Autocracy and dictatorship are both political systems that concentrate power in the hands of an individual or a small group.
The terms are generally interchangeable. One small difference between autocracy and dictatorship is that in an autocracy, generally there are institutions, traditions, or norms that restrain the ruler(s) in one way or another. Nevertheless, this is somewhat a matter of semantics, and the two terms both refer to the absolute rule of one person or group of people over a population.
Autocracy vs Dictatorship
John Scott defines autocracy as
A regime in which power is concentrated in the person of a single individual…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. (2014)
The term “autocracy” is derived from the Ancient Greek autos (“self”) and kratos (“power”). This etymology is significant because it hints at the most distinguishing feature of every autocracy: the ruler is not accountable to anyone else for what he does.
“He is the autos who himself wields power”, as Friedrich writes, “makes the decisions and reaps the opposite” (1965). The exact opposite of an autocracy is a system where the ruler is responsible to others, such as a constitutional democracy.
Fascism is a subset of autocracy, and it first arose in Italy during the 1920s, led by Benito Mussolini.
The term is derived from the fasces of Ancient Rome, which was a bundle of rods with a projecting axe, representing unity and authority. As Robertson writes, there is no coherent political doctrine of fascism, but they were all opportunistic: they exploited local fears & hatred to gather public support (2003).
Fascism then expresses this hatred (usually racism) in the form of nationalism. This is linked to a “strong man” who can supposedly a country’s problems as long as everyone was loyal to him. He leads a single party that rules by “terroristic domination”, and there is no separation of power or rule of law (Scott).
Between the two world wars, fascist parties also developed in other countries, led by Adolf Hitler in Germany and General Francisco Franco in Spain. In modern times, “fascism” is often used to refer to any right-wing group or anyone having extreme (especially violent) views, although the term shouldn’t be used so loosely.
Paul M. Johnson defines dictatorship as a
Government by a single person (or group) whose discretion in using the powers and resources of the state is unrestrained by any fixed legal or constitutional rules and who is (are) in no effective way held responsible to the general population or their elected representatives.
Since dictatorship also involves a concentration of power and a lack of accountability, it is also a type of autocracy. However, a dictatorship allows for greater personalization of power: there are hardly any institutional structures (say bureaucracy or religious principles) limiting him, as in autocracies.
The term dictatorship originated in the classical era when states often appointed a temporary dictator as an emergency measure, which normally had other political systems (Robertson, 2003).
The dictator was given complete executive authority so that he could restore stability in times of military crises or civic unrest.
The Roman Republic appointed about 85 such dictators throughout their rule, the last of which was chosen to wage the Second Punic War. The dictator was always conceived as a temporary leader, but then in 49 BC, Julius Caesar claimed the title of dictator perpetuo (dictator for life) and effectively established the Roman empire (Zeev, 1996).
Autocracy and Dictatorship Similarities
Autocracy and dictatorship are similar political systems that involve a concentration of power, no accountability, and limited civil liberties.
1. Concentration of Power
Autocracy is made up of autos (“self”) and kratos (“power”): the “self” has all the power. So, it effectively refers to a system where a single individual or a group of individuals hold all the power.
Dictatorship is also characterized as having a single individual or small group of individuals at the top, such as in China, where the Communist party leaders are the dictators.
2. lack of Accountability
Secondly, the rulers in both autocracy and dictatorship have no accountability. They can do whatever they please, unlike in constitutional governments, where there are limits to rulers. In most cases, these rulers cannot even be replaced.
For example, in a democracy, rulers have to go to the people every few years to have another election. This gives them a new mandate to lead the country, or, kicks them out of office and installs a leader that the people want.
But in autocracies and dictatorships, there are no general elections, and the rulers generally rule for life.
3. Limited Civil liberties
These systems do not permit any opposing political parties to exist and silence all dissenting voices. Not just in politics, but repression exists in everyday life too: there is little to no freedom of expression, media, and assembly. Surveillance, intimidation, and even violence are common.
This is because there are no checks and balances on the leaders. The leaders are not restrained by courts or constitutions.
Autocracy and Dictatorship Differences
Although autocracy and dictatorship are similar in their concentration of power, there is one subtle differences between them in terms of power structure.
Autocracy, as we saw in our definition, is a much broader term. It includes various types of political regimes, such as totalitarianism, fascism, real socialism, and monarchism (Scott, 2007).
Since dictatorship also involves a concentration of power, it is also a type of autocracy where a single individual holds unrestricted power. This also leads to greater personalization of power in a dictatorship; autocracy, in contrast, often has some institutional structures like bureaucracies.
However, while all dictatorships are autocracies, not all autocracies are dictatorships. For example, monarchies or theocracies are autocracies, where power is held by the ruling family or religious leaders, not a single dictator. In this sense, they can be a blend between dictatorships and oligarchies.
Read Next: Autocracy vs Democracy
Both autocracies and dictatorships concentrate power in the hands of a few, but they are also different in some ways.
These political systems involve no accountability and the rulers can do as they please. Therefore, they also usually come with severe restrictions on civil liberties, and fear is a constant weapon of the state. Examples include North Korea, Afghanistan, etc.
Friedrich, C.J.; Brzezinski, Z.K. (1965). Totalitarian Dictatorship & Autocracy. Harvard University Press.
Guriev, T. & Sergeiand, D. (2022). How Do Dictatorships Survive in the 21st Century? Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Johnson, P. M. (2023). Dictatorship: A Glossary of Political Economy Terms. Auburn.edu.
Kotkin, Stephen (2015). The Resistible Rise of Vladimir Putin: Russia’s Nightmare Dressed Like a Daydream. Council on Foreign Relations.
Mitter, R. (2013). China and the Cold War. In Immerman, R. H. & Goedde, P. (Eds.). The Oxford Handbook of the Cold War.
Robertson, D. (2003). The Routledge Dictionary of Politics. Routledge.
Scott, J. (2007). The Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford University Press.
Zeev, M. (1996). When was the title “Dictator perpetuus” given to Caesar? L’Antiquité Classique. 65: 251–253. doi:10.3406/antiq.1996.1259
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]