Ask Difference

Autocracy vs. Authoritarianism — What's the Difference?

Edited by Tayyaba Rehman — By Maham Liaqat — Updated on April 2, 2024
Autocracy is a system where power is held by a single person, while Authoritarianism is broader, involving strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom.
Autocracy vs. Authoritarianism — What's the Difference?

Difference Between Autocracy and Authoritarianism


Key Differences

Autocracy refers to a political system governed by a single individual with absolute power. This form of government is characterized by the concentration of power in the hands of a sole ruler, often a monarch or dictator, who makes decisions without the input or restriction of others. Autocracies are marked by the absence of democratic processes, with political power and authority centralized around a single figure. Authoritarianism, while similar to autocracy in its emphasis on centralized power and limited political freedoms, is a broader concept. It can encompass a range of governance structures, including autocracies, but also military juntas, one-party states, and other regimes where a single entity or small group exercises significant control over the state. Authoritarian regimes prioritize order and control over political freedoms, often suppressing opposition and curtailing civil liberties to maintain power.
Both systems prioritize stability and control over democratic principles such as electoral competition and civil liberties. However, autocracy specifies the singularity of leadership, whereas authoritarianism describes a broader approach to governance that emphasizes submission to authority and often involves a collective leadership or governing body.
The key difference lies in the concentration of power: autocracy underlines power in the hands of one, making it a subtype of authoritarianism, which can involve a group or party maintaining control over the state apparatus. Both systems can result in similar outcomes in terms of limited political freedoms and human rights abuses, but the mechanisms and structures of governance can vary significantly.
Autocratic rulers often employ authoritarian mechanisms to maintain control, such as censorship, surveillance, and the suppression of political dissent. Authoritarian regimes, even those not strictly autocratic, employ similar tools but may distribute power among a select group rather than an individual ruler.
The evolution from autocracy to authoritarianism in some regions illustrates a shift from personal rule to institutionalized forms of control, where the emphasis is on the power of the state or governing party rather than on the whims of a singular ruler. This transition reflects broader trends in governance and political organization, moving towards systems that, while still repressive, involve a broader base of authority.

Comparison Chart


Government by a single person with absolute power.
Government enforcing strict obedience to authority, often at the expense of personal freedom.

Power Concentration

In the hands of one individual.
Can be concentrated in an individual, group, or party.


Monarchies, dictatorships.
Military juntas, one-party states, totalitarian regimes.

Political Freedoms

Extremely limited or nonexistent.
Limited; some forms may allow for controlled political activities.


Centralized around the autocrat.
Centralized, though possibly among a select group or party.

Compare with Definitions


Characterized by absolute authority of the ruler.
In an autocracy, the dictator's word is law.


A political system prioritizing obedience over personal freedoms.
The authoritarian regime implemented strict censorship laws.


Can be synonymous with dictatorship or absolute monarchy.
The autocracy relied on military force to maintain control.


May allow for some political and social institutions, as long as they do not challenge the state.
Authorized political parties in an authoritarian system typically support the ruling power.


Decision-making is solely at the discretion of the autocrat.
Economic policies in an autocracy reflect the ruler's vision.


Can exist in various forms, including one-party states or military rule.
The country transitioned to authoritarianism following the coup.


A system where power is concentrated in the hands of a single ruler.
The ancient kingdom was an autocracy ruled by a powerful queen.


Characterized by the suppression of political opposition.
Authoritarian governments often jail dissidents.


The absence of democratic processes or checks and balances.
The autocratic regime did not allow for free elections.


Focuses on the control and stability of the state.
Authoritarianism seeks to maintain order through strict regulations.


Autocracy is a system of government in which supreme power over a state is concentrated in the hands of one person, whose decisions are subject to neither external legal restraints nor regularized mechanisms of popular control (except perhaps for the implicit threat of coup d'état or other forms of rebellion).In earlier times, the term autocrat was coined as a favorable description of a ruler, having some connection to the concept of "lack of conflicts of interests" as well as an indication of grandeur and power. This use of the term continued into modern times, as the Russian Emperor was styled "Autocrat of all the Russias" as late as the early 20th century.


Authoritarianism is a form of government characterized by the rejection of political plurality, the use of a strong central power to preserve the political status quo, and reductions in the rule of law, separation of powers, and democratic voting. Political scientists have created many typologies describing variations of authoritarian forms of government.


Government by a single person having unlimited power; despotism.


Characterized by or favoring absolute obedience to authority, as against individual freedom
An authoritarian regime.


A country or state that is governed by a single person with unlimited power.


Tending to tell other people what to do in a peremptory or arrogant manner.


(uncountable) A form of government in which unlimited power is held by a single individual.


A form of government in which the governing body has absolute, or almost absolute, control. Typically this control is maintained by force, and little heed is paid to public opinion or the judicial system.


(countable) An instance of this government.


A form of government in which the ruler is an absolute dictator (not restricted by a constitution or laws or opposition etc.)


Independent or self-derived power; absolute or controlling authority; supremacy.
The divine will moves, not by the external impulse or inclination of objects, but determines itself by an absolute autocracy.


Supreme, uncontrolled, unlimited authority, or right of governing in a single person, as of an autocrat.


Political independence or absolute sovereignty (of a state); autonomy.


The action of the vital principle, or of the instinctive powers, toward the preservation of the individual; also, the vital principle.


A political system governed by a single individual


A political theory favoring unlimited authority by a single individual

Common Curiosities

Can a democracy become an autocracy?

Yes, through the erosion of democratic institutions and the consolidation of power by a single leader.

How can citizens challenge authoritarianism or autocracy?

Through non-violent resistance, international pressure, and advocacy for democratic principles, though these efforts face significant risks and challenges.

Do authoritarian regimes have any legal opposition?

They may allow for controlled opposition to create an illusion of democracy, but real political competition is typically stifed.

What distinguishes authoritarianism from totalitarianism?

Totalitarianism is an extreme form of authoritarianism with complete control over public and private life, whereas authoritarianism might allow some personal freedoms.

Are all autocracies authoritarian?

Yes, autocracy is a form of authoritarian governance focused on the concentration of power in the hands of an individual.

Can autocracies be economically successful?

Some autocracies have achieved rapid economic development, but such success often comes with significant social and political costs.

What role does the military play in authoritarian regimes?

The military can be a key support for authoritarian regimes, providing stability and enforcing the government's will.

Can an authoritarian regime have elections?

Yes, but such elections are often not free or fair, serving to legitimize the existing power structure rather than offer a genuine choice.

Is authoritarianism always negative?

While it limits freedoms and can lead to abuses, some argue that it can bring stability in certain contexts. However, this perspective is controversial.

How do international organizations respond to authoritarianism and autocracy?

Responses vary, including sanctions, diplomatic pressure, and human rights advocacy, depending on the situation and international interests.

How does an autocracy differ from a monarchy?

While autocracies can be monarchies, not all monarchies are autocratic; constitutional monarchies, for example, have democratic processes and limited royal power.

Can authoritarian regimes support international peace?

While they may contribute to stability, their internal repression can lead to human rights violations and regional tensions.

Can authoritarianism coexist with capitalism?

Yes, some authoritarian regimes maintain capitalist economies, prioritizing economic growth while controlling political life.

How do people live under authoritarian regimes?

Citizens may experience limited political freedoms and human rights, but daily life often continues with a focus on personal and familial activities within the constraints set by the state.

Is social media a threat to authoritarian regimes?

It can be, as it offers a platform for dissent and the organization of opposition movements, though many such regimes seek to control or censor online discourse.

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Author Spotlight

Written by
Maham Liaqat
Tayyaba Rehman is a distinguished writer, currently serving as a primary contributor to As a researcher in semantics and etymology, Tayyaba's passion for the complexity of languages and their distinctions has found a perfect home on the platform. Tayyaba delves into the intricacies of language, distinguishing between commonly confused words and phrases, thereby providing clarity for readers worldwide.

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