This paper gives the basic core of my theory of Leftism. As such it is shorter, less polemical and more "academic" than the more popular form of the theory to be found here or: here



By: John J. Ray (M.A.;Ph.D.)


The current political scene worldwide seems to show Rightists as well as Leftists as vigorous advocates of social and economic change. The obvious conclusion is that both Leftists and Rightists equally will advocate change to obtain their own particular objectives. So what has happened to the old notion that Rightists favour the status quo and Leftists want change? An attempt is made here to salvage something of that view. What is proposed is that attitude to the status quo defines Leftism but not Rightism. Leftists need change but the Rightist is little concerned either way. Various hypotheses are then advanced to show why the Leftist characteristically needs change -- the chief hypothesis being that Leftists advocate change to advance their own ego needs -- the need for attention, praise and ultimately power. Conservatism is analysed as being ultimately of pre-Christian German origin and is characterized primarily by a committment to individual liberty and a suspicion of central government power.

The Problem

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.

At this juncture, the obvious conclusion is to say that the status quo clearly now has nothing to do with whether one is a Leftist or a Rightist -- or, more precisely, with what would once always have been called a Leftist or a Rightist in the USA and other Western countries. Whether one advocates change or not will simply reflect whether or not one is satisfied with existing arrangements. Rightists will advocate change in order to tear down welfarism and liberate business and Leftists will advocate change to extend welfare and restrict big business. The status quo, then, no longer has any role in defining one particular side of politics.

A Solution

But is that satisfactory? 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. Surely attitude to the status quo cannot have had for so long a defining role and then suddenly vanish from relevance overnight. Can we not salvage something from the traditional view of politics? It is the purpose of the present paper to suggest that there is still some sense and meaning in the former view.

The 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.

This broad idea that what Leftists basically want does not have to be the exact opposite of what Rightists basically want -- and vice versa -- may seem at first surprising but does have some precedents. Kerlinger (1967) suggested that Leftists and Rightists have different "criterial referents" and even thought that he had found in his survey research a complete lack of opposition between Leftist and Rightist attitudes. Kerlinger's reasoning is interesting but that he misinterpreted his research results has previously been shown in Ray (1980 & 1982). Whether Leftist and Rightist objectives are opposite or just simply different, how Leftists and Rightists go about achieving their different basic objectives certainly generates plenty of conflict and opposition between the two sides.

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. They are extremely fractious and even murderous towards one-another otherwise (e.g. Stalin versus Trotsky). It is in describing his fellow revolutionaries (Kautsky and others) that Lenin himself spoke swingeingly of "the full depth of their stupidity, pedantry, baseness and betrayal of working-class interests" (Lenin, 1952). He could hardly have spoken more contemptuously of the Tsar.

The Rightist, by contrast, generally has no need either for change or its converse. If anything, Rightists favour progress -- both material and social. So most Rightists are conservatives (cautious) 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. They resist change, then, 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. And since any change that Rightists want is in an entirely different direction, the Rightist is commonly cast into the position of the opponent of change. So it is only insofar as the Leftist is in sole charge of the agenda that the Rightist is truly a conservative (opponent of change).

Needless to say, the now blatant failure of Communism and Socialism worldwide -- failures both in humanity and economics -- has now removed the Leftist from that privileged position vis a vis the political agenda and the sort of change that is most to be seen on at least the economic agenda these days is change in a Rightist direction -- which now commonly casts the Leftist into the role of opponent of change.

But, despite that, in the end it was the Leftist's hunger for big changes in society, even revolutionary change, that, from the French revolution onwards, made attitude to change an important differentiator of both people and political parties. So it surely remains an interesting question to ask why it is that the Leftist is so hungry for social change.

Why Leftist?

That question can be answered on a number of levels. The normal answer given by Leftists themselves, of course, is that existing societies are unjust -- where justice is defined as everybody getting more or less equal economic rewards and access to power regardless of anything that they might do or not do. This however just leads to the further questions of why the Leftist is concerned about justice and why does he define justice in such a simplistic way?

Generally speaking, the answer to that is a simple and obvious one: The Leftist is in a disadvantaged position relative to the society in which he lives and so would benefit from a more equal distribution of society's resources.

But not all Leftists are in that position. From Marx and Engels onwards, the more vocal and prominent Leftists have tended in fact to be from relatively privileged backgrounds. What motivates such "ideological" Leftists? The rest of this paper will be taken up with some suggestions about that. It would be foolish to propose that only one thing could lead to a Leftist orientation so several theories are put forward with the view that any one or perhaps more than one could explain the orientation of any given individual.

