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The Authoritarian Personality
Theodor Adorno et al 1950
Book Review With Commentary

Theodor Adorno, along with Else Frenkel-Brunswick, Daniel Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford, produced a monumental work that illustrated why ordinary Germans were so caught up in Nazi anti-semitism and racism during WWII. These authors went well beyond mere description. They included not only interpretations, but much of their data base as well. You can draw your own conclusions. For the typical or average reader that might be a bit of a challenge as terms and words are used that have special meanings in mathematics, sociology, and psychology. But the reader can get the essence of the book's main conclusions by reading each chapter summary.

The most notable themes parallel those of Varshney in his Ethnic Conflict and Civil Strife. Adorno and coauthors examined European and American behaviors while Varshney reported on events in India. That the two are consistent, gives us added assurance that when a society fails to redirect its jungle/savanna-born instincts of suspicion and intolerance for neighbors, the primary problem underlying the terror syndrome remains manifest as it has now for millennia. Our jungle heritage must be understood and dealt with, not shrugged off and abided by.

These authors were also prescient. We illustrate by excerpting their 2nd - 4th paragraphs of their forward"

    "Today the world scarcely remembers the mechanized persecution and extermination of millions of human beings [during WWII]... in what was regarded as the citadel of Western civilization [Germany]. Yet the conscience of many men was aroused. How could it be, they asked each other, that a culture of law, order, and reason, there should have survived the irrational remnants of ancient racial and religious hatreds? How could they explain the willingness of the masses of people to tolerate the mass extinction of their fellow citizens? What tissues in the life of our modern society remain cancerous, and despite our assumed enlightenment show the incongruous atavism of ancient peoples? And what within the individual organism responds to certain stimuli in our culture with attitudes and acts of destructive aggression?"

These are the questions that drove this research reported in this monumental book of nearly 1,000 pages. It spoke to racism and McCarthyism in America as it dissected the psyche of German society,

    "But an aroused conscience is not enough if it does not stimulate a systematic search for an answer. Mankind has paid dearly for its naive faith in the mere automatic passage of time..."

    "Prejudice is one of the problems of our times for which everyone has a theory but no one has an answer. Every man, in a sense, believes that he is his own social scientist, for social science is the stuff of everyday living... [A group of concerned people came together in] a two day conference on religious and racial prejudice... A research program was outlined which would enlist scientific method in the cause of seeking solutions to this crucial problem. Two levels of research were recommended. One was... regard to the recurring problems faced by educational agencies; e.g., the study of public reaction to selected current events and the evaluation of various techniques and methods such as those involved in the mass media of communication as they impinge upon inter-group relationships. The other level suggested was one of basic research, basic in the sense that it should result eventually in additions to organized knowledge in this field."

As a societal goal, the foregoing could have been equally well-written today. However, the irony is huge. These studies were basically organized by survivors and avoiders of the Holocaust; Hitler and his effect on German citizens were exemplary subjects. The irony arises because Adorno and colleagues did indeed identify a significant root cause--The Authoritarian Personality. Yet, when the Jews as an ethnic group in diaspora converged in their own new nation, Israel, they used Authoritarian methods and continue to in our day. They did so over the counter advice for one of their own, Ze'ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky. But then what might we expect? Hitler himself identified the personality type in his own monumental work, The Third Reich. Hitler showed his own intolerance and resultant bias when he ascribed the Authoritarian Personality type only to the Jews!

Since the concept of Authoritarianism is so basic and fundamental to our future, we add some commentary by others. On another page we present biographical information as well as Adorno's philosophy that eventually made him more influential if less prominent in his own day, mid-20th-Century.

Alan Levine
The Authoritarian Personality examined the connection between deep-rooted personality traits and prejudice. Basing their work on insights that Adorno and his associates, especially Erich Fromm, had developed before fleeing Germany, the authors analyzed the formation of the "potentially fascistic individual" or, as they usually called it, the "authoritarian personality." That they identified authoritarianism and anti-Semitism so closely with the beaten menace of fascism is an indication of the extent to which, even then, their work was dated.

Nevertheless, The Authoritarian Personality had a major impact in the academic world and ultimately the opinion-forming media. It identified some traditional social values with an undesirable, even proto-fascist, personality structure; the principal locus for the development of ethnocentrism and anti-Semitism, this personality type was common under the conditions of twentieth-century capitalism. The book's concepts became widespread and its methods and aims were widely copied, inspiring many similar studies.

The Authoritarian Personality, AP, as a concept, was also discussed at some length by Erich Fromm: Escape From Freedom, 1941 and Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 1973. His descriptions and explanations were accurate for his time, and except for his psychoanalytic vocabulary, still is today. He accurately related the AP to the more extreme form, narcissism. His focus on tracing Hitler's ultimate triumph to his early background raised the distinct possibility that the AP at least, and possibly even the psycho-sociopathic type, can be an outcome of experiences early in life. His books, along with this one and those of Milgram, Zimbardo, Altemeyer, and Stout form a rather complete picture of the origins of today's main problems.

This discussion also would not be complete without the contributions of Albert Bandura (and his students) in mid-twentieth Century. His research focused on how children become anti-social. To quote from his biography:

    "Bandura began field studies of social learning and aggression in collaboration with Richard Walters, his first doctoral student. They were fascinated with the unconventional challenge of explaining antisocial aggression in boys who came from intact homes in advantaged residential areas rather than simply demonstrating that multiple adverse conditions tend to spawn behavioral problems. This research, which underscored the paramount role of modeling in human behavior, led to a program of laboratory research into the determinants and mechanisms of observational learning.

    Bandura and Walters found that hyper-aggressive adolescents often had parents who modeled hostile attitudes. Although the parents would not tolerate aggression in the home, they demanded that their sons be tough and settle disputes with peers physically if necessary, and they sided with their sons against the school. They displayed aggression toward the school system and toward other youngsters whom they believed were giving their sons a difficult time. The youngsters modeled the aggressive hostile attitudes of their parents. For these aggressive adolescents, the vicarious influence of seeing a model meting out punishment outweighed the suppressive effect of receiving punishment directly for aggressive acts. These findings conflicted with the Freudian-Hullian assumption that direct parental punishment would internally inhibit children's expression of aggressive drives, and they led to Bandura's first book, Adolescent Aggression (1959) and to a subsequent book several years later, Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis (1973)."

Bandura and Walters work parallels the observations of Adorno et. al. that home environment largely determines the personality of the child. The upside is that while nature provides the genes, nurture can train their response. This provides real hope that humanity need not be doomed by its own aggressive instincts. Parenting for peace is possible, and humanity ought to get on with it.

Adorno was the prime mover in developing and codifying the Authoritarian Personality. How such people function in the real world is of vital importance. For example, what happens when they reach positions of power. The result is not usually good. James Simon and others addressed just this issue in a seminar in July 2003 at Harvard's Center for Information Policy Research.

According to Simon, authoritarians are basically people who abhor uncertainty. In his words:

    "...There is a great article by Else Frenkel-Brunswick.... She wrote about tolerance and of ambiguity, and it was her thesis that people can be defined by their willingness to tolerate ambiguity. You don't want some people to tolerate ambiguity. You do not want cartographers to guess when they make the map that tells your pilot the height of mountain that you are going to fly over. You'd like them to be really sure. You don't want the doctor who'd do a blood test on you to guess whether or not you have cancer. You want him to be sure. That's a great skill, and we need people who are intolerant of ambiguity. They, by God, care about facts. They tend to become engineers.

    "The other group are people who are very tolerant of ambiguity. At the extreme, they don't care at all about facts. They'll just make up any answer whatsoever. They go into politics and journalism.

    "What we are looking for are people who care a great deal about facts, but are willing to reach a conclusion without all the facts. If we want to have all the facts before we get an answer, then we will await forever. There are never all the facts in a world of analysis. At some point, you simply write something or tell someone something, and that brings in judgment, accuracy, and all the other things I have been talking about. You have to be tolerant enough of ambiguity to be willing to speak or write without possession of all the facts."

In one sense, these passages put Mr. Bush in a better light. He can and does make decisions in ambiguous positions. Where he fails is in judgment. But he also knows that the American people are mostly good little authoritarians at heart. For this reason he invokes the feature of consistency (even though he is inconsistent in tactics, strategy and promises kept.) He seems to know instinctively what the authoritarians among us would like to hear and that is the stance he takes. By his very invasion of Iraq he showed how little he cares about facts. The same lack of caring led him to have the National Park System begin selling Creationism in spite of nearly 200 years of evidence that this literal Biblical allegory has no basis in facts. Of course, his stance panders not only to the extreme religious right, but also to the more extreme authoritarians who have little or no tolerance for ambiguity or ideas or people that are different from their own.

War is always unambiguous. But as long as war and terror exist as activities or policies, it is peace that will be ambiguous--cease fires are not peace, words are not peace, actions are. The choice to be made by most any authoritarian on either side seems obvious.

The swing voters are a lot like Simon's ideal. They care but they can also think. In the 2006 miditerm election, historically a quiet affair, American voters stood up and were counted. The Neocons lost the grip they had enjoyed on the US government and world events. The American electorate is in fact made up of three types of voters:
  • The hard right
  • The hard Left, and
  • The moderates in the middle.

For more see: Adorno Philosophy.

For a modern update of Adorno's thesis that neglects the Milgram studies while still realizing Adorno was descriptively accurate, see: ALAN WOLFE.

For an update on where Adorno's discovery has gone, see:


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