Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.

University President & Professor of Political Science






What is dictatorship, or authoritarianism? What are the different types of dictatorship? What is the key characterictic that all types of dictatorship have in common? What is the essential difference between dictatorship and constitutionalism?

1. "Dictatorship"--Synonymous Terms:

Terms often employed as synonyms for "dictatorship" and "dictatorial government" include "authoritarianism," "authoritarian government," and "unlimited government." Older, more traditional terms that are synonymous or roughly synonymous with the foregoing terms include "absolutism," "absolute government," "despotism," and "tyranny."

2. "Dictatorship"--Definition and Description:

A dictatorship is a political regime under which the power of government is not limited by law. A political society with a dictatorial, or authoritarian, system of government lacks a true constitution--i.e., a constitution which effectively limits and disperses governmental power. Within the government or within the political party or religious organization which completely controls the government, there is one all-powerful or virtually all-powerful center of political power--one central office or organ of government, party, or religious establishment in which all or virtually all political power is lodged. Other power centers may or may not exist. If they do exist, they are relatively weak or impotent, lacking sufficient power to effectively check and restrain exercise of political power by the single central power center.

The main feature that all types of dictatorship, or authoritarianism, have in common is concentration of political power in one power center. Under every dictatorship, untrammelled or virtually untrammelled political power is lodged in one place. This unbridled or virtually unbridled power may be located in one person occupying a single high government, party, or religious office, or it may be located in a small and cohesive elite group. Such unchecked, overriding political power may even be in the hands of a popular majority or in its democratically elected representatives in the legislature. The one center of political power--whether one person, an elite group, or a democratic majority--completely controls and dominates the government and dictates to the entire society it rules.

In a society with a dictatorial political political regime, citizenship does not entail the possession of rights and liberties guaranteed and protected by law. Non-existent are constitutional rights and liberties guaranteed to the individual citizen against arbitrary deprivation or abridgement by the government. Particular individuals and groups within the society may enjoy special privileges and favors granted by the government, but these privileges and favors are not legally guaranteed and protected rights, since they are subject to governmental cancellation at the whim of the person or persons who exercise unlimited power and dominate the government and society. The government has authority to punish individuals for dissent and can therefore coerce them into silence and submission by threats of bodily harm, confiscation of property, imprisonment, exile, or death.

Completely incompatible with the rule of law, dictatorship is arbitrary government --government by whim, as opposed to government by legally established and widely respected procedures. The rules of governmental procedure and political practice mean very little; they are subject to change without notice and vary at the whim of those who wield unlimited power over the political society. The society may have a nice-sounding "constitution," but that socalled "constitution" is not worth the paper or parchment on which it is written, since the document is not followed or is subject to change at the whim of those who rule the society. The "Constitution," a mere facade, does not impose the rule of law; and it does not effectively limit governmental power.

3. Different Types of Dictatorship:

Three different types of authoritarianism are autocracy, authoritarian oligarchy, and absolute democracy.

Autocracy. In an autocracy, unchecked and overriding political power is lodged in one person occupying a single high office. The power of government is absolute (i.e., unlimited) and is concentrated in the hands of the autocrat, who reserves to himself the right to make the final decisions of government. In the final analysis, one person makes the important decisions regarding public policy and its implementation.

If the autocrat--the one person in whom resides unlimited political power--is an hereditary monarch (king or queen, emperor or empress), the governmental system is an absolute monarchy. In an absolute monarchy, government is carried on in the name of one person who inherits his title and office and who wields political power that is not effectively limited by law. The Monarch exercises full and unbridled ruling power and does not have to share authority with a legislative assembly or with other independent power centers in the government.

Examples of absolute monarchies that stand out in the history of Europe include (1) the government of France under the personal direction and control of King Louis XIV during the period from the death of his chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin, in 1661 to the death of King Louis in 1715 and (2) the government of Russia under Czar Peter I (Peter the Great) from 1689 to 1725 and under Czarina Catherine II (Catherine the Great) from 1762 to 1796.

Absolute monarchy is the older and more traditional form of autocracy. More recent forms of autocracy concentrate unlimited power in the hands of one person who obtained the position of top political leader and ruler of his country, not through hereditary succession in accordance with long-standing custom and tradition, but through either an armed takeover of governing authority or victory in a popular election. The autocrat, though not an hereditary monarch, is still complete master and absolute ruler of the political society he leads and governs. The autocrat's word is law. In Nazi Germany, for example, the key operating premise of the Third Reich was: "The will of the Fuhrer is the law of the German state."

Classic examples of twentieth-century autocracies include some well-known political regimes of the recent past--(1) the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler in Germany (1933-1945), (2) the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini in Italy (1922-1943), and the government of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin (1922-1953). Present-day examples of non-hereditary, non-monarchical autocracies include the political regimes in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Serbia.

Authoritarian Oligarchy. The type of governmental system referred to as "authoritarian oligarchy," or "collective dictatorship," is characterized by absolute rule of the few. Unchecked, overriding political power is lodged in the hands of a very small number of persons who make up a single cohesive elite. Governing power is concentrated in one small, closely-knit group that operates as a single unit, wielding power and governing as if its members were a single person exercising unlimited power. The ruling elite governs as if it were an autocrat, a single absolute ruler. The elite may have gained power through inheritance, forcible seizure of power, or victory in an election.

One particular type of authoritarian oligarchy in the modern world is the one-party state. In a one-party state, unchecked and overriding political power is in the hands of a small, cohesive party elite--a tightly-knit elite group consisting of the top leaders of a single official political party. The single official party is the only legally recognized party--the only political party that the law permits to exist and operate. The official party, as the sole provider of candidates for public office, completely dominates the government and all other aspects of political life within the society.

The one-party state has been the typical pattern of government in Communist-ruled societies. The one-party oligarchy was the type of political regime that operated in the Soviet Union from the Communist seizure of power in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 to the emergence of Stalin as autocratic ruler in 1922 and again from the death of Stalin in 1953 to the political developments of 1989-1991--the collapse of the Soviet Communist regime and the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. A one-party state has operated on the Chinese mainland since 1949, when the Chinese Communists, under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung, emerged as the victors in the civil war they had been waging against the government controlled by the Kuomintang (i.e., the Chinese Nationalist Party) and headed by Chiang Kai-shek.

Absolute Democracy. Just as a political regime can be constitutional without being democratic, one can be democratic without being constitutional. A government that is democratic, but not constitutional, is called an "absolute democracy." Other labels that have been used to refer to non-constitutional democratic political regimes include "majoritarian dictatorship," "popular despotism," "tyranny of the majority," and "simple, unchecked democracy."

Absolute democracy, or majoritarian dictatorship, is characterized by absolute, or unlimited, rule of the majority. Unchecked, overriding political power is in the hands of a simple majority (50.1 percent) of the adult citizens or their democratically elected representatives. In such a governmental system, majority rule is a "blank check" authorizing whatever a majority--even a very slim majority--of the voting citizenry wishes to do, either directly or through its elected representatives. There are no legal or constitutional restraints on the authoritative decisionmaking and actiontaking power of the majority.

Examples of absolute democracy in ancient history include the direct democracies that operated in Athens and some of the other city-states of ancient Greece. In the city-state of Athens, governmental decisions on public policy and the fate of individuals accused of wrongdoing were determined ultimately and finally by the sovereign will of the popular majority, unimpeded by pre-existing law. Even the most important aspects of Athenian law were subject to change at the whim of a slim majority voting in the legislative assembly--the Ecclesia--or in one of the popular courts. Aristotle, in Politics, (4.4.3-4), described Athens of the fourth century B.C. as a political community in which "the people, and not the law, is the final sovereign"--a community where "popular decrees are sovereign instead of the law. According to Aristotle, "Demagogues arise in states where the laws are not sovereign. The people then becomes an autocrat--a single composite autocrat made of many members, with the many playing the [role of] sovereign [absolute ruler], not as individuals, but collectively." [Note 1]

In ancient Athens, the individual citizen was not seen as having any legal claims against the political community--i.e., claims to rights and liberties guaranteed and protected by law against arbitrary community action. The sovereign, or supreme, will of the people, as expressed by majority vote in the Ecclesia or in a popular court, prevailed against any claims to legal guarantees providing the individual citizen protection of life, liberty, or property from adverse governmental decisions and actions supported by the popular majority. In other words, individual members of the minority, in facing arbitrary governmental action adverse to their vital interests, were completely without legal recourse, when such adverse governmental action was supported by the majority.

In Athens, members of the minority were subject to trial, conviction, and punishment for dissent and other political crimes. Political leaders who had lost the support of the majority were subject to indictment and prosecution for "treason" and/or "deceiving the public" and could be easily and quickly convicted by a popular court, which was more like a ninteenth- century or early twentieth-century American local lynch mob than a contemporary American court of law, with a judge and a panel of 12 jurors; an ancient Athenian popular court consisted of a very large number of jurors, normally in the thousands (a number definitely prone to lynch-mobery) when trying a politically significant case. The judgement of such a court was final; there was no right of appeal from the court's decision.

An important example of absolute democracy occurring during the modern era of European history is the political regime that operated in France during that brief but most violent phase of the French Revolution known to history as the "Reign of Terror"--i.e., the period of Jacobin dictatorial rule from June 2, 1793, to June 27, 1794.

In the modern era, absolute democracies have been highly unstable and have had rather short lives. Generally, such political regimes have quickly collapsed, resulting in civil war or widespread lawlessness and violence, followed by autocracy or oligarchy ruthlessly imposed by military force and ruthlessly maintained by continuing resort to the usual brutal and downright barbarous methods of a tyrannical, thoroughgoing police-state.

Different Types of Dictatorship--A Summary. Three different types of dictatorship are autocracy, authoritarian oligarchy, and absolute democracy.

In an autocracy, absolute political power is concentrated in one person. The older and more traditional form of autocracy is absolute monarchy, a political regime under which the government is carried on in the name of an hereditary chief of state possessing and exercising unlimited authority. In a non-hereditary, non-monarchical form of autocracy, the form that is typical of twentieth-century autocracies, unchecked and overriding political power is exercised by one person who obtained his position and office through armed takeover of governing power or through victory in a popular election.

If unlimited political power is concentrated in a small and cohesive elite group, the political regime is an authoritarian oligarchy. A major form of authoritarian oligarchy in the twentienth century has been the one-party state, in which absolute power is in the hands of a small group of top leaders of the only legally existing and operating political party--the party that completely controls and dominates the government, which, in turn, completely controls and dominates the entire society.

If unchecked, overriding political power is exercised by a popular majority or by its elected representatives, the governmental system is an absolute democracy.

4. All Types of Dictatorship--A Common Characteristic:

All types of dictatorship, or authoritarianism, have one key characteristic in common: Unbridled political power is lodged in one place--one person, one small and united group, or a unified, highly disciplined, and well-led popular majority or its elected representatives, who are unified, highly disciplined and well led.

5. Dictatorship and Constitutionalism--The Essential Difference between the Two Systems:

Dictatorship is characterized by the government's exercise of unlimited power, while constitutionalism is characterized by limited government under a constitution. In a society with a constitutional political regime, the Constitution imposes limits, or restraints, on governmental authority and on the exercise of that authority.

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