The Six Factors That Enable Totalitarianism

By Tyler DeBrauwere

Originally published December 2013
A regime needs to have power and control in order to maintain stability in a society. What the regime does to check and limit the power it obtains is what defines the regime. A regime that obtains absolute power and uses it to crack down and dominate its populace in order to perpetuate an ideology is called totalitarian. Totalitarianism is the evolution and adaptation of authoritarianism to twentieth-century industrial society. This evolution led to profound differences between the older authoritarianism and the newer totalitarianism. These differences are the six factors that enable a totalitarian dictatorship to take root and enable the ultimate goal of totalitarianism: the complete and utter control of the populace, to be achieved.

The first factor: the Dictator and Party is exactly that; a totalitarian regime needs a strong dictator that wields a small and thoroughly ideologically indoctrinated political party that allows the said dictator to obtain complete political control of their state. It can be said that in a tightly knit totalitarian dictatorship the dictator and his lieutenants are unified by their political ideology and an individual that breaks this unity is deemed unfit to be a part of said dictator’s political party and will be eliminated. A historical example of this elimination for the sake of political unity is Stalin’s Great Purge in which Stalin “removed” (killed or exiled) any member of his political party of whom he believed were his political opponents. The dictator himself develops this party cohesion by creating the movement, enlisting the people to stand by his side, and choosing the dissenters to be eliminated. This is how the power stays monocratic, the dictator builds the foundation upon which his political party is established.

The second factor: The Totalitarian Ideology is the ultimate tool with which totalitarianism is built. A totalitarian state is based upon an ideology, unlike the religious, law based, or nationalistic identity that other types of regimes use to form their foundation. For example, the Soviet Union had Marxism as their amalgamating ideology, Germany under Hitler had Nazism, and China under Mao had Maoism. All of these regimes used their ideologies as the foundation for unity. A totalitarian regime can exist only if its populace fanatically believes the ideology in which the regime is built upon. The totalitarian ideology needs to be reformist and state the inadequacies of the prior society, whilst at the same time expressing the superiority of revolutionary totalitarian ideology. This new ideology must be one that centralizes around the idea that the old ways must be destroyed and created anew. The totalitarian ideology must stand at the forefront of the new society, it must involve an acceptance for violence as the only means to this end, and it must also involve a utopian desire for a perfect society.

The third factor: Propaganda and the Terror is the whip that keeps the population in line. The eerie environment of totalitarian dictatorship is built upon terror and propaganda. Terror is direct intimidation from the government itself, which aims to scare those who dare to even fathom dissenting into disobedience. Terror can be overt (execution) or covert (social shame and disgrace), but it must be all encompassing; no one can be spared from the terror. Terror coincides with propaganda; propaganda is the method in which terror is distributed. The hallmark of totalitarian dictatorship is the complete control of mass communication and private communication (the media, telephone, telegraph, the postal
service, press, radio, television, and film) by the government. This prevents the spreading of radical ideals that go against the totalitarian regime’s ideology by limiting the only method of discourse to word of mouth, which is an ineffective method in the bustling world of modern mass society. In totalitarian dictatorships, propaganda is used to perpetuate the belief in the greatness of the totalitarian society and ideals, while at the same time demonizing dissenters and enemies of the state; the crucial goal being the preservation of power for the ruling political party. The Soviet system of propaganda, for example, consisted of repetitive ideological/political messages that were ceaselessly distributed via the press and radio. Soviet newspapers (even down to the local level) were centrally controlled and were written to ceaselessly express Soviet ideals. The radio, with its massive audience of forty million listeners, was an extremely effective tool for the spreading of propaganda in the Soviet Union. Estimates place that the Soviet Union broadcasted political propaganda via the radio at twenty-eight percent of the central program time (primetime).

The fourth factor: The Directed Economy is the centralized economy that is apparent in all totalitarian regimes. This centralized economy requires a vast number of government officials to take the helm in leading the totalitarian state’s economic sectors. The government itself must appoint these leaders, and these leaders must then wield the same totalitarian authority in their appointed businesses that the government itself has over the state. These appointed officials must obey the call and beckon of the totalitarian dictatorship, they do not have full autonomy; they are merely a bureaucratic extension of the totalitarian state’s political party. The Soviet Union had the Apparatchiki, which was made up of full-time professional bureaucrats for the Communist party of the USSR. The Apparatchiki ran the various sectors of the Soviet economy (Such as agriculture, etc.) and were extensions of the Soviet Central Committee.
The fifth factor: The Destruction of the Islands of Separateness is another method in which totalitarian regimes seek to minimize resistance. Islands of Separateness are centers in which masses gather and converse/spread ideas; this separates them from the mass mentality that prevails in totalitarian society. These centers could be a university, a school, a church, or even a family. Totalitarian regimes seek to detach the individual from their individuality, transmuting the individual into the mass man; a member of the collective whose only purpose is to serve the regime and live by the regime’s ideology. Therefore, it is imperative for totalitarian regimes to monitor these islands of separateness; lest the people use these islands of separateness to form distinct opinions that challenge the totalitarian regime’s overarching ideology. The premier historical instance of The Destruction of the Islands of Separateness would be the extensive anti-religion campaign that was initiated by the Bolsheviks in Russia and took place from 1928 to 1941. They sought to eliminate the Russian Orthodox Clergy because they felt that the clergy would interfere with the spreading of their Communist ideology. This grand campaign eventually led to the arrest of the Patriarch (The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church) and the deportation of the acting patriarchs.

The sixth and final factor: Totalitarian Expansionism and the Future is the method in which a totalitarian regime seeks to monopolize weapons and armed combat in order to obtain further control of the populace. Totalitarian regimes, from the onset of their creation, seek to internalize the military with the critical objective being to make the armed forces into an extension of the totalitarian regime. To do this the regime must first limit the use of firearms only to legal individuals that stand in their military; a totalitarian regime cannot exist if the people can defend themselves adequately. In the Soviet Union, for example, the only members of society who could use firearms were those who belonged to the armed forces.

Even then the constituents of the armed forces were under the watchful eyes of the commissars (Soviet political agents that oversaw the military). The commissars ensured that the armed forces and the commanders of the armed forces were kept in line. The commissars were allowed to annul orders and arrest dissenting commanders. The commissars allowed the Soviet Central Committee to monopolize the use of firearms and permitted better control of the military. Secondly, a totalitarian regime needs a foreign policy of expansion. This foreign policy is necessary because totalitarian regimes need a real or imaginary enemy that they seem to be constantly struggling against in order to galvanize their populace into fanatically devoting themselves to the totalitarian regime. The expansionism found in the foreign policy of totalitarian regimes is not centered on that of resource acquisition or land acquisition, but rather, it is centered on the expansion of the totalitarian regime’s ideology. This belief of ideological supremacy found in this expansionist policy is necessary for a totalitarian regimes’ survival because it internalizes the regime’s populace; it allows them to believe that they are superior, causing the populace not to focus on the internal issues of their society, but instead to focus on demonizing the outside world. The Soviets had “Workers of the world, unite!” and the Nazis had “Today Germany, tomorrow the world!”. These expressions symbolized their aggressive foreign policy. The Soviet Union wanted to spread the revolutionary ideology that initiated the formation of their regime and the Nazis wanted to spread their ideology of German superiority. They both intended to do this through antagonism and war.

Once one has analyzed the six factors that enable totalitarianism, one can see the dangerous efficacy of totalitarianism. The multi-pronged approach in which totalitarian regimes monitor, control, and indoctrinate their populace is scarily successful. Once a totalitarian regime has sunk its talons into its people, it is overwhelmingly difficult to remove them. This is why it is important to study these six factors, so that if, or when these factors start to be exhibited in one’s own government, one can stop it before totalitarianism takes hold.

Works Cited:
Kishlansky, Mark A., Patrick Geary, and Patricia O’Brien. Western Civilization. 2nd ed. 2. Upper
Saddle River: Pearson, 2012. 821. Print.
Friedrich, Carl, and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy. Revised ed.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956. 15-354. Print.

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