From Democracy to Dictatorship?

The following blog is loosely based on Chapter I of my new non-fiction book The Terrible Beauty of Dictatorship. A brief summary of the ascent of democracy and the descent of dictatorship in the public mind is given. 

1. Democracy and Dictatorship

Democracy used to have a bad name, dictatorship used to have a not so bad name. This has been turned on its head. Today democracy is considered a perfect, self-contained, political system and is opposed to dictatorship which amounts to a lawless tyranny. If the two ‘d’s’ have one thing in common, it lies in the strength of the feelings evoked by both terms.


Despite the hype, the two words have lost almost all semblance of their original precise meaning.  So, there is no appreciation of the historical relationship between the two terms. Even less appreciated is the fact that dictatorship often grows out of popular moods and emotions, in other words from a democratic ethos, and that a democratic longing felt by the masses is often realized in a dictatorship.

First, a proper meaning of both terms will be given before a brief summary of their ascent/descent in proferred.

2. Precise Meaning of Democracy

Democracy is often confused with Liberalism and the two are synonymous in the vernacular. Yet Liberalism is wholly concerned with the protection of individual rights from encroachment by a public authority. An absolute monarchy could be a Liberal monarchy. Democracy, on the other hand, is the rotation of power amongst an enfranchised population. All members of the population not only participate in decision-making but share fully in the duties and rights of public rule.

3. Precise Meaning of Dictatorship

Dictatorship, on the other hand, is a magistracy in a republican form of government. Historically, it was a specific office set aside by the Romans to be actuated in times of crisis.

We could say that the Romans had a popular, or ‘democratic’ part (albeit with stratified classes which didn’t make it a pure democracy), on the one hand, and, on the other hand, sets of offices only occupied by men of ability. Dictatorship was an office set aside for men of virtue and was like a political volcano that lay dormant for periods of time.

When a dictatorship was in place the character of Rome changed completely and we can refer loosely to periods of democracy and dictatorship that existed in turns during the Roman republican era that lasted up until the assassination of Caesar.

Caesar was the last dictator of Rome.
Caesar was the last dictator of Rome.

So dictatorship and democracy are complimentary in a republic.

4. The Ascent of Democracy

The Founding Fathers were suspicious of populism.
The Founding Fathers were suspicious of populism.

Now to the rise of democracy, a system of government which was somewhat maligned, especially by the Founding Fathers. The Canadian political theorist C. B. Macpherson noted in 1965 that “democracy used to be a bad word.” By democracy Macpherson made it clear that he meant “rule by the people or government in accordance with the wishes of the bulk of the people” and that this type of government was understood to “be a bad thing – fatal to individual freedom and all the graces of civilised living.” Macpherson traced the ‘whitening’ of democracy to about quarter of the way through the 19th century [Ideology after the fall of Communism, Collins].

Certainly, this trend towards a positive conception of democracy coincided with the rise of Jacksonian democracy in the US and the feeling, previously suppressed in the aftermath of the American revolution, that government should express the will of the people.

The rise of Communism, however, in the latter part of the 19th century was when mass-democracy was really sold as a ‘good thing.’ The motive behind this was clear. It was to the Communists’ and Socialists’ benefit to call forth the mass of the public who could then change society in the profound way that the left-wing wanted.

Later on in the evolution of Communism, a debate raged between Karl Kautsky and the Bolsheviks (whose name epitomized minority rule) about the virtues of proceeding via democratic means, Kautsky being in favour of the democratic approach. In the US, it was also significant that Woodrow Wilson made such strident proclamations concerning democracy during WWI.

Karl Kautsky.
Karl Kautsky.

5. The Descent of Dictatorship

Then, there was the descent of dictatorship. Dictatorship had been understood by the early modern historians and political thinkers to be an office beneficial to a republic. Around the time of Napoleon I and later during the reign of Napoleon III dictatorship acquired a ‘bad name.’ It denoted a type of Caesarism that was popular and militaristic.

However, it is significant that the Communists still retained some of the classical meaning of dictatorship despite its association with the Napoleons; the dictatorship of the proletariat was the use of the State to suppress the bourgeoisie and usher in the workers’ paradise. This dictatorship was to be temporary.

In WWI, autocracy was in the crosshairs of those who were striving to make the world ‘safe for democracy.’ With the seizing of power by the Bolsheviks and the subsequent response by right-wing elements in other European countries, dictatorship began to be thought of as an opposing force to democracy. John Keane said that the

shift away from a positive to a negative definition of dictatorship [becomes] marked during the twentieth century. From the time of the fiery debates about the nature of the Bolshevik and fascist regimes, dictatorship and democracy are seen to be antithetical forms of government. Dictatorship is widely regarded with suspicion or disdain. It comes to mean all undemocratic ways of wielding power [Democracy and Dictatorship, Bobbio].

6. Today

Gene Sharp.
Gene Sharp.

The great misunderstanding today concerns the relationship between democracy and dictatorship. Countries that govern by constitutions often resort to dictatorial methods, e.g. conscripting populations during times of severe crisis. Not only that, but constitutional governments have methods by which they ignore popular feeling (e.g. using layers of bureaucracy) .

Therefore, the promises of political scientists like Gene Sharp to populations residing in countries that are under ‘dictatorships,’ namely that such countries can progress to perfect democracies and instantaneously respond to public opinion, are unfounded. As an example, South Sudan, which recently became independent has dictatorial powers reserved for the President and these have been utilized in the conflict that has taken place there these past several years.

If you would like to find out more, The Terrible Beauty of Dictatorship is being released as an e-book on March 1st, 2016. 

The Terrible Beauty of Dictatorship. March 1st 2016
The Terrible Beauty of Dictatorship. March 1st 2016


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