International School History - International Baccalaureate - Authoritarian States (20th Century)

What are 20th century authoritarian states?

There are three sections to this introduction. Firstly, we examine what authoritarianism is. Second, we examine why authoritarianism is an important subject to study. Finally, we examine what distinguishes modern authoritarianism from the very common pre-20th century kind of authoritarian state.



What is Authoritarianism?

Authoritarian regimes are a type of political regime, in the same way that democracy is a type of political regime. This is an obvious but important point to make, because many history textbooks about authoritarianism often assume a false dichotomy, that fails to appreciate that democracy and authoritarianism actually have a lot in common. The history student can be easily misled into thinking that only authoritarian regimes restrict the liberty of their citizens, or use propaganda to attempt to shape public opinion.  What history students can usefully learn from sociologists and political scientists is that governance and the exercise of power, involve methods that are common to all regimes. It can also alert us to the fact that the dividing line between authoritarianism and democracy is not always a clear break, but rather an over-lapping continuum that is often in a state of flux. (See below ‘Why authoritarian regimes are important’)

Authoritarian regimes are most commonly defined in terms of what they are not. They are not-democratic.  The only problem with this definition is that it assumes we know what democracy is.   The ancient Athenian understanding of democracy involved the direct participation of all citizens in the political system. The modern version is representative democracy, in which citizens choose professional politicians to do the governing for them. The right of all citizens to elect their government is therefore what most people understand by democracy. But if we are to understand authoritarianism fully, we need to understand that democracy means more than voting once every five years.


The term democracy originates from the Greek, ‘demos’ meaning ‘people’ and ‘kratos’ meaning ‘power’.

A democracy has four key characteristics.

The first characteristic is the importance of free and fair elections. By this, we mean that elections involve the participation all citizens, in a way that allows the individual to express their choice of representative without fear of recrimination. The right to vote should also happen with predictable regularity and at different administrative levels, from village elections to national elections or even trans-national elections.  Elections often occur in authoritarian states, but they take place on an ‘uneven electoral playing field’. (Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way Competitive Authoritarianism p.6) Dictatorship may prevent elections from being fair by intimidating the opposition, denying their right to campaign or by vote-rigging the outcome.

The second important point is that elected officials must be accountable and removable. This requires the political system to have an inbuilt, official opposition whose job it is to hold government to account and to replace the government when it loses the support of the people. Holding a government to account means that an official opposition in the legislature (parliament) publicly examines in detail the policies and actions of the government. This is designed to encourage efficient governance, but also to prevent the corruption that is typical of authoritarian regimes.

4 Characteristics of democracy

Elections must be free and fair
State officials are accountable and removable
Everyone has the same rights
No significant social and economic inequality


The third important characteristic of democracy is that all citizens, including ethnic and social minorities, have certain fundamental rights, guaranteed by law and usually written down in a state’s constitution. For example, the right to worship the religion of your choice or the right to privacy in the home are basic rights in a democracy. Freedom of speech, or the freedom of the media to criticise those in positions of authority, are amongst the first freedoms to be denied in any authoritarian state.

The fourth important characteristic of democracy is equality. The state must respect each individual equally, irrespective of their social position, political affiliation or economic status.  Everyone must be treated equally before the law. To help enforce this, the judiciary - the system of courts that interprets and applies the law – must be independent from the executive (government). In addition, the institutions that enforce the law – the police and the army – must be accountable to the civilian authority of elected representatives. In many authoritarian states, the judiciary if is too weak and the army too politicized to guarantee equality of all citizens before the law. A society in which there is significant social and economic inequality cannot be democratic, because the existence of a social/economic elite will inevitably undermine the principal that all in in society must be treated the same.


Corruption occurs in all political systems. It is the abuse of office for private gain, for example, when state officials allocate a benefit in exchange for a bribe, rather than on the basis of entitlement. The bribe may persuade officials to do what they should have done anyway, or to do it more quickly.

Why are authoritarian states important?

Authoritarian regimes have always been important. As Paul Brooker puts it, 'non-democratic government, whether by elders, chiefs, monarchs, aristocrats, empires, military regimes or one-party states, has been the norm for most of human history' (P. Brooker, Non-Democratic Regimes: Theory, Government and Politics, 2nd edn (2009).p.1) We might like to think that the 20th century will be remembered for the global progress towards democracy, but the titles of popular history texts Niall Ferguson’s ‘History’s Age of Hatred’ or Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘Age of Extremes’ suggests otherwise:

‘Of all the developments in the Age of Catastrophe, survivors from the nineteenth century were perhaps most shocked by the collapse of the values and institutions of the liberal civilization whose progress their century had taken for granted, at any rate in 'advanced' and 'advancing' parts of the world. These values were a distrust of dictatorship and absolute rule; a commitment to constitutional government with or under freely elected governments and representative assemblies, which guaranteed the rule of law; and an accepted set of citizens' rights and liberties, including freedom of speech, publication and assembly. State and society should be informed by the values of reason, public debate, education, science and the improvability (though not necessarily the perfectibility) of the human condition. These values, it seemed clear, had made progress throughout the century, and were destined to advance further.’ (Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes, Abacus, 1995, pp. 109-10)

But perhaps most importantly, studying authoritarian states is not merely a historical exercise. The latest (2017) report of the human rights watchdog organisation Freedom House concludes that only 45% of countries in the world today are ‘free’ and that over the last decade, democracy has globally been in decline. Therefore, despite the apparent grounds for democratic optimism engendered by post-World War II decolonisation, the collapse of the USSR and the Arab Spring of 2011, the world is not necessarily becoming any more democratic. In reality, one of the key political consequences of the end of the Cold War has been the blurring of the line between democracy and authoritarianism.

