In the West, political ideas apart from democracy or representative government are often not understood. The sometimes authoritarian tendencies of communist governments have much to do with this confusion. However, understanding the differences between communism and dictatorships is a key to understanding world history.

Communism: Key Features

Communism is a socialist movement aimed at creating a classless social order in which property and the means of production are communally owned. As a socialist movement, communism advocates that citizens work together to control their economy and distribute goods based on need and social relationships. Modern communism has been largely shaped by the work of Karl Marx, a 19th-century philosopher and economist who believed communism would be achieved through a worker-led revolution.

Dictatorship: Key Features

A dictatorship is an autocratic government ruled by an individual -- the dictator -- or authoritatively by an oligarchy or a central political party. A government controlled by one person or a small group of people is the most common form of dictatorship. Dictators often have a reputation for pushing their own agenda. Therefore, in contemporary terminology, the word dictator is also used to mean a person that rules without respect for law or sociopolitical pressure. Such a person may have been elected democratically, but has used his influence to remain in power or exert unnecessary control.

Communism in Action

Various forms of communism and socialism have existed in the past and continue to operate today. The People's Republic of China, for instance, is a major industrial and technological force. It is often seen as an ideological opposite to the capitalist cultures of the West, but many of the products and technology used by the West come from such countries. But there are also gray areas. Josef Stalin and Kim Jong Il ran communist countries where the government largely controlled the economy, purportedly to achieve a pure collectivist society. But they were considered dictators for what critics saw as rampant human rights abuses, among other things. Less radical forms of socialism also exist in aid programs in Western countries.

Dictatorship Examples

One of the earliest examples of a dictatorship can be found in Ancient Rome. Julius Caesar and other rulers of the Roman Republic were dictators, but their power was kept in check by a legislature. In more recent memory, dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler have been the subject of much debate and still more war and conflict. Dictators may have strong public support and even a loyal following. A dictatorship does not always imply tyrannical power, although this is often the case.