Saddam Hussein: Was He the Totalitarian We Were Led to Believe?

Introduction and Operationalization

In 2002 State of the Union address, then-President George Bush accused three states of forming a new “axis of evil.” Saddam Hussein, then leader of Iraq and a member of the “axis of evil,” soon became one of the United States’ chief enemies. In order to juxtapose the United States with Iraq, much of the American political discourse framed Saddam Hussein as a totalitarian leader. Dr. Ahmed Chalabi, a member of the three-man council leading the Iraqi National Congress, an opposition group to Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, labeled Hussein a totalitarian. However, as Peter Grieder notes, one of the criticisms of totalitarianism as an effective model to understand government is that it is often used as a normative label. Much of the rhetoric surrounding the use of totalitarianism as a label is itself politically charged and used to generate a specific response, making it difficult to understand exactly how accurate of a label it is.

Before exploring the efficacy of totalitarianism as a model for understanding Hussein’s government, some explanation of the term must be given. Friedrich and Brzezinski’s definition of totalitarianism will be used for this paper. For Friedrich and Brzezinski, totalitarianism has six components: An official ideology geared toward a perfected state of mankind that demands complete adherence; a mass party led by one person; a system of terror, which could be physical, psychological, or both; a monopoly of control by the government of all means of mass communication; a similar monopoly of control by the government of the military and weapons; and finally, a centralized command economy. Their definition, Grieder notes, achieved consensus in scholarly circles. Friedrich and Brzezinski’s definition is used because it reaches an appropriate equilibrium between specificity and generalizability. Theories in political science are usually too specific or not specific enough, but Friedrich and Brzezinski’s theory is balanced since it allows for unique examples within the regime of study, but is also broad enough to allow comparative analysis. Thus, it presents the best model to assess the extent to which the Hussein regime could be considered totalitarian.

Totalitarianism is a very specific system of governance. Many states that are labeled as totalitarian are, in fact, authoritarian. Because totalitarianism is a political extreme—meaning that it is the zenith of authoritarianism—and thus requires total adherence to Friedrich and Brzezinski’s formula, it is imprecise to place that moniker on regimes that do not meet all its requirements. The two regimes that are most often correctly labeled totalitarian, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, met all of these requirements. Hussein’s regime, however, did not. Although Hussein’s government comes quite close to totalitarianism, its allowance of private gun ownership precludes it from truly being totalitarian. Despite the fact that Hitler only removed the right to gun ownership from “undesirables” and Stalin also allowed private gun ownership for hunting and self-defense, the extent to which other totalitarian institutions were utilized more than made up for this. Hussein, on the other hand, never had a military as strong as Nazi Germany’s, and never had a security apparatus as robust as the Soviet Union’s. Therefore, Hussein’s regime can correctly be called near totalitarian, rather than truly totalitarian.

Regime Analysis

The first of the six points is that a totalitarian regime will establish an official ideology geared toward a perfect state of mankind that demands its subjects’ complete adherence. Hussein’s party subscribed to Neo-Ba’athism, which is a splinter faction of the socialist, secular, and pan-Arab Ba’ath party. After the original Ba’ath party split in 1966 due to factionalist infighting and ideological differences, it began to seize power in Iraq. Iraqi Neo-Ba’athism, which is also called Saddamism— the ideology followed by Hussein—stipulates that Arab states should look to Iraq as the leader of the Arab “nation;” and invokes militarist and nationalist rhetoric and policies. It diverges from traditional Ba’athism by placing a single state as the leader of the Arab “nation,” as well as rejecting notions of class conflict, arguing that Arab states do not have similar class structures to the West. Lastly, Saddamism maintains a strong link between ancient Mesopotamian civilizations and modern Arab nationalism. Political dissidence in Saddamist Iraq was crushed; Hussein frequently orchestrated brutal purges and jailed political dissidents on often-imagined charges. At one point, Hussein gassed the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988, killing 5,000 and injuring 10,000, all on suspected beliefs of disloyalty. When considering Friedrich and Brzezinski’s first point of totalitarianism, Hussein forced adherence to a supremacist political ideology, which demands a perfected Arab world, so it applies.

The second point of totalitarianism, that there is a mass party led by one person, is also true of Hussein’s regime. Although the Iraqi Ba’athist party had leaders before Hussein, once he came to power, the party was completely controlled by the dictator. A coup orchestrated by Hussein in 1968 installed him as vice president, which he used to develop a robust national security apparatus. In 1979, Hussein won an internal power struggle over his brother, allowing him to come to the presidency, after which he instituted the first of his purges. From this point onwards, Hussein led the Iraqi Ba’athist party, frequently purging opponents within government as well as ethnic and cultural minorities in Iraq to further consolidate power. Two other states that can be considered totalitarian, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, instituted frequent purges of undesirables to allow further consolidation of power around a single leader, such as Hitler or Stalin. Purges as tools of political consolidation, are frequently used by totalitarian leaders, and allow for one person to lead the mass party. Friedrich and Brzezinski’s second point of totalitarianism applies to Hussein’s regime as well.

The third point, that a totalitarian state possesses a system of state led physical and/or psychological terror is true for Hussein’s regime. The common facilitator for state led terror is a secret police force. The Iraqi Intelligence Service, also called the Party Intelligence (which is important to know because it demonstrates the allegiances of the secret police), was Iraq’s version of the secret police. The Party Intelligence orchestrated the Dujail massacre, killing between 142 and 148 Shiites in a reprisal attack for an assassination attempt against Hussein by Iranian backed militias. The massacre at Dujail was but one of many state sponsored attacks against civilian populations. Totalitarian leaders frequently play up biases among ethnic groups to help facilitate purges and state attacks. The Nazi party blamed Jews for Germany’s problems, and state intelligence services like the Gestapo would take them to concentration camps. Stalin would call his enemies capitalists or traitors to the communist cause, and would murder them. In Iraq, the major cleavages were along ethnic and religious lines, between Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis. Hussein would plan and would execute state attacks on Shiites and Kurds in order to sow fear into the minds of the population. The third point of totalitarianism, state sponsored terror, also applies.

