Mass Dictatorship and the ‘Modernist State’

  • Roger Griffin
Part of the Mass Dictatorship in the Twentieth Century book series (MASSD)


To begin to write about mass dictatorship in relation to modernity is to walk into a minefield of the sort of definitional and methodological problems encountered in all comparative history. Every dictatorship is both unique and part of a more general pattern, and finding the appropriate grouping of similar regimes to compare meaningfully and the appropriate conceptual framework within which to carry out the study is deeply problematic. Once ‘modernity’, one of the most multifaceted and contested concepts in the human sciences, is thrown into the pot, the task of writing something coherent and significant is multiplied even in a purely Western context, where an enormous literature already exists on dictatorial regimes in Europe and Latin America. For European human scientists the task of analysis and generalisation is compounded further once the remit is enlarged further to include the plethora of non-European, especially Asian, dictatorships of modern times, all of which arose in quite distinct cultural, political, and cosmological traditions, and all of which respond to the impact of specific conjunctures or episodes of modernisation and Westernisation1 in a unique way.2


Authoritarian Regime Ruling Elite Totalitarian Regime Military Junta Cultural Hegemony 
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  1. 1.
    A seminal text in the context of this chapter is Schmuel Eisenstadt, Comparative Civilizations and Multiple Modernities, 2 vols (Leiden: Brill, 2003).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For a refreshingly non-Eurocentric treatment of the topic of dictatorship, see Jie-Hyun Lim’s chapter, ‘Mapping Mass Dictatorship: Towards a Transnational History of Twentieth-Century Dictatorship’, in Jie-Hyun Lim and Karen Petrone, eds, Gender Politics and Mass Dictatorship: Global Perspectives (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Gilbert Pleuger, ‘Totalitarianism’, New Perspective 9/1 (2003),
  4. 4.
    Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (New York: 1965), pp. 21–6.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Emilio Gentile, Religion as Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001). The passage cited below appears on p. 46.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Emilio Gentile, ‘The Sacralization of Politics: Definitions, Interpretations and Reflections on the Question of Secular Religion and Totalitarianism’, trans. Robert Mallet, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions 1/1 (2000), 18–55. The passage appears on p. 46 of Religion as Politics.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For those interested in the way that totalitarianism is now becoming a dynamic concept identified, no longer with the static connotations of ‘monopoly of power’, but with the bid to implement a revolutionary concept of a new society, involving political religion in pursuit of its claims for ‘fundamental renewal’, see Simon Tormey, Making Sense of Tyranny: Interpretations of Totalitarianism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995).Google Scholar
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    Cf. Anthony McElligott and Tom Kirk, Working towards the Führer: Essays in Honour of Sir Ian Kershaw (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003).Google Scholar
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  11. see also Roger Griffin, ‘The Legitimizing Role of Palingenetic Myth in Ideocracies’, Totalitarismus und Demokratie/Totalitarianism and Democracy 1 (2012), 39–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  14. 12.
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  18. A number of other theories underpin the ‘primordialist’ approach to modernity summarised in this chapter but cannot be considered in detail here, notably Antonio Gramsci’s distinction between ‘dominion’ (coercion) and ‘hegemony’ (consensus); Anthony Giddens’s prolific publications on social and spiritual malaise-induced modernity; David Roberts’s concept of totalitarianism as an essentially unrealisable project to establish alternative modernity; Zygmunt Bauman’s insistence on the intimate causal link between modernity and the Holocaust and his concept of the ‘gardening state’ that arises once a ruling elite takes upon itself the use of the power of the state to reform and regenerate society by weeding and rooting out social elements held to disseminate crime, immorality, or chaos; work by Victor Turner (e.g., Victor and Edith Turner, ‘Religious Celebrations’, in Victor Turner ed., Celebration. Studies in Festivity and Ritual, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press (1982), pp. 211–12.Google Scholar
  19. Anthony Wallace (see Robert Grumet ed., Anthony Wallace. Revitalization & Mazeways. Essays on Cultural Change, vol. 1, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003) on the rite of passage and the revitalization ceremony. I engage with these theories extensively in Modernism and Fascism, which provides a full bibliography.Google Scholar
  20. 18.
    Cf. Ernest Becker, Birth and Death of Meaning. An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Problem of Man (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962).Google Scholar
  21. 19.
    The pioneering study of this universal phenomenon was Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (1909) (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960).Google Scholar
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    The classic text is Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium. Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (1957) (London: Granada, 1970).Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    My own analysis builds on the pioneering attempts by a number of cultural historians who have similarly extended the concept of modernism, notably Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring (1989) (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000).Google Scholar
  24. Peter Fritzsche, ‘Nazi Modern’, Modernism/Modernity 3/1 (1996), 1–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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© Roger Griffin 2013

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  • Roger Griffin

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