Just after the Second World War, the philosopher Theodor Adorno was puzzled by why so many of his fellow Germans had participated in mass murder. Adorno suspected some people had personality traits that predisposed them to bow to authority figures and kick down people they thought were below them. To test his theories, Adorno joined forces with social psychologists working at the University of California, Berkeley. Together they undertook a large-scale study of the psychology of authoritarianism. The research team eventually identified an “authoritarian personality type”. These are people who adhere to traditional values, readily submitted to authority figures within their group and are aggressive to people who violate “traditional values”. The results of this research were published in 1950 in The Authoritarian Personality.
Adorno and his colleagues’ work sparked off decades of social psychological research on the topic. Probably the most well know is the University of Manitoba’s Bob Altemeyer studies on “right-wing authoritarianism”. Altemeyer found that right-wing authoritarians are submissive to authority figures in their society, tend to become aggressive in the name of those authority figures and hold very conventional views. They strongly agreed with statements such as, “The established authorities generally turn out to be right about things, while radicals and protestors are usually just ‘loud mouths’ showing off their ignorance.” They would strongly disagree with statements such as, “Everyone should have their own lifestyle, religious beliefs, and sexual preferences, even if it makes them different from everyone else.”
While Altemeyer looked at authoritarians on the right, other researchers pointed out there were also authoritarians on the left. In 1954, the sociologist Edward Shils wrote that left-wing authoritarians created “spurious sibling relationship of comradeliness with their fellow members of the party”. They also engaged in “exploitation and manipulation of comrades, especially new recruits” which was “covered with expressions of solidarity”. A systematic study in 1983 found that about half of authoritarians had left-wing political views. A decade late, Altemeyer surveyed more than 2,500 Canadians. Out of his entire sample, he didn’t find a single person who fitted the profile of a left-wing authoritarian. Altemeyer concluded that the left-wing authoritarian is like “the Loch Ness Monster: an occasional shadow, but no monster”.
Nearly 25 years after Altemeyer failed to find any left-wing authoritarians, Thomas Costello, a graduate student at Emory University in the US, has tried again and come back with some different results. Costello and his team used standard psychological procedures to developed a new test for identifying people with “left-wing authoritarian” personality types. They identified some tell-tale signs of left-wing authoritarians: They believe people in power should be punished and the existing order should be violently overthrown. They see people with opposing political views as inherently immoral and prefer to be surrounded by people who share their values. They think the government or other institutions should forcefully stop people from sharing views they find abhorrent.
Left-wing authoritarians, in Costello’s research, typically strongly agree with the following statements: the rich should be stripped of their belongs and status; deep-down just about all conservatives are racist, sexist and homophobic; classrooms can be safe spaces that protect students from the discussion of harmful ideas.
Costello’s team also wanted to understand whether left-wing authoritarians behave in a different way to the rest of the population. Using a simple game, they found left-wing authoritarians were much more likely to punish others who held opposing political beliefs and favour people who shared their beliefs.
Other researchers have noticed left-wing authoritarians tend to reject mainstream political institutions. A study of 13 Eastern European countries led by Utrecht University’s Sabrina de Regt found that left-wing authoritarians were more distrustful of democratic institutions than their fellow citizens. Christopher Federico of the University of Minnesota looked at left-wing authoritarians in Western Europe and the US. With his team he found left-wing authoritarians were more likely to absent themselves from mainstream politics.
More recently Bristol University’s Paula Surridge has found that a mixture of left-wing economic values and authoritarian social values influences how people vote. Looking at data since 2015, she found people with traditional left-wing economic values (who agreed with statements such as, “there is one law for the rich and one for the poor”) and authoritarian value (who agreed with statements such as, “censorship is necessary to uphold moral values”) were more likely to vote for right-wing parties than people with left-wing economic values and liberal social values. This was particularly true if they did not already identify with a political party.
Although left-wing authoritarians might seem like the polar opposite of their right-wing authoritarian cousins, there is much they share. Using standard personality tests, Costello found that both left and right-wing authoritarians tended to be disagreeable, lacked intellectual humility, were not particular contentious and had a tendency to be mean. Where left and right-wing authoritarians differ is their attitude towards current society. While right-wing authoritarians fanatically support authority figures in power, their left-wing cousins fanatically oppose them. Costello and his team found that left-wing authoritarians were also more likely to be keen on political violence than their right-wing counterparts.
The idea of left-wing authoritarianism continues to spark controversy. There are some, like Altemeyer, who think it is simply a myth. Surridge thinks it is mistake to see authoritarianism as part of someone’s personality. Labelling restrictions on harmful views in classrooms or the redistribution of wealth as “authoritarian” could also be seen as a gross confusion of terms. Of course, there are those who think that “authoritarian” means (such as the forced redistribution of wealth and status) are sometimes justified to create a fair world. Despite these criticisms, it is likely that the idea of left-wing authoritarianism will continue to play a decisive role in some of the most contentious political issues of our times.
André Spicer is professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School, City, University of London