The Authoritarian Personality

Posted June 8, 2008

While there are people who pursue powerful positions in society or in a group in order to dominate others, there are also those who identify themselves with dominant groups or the ideology of the group and submit themselves to the opinions of strong authority figures. One of the characteristics of them is to show a “blind faith” toward their “ingroup” to which they belong and hostility toward “outgroups.” Besides, they seldom show sympathy (or often show hostility) toward minorities who occupy weaker positions in social structure, whether in terms of ethnicity or in such criteria as gender, sexuality, occupation, nationality, opinions, and wealth.

Witnessing the Holocaust, some Marxist theorists, such as Erich Fromm and Theodore Adorno, incorporated psychological concepts, such as “projection” and “denial,” into Marxist ideas in the late 1940s in order to explain “popular” rallies against ethnic minorities. They use a concept of “authoritarian personality” which shows those symptoms shown above because those who try to dominate others and those who follow the dominant figures are the different sides of the same coin: Each needs the other to exist.

The scholars argue that identifying with powerful figures is a (unconscious) projection of individuals’ “feelings of powerlessness and anxiety in life” and “envy toward those who have power.” They fear that showing sympathy toward the minorities is evidence of their weaknesses and thus would not do so. They victimize themselves by thinking that the minorities and those people who do not agree with them are culprits who create miseries in their lives. These feelings can be latent but activated during the time of economic hardship and ensuing changes in social status.

People with an authoritarian personality are more prone to adhere to right wing ideologies. Michael A. Milburn and Sheree D. Conrad in their The Politics of Denial examine the “punitive attitude” of the New Right since the 1970s toward issues of abortion, execution, and homosexuality. The scholars also found that leaders of the New Right encouraged their followers to make a decision on the basis of “either/ or” attitude, thus inhibiting them from considering complex aspects related with the social issues. Besides, emotional appeals rather than critical thinking influence on their decision.

One of the difficulties dealing with people with an authoritarian personality is that their viewpoints and ideologies toward the social issues and minorities are the projections of their mind, and thus they will not easily accept or even refuse to acknowledge any explanation about the actual fundamental causes of the problems in their lives. Moreover, because they identify themselves with strong authority figures, they will participate in a social movement only when they see “powerful figures” who compel them in dictatorial way or when the movement pursues “power on their terms.”

Thus arises a dilemma for people who hope to organize a social “democratic movement”: The movement might attract some people by merely presenting strong authoritarian leadership or by pursuing power in the system, but it will sadly never achieve its goal, social democracy, because the participants never learn democratic ways of thinking and practice and thus they will stop supporting the cause as soon as they find other groups which have stronger and more powerful figures.

Moreover, although the analysis of authoritarian personality gives an insight into explaining some aspects of right wing politics and racist group actions against ethnic minorities, unfortunately we often witness the similar tendency among some people in groups to form to achieve social democracy.

For example, we often see labor union officers who treat their members in an authoritarian manner, pursue a similar kind of power that their employers wield over their workers, and ask their members not to think critically but merely to show a blind faith toward their decisions.

It seems that those labor union officers create their images by “mirroring” those of so-called powerful people in larger society. Besides, if union officers’ tasks are limited only to contract bargaining with such employers who wield power in the workplace and larger society (because they own means of production and thus have power to hire and fire workers and power to decide where profits should be invested and how and where the products should be sold), and those employers (not their rank-and-file members) are the people they deal with every day, then it is easier for union officers to fall into a feeling that they are powerful when they have the attitudes of their employers.

Rank-and-file members without an authoritarian personality in a group may also follow decisions of whoever is in a position of authority if their leadership prevents them from gaining enough knowledge or if the information they get is manipulated.

The only hope for establishing social democracy is still in mass democratic movements themselves, which have a potential to create new images of people’s social power and democracy. What will be our images of “real” democracy and how will it be related to people’s real power?


6 responses to “The Authoritarian Personality”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Yes indeed. Wilhelm Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism was one of the first, with his colleagud Erich Fromm, to develop this theory and during the 30’s, he took part in mass therapy sessions among Germans to try to counter the authoritarian character structure. A very enlightening book.

  2.  Avatar

    How do we explain the fact that German workers created the largest revolutionary party in a capitalist country in the 1920s– The German Communist Party (KPD)? (Check out Pierre Broue’s brilliant THE GERMAN REVOLUTION, 1917-1923). Clearly, as the workers movements experienced a string of defeats after 1923– culminating with the victory of fascism– authoritarian/conservative ideas/personalities become more pronounced among German workers. However, this authoritarianism/conservatism was the result of the defeat of the German workers’ movements, not some intrinsic political-cultural feature.

    On the other hand, the US is the most “democratic” and “libertarian” capitalist society– the one that emphasizes individual “freedom” and rejects all forms of collectivism/authority over individuals. As we all know, the US has produced the most conservative (and poorly self-organized) working class– the most open to authoritarian/conservative politics– in the world. Go figure…

  3. Entdinglichung Avatar

    yes, it is the same study

  4.  Avatar

    Thank you for bringing forward Fromm’s study on the German workers. The early 20th century German workers’ authoritarianism seems to explain how the more hierarchical and dictatorial the larger society is, the higher percentage of workers possess an authoritarian mind. Labor movements in this environment also seem to have more authoritarian characteristics by which they might mobilize more workers and resist brutal represion from the state.

    Looking back on my experiences, the Korean social movement during the late 1980s and early 1990s when Korean society was under military dictatorship also seems to show a more comparable tendency than today’s Korean social movements.

    Is the book you refer to in German by any chance retitled in English “The Working Class in Weimar Germany : a psychological and sociological study” (translated by Barbara Weinberger ; edited and with an introduction by Wolfgang Bonss. Publisher: Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1984)?

  5. RED DAVE Avatar

    Another very important precursor of The Authoritarian Personality was Wilhem Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism.

    Excerpts are available online at


  6. Entdinglichung Avatar

    good text … one small addition, especially Erich Fromm started his research earlier, with the study “Arbeiter und Angestellte am Vorabend des Dritten Reiches. Eine sozialpsychologische Untersuchung” about white collar & blue collar workers in Berlin/Germany in 1929/30 (published for the first time in 1980, don’t know if a translation into English exists) he was showing, that while in this period ~ 80% of the participants (~ 580) of the survey voted for SPD or KPD, also many of them (~ 40%) hold authoritarian opinions