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  The concept of totalitarianism was first invoked by fascist ideologues in 1930s Italy. Since then it has been used, and abused, as a comparative concept in political science and political argument. Totalitarian régimes are conceived by political scientists as the limiting case of modern despotisms, only possible in industrial or industrializing societies. Totalitarian régimes are far more organizationally capable, ruthless and centrally dictated than the absolutist forms of rule found in agrarian societies. A totalitarian political system is dominated by a monopolistic political party suffused with the ambition to transform society, gripped by a single chiliastic and ‘totalistic’ ideology which pulverizes all rival and local belief systems, and which uses organized terror systematically to crush its opponents, maintains a monopoly of the mass media of communications, subordinates the legal system to political imperatives, presides over a centrally controlled economy, and is territorially expansionist. These are the key elements of the totalitarian syndrome. Others include slave labour camps, death camps and the deliberate ‘checks and balances’ and ‘separation of powers’ between the party, the bureaucracy and the secret police which enable the totalitarian dictator (or collective leadership) to maintain overall hegemony through organized fear.

Argument once raged over the usefulness of the term in describing or explaining the political systems of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and the Marxist-Leninist régimes established after 1917. The argument used to be made that these were radically different political orders, and that to label them as structurally similar was a Cold War attempt to tarnish communist systems through associating them with fascist and nazi régimes. These arguments have diminished considerably as the merits of the totalitarian description of the USSR and Communist China became more and more transparent especially in light of the criticisms made of the Soviet and Chinese systems by those who tried to reform them. However, Western Cold War analysts of totalitarianism showed how the term could be radically abused. They dogmatically supposed that totalitarian systems could not be democratized, whereas authoritarian systems could. In the hands of people like Jeanne Kirkpatrick, adviser to Ronald Reagan, this argument was used to excuse American support for right-wing dictatorships—a bizarre irony given that totalitarianism was originally constructed to show what modern left- and right-wing dictatorships had in common. In history the main abuse of the term lies in its anachronistic employment to describe régimes in the ancient and medieval world. However, because a concept is abused does not mean it is thereby worthless. The concept of totalitarianism captures one dreaded configuration in modern political systems. BO\'L

See also absolutism.Further reading B. Barber, ‘Conceptual Foundations of Totalitarianism’ in , C. Friedrich, , M. Curtis, and , B. Barber (eds.), Totalitarianism in Perspective; , C. Friedrich and , Z. Brzezinski, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy.



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