Totalitarianism: The Political Ideology that Uses Terror to Control

Hannah Arendt coined the term “totalitarianism” with the meaning it has today: a government that uses terror in order to impose its law. In the 20th century, due to political alliances, it was taboo in Europe to group the Nazis and the Russian communists under the same umbrella, but Arendt, with her strong character and critical spirit, was among the first to call both regimes totalitarian.

Her work was criticised heavily, even by fellow Jews, because Arendt identified Zionism (more than Nazism) as the cause for rising anti-Semitism in Europe, and scholars critiqued her writing style and research method, which were always unclear. Despite this, the Origins of Totalitarianism (Arendt, 1951) is one of the most important works on the topic, where the author describes the ideological bases of totalitarian governments.

This blog explores Arendt’s article Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government (1953), where she analyses the law of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and explores the evolution of the place of the individual in the eyes of the law.

Hannah Arendt, Jewish-German political thinker. Source: Wikimedia
Hannah Arendt, Jewish-German political thinker. Source: Wikimedia

Totalitarianism, a New Form of Rule?

Arendt draws a spectrum between two extremes. On the one hand, there is lawfulness and legitimate rule. This side would apply the Rule of Law, where not even the ruler is above the law and must abide by it. On the other extreme, there would be lawlessness and arbitrary laws. A totalitarian government would be a third side to this spectrum, as it is not lawless, and practices its own form of law (as we’ll see later on), but it is very ready to defy or abolish all positive laws. Positive laws are those created in human legal institutions, and the totalitarian government claims to be above them all because it obeys suprahuman laws.

For example, the Nazis claimed to obey the laws of nature. These stemmed from Darwin’s theories of evolution through natural selection, and, in the Nazi interpretation, they called for humans to engineer society to give way to the higher race of humans.

Adolf Hitler, leader of totalitarian Nazi Germany. Source: Wikimedia
Adolf Hitler, leader of totalitarian Nazi Germany. Source: Wikimedia

New or More of the Same?

Arendt argues that the question is whether this is a new phenomenon or the result of the failure of other forms of politics such as liberalism, nationalism and conservatism. She says that this is the question of whether or not it rests on the small set of basic experiences that humans have when they live together. If it is the case, then it must be that this experience, for whatever reason, has never before dominated the public affairs of body politic (a group of people cohabiting). In her view, this is unlikely because the classifications of governments made by the Greeks in the times of Plato have remained extraordinarily consistent until today.

We should thus conclude that totalitarianism is “a modern form of tyranny, that is a lawless government where power is wielded by one man” (Arendt 1953:306). This means without any Rule of Law: arbitrary power.

Place of the Individual in a Totalitarian Government

Sociology, since around Marx, has tended to explain political movements and historical developments in terms of psychological types such as the “authoritarian personality” and Freudian terms such as the super-ego. Both sociology and psychology grew from “a liberalism that viewed politics… under the dual category of society and individual” (pp 304), in the sense that the whole determines its parts. The problem with psychology, for Arendt, is that it studies individuals as mere parts of society.

Thus, everything they do becomes abnormal when put in society because they are stripped of the privacy where the soul can act freely. Psychology, thus, became a discipline that studies abnormalities. Arendt argues that society as something more than just the total sum of its parts (as a unity in itself) no longer exists.

The Social Sciences

But this is only where the individual has sovereignty over a collective understanding of the group, what we may call ‘Western’ societies. “Individual psychology became fashionable wherever customs and conventions… lost their authority” (Arendt 1953:305), she says. Totalitarian societies go a different way: it has the “unanswerable claim” that, far from being lawless, it obeys better than any other form of government the laws of Nature or History, and it does not wield power for the interests of one man but is quite prepared to sacrifice “everybody’s vital immediate interests” for the sake of those suprahuman laws (Arendt 1953:307). There is thus a contrast between totalitarian rule and lawful, legitimate rule, and that is that, in the former, the individual is sacrificed to the fundamental unit, which is nature or History, while in the latter, the individual is the fundamental unit.

