Difference between Autocracy and Dictatorship

Updated on June 15, 2017

An autocracy and a dictatorship are similar systems of governance that are used interchangeably. This article aims to separate these systems by highlighting their distinct characteristics.

Definitions

Autocracy
Autocratic North Korean leader Kim Jong-un

Autocracy is a political system in which supreme authority rests in the hands of a single ruler. All political and legal power are wielded by just one person, including creating state policies and national decisions. An autocrat heads this form of government unopposed and is answerable to no one. Autocratic leaders make decisions according to their judgment and ideas with almost no input from followers.

The term “autocrat” had a more positive meaning in earlier times. For instance, autocratic regimes did not have to deal with political quarrels from opposing sides because there were none to begin with. Thus, policy forming and implementation were laid down without delay.

Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, retained the Roman Senate while successfully keeping the power all to himself. Rome grew peaceful and prosperous until Commodus took leadership in 161 AD. The Aztecs had a powerful military ruled by an emperor who is also a religious figure leading their empire’s aggressive foreign policy. Ieyasu Tokugawa established his Tokugawa Shogunate after seizing mastery of all of medieval Japan. Tokugawa became medieval Japan’s sole ruler and closed its borders to foreign trade and controlled all aspects of daily human affairs.

dictatorship
Adolf Hitler, a dictator, in one his public speeches

A dictatorship refers to a form of government where one person or a group of people rules over a nation. Dictatorial rule is exercised through different mechanisms to make sure the powers that be stay in control.

Dictatorships are forms of authoritarianism where those in power have control over every aspect of its peoples’ public and private lives. All manner of political propaganda is used on the public to promote disinterest in alternative forms of governance. Monarchy systems in the West employed various religious tactics to maintain their rule.

Traditional monarchies declined between the 19th and 20th centuries. Self-appointed leaders (called Caudillos) backed by private armies rose to power at the end of Spanish colonial rule. This started the wave of military dictatorships in South America well into the mid-20th century. Post-colonial dictatorial states were also established in Africa and Asia Stalinist Soviet Union and similar communist dictatorships emerged in Europe, China, and in several other states. Adolf Hitler had Nazi Germany while Benito Mussolini was an Italian fascist dictator.

Autocracy vs Dictatorship

So, what’s the difference between autocracy and dictatorship? Autocracy is a system of governance headed by a single ruler called an autocrat. A dictatorship is a form of autocracy where power and authority are wielded by either one person or a group of people. Earlier forms of autocratic regimes (e.g. early Roman empire) are sometimes regarded as favorable, while dictatorships are always viewed as tyrannical and oppressive. Autocrats often lacked a cult of personality which dictators often flaunted to keep themselves in power.

Comparison Chart

AutocracyDictatorship
Headed by only one personHeaded by one person or a group of people
Once regarded as a favorable form of governanceOften associated with genocide, oppression, and tyrannical rule

Video

For more about autocracy dictatorship, check out this YouTube video uploaded by some students.