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Types of dictatorship

Research interests and problems


In contemporary usage “dictatorship” refers to the unrestricted domination of the state by an individual, a clique, or a small group. Instances of dictatorial rule are found in all epochs and in all civilizations. The term “dictatorship” may signify not only the governing principle of a political system but also an ideology underlying a way of life and a normative expression of political behavior. Several expressions have been used to characterize the historical phenomenon of dictatorial rule: tyranny, despotism, autocracy, Caesarism, Fuhrerstaat, authoritarianism, totalitarianism.

Apart from constitutional dictatorships established to deal with governmental emergencies, all forms of dictatorship share the following features:

(1) Exclusivity and arbitrariness in the exercise of power. Dictatorships are characterized by the absence of a division of power, the suppression of competing, legitimate political and social groups and institutions, the concentration of political power in the hands of a dictator or of an autocratically governing group of leaders (elite), and the utilization of an autocratically guided and manipulated ruling apparatus to develop a monopoly of power.

(2) Abolition or loosening of the juridical bonds of political power. The constitutional state is eliminated, or a new revolutionary or counterrevolutionary law created, merely as an instrument of rule. Related to this feature is the difficulty or impossibility of regulating the succession of the dictator in a lawful fashion.

(3) Elimination or substantial restriction of civil liberties. Instead of voluntary cooperation of socially and politically autonomous groups and associations in the erection of the commonwealth, emphasis is placed on the citizens’ obligation to perform compulsory labor or collective services.

(4) The predominantly aggressive, impulsive form of decision making. The domestic and foreign policies followed by the dictator and/or the leading political elite are usually made impulsively and are inspired by a dynamic political activism, often based upon an ideological Messianism and aimed at transforming or disciplining the society.

(5) Employment of despotic methods of political and social control. Such methods range from intimidation to propaganda, from imposing the duty of obedience to methods of terror.

These characteristics of dictatorship are to be found in various combinations and modifications in different historical configurations: in the Greek and Sicilian tyrannies described by Plato and Aristotle and in the postconstitutional Caesarist dictatorship of the Roman Empire, from Sulla and Caesar to the imperial despots; in the many manifestations of the tyranny of the noble families and the urban oligarchies in the early and late Renaissance, whose problems were condensed in classic form by Machiavelli in The Prince; in the English absolute monarchy and the hesitant despotism of its revolutionary opponent, Oliver Cromwell; in the terroristic Jacobin dictatorship of the French Revolution and the social-revolutionary communist states; in the short-lived, counterrevolutionary fascist and National Socialist states; in the earlier forms of Latin American military dictatorships; and, since World War I, in numerous completely or partially totalitarian structures patterned on the sociopolitical models of fascism or communism (e.g., Falangist Spain, Peronist Argentina, communist Cuba, and the states of such leaders as Nasser and Nkrumah).

The concept of dictatorship, in its origin and evolution, may be understood both as a complementary and protective constitutional device and as a complete antithesis to the democratic constitutional state. Thus, Carl J. Friedrich (1937), in referring to the ancient Roman model, makes a distinction between constitutional and unrestricted dictatorship. Franz L. Neumann (1957, p. 248) comments that dictatorship may arise and function as “implementation of democracy,” “preparation for democracy,” or the “very negation of democracy.” Plato and Aristotle saw the origin of tyranny in the weaknesses and degeneration of democracy, and political theory has been based on the polarity of democracy and dictatorship ever since. However, the view that a revolutionary dictatorship necessarily presupposes the existence or the counterpart of a democratic constitution is disputed. Answers may be provided by the recent sociological and political research into the historical process of transition from a constitutional, restricted dictatorship to an unrestricted, total dictatorship. It has also been held that the communist “totalitarianism of the left” has evolved from the rudiments of egalitarian, messianic democracy of the French Revolution (Talmon 1952).

The inability to function and the internal weakness of democracy are undoubtedly among the main causes of the establishment of dictatorial rule. The totalitarian communist system of the Soviet Union arose in consequence of the crumbling away of tsarist autocracy, hastened along by a mass movement. In general it can be shown that unresolved social tensions and economic crises, together with the undermining of constitutional order and the development of undemocratic power aggregates, are among the conditions that give rise to dictatorial regimes.

Types of dictatorship

Differences in origin, legitimation, organization of rule, and goals, as well as in political style, have led scholars to isolate types of dictatorship and to differentiate among them.

Both Plato (Republicvii and ix) and Aristotle (Politics book iii) dealt mainly with the structure and methods of tyranny and provided initial insight into the nature of dictatorial rule. Machiavelli was the first to distinguish between dictatorship as a constitutional institution of the republic and as a despotic form of government, which he recommended to the ruler as a means of restoring political order. Absolute monarchies are generally not regarded as dictatorships, since the exercise of power is clothed in traditional legitimacy. Yet whenever an absolute sovereign actually rules despotically, violating the customary standards of monarchical authority, his rule must be termed a dictatorship (e.g., Louis xi, Richard iii, Henry viii, Philip ii).

The well-known distinction between provisional dictatorship (kommissarische Diktatur—the grant of special full powers in the event of state emergencies) and sovereign dictatorship (aimed at a revolutionary change of the entire political and social order) made by Carl Schmitt (1921) is hardly fruitful sociologically in view of the historical and cultural variations in dictatorial rule.

The three ideal types developed by Franz L. Neumann (1957, p. 256 ff.), which use as a criterion the instruments of rule employed or required by dictators, are far better suited for classifying the various historical phenomena and systems of dictatorship. Neumann distinguishes “simple dictatorship” (the ruler exercises absolute control of the traditional instruments of state power), “Caesaristic dictatorship” (to gain power and to consolidate it, the ruler requires the support of broad masses of the people and the execution of social–economic reforms), and “totalitarian dictatorship” (rule is exercised through a differentiated power apparatus controlled by a governing party and a “social movement”).

Some authors assume that the process of trans-forming a constitutional dictatorship into a revolutionary dictatorship leads, in modern industrial societies, either to authoritarianism, a form of dictatorship based upon the prevailing values in the society, or to totalitarianism, the form of dictatorship that is able to force through a new system of values in society (cf. Drath 1958). This distinction is worthy of note because it makes allowance for the fundamental importance of the different socio-cultural presuppositions and sociopolitical goals of dictatorships.

Indeed, in any endeavor to set up a political-sociological typology of dictatorial systems the sociocultural factors must be regarded as the primary differentiating criteria, in addition to the specific governmental structures and the means of safeguarding the monopoly of power.

The summary below of certain ideal types of dictatorship attempts to make allowance for the interaction of the cultural, social, political, and psychological factors, which is characteristic of the different historical manifestations of these systems of rule. At the same time, these types show how different are the intensity of this interaction and the stability of the political–social relationships within the several systems.

Despotic one-man rule

Despotic one-man rule is historically represented by the many forms of tyranny in ancient Greece and Sicily and in Renaissance Italy, by some instances of Oriental monarchic despotism, and by certain cases of one-man rule in the developing countries. Political power is seized, usually by a palace revolution or coup d’état, when a state or a society is in a critical situation; it is usually exercised only for a short time by a despot without moral scruples but capable of bold decisions. This distinctly arbitrary rule is particularly unstable, because it is not supported by a strong organization; as a rule, it is backed only by some conspiratorial groups, small coteries, political bands or factions, camarillas, or military cliques. Usually the motive for the seizure of power is not concern for the commonweal, but personal gain, the suppression of opponents, or the conquest of foreign territory. The wielders of power are aristocratic conspirators, plebeian demagogues and “tribunes of the people,” or war leaders (condottieri). Sometimes these leaders have the political regime they usurped confirmed by plebiscites or try to consolidate it by victorious military campaigns.

This type is related to Neumann’s “simple dictatorship” but differs from it in that here the traditional instruments of state power are played off against one another, rather than being meaningfully coordinated and utilized to consolidate the ad hoc rule. The premises of such rule are the insecurity of social conditions, class conflicts, crises phenomena in existing democratic systems, military threats from foreign countries, as during the period of tyranny in ancient Sicily, and the meeting of different civilizations. In some instances (e.g., Cola de Rienzi) this form of rule has social-revolutionary traits, but it usually endeavors to consolidate ad hoc an existing or vanishing social status quo. Despotic one-man rule has an unmistakable Machiavellian appearance: a pragmatic will for the exercise of raw power through the manipulation of all the available social and technological means.

Elite-related rule

The most important feature of elite-related rule, whether by one man or by a group, is the development of a pyramid of power in an authoritarian state. The dictator controls the decisive key positions at the head of a combination of social elites and power aggregates consisting of such elements as the army, the police, the bureaucracy, the nobility, the propertied class, and/or the dominant groups in a parliament. He endeavors to achieve a balance of power among these elites or else to range the groups that support him against others. Recognition of the fact that the more stable the foundations of this rule, the greater the likeli-hood of continuous exercise of power, places limitations on the arbitrariness of the dictator. In many instances such rulers have attempted to provide constitutional guarantees for their regimes. This trend may be found in the various stages of Cromwell’s dictatorship as well as in the period of Jacobin rule.

This form of rule is constantly subject to the hazard that its terroristic nature will be exacerbated by rivalries among the leading elites or by foreign military threats, In an elite-related dictatorship a division of political functions exists almost by definition. The rulers surround themselves with revolutionary councils, advisory committees, and paramilitary organizations. Ambitious aides or competitors of the dictator demand their share of political power (e.g., Dan ton, B arras, Hebert, Fouche during the rule of the Jacobins; or Abbé Sieyes and Talleyrand under Napoleon i).

Governmental systems of this type may in certain cases serve to maintain a sociopolitical status quo, to overcome a crisis, to prevent a revolution. Yet, as a rule, the measures taken by dictators and their advisory committees in a given socioeconomic situation are based on a particular sociopolitical concept of planning. The revolutionary or reform or restoration policies they advocate require popularity among the masses of the people. Consequently, this type often resembles Franz Neumann’s definition of Caesarist rule.