The fourth point, a state monopoly on means of mass communication and media was present as well under Hussein’s regime as well. Article 36 of the 1990 Iraqi constitution stipulated that the national government, led by Hussein, had the right to prevent production or dissemination of anything harming “national unity” and the “objectives of the People.” Freedom of the press was nonexistent under Hussein, and the state possessed the right to both pre-hoc and post-hoc prevention and cancelation of materials they found disagreeable. This is a strategy used by totalitarian regimes to eradicate civil society. With weakened press, entertainment, and scholarly sectors, materials critical of Hussein’s regime would not be allowed to exist. By preventing alternative discourses on Iraqi politics, Hussein could spout his propaganda, indoctrinating the population. The sole news network under Hussein was the Iraqi News Agency, which functioned as a propaganda tool for the regime. According to a 2002 report by the United States’ Department of State, “The government restricts severely freedoms of speech, the press, assembly, association, religion, and movement.” By preventing people from freely expressing themselves, Hussein’s regime could spread their political ideology unimpeded, further allowing the regime to maintain total control. The fourth point of totalitarianism, government control of mass communication applies to Hussein’s Iraq.

The fifth point of totalitarianism, a state monopoly on weapons and soldiers, somewhat breaks with the trend in this analysis. While the military was controlled and used as a tool of state oppression, individuals were curiously allowed to possess firearms. According to a 2003 New York Times report, “Most Iraqi households own at least one gun.” Totalitarian leaders, by definition, possess monopolies on force; otherwise they could be contested violently. Hussein’s regime allowed households to own a firearm for self-defense, breaking lockstep with his other more totalitarian policies. Logically, a person attempting to establish a totalitarian regime would not want widespread individual gun ownership, but Hussein likely would have wanted individuals to own guns to deter invasion by his enemies, such as Iran or the United States. So, in one way, this could be seen as a nationalistic tool. On the other hand, however, Hussein is lucky an armed uprising did not occur to the extent that he could have been overthrown.

This paper takes the position that private gun ownership presents a flaw in connecting Hussein’s regime to totalitarianism, as it left political stability up to the ability of the regime to carefully maneuver itself politically. Additionally, Hussein’s totalitarian institutions were not nearly as robust as other totalitarian regimes. The Party Intelligence could hardly be compared to the Soviet Union’s secret police force, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, and Hussein’s propaganda machine lacked its own Goebbels. While other totalitarian regimes allowed gun ownership, Hussein’s totalitarian institutions lacked the robustness to deter and prevent real armed opposition, and thus, gun ownership precludes true totalitarianism in this case.

The other aspect of the use of force in Hussein’s regime was the role of the military. The military under Hussein’s regime, expectedly, was under his direct control. The most important part of the military under Hussein was the Republican Guard, which constituted the elite paramilitary troops of the Iraqi Army. Formed in 1969as the Presidential Guard, the role of this organization was to maintain state stability against perceived internal and external enemies, essentially, guaranteeing Hussein’s regime power.  A report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy labeled the Republican Guard as an integral structure in Hussein’s regime.

Point five of totalitarianism only half applies. The military institutions necessary for a successful totalitarian regime were present, but Hussein’s allowance of private gun ownership prevents his regime from truly reflecting this aspect of totalitarianism.

Point six, the final point, stipulates that a totalitarian state runs a command economy; in other words, a highly centralized, state run economy. According to a 2003 report from ReliefWeb, a human rights organization, Hussein’s economy was a highly centralized command economy. Nationalization of oil, prohibitions against foreign ownership of businesses—leading to state owned enterprises as the primary form of big business in Iraq—and high tariffs on foreign goods were all policies implemented by Hussein’s regime. Because the state runs the economy, individuals are inherently linked to and dependent on the state, helping to strengthen and maintain the low levels of personal agency of the regime’s subjects. By weakening individual agency, political opposition is limited. Command economies allow the totalitarian leader to build high levels of capital for their endeavors, and prevent political opposition. Hussein used his command economy policies to reach these goals. Point six, that is a command economy, applies to Hussein’s government.


By using Friedrich and Brzezinski’s conceptual framework for a totalitarian government, we can say that Hussein’s regime is more “totalitarian lite,” rather than a completely totalitarian system. Iraq under Hussein met most of the requirements laid out by Friedrich and Brzezinski: The ideology advocated for an ideal state and opposition to said ideology was crushed; the Iraqi Ba’athist party was led by Hussein once he swiftly gained power and not relinquished until the United States invaded Iraq; a state led system of terror facilitated by state intelligence agencies was present; the state heavily censored forms of media and communication, and ran the only legitimate avenues for media and communication; while there was no monopoly on guns, the state did have its own paramilitary force and was in control of the rest of the army; and there was a command economy. If it were not for provisions allowing for private ownership of guns, Hussein could be considered a true totalitarian leader; instead, he should only be taken as a brutal dictator.

Adam Goldstein is a student in the School of Public Affairs class of 2017. He can be contacted at

All views expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Mind or of Clocks and Clouds.

Adam Goldstein

About Adam Goldstein

American University senior on the BA/MA track for Comparative Politics. Unapologetically obsessed with Iranian politics, political science, and Phish. Contributing editor and Middle East/Africa columnist.