An autocracy is a form of government in which one ruler has absolute control and decision-making power in all matters of state and over all the country’s people.


5 - 8


Social Studies, Civics


Joseph Stalin

After the death of the Soviet Union's founder, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin ruled the the USSR in autocratic fashion.

Photograph by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
After the death of the Soviet Union's founder, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin ruled the the USSR in autocratic fashion.

An autocracy is a form of government in which one ruler has absolute control and decision-making power. Autocracies have existed since ancient times, when kings and emperors ruled over great countries and tribal lands, and they exist today in the form of absolute monarchies and dictatorships. Unlike in a democracy, the people living in countries with autocratic governments have no say in determining the nation’s laws, or in how those laws are enforced. An autocratic ruler is accountable to no one; there is no system of checks and balances, no constitutional limit on the ruler’s power, and the ruler is not held accountable by a cabinet of advisors, a system of courts, the people, or the press.

In autocratic governments, the power of the ruler is absolute; dissent is not tolerated. For this reason, scholars have often linked autocracy with totalitarian regimes, such as that of Adolf Hitler in Germany and Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union. Autocracy is a general concept rather than a specific form of government. Though autocratic rulers have complete power over the people of their countries, their methods of governing can be vastly different.

Absolute monarchies and dictatorships still exist in modern times. Today’s kings and queens, as in ancient times, often rule by right of succession. Their royal lineage can be traced back to ancient times when their royal ancestors ruled by divine right—as it was widely believed that they descended from the gods. Dictators are absolute rulers who acquire their power rather than inherit it. Most commonly, dictators gain power as a result of revolution—typically, when a group of rebels rise up in protest and overthrow the existing government. Then, the dictator assumes control with the goal of establishing a new order. Dictators, especially military dictators, acquire their power by force.

Throughout history, during times of political unrest, people have tended to accept the command of strong leaders who could take control of their countries. In fact, Niccolo Machiavelli, an Italian political philosopher from the 15th century, recommended autocracy as a temporary measure and as a means of restoring political order and ending dissent.

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Clint Parks
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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