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Home > Education > Dictatorship.


Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit, 2011.[1] Countries that are more red are authoritarian, and most often dictatorships. Most of current dictatorships are in Africa and Asia.

A dictatorship is defined as an autocratic form of government in which the government is ruled by an individual: a dictator. It has three possible meanings:

  1. A Roman dictator was the incumbent of a political office of legistrate of the Roman Republic. Roman dictators were allocated absolute power during times of emergency. 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.
  2. A government controlled by one person, or a small group of people. In this form of government the power rests entirely on the person or group of people, and can be obtained by force or by inheritance. The dictator(s) may also take away much of its peoples' freedom.
  3. In contemporary usage, dictatorship refers to an autocratic form of absolute rule by leadership unrestricted by law, constitutions, or other social and political factors within the state.
Chinese premier Mao Zedong meets with U.S. President Richard Nixon. Mao's rule from 1949 to 1976 is believed to have caused the deaths of 40 to 70 million people.

For some scholars, a dictatorship is a form of government that has the power to govern without consent of those being governed (similar to authoritarianism), while totalitarianism describes a state that regulates nearly every aspect of public and private behavior of the people. In other words, dictatorship concerns the source of the governing power and totalitarianism concerns the scope of the governing power.

In this sense, dictatorship (government without people's consent) is a contrast to democracy (government whose power comes from people) and totalitarianism (government controls every aspect of people's life) opposes pluralism (government allows multiple lifestyles and opinions).

Other scholars stress the omnipotence of the State (with its consequent suspension of rights) as the key element of a dictatorship and argue that such concentration of power can be legitimate or not depending on the circumstances, objectives and methods employed


Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussollini. Hitler's policies and orders resulted in the death of about 40 million people.[3]

The most general term is despotism, a form of government in which a single entity rules with absolute power. That entity may be an individual, as in an autocracy, or it may be a group,[4] as in an oligarchy. Despotism can mean tyranny(dominance through threat of punishment and violence), or absolutism; or dictatorship (a form of government in which the ruler is an absolute dictator, not restricted by a constitution, laws or opposition, etc.).[5] Dictatorship may take the form of authoritarianism or totalitarianism.

Dictatorship is often defined simply as "not democracy", where democracy is defined as a form of government where those who govern are selected through contested elections. Authoritarian dictatorships are those where there is little political mobilization and "a small group exercises power within formally ill-defined limits but actually quite predictable ones".[6] Totalitarian dictatorships involve a "single party led by a single powerful individual with a powerful secret police and a highly developed ideology." Here, the government has "total control of mass communications and social and economic organizations".[7] Hannah Arendt labelled totalitarianism a new and extreme form of dictatorship involving "atomized, isolated individuals" in which ideology plays a leading role in defining how the entire society should be organised.[8] Juan Linz argues that the distinction between an authoritarian regime and a totalitarian one is that while an authoritarian one seeks to suffocate politics and political mobilization (depoliticization), a totalitarian one seeks to control politics and political mobilization.[9]

Dictatorships may be classified in a number of ways, such as

  • Military dictatorship
    • "arbitrator" and "ruler" types may be distinguished; arbitrator regimes are professional, civilian-oriented, willing to give up power once problems have been resolved, and support the existing social order; "ruler" types view civilians as incompetent and have no intention of returning power to them, are politically organised, and have a coherent ideology[10]
  • Single-party state
    • "weak" and "strong" versions may be distinguished; in weak single-party states, "at least one other actor eclipses the role of the party (like a single individual, the military, or the president)."[11]
  • Personalist
  • Hybrid


Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire's longtime dictator, embezzled over $5 billion from his country.

Boyd C. Purcell wrote: " ... Hitler, who started the war, was responsible for approximately 50 million deaths as a result of the Second World War. Throughout recorded history of the world, dictators driven by anger, power, greed, pride, and/or paranoia have killed far more than 100 million people. Just in the last century, to name a few of the most well known: Stalin of the Soviet Union, Mao of China, Hirohito of Japan, Kim Il Sung of North Korea, Pol Pot of Cambodia, Amin of Uganda, Mussolini of Italy, and Hussein of Iraq have collectively slaughtered tens of millions of people

A Constitutional dictatorship is a form of government in which dictatorial powers are exercised during an emergency. The dictator is not absolute and the dictator's authority remains limited by the constitution.

