This is a much abridged version of a full academic treatment of the subject -- which can be found here
AUTHORITARIANISM IS LEFTIST
By: John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.)
"Revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon" (Friedrich Engels -- from his controversy with the Anarchists).
The rather obvious insight from Karl Marx's collaborator quoted above -- which associates authoritarianism with Leftism -- seems to have been totally overlooked by psychologists who purport to study "authoritarianism". This is rather surprising when we realize that the tradition of research into psychological authoritarianism traces back to The Authoritarian Personality by Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson and Sanford (1950). And the leading author (Adorno) of the study concerned was a prominent Marxist theoretician!
This overlooking of the obvious by the Adorno team was however symptomatic of their whole approach. Apparently, as committed Leftists, they wanted to explain Nazism and Fascism in a way that discredited Rightists rather than Leftists. But the theoretical convolutions required for that were from the outset truly heroic -- considering that Hitler was a socialist rather than a conservative, considering that Mussolini was a prominent Marxist theoretician, considering that Stalin had been a willing ally of Hitler as long as Hitler wanted him and considering that Hitler's most unrelenting enemy was no Leftist but the arch-Conservative Winston Churchill. From history, then, the obvious conclusion is that Nazism was simply a racist form of Leftism (Ray, 2002). How can one make that harmful to conservatives?
But the Adorno group managed their self-imposed and unlikely task after a fashion and the basic conclusions that they produced (that "authoritarianism" underlay Nazism, that authoritarianism also underlies conservatism and that authoritarianism is a "disease") were therefore hardly surprising. Only the generally Left-leaning orientation of social scientists, however, can explain why such a historically and theoretically ridiculous work turned out to be enormously popular and influential among social scientists generally.
Regrettably, however, we have known since Galileo that the popularity of a belief is no guarantee of its truth. And The Authoritarian Personality must hold some sort of record for the amount of criticism and disconfirmatory research that it has attracted. There are various summaries of this body of criticism but the first half of Altemeyer's (1981) book and Ray (1988) give a pretty good idea of it. And what the various criticisms have repeatedly shown is that only the most trivially true contentions of the Adorno theory survive the encounter with empirical testing. The most basic postulates of the theory are just plain wrong.
A better theory
The popular press refer to Communists in present day Russia as "conservatives". Yet "conservative" would once have been taken as the antithesis of "Communist". And anyone inferring that conservatives in the USA must also therefore harbour a longing for Stalinism would be rapidly disabused of the notion.
Underlying this confusion is of course the old equation of conservatism with a love of the status quo and a dislike of change and new arrangements. Journalists still implicitly use that hoary formula and, in consequence, quite reasonably refer to both Communists in Russia and anti-Communists in the USA as "conservative". Relative to the different traditions of their respective countries both groups do favour traditional values.
Clearly, however, modern times have thoroughly upset the notion that political Rightists are principally motivated by a love of the status quo. There are political parties in Russia that have similar goals and policies to what we would call the Right in the USA and in other Western countries yet they are clearly heavily reformist in a Russian context rather than defenders of the old Soviet status quo. And in the West as well, the Reagan/Thatcher "revolution" has made Rightists the big advocates of change and cast Leftists into the role of defending the status quo.
But is that a satisfactory account of the matter? Has everything changed so much overnight? Rightists are still Rightists and Leftists are still Leftists and the Left/Right divisions has been associated for so long with attitude to the status quo that there surely must be something still behind that association.
My suggested solution to the puzzle is to turn the traditional understanding on its head. It is suggested that attitude to change versus the status quo defines the political Left rather than the political Right. It is not conservatives who are FOR the status quo but rather Leftists who are AGAINST it.
Note that this implies that the two sides of politics are not mirror-images of one another. It is suggested that Rightists are simply indifferent to change rather than opposed to it whereas Leftists actively need change. Leftists and Rightists have different rather than opposite goals.
Whatever Rightists might want, however, wanting to change the existing system is the umbrella under which all "Western" Leftists at all times meet. Even at the long-gone heights of British socialism in pre-Thatcher days, for instance, British Leftists still wanted MORE socialism. That permanent and corrosive dissatisfaction with the world they live in is the main thing that defines people as Leftists. That is the main thing that they have in common.
The Rightist, by contrast, generally has no need either for change or its converse. If anything, Rightists favour progress -- both material and social. So when Rightists are conservative (cautious), it is not because of their attitude to change per se. On some occasions they may even agree with the particular policy outcomes that the Leftist claims to desire. When they resist change, then, it is mainly when it appears incautious -- and they are cautious (skeptical of the net benefits of particular policies) generally because of their realism about the limitations (selfishness, folly, shortsightedness, aggressiveness etc.) of many of their fellow humans (Ray, 1972, 1974 & 1981). So it is only vis a vis Leftists that the Right can on some occasions and in some eras appear conservative (cautious about proposals for social change).