| Comparing ideas of civil society in the West and the East, read here

The Lawfulness of Totalitarianism

Marx and the Soviet Union’s History

Let us define what we mean by History, so that it is clear what kind of idea we are talking about. The name of Karl Marx needs no introduction. He was a political philosopher of the 19th century, and a contemporary and friend of the philosopher of history, Georg W. F. Hegel. Marx also produced his own theory of history, drawing on Hegel’s historical dialectic. His theory, historical materialism, argues that the drive of history is the labour force and ownership of the means of production. History is divided into different stages, and one goes to the next when means of production change owner and form.

Historical Materialism

The first of those stages is primitive communism. Here, there is no concept of private property, but rather communal property. This is the stage of hunter gatherers, where people take from nature and share with the tribe or clan. The stage of slavery is entered when the idea of private property appears and a group of people come to own another. This owned group is the means of production. The next stage would be feudalism. Here, the means of production are both land and serfs. Feudal lords would own both of them, and serfs would work the land for them, getting the spoils of it. In the capitalist stage, people cease to be legally owned, but the means of production, the factories, are still considered the private property of a few and the proletariat will have to sell them their labour force to benefit from them.

| Anthropological history and philosophy of the Communist Manifesto, read here

| Communism in Cuba, read here

| Nationalism and communism in Argelia, read here

Statures of Marx (left), author of the Communist Manifesto, and Lenin (right), founder of the Bolshevik party
Statures of Marx (left), author of the Communist Manifesto, and Lenin (right), founder of the Bolshevik party

Capitalism would provide an illusion of freedom, when in reality workers are owned by the trap of necessity. When the proletariat realise the injustice of the situation, according to Marx, they will rebel against capitalism and bring about the communist revolution. In the communist society, means of production are communally owned and profit evenly shared. This is the route history should follow, and it is destined to do so. That is History. Most importantly, the ideas that are the foundations of totalitarian ideologies are ideas about destiny. They describe the future and how it ought to be.

The Application of History in Totalitarian Governments

Totalitarian governments act under the claim that they obey the law of Nature (in the case of the Nazis), of History (for the USSR), or whatever superhuman force they might believe in. For this, the state has legitimacy to break and defy positive laws, and use terror in order to shape people’s behaviour. Positive laws are general statements, guidelines that try to establish God’s law on a political reality. They have to be general because each case to consider is different and has its own unpredictable set of specific characteristics.

Totalitarian lawfulness is not concerned with individual cases, but applies the Law of History collectively. “It applies the law directly to mankind without bothering with the behaviour of men” (Arendt 1953:307). Its aim is not to care for individuals, but to mould society as a whole, to follow the Law of History.

Consensus Iuris

Society, and its law, will have what Cicero called a consensus iuris, or consentient of all goods. This is a set of rules, spoken or otherwise, upon which the members of society agree traditionally. The consensus iuris defines a people. But the totalitarian government thinks it can do without it, and with this claim it justifies its constant defiance of positive law. It can go over the consensus iuris because its interest is not with the people, but with the Law of History. The totalitarian government “promises justice on earth because it claims to make mankind itself the embodiment of law” (Arendt 1953:308).

Joseph Stalin, successor of Vladimir Lenin. It was under him that the Soviet Union's totalitarianism reached its hegemony. Source: Wikimedia
Joseph Stalin, successor of Vladimir Lenin. It was under him that the Soviet Union’s totalitarianism reached its hegemony. Source: Wikimedia

Positive law is concerned with the discrepancy between law and justice. But not totalitarian law, because it acts in a different realm of law. Positive law is human law, but history and nature are not human. They are the most fundamental type of law, comparable to God’s law (although they don’t need the existence of a god). Totalitarian law isn’t even bothered about whether they are just or wise. They act for history, and for that, all things are permissible.

