The best books on authoritarianism and totalitarianism

Archie Brown Author Of The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher, and the End of the Cold War
By Archie Brown

Who am I?

Throughout the forty-one years (thirty-four of them at Oxford) I spent as a university teacher, I taught a course on Communist government and politics (latterly ‘Communist and post-Communist government’). Communist-ruled systems were never less than highly authoritarian (when they became politically pluralist, they were, by definition, no longer Communist), and in some countries at particular times they were better described as totalitarian. That was notably true of Stalin’s Soviet Union, especially from the early 1930s to the dictator’s death in 1953. The books I’ve written prior to The Human Factor include The Rise and Fall of Communism and The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age.


I wrote...

The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher, and the End of the Cold War

By Archie Brown,

Book cover of The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher, and the End of the Cold War

What is my book about?

Archie Brown’s latest book shows, with a wealth of new evidence, how Mikhail Gorbachev played the decisive role in ending the Cold War. Ronald Reagan was his essential partner and Margaret Thatcher a surprisingly influential intermediary. Less ‘Iron Lady’ than Go-Between, she was able, as Reagan’s favourite foreign leader, to persuade the President that Gorbachev (with whom she had good relations) was a very different Soviet leader from his predecessors. 

The 10 Downing Street Foreign Policy adviser, Sir Percy Cradock, thought she went too far. Promoting Gorbachev in Washington as ‘a man to do business with’, she became, Cradock complained, ‘an agent of influence in both directions’. But it was Gorbachev who was crucial to ending the Cold War. He led the Soviet Union’s transition from a highly authoritarian system to one that was politically pluralist, and, abandoning Leninist dogma, he presided over a fundamental transformation of Soviet foreign policy. The Cold War began with the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, and it ended when Gorbachev accepted both in principle and in practice that the peoples of these countries had the right to decide for themselves what kind of political and economic system they wished to live in.

The books I picked & why

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The Anatomy of Fascism

By Robert O. Paxton,

Book cover of The Anatomy of Fascism

Why this book?

Fascism and Communism purported to explain all social and political phenomena and, on that basis, justified their authoritarian or totalitarian rule. The term ‘fascist’ tends to be loosely applied to intolerant and autocratic political behaviour, but the outstandingly lucid, and highly readable, book by Robert Paxton not only surveys fascism in practice – in Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany and in fascist movements and parties in many different countries – it also shows what its distinctive components are. What he calls the ‘mobilizing passions’ of fascism include the glorification of war and violence, expansionism, racism, a fixation on national solidarity, rejection of the legitimacy of diverse interests and values within a society, and, not least, a cult of the heroic leader, with the leader’s instincts counting for more than reasoned, evidence-based argument.


Conversations with Gorbachev: On Perestroika, the Prague Spring, and the Crossroads of Socialism

By Mikhail Gorbachev, Zdenek Mlynar, George Shriver (translator)

Book cover of Conversations with Gorbachev: On Perestroika, the Prague Spring, and the Crossroads of Socialism

Why this book?

There are thousands of books on Communism, but the great interest of this one lies in the character and experience of these two former Communists who were the closest of friends during the five years they studied together in Moscow University from 1950 to 1955. One of them, Mikhail Gorbachev, became the last leader of the Soviet Union (1985-91) and the other, Zdenĕk Mlynář, was the main theoretician of the attempt radically to reform Communism in Czechoslovakia in 1968 which became known as the ‘Prague Spring’. After that movement was crushed by Soviet tanks, Mlynář resigned from his political office and was subsequently expelled from the Communist Party. From 1977 until his death in 1997, he lived in Vienna. Because of his close friendship with Gorbachev and the timing of their discussion – shortly after the Soviet Union had ceased to exist – Mlynář was able to press the former Soviet leader for the reasons why he did or did not take particular actions. Both men reflect on the political and intellectual journeys which took them from unquestioning Communist believers in their youth to reformers when they came to power, and on the further evolution of their thinking which led them to view Communist systems as a betrayal of socialist ideals.


Nineteen Eighty-Four

By George Orwell,

Book cover of Nineteen Eighty-Four

Why this book?

This is the only novel on the list. Completed in 1948 (Orwell reversed the last two numerals to get his book’s title), it was meant not as a prediction but as a warning of the dangers of totalitarianism. Although Stalin’s Soviet Union was very much in Orwell’s mind, he illuminates more general features of totalitarian rule. These include control over the concepts and language within which people think, the deliberate destruction of historical evidence, comprehensive censorship, and the surveillance and brutality of the ubiquitous political police. Several of the terms Orwell coined to describe the methods of control – ‘doublethink’, ‘Newspeak’, ‘Unperson’, ‘memory-holes’ – remain in the political lexicon and have an enduring resonance today. Despite some literary flaws, the book is powerful and carries a still prescient warning more than seventy years after its first publication.


Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes

By Juan J. Linz,

Book cover of Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes

Why this book?

Juan Linz (1926-2013) was one of the most insightful political analysts of the past hundred years. He was especially noted for his studies of how democracies can degenerate into authoritarianism and on the characteristics and types of authoritarian and totalitarian rule. The greater part of this work first appeared in 1975 (in a multi-volume Handbook of Political Science), but with its publication as a separate book a quarter of a century later, Linz added almost fifty pages of valuable ‘Further Reflections’. Authoritarian systems embrace a wide variety of non-democratic polities, among them absolute monarchy, military dictatorship, ‘sultanistic’ regimes, and theocracies. Totalitarianism is a still more extreme case of concentration of power, ‘a regime form’, as Linz puts it, ‘for completely organizing political life and society’. It is underpinned by an all-encompassing ideology justifying total control today with the promise of utopia tomorrow (though tomorrow never comes). Linz’s erudite analysis is illuminating about the variety of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes and provides salutary warnings for any reader who, disillusioned with the quality of democracy, is tempted by non-democratic alternatives.


Democratic Transitions: Conversations with World Leaders

By Sergio Bitar, Abraham F. Lowenthal,

Book cover of Democratic Transitions: Conversations with World Leaders

Why this book?

The last book on my list is on the transition from authoritarian rule. It draws on political leaders’ own understandings and perceptions of their political experience as distinct from the analyses of scholars. The latter are not entirely absent, for the interview with the leader of each of the many countries covered is preceded by an essay from a specialist on that country, putting the democratization process there in context. Among the most illuminating of the in-depth interviews are those with Fernando Henrique Cardoso, President of Brazil from 1995 to 2003, with former President of Chile (1990-94) Patricio Aylwin, with former Polish President (1995-2005) Aleksander Kwaśniewski, and with Felipe González, the head of the Spanish government from 1982 to 1996, who played a major part in consolidating Spain’s recently re-established democracy.


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