But doncha think sometimes that all these professional experts on the good old USSR are a tad too particular, too specialized, in their definitions of political systems? I mean, what exactly was the Soviet Union compared to the United States? What was Hitler's Germany? So what if the definitions of "totalitarianism" as outlined by Hannah Arendt and what's his name I can never spell it properly, Zbigniew Brzezinski, don't quite fit. It's probably still the closest fit we're ever going to get to the reality of these dictatorships. I mean, seriously, who's perfect? Was Dostoevsky perfect? Was Tolstoy? What the hell do these people want in terms of academic rigor -- frankly their standards seem over the top and at times even unreasonable to me.
Well of course that is always the issue with academics who tend to become hyperspecialized (as you know publish or perish and the narrower the topic the better). I think "totalitarian" is a pretty good description to the extent its root is "total" and all such governments are characterized by a complete vertical chain of command and control throughout all aspects of society. I think (and I have said this before) that this total control is what distinguished the Soviet State from the Old Regime, which perhaps in theory vested all power in the Tsar but in practice power was diffused among various societal groups to varying degrees (the bureaucracy, the nobility, the Church, the merchant class, etc.). I don't believe that the Old Regime was as monolithic as the Soviet State that followed it and of course it was the Bolsheviks' stated aim to eliminate all such independent power centers (which they did with great efficiency and at an enormous cost in blood) in the guise of granting all power to the "proletariat".
There was a wonderful man at Columbia by the name of John Hazard (look him up in Wikipedia) when I was there who was the US's leading expert on Soviet Law and Public Administration. A nicer gentleman you would never meet and a distinguished academic. He studied at Moscow University as a graduate student in the 30s at the hieght of the purges (his Russian roomate was purged) at a time when the study of the Soviet legal system was unheard of. He helped form the Russian Institute (now the Harriman Institute) at Columbia and there was no one I knew who had as dismal a view (but a realistic one) of the USSR (which was interesting in a largely liberal institution like Columbia). But then again familiarity breeds contempt. Zbig was a student of his. People always dismiss the notion of Soviet law as being an oxymoron but in fact Soviet society was governed by Law, unfortunately its formulation and application was undemocratic in the extreme. In fact the Constitution of 1937 (the so called Stalin Constitution) was a model of liberal principles. However Leonard Schapiro, for example, writes that "The decision to alter the electoral system from indirect to direct election, from a limited to a universal franchise, and from open to secret voting, was a measure of the confidence of the party in its ability to ensure the return of candidates of its own choice without the restrictions formerly considered necessary," and that "...a careful scrutiny of the draft of the new constitution showed that it left the party's supreme position unimpaired, and was therefore worthless as a guarantee of individual rights."
In fact, I don't believe that any bureaucracy can function in a truly lawless society. They would be like chickens with their heads cut off with no direction, no "chain of command", and no delineation of function. If there is no law there is nothing one can implement, so however arbitrary and personal the commands of the "leader" they generally are issued under cover of some sort of legal justification.