Tony Benn’s – Five little democratic questions

‘If one meets a powerful person--Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates--ask them five questions:
What power have you got?
Where did you get it from?
In whose interests do you exercise it?
To whom are you accountable?
And how can we get rid of you?
If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.’

freedom in the world 2017 map

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world.

They analyze the challenges to freedom, advocate for greater political rights and civil liberties, and support frontline activists to defend human rights and promote democratic change.


Part of the issue is what Paul Brooker describes as ‘camouflaged or disguised dictatorships which claim to be democratic’. (Brooker, Non-Democratic Regimes: p.1) Current (2014) In this respect, regimes in Nigeria, Indonesia, Venezuela and Russia might be controversially identified as ‘grey zone’ regimes. (‘Thinking About Hybrid Regimes’ - Larry Jay Diamond, Journal of Democracy Volume 13, Number 2, April 2002 pp. 21-35) These regimes have democratic institutions and elections, but opposition victories in elections are very unlikely and human rights abuses are all too common.
We also have to recognise that many long-established democratic regimes have, over the last few decades, dramatically enhanced their capacity to monitor and control the words and actions of individual citizens, as evidenced by the campaigns of WikiLeaks or NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden. With CCTV, Electronic Payment Systems, personal GPS enabled devices, biometric identity cards and genetic fingerprinting, the 21st century state has the means of tracking citizens that goes well beyond even the nightmarish imagining of George Orwell’s 1984. As Snowden himself argued in his 2014 testimony to the Council of Europe, ‘Technology represents the most significant new threat to civil liberties in modern times’ (8 April 2014).

In conclusion, therefore, being able to identify the key features of authoritarian regimes that claim to be democratic is one of key skills of modern citizenship.

What is modern authoritarianism?

Non democratic states may have been the norm for most of human history, but in the first half of the 20th century a new form of ‘modern’ authoritarian state emerged in Lenin’s Russia, Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. The ‘modernity’ of these regimes can be seen in three defining characteristics of modern authoritarianism.

Firstly, modern authoritarian states were/are consciously modern and did not and could not rely upon traditional forms of authority – ‘it is like this because it has always been like this’ – to justify their rule. Unlike a hereditary absolute monarch, such as the Tsar in Russia, the legitimacy of Bolshevik Russia, initially at least, did not derive from rightful family or dynastic succession from father to son. As Juan Linz, the world authority on authoritarian states, explained ‘there are those who call Latin American authoritarian regimes or sultanistic regimes "traditional"; some even do so in the cases of Franco's Spain and Salazar's Portugal. This interpretation is fundamentally flawed, however, since the basis of legitimacy in the regimes is not traditional dynastic legitimacy.’ (Juan J. Linz, Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes, Riener 2000, p.11)



Legitimacy is the popular acceptance of an authority, usually a governing law or a régime, because the authority is considered to have the right to govern.  In a democracy, a government is legitimate if it has been elected to power.

The second characteristic difference of modern authoritarianism is the importance of ideology. In the absence of either inherited or electoral legitimacy, rule had to be justified ideologically. The authoritarian states that emerged after the First World War were defined by their ideological rejection of the progressive liberalism of the 19th century, as outlined by historian Eric Hobsbawm above. (where?) This was not the same as the ancient monarchies blindly resisting liberalism and democratization in the late 19th century. The new authoritarianism proposed an alternative ideological basis to liberalism, whether in fascist or communist form.  For more on this see, ‘the emergence of authoritarian states below’)

The third distinctly modern feature of 20th century authoritarianism, involved the centralization and industrialization of the mechanisms of state control. The old authoritarian regimes ruled over a largely illiterate and isolated, rural peasantry. Control was exercised by local authority, reinforced through religious conventions and guaranteed by national force. Modern authoritarianism’s ambition to rule over an industrial, urban and connected citizenship, required an increasingly sophisticated, integrated form of layered formal and informal social control, using, for example, all the most sophisticated of modern communication technology, to spread the ideological message of the regime.  If the traditional authoritarian regimes had been bolstered by the church, modern authoritarianism required a secular equivalent in the state controlled newspapers, radio and cinema.

Social Control

Social control refers to the processes that regulate individual and group behavior in an attempt to gain conformity to the rules of a given society, state, or social group. Sociologists identify two basic forms of social control:

Informal social control means the individual internalization of norms and values by a process known as socialization. The state – or other powerful organizations - can attempt to influence informal social control through its control of education and the media.

Formal social control means external sanctions enforced by government though laws and the punishment of legally defined criminal deviants’. Émile Durkheim, one for the founding fathers of sociology refers to this form of control as regulation.



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