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Benito Mussolini (left) and Adolf Hitler. Hitler's policies and orders both directly and indirectly resulted in the deaths of about 50 million people in Europe. Together with Mussolini's Italian Fascism and Stalin's Soviet Communism, they have marked the inception of the "totalitarian regimes". Hitlermusso2 edit.jpg
Benito Mussolini (left) and Adolf Hitler. Hitler's policies and orders both directly and indirectly resulted in the deaths of about 50 million people in Europe. Together with Mussolini's Italian Fascism and Stalin's Soviet Communism, they have marked the inception of the "totalitarian regimes".

A dictatorship is a form of government characterized by a single leader or group of leaders and little or no toleration for political pluralism or independent programs or media. [2] According to other definitions, democracies are regimes in which "those who govern are selected through contested elections"; therefore dictatorships are "not democracies". [2] With the advent of the 19th and 20th centuries, dictatorships and constitutional democracies emerged as the world's two major forms of government, gradually eliminating monarchies, one of the traditional widespread forms of government of the time. Typically, in a dictatorial regime, the leader of the country is identified with the title of dictator, although their formal title may more closely resemble something similar to "leader". A common aspect that characterized dictatorship is taking advantage of their strong personality, usually by suppressing freedom of thought and speech of the masses, in order to maintain complete political and social supremacy and stability. Dictatorships and totalitarian societies generally employ political propaganda to decrease the influence of proponents of alternative governing systems. [3] [4]



The word "dictator" comes from the classical Latin language word dictātor, agent noun from dictare (dictāt-, past participial stem of dictāre dictate v. + -or -or suffix.) [5] In Latin use, a dictator was a judge in the Roman Republic temporarily invested with absolute power.

Types of dictatorships

A dictatorship has been largely defined as a form of government in which the absolute power is concentrated in the hands of a leader (commonly identified as a dictator), a "small clique", or a "government organization", and it aims to abolish political pluralism and civilian mobilization. [6] On the other hand, democracy, which is generally compared to the concept of dictatorship, is defined as a form of government where the supremacy belongs to the population and rulers are elected through contested elections. [7] [8]

A new form of government commonly linked to the concept of dictatorship is known as totalitarianism. The advent of totalitarianism marked the beginning of a new political era in the 20th century. This form of government is characterized by the presence of a single political party and more specifically, by a powerful leader (a real role model) who imposes his personal and political prominence. The two fundamental aspects that contribute to the maintenance of the power are: a steadfast collaboration between the government and the police force, and a highly developed ideology. Here, the government has "total control of mass communications and social and economic organizations". [9] According to Hannah Arendt, totalitarianism is a new and extreme form of dictatorship composed of "atomized, isolated individuals". [10] In addition, she affirmed that ideology plays a leading role in defining how the entire society should be organized. According to the political scientist Juan Linz, the distinction between an authoritarian regime and a totalitarian one is that while an authoritarian regime seeks to suffocate politics and political mobilization, totalitarianism seeks to control politics and political mobilization. [11]

However, one of the most recent classification of dictatorships does not identify Totalitarianism as a form of dictatorship. In Barbara Geddes's study, she focused in how elite-leader and elite-mass relations influence authoritarian politics. Geddes typology identifies the key institutions that structure elite politics in dictatorships (i.e. parties and militaries). The study is based on, and directly related to, factors like: the simplicity of the categorizations, cross-national applicability, the emphasis on elites and leaders, and the incorporation of institutions (parties and militaries) as central to shaping politics. According to Barbara Geddes, a dictatorial government may be classified in five typologies: Military Dictatorships, Single-party Dictatorships, Personalist Dictatorships, Monarchies, Hybrid Dictatorships. [10]

Military dictatorships

Military dictatorships are regimes in which a group of officers holds power, determines who will lead the country, and exercises influence over policy. High-level elites and a leader are the members of the military dictatorship. Military dictatorships are characterized by rule by a professionalized military as an institution. In military regimes, elites are referred to as junta members; they are typically senior officers (and often other high-level officers) in the military. [10] [12]

