What Is Autocracy? Definition and Examples

The entry of the colors, or Swastikas at the German National Socialist Party Day at Nuremberg, 1933
The entry of the colors, or Swastikas at the German National Socialist Party Day at Nuremberg, 1933. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

An autocracy is a system of government in which one person—an autocrat—holds all political, economic, social, and military power. The autocrat’s rule is unlimited and absolute and is not subject to any legal or legislative limitation.

While a dictatorship is by definition an autocracy, a dictatorship may also be ruled by an elite group of people, such as a military or religious order. Autocracy can also be compared to oligarchy—rule by a small group of individuals distinguished by their wealth, education or religion—and democracy—rule by a majority of the people. Today, most autocracies exist in the form of absolute monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Morocco, and dictatorships, such as North Korea, Cuba, and Zimbabwe.

Key Takeaways: Autocracy

  • An autocracy is a system of government in which all political power is concentrated in the hands of a single person called an autocrat.
  • The rule of the autocrat is absolute and cannot be regulated by external legal restraints or democratic methods of control, except for the threat of removal by coup d'etat or mass insurrection.
  • While a dictatorship is essentially an autocracy, a dictatorship may also be ruled by a dominant group, such as a military or religious order.
  • By their nature, autocracies are often forced to place the needs of an elite supportive minority over the needs of the general public. 

Structure of Autocratic Power

Compared to complex representative systems of government, such as the United States’ system of federalism, the structure of an autocracy is relatively simple: there is the autocrat and little else. However, no matter how personally forceful or charismatic they may be, autocrats still require some sort of power structure to retain and apply their rule. Historically, autocrats have depended on nobles, business moguls, militaries, or ruthless priesthoods to maintain their power. Since these are often the same groups that may turn against the autocrats and depose them through a coup d'etat or mass insurrection, they are often forced to satisfy the needs of the elite minority over the needs of the general public. For example, social welfare programs are rare to non-existent, while policies to increase the wealth of supportive business oligarchs or the power of the loyal military are common.

In an autocracy, all power is concentrated in a single center, be it an individual dictator or a group such as a dominant political party or central committee. In either case, the autocratic power center uses force to suppress opposition and prevent social movements that could lead to the development of opposition. The power centers operate free of any controls or real sanctions. This is in sharp contrast to democracies and other nonautocratic systems of government, in which power is shared by several centers, such as executive, legislative, and judicial branches. In further contrast to autocracies, power centers in nonautocratic systems are subject to controls and legal sanctions and do allow for public opinion and peaceful dissent.

Modern autocracies sometimes try to present themselves as less-dictatorial regimes by claiming to embrace values similar to those found in the constitutions and charters of democracies or limited monarchies. They may create parliaments, citizen assemblies, political parties, and courts that are mere facades for the autocracy’s unilateral exercise of power. In practice, all but the most trivial actions of the supposedly representative citizen bodies require the approval of the ruling autocrat. The Communist Party of China’s single-party rule of the People’s Republic of China is a prominent modern example.

Historic Autocracies

Autocracy is far from a recently evolved concept. From the emperors of Ancient Rome to the fascist regimes of the 20th century, a few historical examples of autocracies include:

The Roman Empire

Perhaps the earliest known example of autocracy is the Roman Empire, founded in 27 B.C. by Emperor Augustus following the end of the Roman Republic. While Augustus proudly retained the Roman Senate—often praised as the birthplace of representative democracy—he used the gesture to hide the fact that he was slowly transferring all meaningful power to himself.

Imperialist Russia

Tsar Ivan IV (1530 - 1584), Ivan The Terrible of Russia, circa 1560
Tsar Ivan IV (1530 - 1584), Ivan The Terrible of Russia, circa 1560. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Immediately after being crowned ruler in 1547, first Russian Tsar Ivan IV began earning his fearsome reputation as Ivan the Terrible. Through the execution and exile of those who opposed him, Ivan IV established autocratic control over his expanding Russian Empire. To enforce his power center, Ivan established Russia’s first regular standing army featuring two elite cavalry divisions, the Cossacks and the Oprichnina, dedicated almost exclusively to protecting the Tsar. In 1570, Ivan ordered the Oprichnina to carry out the Massacre of Novgorod, out of his fears that the city had become a breeding ground for treason and treachery against his rule.

Nazi Germany

German Fuhrer and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler addresses soldiers at a Nazi rally in Dortmund, Germany
German Fuhrer and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler addresses soldiers at a Nazi rally in Dortmund, Germany. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nazi Germany is an example of an autocracy ruled by a single leader and a supporting political party. After a failed coup d'etat attempt in 1923, the National Socialist German Workers Party under Adolf Hitler began applying less-visible methods of taking over the German government. Taking advantage of civil unrest during the 1930s, Hitler’s Nazi party used its charismatic leader’s stirring speeches and clever propaganda to seize power. After being named German chancellor in March 1933, Hitler's party began restricting civil liberties, with the military and Herman Goering’s Gestapo secret police suppressing opposition to Nazi Party rule. Having turned the formerly democratic German Reich government into a dictatorship, Hitler alone acted on behalf of Germany.

Franco’s Spain

Spanish authoritarian leader Francisco Franco (left) with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, March 4, 1944
Spanish authoritarian leader Francisco Franco (left) with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, March 4, 1944. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On October 1, 1936, just three months after the start of the Spanish Civil War, the dominant Nationalist Party rebel leader “El Generalísimo” Francisco Franco was proclaimed Spain’s head of state. Under his rule, Franco quickly turned Spain into a dictatorship widely described as a “semi-fascist regime” displaying the influence of fascism in areas such as labor, the economy, social policy, and single-party control. Known as the “White Terror,” Franco’s reign was maintained through brutal political repression including executions and abuses carried out by his Nationalist Party faction. Although Spain under Franco did not directly join fascist Axis powers Germany and Italy in World War II, it supported them throughout the war while continuing to claim its neutrality.

Mussolini’s Italy

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (1883 - 1945) surveys the new Caselle Airport during a visit to Turin, 16th May 1939
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (1883 - 1945) surveys the new Caselle Airport during a visit to Turin, 16th May 1939. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

With Benito Mussolini acting as Prime Minister of Italy from 1922 to 1943, the National Fascist Party imposed a totalitarian autocratic rule that wiped out political and intellectual opposition, while promising to modernize the economy and restore traditional Italian religious and moral values. After reorganizing the former Italian parliamentary system into what he called a “legally organized executive dictatorship,” Mussolini defied League of Nations sanctions by increasing Italy’s military involvement in foreign conflicts. After invading Albania in 1939, Italy signed the Pact of Steel establishing its alliance with Nazi Germany and heralding its ill-fated participation on the side of the Axis powers in World War II.

Autocracy vs. Authoritarianism

While both autocracy and authoritarianism are characterized by having single dominant rulers who may use force and the repression of individual rights to maintain power, an autocracy may demand less control over the people’s lives and be less likely to abuse its power. As a result, truly authoritarian regimes tend to be more unpopular and thus more subject to revolt or overthrow than autocracies.

Truly authoritarian dictatorships are rare today. More common instead are centralized power regimes best described as “liberal autocracies,” such as Russia, China, and North Korea. Though ruled by single dominant political parties controlled by single dominant leaders, they allow for limited public expression and involvement through institutions like elected congresses, ministries, and assemblies. While most actions of these bodies are subject to party approval, they present at least a guise of democracy. For example, China’s 3,000-delegate elected National People's Congress (NPC), though designated by China’s 1982 constitution to be the state’s most powerful governing body, is in practice little more than a rubber stamp for the decisions of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Sources and Further Reference