[Marxism] The Authoritarian Personality
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Oct 3 07:26:58 MDT 2005
From the issue dated October 7, 2005
'The Authoritarian Personality' Revisited
By ALAN WOLFE
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
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
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.
More information about the Marxism