This article was written in 1989 for academic journal publication but was not accepted

Enemies of freedom: Understanding Right-wing authoritarianism

BY: R. Altemeyer. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988, Hardbound. 407 pages. $22.95

The American Academy for the Advancement of Science recently gave this book its prize for Behavioral Science research. So while the book is a distinguished candidate for review it might also seem that any review is really superrogatory. Surely the book is simply an excellent treatment of its topic and that is that.

None of us are immune from human folly, however, and it is with some regret that I here have to submit that the award of this prize was misguided. As an example of a concerted, systematic and persistent research exploration of a particular set of ideas the book is indeed outstanding. Where it falls short is in an apparent deficiency of historical and theoretical background. Altemeyer writes as if no-one before him has had much useful to say on the topics of ideology or authoritarianism and he accordingly very largely ignores what can only be described as two vast literatures. In his earlier book (Altemeyer, 1981) he did review the literature on authoritarianism up to about 1972 or 1973 fairly comprehensively but the present book makes no attempt to update that review. So most of what has been written on his topic over the last 20 years is effectively ignored by him.

This might not matter much in some circumstances. One does sometimes despair of the quality of much psychological writing and perhaps little advance in thinking has been made in recent years.  Perhaps a great mind could leap over recent meanderings and present fresh new insights that radically advance all our thinking. There is nothing like that in Altemeyer's work, however. 

To take one major example: One would think that any book on Right- wing authoritarianism would give very careful and extensive consideration to what was meant by "Right-wing" and "authoritarian".  As I have previously pointed out on several occasions (e.g. Ray, 1985 & 1987), in his first book Altemeyer (1981) failed entirely to consider what was meant by "Right-wing". As a result of ignoring what went before in this matter, he ended up "rediscovering" the concept. His definition of "Right-wing authoritarianism" was very close to many traditional political definitions of "conservatism" (Ray, 1973 & 1987).& By his own inadvertent confession he was studying conservatism rather than anything else. This was confirmed by the strong resemblance of his RWA scale to an ordinary conservatism scale and by the fact that the RWA scale correlated very highly with other conservatism scales and not at all with a behaviorally valid measure of authoritarianism (Ray, 1985). In short, Altemeyer's a-historical approach to his topic simply caused him to re-invent the wheel. In his latest work, however, Altemeyer shows little sign of having learned from this. He dismisses in a few words any thought that he might "only" be studying conservatism and offers a definition of conservatism that reflects something of the basic lexical meaning of the word but which shows little awareness of contemporary politics. He identifies Right-wing politics with "conservatism" in the sense of opposition to change.  That attitude to change is now (and perhaps always was) a quite inadequate criterion of who is on the Right or Left he totally ignores.  That Rightists like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were and are great advocates of change (generally back to something like a former state of affairs) is ignored by Altemeyer. He also ignores that the most ferocious enemies of change are not to be found anywhere in the West but rather in the Communist countries (Brahm, 1982). Stalin, Brezhnev, Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng have been the great enemies of change and defenders of their status quo for their peoples in our times. So Communists are Rightists and Margaret Thatcher is a Leftist according to Altemeyer's definitions.

What Altemeyer appears not to know and which any course in modern political history might have taught him is that those described as "conservatives" politically have long opposed the extension of State power while Leftists have justified it for assisting the poor.  Historians of the British Conservative party find only skepticism and pragmatism as enduring characteristics of Conservative thought (Norton & Aughey, 1981; Feiling, 1953). Such skepticism has tended to lead to both suspicion of social innovations and suspicion of big government as a solution to problems but it has certainly not led to any rejection of change for its own sake. When an experiment has clearly failed (such as State ownership of industry) conservative pragmatism finds no difficulty in abandoning it. In an era when extending State power was all the rage opposition to it could be calumnied as motivated only by dislike of any change. Political "Conservatives", of course always denied that charge vigorously and in fact have always clearly believed in "progress". For instance the major "conservative" political party in Altemeyer's own country (Canada) calls itself the "Progressive Conservative" party. It is that very belief in progress that now tends to bring "conservatives" into conflict with environmentalists so that it is they (the "conservatives") who promote change while the environmentalists oppose it. The obvious lesson is that we all now seem to have no alternative to accepting what the "conservatives" have always claimed: That it is your attitude to State power that determines where you stand on the Right-Left divide. "Conservatives" (Reagan, Thatcher) want limited State power, influence and intervention while Leftists (Stalin, Brezhnev, Li Peng) want a lot of it. Altemeyer, however, shows no awareness that this debate ever took place.

Even outside the political literature, one of the major writers on conservatism in the psychology literature was aware at least as long ago as 1978 of the highly conditional relationship between dictionary- type conservatism and Rightism (Wilson, 1978) but it was obviously too much to expect that Altemeyer would keep up with the work of the major writers in his own field.

It is perhaps therefore fitting that Altemeyer's political unawareness seems to have ended up causing him to fail in predicting political stances. By his own admission, his scale of "Right-wing authoritarianism" gives almost no prediction of actual political choices (as in who votes for what candidate). He has indeed studied conservatism -- but not conservatism of any politically relevant kind.  The fact that those who are politically tagged as "conservatives" are not in fact conservative in Altemeyer's simple sense meant that his enterprise was completely undermined from the start. So in the end his own research confirmed what greater political sophistication might have predicted: That what he studied has no current party-political relevance.

It might finally be noted that Altemeyer's apparent lack of background seems to be to a degree self-inflicted. Although I have had over a hundred papers on authoritarianism and conservatism published over the years, Altemeyer cites only three of them. Altemeyer seems to have felt some need to justify this. His "explanation" took the form of an attack on just one of my papers, one in which I presented the first version of my "Directiveness" scale (designed to measure authoritarianism). As a first version of a scale it was not difficult to find fault with -- and Altemeyer proceeded to find fault. What he failed to mention to his readers, however, is that I agree with such criticisms. The scale would not be in its Mark VI version by now if I did not. Altemeyer seems to think there is some relevance in criticizing the Mark I version of a scale that is now in Mark VI form!  In the same attack Altemeyer also says that I think that Milgram's experiments used students as subjects and Psychology Department faculty as authority figures. I said no such thing. I said that the "tradition of research" emanating from Milgram's work was so characterized. In other words, Milgram's successors tend to be less rigorous than Milgram. Altemeyer's attempts to denigrate my work are then quite shallow. It is hard, therefore, to avoid the impression that Altemeyer was simply looking for anything which might justify his failure to consider ideas other than his own.

J.J. Ray
University of N.S.W., Australia


Altemeyer, R. (1981)Right-wing authoritarianism. Winnipeg: Univ. Manitoba Press.

Ray, J.J. (1973) Conservatism, authoritarianism and related variables: A review and an empirical study. Ch. 2 in: G.D. Wilson (Ed.) The psychology of conservatism London: Academic Press.

Ray, J.J. (1985) Defective validity in the Altemeyer authoritarianism scale. Journal of Social Psychology 125, 271-272.

Ray, J.J. (1987) Special review of "Right-wing authoritarianism" by R.A. Altemeyer. Personality & Indiv. Diffs. 8, 771-772.


Published reviews of the book can be found as under:

Ray, J.J. (1990) Book Review: Enemies of freedom by R. Altemeyer. Australian Journal of Psychology, 42, 87-111.

Ray, J.J. (1990) Letter to the editor about Altemeyer's Enemies of Freedom. In: Canadian Psychology, 31, 392-393.

Ray, J.J. (1990) Book Review: Enemies of freedom by R. Altemeyer. Personality & Individual Differences, 11, 763-764.

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