Difference between Autocracy and Dictatorship

By: | Updated: Nov-11, 2021
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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.

Summary Table

Autocracy Dictatorship
Headed by only one person Headed by one person or a group of people
Once regarded as a favorable form of governance Often associated with genocide, oppression, and tyrannical rule


North Korean leader Kim Jong-un
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.

Adolf Hitler, a dictator
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 between Autocracy and Dictatorship

There are a number of similarities between autocracy and dictatorship. The similarities include: both of these forms of government have a central authority and both of them depend on the leader. They also rely on the citizens for their survival. In autocracies, there is usually one ruler who controls all aspects of life, including the army, religion, education, etc. In dictatorships, there is usually one person who controls all aspects of life, including the army, religion, education, etc. There are also similarities in the use of force and punishments which are meted out to those who do not comply with the orders given by the leader (Authoritarianism).

There are, however, some differences between autocracy and dictatorship. Some of these differences include: dictatorships are not necessarily monarchies while autocracies can be monarchies or other forms of government (Monarchy). Dictatorships can be very cruel when compared to autocracies which are more liberal in nature (Authoritarianism). Dictatorships are not necessarily military governments while autocracies can be military governments or other forms of government (Military dictatorship).

Pros and Cons of Autocracy and Dictatorship

The three main pros of autocracy and dictatorship are: efficiency, security, and uniformity. When a government is controlled by one single individual or one group of people, there is less waste than when there are multiple branches of the government. It is easier to control. The leaders know what they want done without having to deal with uncooperative politicians or people that want more power than they deserve. When everyone has the same ideas, they can all be used as an army against any opposition political party, so the opposition cannot rise up because there are no opposition groups with multiple factions fighting each other. If there is one single person who decides on all policies, then everyone will follow them blindly. There is also uniformity in how things are done because everyone has agreed on what is best for them (or else they would not be part of that society).

There are several disadvantages when a country or a state of a nation is governed by authoritarian regimes or a dictator including:

1. The head of state has unlimited power and control over its policies and decision-making process. Centralization in this form has led to the development of inequality among people due to monopolization of economic resources by certain individuals, single party or groups with political backing. This inequality leads to an unfair distribution of wealth which can result in the impoverishment of the masses.

2. It gives no room for individual human rights, which means there are no individual liberties for people under autocracy. Under authoritarian regimes, there are restrictions on freedom of speech, media, press, and civil liberties, which are not considered as desirable by many countries in the world. In autocracies, there are no different parties with different views on politics. Everyone is against the regime. This means that no one can stand up for his or her rights or those of his family. The regime does not pay attention to individual problems. It may even take measures against people who defend their human rights, so they can get away with it. This happens in many countries. For instance, in Russia under the first Russian Tsar, Ivan, people were persecuted if they tried to get involved in politics or if they criticized the leadership style of the head of state.

Example of autocracy and dictatorship

The famous country in history that has been known as the model of autocracy and dictatorship is China. The leadership style that China has adopted was known as ‘authoritarian’. This type of leadership is very well-known among Chinese. The Chinese are well-acquainted with this system. One reason why people are so familiar with this system is because they have seen it during their childhood. When they were at school, they were taught about the characteristics of autocracy and dictatorship. They also learnt how good autocratic rulers were.

An example of dictatorship can be seen in Spain under Francisco Franco, who has made various controversial decisions during his rule, including the single-minded vision of Spain as a conservative Catholic country. The reason why Franco has been able to make these decisions is because he does not have to worry about the opposition. Furthermore, his decision-making is also much faster than that of a democratic government because in most cases, it is only one person making all the decisions for the country.


To sum up, autocracy and dictatorship are not exactly the same. The main difference is that in an autocracy the ruler is elected by the people, while in a dictatorship the ruler is an absolute dictator.

These two terms have been used to describe various forms of government since Ancient Greek and Roman times. It was used in Medieval Europe to describe various forms of government, such as “elective monarchy” and “hereditary monarchy”.

The main difference between autocracy and dictatorship is that autocracy has a stronger form of centralism. That is, there is a more centralized structure in the government, and there are fewer government factions.

It is important to note that this does not mean that there are no factions at all. There will always be people who disagree with the ruler’s decisions, but those factions will be much smaller than those of a dictatorship.

An Autocracy may have different types of rulers, depending on what form of government it has. For example, if it has an elected leader or monarch as its head, then it may have a democratic system for making decisions and choosing the leader.

But if it has a military as its head (as in China), then it will have an autocratic system for making decisions and choosing the leader.

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