Law and Movement

When Hannah Arendt speaks of movements, she means the organic evolution and development of ideas and currents through human thought. Every time a human is born, a new movement begins until he or she dies. This would have contributed to the more general movement of all society and the ideas that run through it. “Positive laws… are primarily designed to function as stabilizing factors for the ever changing movements of men” (Arendt 1953:308). They are attempts to manifest into the human world the Divine laws of God.

In totalitarian law, history is understood to be movement. “In the interpretation of totalitarianism, all laws have become laws of movement” (Arendt 1953:308). The Bolsheviks, for example, created laws to lead Soviet society in the direction of communism, following Marx’s historical materialism. In doing so, they thought they were justified in using terror.

Cicero, Roman statesman who wrote about the concept of consensus iuris. Source: Wikimedia
Cicero, Roman statesman who wrote about the concept of consensus iuris. Source: Wikimedia


Terror has an important place in a totalitarian government. It plays the same role as positive law does for their governments. That is, to bring history or nature into political reality. It shapes the behaviour of the population. But it is not merely a form of punishment. When theft is abundant, that calls for the creation of laws against theft. In cases where there is no more theft, however, this does not mean the law isn’t useful any more. Rather, this absence signifies the success of the law. The law is independent of the crime, even though related to its origins. In the same way, terror in totalitarian governments does not require opposition. The government puts it forward to fight it, but its application then becomes independent of it.

In totalitarianism, terror becomes the essence, and the government will apply it for as long as it stands. It does not end when there is no opposition – terror becomes total when it becomes independent of opposition. “terror seeks to ‘stabilize’ men in order to liberate the forces of Nature or History” (Arendt 1953:310). A totalitarian government directs terror at the enemies of history and nature. No free action of opposition as well as sympathy can be tolerated if they dare interfere with the elimination of the “objective enemy”. “Guilty” then only means s/he who stands in the way of nature/ history.

Totalitarianism poster of the Big Brother, fictitious totalitarian ruler of Oceania in Orwell's novel 1984. Source: Wikimedia
Poster of Big Brother, fictitious totalitarian ruler of Oceania in Orwell’s novel 1984. Source: Wikimedia

The Banality of Evil

This comes down to what Arendt called the banality of evil. Totalitarian governments claim to be working for the superhuman force that is the destiny or fate of humanity. They hold the system more important than people, because it’s fate. Its accomplishment will bring justice to Earth. It is permissible to eliminate the enemies of history because they are not against the state but the ultimate law. For this same reason, individuals don’t matter, but the whole. When Arendt spoke of the banality of evil, she meant that an evildoer does not need to be an extraordinary person. The evildoer only needs to forget to reflect about his/her moral conduct while following blindly the laws of a doctrine such as totalitarianism.

To be fair with Marx, however, one should note that in his writings there is the question of freedom/fate. He seems to have favoured freedom, that people’s actions are free and will determine the future. But many of his followers, like Lenin and Stalin at one point, went the other way. They favoured fate, so that no matter what people did or wanted, historical materialism would become true. That is, regardless of what people do, communism will necessarily come. Thus, they work in favour of it, eliminating those who obstructed the development of historical materialism.

| On Marxist historical theory, watch here

Conclusion: The Ideas at Play

Totalitarian governments are based on theories about the fate of humanity and claim to work in that direction, to socially engineer society in accordance to history. It exits the duality lawfulness vs lawlessness, and becomes a kind of lawful arbitrariness. One man only wields power, but power is not (overtly, at least) working only for that man. It claims legitimacy to defy positive laws in that it works for a superhuman force. It does not work for individuals, but for the fate of humanity as a whole. For this reason, it is more concerned with shaping people’s behaviour than assuring their welfare. Because it works at a superhuman level, it doesn’t concern itself with consensus iuris.

Thus, totalitarianism is the diametrical opposite of any sort of democracy. It will use terror in its most total form in order to make history a reality.


To access, requires permission from an institution:

Arendt, H. (1953). Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government. The Review of Politics, 15(3), 303-327 

Leave a Reply