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The term dictatorship has two possible meanings:

  • In Marxism, dictatorship refers to the rule of a certain class over society, as used in the terms dictatorship of the proletariat or dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
  • In contemporary usage, dictatorship means the imposition of a rule on others who do not consent to it.

Dictatorship and representative democracy

Sometimes dictatorship is wrongly used in contrast to (representative) democracy. However, in a capitalist society democracy implies the imposition of the will of a majority, i.e., a dictatorship, on a minority. Thus only pure democracy (as advocated by Marxists) would be a true opposite of a dictatorship, in contemporary usage of the word.


The word originates from the dictatura of the ancient Roman Republic, an important institution that lasted for over three centuries. The Dictatura provided for an emergency exercise of power by a trusted citizen for temporary and limited purposes, for six months at the most. Its aim was to preserve the republican status quo, and in the event of a foreign attack or internal subversion of the constitution. Dictatura, thus had much the same meaning as “state of emergency” has today. Julius Caesar gave the dictatura a “bad name” by declaring himself dictator for life.

19th century

Right into the nineteenth century, ‘dictatorship’ was used in the sense of the management of power in a state of emergency, outside of the norms of legality, sometimes, but not always, implying one-man rule, and sometimes in reference to the dominance of an elected government over traditional figures of authority.

The French Revolution was frequently referred to by friends and foes alike as a dictatorship. Babeuf’s “Conspiracy of Equals” advocated a dictatorship exercised by a group of revolutionaries, having the task of defending the revolution against the reactionary peasants, and educating the masses up to the eventual level of a democracy, a transitional period of presumably many decades. It was this notion of ‘dictatorship’ that was in the minds of Auguste Blanqui and his followers who actively advocated communist ideas in the 1830s and ’40s.

In general political discourse in the nineteenth century, however, it was quite routine to describe, for example, the British Parliament as a ‘dictatorship’. Given that in most countries the franchise was restricted to property-owners, this usage was quite appropriate, but it was also used to attack proposals for universal suffrage, which, it was held, would institute a dictatorship over the property owners.

Contemporary usage

Modern usage of the term begins to appear in connection with the Revolutions which swept Europe in 1848. The Left, including its most moderate elements, talked of a dictatorship, by which they meant nothing more than imposing the will of an majority-elected government over a minority of counter-revolutionaries. Terrified by the uprising of the Parisian workers in June 1848, the Provisional Government handed over absolute power to the dictatorship of General Cavaignac, who used his powers to massacre the workers of Paris. Subsequently, a state-of-siege provision was inserted into the French Constitution to provide for such exigencies, and this law became the model for other nations who wrote such emergency provisions into their constitutions. From the middle of the nineteenth century, the word ‘dictatorship’ was associated with this institution, still more or less faithful to the original Roman meaning — an extra-legal institution for the defence of the constitution.

It was only gradually, during the 1880s, that ‘dictatorship’ came to be routinely used to mean a form of government in contrast to ‘democracy’ and by the 1890s was generally used in that way. Prior to that time, throughout the life-time of Karl Marx for example, it was never associated with any particular form of government, everyone understanding that popular suffrage was as much an instrument of dictatorship as martial law; according to Engels, writing in 1891, “If anything is certain it is that our party and the working class can triumph only under the form of the democratic republic. This is precisely the specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”[1]

The dictator

Power in a dictatorship is often concentrated in one person, historically, a man, or, at least, the group in control of the state holds one person forward as a symbol of power, a “Führer”. It is essential to a dictatorship that this artificial construct is taken seriously by the populace, “A dictator has to be feared. When he no longer is, he is just ridiculous.”[2] Thus ridicule or defiance are effective means of resistance. The Great DictatorThis is a link to a Wikipedia article., a 1940 film by Charlie ChaplinThis is a link to a Wikipedia article. nicely illustrates use of ridicule.


  1. ↑ Chapter 2, ‘Marxism and the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”’ “Social Democracy versus Communism” Karl Kautsky, 1938
  2. ↑ “Democracy Seems Within Reach post by Anders Åslund in a New York Times online forum, December 12, 2011, the quote is attributed to Julia Latynina, a Russian jounalist
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