Authoritarianism is an idealist and loosely defined concept that is often used by liberals (liberalism being the ideology of capitalism) to demonize both past and present socialist states and dismiss any argument in support of these states. The term is used by anarchists in the same manner as well.
Authoritarianism is defined in the Cambridge dictionary as "the enforcement or advocacy of strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom." The Encyclopedia Britannica says that it is, "in politics and government, the blind submission to authority and the repression of individual freedom of thought and action." The Collins dictionary writes that authoritarianism is "... the belief that people with power, especially the State, have the right to control other people's actions."
While different bourgeois dictionaries give it slightly different definitions, a common thread is that authoritarianism is a state in which personal freedoms are curbed for the benefit of the state.
This lack of a single, precise, objective definition exposes the word's idealist usage, whereby its suitability in regards to a government is based on subjective and personal criteria rather than objective and observable criteria. In other words, if the above definitions of authoritarianism are to be used as presented, then every country in the world would be considered authoritarian because all states restrict freedoms in some aspects (through laws) and require blind submission or strict obedience to authority (it is illegal to disobey the police or treat them like they treat you).
The usage of the word authoritarianism comes from the fact that during the Cold War, the imperial core needed something to separate them from and seem like a better alternative than the socialist world. The concept of personal freedom was used to this end: it was said that people in the West lived in the "free world", which was also referred to as the first world (and socialist states under the Warsaw Pact forming the second world). Freedom became paramount, and anything that infringed on any ounce of perceived freedom was denounced as authoritarian and thus inherently undesirable. As Stalin said, however:
It is difficult for me to imagine what "personal liberty" is enjoyed by an unemployed person, who goes about hungry, and cannot find employment. Real liberty can exist only where exploitation has been abolished, where there is no oppression of some by others, where there is no unemployment and poverty, where a man is not haunted by the fear of being tomorrow deprived of work, of home and of bread. Only in such a society is real, and not paper, personal and every other liberty possible.
Marxists recognize that all states wield authority, as do revolutions (being an inherently authoritarian act, imposing the will of one class onto another class), and will at times tighten that authority, and at other times relax it. For example, authority was tightened in most Allied countries during the Second world war as censorship and rationing took effect, and a draft was reinstated in countries that previously had abolished compulsory military service, with prison penalties or even sometimes the possibility of execution for dodging it.
As such, authoritarianism is a meaningless concept meant to instantly shut down any possible discussion about socialism on the grounds that it might restrict the freedom of a (relatively) privileged class, while greatly expanding the quality of life and opportunities of the exploited majority.
While anarchists recognize that states carry authority (the power to make laws and issue orders), and that the state will wield this authority as it wants regardless of laws, they believe that by having declared to have abolished the state (thus establishing anarchy), they have abolished all authority as well. As Engels wrote, however:
But the anti-authoritarians demand that the political state be abolished at one stroke, even before the social conditions that gave birth to it have been destroyed. They demand that the first act of the social revolution shall be the abolition of authority. Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois?
Marxists only recognize authority as a valid concept, and that it exists all around us in a dialectical state: Engels noted, for example, the authority of the steam machine (that cannot be turned off once started) or the authority of nature itself (through natural disasters and events).
Liberals do not understand either and by and large believe that because their states grants them some token personal freedoms (that they can take away at any time, being the sole guarantor of these privileges), do not wield authority against them despite all capitalist states in the world employing both an army and a police force.
There is increasingly a racist component in the usage of the word authoritarianism, due to the fact that China is the most prominent socialist state in the world today and a target of vicious slander in the media due to their growing economy that has overtaken the United States of America's in terms of GDP (Gross Domestic Product).
Authoritarianism has become something "uncivilised" people do, who only seem to understand power when applied through force—not like the enlightened liberals who understand "civilised" soft power and ignore the military operations to assassinate foreign heads of state and replace them with compradors their governments have conducted.
Authoritarianism as understood by liberals and anarchists does not apply to former and current socialist states despite their insistence.
The Soviet Union inherited a feudal system when it came about in Russia, serfdom having been abolished only 70 years earlier (or around two generations). In just two more generations, they went from a rural country prone to famines and poverty to having a robust industry, better labour laws than any capitalist country at the time, as well as allowing women in universities and in positions of government.
Secondly, the presence of the USSR strengthened the demands of the proletariat in the capitalist world, as the bourgeoisie feared a similar revolution. It was during the existence of the USSR that the international proletariat received benefits such as health insurance, retirement benefits, the 8-hour workday, and even paid leave.
People's Republic of China
Compared to the USA and many other nations, the PRC has a low number of police officers per-capita. The U.S. also has the highest incarceration on earth (both per-capita and in totality, the latter of which being significant since the USA has ~1/4 of the population of the PRC); the People's Republic of China eradicated extreme poverty in 2022.
- "Authoritarianism". Cambridge dictionary.
- "Authoritarianism". Britannica.
- "Authoritarianism". Collins dictionary.
- J. Stalin (1936). Interview Between J. Stalin and Roy Howard.
- F. Engels (1872). On authority.
- "Comparing United States and China by Economy" (2021-05-15). Statistics Times.
- Press release (2022-04-01). "Lifting 800 Million People Out of Poverty" World Bank.