Historical examples of this type are: the later Roman dictatorships (Sulla, Caesar, Augustus) with their Senate cliques and civil war factions, their triumvirates, rival armies, and provincial bureaucracies; the regime of Cosimo and Lorenzo di Medici (urban oligarchy, Council of Seventy, organization of the city’s poor); Oliver Cromwell’s rise from a radical speaker in Parliament and political leader of the Ironsides to Lord Protector (manipulation of Parliament’s rule, supported by the army and by a newly established, rudimentary bureaucracy); the dictatorships of the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution (Robespierre, the club of the Jacobins, the Committee of Public Safety, and the Commune); the consulate and empire of Napoleon Bonaparte, founded on the prestige of his victorious army; the plebiscitarian, adventurous regime of Louis Bonaparte; the older South American dictatorships of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, established by corrupt generals through pronunciamento and based upon the power of the army; and finally, some of the more recent authoritarian forms of rule in the developing countries.

These dictatorships exhibit the rudiments of ideological justification of authoritarian rule (a “political formula” in Gaetano Mosca’s sense) and the beginnings of ideologically oriented social movements (in the English revolution the independentism of the parliamentary Left and of Cromwell’s army; in the French Revolution the tendency toward an egalitarian socialist democracy). The means of social control employed are primarily aimed at the core of the power organization or at the elites emerging from the ruling class. The masses of the people are constrained to admire or revere the personality of the leader. The social and political activities of such dictatorships are partly revolutionary and partly restorative—especially when the powers of the different social classes are balanced. Thus, Sulla’s exercise of power, and that of many South American dictators, were counterrevolutionary or restorative, since they arrogated to themselves the function of “preserving law and order” in times of crisis and thereby prevented thoroughgoing social reforms. On the other hand, Cromwell’s rule, like that of the Jacobins, bore revolutionary traits; both were pacemakers of that bourgeois revolution in whose name Napoleon i later waged his campaigns.

Oriental despotism

The concept of an Oriental or Asian society, including primarily the ancient civilizations of China, India, the Near East, and Tatar and tsarist Russia, but also the Eastern Roman and Byzantine empires, was known to the early political economists, as well as to Karl Marx and Max Weber. Recently K. A. Wittfogel (1957) has explored anew the socioeconomic, cultural, and political factors that characterized it. He finds that Oriental despotism differs in essential features from the dictatorships of antiquity, the Middle Ages, and modern Europe, although it is akin in some ways to the elite-related as well as the totalitarian types.

A “hydraulic” society, based on extensive systems of waterworks, evolved a widespread bureaucratic network that directed the organization and planning of corvée (forced labor) for irrigation projects. According to Wittfogel, this brought forth an absolutist “managerial state.” The principal economic, administrative, and political functions lay in the hands of a ruling class consisting of bureaucratic landowners and land managers, officers, and an influential priesthood. The person of the ruler enjoyed the highest secular and, in part, religious authority. His despotic regime was based on the state’s bureaucracy and on the army, but it was not totalitarian. Although the ruler did demand obedience and complete submissiveness from his servants, he respected the human rights of social groups in areas outside the purview of the state. Most political conflicts occurred within the ruling class; social conflicts and insubordination outside the ruling stratum were prevented by customary techniques of terror [seeAsian society, article onsoutheast asia].

Totalitarian rule

Examples of totalitarian rule fall into two groups. First there are the sociopolitical systems of fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the semifascist dictatorships of Peron in Argentina and Franco in Spain; second, there is the communist system in its various historical versions (above all, the Soviet Union and China) and similar political structures in the developing countries.

Dictatorships of the Western fascist type arose as “crisis products” of the capitalist economic and social systems. Basically counterrevolutionary, they were characterized by an activist, militant social movement, which employed the Führer principle and methods of social discipline and control to mobilize and organize social and political forces, especially members of the middle classes who felt socially threatened. The Soviet communist system, on the other hand, was born of the class antagonisms of bourgeois society, with the aid of an originally democratic mass movement based on a revolutionary theory of society. Yet this movement is not itself a dictatorship, even in the sense of the concept “dictatorship of the proletariat.” (This term, seldom used today, implies that all political power stems from the organized working class; but the dictatorship of the proletariat has a Utopian character and does not fall within the meaning of dictatorship as defined at the outset of this article; see Lenin 1917.)

Notwithstanding resemblances and parallels in social structure, in the use of political ideology for legitimizing and maintaining the regime, and in the application of modern scientific and technological means of organizing the economy and controlling men, there are striking differences between the communist and fascist systems. Fascism and National Socialism proceeded from counterrevolutionary concepts of society. Communism, however, has a revolutionary model of social development and evolved rational, bureaucratic forms of policy making that have maintained the system through many generations and have helped to consolidate the political structure despite domestic and external perils. Some of these differences involve the historical conditions under which the movements developed and the structure and the special functions of the political ideologies and values that determine the actions of the leadership and mass behavior.

Every fully developed totalitarian rule involves not only the political structure, the position and function of the monopoly party and its organizational satellites, and the relations among the state, the social movement, and the society. The concept of totalitarianism also includes the entire social structure and all the measures taken to transform it, a centrally directed economy, as well as the political ideology and legal system developed to justify and maintain the regime. In sum, we can speak of totalitarian rule only where a centralistically oriented mass movement, led by a militant political minority in an authoritarian manner, relying on the monopoly of power, and with the aid of a dictatorially ruled state, builds an apparatus of power which bears upon all parts of the society.

This multidimensionality, and the diversity of the various historical systems making up the phenomenon of totalitarianism, makes it difficult to elaborate a politically and sociologically fruitful concept of totalitarian rule, as is shown by the existing literature, in which the concept of totalitarianism has become increasingly subject to scientific criticism. Some scholars maintain that there are no significant differences between the older dictatorships and modern mass despotisms except, say, in the art of mass domination (Hallgarten 1954; 1957, p. 176 ff.). Others deny that totalitarianism is merely a product of industrial society and point to totalitarian features that may be found, for example, in ancient Sparta and in the tyranny of Diocletian (Neumann 1957, p. 246). Several younger scholars believe that general concepts of ideal types and static, classificatory methods are of little use in the historical-empirical analysis of the various totalitarian power structures [seeTotalitarianism].

Constitutional dictatorship

Unlike the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary types of dictatorship, in which the legality of the exercise of power is dubious and in many cases represents a break with the political evolution of the state, constitutional dictatorship respects the limits fixed by the constitution. Its function is to protect or restore the traditional, legal order in crisis situations or in domestic or foreign emergencies. Such an emergency (Staatsnotstand) can be defined as a serious disturbance or endangering of public safety and order, which cannot be overcome in normal, constitutional ways but can only be eliminated by the use of exceptional means (Hesse 1962).

A constitutional dictatorship exists when martial law or a state of siege is proclaimed, and the executive, specifically the military commanders, can limit civil rights and liberties. A tendency toward this form of dictatorship can also be seen, however, in the so-called emergency decree legislation. Some constitutions of democratic states (article 48 of Germany’s Weimar constitution, article 16 of the French constitution of 1958, article 77 of the Italian constitution of 1947) grant full powers to the executive to take temporary measures to restore law and order in the event of an emergency [seeDelegation of powers].

The problem of assuring respect for the limits of constitutional dictatorship is a very difficult one and has been exhaustively debated in politics and in scholarly literature. A limited emergency dictatorship may turn into a counterrevolutionary dictatorship whenever the conditions of political power are favorable, as shown by the exploitation of article 48 of the Weimar constitution by the National Socialists. A constitutional dictatorship has no revolutionary objectives with regard to socio-political change, although it may fulfill counter-revolutionary functions if class conflicts or disputes between social and political elites become widespread. The restoration of constitutional conditions, which is the objective of emergency legislation, often signifies the hardening of a socioeconomic status quo and may encourage revolutionary forces within a country to intensify their attacks upon the existing political and social order.

The following historical instances of constitutional dictatorship are often cited. First, the classical legal dictatorship of the early Roman Republic in which one of the consuls appointed the dictator, upon the motion of the Senate, for a term of no more than six months and entrusted him with the task of defending or restoring constitutional order. He became, in effect, an extraordinary constitutional organ and remained bound by the laws. Second, the exercise of power by the medieval Italian commissioners, who were appointed by a sovereign prince in conformity with the constitutional order and were given extraordinary powers to act on his behalf. (For the first use of the term “commissionary dictatorship,” see Schmitt 1921, p. 6 ff.) Third, the “educational dictatorship” of Kemal Atatiirk in Turkey, in which the dictator himself established constitutional rules for his exercise of power [seeCrisis government].

Research interests and problems


The issue of the legitimacy of dictatorial systems has often been discussed in terms of the relation of the dictatorship to tradition, to law, and to the constitution [seeLegitimacy]. Practically every historical dictatorship has tried to justify its existence, its methods, and its measures. In many cases where the dictatorship tried to se-cure legitimation by appealing to a law that it ereated, the attempt failed, because the leadership, the state organs, and the administration always succumbed to the impulsive element in decision making. Whenever they have been unable to appeal to tradition, to natural law, to customary or existing law, they have endeavored to legitimize the despotic exercise of power either, in an existential, Machiavellian vein, as the exalted art of building a state and directing society; or else, on a more pretentious ideological plane, as the expression of a communal order predestined by providence or by historical evolution. In so doing, they have appealed to “national interest” and “reason of state,” to “the common welfare,” to “the welfare of the people,” to the interests and vital rights of a social class, as well as to the idea of a revolution and the laws of social development.

