Latest Arrival: Social Psychology Finally Recognizes Left Authoritarianism


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Bandeira do movimento antifa em Viena, Áustria, 2020.
Flag of the “antifa” movement in Vienna, Austria, in

| Photo: EFE / EPA / Florian Wieser

In 07 of April , a Saturday, protesters pro-Donald Trump organized a free speech march in Berkeley, California. Communists and “anti-fascists”, who use the abbreviation “antifa”, were also present. A spat soon broke out and the police created a neutral area between the two tribes, the local nonprofit Berkeleyside reported. Thousands were present. An American flag was burned. Soon the discussions escalated to violence and 15 people were arrested and were injured.

Right-wing activist Kyle Chapman, who has already been arrested twice, said over the loudspeaker that he was there to fight “domestic terrorism and communism”. The paper noted, with surprise, that he did not carry a club that day. University philosophy professor Eric Clanton had other plans. With his face covered by a hood, mask and sunglasses, all in black, he used a bicycle lock to deliver blows to the head of a protester. Images of the victim’s bloodied head went viral. According to police, he was the seventh person attacked in this way by the antifa professor, who was sentenced to probation for three years. In his house, the police found several signs of adherence to communism, “anti-fascism” and anarchism. He has an antifa tattoo on one arm.

If, that year, anyone tried to understand what was happening at Berkeley in social psychology articles, I would find that only Kyle would be considered an authoritative by a broad consensus in the field. Not Eric. It is because only last year did the area begin to accept that there is left authoritarianism.

Influence of Critical Theory

The idea that only the right can be authoritarian was defended by at least two exponents of the “theory critique” of the Frankfurt school, an academic strand that seeks to change society through the analysis of power relations. Critics call it “cultural Marxism.” One of the exponents was Theodor Adorno (1903- ).

It was in the city of Berkeley itself, which has a campus of the University of California, that Adorno launched in 1563 the book The Authoritarian Personality

  • , of almost a thousand pages, with two university sociologists and a psychoanalyst as co-authors. Among other methods, the book features a test of authoritarianism, the F-F scale of fascism. It is based on nine dimensions of a “proto-fascist”: conventionality, submission, aggressiveness, subjectivity, superstitiousness, harshness, cynicism, projection of unconscious emotional responses to the world, and exaggerated preoccupation with sex.
  • The book drew immediate criticism. Based on more balanced works such as The Origins of Totalitarianism,

  • by Hannah Arendt (1898), University of Chicago sociologist Edward Shils commented in that decade that it made no sense to speak of authoritarianism exclusively on the right. “Fascism and Bolshevism, considered very far apart a few decades ago, are now increasingly seen as sharing many important characteristics,” he said, also pointing out that the United States had Stalinists who also adored power and despised the weak.
  • (1916) that “liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against right-wing movements, and tolerance of left-wing movements.”

    Hans Eysenck (

    –1916), eminent German-British psychologist and pioneer in the study of personality, says in his autobiography (1988) who proposed and tested the hypothesis that personalities differ in terms of politics on an axis of “tough mentality” and “tender mentality”. “The fascists, on the right, communists on the left were tough-minded, liberals were tender-minded and midway between right and left, while members of the [britânicos] Conservative and Labor parties (…) were average in tough-mindedness vs. tender”, classifies the psychologist. He published a book on the subject, The Psychology of Politics
  • (1903), “which in essence contains the unpalatable warning at the time that there was fascism on the left (…) and that the hardness of mentality united communists and fascists in a common bond”. Eysenck’s warning ended up being ignored and social psychology preferred Adorno.

    Refinement of Critical Theory

      Despite the poor reception of Adorno’s work, Bob Altemeyer, an octogenarian Canadian professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba, Canada, considered that the theory and method could be refined. In works such as Enemies of Liberty: Understanding Right-Wing Authoritarianism

    • (free translation), from 1951, the Canadian presents right-wing authoritarianism as characterized by three main points: obedience and deference to established authorities; adherence to socially conservative norms; and strong approval of punitive and coercive social control.
    • Altemeyer’s concept is the “gold standard” of social psychology to characterize authoritarianism, declare Thomas Costello, a psychologist at Emory University in Atlanta, and collaborators in a paper this year published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, journal of the American Psychological Association. Meanwhile, the authors report that left-wing authoritarianism is widely known as the “Loch Ness Monster” of the area and that there would be “sparse systematic evidence” for its existence.

      Costello and colleagues, however, have already launched a challenge to this state of the art. “We demonstrate the utility of conceptualizing and measuring leftist forms of authoritarianism, challenging long-standing portrayals of left authoritarianism as the ‘Loch Ness Monster’ of political psychology.”

    Orthodoxy challenged

    The article by Thomas Costello and colleagues was a pioneer in proposing an Index of Left Authoritarianism. It is defined by a constellation of psychological characteristics: prejudice against different people, willingness to use collective authority to coerce others’ behavior, cognitive rigidity, aggressiveness and punishment against perceived enemies, overvaluation of status hierarchies and moral absolutism, among others.

    Costello himself, in a more recent article co-authored by Christopher Patrick, from Florida State University, makes the caveat that its index needs adjustments such as reducing points to consider. “Currently, it is difficult to know whether certain characteristics are central or peripheral to authoritarianism, and to what extent,” the scientists say. Also, they are not sure which of the 21 points are more characteristic of leftist authoritarianism or authoritarianism in general.

  • Anti-hierarchical aggressiveness: attitude that favors the removal of the established order and punishment to the power holders through the use of violence or undemocratic coercion. One of the phrases to express this attitude in the test was “We must take the goods and the status of the rich”.
  • Unconventionalism: a desire to end conservatism that is reflected in intolerance. Some of the most informative sentences in the test were “At bottom, almost all conservatives are racist, sexist and homophobic” and “Conservatives are morally inferior to progressives”. That is, left-wing authoritarians tend to agree with these statements.
  • Censorship from top to bottom low: a desire to use group authority, such as state authority, to suppress beliefs and behaviors with which one disagrees. One of the most informative quotes: “University authorities are right to ban hate speech from campus.”
    • between the right and the left. The left may be authoritarian, recognize theorists such as John Jost, professor of psychology and politics at New York University, but the right would be
        most authoritarian, prejudiced and narrow in thought.

        If Jost is right to insist in this new version of attributing authoritarianism more to the right than to the left, only time will tell as social psychologists readjust their area to the new paradigm in which authoritarianism is no longer considered a monopoly of the right.

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