Authoritarianism & Totalitarianism

Authoritarianism is a form of government characterized by strong central power and limited political freedoms. Individual freedoms are subordinate to the state and there is no constitutional accountability under an authoritarian regime.Juan Linz‘s influential 1964 description of authoritarianism characterized authoritarian political systems by four qualities:

  1. limited political pluralism; that is, such regimes place constraints on political institutions and groups like legislatures, political parties and interest groups;
  2. a basis for legitimacy based on emotion, especially the identification of the regime as a necessary evil to combat “easily recognizable societal problems” such as underdevelopment or insurgency;
  3. minimal social mobilization most often caused by constraints on the public such as suppression of political opponents and anti-regime activity;
  4. informally defined executive power with often vague and shifting powers.

Modern dictatorships use an authoritarian concept to form a government.


Totalitarianism is a political system in which the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible.[1] A distinctive feature of totalitarian governments is an “elaborate ideology, a set of ideas that gives meaning and direction to the whole society”.[2]

The concept of totalitarianism was first developed in the 1920s by the Weimar German jurist, and later Nazi academic, Carl Schmitt, and Italian fascists. Schmitt used the term, Totalstaat, in his influential work on the legal basis of an all-powerful state, The Concept of the Political (1927).[3] The concept became prominent in Western political discourse as a concept that highlights similarities between Fascist states and the Soviet Union.

What are the differences between authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and fascism?

Totalitarianism and Fascism are forms of authoritarianism, which is governance by an authority without the option of questioning whatever the authority orders. The distinctions between the three are mostly a matter of political theory, applying these labels is usually done very loosely and, in my opinion, badly.

An authoritarian government is any ruling political unit in which the person or group in power tells everyone else what to do, more or less without recourse. Monarchies without parliament and in which the monarch actually rules, as well as military governments and dictatorships of the left and the right can all be correctly identified as authoritarian. Most workplaces are authoritarian, too; the boss tells you what to do, or else. Similarly, most families have an authoritarian streak, as do schools. The basic idea is that what is done is not put to a vote: someone commands, others obey. Authoritarian governments, as you might imagine, can cover a very wide range of power regimes.

Totalitarian rule is called this because the power of those who govern extends to every aspect of life and society; in other words, total rule. They tell you what to say, what to think, where to live, what to study, where to work, etc. Obviously, because of the difficulty of controlling large populations minutely, no pure form of totalitarian government has ever existed. However, Soviet Communism, German Nazism and Italian Fascism attempted to be totalitarian for very different reasons.

All of which brings us to Fascism, which is the historical movement of Benito Mussolini, who ruled Italy as a dictator from 1929 to 1943. The word “fascism” comes from the Latin fasces, a bundle of rods tied around an ax; the members of the movement conceived of themselves as a tightly wound bundle of people who figuratively chopped down whatever stood in the way of their ideas. These ideas included the revival of Italy’s glory as the center of the Roman Empire. It was a nationalist and ultra-conservative movement similar and allied to German Nazism and Spanish Falangism, yet distinctly Italian.

Because Fascism came to power first, its name became a shorthand for any right-wing authoritarian regime and for the supporters of such rule. The concept has also been twisted completely out of shape by rhetorical abuse. For example, Reaganism and Thatcherism (USA and UK in the 1980s), although ideologically in harmony with many fascist ideas, have been called fascist even though they operated in a political environment in which at least a pretense of democratic representation was maintained.