The charismatic element has always been a major factor in efforts to legitimize dictatorship. Dictators and their aides have time and again managed to achieve an identification of broad strata of the population with the rulers, especially whenever they have manipulated the democratic means for the expression of public opinion (popular assemblies, plebiscites, and parliamentary elections). In the process they have imposed extraordinary restrictions on the freedoms of the citizens. Civil rights are occasionally set forth in the written constitution, but in everyday life they are constantly imperiled by the regime’s claim to total control of the formation of political will and the conduct of social life. The development of “islands of freedom” and the progress of “liberalization” in dictatorships are, therefore, always highly problematic.

Social structure and mobility

The problems of the interdependence of the political and social orders found in the various dictatorships are another subject of lively contemporary discussion. Researchers are studying the social and economic prerequisites of such systems and the influence that such a regime and its policies have on a country’s social structure, economic system, and elite formation.

It is widely recognized that dictatorships are able to change social structure, provided they have sociopolitical ambitions and approach the solution of social and economic problems with progressive goals and programs. This applies not only to the various systems of modern mass dictatorship in which, as under Soviet rule, some social classes (workers, peasants, and the working intellectuals) have an economically and politically dominant function, while others (the petty bourgeoisie) are assigned a tributary function, and still others disappear completely (the nobility, the upper class); it also applies to the systems of elite-dominated, authoritarian dictatorship. The very formation of a new political and economic ruling class from the leading elites, bureaucrats, and political function-aries that are needed to run the state apparatus can serve as an index of social-class formation in these systems of government. But little research has been done thus far on the specific forms of social mobility in societies that are dictatorially manipulated. The rise from the lower classes may be due to advancement within the political organization as well as to active participation in solving the economic problems of these achievement-oriented societies. Many dictatorships evolve systems of social incentives and rewards for conformist behavior, thus manipulating the social prestige of the “fellow travelers,” “careerists,” and “parvenus” of a political upheaval.

Political sociology is interested in ascertaining the social and political composition of the ruling class and of the larger groupings from which members of the elite are drawn; in determining how change in this composition is effected; and in discovering the causes of conflicts within the elite and how they are resolved.

The conquest of a foreign country or its political penetration—a common occurrence of the last fifty years—may place large sections of the conquered population in the role of an oppressed class. The only way to maintain such a situation is by the use of adequate military, police, and administrative instruments of power. Otherwise, the social structure and the national consciousness of the conquered country must be transformed by political–ideological infiltration in the image of the conquering society. The establishment of satellite states and political satrapies and their relationship to the respective autocratic or totalitarian central state is, therefore, an interesting problem for research. Supranational social movements and elites develop, whose revolutionary or counterrevolutionary aims try to affect foreign societies (Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung, on the one hand; Mussolini and Hitler, on the other). Rudiments of such developments are to be found even in the imperial Roman dictatorship and in Oriental despotism.

Political ideology

The ideological components of various forms of dictatorship are also an interesting subject of study. Totalitarian regimes in industrial society are inconceivable without the force of a political ideology that moves both the masses and the elites. Even in the older forms of dictatorship the “political formula” was a rather important instrument of rule. Tyrants and mass leaders have always made use of myths, Utopias, doctrines of salvation, and, especially in modern times, social theories and Weltanschauungen in order to establish the charisma of a leading personality, the historical mission of a ruling elite, or the necessity of a revolution. Alongside the despotic perfectionism of pure power politics can be found the cult of the leader, hero worship, and collective delusions, and also sociopolitical concepts with specific programs and claims upon the behavior of the citizens and the wielders of power.

The structure and the sociopolitical functions of ideology differ widely under various dictatorships. Comparison of the ideologies of fascism, National Socialism, and Bolshevism, clearly shows the purely instrumental nature of the fascist and National Socialist ideologies, which are very vague and largely based on irrational, poorly formulated theoretical premises. In contrast, Soviet communist ideology is nourished by the rational core of a dogmatized theory; it has been able to furnish the foundation for extensive social and economic planning and has proved able to cope with changing conditions.

Behavior and techniques of dictators

Various attempts have been made to study the psychological and social-psychological peculiarities of dictatorship (e.g., Milosz 1953; Neumann 1957, p. 270; Lange 1954). Studies of the psychopathology of the personalities of dictators evoke much interest, as do the behavior, cooperation, and conflicts of members of the inner circle and of lesser aides and functionaries of the dictatorship. The clearer the sociopolitical ambitions of a dictatorship, the more emphasis is placed on methods of manipulating social and cultural activities, the more regard is paid to the desired image of man in the educational system, and the more attention is paid to the attitudes of the individual and the masses toward superiors, organizations, and the state.

The extent to which anxieties and fears govern the behavior of men under tyrannies is in dispute. Readiness to subordinate oneself “voluntarily” and to cooperate in building up the state can often be found and examined in modern mass dictatorships, although in many cases mimicry and political “schizophrenia” are also prevalent.

Plato and Aristotle long ago described the behavior and methods of tyrants, and much of what they wrote applies to dictatorships that are more fully developed than the city-state despotisms of their day. The principal instruments employed by the tyrant are force, oppression, threats, and espionage, and, even today, the common weapons are terror, persecution, and intimidation. Yet it is often overlooked that modern mass dictatorships have also been able to achieve successes by such methods as deception, corruption, and social rewards. Massive propaganda and the whole educational system are geared to breeding a conforming man, toward whom a benevolent attitude is then displayed. Modern mass leaders demand admiration and devotion; propaganda sees to it that they obtain them. Wittfogel (1957, p. 181) refers to the “myth of a benevolent despotism.” In fact, however, the motivating principle of “the carrot and the stick” prevails in many dictatorships. Terror is aimed primarily at nonconformists of all kinds, although it may also be used against the supporters of the system when factional fights break out or when there is a change of leadership.

In order to facilitate identification with the Fuhrer and the prevailing system, many dictatorships also create an “adversary type” (the Jews for National Socialism, the “imperialists” for communism), to which the blames for all problems can then be shifted.

In modern dictatorships an important instrument of control is the compulsion to join state organizations. Only such affiliation guarantees social status, social recognition, and job security. Even Aristotle pointed out that a sort of “occupational therapy” is advantageous to tyranny. And today we find that individuals, organizations, and the masses are kept in constant activity in dictatorial states.

Dictatorship in new nations

In conclusion, a word should be said about the susceptibility of the developing countries to dictatorship. “Strong man” regimes are evolving in Asia and Africa, either in the form of military states or of presidential regimes. Whether these forms of authoritarian rule are primarily products of the colonial era or inevitable types of transition to constitutional systems with political parties is currently being debated. This question is complicated by the fact that coun-tries with such different cultural, social, and political backgrounds as Burma, Indonesia, Egypt, and Ghana have all proved susceptible to dictatorship. (It has been suggested that the difficulties of analyzing such diverse sociopolitical systems may be surmounted by a comparative “developmental approach” to political systems—Almond 1965, pp. 183 ff.; Almond & Coleman 1960.) Effective democracy is only possible in countries where there is a broad, stable middle class anchored in the population, a social and political ethos, and adequate two-way communication between the leadership and the masses. In most developing areas these prerequisites did not exist. Consequently the forms of parliamentary democracy imported from the colonizing powers could hardly take root; instead they proved to be structurally alien to native cultures. Actually, in most of these countries the traditional feudal institutions were strengthened, and only a small minority of native intellectuals capable of political thought and action evolved.

According to some scholars, the belief of these intellectuals in progress, especially their strong urge to accomplish rapid, radical industrialization and to establish the welfare state at once, can be realized only by an authoritarian government (Newman 1963, p. 16). Substitution of a one-party system, supported by the military and the bureaucracy, for a multiparty system is the rule in many countries. Powerful military, monarchic, and autocratic state traditions facilitate authoritarian measures, whether under the banner of military dictatorship or of the one-party state with a charismatic leadership. The problems arising from the opposition of the old elites to the new ones, the transformation of the new elites into oligarchies, and the distance between them and the masses—all play an important role in the growth of authoritarian political systems in the developing countries. Behrendt (1965; see also Lewis 1965) warns against the notion that “developmental dictatorships” are necessary to the socioeconomic development of these countries and concludes that such a dictatorship merely signifies a postponement of the process of social self-education but can never be a substitute for it.

Otto Stammer

[See alsoAutocracy; Caudillismo; Communism; Democracy; Fascism; National Socialism; Totalitarianism.]


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Lange, Max G. 1954 Totalitdre Erziehung: Das Erziehungssystem der Sowjet-zone Deutschlands. Frankfurt am Main (Germany): Frankfurter Hefte.

Lenin, Vladimir I. (1917) 1964 The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution. Volume 25, pages 381–492 in Vladimir I. Lenin, Collected Works. 4th ed. Moscow: Progress. → First published in Russian.

Lewis, W. Arthur 1965 Beyond African Dictatorships: The Crisis of the One-party State. Encounter 25, no. 2:3–18.

Ludz, Peter C. 1964 Theoretischer Bezugsrahmen. Pages 11–58 in Peter C. Ludz (editor), Studien und Materialien zur Soziologie der DDR. Cologne (Germany): Westdeutscher Verlag.

Milosz, Czeslaw (1953) 1955 The Captive Mind. New York: Vintage. → First published in Polish as Zniewolony umysl.

Monnerot, Jules (1949) 1960 The Sociology and Psychology of Communism. Boston: Beacon. → First published as Sociologie du communisme.

Mosca, Gaetano (1896) 1939 The Ruling Class. New York: McGraw-Hill. → First published as Elementi di scienza politica.

Neumann, Franz L. 1957 The Democratic and the Authoritarian State: Essays in Political and Legal Theory. Edited by Herbert Marcuse. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → See especially pages 270–300 on “Anxiety and Politics” and pages 233–256 on “Notes on the Theory of Dictatorship.”

Neumann, Sigmund (1942) 1965 Permanent Revolution: Totalitarianism in the Age of International Civil War. 2d ed. New York: Harper.

Newman, Karl J. 1963 Die Entwicklungsdiktatur und der Verfassungsstaat. Frankfurt am Main and Bonn: Athenäum.

Schmitt, Carl (1921) 1928 Die Diktatur. 2d ed. Munich and Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.

Spencer, Henry R. 1931 Dictatorship. Volume 5, pages 133–136 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

Stammer, Otto 1955 Demokratie und Diktatur. Berlin: Gehlen.

Stammer, Otto 1961 Aspekte der Totalitarismusforschung. Soziale Welt 12:97–111.

Stammer, Otto 1965 Politische Soziologie und Demo-kratie’forschung: Ausgewählte Reden und Aufsätze zur Soziologie und Politik. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.

Talmon, Jacob L. (1952) 1965 The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. 2d ed. New York: Praeger.

Wittfogel, Karl A. 1957 Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1963.


views updated May 21 2018





The concept of dictatorship originated in Rome; it was defined as rule by a leader who was selected by the Consul to govern during periods of emergency brought on by external war or internal rebellion. While legally endowed with broad powers to resolve crises, the dictator was required to step down within six months or before the end of the term of the Consul that appointed him. In addition, such exceptional power was to be used to restore the previous political order. Although dictatorial power was faithfully applied in most cases, Mark Antony (82 or 81-30 BCE) abolished the institution after both Lucius Cornelius Sulla (13878 BCE) and Julius Caesar (10044 BCE) used force to rule beyond their mandated terms.

The temporary nature of dictatorship was central to its conception, leading writers such as Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to defend its powers in responding to crises. Even rulers acknowledged the specific meaning of the term. After Napoleon Bonaparte (17691821) seized power extralegally, for example, he was known as emperor, not as dictator. The one exception seems to have been José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (17661840) in Paraguay, who labeled himself the perpetual dictatoran oxymoron by the standards of original meaning.


The term dictatorship did not gain prominence again until the early twentieth century, when it reappeared in the guises of the self-proclaimed dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia and the fascist dictatorship in Italy. Both uses of the term were deviations from the original Roman conception. The fascists were never committed to any temporary notion of power. The dictatorship of the proletariat was to be temporary in nature; but as a fundamental step in the transformation from bourgeois to communist democracy, it would obviously not aim for restoration of the old order.

Attempting to retrieve the concept from communists, Carl Schmitt (1921) distinguished between commissarial and sovereign dictatorship. Commissarial dictatorship conforms to the Roman usage of the term, but is likely to give way to sovereign dictatorship that, in contrast, is unlimited and likely will establish a new order. In making such a distinction Schmitt sought to justify the extensive use of emergency powers to address social and economic crises in Weimar Germany. Still, his conception of sovereign dictatorship is important because it cements an important shift in the understanding of the term: Dictatorships need not be temporary nor restorative of the prior constitutional order.

As a consequence, the postWorld War II conception of dictatorship is necessarily a broader one in which dictatorship encompasses all regimes that are not democratic. Dictatorships may be distinguished from democracies as regimes in which rulers are not governed by law (Kelsen 1945) or selected by elections (Schumpeter 1942). Still, such minimalist criteria mean that dictatorships demonstrate wide heterogeneity in their organization and bases for rule.


Dictatorships include both totalitarian and authoritarian regimes: The former deeply pervades society through ideological fervor, mobilization efforts, and intolerance of autonomous organization, while the latter is more pluralistic and predictable in nature (Friedrich and Brzezinski 1961, Linz 1970). Besides Nazi Germany and Joseph Stalins Soviet Union, however, relatively few totalitarian regimes exist. As a result, most dictatorships are authoritarian regimes, and the two terms often are used synonymously.

The most prominent distinction among contemporary dictatorships is in the location of decision-making power, which determines their bases of institutional support and their constraints. While debates abound over the exact criteria for classification, the main categories consist of military, party, monarchical, and personalist regimes.

Military dictatorships emerge by coup détat, an extralegal seizure of power. Paul Brooker (2000) notes that the military intervention in politics may stem from national interest in times of crises or corporate and self-interests in the quest for greater resources. Once in power, the military consolidates both executive and legislative powers within a junta, a small collective that typically is composed of high-ranking officers. The junta is responsible for major decisions, including those governing succession. In decision making the degree of power sharing among service branches varies and is a common source of friction among junta members. The tension between governing and maintaining military cohesion has often led to the demise of these regimes.

In party dictatorships, power is concentrated within a single regime party that dominates political life (Huntington and Moore 1970). Other political parties may exist, but they do not pose any serious competition. Major policy decisions and issues of succession are determined by an inner sanctum of the party. Still, the partys organizational reach is broad, pervading the armed forces and local institutions, down to the level of villages, firms, and schools. Because the party is a vehicle through which individuals may advance their careers and earn patronage, it serves as an important tool for the dictatorship in mobilizing support, collecting information, and supervising the behaviors of others. The partys infiltration of the military also ensures civilian control over the armed forces.

Monarchies are typically treated as distinct from other forms of tyrannical rule. However, the minimalist criteria distinguishing democratic and nondemocratic regimes clearly require classifying these regimes as dictatorships. In monarchies the institution at the center of power is the dynastic family that claims historical rights to rule and monopolizes succession. The king is the effective head of government, yet as Michael Herb (1999) observes, major policy decisions and the choice of successor from within the family is determined only with the consent of other family members. Kin networks are also used to maintain control over the military and to staff government positions, ensuring the dominance of the ruling family.

Personalist regimes are those in which dictators do not overtly rely on the armed forces, a regime party, or a dynastic family to maintain their rule. As a consequence, they seemingly monopolize decision-making and conform to stereotypical notions of dictatorships as one-man rule. Personalist dictators may come to power via a coup or legitimate elections and are able to consolidate power by the skillful use of patronage and charismatic authority (following Max Webers notion in The Theory of Social and Economic Organization [1947]) such that they are able to avoid dependence on a single institution and hence constraints on their decision-making power.

SEE ALSO Authoritarianism; Autocracy; Totalitarianism


Brooker, Paul. 2000. Non-democratic Regimes: Theory, Government, and Politics. New York: St. Martins Press.

Friedrich, Carl J., and Zbigniew K. Brzezinski. 1961. Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy. New York: Praeger.

Herb, Michael. 1999. All in the Family: Absolutism, Revolution, and Democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Huntington, Samuel P., and Clement H. Moore, eds. 1970. Authoritarian Politics in Modern Society: The Dynamics of Established One-Party Systems. New York: Basic Books.

Kelsen, Hans. 1945. General Theory of Law and State. Trans. Anders Wedberg. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Linz, Juan. 1970. An Authoritarian Regime: Spain. In Mass Politics: Studies in Political Sociology, eds. Erik Allardt and Stein Rokkan. New York: The Free Press.

Schmitt, Carl. 1921. Die Diktatur von den Anfängen des modernen Souveränitätsgedankens bis zum proletarischen Klassenkampf. Munich, Germany: Duncker and Humblot.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. 1942. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York: Harper and Row.

Weber, Max. 1947. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Trans. Alexander M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jennifer Gandhi


views updated May 29 2018


The term "dictatorship" has a long history, encompassing a wide array of polities—empires, states, nations, and the like. Used extensively since ancient times, the term is derived from the word "dictate," which means to command expressly; to impose or give orders with or as with authority; to give orders or instructions arbitrarily. The word "dictate" has its root in the Latin word dictatum (plural, dictata), meaning things dictated, lessons, or commands.

In ancient Rome, an official known as a dictator (meaning commander) was appointed as magistrate by the Senate in times of emergency or crisis and invested with absolute authority. This is the historical source for the English word "dictator," meaning a ruler who has absolute power and unlimited authority.

Dictatorship thus refers to the position or office of a dictator; a dictatorial government; a state ruled by a dictator; absolute power or authority. Various synonyms for the words dictator and dictatorship include: autocrat, despot, tyrant, and oligarch for the former; and autocracy, despotism, tyranny, and oligarchy for the latter.

Autocracies, despotisms, tyrannies, and oligarchies are authoritarian systems. These systems are characterized by unquestioning obedience to authority. Their most extreme type is sometimes referred to as "totalitarian." The hallmark of totalitarianism is a government or state in which one political party or group exercises complete control and refuses to recognize, and consequently suppresses, individuals or political parties or groups perceived as actual or potential foes.

ancient and modern dictatorships

Characteristically, dictatorships, whether ancient or modern, operate free of the kind of constitutional limitations that are encountered in democratic societies; that is, their powers are absolute, unchecked either by formal rules or public opinion, or by sensibilities having to do with civil liberties or human rights. Modern dictators are more like ancient tyrants (who ruled by brute force) than ancient dictators (who, as in ancient Rome, often ruled legitimately with Senate approval in times of emergency or crisis). Modern dictators, however, bent on the exercise of despotic power, are apt to rely on outright force or fraud to gain and retain their position. In countries with access to advanced communications technologies, modern dictators often employ strategies of mass propaganda to mobilize popular support.

Modern dictatorship reached its zenith in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, inspired by the decline and eventual disappearance of monarchies that were based on the principle of hereditary descent. The political void created by the eclipse of monarchical rule was filled throughout the world by one of two principal forms of governance: either constitutional democracy (as in the United States and Great Britain) or dictatorship (as in the Soviet Union, dominated for a quarter of a century by Russian leader Joseph Stalin [1879–1953], or in Nazi Germany, ruled by dictator Adolf Hitler [1889–1945] from 1933 to 1945).

dictatorship in fascism and marxism

The word "dictatorship" resonates also in modern political ideology : on the right, in fascism and on the left, in Marxism. In the former, for example, the German word führerprinzip,—meaning leadership principle—was invoked with great ruthlessness and brutality by Hitler in Nazi Germany.

