[Marxism] The Authoritarian Personality

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Oct 3 07:26:58 MDT 2005


 From the issue dated October 7, 2005
'The Authoritarian Personality' Revisited


When it first appeared in 1950, The Authoritarian Personality was primed 
for classic status. It ran to just under 1,000 pages. Its publisher, Harper 
& Brothers, had brought out Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma six years 
earlier and drew explicit parallels between the one book and the other. Its 
authors were, or would soon become, famous. Theodor Adorno, the senior 
author, was a member of the influential Frankfurt school of "critical 
theory," a Marxist-inspired effort to diagnose the cultural deformities of 
late capitalism. R. Nevitt Sanford was a distinguished psychologist at the 
University of California at Berkeley who, in the year the book was 
published, would be dismissed from his professorship for refusing to sign a 
loyalty oath. Else Frenkel-Brunswick had been trained at Freud's University 
of Vienna and was a practicing lay analyst in Northern California. 
Twenty-three years old at the time the study began, Daniel J. Levinson 
would become famous for his 1978 The Seasons of a Man's Life (Knopf), which 
popularized the notion of a "midlife crisis."

Then there was the subject matter. The Authoritarian Personality addressed 
itself to the question of whether the United States might harbor 
significant numbers of people with a "potentially fascistic" disposition. 
It did so with methods that claimed to represent the cutting edge in social 
science -- and that's where the book got in trouble with scholars of its 
day. But in today's political climate, it might be time to revisit its thesis.

Before anyone was talking about the radical right in America -- the John 
Birch Society, the most notorious of the new conservative groups to develop 
in the postwar period, wasn't founded until 1958 -- The Authoritarian 
Personality seemed to anticipate the fervent crusades against communism and 
the attacks on Chief Justice Earl Warren, the United Nations, and even 
fluoridation that would characterize postwar politics in the United States. 
The fact that the radical right has transformed itself from a marginal 
movement to an influential sector of the contemporary Republican Party 
makes the book's choice of subject matter all the more prescient.

Finally, the book was filled with data, including its famous "F scale." 
Based on how respondents answered a series of questions, the F scale 
identified nine key dimensions of a protofascist personality: 
conventionality, submissiveness, aggression, subjectivity, 
superstitiousness, toughness, cynicism, the tendency to project unconscious 
emotional responses onto the world, and heightened concerns about sex.

For example, subjects were asked how much they disagreed or agreed with 
such statements as:

"Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues 
children should learn." (Submissiveness.)

"Homosexuality is a particularly rotten form of delinquency and ought to be 
severely punished." (Aggression and sex.)

"No insult to our honor should ever go unpunished." (Toughness and aggression.)

"No matter how they act on the surface, men are interested in women for 
only one reason." (Sex and cynicism.)

The F scale was only one of the research methods featured in The 
Authoritarian Personality. The authors also measured ethnocentrism; 
administered Thematic Appreciation Tests, presenting subjects with pictures 
and asking them to tell a story about them; and relied upon clinical 
interviews resembling psychoanalytic sessions. Rarely, if ever, have social 
scientists probed ordinary human beings in as much detail as did the book's 

Indeed, participating in this study was so demanding for subjects that the 
authors made no effort to engage in random sampling. They first tried their 
methods out on college students, the usual captive audience, before getting 
the cooperation of the leaders of various organizations to survey their 
groups -- unions, the merchant marine, employment-service veterans, prison 
inmates, psychology-clinic patients, and PTA's.

Unlike much postwar social science, The Authoritarian Personality did not 
present data showing the correlations between authoritarianism and a 
variety of variables such as social class, religion, or political 
affiliation. Instead the authors tried to draw a composite picture of 
people with authoritarian leanings: Perhaps their most interesting finding 
was that such people identify with the strong and are contemptuous of the 
weak. Extensive case studies of particular individuals were meant to convey 
the message that people who seemed exceptionally conventional on the 
outside could be harboring radically intolerant thoughts on the inside.

D espite its bulk, prestigious authors, and seeming relevance, however, The 
Authoritarian Personality never did achieve its status as a classic. Four 
years after its publication, it was subject to strong criticism in Studies 
in the Scope and Method of "The Authoritarian Personality" (Free Press, 
1954), edited by the psychologists Richard Christie and Marie Jahoda. Two 
criticisms were especially devastating, one political, the other 

How, the University of Chicago sociologist Edward A. Shils wanted to know, 
could one write about authoritarianism by focusing only on the political 
right? In line with other works of the 1950s, such as Hannah Arendt's 
Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, Brace, 1951), Shils pointed out that 
"Fascism and Bolshevism, only a few decades ago thought of as worlds apart, 
have now been recognized increasingly as sharing many very important 
features." The United States had its fair share of fellow travelers and 
Stalinists, Shils argued, and they too worshiped power and denigrated 
weakness. Any analysis that did not recognize that the extremes of left and 
right were similar in their authoritarianism was inherently flawed.

Herbert H. Hyman and Paul B. Sheatsley, survey-research specialists, 
scrutinized every aspect of The Authoritarian Personality's methodology and 
found each wanting. Sampling was all but nonexistent. The wording of the 
questionnaire was flawed. The long, open-ended interviews were coded too 
subjectively. No method existed for determining what caused what. Whatever 
the subjects said about themselves could not be verified. The F scale 
lacked coherence.

It is true that, social science being what it is, fault can be found with 
any methodology. But the critique by Hyman and Sheatsley in some ways 
became more famous than the study it analyzed; when I attended graduate 
school in the 1960s, The Authoritarian Personality was treated as a 
social-science version of the Edsel, a case study of how to do everything 

Perhaps Adorno had all that coming. Along with Max Horkheimer, who played 
an instrumental role in the research that went into the book, Adorno had 
published Dialektik der Aufklärung (Dialectic of Enlightenment) in 
Amsterdam in 1947. Among its other attacks on the technical rationality of 
advanced capitalism, that book dismissed "positivism," the effort to model 
the social sciences on the natural ones. The significant flaws of The 
Authoritarian Personality allowed quantitative social scientists to return 
the favor and dismiss critical theory.

Yet despite its flaws, The Authoritarian Personality deserves a 
re-evaluation. In many ways, it is more relevant now than it was in 1950.

Certainly the criticisms of Edward Shils seem misplaced 50 years on. 
Communism really did have some of the authoritarian characteristics of 
fascism, yet Communism is gone from the Soviet Union and without any 
influence in the United States. Many writers inspired by Shils, like Jeane 
J. Kirkpatrick, who would become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, 
held that totalitarian regimes, unlike authoritarian ones, were not 
reformable from within. Yet the Soviet Union collapsed as a result of 
domestic upheaval. Totalitarianism still exists in a country like North 
Korea, but in the U.S.S.R. it never was quite as "total" in its control 
over most of its populations as many postwar scholars maintained. When it 
collapsed, so did many of the theories that once sought to explain it.

Even more significant than the collapse of left-wing authoritarianism has 
been the success of right-wing authoritarianism. Perhaps the authors of The 
Authoritarian Personality were on to something when they made questions 
about sexuality in general, and homosexuality in particular, so central to 
diagnosing authoritarianism.

In the June 19, 2005, issue of The New York Times Magazine, the journalist 
Russell Shorto interviewed activists against gay marriage and concluded 
that they were motivated not by a defense of traditional marriage, but by 
hatred of homosexuality itself. "Their passion," Shorto wrote, "comes from 
their conviction that homosexuality is a sin, is immoral, harms children 
and spreads disease. Not only that, but they see homosexuality itself as a 
kind of disease, one that afflicts not only individuals but also society at 
large and that shares one of the prominent features of a disease: It seeks 
to spread itself." It is not difficult to conclude where those people would 
have stood on the F scale.

Not all opponents of gay marriage, of course, are incipient fascists; the 
left, to its discredit, frequently dismisses the views of conservative 
opponents on, for example, abortion, church-state separation, or feminism 
as irrational bigotry, when the conclusions of most people who hold such 
views stem from deeply held, and morally reasoned, religious convictions. 
At the same time, many of the prominent politicians successful in today's 
conservative political environment adhere to a distinct style of politics 
that the authors of The Authoritarian Personality anticipated. Public 
figures, in fact, make good subjects for the kinds of analysis upon which 
the book relied; visible, talkative, passionate, they reveal their 
personalities to us, allowing us to evaluate them.

Consider the case of John R. Bolton, now our ambassador to the United 
Nations. While testifying about Bolton's often contentious personality, 
Carl Ford Jr., a former head of intelligence within the U.S. State 
Department, called him a "a quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy." 
Surely, in one pithy sentence, that perfectly summarizes the 
characteristics of those who identify with strength and disparage weakness. 
Everything Americans have learned about Bolton -- his temper tantrums, 
intolerance of dissent, and black-and-white view of the world -- step right 
out of the clinical material assembled by the authors of The Authoritarian 

And Bolton is by no means alone. Sen. John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, 
last spring said that violent attacks on judges, who cannot be held 
accountable, were understandable. He might well have scored highly on his 
response to this item from the F scale: "There are some activities so 
flagrantly un-American that, when responsible officials won't take the 
proper steps, the wide-awake citizen should take the law into his own 
hands." House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is in difficulty for his close ties 
to lobbyists like Jack Abramoff. Would those men agree with the statement, 
"When you come right down to it, it's human nature never to do anything 
without an eye to one's own profit"?

One item on the F scale, in particular, seems to capture in just a few 
words the way that many Christian-right politicians view the world in an 
age of terror: "Too many people today are living in an unnatural, soft way; 
we should return to the fundamentals, to a more red-blooded, active way of 

If one could find contemporary "authoritarians of the left" to match those 
on the right, the authors of The Authoritarian Personality could rightly be 
criticized for their exclusive focus on fascism. Yet there are few, if any, 
such examples; while Republicans have been moving toward the right, 
Democrats are shifting to the center. No liberal close to the leaders of 
the Democratic Party has called for the assassination of a foreign head of 
state; only a true authoritarian like Pat Robertson, who has helped the 
Republicans achieve power, has done that.

The authors of The Authoritarian Personality hoped that a clinical account 
of the tendency would enable democracy to protect itself better against 
political extremism. That could not be done, they concluded, by changing 
the personality structure of incipient authoritarians, since their beliefs 
were too ingrained to be altered and the techniques of psychology, in any 
case, were too weak to alter them. Authoritarian tendencies, they 
concluded, "are products of the total organization of society and are to be 
changed only as that society is changed."

The United States did change in the years after their book was published, 
but those changes revealed what might have been the biggest mistake the 
authors made: They looked for subjects among students and union members 
when they should have been looking in the corridors of power.

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public 
Life and professor of political science at Boston College. He is writing a 
book on whether democracy in America still works.



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