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Introduction to "Remarks on the Authoritarian Personality"

Chris Mansour

Platypus Review #91 | November 2016

WHAT WOULD IT MEAN TO CLAIM that a person, social group, or historical moment is authoritarian by varying degrees? In what way can the emergence of modern authoritarianism be accounted for and how would it be overcome? These were central questions in the landmark 1950 study The Authoritarian Personality (AP), coauthored by T.W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford.[1] AP emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War, a time when finding answers to the rise of fascism was a desideratum for intellectuals and political figures. Adorno et al.’s research focused specifically on the field of social psychology, investigating how unconscious fears and desires played into the formation of prejudiced attitudes.

            Two years before AP appeared in print, Adorno wrote what was intended to be the last chapter of the volume, “Remarks on the Authoritarian Personality.”[2] For reasons that are unclear, the draft never made it past the editing phase. More curiously, his typescript remains unpublished until this day. Thus, for this special issue of the Platypus Review, we will publicly circulate “Remarks” for the first time. The paper invites a reconsideration of AP study and its findings. But more importantly, given that our current moment is arguably experiencing a new rise of authoritarianism internationally, discovering what propels these tendencies continues to be an urgent matter. In publishing the typescript, we aim to challenge the way we account for authoritarianism in the 21st century. Detlev Claussen, Chris Cutrone, Juliet Mitchell and Kirk Wetters have been invited to respond to Adorno’s paper in light of the present.

            Before introducing “Remarks,” the AP project should be briefly summarized for readers who are unfamiliar with it. The four authors involved, later to become known as the “Berkeley group,” first assembled to start the interdisciplinary project in 1945. Institutionally, it was a joint undertaking between the Berkeley Public Opinion Study and the Institute for Social Research. AP was the first of five volumes published in the Studies in Prejudice series edited by Max Horkheimer and Samuel H. Flowerman. The American Jewish Committee sponsored the entire series with hopes that it would enable their mission of countering discrimination, particularly anti-Semitism.

            In general it was believed that even with the defeat of the Third Reich, elements of a fascist mentality still lingered. Systematized bigotry was not confined to Europe alone but affected the totality of industrialized capitalist society. Since a large, organized fascist movement never breached its shores, America was a seemingly peculiar country to evaluate for the rise of prejudiced personalities. Nevertheless, signs of anti-Semitism were unmistakably present, albeit not as strongly expressed as in Europe. In the U.S., discriminatory opinions against Jews were admixed with other racist prejudices, especially against black people. As the authors found, those who are biased against one social group are likely to be prejudiced against others since their views are built on irrational grounds. A study of the prejudiced personality was therefore no less pressing on the other side of the Atlantic.

            The Berkeley group administered attitude and personality questionnaires to 2099 subjects that were mainly from the Bay Area. Around 80 individuals then took part in further interviews and tests, such as the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). Four scales to measure the subjects’ susceptibilities to anti-democratic ideas were created: the A-S Scale (anti-Semitism); the E-Scale (ethnocentrism); Politico-Economic Conservatism scale (conservative ideological commitments); and the F-Scale (fascistic potential). From these case studies, they devised a table of nine components describing the “syndromes” affiliated with authoritarian qualities. Below are the features highlighted:

  • Conventionalism. Rigid adherence to conventional, middle-class values.
  • Authoritarian submission. Submissive, uncritical attitude toward idealized moral authorities of the ingroup.
  • Authoritarian aggression. Tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values.
  • Anti-intraception. Opposition to the subjective, the imaginative, the tender-minded.
  • Superstition and stereotypy. The belief in mystical determinants of the individual’s fate; the disposition to think in rigid categories.
  • Power andtoughness.” Preoccupation with the dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension, identification with power-figures; overemphasis on the conventionalized attributes of the ego; exaggerated assertion of strength and toughness.
  • Destructiveness and cynicism. Generalized hostility, vilification of the human.
  • Projectivity. The disposition to believe that wild and dangerous things go on in the world; the projection outwards of unconscious emotional impulses.
  • Sex. Exaggerated concern with sexual “goings-on.”[3]

In the preface of the AP book, Horkheimer claims that the quantitative and qualitative research conducted by Adorno et al. assisted in the discovery of a new anthropological species.[4] There was, in other words, something distinctly modern about the authoritarian personality in the 20th century. Accordingly, the AP study sought to trace the contours of this new type by investigating individuals’ deep-seeded characterological traits––many of which, the authors explained, were planted in early childhood development.

            AdornosRemarks” critically assesses the AP study’s sole focus on the individual psyche. He envisioned the final chapter as an opportunity to frame the problem of prejudice as being intimately entwined with, and mediated by, the “objective spirit” of an antagonistic society: that of capitalism. “Our detailed analysis of subjective patterns,” he writes, “does not mean that, in our opinion, prejudice can be explained in such terms. On the contrary, we regard the analysis of objective social forces which engender prejudice as the most pressing issue in contemporary research into anti-minority bias.” From this standpoint, a high-scoring respondent is not an exception to modern society, but rather an amplified feature of the kind of subjects it produces. As Adorno wrote elsewhere, social truth is located “in and through the extremes, in the extremes themselves.”[5] Adorno is trying to negotiate the ways that empiricism converges with and deviates from Critical Theory. This uneasy relationship is one of the reasons why “Remarks” is so interesting.

Rorschach test card #10.

Rorschach test card #10.

            Our primary motivation in publishing this typescript is not simply its historical and scholarly value. As a psychological and political issue that is yet to be overcome, the question of authoritarianism strongly resonates with our current circumstances. We thought it would be a provocative gesture to publish the paper at the moment of the 2016 US presidential election. The Trump campaign has been one of the most unprecedented bids in modern history. There has been no shortage of articles accusing him and his “irredeemable” base of being fascistic. At the same time, the Hillary Clinton campaign has been characterized as relying upon a “pathologization of dissent” that itself shows strong signs of authoritarianism.[6] If we are to follow the thought process presented by Adorno in “Remarks,” then it is not enough to psychologize the character-type of the modern American voter. Such “diagnoses” must also take into account how these phenomena are symptomatic of a faltering political system that has no Left to lead it. When the only serious alternative to Trump is perpetuating the status quo––which is wholly embodied in the Clinton campaign––then the problem of authoritarianism will continue to reappear. It is not a question of if, but rather when and how.

            We are pleased to make “Remarks on the Authoritarian Personality” public for the first time with the permission of the Max Horkheimer Archives, where the original typescript resides. The archive have requested that we retain all the typescript’s original features, including typos and errors. Since Adorno’s paper is incomplete, endnotes have been added to cite sources and offer further explanations where this seemed necessary. Otherwise, we have stayed faithful to the original document.


[1] See Adorno et al., The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950).

[2] T.W. Adorno, “Remarks on The Authoritarian Personality” [1948], Max Horkheimer Archive at the Universitätsbibliothek, Goethe Universität. Available online at <>.

[3] Adorno et al., Authoritarian Personality, 228.

[4] Ibid., ix.

[5] T.W. Adorno, Hegel: Three Studies (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1993), 9.

[6] C. J. Hopkins, “The Pathologization of Dissent,” Counterpunch (27 October, 2016), available online at <>.