Marxism includes the concept of a "dictatorship of the proletariat," the economic and social class consisting of industrial workers who derive their income solely from their own labor. The German philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883) posited that the proletarian class would rule over society during the transitional phase between the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of communism . Marx expected that in the transitional phase, which he referred to as socialism , the proletariat would suppress the resistance of the previously dominant class, the bourgeoisie , to the socialist revolution; destroy the social relations of production underlying the class system; and usher in a new classless society, which he referred to as communism. In the Soviet Union, which was established after the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, Marx's notion of the proletariat as a dictatorial class was displaced by Russian politician Vladimir Lenin's (1870–1924) idea of a single political party, the Bolsheviks, who claimed to represent the proletariat and ruled society dictatorially. The dominance of overlapping state and Communist Party apparatuses in the Soviet Union was promoted by a strict application of Leninist ideological and organizational principles, emphasizing tight control by the political center.

dictatorship in latin america

Over the last two centuries, dictatorships have assumed different forms at different times around the world. In the nineteenth century in Latin America, dictatorships arose in the aftermath of Spanish and Portuguese rule. The collapse of central colonial authority throughout the region and the ensuingproliferation of new independent states lent strong encouragement to dictatorship. The era of rule by caudillos, or self-proclaimed leaders, had begun.

Typically, a caudillo rose to power in a postcolonial state in nineteenth-century Latin America as the leader of a private army or militia. Most of these dictators managed to secure their political base in one region of the country before seizing power from a weak national government.

Twentieth-century Latin American dictators were usually of a different type, however. Unlike their caudillo predecessors, most twentieth-century Latin-American dictators were national leaders from the outset. Moreover, whereas the caudillos began by building their political power around relatively small local private armies or militias, the dictators who followed them were usually military officers aligned with highly nationalistic officer cohorts in the national army. A notable example was Juan Perón, in Argentina. Throughout the twentieth century, many Latin-American dictators drawn from the military establishment forged political alliances with key social classes on the political right or left. Indebted to those classes, the dictators often supported either the conservative, often reactionary, interests of wealthy, privileged elites, or promoted the progressive, sometimes radical, social reforms espoused by trade union interests and the national intelligentsia.

dictatorship in africa and asia

Yet another pattern of dictatorship is discernible in postcolonial Africa and Asia. Following World War II (1939–1945), the European imperialist powers—Great Britain, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and Spain—began a retreat from Africa and Asia that was destined to take a half-century to complete. In the vacuum created by decolonization, there emerged new states—many of which were ruled by indigenous dictators and their allies drawn from among members of nationalist political parties and the social and economic elite. The imperialist powers usually attempted to ease the transition to independence of their colonial territories by transplanting the institutionalism of European parliamentary democracy based on constitutional norms. But in most cases, that approach failed. The collapse of constitutional arrangements imposed by the former colonial powers afforded an opportunity for new indigenous dictators to take control.

A strong middle-class foundation for democratic constitutionalism was lacking in postcolonial Africa and Asia. Traditional local autocracies persisted in most of the newly independent states. Elected presidents and prime ministers, many of whom were charismatic, had little difficulty accumulating power from former anticolonial nationalist movements that had been transformed into ruling nationalist political parties. Drawing strength from such parties, ambitious political leaders quickly assumed the role of dictator. They maintained their positions by adopting selfserving ideologies that claimed popular support for frequently dubious national goals, and by suppressing opposition political parties and independent trade unions. One such dictator was Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, formerly the British Gold Coast colony. In more than a few instances, national armies in Africa and Asia seized power from corrupt elected civilian governments and proceeded to establish military dictatorships. Some military dictatorships had short lives; others, as in Nigeria and Pakistan, held power for decades.

comparing dictatorships

Dictatorships emerged during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, respectively, in Latin America and postcolonial Africa and Asia in countries marked by low levels of technological and material development. By contrast, during the first half of the twentieth century, communist and fascist dictatorships arose in countries that were far more developed, most notably Russia and Germany.

The dictatorial regimes in communist Russia and fascist Nazi Germany also differed from those in Latin America and postcolonial Africa and Asia in the scope of their authoritarianism. In both communist Russia and fascist Nazi Germany, the state quickly came to be identified with a single mass party and individual; the former with the Lenin and then with Stalin, and the latter with Hitler.

Moreover, a well-developed ideology was employed in both cases to legitimize the regime and suppress all dissent and stifle all opposition to the dictator and his ruling cohort. Both communist Russia and fascist Nazi Germany employed genocide against targeted racial, religious, and ethnic groups in pursuit of ideological, political, and economic goals: Hitler's Third Reich and its supporters throughout Nazi-occupied Europe unleashed the Holocaust against European Jewry and other groups, and the Soviet government executed a large percentage of the relatively prosperous Ukrainian Kulak peasantry. Finally, unlike in nineteenth-century Latin America and postcolonial Africa and Asia in the second half of the twentieth century, in the first half of the twentieth century communist rule in the newly founded Soviet Union and Nazi hegemony in Germany both relentlessly mobilized modern science and technology to wrest control of the nation's economy and work force.

kwame nkrumah (1909–1972)

Ghana's first president was born Francis Nwia-Kofi Ngonloma in Nkroful, in what was then the British-controlled Gold Coast. Educated to be a teacher, Nkrumah traveled to the United States to attend Lincoln University (B.A. 1939) and the University of Pennsylvania (M.S. 1942, M.A. 1943) to study politics and education.

In England in 1945, Nkrumah participated in the organization of the sixth Pan-African Conference, returning to the Gold Coast in 1947 to become general secretary of the United Gold Coast Convention. Political and economic unrest led him to break away to form his own radical new Convention People's Party (CPP) in 1949. After launching a campaign of civil disobedience in 1950 which resulted in some public disorder, he was jailed, but when his party won a huge majority in the colonial legislature in 1951, he was released and became the head of government.

From this position he led the Gold Coast to independence, as Ghana, in 1957, and Nkrumah became prime minister. Despite his prestige and popularity in Africa, he was not successful at governing, and ruled in an increasingly autocratic fashion. In 1964 Nkrumah made Ghana a one-party state and appointed himself president for life. The role was short-lived, however. Nkrumah was deposed in an American-sponsored military coup in 1966 and exiled to Guinea. He died alone in Romania, where he had gone to seek treatment for cancer.

Following World War II, communist dictatorships established in Eastern Europe, China, and other countries emulated the Soviet model. A communist dictatorship ruled over the Soviet Union for seven decades until its collapse in the early 1990s. After four decades in power, by the early 1990s communist dictatorships also had fallen in the Soviet-satellite countries in Eastern Europe. Presently, one-party communist dictatorships survive in only a few countries—Cambodia, China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam—testifying to history having delivered a stern rebuke to the legitimacy of authoritarian communist rule.

It should be noted that during times of national crisis, based on domestic or foreign factors or a combination of the two, constitutional governments have also allowed their chief executives to assume emergency quasidictatorial powers. In some cases, this has paved the way for duly elected national leaders to destroy democracy and then replace it with outright dictatorship. Among the most notable cases were those involving Hitler in Germany, Benito Mussolini in Italy, and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. In other cases, such as in the United States and Great Britain under the respective leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill during World War II, the utilization of extraordinary powers by the democratically elected national leader was halted when the wartime emergency came to an end.

dictatorship in china

Throughout history dictatorships have usually been renowned more for their negative impact than for their positive influence on the societies in which they ruled. One notable exception involved Ch'in Shih Huang Ti, the First Emperor of the Ch'in Dynasty in China. Destined to rule over the Chinese Empire for only a short time (221–206 b.c.e.), Ch'in's was actually the first reign in a long succession of dynasties that held sway over the empire until 1911, when the imperial system was swept away in the tide of revolutionary change.

The origins of the Ch'in state, located in northwest China with its center in contemporary Shensi Province, go back to the fourth century b.c.e., when the rulers of Ch'in adopted a political philosophy of an almost totalitarian type, known as legalism , and militarized their state in a way reminiscent of ancient Sparta. Legalism was a brutally statist philosophy, which held that its subjects, especially the mass of peasants and soldiers, existed only for the benefit of the ruler. Social regimentation was the norm: Discipline was maintained over the subject population with stringent laws and harsh punishments.

Nevertheless, Ch'in proved to be a vibrant leader, keen to innovate along constructive lines. In its brief rule over China, Ch'in achieved a high degree of political unity in the empire; established many of the imperial institutions that were destined to endure for more than two millennia; instituted a uniform writing system for all of China; established a reasonably good communications system for the far-flung empire; and undertook agricultural reforms designed to increase production and improve distribution.

Ch'in established the basis for a nationalist spirit, at once cultural and political, among the Chinese that has persisted to the present day: The Chinese people and their leaders continue to believe that all Chinese—that is, all people of whatever race who are Chinese by culture—ought to be as united politically under a common government as, mostly by their remarkably stable language, they are united culturally.

Many aspects of Ch'in's political authoritarianism have survived into the twenty-first century. More than a half-century after its inception, the People's Republic of China's 1.3 billion residents continue to be led by a one-party communist dictatorship, which presides over an enormous territory that covers half of Asia.

dictatorship and genocide

An especially virulent type of dictatorship may be found in cases where a premium has been placed on genocide—annihilating large populations and their way of life—sometimes using scientific and technological means well suited to the mass killing of people as an organized bureaucratic enterprise. The twentieth century was blackened by many such cases, including: the annihilation of Armenians en masse in Turkey during World War I (1914–1918); the Nazi-directed Holocaust targeting millions of Jews, Slavs, Roma (gypsies), and other peoples in Europe before and during World War II (1939–1945); the slaughter of about a third of the population in Cambodia under the communist Khmer Rouge rule in the 1970s and 1980s; the extermination by the Saddam Hussein regime (comprised mostly of Arab Sunni Muslims) of tens of thousands of ethnic Kurds, many of whom were also Sunni Muslims, and of Arab Shi'ite Muslims in Iraq in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s; the mass murder of thousands of Muslims by elements of the Serbian population in Bosnia in the 1990s after the dissolution of the multiethnic Yugoslav state; and the massacre by a segment of the majority Hutu of tens of

thousands among the Tutsi minority in Rwanda in the 1990s. In all these cases and others, dictatorship assaulted human rights and individual dignity with the ultimate weapon: death. As a result, pressures have originated in those countries and the international community to apprehend, indict, and punish the perpetrators under a regime of law, in hopes of meting out justice and preventing a recurrence of state-sponsored genocide.