The early Roman Republic made provision for a dictator who could govern for a period of time but whose actions remained subject to review at the conclusion of the dictator's term.[1]

The United States Constitution has a similar dictator clause stating that the President "may adjourn [congress] to such Time as he shall think proper". However, this can only be done when the two houses are on disagreement over when to adjourn.[2] Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States during the American Civil War, exercised extraordinary powers to preserve the Union. Lincoln's dictatorial actions included directly ordering the arrest and detention of dissenters and the suspension of the right to writs of Habeas Corpus. Yet Lincoln remained subject to Congressional oversight, judicial review and periodic elections.

The German Republic that succeeded the Imperial German government at the close of the First World War, otherwise known as the Weimar Republic, adopted a constitutional provision expressly enabling the President to rule by decree and without consultation with the legislative branch. This provision was used by Adolf Hitler to consolidate his powers upon his selection as Chancellor by President Hindenburg.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States during the Great Depression and the Second World War, also exercised extraordinary powers in response to both emergencies. Roosevelt's actions included the temporary suspension of the right of contract, in violation of the United States Constitution, as well as the closing of banks and a moratorium on foreclosures. Later, meeting a perceived threat by Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans, Roosevelt ordered their relocation to internment camps.

In the 21st century, John Yoo, attorney and legal theorist, has offered a theory of the unitary executive supporting virtually unconstrained authority to be wielded by the United States President in his capacity as commander in chief of the armed forces. The Yoo theory provides the intellectual foundation for many of the actions undertaken by the administration of George W. Bush since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

tyranny of the majority

The phrase "tyranny of the majority" (or "tyranny of the masses"), used in discussing systems of democracy and majority rule, envisions a scenario in which decisions made by a majority place its interests so far above those of an individual or minority group as to constitute active discrimination and oppression, comparable to that of tyrants and despots.[1] In many cases throughout history and into the present day a disliked ethnic, religious, non-religious or racial group is deliberately penalized by the majority element acting through the democratic process.

Limits on the decisions that can be made by majorities, as through supermajority rules, constitutional limits on the powers of a legislative body, or the introduction of a Bill of Rights, have been used to counter the problem, with various levels of success and failure.[2] A separation of powers has also been implemented to limit the force of the majority in a single legislative chamber


A term used in Classical and Hellenistic Greece for oppressive popular rule was ochlocracy ("mob rule"). Tyranny meant absolute monarchy of an undesirable kind.

The phrase "tyranny of the majority" was used by John Adams in 1788.[3] The phrase gained prominence after its appearance in 1835 in Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, where it is the title of a section.[4] It was further popularised by John Stuart Mill, who cites de Tocqueville, in On Liberty(1859). The Federalist Papers refer to the broad concept, as in Federalist 10, first published in 1787, which speaks of "the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority."

Lord Acton also used this term, saying:

The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.
The History of Freedom in Antiquity1877

The concept itself was popular with Friedrich Nietzsche and the phrase (in translation) is used at least once in the first sequel to Human, All Too Human(1879).[5] Ayn Rand, Objectivist philosopher and novelist, wrote against such tyranny, saying that individual rights are not subject to a public vote, and that the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and that the smallest minority on earth is the individual).[6]

In 1965, Herbert Marcuse argued the tyranny of the majority in his essay "Repressive Tolerance" on the idea of tolerance in advanced industrial society. He affirmed that "tolerance is extended to policies, conditions, and modes of behavior which should not be tolerated because they are impeding, if not destroying, the chances of creating an existence without fear and misery." and that "this sort of tolerance strengthens the tyranny of the majority against which authentic liberals protested."[7]

In 1994, legal scholar Lani Guinier used the phrase as the title for a collection of law review articles.[8]

[edit]Public choice theory

The notion that, in a democracy, the greatest concern is that the majority will tyrannise and exploit diverse smaller interests, has been criticised by Mancur Olson in The Logic of Collective Action, who argues instead that narrow and well organised minorities are more likely to assert their interests over those of the majority. Olson argues that when the benefits of political action (e.g., lobbying) are spread over fewer agents, there is a stronger individual incentive to contribute to that political activity. Narrow groups, especially those who can reward active participation to their group goals, might therefore be able to dominate or distort political process, a process studied in public choice theory.