Single-party dictatorships

Single-party dictatorships are regimes in which one party dominates politics. In single-party dictatorships, a single party has access to political posts and control over policy. In single-party dictatorships, party elites are typically members of the ruling body of the party, sometimes called the central committee, politburo, or secretariat. These groups of individuals controls the selection of party officials and "organizes the distribution of benefits to supporters and mobilizes citizens to vote and show support for party leaders". [10]

Personalist dictatorships

Personalist dictatorships are regimes in which all power lies in the hands of a single individual. Personalist dictatorships differ from other forms of dictatorships in their access to key political positions, other fruits of office, and depend much more on the discretion of the personalist dictator. Personalist dictators may be members of the military or leaders of a political party. Yet, neither the military nor the party exercises power independent from the dictator. In personalist dictatorships, the elite corps is usually made up of close friends or family members of the dictator. These individuals are all typically handpicked to serve their posts by the dictator. [10] [13]

According to a 2019 study, personalist dictatorships are more repressive than other forms of dictatorship. [14]

Monarchic dictatorships

King Salman of Saudi Arabia Salman of Saudi Arabia (2017-10-05) 2.jpg
King Salman of Saudi Arabia

Monarchic dictatorships are regimes in which "a person of royal descent has inherited the position of head of state in accordance with accepted practice or constitution". Regimes are not considered dictatorships if the monarch's role is largely ceremonial, but absolute monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia, can be considered hereditary dictatorships. Real political power must be exercised by the monarch for regimes to be classified as such. Elites in monarchies are typically members of the royal family. [10]

Hybrid dictatorships

Hybrid dictatorships are regimes that blend qualities of personalist, single-party, and military dictatorships. When regimes share characteristics of all three forms of dictatorships, they are referred to as triple threats. The most common forms of hybrid dictatorships are personalist/single-party hybrids and personalist/military hybrids. [10]

Measuring dictatorships

Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit, 2016. Blue represents more democratic countries, while yellow and red are considered as hybrid regime and authoritarian, respectively. Most dictatorships are represented as darker shades of red. Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy index.svg
Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit, 2016. Blue represents more democratic countries, while yellow and red are considered as hybrid regime and authoritarian, respectively. Most dictatorships are represented as darker shades of red.

One of the tasks in political science is to measure and classify regimes as either dictatorships or democracies. Freedom House, Polity IV and Democracy-Dictatorship Index are three of the most used data series by political scientists. [17]

Generally, two research approaches exist: the minimalist approach, which focuses on whether a country has continued elections that are competitive, and the substantive approach, which expands the concept of democracy to include human rights, freedom of the press, and the rule of law. The Democracy-Dictatorship Index is seen as an example of the minimalist approach, whereas the Polity data series, is more substantive. [18] [19] [20] [21]


Between the two world wars, four types of dictatorships have been described: Constitutional, Communist (nominally championing the "dictatorship of the proletariat"), Counterrevolutionary and Fascist. Since World War II, a broader range of dictatorships has been recognized, including Third World dictatorships, theocratic or religious dictatorships and dynastic or family-based dictatorships. [22]

Dictators in the Roman Republic

During the Republican phase of Ancient Rome, a Roman dictator was the special magistrate who held well defined powers, normally for six months at a time, usually in combination with a consulship. Roman dictators were allocated absolute power during times of emergency. In execution, their power was originally neither arbitrary nor unaccountable, being subject to law and requiring retrospective justification. There were no such dictatorships after the beginning of the 2nd century BC and later dictators such as Sulla and the Roman Emperors exercised power much more personally and arbitrarily. As the Roman Emperor was a king in all but name,[ original research? ] a concept that remained anathema to traditional Roman society, the institution was not carried forward into the Roman Empire.

