Will totalitarianism make a comeback? We asked Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Illustration for article titled Will totalitarianism make a comeback? We asked Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Totalitarianism towered over the 20th century — a leader-focused, oppressive form of rule in which the individual was crushed. Now it seems to have receded as an ideal. But will it be back? We asked the expert, Zbigniew Brzezinski.


Brzezinski is best known for having been the National Security Advisor in the Carter Administration, and for helping to dismantle the Ford Administration's policy of detente towards the Soviet Union. But in the 1950s, he was one of the main scholars developing the theory of totalitarianism, and helping to spread the idea that both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union represented examples of this type of system. He's currently Robert E. Osgood Professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

So when we were wondering if totalitarianism was discredited for good, or if it might still stage a resurgence, we could think of no better person to ask than Brzezinski. Here's what he said, via email.

Illustration for article titled Will totalitarianism make a comeback? We asked Zbigniew Brzezinski.

You helped pioneer the idea of totalitarianism as a system of government. Do you think totalitarianism has been discredited as a form of government in the past couple of decades?

Totalitarianism has been discredited during the past several decades, but that does not mean that it cannot reoccur. However, the discerning aspect of totalitarianism is not simply that it is "totally" in control of society, but that it tries to change society according to a dogmatic blueprint, the latter usually being described as "ideology." For the time being, there is no total ideology of change being advocated by any serious political grouping.

Does the rise of surveillance technology like ubiquitous video cameras and wiretapping make the rise of a new form of totalitarianism more likely? Could we see a new form of electronic totalitarianism for the 21st century?


If a new doctrine of total change arises, abetted and advocated by fanatics, then we might have another case of totalitarianism, one that will then benefit from the highly technological advanced forms of social control available to dictatorships.

On the other hand, do you think that the ability of people to share information anonymously online would make it impossible to suppress dissent as thoroughly as former totalitarian regimes such as the USSR once did?


It is more difficult to isolate societies from outside influences because of modern means of communication - but a truly fanatical regime, armed with the most advanced technology, could probably maintain such isolation for awhile. Nonetheless, the key issue is whether a new doctrine of total social change is likely to appear in the foreseeable future, and for that there is no categorical answer.

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Corpore Metal

Years ago, I had the great pleasure to attend some classes by Professor Peter Sugar, then a leading expert in Central and Easter European history.

It was his opinion that the totalitarianism of XX Century was as much an artifact of the technology of the period as it was manifestation of social and cultural trends. He felt that the technology of the time made it very easy to centralize things and governments used this to extend control in a way unheard hither to.

Would Stalin, Mao, Franco or Hitler have commanded the power that they did if it wasn't for radio and the centralization and control of the printing presses? Suddenly the military and police had radio to communicate with, thus they could coordinate their activities over huge areas, thus extending the power of the state to control the people in the streets.

He had other examples but, he felt that, in the late 80s, technology was slowly swinging things the other way towards decentralization. This was in 1988. He died only a few years afterwards but up to the very end he seemed very hip and visionary. Not what you'd expect from a historian.

I think the point to take away from this is that spectre of totalitarianism is always there lurking in the technology. It just depends on how you apply it.

cameras are getting small and cheaper, which means Big Brother can spy on us all. That's centralization.

But we could also flip that around and say, now nearly everyone inthe post industrial world has a mobile phone camera and connection to the Internet. That means you can snap pictures of the cops breaking the law and then share it with the world before they take your camera way. We can be the ones who watch the watchmen if we do it right.