See also: Democracy; Genocide; Hitler, Adolf; Nationalism; Oligarchy; Stalin, Joseph.


Adelman, Howard, and Astri Suhrke, eds. The Path of Genocide: The Rwanda Crisis from Uganda to Zaire. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1999.

Bullock, Alan. Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. New York: Bantam Books, 1961.

Conquest, Robert. The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet-Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Friedrich, Carl J., and Zbigniew K. Brzezinski. Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy, 2d ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Levi, Primo. Survival at Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. New York: Touchstone Books, 1996.

Melson, Robert F. Revolution and Genocide: On the Origins of the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.

Neier, Aryeh. War Crimes: Brutality, Genocide, Terror, and the Struggle for Justice. New York: Times Books, 1998.

Power, Samantha. "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

Shute, Stephen, and Susan Hurley, eds. On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures. New York: Basic Books, 1993.

Werfel, Franz. The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 1962.

Alvin Magid


views updated Jun 11 2018


AUTOCRACY. Autocracy is perhaps the concept most widely used to describe the political culture of the Russian state before 1917. Indeed, autocracy, understood as the unlimited rule of the monarch over his subjects, is often taken as the signature characteristic of Russian political culture in general. Autocracy is also the term used to describe early modern Russia by many professional historians, especially in the United States, but their understanding is far more nuanced. These historians see the political structure of Russia as essentially oligarchical, with power shared in a mutually beneficial way among various layers of the nobility and the government. This article will present autocracy in the relatively stable political culture from 1450 to 1650 and then will discuss the changes wrought in that culture by massive influences from western Europe under Peter I the Great (ruled 16821725) and his immediate predecessors.

Most responsible for the trope of total power of the Russian ruler over his subjects are the accounts of western European visitors to Russia from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries. They developed a fairly simple picture of Russian political life, positing a ruler with total power over his subjects, helped in his oppressive rule by his subjects' ignorance, a subservient church, and an ideology that made his orders the equivalent of God's will.

When we turn to evidence that reflects the way Russians themselves thought about politics, however, we find a slightly different picture. Lacking a literary model of abstract political theorizing, Muscovites expressed their political ideas in a wide variety of genres in various media, including saints' lives, chronicles, and other historical texts; icons, mural cycles, and even church building and other types of architecture. This varied body of evidence presents a fairly consistent set of interrelated political ideas. The ruler (grand prince until 1547, tsar thereafter) was understood to derive his political power directly from God. Russians saw their state as a kind of reincarnation of the ancient state of Israel, guided and protected by God so long as the people kept their faith in God. The Russians' picture of the tsar resembled his picture of God himself: a stern but merciful ruler whose relationship to his subjects was essentially personal.

If the ruler was seen as "chosen by God," was he then free to rule utterly as he saw fit, with no restraints to his power? The answer, not surprising within the context of Christian doctrines of rulership, was "no." Texts, court rituals, and images alike agree that rulers had clear obligations: to be personally pious (and thus open to receive God's will), to preserve the institution and doctrines of the Orthodox Church, and to preserve the social hierarchy while protecting the innocent and vulnerable and punishing wrong-doers.

But what of a ruler who willfully disregarded these obligations? Unlike their counterparts in early modern Europe, Russian thinkers had not worked out an answer to this problem. Even advocates of royal power admitted that subjects had not only the right but the obligation to resist an evil ruler, whom they called a "tormentor" (muchitel'), the Slavonic translation of the Greek tyrannos. There is considerable evidence that Ivan IV (the Terrible, ruled 15331584) was regarded as a tormentor by the end of his reign. Several rulers during the Time of Troubles (a period of civil wars and foreign intervention, 15981613) were regarded in the same way. The problem was that since there was no organized mechanism for replacing a God-defying monarch with another, more godly ruler, the declaration that the current ruler was a tormentor could easily lead to the destruction of legitimate government altogether, and thus to chaos.

The monarch's advisers were the main mechanism for preventing this disastrous situation. Advisers were a standard attribute of good rulers in both literary and visual representations of monarchs. They were there to give godly advice to wise rulers or to correct sinful rulers through their counsel. But this theoretical function of providing wise advice remained a personal matter and was never given a legal or constitutional form. It was not firmly attached to the Boyar Duma, a consultative body of representatives of the most prominent aristocratic families and church hierarchs, which met frequently to advise the ruler throughout the early modern period up until the era of Peter the Great. Although consultative assemblies played a major and necessary role in the seventeenth century, in effect ruling the country on the eve of the election of Michael Romanov as tsar in 1613, the dominance of a personalized, God-dependent theory of governance prevented these assemblies from having a permanent, legitimate role in Muscovite affairs.

Discussion of assemblies brings us into the realm of practical politics. How was real political power distributed in Muscovy? Again, the foreigners' trope of the unlimited power of the monarch has had to be modified. Although there is disagreement among historians, most experts take the view that the successful ruler ruled with and through his boyars and with members of the provincial gentry, and not in opposition to them. Whereas previous historians emphasized the horizontal, corporate divisions in Muscovite society, with power flowing downward from the ruler through a growing bureaucracy, many more recent historians have emphasized a different overlapping structure. Here the great aristocratic families surround the ruler like the protons around the nucleus of an atom, with vertical patronage networks connecting the court with distant corners of the realm. Thus society was bound by the horizontal ties of a hierarchical precedence system (mestnichestvo) and by a growing body of law enforced by a bureaucratic apparatus, as well as by vertical and personal patronage connections across the boundaries of these groupings. Most importantly, the crown and the nobles were more allies than rivals: the crown depended on nobles at all levels to run affairs in the countryside, while the nobles depended on the crown to run national affairs and to protect noble interests in the localities.

Thus, the political culture of Russia on the eve of the eighteenth century had serious vulnerabilities. The legitimacy of any ruler could be challenged (and was challenged, for example, by the Old Believers) on the grounds of failing to carry out God's will, however the latter was interpreted. The ruler was bound by the vaguely defined theoretical obligation to consult with wise advisers and by the very real and growing power of the great aristocratic clans, as well as by a provincial gentry whose power and self-confidence were also growing. Peter tried, with limited success, to resolve these questions.

Borrowing from Western theorists of absolutism and from limited changes in Muscovite political culture at the end of the seventeenth century, Peter and his political assistants substituted reason of state and the common good, as defined by the will of the monarch, for the all-too-vague will of God as the source of legitimate authority in Russia. To be sure, the monarch still claimed to be God's chosen ruler, but to question or even discuss the link between God and the actual ruler became a treasonous act. In spite of the continued use of religious rhetoric, the state changed from an imagined revival of the ancient Israelite theocracy into a self-contained secular system, in which the good order of the stateits military successes and its cultural and social reformsbecame the goals of political action.

The relationship of the monarch to the aristocracy was not resolved with similar clarity, perhaps because it did not need resolution. Though he exercised great personal power, used the title "emperor" rather than "tsar" after his victory over the Swedes in 1721, replaced the Boyar Duma with a Senate (1711), and attempted to create an aristocracy of merit through a new Table of Ranks (1722), Peter did not resolve the relationship of the crown to its nobles. Indeed, the power of the aristocracy of birth continued to grow throughout the eighteenth century as it had in the seventeenth. Russian nobles continued to find it advantageous to support the "autocracy" of the ruler at the center, while the ruler gave the nobles ever widening powers in the localities and, in many cases, great informal influence at the center. Thus the contradiction between a rhetoric of "autocratic" rule by one person and an oligarchical political structure, which had misled foreign observers in the pre-Petrine era, continued to characterize the political culture of Russia.

See also Absolutism ; Aristocracy and Gentry ; Authority, Concept of ; Divine Right Kingship ; Duma ; Ivan IV, "the Terrible" (Russia) ; Michael Romanov (Russia) ; Monarchy ; Peter I (Russia) ; Representative Institutions ; Romanov Dynasty (Russia) ; Russia ; Sovereignty, Theory of ; State and Bureaucracy ; Time of Troubles (Russia) ; Tyranny, Theory of .


Kivelson, Valerie A. Autocracy in the Provinces: The Muscovite Gentry and Political Culture in the Seventeenth Century. Stanford, 1996.

Kollmann, Nancy Shields. Kinship and Politics: The Making of the Muscovite Political System, 13451547. Stanford, 1987.

LeDonne, John P. Absolutism and Ruling Class: The Formation of the Russian Political Order, 17001825. New York, 1991.

Rowland, Daniel. "Did Muscovite Literary Ideology Place Limits on the Power of the Tsar (1540s1660s)?" Russian Review 49, no. 2 (1990): 125155.

Daniel Rowland


views updated May 18 2018



In political writing, “autocracy” suggests a government or polity in which a single governor has or claims unlimited power. The word “autocrat” has been used infrequently by social scientists, who have preferred to refer to the unlimited or unrestricted governor as a dictator or a despot. Although interest in the problems of autocracy has recently been revived by communism and Nazism, the theory of autocracy has received too little attention from contemporary writers. The features and the background of “totalitarian autocracy” have been described, but these descriptions have usually depended upon such undefined and imprecise concepts as “unlimited or unrestricted power.’ “irresponsibility,” and “not subject to rules.”

An abstract concept. Autocracy is an abstract concept that corresponds to no past or present government. Its meaning depends upon a logical extension of certain governmental tendencies, and when this meaning is stated and explained, it should provide a standard to which all governments can be compared and ranked according to the degree of power possessed by their most powerful members. This ability to compare actual governments to the hypothetical concept of autocracy should help the student of politics understand the reasons why governments exhibit greater or lesser concentrations of power.