19th-century Latin American caudillos

Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna wearing Mexican military uniform Santaanna1.JPG
Antonio López de Santa Anna wearing Mexican military uniform

After the collapse of Spanish colonial rule, various dictators came to power in many liberated countries. Often leading a private army, these caudillos or self-appointed political-military leaders, attacked weak national governments once they controlled a region's political and economic powers, with examples such as Antonio López de Santa Anna in Mexico and Juan Manuel de Rosas in Argentina. Such dictators have been also referred to as "personalismos".

The wave of military dictatorships in South America in the second half of the twentieth century left a particular mark on Latin American culture. In Latin American literature, the dictator novel challenging dictatorship and caudillismo is a significant genre. There are also many films depicting Latin American military dictatorships.

Communism and Fascism in 20th-century dictatorships

In the first half of the 20th century, Communist and Fascist dictatorships appeared in a variety of scientifically and technologically advanced countries, which are distinct from dictatorships in Latin America and post-colonial dictatorships in Africa and Asia. Leading examples of modern totalitarian dictatorship include:

Dictatorships in Africa and Asia after World War II

Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire's longtime dictator Prins Bernhard in Zaire (voorheen Belgisch Congo), Bernhard en Mobutu, Bestanddeelnr 926-6037.jpg
Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire's longtime dictator

After World War II, dictators established themselves in the several new states of Africa and Asia, often at the expense or failure of the constitutions inherited from the colonial powers. These constitutions often failed to work without a strong middle class or work against the preexisting autocratic rule. Some elected presidents and prime ministers captured power by suppressing the opposition and installing one-party rule and others established military dictatorships through their armies. Whatever their form, these dictatorships had an adverse impact on economic growth and the quality of political institutions. [23] Dictators who stayed in office for a long period of time found it increasingly difficult to carry out sound economic policies.

The often-cited exploitative dictatorship is the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled Zaire from 1965 to 1997, embezzling over $5 billion from his country. [24] Pakistan is another country to have been governed by 3 military dictators for almost 32 years in 7 decades of its existence. Starting with General Muhammad Ayub Khan who ruled from 1958–1969. Next was General Zia-ul-Haq who usurped power in 1977 and held on to power the longest until he died in an air crash in 1988. Ten years after Zia, General Pervez Musharraf got control after defeat against India in the Kargil war. He remained in power for 9 years until 2008. [25]

Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier succeeded his father Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier as the ruler of Haiti after his death in 1971. Baby Doc.jpg
Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier succeeded his father François "Papa Doc" Duvalier as the ruler of Haiti after his death in 1971.
Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, current president of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (2017-10-02) 02.jpg
Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, current president of Turkmenistan


The global dynamics of democratization has been a central question for political scientists. [26] [27] The Third Wave Democracy was said to turn some dictatorships into democracies [26] (see also the contrast between the two figures of the Democracy-Dictatorship Index in 1988 and 2008).

One of the rationales that the Bush Administration employed periodically during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq is that deposing Saddam Hussein and installing a democratic government in Iraq would promote democracy in other Middle Eastern countries. [28] However, according to The Huffington Post, "The 45 nations and territories with little or no democratic rule represent more than half of the roughly 80 countries now hosting U.S. bases. ... Research by political scientist Kent Calder confirms what's come to be known as the "dictatorship hypothesis": The United States tends to support dictators [and other undemocratic regimes] in nations where it enjoys basing facilities." [29]

Theories of dictatorship

Mancur Olson suggests that the emergence of dictatorships can be linked to the concept of "roving bandits", individuals in an atomic system who move from place to place extracting wealth from individuals. These bandits provide a disincentive for investment and production. Olson states that a community of individuals would be better served if that bandit were to establish himself as a stationary bandit to monopolize theft in the form of taxes. Except from the community, the bandits themselves will be better served, according to Olson, by transforming themselves into "stationary bandits". By settling down and making themselves the rulers of a territory, they will be able to make more profits through taxes than they used to obtain through plunder. By maintaining order and providing protection to the community, the bandits will create a peaceful environment in which their people can maximize their surplus which means a greater taxable base. Thus a potential dictator will have a greater incentive to provide security to a given community from which he is extracting taxes and conversely, the people from whom he extracts the taxes are more likely to produce because they will be unconcerned with potential theft by other bandits. This is the rationality that bandits use in order to justify their transformation from "roving bandits" into "stationary bandits". [30]

