- totalitarian, totalitarianismThe term appears to have originated with the Italian fascists under Mussolini and with the philosopher Giovanni Gentile. Meaning ‘comprehensive, all-embracing, pervasive, the total state’, the label was applied to a variety of empires and orders of rule, and in general to rightist regimes; that is, until the period of the Cold War, when it gained renewed currency. In one of the more idiosyncratic usages the term was applied to the comprehensive welfarist state of Sweden.Typically, it combines a syndrome of attributes which can be objectively assessed with a number of emotive connotations which are less open to investigation, as for example when it is equated with terms such as ‘evil empire’. The political scientists Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski were primarily responsible for shifting the meaning away from fascist regimes and toward reformulating it as a paradigm for Stalin's Soviet Union. Their six defining elements were intended to be taken as a mutually supportive organic entity and comprised the following: an elaborate, total ideology , making chiliastic claims, with a promise of a utopian future; a single mass party, typically led by one person; a system of terror, physical or psychic; a monopoly of the means of communication; a monopoly on arms; and central direction and control of the economy through bureaucratic co-ordination (see Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy, 1963).This approach evoked reactions from those who claimed that the Soviet system, both politically and as a social entity, was in fact better understood in terms of interest groups , competing élites , or even in quasi-class terms (using the notion of the nomenklaturaas a vehicle for the new class ). The use of the term became intertwined with Cold War stances, and in social science the explanatory power of the concept was questioned, not least because of its ahistorical and generalizing nature. It fell into disuse during the 1970s, although the notion of ‘post- totalitarianism’ featured in the debates around the reformability of the Soviet system. In due course, as the Soviet system crumbled, opponents of the concept claimed that the transformation of the USSR under Gorbachev proved that the Soviet system was not totalitarian. Proponents argued that the homo sovieticus could now be identified more clearly and that, in any case, the factors leading to its collapse were exogenous. There is little doubt that the system of real socialism did generate a form of one-party rule, based around a tendency towards a personality cult, with a specific teleological ideology, censorship and terror, statist economy, and a monopoly on violence for which there are few competitors in other types of society even of the most repressive kind. An examination of its legacy will become possible as the affected societies seek to build democracies and create markets on the basis of citizenship rights.
Dictionary of sociology. 2013.
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