The concept of totalitarianism

The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union has not put an end to the long- standing debate over the pertinence of the concept of totalitarianism or on its more or less limited usage. [1] Its physiognomy has, however, changed. Uncertainties over the future of the Soviet regime no longer weigh down on protagonists of the concept as they once did and science has taken the lead over political judgement, even though it sometimes retains the imprint of the old ideological oppositions. Discussions now tend to revolve around the circle of historians. What seems to me more remarkable is the persistence of the objections and reservations to characterising the communist system as totalitarian, or more generally to the idea of a new social formation emerging beneath the opposed traits of communism and fascism. Some of the arguments advanced under the sign of scientific rigour deserve to be examined inasmuch as they can help us to clarify the problem. I shall discuss four of these arguments: (i) communism and fascism are fundamentally different; (ii) the totalitarian phenomenon can only be detected in Germany and Russia during limited periods; (iii) the concept, as suggestive as it may be, has no practical value for the historian; (iv) it only becomes pertinent if it is introduced as an ideal- type in the Weberian sense of the term.

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