Rethinking Totalitarian Ideology: Insights from the Anti-Totalitarian Canon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Colleges, School and Institutes


‘Totalitarianism’ first emerged in interwar Europe, and did so as an explicit intellectual engagement. Thereafter, it persisted as a point of reflection, often more implicitly, and in political theorising especially. The main product of the initial engagement was a structural model isolating a discrete regime-type and marginalising the ideological dimension. Over time, dissatisfaction with the model became widespread. But dissatisfaction ought not to exclude the possibility that it was the relatively looser intellectual attention which followed that contains all the resources sufficient for constructing a more compelling account. By tracking debates in twentieth-century political thought, we can clarify the content of a new ideology-oriented, ‘post-revisionist’ theory of totalitarianism: its coherence as an ideational product is to be found in the synthesis of three distinct currents of thought (utopianism, scientism, and revolutionary violence), emphasised in disproportion by three consecutive positions taken up across the ‘anti-totalitarian canon’. Evaluating these three positions turns out to raise issues that are conceptual, contextual and empirical. Attending to those leads us, lastly, to reflect on the understanding of ideology itself that may be appropriate to conceptualising ‘totalitarian ideology’.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)726-761
Number of pages35
JournalHistory of Political Thought
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2015


  • Totalitarianism, Ideology, Fascism, Communism, Canon, Cold War liberalism, Critical theory, Utopianism, Scientism, Revolutionary violence, Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Michel Foucault, François Furet, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, R.G. Collingwood