The term dictator, in the modern sense, is a vaguely-defined, connotatively negative word used to describe a totalitarian or authoritarian, or merely autocratic ruler of a country, and the leader of a dictatorship.
The term is frequently associated with brutality and oppression. Sometimes it is called misrule.
The Roman dictator
In the system of Roman Republic, a dictator was a person temporarily granted significant power over the state during times of war. The office was held for only 6 months. The ideal model was Cincinnatus, who according to legend, was plowing when called to dictatorship, saved Rome from invasion, and who afterwards returned to his labour, renouncing every honour and power. Other famous dictatores were Lucius Sulla and Julius Caesar.
The Marxist-Leninist concept of “dictatorship of the proletariat”
The dictatorship of the proletariat is defined by Marxist theory as the use of state power by the working class against its enemies during the passage from capitalism to communism, entailing control of the state apparatus and the means of production. Though under Stalin the phrase came to be understood as a dictatorship in the name of the proletariat, the original meaning was a workers’ democracy where the working class would be in power, rather than the capitalist class.
The dictator in modern times
Dictators come from different social classes, including highly decorated career soldiers like Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada of Uganda.
In modern times, the term “dictator” is generally used to describe a leader who holds an extraordinary amount of personal power, especially the power to make laws without effective restraint by a legislative assembly. It is comparable to (but not synonymous with) the ancient concept of a tyrant, although initially “tyrant,” like “dictator,” was not a negative term. A wide variety of people have been described as dictators, from lawfully installed government ministerss like António de Oliveira Salazar and Engelbert Dollfuss, to unofficial military strongmen like Manuel Noriega to stratocrats like Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet.
In the modern definition, “dictatorship” is associated with brutality and oppression, most notoriously in the cases of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong. As a result, it is often used as a term of abuse for political oppponents; Henry Clay’s dominance of the U.S. Congress as Speaker of the House and as a member of the United States Senate led to his nickname “the Dictator”.
The term has also come to be associated with megalomania. Many dictators create a cult of personality and have come to favor increasingly grandiloquent titles and honours for themselves. For example, Idi Amin Dada, who had been a British army lieutenant prior to Uganda’s independence from Britain in October 1962, subsequently styled himself as “His Excellency President for Life Field Marshal Al Hadji Dr. Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular”. In The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin satirized not only Hitler but the institution of dictatorship itself.
The association between the dictator and the military is a very common one; many dictators take great pains to emphasize their connections with the military and often wear military uniforms. In some cases, this is perfectly natural; Francisco Franco was a lieutenant general in the Spanish Army before he became Chief of State of Spain, and Noriega was officially commander of the Panamanian Defense Forces. In other cases, this is mere pretense; Stalin appointed himself “Generalissimo of the Soviet Union” despite having no real military background.
The benevolent dictator?
The benevolent dictator is a more modern version of the classical “enlightened despot”, being an undemocratic ruler who exercises his or her political power for the benefit of the people rather than exclusively for his or her own benefit. Like many political classifications, this term suffers from its inherent subjectivity. Such leaders as Franco, Pinochet, Anwar Sadat, and Fidel Castro have been characterized by their supporters as benevolent dictators. In all these cases it depends largely on one’s point of view as to just how “benevolent” they were or are.
Most dictators’ regimes unfailingly portray themselves as benevolent, and often tend to regard democratic regimes as messy, inefficient, and corrupt.
In the Spanish language, the word dictablanda is sometimes used for a dictatorship conserving some of the liberties and mechanisms of democracy. (The pun is that, in Spanish, dictadura is “dictatorship”, dura is “hard” and blanda is “soft”).
In the context of open-source projects, a “benevolent dictator” is the person that effectively holds dictator-like powers over that project, yet is trusted by other users/developers not to abuse this power. The term is used humorously, because the “subjects” of the project leader contribute voluntarily, and the end-product may be used by everyone. A dictator in this context has power only over the process, and that only for as long as he or she is trusted.
Possible examples of dictators
This is a brief list of leaders who are widely regarded as dictators. It does not intend to make judgements as to whether their governments exerted dictatorial control, but reflects the opinion of many influential historians, scholars, policy-makers, and the general public. It is the task of the interested reader, however, to draw his own conclusions.
- Fidel Castro of Cuba
- Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan
- Igor Smirnov of Transnistria
- Kim Jong-Il of North Korea
- Sani Abacha of Nigeria
- Idi Amin of Uganda
- Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi
- Mohamed Siad Barre of Somalia
- Napoleon Bonaparte of France
- Dési Bouterse of Suriname
- Gaius Julius Caesar of Rome
- Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania
- Chiang Kai-shek of the Republic of China (ROC)
- Juan Manuel de Rosas of Buenos Aires
- Porfirio Díaz of Mexico
- François Duvalier of Haiti
- José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia of Paraguay
- Francisco Franco of Spain
- Juan Vicente Gómez of Venezuela
- Adolf Hitler of Germany
- Wojciech Jaruzelski of Poland
- Kim Il Sung of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)
- Vladimir Ilyich Lenin of the USSR
- Francisco Macías Nguema of Equatorial Guinea
- Mao Zedong of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)
- Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines
- Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire
- Benito Mussolini of Italy
- Ne Win of Burma
- Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran
- Park Chung Hee of the Republic of Korea (ROK)
- Juan Perón of Argentina
- Augusto Pinochet of Chile
- Pol Pot of Cambodia
- Saddam Hussein of Iraq
- António de Oliveira Salazar of Portugal
- Antanas Smetona of Lithuania
- Anastasio Somoza García of Nicaragua
- Joseph Stalin of the USSR
- Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay
- Suharto of Indonesia
- Lucius Cornelius Sulla of Rome
- Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic
- Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan