Originally Posted by yolland
Stalin's USSR was totalitarian, Pinochet's Chile was authoritarian. I'd say North Korea is definitely a totalitarian state, while Burma/Myanmar is not--I'd probably 'just' classify that as a military dictatorship. Very, very broadly, the difference is that totalitarianism entails absolute, all-pervasive control of both the political and social spheres in the interests of pursuing an elaborate, exhaustively detailed agenda, with reference to which all state actions, no matter how minor, must be rationalized; whereas authoritarianism ultimately aspires only to total political control, with social controls playing a secondary and 'as-needed' supporting role in pursuit of that prime goal.
In totalitarianism, all aspects of the individual's life are subordinate to the government: for instance, all existing social institutions and organizations--churches, universities, social clubs, sports associations, youth groups, etc.--are either forcibly dissolved or else brought under government control (upon which membership in them may in fact become mandatory), and police and other security personnel operate unbound by any regulations limiting their powers against citizens, instead effectively operating as the visible wing of an extensive terror apparatus used to maintain absolute government control. That's the kind of thing I meant by "destroys civil society completely"--an enormous problem facing many post-Soviet states, for example, has been re-establishing any semblance of public discourse, since all the institutions which once supported it were wholly gutted by decades of totalitarian rule, so that the process basically has to be started over from scratch. Totalitarianism is always anti-pluralist, anti-individualist, and anti-liberal (in the classical sense of the term) to an extreme degree.
The authoritarian state, by contrast, doesn't seek to annihilate civil society (though it does inevitably weaken it, to highly varying degrees depending on which state and regime we're talking about). The government's ideology is typically fairly vaguely defined, and policymaking often proceeds in an opportunistic manner, showing blatant inconsistencies with principles professed to at earlier times. Considerable pluralism is usually tolerated at the level of social organizations (though not, of course, at the level of political parties). The totalitarian state's ability to mobilize its entire population very rapidly and efficiently for whatever its latest project is, is largely lacking in the authoritarian state. And the limits of power (official or unofficial) which are observed, in practice, by the leadership are typically far more predictable in the authoritarian state.