If we take “autocracy” to mean government dominated by a single governor, its definition depends upon a definition of government. Although there has never been agreement upon a definition of government, it appears acceptable to postulate that the function of governing implies the intentional affecting of human activity, and that all governors are able to affect some activities by the use, or threatened use, of physical coercion. When the autocrat is said to have “unlimited power,” it is implied that this is power to affect human activity, but not necessarily by any specific methods.

Power and authority. Although the word “power” has several different meanings, when we speak of the autocrat’s power we refer to his ability or potential to affect human activity, rather than to his actual effects upon it. An understanding of this potential depends upon an understanding of the two ways—to be called “control” and “influence”— in which one person can affect the activity of another. When a person influences another’s activity, he evokes a response that is freely performed; when he controls it, he acts so that the respondent has no alternative reaction.

Every governor is able to influence and able to control, and his total power is a combination of these two abilities—his ability to persuade, for example, combined with his ability to imprison. The power to control is greater than the power to influence, because it is more likely that an exercise of control will elicit the response that the governor desires. The likelihood of obtaining such responses is an index of the governor’s power. His ability to use physical coercion gives him power to control, and the use of coercion is in fact his principal method of control. The governor’s total power increases as more human activities and more human beings become subject to his coercive power, exercised either through law or arbitrarily and at random.

Writers on autocracy have not always distinguished the governor’s actual power from his authority or right to a certain amount of power. Dictionaries define an autocrat as “a governor with absolute power” or “a monarch ruling with unlimited authority,” but these definitions are incompatible. A man is an authority when other people believe he has a special ability to do what is correct; hence a governor’s authority depends upon the acceptance of his subjects. This dependence on their belief that he has a special ability to govern sets a limit to his actual power. The Russian tsar’s “unlimited right to govern” was based on, and thus limited by, the Russian people’s belief in his competence to rule in conformity with their conception of government. The possession of authority will add to the power of a relatively weak governor, but it will also hinder the indefinite increase of his power.

The extent of the autocrat’s power. The activities under the control of the autocrat are those of his subjects, and they can include not only overt bodily actions but beliefs, thoughts, and values as well. The degree of a governor’s power depends upon both the number and the importance of the activities he can control. The governor who is able to control basic beliefs and actions, such as those associated with love and religion, is more powerful than the governor who controls superficial activities, such as styles of clothing and modes of locomotion.

The unlimited power of the autocrat implies that he is independent of his fellow governors as well as of his subjects. Autocracies are absolute governments, that is, they are governments with complete power over their subjects. There are, however, other absolute governments consisting of a multiplicity of men all dependent for their power upon one another. An autocrat cannot allow anyone else to have any power whatever; he must depend on no one, and thus he must be able to dispense at any time with any of his subordinates. All absolute governments tend to develop toward autocracy, and the less the principal governor depends upon his subordinates, the more closely he approaches the status of an autocrat.

The autocrat’s methods. In order to obtain and maintain complete power over his subjects and governmental associates, the autocrat must follow a rather inflexible course of action. He cannot have the power to control every activity of every person unless he constantly exercises it; he can never rest without allowing his power to become circumscribed. His ability to control his subjects’ economic behavior, for example, can easily become restricted without continual use, because an extended period of unaffected production and distribution generates habits and expectations that become difficult or even impossible to control. Prolonged regularity in any aspect of his subjects’ lives is the principal impediment to the governor’s power over them. Such regularity provides the basis of what is called “constitutionalism.”

The autocrat must not only be in continuous action, but his actions must be both necessary and sufficient to bring about his subjects’ reactions. His power is exercised when his action is sufficient to evoke a certain response, but his power is not increased unless his action is also necessary for the response—that is, unless the response would not have occurred in its absence. When, for example, a governor forbids his subjects to embrace a religion that is repugnant to them, his only effect may be to reinforce the regularity of their lives. This reinforcement may then prevent his gaining the power to control them in other areas against their will.

If the autocrat is constantly to affect everyone in a way that admits of no alternative responses, he must act as arbitrarily as possible. The necessity for arbitrariness can be seen most clearly in his relationship with the few governmental associates whose minimum cooperation is indispensable to him. To maintain his undiluted power over them. he must never allow them to have any stable relationships among themselves or between them and any segment of the governed. To prevent such stabilization, he must make sure that none of them stands in a stable relationship to him, and he can accomplish this only by behaving toward all of them as arbitrarily as he can. For a single governor to monopolize power, he must constantly control everyone else in a completely unpredictable way. The autocrat is always in action, and no one can anticipate how he will act.

The circumstances of autocracy. The social circumstances required for the existence of autocracy can be inferred from the preceding account of the nature of the autocrat’s power and the techniques necessary to gain and hold it. The social circumstances underlying autocracy are those that prevent stability and regularity among the governed. These conditions first create the division between governors and governed that results in absolutism. The tendency of absolutism to develop into autocracy becomes more marked as social conditions become more disrupted; the less stability there is among the governed, the more instability there is likely to be among the governors. If the governors share a single idea of authority, for example, it will be more difficult for an autocrat to rise above them.

There are several basic causes of intense social irregularity and instability. A stable pattern of interactions, expectations, and recognized obligations is difficult to establish among a culturally heterogeneous population, and the difficulty increases with the size of the population. When life is a continuous struggle for food, a community of interests and values strong enough to check great governmental power is unlikely to develop. The chances for such a community are equally small when the people’s livelihood depends upon a few men who monopolize control of natural resources or employment. The ignorance and superstition that often accompany these conditions further impede communication among the governed and thus contribute to the social fragmentation.

A people that has stable beliefs about natural, supernatural, and human affairs possesses a barrier to excessive governmental power. The belief that the community is responsible to God or to its ancestors, for example, provides a standard for government and thus limits governmental power. The conscience of the chief or the king, normally a product of the beliefs of the whole society, creates a similar limitation. When people are dominated by a sense of fatalism anything is considered possible, and the governor is bound by no expectations of regularity and consistency; indeed, the opposite expectations may prevail.

Periods of economic and social disruption are conducive to the sense of insecurity that encourages increases in the government’s power to control. Revolution and warfare have always been favorable to the rise of absolutist governments and autocratic governors. It is no accident that the twentieth century—with its wars, delicate economic system, loss of faith in transcendent standards, and advanced organizational forms and techniques of coercion—has produced, in the leaders of its great totalitarian regimes, governors who have come very close to the abstract concept of the autocrat.

C. W. Cassinelli

[See alsoDictatorship; Power; Totalitarianism.]


Arendt, Hannah 1951 The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt. → Part 3 contains information on the methods and circumstances of communism and Nazism.

Cassinelli, C. W. 1966 Free Activities and Interpersonal Relations. The Hague: Nijhoff. → For concepts of control, influence, power, authority, and governing, see especially Chapters 3, 4, and 5.

Friedrich, Carl J.; and Brzezinski, Zbigniew K. (1956) 1965 Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy. 2d ed., rev. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press’.

Moore, Barrington Jr. 1954 Terror and ProgressUSSR: Some Sources of Change and Stability in the Soviet Dictatorship. Harvard University Russian Research Center Studies, No. 12. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → For the methods of Soviet communism, see especially Chapter 1.

Oppenheim, Felix E. 1961 Dimensions of Freedom: An Analysis. New York: St. Martins; London: Macmillan.

Pye, Lucian W. 1962 Politics, Personality, and Nation Building: Burma’s Search for Identity. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Wittfogel, Karl A. 1957 Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → See especially Chapters 4 and 5 on autocracy and absolutism. A paperback edition was published in 1963.


views updated May 11 2018



From the Greek word autokratôr meaning self-ruler, or ruler of oneself, the term autocracy refers to one-person rule, or a government led by a single person with unlimited power. The autocrat has uncontrolled and undisputed authority over the people and others in the government, controlling all aspects of social, economic, and political life. Autocracies come in two forms: an inherited autocracy is also referred to as a monarchy while a nonheredity autocracy is a dictatorship. Autocracy is often used interchangeably with the terms despotism, tyranny, and dictatorship.

Autocracies did not develop in a formal way until the emergence of the state. Human culture has experienced four basic political organizations: bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states. Band societies are characterized by being nonstratified, essentially egalitarian, kin-based groups whose leadership is based on ability. They are highly local and, because they are kin-based, have very small membership groups. Decision-making in band society is typically done by consensus, meaning that members of the group discuss an issue until everyone agrees on a particular course of action. Tribes are larger, more regionalized groups that share many of the characteristics of bands with the exception of size. As regionalized groups, tribes are linked together and often act together in times of conflict or need. Chiefdoms and states, unlike bands and tribes, are hierarchical or stratified. The head of state or chief rules by the power of their office and can command armies and exact tribute (taxes are a form of tribute). The difference between chiefdoms and states is that chiefdoms are kin-based while states are bureaucracies. Bureaucracies are formalized public bodies that perform particular tasks such as law-making. Chiefdoms and states have large memberships and leaders may not have direct contact with most of their followers or members. Members may also have no authority in choosing those who are in positions of leadership. This is generally the case with an autocratic form of government.

In Roman times the terms imperator, Caesar, and Augustus were used to signify an autocratic form of government. Autokratôr was often used in place of imperator. Perhaps the best example historically of an autocracy would be the Russian Czarist (Tsarist) system of government. The czars were referred to as Imperator i Samodyerzhets Vserossiysky, which translates as all-Russian emperor and autocrat. Late-twentieth-century forms of autocratic rule (though often challenged by subjects) include the government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Hussein, a member of the Baath party, often ruled Iraq through intimidation and acts considered to be crimes against humanity. Because of this, many people in Iraq lived in fear, many were executed and murdered, and many others rose to positions of power within his government. This contrasts with other forms of government such as democracies in which leadership is decided by the people and where there are clear limits on the power of the chief executive and members of the government. The United States is technically a democracy, but is administered as a republic, wherein representatives are elected to serve the people in the House of Representatives and the Senate. There are three branches of government: the executive branch (president and the cabinet), the judicial (Supreme Court and federal court system), and the legislative (House and Senate). This configuration is designed to prevent any single branch of government from wielding too much power, including that of the executive branch and the president. Despite this, the president holds the power of veto, wherein decisions of the other branches may be overruled, and the president may also make decisions in times of emergency without consultation with or support from the other branches of government. Ultimately, this power could lead to autocratic-like authority. In the twenty-first-century United States, President George W. Bush has been compared to an autocrat in some of his decisions regarding the Iraq War, the imposition of a democratic-style government in Iraq, and in his relationship with the other branches of government in the United States.


