Totalitarianism is a form of government and a political system that prohibits all opposition parties, outlaws individual and group opposition to the state and its claims, and exercises an extremely high degree of control and regulation over public and private life. It is regarded as the most extreme and complete form of authoritarianism. In totalitarian states, political power is often held by autocrats, such as dictators and absolute monarchs, who employ all-encompassing campaigns in which propaganda is broadcast by state-controlled mass media in order to control the citizenry.[1] The concept gained prominent influence in Western political discourse during the Cold War.[2][3][4][5][6]

Joseph Stalin (left), leader of the Soviet Union, and Adolf Hitler (right), leader of Nazi Germany—prototypical dictators of totalitarian regimes

As a political ideology in itself, totalitarianism is a distinctly modernist phenomenon, and it has very complex historical roots. Philosopher Karl Popper traced its roots to Plato, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's conception of the state, and the political philosophy of Karl Marx,[7] although Popper's conception of totalitarianism has been criticized in academia, and remains highly controversial.[8][9] Other philosophers and historians such as Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer trace the origin of totalitarian doctrines to the Age of Enlightenment, especially to the anthropocentrist idea that "Man has become the master of the world, a master unbound by any links to nature, society, and history."[10] In the 20th century, the idea of absolute state power was first developed by Italian Fascists, and concurrently in Germany by a jurist and Nazi academic named Carl Schmitt during the Weimar Republic in the 1920s.

Scholars and historians have considered Vladimir Lenin,[11][12][13] founder of the Soviet Union,[14][15][16] to be one of the first to attempt to establish a totalitarian state.[17][18][19][20][21] Benito Mussolini, the founder of Italian Fascism, called his regime the "Totalitarian State": "Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State."[22] Schmitt used the term Totalstaat (lit.'Total state') in his influential 1927 work titled The Concept of the Political, which described the legal basis of an all-powerful state.[23]

Totalitarian regimes are different from other authoritarian regimes, as the latter denotes a state in which the single power holder, usually an individual dictator, a committee, a military junta, or an otherwise small group of political elites, monopolizes political power.[24] A totalitarian regime may attempt to control virtually all aspects of social life, including the economy, the education system, arts, science, and the private lives and morals of citizens through the use of an elaborate ideology.[25] It can also mobilize the whole population in pursuit of its goals.[24]

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