Totalitarianism, Authoritarianism, and Fascism: What Is the Difference? (2023)

Totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and fascism are all forms of government characterized by a strong central rule that attempts to control and direct all aspects of individual life through coercion and repression.

All nations have an official type of government as designated in the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook. However, a nation’s own description of its form of government can often be less than objective. For example, while the former Soviet Union declared itself a democracy, its elections were not “free and fair”, as only one party with state-approved candidates was represented. The USSR is more correctly classified as a socialist republic.

In addition, the boundaries between various forms of government can be fluid or poorly-defined, often with overlapping characteristics. Such is the case with totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and fascism.

What Is Totalitarianism?

Totalitarianism, Authoritarianism, and Fascism: What Is the Difference? (1)

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.

(Video) Totalitarianism vs. Authoritarianism

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.

Early examples of totalitarian states include Germany under Adolf Hitler and Italy under Benito Mussolini. More recent examples of totalitarian states include Iraq under Saddam Hussein and North Korea under Kim Jong-un.

(Video) What is the difference between an authoritarian, a dictator, and a fascist?

According to Russian history expert and author Richard Pipes, Fascist Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini used the term “totalitario” to in the early 1920s to describe the new fascist state of Italy, which he further described as “all within the state, none outside the state, none against the state.” By the beginning of World War II, totalitarian had become synonymous with absolute and oppressive single-party rule.

Totalitarianism is typically distinguished from dictatorship, autocracy, or tyranny by its goals of replacing all existing political institutions with new ones and elimination of all legal, social, and political traditions. Totalitarian governments typically pursue a special goal, such as industrialization or imperialism, intended to mobilize the population in its favor. Regardless of the economic or social cost, all resources are devoted to achieving the special goal. Every government action is explained in terms of realizing the goal. This allows a totalitarian state the widest latitude of action of any form of government. No dissent or internal political differences are allowed. Because pursuit of the goal is the foundation for the totalitarian state, achievement of the goal can never be acknowledged.

What Is Authoritarianism?

Totalitarianism, Authoritarianism, and Fascism: What Is the Difference? (2)

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:

(Video) Totalitarianism, Authoritarianism, and Fascism

  • 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.

Authoritarian leaders exercise power arbitrarily and without regard to existing laws or constitutional limitations, and typically cannot be replaced by citizens through freely conducted elections. The right to create opposing political parties that might compete for power with the ruling group is either limited or prohibited in authoritarian states. In this manner, authoritarianism stands in fundamental contrast to democracy. However, it differs from totalitarianism in that authoritarian governments typically lack a guiding national ideology or goal and tolerate some diversity in social organization. Without the power or necessity to mobilize the entire population in pursuit of national goals authoritarian governments tend to exercise their power within more-or-less predictable limits. Examples of authoritarian regimes, according to some scholars, include the pro-Western military dictatorships that existed in Latin America and elsewhere in the second half of the 20th century.

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?

Totalitarianism, Authoritarianism, and Fascism: What Is the Difference? (3)

(Video) What is the difference between fascism and totalitarianism?

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 peoples’ 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, fascists movements tended to promote the belief that non-Europeans were genetically inferior to 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.

(Video) Authoritarianism vs. Totalitarianism

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.


What is the difference between totalitarianism fascism and authoritarianism? ›

Totalitarianism involves a form of government where the state possesses unlimited power and authority over every single aspect of private and public life. On the other hand, fascism is a form of government that is a combination of extreme aspects visible in both totalitarianism and authoritarianism.

Are totalitarianism and authoritarianism the same? ›

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.

How would you define fascism? ›

1. or Fascism : a way of organizing a society in which a government ruled by a dictator controls the lives of the people and in which people are not allowed to disagree with the government.

What authoritarianism means? ›

In government, authoritarianism denotes any political system that concentrates power in the hands of a leader or a small elite that is not constitutionally responsible to the body of the people.

What are the 4 types of totalitarianism? ›

  • Totalitarianism.
  • Military Dictatorship.
  • Autocracy.
  • Totalitarianism vs. Authoritarianism vs. Fascism.
1 Oct 2022

What are examples of totalitarianism? ›

Notable examples of totalitarian states include Italy under Benito Mussolini (1922–43), the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin (1924–53), Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler (1933–45), the People's Republic of China under the influence of Mao Zedong (1949–76), and North Korea under the Kim dynasty (1948– ).

What are the 4 characteristics of totalitarianism? ›

Definition of Totalitarianism

Total control of the military. Total control over means of communication (such as newspapers, propaganda, etc…) Police control with the use of terror as a control tactic. Control of the economy.

What is an example of fascism? ›

Germany (1933–1945)

The Nazi Party, led by Adolf Hitler, espoused a form of fascism that incorporated fervent antisemitism, anti-communism, scientific racism, and the use of eugenics into its creed.

What are the 5 main ideas of fascism? ›

Common themes among fascist movements include: authoritarianism, nationalism (including racial nationalism), hierarchy and elitism, and militarism. Other aspects of fascism such as its "myth of decadence", anti-egalitarianism and totalitarianism can be seen to originate from these ideas.

What country uses fascism? ›

CountryAdministrationRuling party
Italy *Free State of FiumeGiovanni Giuriati
Fascist ItalyNational Fascist Party
Italian Social RepublicRepublican Fascist Party
SingaporePeople's Action Party
14 more rows

What is the synonym of authoritarian? ›

overbearing, peremptory, tyrannical. (also tyrannic), tyrannous.

Is authoritarian a negative word? ›

The noun authoritarianism is most often used in a negative context, to describe a government with absolute control over the population. This kind of government uses military threats, suppression of a free press, and disinformation to manage the people over whom it rules.

What are two differences between a democracy and an authoritarian system? ›

In a democracy, the government is accountable to its citizens, but in an authoritarian system, the government is not accountable to its citizens. B. In a democracy, citizens are subject to the same laws as their leader, but in an authoritarian government, leaders are not subject to punishment.

What are the 4 types of totalitarianism? ›

  • Totalitarianism.
  • Military Dictatorship.
  • Autocracy.
  • Totalitarianism vs. Authoritarianism vs. Fascism.
1 Oct 2022

What is fascism and how is it related to authoritarianism? ›

Fascism is a far-right, authoritarian, ultranationalist political ideology and movement, characterized by a dictatorial leader, centralized autocracy, militarism, forcible suppression of opposition, belief in a natural social hierarchy, subordination of individual interests for the perceived good of the nation and race ...

What is the basic difference between authoritarian and totalitarian governments Brainly? ›

Answer. Totalitarian and authoritarian are both words to describe forms of government. The main difference between the two is that totalitarian regimes (as the name implies) exert total control over the lives of citizens, while authoritarian regimes allow some civil freedoms.

What are examples of totalitarianism? ›

Notable examples of totalitarian states include Italy under Benito Mussolini (1922–43), the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin (1924–53), Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler (1933–45), the People's Republic of China under the influence of Mao Zedong (1949–76), and North Korea under the Kim dynasty (1948– ).


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