[edit]Vote trading

Critics[who?] of public choice theory point out that vote trading, also known as logrolling, can protect minority interests from majorities in representative democratic bodies such as legislatures.[weasel words] Direct democracy, such as statewide propositions on ballots, does not offer such protections.

[edit]Concurrent majority

American politician John C. Calhoun developed the theory of the concurrent majority to deal with the tyranny of the majority. It states that great decisions are not merely a matter of numerical majorities but require agreement or acceptance by the major interest in society, each of which had the power to block federal laws that it feared would seriously infringe on their rights.

That is, it is illegitimate for a temporary coalition that had a majority to gang up on and hurt a significant minority. The doctrine is one of limitations on democracy to prevent the tyranny.

Elective Dictatorship

An "elective dictatorship" (also called executive dominance in political science) is a phrase popularised by the former Lord Chancellor of the United Kingdom, Lord Hailsham, in a Richard Dimbleby Lecture at the BBC in 1976.[1] The phrase is found a century earlier, in describing Giuseppe Garibaldi's doctrines,[2] and was used by Hailsham (then known as Quintin Hogg) in lectures in 1968 and 1969.[3] It describes the state in which Parliament is dominated by the government of the day. It refers to the fact that the legislative programme of Parliament is determined by the government, and government bills virtually always pass the House of Commons because of the nature of the majoritarian first-past-the-post electoral system, which almost always produces strong government, in combination with the imposition of party discipline on the governing party's majority, which almost always ensures loyalty. In the absence of a codified constitution, this tendency toward executive dominance is compounded by the Parliament Acts and Salisbury Convention which circumscribe the House of Lords and their ability to block government initiatives.


In the United Kingdom, ultimate legislative sovereignty resides in Parliament (Parliamentary sovereignty). Parliament may pass any legislation on any subject it wishes. Parliament operates without restraints such as, for instance, an obligation to legislate in accordance with fundamental constitutional rights. The apparent exceptions to this rule are situations in which Parliament has chosen to limit itself as with the case of implemention of European Union law in which Parliament has given the European Court of Justice authority to strike down UK legislation that it deems to be contrary to EU law (see Factortame case), but could withdraw such authority.


Parliament consists of the House of Lords, the House of Commons and the Monarch. The customary common law rule is that in order for a bill to become an act of Parliament, it is necessary for it to be passed in both the Commons and the Lords. The bill will then go before the Monarch who has formal discretion whether to assent to the bill. On receiving Royal Assent, it will become an Act of Parliament and will be applied by the courts.


Such is the theory; in practice Royal Assent has become a formality, the monarch has not refused (or threatened to refuse) assent to a bill for some 300 years (Queen Anne in 1708). Further, since 1911, the House of Lords has lost its position of equality with the Commons. The Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 reduced the power of the Lords from an absolute veto to a suspensive veto. Once the same bill has been passed by the Commons and rejected by the Lords in two different sessions of Parliament, a third introduction of the bill will require only the consent of the Commons. Such a bill will then go for Royal Assent and will become law, irrespective of the view of the Lords. The Commons have, therefore, become the dominant component of Parliament - whoever controls the Commons controls Parliament, the primary legislative body of the land.




The party which commands a majority in the House of Commons forms the government. The governing party should consequently be able to pass any bill they wish through the Commons, provided that voting discipline is enforced amongst their Members of Parliament (MPs). This is accomplished largely through the whip system. The dominance of Parliament's legislative programme by the majority party is such that 95 per cent of bills are initiated by the government. Rebellions, though not unknown, are rare.


The government, so long as they can keep their MPs on-side, stand an excellent chance of getting their legislation through the Commons. The Lords may or may not also approve the legislation, however a combination of judicious compromise from the government, combined with the Salisbury Convention and the overarching threat of the Parliament Act means that most legislation also manages to get through the Lords. Royal Assent then invariably follows.


Hailsham borrowed the expression "elective dictatorship" to describe this situation in which control of the Commons (and thus of Parliament) by the government is actually weak. His paper was published as a criticism of the Labour government of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. He saw these weak[citation needed] governments as undemocratic, as despite their slim hold on the Commons they were able to pass a large number of their bills.[citation needed] He saw this as undemocratic as they did not reflect, as Hailsham saw it, wide enough support in the country. Many have interpreted Hailsham's criticism as being one against large majorities. In fact, he actually saw these as more democratic, as they had commanded more support at elections.[citation needed]


[edit]Proposals for reform


A common proposal from reformers to reduce this executive dominance is to reduce the power of the majority party by adopting an electoral system based on proportional representation for the Commons. The Liberal Democrats have consistently supported PR for the Commons, although without noticeable support from the other parties.


