Authoritarians favour strict obedience to authority and government by elites wielding wide-ranging powers. Authoritarianism has been studied in depth by social psychologists, but only right-wing authoritarianism. By and large, social psychologists have been very sceptical about whether left-wing authoritarianism exists at all. But now a paper by TH Costello and others from Emory University in Atlanta, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, not only demonstrates the existence of left-wing authoritarianism but also shows that it has much in common with right-wing authoritarianism. A summary and discussion of Costello's paper by Emma Young appeared in the British Psychological Society's Research Digest.
After the second World War, German philosopher Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) wondered why ordinary Germans had carried out mass murder. He suspected that some/many people have personality traits that predispose them to submit to authority figures and to mistreat people they consider to be their inferiors. Adorno worked with social psychologists from the University of California and their investigations identified an "authoritarian personality type" who holds traditional values, submits to authority figures within the group and behaves aggressively towards people who disrespect traditional values. This research is described in the book The Authoritarian Personality by Adorno and others (New York, Harper and Row, 1950).
Psychologist Bob Altemeyer, of the University of Manitoba, went on to study right-wing authoritarianism, extending the results described in The Authoritarian Personality. Right-wing authoritarians strongly agree with statements such as: "Established authority generally turns out to be right, while radicals and protesters generally turn out to be just loudmouths, showing off their ignorance." And they strongly disagree with statements such as: "Everyone should have their own lifestyles, religious beliefs and sexual preferences, even if it makes them different to everyone else."
Some social psychologists pointed out that authoritarianism also exists on the left but the idea gained little traction. Altemeyer surveyed more than 2,500 Canadians and didn't find one who fitted the left-wing authoritarianism profile (The Authoritarian Spectre, Harvard University Press, 1996). But now the study by Costello and others has confirmed the reality of left-wing authoritarianism.
Costello devised a scale to search for left-wing authoritarianism, reflecting three distinct dimensions. (a) Antihierarchical aggression – those currently in power should be punished and the established order overthrown. Political violence is justifiable to achieve these aims. (b) Anticonventionalism – moral absolutism regarding progressive values, rejection of traditional values and dismissal of conservatives as inherently immoral. (c) Top-down censorship – preference for use of governmental and institutional authority to quash opposition and ban offensive/intolerant speech.
Costello found more similarities than differences between left-wing authoritarianism and right-wing authoritarianism. A constellation of similarities includes preference for social uniformity, prejudice towards different others, willingness to use group authority to coerce behaviour, cognitive rigidity, moral absolutism and an exaggerated concern for hierarchies. Both lright-wing authoritarianism and left-wing authoritarianism endorse political violence – left-wing authoritarianism endorses violence directed at a conservative state while right-wing authoritarianism endorses violence in support of a conservative state.
There are, however, several important differences between left-wing authoritarianism and right-wing authoritarianism. For example left-wing authoritarianism consistently scores higher than right-wing authoritarianism on measures of neuroticism, belief in science and willingness to ban opposing views.
Costello stresses in interviews that his study simply shows that (a) left-wing authoritarianism exists and (b) left-wing authoritarianism and right-wing authoritarianism overlap to a significant extent. But the study does not show that left-wing authoritarianism and right-wing authoritarianism are equally prevalent, equally dangerous or that there is a moral equivalence across the far left and the far right.
He adds: "Our work should not be used as a political cudgel. Instead, it should be used as a piece of information to help us understand the pull of extremism and intolerance. Having clarity about the appeal of authoritarianism may be relevant to help better understand what's going on in the political landscape today." (Emory News Center, September 2021.)
The fact that social psychologists persistently doubted the existence of left-wing authoritarianism must raise an eyebrow. I mean, if Lenin, Stalin, Mao and the entire history of communism wasn't enough to tip them off, what about the opinions that daily deluge our public media, clearly displaying left-wing authoritarianism as well as right-wing authoritarianism? As I pointed out before in this column, almost all academic staff in the social sciences are left-wing. Did they simply shy away from studying left-wing authoritarianism, fearing they would uncover something smelly on the left?
William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC