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The Authoritarian Personality

Adorno's The Authoritarian Personality "represents one of the most sophisticated attempts to explore the origins of fascism not merely as a political phenomenon, but as the manifestation of dispositions that lie at the very core of the modern psyche."

Theodor Adorno25 August 2020

The Authoritarian Personality

An excerpt from the introduction by Peter E. Gordon to The Authoritarian Personality, the hugely influential study of the psychology of authoritarianism.  

Originally published in 1950, The Authoritarian Personality remains a major landmark in political psychology. It represents one of the most sophisticated attempts to explore the origins of fascism not merely as a political phenomenon, but as the manifestation of dispositions that lie at the very core of the modern psyche. For this reason alone, it merits our attention—especially today, when insurgent fascist or quasi-fascist political movements seem once again to threaten democracies across Europe and the Americas. The relevance of this effort for our contemporary moment may strike the reader as self-evident. But the details of the original study are still poorly understood, not least because terms such as “fascism” or “authoritarianism” have an expressive function that can overwhelm careful analysis. After all, to condemn something as “fascist” is both a cry of alarm and a palliative: it names a political extreme even while it offers the consoling thought that the extreme is not the norm. It was among the major achievements of the original Authoritarian Personality study that it challenged this liberal assumption, by showing that the potential for fascism lie not at the periphery but at the very heart of modern experience. It set out to demonstrate that fascism is something far deeper than a political form: it correlates with psychological patterns of domination and submission that take shape in earliest childhood and later harden into a syndrome of attitudes regarding hierarchy, power, sexuality, and tradition. The psyche of a fascist is “authoritarian” in the sense that it attaches itself to figures of strength and disdains those it deems weak. It tends toward conventionalism, rigidity, and stereotypical thinking; it insists on a stark contrast between in-group and out-group, and it jealously patrols the boundaries between them. It is prone to obsession over rumors of immorality and conspiracy, and it represses with self-loathing the sexual licentiousness it projects onto others. In all of these ways, fascism appears as the political manifestation of a pre-political disposition. The authoritarian personality does not always turn explicitly fascist; its politics may remain dormant, only to emerge under certain social-historical conditions. This thesis offers an important corrective to those who prefer to see fascism as discontinuous with liberal-democratic political culture: fascism is not mysterious, and it is not something otherworldly or rare; it is the modern symptom of a psychopathology that is astonishingly widespread and threatens modern society from within.

In his original preface to the book, Max Horkheimer, the director of the Institute for Social Research, wrote that the study had succeeded in identifying nothing less than a new "anthropological’ species." Unlike the traditional bigot, the “authoritarian type” united in a single personality "the characteristics of a highly industrialized society with irrational or anti-rational beliefs." He was “at the same time enlightened and superstitious, proud to be an individualist and in constant fear of not being like the others, jealous of his independence and inclined to submit blindly to power and authority.” The joint research team for the Authoritarian Personality study had assigned themselves an ambitious task: to explore not simply the empirical instances of stated allegiance to political fascism, but the deeper or even latent psychological characteristics of an authoritarian personality that could under given circumstances express itself in fascist commitment. Their aim, in other words, was to identify what they called “the potentially fascistic individual.” The explanatory tools that were required for such a task were formidable. Eschewing the narrow constraints and distinctions of academic disciplines, the Authoritarian Personality study united into a single project a broad array of research methods, joining sociology with psychoanalysis, empirical quantitative analysis and qualitative interviews with the most abstract considerations in social theory and philosophy.

For such a project it was natural to convene a team of researchers who possessed an uncommon array of disciplinary skills. As the official representative of the Institute for Social Research, or "Frankfurt School," Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969) brought to the study a notably European spirit—a deep, if deeply critical and ambivalent, interest in psychoanalytic theory, together with a sensitivity to philosophical and sociological questions that did not always harmonize well with the more empirical and psychological orientation of his American colleagues. Like Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik (1908–1958) was also a refugee from Nazi Europe. Trained in Vienna as a psychologist, she had fled Austria for the United States in 1938 and assumed a post in the department of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her crucial contribution to the study is most evident in the qualitative-interview chapters and the theoretical sections on parenting, child development, and sexuality. R. Nevitt Sanford (1905–1995), an American-born child of Baptist ministers, had trained in psychology at Harvard University and served as professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, where he later founded the Wright Institute, a graduate training institution for clinical psychology that emphasized the intersection of social and psychological issues. Caught up in the McCarthyite “Red Scare,” in 1950 Sanford refused to sign a loyalty oath and was dismissed from his professorship, but was reinstated in 1959. He was joined by Daniel J. Levinson (1920–1994), a researcher in psychology who had received his doctorate at Berkeley in 1947 with a dissertation on ethnocentrism. Levinson later worked as a professor of psychology at Harvard and then at Yale until his retirement in 1990. The four coauthors also benefited from the assistance of several researchers, who contributed to the theoretical development of the project and helped in the interviews as well as the collection and analysis of the data.

The research for such a project was enormous and would not have been possible without the financial support provided by the American Jewish Committee, an organization for mutual aid among Jewish immigrants to America, originally founded in 1906 in the aftermath of Europe’s most violent pogroms. Represented by Samuel Flowerman, the AJC worked in a not-always-harmonious partnership with the Institute for Social Research, the research group created in Frankfurt, Germany, that included social theorists and philosophers such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, along with Friedrich Pollock, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and Leo Löwenthal. All of them shared the institute’s interest in developing an interdisciplinary research agenda that combined an emancipatory social philosophy (inspired chiefly by non-dogmatic trends in Western Marxism) with psychoanalysis, sociology, cultural criticism, and political economy.