Some groups, such as Charter 88, have argued that a codified, written constitution with appropriate checks and balances is also essential to solving the problem of executive dominance, although again without popular success.


The Power Inquiry in its 2006 report Power to the People made recommendations on how to deal with the democratic deficit inherent in the UK system of governance

People's democratic dictatorship

"People's democratic dictatorship" (simplified Chinese: 人民民主专政; traditional Chinese: 人民民主專政; pinyin: Rénmín Mínzhǔ Zhuānzhèng) is a phrase incorporated into the Constitution of the People's Republic of China by Mao Zedong.[1]

The premise of the "People's democratic dictatorship" is that the Communist Party of China and state represent and act on behalf of the people, but possess and may use dictatorial powers against reactionary forces.[2] Implicit in the concept of the people's democratic dictatorship is the notion that dictatorial means are a necessary counterforce to recidivist social elements, and that without such a dictatorship, the government may collapse into adictatorship of the bourgeoisie or other degenerate social form, faulting on the socialist state charter which is its first principle.


It was most famously used on June 30, 1949, in commemoration of the 28th Anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China. In his speech, entitled "On The People's Democratic Dictatorship," Mao expounded his ideas about a People's Democratic Dictatorship as well as provided some rebuttals to criticism that he anticipated he would face.[3]

Mao reviewed the Chinese nation's struggle since the Opium War, and the failed effort to model China after the Western powers. "Imperialist aggression shattered the fond dreams of the Chinese about learning from the West. It was very odd -- why were the teachers always committing aggression against their pupil?" He concluded that "Western bourgeois civilization, bourgeois democracy and the plan for a bourgeois republic have all gone bankrupt in the eyes of the Chinese people", because of the West's imperialist aggression against China. The Chinese revolution has made tremendous advances both in theory and practice and has radically changed the face of China. The main lesson is twofold: (1) Internally, arouse the masses of the people; (2) Externally, unite in a common struggle with those nations of the world which treat Chinese as equals. On commercial relationships, Mao reckoned that it was the imperialist powers that were preventing China from doing business with the outside world. Once China has beaten the internal and external reactionaries by uniting all domestic and international forces, China shall be able to do business and establish diplomatic relations with all foreign countries on the basis of equality, mutual benefit and mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Mao claimed that after the Second World War, the only "imperialist" power remaining on the planet with any strength, the United States of America, had wanted to enslave the world and used its funding of Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang as evidence of such.[4] Mao, thus, wrote off what he called "Western bourgeois civilization" and instead embraced Marxism–Leninism as the ideology of the Chinese state.[5]

Mao believed that the Communist Party of China must "arouse the masses of the people" and "unite in a common struggle with those nations of the world which treat us as equals", including the Soviet Union.[6] Mao discounts the idea of working with the British and the Americans because both of them were inherently imperialist nations and, thus, had territorial designs on China.

Mao defined the people as being the working class (which will exercise its "hegemony", being represented by the Communist Party), peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie, and the "national bourgeoisie". These classes, he believed, enforced their dictatorship through the CCP over "the running dogs of capitalism" which included landlords and bureaucratic-bourgeoisie (referring to those parts of the landlord class and bourgeoisie connected to the Kuomintang government). He fully embraced the idea of dictatorship because it meant that only "the people" had the right to freedom of speech.

In accordance with Marx's idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat, Mao believed that the People's Democratic Dictatorship would be necessary until the Party withered away and left China in a socialist state of existence (defined by Mao as the society of Great Unity—Datong 大同).

In Chinese, the word ‘dictatorship’ 专政 does not have negative connotation, being dissociated from the concepts that are most close to the Westerndictator 独裁者 or hegemon 霸王.[citation needed] In Chinese, there is a large difference in connotation between "专政" and "独裁", but both translate to "dictator" in English.

[edit]Influence on North Korea

North Korea uses the phrase "dictatorship of people’s democracy" in its Socialist Constitution of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, adopted in 1972:

Article 12. The State shall adhere to the class line, strengthen the dictatorship of people’s democracy and firmly defend the people’s power and socialist system against all subversive acts of hostile elements at home and abroad.[7]