a totalitarian state include:

  • Rule enforced by a single dictator
  • The presence of a single ruling political party
  • Strict censorship, if not total control of the press
  • Constant dissemination of pro-government propaganda
  • Mandatory service in the military for all citizens
  • Mandatory population control practices
  • Prohibition of certain religious or political groups and practices
  • Prohibition of any form of public criticism of the government
  • Laws enforced by secret police forces or the military

Typically, the characteristics of a totalitarian state tend to cause people to fear their government. Rather than trying to allay that fear, totalitarian rulers encourage it and use it to ensure the people’s cooperation.

An authoritarian state is characterized by a strong central government that allows people a limited degree of political freedom. However, the political process, as well as all individual freedom, is controlled by the government without any constitutional accountability.

In 1964, Juan José Linz, Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Political Science at Yale University, described the four most recognizable characteristics of authoritarian states as:

  • Limited political freedom with strict government controls imposed on political institutions and groups like legislatures, political parties, and interest groups
  • A controlling regime that justifies itself to the people as a “necessary evil” uniquely capable of coping with “easily recognizable societal problems” such as hunger, poverty, and violent insurgency
  • Strict government-imposed constraints on social freedoms such as suppression of political opponents and anti-regime activity
  • The presence of a ruling executive with vague, shifting, and loosely-defined powers
  • Modern dictatorships such as Venezuela under Hugo Chávez and Cuba under Fidel Castro typify authoritarian governments. 

While the People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao Zedong was considered a totalitarian state, modern-day China is more accurately described as an authoritarian state because its citizens are now allowed some limited personal freedoms.

Totalitarian Vs. Authoritarian Governments

In a totalitarian state, the government’s range of control over the people is virtually unlimited. The government controls nearly all aspects of the economy, politics, culture, and society. Education, religion, the arts and sciences, and even morality and reproductive rights are controlled by totalitarian governments.

While all power in an authoritarian government is held by a single dictator or group, the people are allowed a limited degree of political freedom.

What Is Fascism?

Rarely employed since the end of World War II in 1945, fascism is a form of government combining the most extreme aspects of both totalitarianism and authoritarianism. Even when compared to extreme nationalistic ideologies like Marxism and anarchism, fascism is typically considered to be at the far-right end of the political spectrum.

Fascism is characterized by the imposition of dictatorial power, government control of industry and commerce, and the forcible suppression of opposition, often at the hands of the military or a secret police force. Fascism was first seen in Italy during World War I, later spreading to Germany and other European countries during World War II.

The Foundations of Fascism

The foundation of fascism is a combination of ultranationalism—an extreme devotion to one’s nation over all others—along with a widely held belief among the people that the nation must and will be somehow saved or “reborn.” Rather than working for concrete solutions to economic, political, and social problems, fascist rulers divert the people’s focus, while winning public support, by elevating the idea of a need for a national rebirth into a virtual religion. To this end, fascists encourage the growth of cults of national unity and racial purity.

In pre-World War II Europe, fascist movements tended to promote the belief that non-Europeans were genetically inferior to non-Europeans. This passion for racial purity often led fascist leaders to undertake mandatory genetic modification programs intended to create a pure “national race” through selective breeding. 

Historically, the primary function of fascist regimes has been to maintain the nation in a constant state of readiness for war. Fascists observed how rapid, mass military mobilizations during World War I blurred the lines between the roles of civilians and combatants. Drawing on those experiences, fascist rulers strive to create a rabidly nationalistic culture of “military citizenship” in which all citizens are willing and prepared to take on some military duties during times of war, including actual combat.

In addition, fascists view democracy and the electoral process as an obsolete and unnecessary obstacle to maintaining constant military readiness. They also consider a totalitarian, one-party state as the key to preparing the nation for war and its resulting economic and social hardships.

Today, few governments publicly describe themselves as fascist. Instead, the label is more often used pejoratively by those critical of particular governments or leaders. The term “neo-fascist," for example, describes governments or individuals espousing radical, far-right political ideologies similar to those of the World War II fascist states.

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