See also

Related Research Articles

Dictator Political leader who possesses absolute power

A dictator is a political leader who possesses absolute power. A dictatorship is a state ruled by one dictator or by a small clique. The word originated as the title of a magistrate in the Roman Republic appointed by the Senate to rule the republic in times of emergency.

Totalitarianism political system in which the state holds total authority

Totalitarianism is a political system or a form of government that prohibits opposition parties, restricts individual opposition to the state and its claims, and exercises an extremely high degree of control over public and private life. It is regarded as the most extreme and complete form of authoritarianism. In totalitarian states, political power has often been held by autocrats who employ all-encompassing campaigns in which propaganda is broadcast by state-controlled mass media.

An autocracy is a system of government in which an autocrat, defined as a single person or party, possesses supreme and absolute power. The decisions of this autocrat are subject to neither external legal restraints nor regularized mechanisms of popular control. Absolute monarchies and dictatorships are the main modern-day forms of autocracy.

A military junta is a government led committee of military leaders. The term junta means "meeting" or "committee" and originated in the national and local junta organized by the Spanish resistance to Napoleon's invasion of Spain in 1808. The term is now used to refer to an authoritarian form of government characterized by oligarchic military dictatorship, as distinguished from other categories of authoritarian rule, specifically strongman ; machine ; and bossism.

In political science, a political system defines the process for making official government decisions. It is usually compared to the legal system, economic system, cultural system, and other social systems. However, this is a very simplified view of a much more complex system of categories involving the questions of who should have authority and what the government influence on its people and economy should.

Democratization is the transition to a more democratic political regime, including substantive political changes moving in a democratic direction. It may be the transition from an authoritarian regime to a full democracy, a transition from an authoritarian political system to a semi-democracy or transition from a semi-authoritarian political system to a democratic political system.

<i>Caudillo</i> Type of personalist leader wielding political power

A caudillo is a type of personalist leader wielding military and political power. There is no precise definition of caudillo, which is often used interchangeably with "dictator" and "strongman." The term is historically associated with Spain, and with Spanish America after virtually all of that region won independence in the early nineteenth century.

An illiberal democracy, also called a partial democracy, low intensity democracy, empty democracy or guided democracy, is a governing system in which although elections take place, citizens are cut off from knowledge about the activities of those who exercise real power because of the lack of civil liberties; thus it is not an "open society". There are many countries "that are categorized as neither 'free' nor 'not free', but as 'probably free', falling somewhere between democratic and nondemocratic regimes". This may be because a constitution limiting government powers exists, but those in power ignore its liberties, or because an adequate legal constitutional framework of liberties does not exist.

Military dictatorship in Brazil 1964-1985 military regime in Brazil

The Brazilian military government, also known in Brazil as the Fifth Brazilian Republic, was the authoritarian military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1 April 1964 to 15 March 1985. It began with the 1964 coup d'état led by the Armed Forces against the administration of President João Goulart—who, having been vice-president, had assumed the office of president upon the resignation of the democratically elected president Jânio Quadros—and ended when José Sarney took office on 15 March 1985 as President. The military revolt was fomented by Magalhães Pinto, Adhemar de Barros, and Carlos Lacerda, then governors of the states of Minas Gerais, São Paulo, and Guanabara, respectively. The coup was planned and executed by the most forefront commanders of the Brazilian Army and received the support of almost all high-ranking members of the military, along with conservative elements in society, like the Catholic Church and anti-communist civil movements among the Brazilian middle and upper classes. Internationally, it was supported by the State Department of the United States through its embassy in Brasilia.