Lincoln, W. Bruce. 1990. The Great Reforms: Autocracy, Bureaucracy, and the Politics of Change in Imperial Russia. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press.

MacKay, Sandra. 2003. The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein. New York: W.W. Norton.

McDaniel, Tim. 1988. Autocracy, Capitalism and Revolution in Russia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McDaniel, Tim. 1991. Autocracy, Modernization and Revolution in Russia and Iran. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rotberg, Robert I. 2001. Ending Autocracy, Enabling Democracy: The Tribulations of Africa. NY: World Peace Foundation.

Kelli Ann Costa


views updated May 29 2018


The response to the problems posed by the Great Depression in countries such as Germany, the Soviet Union, Italy, and elsewhere, was the rise or tightening of dictatorial regimes to the point that dictatorship was considered by many people to be a feasible alternative to liberal democracy during the 1930s. Certain features characterized these dictatorships: the concentration of power in the hands of a single leader, a one-party system with mass membership, a secret police prepared to use terror as a tool of policy, and a control of the popular media to promote the regime's doctrine. These features were certainly all present to varying degrees under the Nazi regime in Germany, Communism in the Soviet Union, and Fascism in Italy.

In Germany, against a backdrop of economic chaos caused by the Great Depression, Adolf Hitler, without ever winning a national election or having a popular majority, was appointed chancellor on January 30, 1933, just four weeks before Franklin Roosevelt took office. Once in office Hitler employed the attributes of a dictatorship to remove domestic opposition and established the preeminence of the Nazi Party. He sought to increase industrial production, especially through rearmament and public works schemes, and so provide work for millions of unemployed Germans. Considerable scholarly debate exists over how far Hitler intended to follow the foreign policy espoused in Mein Kampf (1925) or whether he was merely pragmatic in pursuing an expansionist foreign policy during the late 1930s. In remilitarizing the Rhineland in March 1936, completing the Anschluss (unification) of Austria and Germany in February 1938, and then securing the Sudetenland in September 1938, Hitler seemed to be rectifying the perceived deficiencies of the Treaty of Versailles. This was widely popular within Germany and received tacit support abroad. Even after Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, the quick successes of Nazi Germany in 1940 made many consider that Hitler's dictatorship provided the way ahead.

Joseph Stalin had become leader of the Soviet Union following V. I. Lenin's death in 1924. By 1929 Stalin had consolidated his leadership, totally overcoming opponents within the Communist Party and eliminating all organized opposition outside the party. In 1928 Stalin embarked the Soviet Union upon the first Five-Year Plan. This plan for economic growth through mass industrialization and collectivization of agriculture came under the banner of "Socialism in One Country" and saw notable achievements, such as the establishment of the city of Magnitogorsk in the Urals dedicated to steel production. This success and others seemed to show that despite Western scepticism, with Stalin as dictator Communism could avoid the problems of the Great Depression. However, the price for economic progress in the Soviet Union was extremely high. Stalin deported over ten million people to Siberia, and purged the Soviet officer corps with disastrous effect during World War II.

In Italy, Benito Mussolini, prime minister since 1922, tightened the grip of his dictatorship in the face of the Great Depression. The policy of the "Corporate State," combined employer-employee syndicates established during the 1920s, seemed to prevent Italy from suffering the worst effects of the economic downturn. However, the regime failed to wholly implement an integrated economic program, as state investment did not begin until the 1930s and then only sporadically. Mussolini also sought to promote Italian national prestige in foreign affairs, most notably through the invasion and subsequent occupation of Abyssinia in 1935. Italy was criticized by the League of Nations and this encouraged closer collaboration with Nazi Germany. An Axis with Berlin encouraged Mussolini to claim that Italy was ready for war, despite Italian industry and military being underprepared. Indeed, when Mussolini joined the war in June 1940, Italy proved a drain on German resources.

While these three regimes would be devastated in different ways during World War II, the era of the Great Depression saw the rise of other dictatorships. The Francisco Franco regime in Spain began in 1936 and overcame the republicans in the Spanish civil war by 1939 with the support of Germany and Italy. Franco modeled his regime on Mussolini's corporate state under a single party (the Falange), and remained in office until his death in 1975. Other dictatorships were also established during this era in South America. The influence of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, although receiving tacit approval from the United States, became increasingly dictatorial during the period, as did the regime of President Getúlio Vargas, who had assumed power in Brazil in 1930.

Whatever the fate of the dictatorships of the 1930s their most remarkable feature was their physical and intellectual control over their own populations, which in the case of Stalin and Hitler allowed for the mass slaughter of millions of people.



Bosworth, Richard. Mussolini. 2002.

Brooker, Paul. Twentieth-Century Dictatorships: The Ideological One-Party States. 1995.

Bullock, Alan. Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, 2nd edition. 1998.

Kershaw, Ian. The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation, 4th edition. 2000.

Noakes, Jeremy, and Geoffrey Pridham, eds. Nazism 1919–1945, 2nd edition. Vol. 1: The Rise to Power, 1919–1934; Vol. 2: State, Economy, and Society, 1933–1939. 1998.

Pauley, Bruce F. Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini: Totalitarianism in the Twentieth Century. 1997.

Siegelbaum, Lewis H., and Andrei Sokolov. Stalinism as a Way of Life: A Narrative in Documents, translated by Thomas Hoisington and Steven Shabad. 2000.

J. Simon Rofe


views updated May 23 2018


Autocracy was the form of government in Russia until 1905 when, in theory, a constitutional monarchy was established. The Russian autocratic order can date its origins to the rise of Moscow during the Mongol occupation. The official conception of the autocracy stressed that all political power and legitimacy emanated from the autocrat, who claimed to be God's representative on earth. According to Russia's Fundamental Laws of 1832, "The All-Russian Emperor is an autocratic and unlimited monarch." He had the ability to overcome society more easily than most of his counterparts to the west of Russia simply because the tenets of autocratic thought did not accept the notion that the monarch should consult social groups or other forms of organized societal elements, and institutional constraints on monarchical power did not exist.

One of the justifications for autocracy was its perceived position as being above all classes. It was portrayed as the ideal arbiter between the various self-interested groups in society, ensuring that exploitation did not take place between them and implementing supreme truth and justice. In addition, autocracy was stressed as Russia's prime and unique historical force, pushing the country towards greatness and providing for national unity in a multi-ethnic empire and internal stability. The emergence of Russia as an empire and a great European power symbolized for many the autocracy's achievements.

At the base of autocratic ideology was the idea of a strong union between the people and the autocratic tsar, whose paternalistic image was stressed. While carrying the title of autocrat, he was also known as the "little father" who protected his people from the bureaucracy and worked for their ultimate benefit. There is considerable debate over the extent to which the Soviet political system, and specifically Stalinism, was rooted in this heritage of autocracy.

The autocracy was dependent on the character and modus operandi of the autocrat. As the coordinating pivot of the entire system, he determined the autocracy's actions and reactions. If the autocrat failed to ensure a degree of harmony and unity among the highest servants of the state, or could not fulfil this role and refused to support a minister to act as the coordinating point of the government, he contributed greatly to disorder and paralysis within the autocracy. This scenario was played out during the reign of the last emperor, Nicholas II.

The educated upper classes did not believe that the autocracy was without some constraints. These, however, were not legal, but moral, and based on history, culture, religion, and tradition. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, debate over the future of autocracy increased. The Decembrist Revolt of 1825 was the first sign of open dissatisfaction with autocracy. Forced to embark on a policy of modernization in the middle of the nineteenth century, the autocracy struggled to deal with its consequences. By the end of the nineteenth century, the autocracy was seem more as an obstacle than a positive force. After the Revolution of 1905, the tsar was still called autocratic, but a parliamentary system now existed. Autocracy's ultimate failure to incorporate to any sufficient degree the greatly enlarged educated and working classes, a step which would have in theory put an end to autocracy, became of the major causes of the collapse of the monarchy.

See also: decembrist movement and rebellion; liberalism; revolution of 1905; totalitarianism; tsar, tsarina


Dukes, Paul. (1982). The Making of Russian Absolutism 16131801. London: Routledge.

McDaniel, Tim. (1988). Autocracy, Capitalism, and Revolution in Russia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rogger, Hans. (1992). Russia in the Age of Modernisation and Revolution, 18811917. London: Routledge.

Verner, Andrew. (1990). The Crisis of Russian Autocracy: Nicholas II and the 1905 Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Zhand P. Shakibi


views updated May 23 2018

dic·ta·tor / ˈdikˌtātər/ • n. 1. a ruler with total power over a country, typically one who has obtained power by force. ∎  a person who tells people what to do in an autocratic way or who determines behavior in a particular sphere: the prewar era was a period whose apple-cheeked dictator was Doris Day. ∎  (in ancient Rome) a chief magistrate with absolute power, appointed in an emergency.2. a machine that records words spoken into it, used for personal or administrative purposes.


views updated May 29 2018

autocracy A regime in which power is concentrated in the person of a single individual—as, for example, in the case of ‘the Stalinist autocracy’. The term is thus loosely applied, and will be found in discussions of a variety of state structures and political regimes, including in particular totalitarian, fascist, real socialist and monarchical examples. See also STALINISM.