It should be obvious that the study of fascism and anti-Semitism was not unrelated to the personal biographies of the institute, nearly all of whom were of Jewish descent and whose careers were interrupted by the emergence of Nazism in Europe. Fascism was not only a topic of research; it was also an existential threat. But facts of personal identity can hardly account for the intellectual and political significance of this research. After all, fascism’s spread across the continent and its potential for victory elsewhere confronted the European left with a devastating challenge to its theoretically grounded confidence in history: if the bourgeoisie was yielding to demagogues and the working class no longer proved reliable as the collective agent of emancipatory politics, then key precepts of historical materialism seemed to be thrown into doubt. One cannot understand the development of the Frankfurt School if one fails to appreciate its ongoing theoretical and empirical efforts to reckon with the rise of authoritarianism in the mid-twentieth century.

With the rise of Nazism, the core membership of the institute fled into exile. In the 1930s and 1940s, Horkheimer continued to serve as director of the institute in the United States, where it supported a series of projects, including the five key research efforts that were published as the series Studies in Prejudice. These empirical projects focused chiefly on the problem of contemporary anti-Semitism and demagogic politics in the United States, and they extended the institute’s penchant for studies that brought sociological and psychoanalytic methods into a dialectical combination. The interdisciplinary agenda of the Frankfurt School, codified by Max Horkheimer in his 1931 inaugural lecture as director of the institute, defined its task as a threefold inquiry into “the connection between the economic life of society, the psychical development of individuals, and the changes in the realm of culture.” As early as 1929, Erich Fromm had already conducted extensive research on the politics and psychology of white-collar and blue-collar workers in Weimar Germany, with questionnaires distributed to 3,300 individuals.

Fromm, who was steeped in psychoanalytic theory, believed that it was possible to identify psychological tendencies that were “authoritarian” (a term he used precisely in this sense). Although Fromm’s study was the earliest attempt to integrate psychoanalysis with a political diagnosis of political authoritarianism, his efforts were not widely available until their publication much later. In 1933, the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (not affiliated with the institute) would also use the term “authoritarian” in The Mass Psychology of Fascism, applying it both to the structure of the family and to the structure of society at large. But it was not until the later 1930s that the institute itself began to focus its attention in earnest on the empirical question of a link between authoritarian psychology and fascist politics. The first fruit of this inquiry was published in 1936 as Studies in Authority and the Family. In his own contribution to the volume, Fromm laid special emphasis on the “sado-masochistic character” as the crucial factor in the formation of authoritarian personality. Fascism, he argued, appealed most to those who saw the world as governed by occluded and irrational forces and who sought comfort from feelings of powerlessness by identifying with a powerful leader to whom they also submitted. This was a key theme that would reappear, with important modifications, in The Authoritarian Personality.

Fifty years since its original publication, The Authoritarian Personality retains its relevance, and it has assumed a renewed political urgency. Over the last decade, the rise of authoritarian or neofascist political movements, even in the ostensibly enlightened democracies of the capitalist West, has shattered liberal confidence in any triumphalist end to history, and it confronts us with the question as to why fascism has resurfaced with such astonishing force, long after the hour of its apparent defeat. To be sure, nothing returns exactly as it was. The current movements are distinct from those of the mid-twentieth century, not least because what was repressed has come to the surface with the memory of its predecessor: the “new” movements adopt the old slogans or symbols with a certain awareness of quotation, as if they are indulging in a nostalgic reprisal of theatrical forms. The repressed makes its return in the shadow of its own history.

Most troubling of all, however, is the sense that we did not really learn the first time around how to address the deeper reasons for fascism’s lasting appeal. The authors of The Authoritarian Personality placed some hope in the thought that the potential for fascism might be overcome through changes in education, especially for the young. If an authoritarian personality had its roots in psychological unhappiness and distress, then the true remedy against it lay in reforming the styles of parenting and norms of childhood development. Their recommendations may occasionally strike us as naive: “All that is really essential,” they write, “is that children be genuinely loved and treated as individual humans.” But they recognized that such reform had little chance of success if it did not also speak to the underlying material and social grounds of discontent. Their reasoning was dialectical: the psychological disposition for fascism was not simply an antecedent condition for fascism but also a social effect. “The modification of the potentially fascist structure,” they warned, “cannot be achieved by psychological means alone. The task is comparable to that of eliminating neurosis, or delinquency, or nationalism from the world. These are the products of the total organization of society and are to be changed only as that society is changed.” This concession alerts us to the hidden utopianism that animated the original study. In his discussion of political and economic views in the interview material, Adorno noted that the high-scoring individual tends to dismiss all utopian thinking with the admonition that one must be “realistic.” Adorno’s fear was that the high-scoring subjects were actually better adjusted to current conditions, that the authoritarian personality was no longer a pathological exception in modern society but was instead becoming the norm. Today’s political and sociological trends would suggest that this fear was not exaggerated. Contemporary theorists on the left as well as the right have converged on the specious insight that political reality can never be otherwise than an eternal and ostensibly “natural” contest between friend and enemy. But to dismiss as mere utopianism the hope for a path beyond such contestation is to abandon ourselves to the hopeless realism that makes fascism such an enduring threat.

The Authoritarian Personality is 40% off as part of our Back to University/School sale. Ends September 30, 23:59 EST. See all our student reading lists here.

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The Authoritarian Personality
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