Left-wing authoritarianism in Psychology

Mike Innes follows up recent coverage.

The discussion of the concept of left-wing authoritarianism (LWA), its existence and relevance to society today (December issue), does appear to ignore some earlier features of political psychology. While Altemeyer may have concluded that LWA may not be an important feature of political and social behaviour, this was not an opinion shared my many psychologists in the 1950s and 1960s. The seminal book by a forgotten man of British psychology, Hans Eysenck, The Psychology of Politics (1954), and numerous papers by Australian psychologist J.J. Ray (e.g. a chapter on conservatism and authoritarianism in 1973’s The Psychology of Conservatism) all considered the existence of LWA and, most importantly, its similarities with right-wing authoritarianism.

Eysenck and Ray were both controversial figures in their time (see e.g. Buchanan’s 2010 book Playing with Fire: The Controversial Career of Hans J. Eysenck). There were influential conceptual and methodological critiques of their work (e.g. Christie’s 1956 paper ‘Some abuses of psychology’) and their contributions have been almost forgotten. But the critiques and dismissal of their work may be as much an outcome of the very large left-wing political bias which exists in American and British social psychology (cf. Crawford’s 2017 Politics of Social Psychology) resulting in the denigration of important work based upon ideological, and unstated, assumptions. The present-day interest in the politics of the discipline of social psychology also itself remains ignorant of work in the area going back several decades.

Two comments need to be made with respect to this work. First, LWA does not exist solely in the minds of young PRC soldiers. It is pervasive in contemporary society and social psychology and psychology generally should be prepared to study it and its social and political ramifications for society. Second, psychology’s ignorance of its past and the work done by clever and insightful psychologists which is more than five years old should be a matter of concern. To understand the future an understanding of the past is a useful beginning.

Mike Innes FBPsS

EU Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence

University of South Australia

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