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Authoritariansim is inherently leftist, not the preserve of the right wing

By John Ray - posted Tuesday, 2 September 2003

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
(Friedrich Engels -- from his controversy with the Anarchists).


The linking of political conservatism with psychological authoritarianism traces back to The Authoritarian Personality by Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson and Sanford (1950). The leading author (Adorno) of the study concerned was a prominent Marxist theoretician.

He and his team came to the conclusion that "authoritarianism" underlay Nazism, that authoritarianism also underlies conservatism and that authoritarianism is a "disease". But the theoretical convolutions required for that were from the outset truly heroic, considering that Hitler was a socialist; Mussolini a prominent Marxist theoretician; that Stalin had been a willing ally of Hitler; and that Hitler's most unrelenting enemy was no Leftist but the arch-Conservative Winston Churchill.


From history, then, the obvious conclusion is that Nazism was simply a racist form of Leftism. Yet, the Adorno thesis, historically and theoretically ridiculous as it is, turned out to be enormously popular and influential among social scientists generally. I can only ascribe this to the general left-leaning orientation of social scientists.

Not that the book has escaped unscathed. The Authoritarian Personality must hold some sort of record for the amount of criticism and disconfirmatory research that it has attracted. And what the various criticisms have repeatedly shown is that only the most trivially true contentions of the Adorno theory survive the encounter with empirical testing. The most basic postulates of the theory are just plain wrong.

A better theory

The popular press refer to Communists in present day Russia as "Conservatives". Yet "Conservative" would once have been taken as the antithesis of "Communist". And anyone inferring that Conservatives in the USA must also therefore harbour a longing for Stalinism would be rapidly disabused of the notion.

Underlying this confusion is the fact that "conservatism" has a number of meanings. The common usage is to describe people's approach to things and situations in which case the most radical person can be at times conservative. Then there is the political usage where Conservatives were originally associated with a love of the status quo and a dislike of change and new arrangements. Journalists often conflate the two and not unreasonably refer to both Communists in Russia and anti-Communists in the USA as "conservative". Relative to the different traditions of their respective countries both groups do favour traditional values. To differentiate between the two I will denote the political tradition by using an upper case "C".

Clearly, however, modern times have thoroughly upset the notion that political Rightists are principally motivated by a love of the status quo. There are political parties in Russia that have similar goals and policies to what we would call the Right in the USA and in other Western countries yet they are clearly heavily reformist in a Russian context rather than defenders of the old Soviet status quo. And in the West as well, the Reagan/Thatcher "revolution" has made Rightists the big advocates of change and cast Leftists into the role of defending the status quo.

But is that a satisfactory account of the matter? Has everything changed so much overnight? Rightists are still Rightists and Leftists are still Leftists and the Left/Right division has been associated for so long with attitude to the status quo that there surely must be something still behind that association.


My suggested solution to the puzzle is to turn the traditional understanding on its head. Attitudes to change versus the status quo define the political Left rather than the political Right. It is not conservatives who are for the status quo but rather Leftists who are against it.

Note that this implies that the two sides of politics are not mirror-images of one another. It is suggested that Rightists are simply indifferent to change rather than opposed to it whereas Leftists actively need change. Leftists and Rightists have different rather than opposite goals.

Whatever Rightists might want, however, wanting to change the existing system is the umbrella under which all "Western" Leftists at all times meet. Even at the long-gone heights of British socialism in pre-Thatcher days, for instance, British Leftists still wanted more socialism. That permanent and corrosive dissatisfaction with the world they live in is the main thing that defines people as Leftists. That is the main thing that they have in common.

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This is an edited version of an article first published here.

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About the Author

Dr John J. Ray is a businessman and blogger who retired from teaching social psychology at the University of New South Wales in 1983.

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