Mancur Olson American economist

Mançur Lloyd Olson Jr. was an American economist and social scientist who taught economics at the University of Maryland, College Park. His most influential contributions were in institutional economics, and in the role which private property, taxation, public goods, collective action, and contract rights play in economic development.

A strongman is a type of authoritarian political leader. Political scientists Brian Lai and Dan Slater identify strongman rule as a form of authoritarian rule characterized by autocratic military dictatorships, as distinct from three other categories of authoritarian rule, specifically machine ; bossism, and juntas.

Benevolent dictatorship political regime

A benevolent dictatorship refers to a government in which an authoritarian leader exercises absolute political power over the state but is perceived to do so with regard for benefit of the population as a whole, standing in contrast to the decidedly malevolent stereotype of a dictator who focuses on their and their supporters' self-interests. A benevolent dictator may allow for some economic liberalization or democratic decision-making to exist, such as through public referenda or elected representatives with limited power, and often makes preparations for a transition to genuine democracy during or after their term. It might be seen as a republican form of enlightened despotism.

Authoritarianism is a form of government characterized by strong central power and limited political freedoms. Political scientists have created many typologies describing variations of authoritarian forms of government. Authoritarian regimes may be either autocratic or oligarchic in nature, and may be based upon the rule of a party or the military.

The political philosopher Sheldon Wolin coined the term inverted totalitarianism in 2003 to describe what he saw as the emerging form of government of the United States. Wolin analysed the United States as increasingly turning into a managed democracy. He uses the term "inverted totalitarianism" to draw attention to the totalitarian aspects of the American political system while emphasizing its differences from proper totalitarianism, such as Nazi and Stalinist regimes.

Coup détat Sudden deposition of a government

A coup d'étatlisten  is the forcible removal of an existing government from power through violent means. Whereas a coup does not specify the means taken by the revolting party to overthrow the state, a coup d'état is a revolt performed through violence. Typically, it is an illegal, unconstitutional seizure of power by a political faction, the military, or a dictator. Many scholars consider a coup d'état successful when the usurpers seize and hold power for at least seven days.

Comparison of Nazism and Stalinism Comparison of ideologies

A number of authors have carried out comparisons of Nazism and Stalinism in which they have considered the similarities and differences of the two ideologies and political systems, what relationship existed between the two regimes, and why both of them came to prominence at the same time. During the 20th century, the comparison of Nazism and Stalinism was made on the topics of totalitarianism, ideology, and personality cult. Both regimes were seen in contrast to the liberal West, with an emphasis on the similarities between the two. The political scientists Zbigniew Brzezinski, Hannah Arendt and Carl Friedrich and historian Robert Conquest were prominent advocates of applying the "totalitarian" concept to compare Nazism and Stalinism.

Metaxism authoritarian nationalist ideology associated with Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas

Metaxism is a totalitarian nationalist ideology associated with Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas. It called for the regeneration of the Greek nation and the establishment of a modern, culturally homogenous Greece. Metaxism disparaged liberalism, and held individual interests to be subordinate to those of the nation, seeking to mobilize the Greek people as a disciplined mass in service to the creation of a "new Greece."

A hybrid regime is a mixed type of political regime that arises on the basis of an authoritarian as a result of an incomplete democratic transition. Hybrid regimes combine autocratic features with democratic ones, they can simultaneously hold political repressions and regular elections. The term “hybrid regime” arises from a polymorphic view of political regimes that opposes the dichotomy of autocracy or democracy. Hybrid regimes are characteristic of resource countries (petro-states). Such regimes are stable and tenacious.

Barbara Geddes is an American political scientist. One of the main important theorists of authoritarianism and empirical catalogers of authoritarian regimes, she is currently a full professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her 2003 book Paradigms and Sand Castles is an influential research design book in comparative politics.


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Further reading