the authoritative personality

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Anouch Kurkdjian*

Commentary on the new title, twelfth volume of the Theodor Adorno Collection.

In such an adverse social climate, it is to be celebrated that Brazilian readers finally have access to a Portuguese-language edition of the Authoritarian personality studies (Unesp), selection of texts written by Theodor W. Adorno. This is the twelfth volume of Adorno published by the publishing house, which for some years has endeavored to fill in the gaps in the author's bibliography in the country. The dark relevance that these texts acquired for the Brazilian context certainly contributed to their publication now. The reader will see that it is with a mixture of astonishment and recognition (who knows, astonishment because of the recognition) that the book is read.

The texts that originally make up the volume are part of a more comprehensive research, of almost a thousand pages, entitled The Authoritarian Personality, carried out by Adorno together with a group of social psychologists from the University of Berkeley – R. Nevitt Sanford, Daniel Levinson and Else Frenkel-Brunswik – and published in 1950, in the United States. the authoritative personality in turn was one of the fronts of a broad research effort, the Studies on Prejudice, an initiative sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) that gave rise to other books on the subject [1].

The choice of the term “prejudice” for the title of the set of studies (in detriment of the initial idea of ​​“anti-Semitism”) was made out of caution, which already shows the situation in which the Jewish Committee operated on American soil in the period of the Second World War. The spread of anti-Semitism, even in a country with a democratic government, corroborates one of the main ideas of the research the authoritative personality: that authoritarianism maintains deep relations with the “general cultural climate” of societies erected under the capitalist form of production, so that its extreme manifestation in the Nazi horror in Germany should not be considered an isolated event, but a latent possibility in other societies and in other political contexts.

Mobilizing an analytical tool from social psychology and psychoanalysis, associated with a broader sociological framework (by Adorno), research on the authoritarian personality creatively articulated quantitative methods, such as questionnaires, and qualitative methods, such as clinical interviews and tests projective, with a view to answering the following question: what personality traits make an individual particularly susceptible to accepting prejudiced and anti-democratic ideas and propaganda? It should be noted that it was not a question of investigating overtly authoritarian individuals, but of developing instruments to identify potentially authoritarian individuals, that is, individuals psychically predisposed to accept authoritarian ideas, even if unconsciously.

The most important methodological instrument for this purpose – and, in a way, the heart of the research – was the famous F-Scale (of fascism). Developed from a series of questionnaires, the scale made it possible to identify fascist tendencies in the individuals surveyed, even without directly mentioning issues related to prejudice or anti-Semitism. Thus, apparently neutral and harmless questions about topics such as impressions of childhood and school life, relationship with parents, attitude towards sex, emotional sensitivity and interest in culture, provided an access route to the personality structure of individuals, making It was possible to identify deeper tendencies that could be traced back to an authoritarian type.

Among such trends, the research highlights: rigid adherence to dominant values; conventionalism; a disdainful view of humanity; the predisposition to believe that uncontrollable and dangerous events were happening in the world and that sexuality was exercised in a depraved way throughout society; the tendency to submit to the authorities of one's own group and to discriminate against everything that was different; the aversion to introversion, self-reflection, sensitivity and imagination; the tendency to adopt a superstitious view and stereotyped distortion of reality.

The selection of texts for the Brazilian edition, organized by researcher Virginia Helena Ferreira da Costa, author of a doctoral research on the book the authoritative personality, follows the German edition of the complete works of Adorno, published by Suhrkamp in volume 9 of its collection, the sociological writings II. Part of the set are chapters I and VII (signed by all researchers) and chapters XVI, XVII, XVIII and XIX (written by Adorno).

As the selection was limited to chapters in which Adorno participated directly and as these often comment on research data presented in chapters written by other authors, the Brazilian editors chose to include a chapter-by-chapter summary of the complete research, a task under their responsibility. from the organizer. He also authored the presentation to the Brazilian edition. It should also be noted the very competent translation, attentive to the nuances, both of the Freudian terminology and of the theoretical assumptions of the research, carried out jointly by Ferreira da Costa, Francisco López Toledo Corrêa and Carlos Henrique Pissardo.

The solution of including a summary of the original research fulfills the role of providing the most general picture of the research, placing Adorno's texts in this whole. The organizer's presentations also recover the content of the two prefaces to the original edition of A authoritative personality: the first, authored by Max Horkheimer, director of the Institute for Social Research at the time, together with Samuel H. Flowerman, from the Department of Scientific Research of the American Jewish Committee, and the second, more theoretical, written only by Horkheimer.

The text by Horkheimer and Flowerman provides information about the context that gave rise to the research effort of the Studies on Prejudice, research that preceded its realization and the practical objectives that the Jewish Committee sought to achieve based on the results obtained by the investigation. Such objectives help to understand why a good part of the researches that were part of the Studies on Prejudice, such as the authoritative personality, focused on the problem mainly from its psychological, not social, aspects: it was hoped that a systematic socio-psychological analysis of the phenomenon of fascism could provide elements for the formulation of democratic educational policies that in the long term would help to contain the manifestations of the fascist potential in the American population.

The relationship between the social and psychological dimensions of fascism, by the way, is the center of Adorno's reflection in “Remarks on The Authoritarian Personality”, text that he intended to appear as an introduction to the original edition, but which was not published and which unfortunately was also not included in the Brazilian edition [2]. If the study focused mainly on prejudice as a subjective reaction to social stimuli, its theoretical assumption was, however, that the fascist phenomenon has, ultimately, a socially determined origin – a research front that should be explored in the future and which, by the way, remains open.

It was not, therefore, a question of individualizing responsibility for prejudice, nor of moralizing the issue, since the authoritarian character pointed to the more general tendency of a “new anthropological type”, the subject of capitalism in its post-liberal phase. This hypothesis of the tendency to generalize the fascist personality phenomenon was strengthened by the finding that the individuals who scored the highest on the prejudice scales were those who had a high degree of adequacy to the dominant values ​​of American society, behaving less like individuals endowed with autonomy and of self-reflection, and more like “reactive centers”, always looking for the socially correct thing to do and the next trend to follow.

Seen from this perspective, fascist manifestations appear not so much as a pathological deviation, but as the extreme of normality when it has a repressive social order as a reference. Aggressiveness and resentment, defense mechanisms associated with prejudice, are the results of this forced social integration, which demands hard sacrifices and imposes an unsatisfactory existence on its members.

These are the paths that Adorno indicates for anyone who wants to understand the social roots of fascism. They point, therefore, to the fact that, as long as we live in a coercive social order, fascist manifestations will be lurking, ready to surface if the social climate is propitious. Almost two hundred years ago, a German thinker and revolutionary set himself the task of understanding and criticizing the world, in order to completely transform it. the reading of Authoritarian personality studies it is a good start for those who want to continue this task today.

*Anouch Neves de Oliveira Kurkdjian is a doctoral candidate in sociology at USP.


[1] Among them: Dynamics of Prejudice: a Psychological and Sociological Study of Veterans, by Bruno Bettelheim and Morris Janowitz; Anti-Semitism and Emotional Disorder: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation, by Nathan W. Ackerman and Marie Jahoda; Prophets of Deceit: A Study of the Techniques of the American Agitator, by Leo Löwenthal and Norbert Guterman; It is Rehearsal for Destruction: A Study of Political Anti-Semitism in Imperial Germany, by Paul Massing

[2] The text, written in 1948, was included in the complete edition of The Authoritarian Personality published by the English Verso, also last year.

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