Leftists do not of course want just any change. In particular, they want change that tends in the direction of tearing down or drastically revising existing authorities, power structures and social arrangements. And this generally takes the form of advocating greater equality between people. What the Leftist ultimately wants in this direction however is fairly heroic in its dimensions and unlikely ever to be fully achieved in at least contemporary Western societies so the Leftist always has a corrosive discontent with the world he lives in and therefore is permanently in a position of wanting change from the way things are.
Leftists in Power
The analysis above was principally of what Leftism/liberalism is in the economically advanced countries of the contemporary "Western" world -- where Leftists have only ever had partial success in implementing their programmes. So what happens when Leftists get fully into power? Does the same analysis apply?
For a start, it should be obvious that the personality and goals of the Leftist do not change just because he gets into power. He is still the same person. And that this is true is certainly very clear in the case of Lenin -- who is surely the example par excellence of a Leftist who very clearly did get into power. In his post-revolutionary philippic against his more idealistic revolutionary comrades, Lenin (1952) makes very clear that "absolute centralization and the strictest discipline of the proletariat" are still in his view essential features of the new regime. He speaks very much like the authoritarian dictator that he was but is nonetheless being perfectly consistent with the universal Leftist wish for strong government power and control over the population -- but only as long as Leftists are in charge. So Leftists in power certainly do NOT cause the State to "wither away" -- as Marx foresaw in "The Communist Manifesto".
Obviously, Leftists in power also cease to want change. Aside from their focus on industrialization, change in the Soviet Union was glacial and any institutional change or change in the locus or nature of political power was ferociously resisted. So if a clamour for change is characteristic of Leftists in the "West" but not characteristic when Leftists attain full power, what are the real, underlying motives of Leftism?
The theory that would seem to have the widest explanatory power is that Leftist advocacy serves ego needs. It is submitted here that the major psychological reason why Leftists so zealously criticize the existing order and advocate change is in order to feed a pressing need for self-inflation and ego-boosting -- and ultimately for power, the greatest ego boost of all. They need public attention; they need to demonstrate outrage; they need to feel wiser and kinder and more righteous than most of their fellow man. They fancy for themselves the heroic role of David versus Goliath. They need to show that they are in the small club of the virtuous and the wise so that they can nobly instruct and order about their less wise and less virtuous fellow-citizens. Their need is a pressing need for attention, for self-advertisement and self-promotion -- generally in the absence of any real claims in that direction. They are people who need to feel important and who are aggrieved at their lack of recognition and power. One is tempted to hypothesize that, when they were children, their mothers didn't look when they said, "Mummy, look at me".
And, of course, people who themselves desperately want power, attention and praise envy with a passion those who already have that. Businessmen, "the establishment", rich people, upper class people, powerful politicians and anybody who helps perpetuate the existing order in any way are seen by the Leftist as obstacles to him having what he wants. They are all seen as automatically "unworthy" compared to his own great virtues and claims on what they already have. "Why should they have ........ ?" is the Leftist's implicit cry -- and those who share that angry cry have an understanding of one-another that no rational argument could achieve and that no outsider can ever share.
The Leftist's passion for equality is really therefore only apparently a desire to lift the disadvantaged up. In reality it is a hatred of all those in society who are already in a superior or more powerful position to the Leftist and a desire to cut them down to size. They are haters who want to subjugate everyone and everything to their rule. As Engels rightly saw, there is nothing more authoriarian than that.
So why do Leftist psychologists claim that conservatives are pro-authority whereas Leftists are anti-authority? That this vast and perverse oversimplification became widely accepted among psychologists is perhaps an understandable mistake given the characteristic opposition by Leftists in the modern "Western" democracies to the existing centres of authority and power in their countries and given the characteristic acceptance by conservatives of those same authorities.
Looking at history more broadly, however, we see that authoritarianism is central to Leftism and that Leftists are in fact dedicated practitioners of it -- so what Leftists oppose is not authority as such (or there would be no Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao etc.) but only authorities that they do not control; and what conservatives favour is not any and all authority but rather carefully limited authority -- only that degree of central authority and power that is needed for a civil society to function.
Adorno,T.W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D.J. & Sanford, R.N. (1950) The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper
Altemeyer, R. (1981). Right-wing authoritarianism. Winnipeg: University Manitoba Press.
Lenin, V.I. (1952) "Left-Wing" Communism, an Infantile Disorder. In: Selected Works, Vol. II, Part 2. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.
Ray, J.J.(1972) Acceptance of aggression and Australian voting preference. Australian Quarterly 44, 64-70.
Ray, J.J. (1974) Conservatism as heresy Sydney: A.N.Z. Book Co.
Ray, J.J. (1981) Conservatism and misanthropy. Political Psychology 3(1/2), 158-172.
Ray, J.J. (1988) Why the F scale predicts racism: A critical review. Political Psychology 9(4), 671-679.
Ray, J.J. (1989) The scientific study of ideology is too often more ideological than scientific. Personality & Individual Differences, 10, 331-336.
Ray, J.J. (1990) The old-fashioned personality. Human Relations, 43, 997-1015.
Ray, J.J. (2002) Leftist racism. Front Page Magazine October 8th. See also here.