Ego need

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".

This means that the "warm inner glow" that they obtain from their advocacy and agitation is greatly prized. So it is no wonder that inconvenient facts -- such as scientific findings about the overwhelming influence of human heredity or historical truths about the brutality of all of the many Communist regimes the world had in the 20th century -- are determinedly ignored. This view of Leftism as a club of the righteous that must never be disturbed or threatened is explored in detail by Warby (2002).

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.

Envy is a very common thing and most of us have probably at some time envied someone but, for someone with the Leftist's strong ego needs, envy becomes a hatred and a consuming force that easily accounts for the ferocious brutality of Communist movements and the economically destructive policies (such as punitively high taxation, price controls and over-regulation generally) employed by Leftists in resolutely democratic societies. So the economic destruction and general impoverishment typically brought about by Leftists is not as irrational as it at first seems. The Leftist actually wants that. Making others poorer is usually an infinitely higher priority for him than doing anybody any good. One suspects that most individual Leftists realize that no revolution or social transformation is ever going to put them personally into a position of wealth or power so the destruction of the wealth and power and satisfaction of those who already have it must be the main thing they hope to get out of supporting Leftist politics. For a fuller account of the enormously destructive nature of envy see Schoeck (1969).

Whether or not someone is important, rich, successful, famous, poweful etc., is however of course very much a matter of individual perception. This "relativity" of importance, prestige etc. would seem to explain why many active Leftists are in fact college or university professors. College or university professor is a generally high status occupation that provides an above-average income so might, on the face of it, be seen as already providing considerable recognition and praise. But if status is precisely why certain people have gone to the considerable trouble generally required to enter that occupation, it could well be that the ego need of that person is so big that even more recognition is then craved. A college professorship may be prestigious but still be seen as providing far too little power, public exposure and opportunity for self-display. "Seeing I am so smart, I should be running the whole show", is an obvious line of thought for such people. Just some power and fame is still not enough power and fame for them.

Such great egotism and hunger for power and attention does of course make a mockery of the Leftist's claim to be in favour of equality. Like the pigs in George Orwell's "Animal farm", the Leftist wants to be "more equal than others". He wants to rule or at least dominate. Beneath his deceptive rhetoric, he is the ultimate elitist. He actually despises most of his fellow men and thinks that only he and his clique are fit to run everything. The last thing he wants is to be lost in a sea of equal people.

And nothing above, of course, is meant to suggest that pressing ego needs, self-righteousness etc are confined to Leftists. It is merely meant to say that Leftism is the principal political expression of such needs. Such needs can also be met by religion etc. and it must be noted that Communism was often described as a religion by its critics. Why people choose politics rather than some other means of meeting their ego needs would have to be the subject of a whole new enquiry but it seems possible that the potentially very broad exposure that politics provides to an individual might attract the people with the very highest ego needs. This high level of ego need among Leftists would also explain the generally much greater political activism of the political Left compared to the generally rather somnolent political Right.

It would also explain why Leftists so often have a "spare me the details" or "Don't worry about the facts" orientation. For most Leftists, it is the activism itself rather than what is advocated that is the main point of the exercise. As long as the cause advocated is both generally praiseworthy and disruptive to implement, that will suffice. If the Leftist cannot have power, praise and attention are the next best thing from a Leftist's point of view.

The need for self-display does however in MOST people tend to decline as they mature -- which is part of the reason why graduates tend to be less radical than students and why older people tend to be much more conservative than young people (Ray, 1985). To misquote Lenin (1952) only slightly, much of Leftism would appear to be "an infantile disorder".


Another psychological motivation for Leftism that is sometimes mentioned (e.g. Levite, 1998) is one that seems on the face of it rather dubious: Guilt. The claim is that affluent people feel bad (guilty) when they see how poorly others are doing and want to rectify that by getting handouts for the disadvantaged (but not from their own pockets of course). This could be mere Leftist persiflage: Leftists may sometimes explain their motives in such a high-minded way but if they really felt guilty it would seem that there is plenty they could do to help others rather than agitating for higher taxes.

The undoubted fact that Left activists (from the Bolsheviks on) tend to come from affluent families does not necessarily point to guilt as their motive. It could show that those who have all that they want materially then seek other luxuries: such as excitement, self-righteousness, praise and power -- particularly excitement in the case of "rich kid" Leftists. And if you can have praise and self-righteousness along with your excitement what a good deal it is! It is much the same motivation that causes self-made rich men (such as Microsoft's Bill Gates) to become highly philanthropic. Bill Gates has power and wealth so he now seeks praise and righteousness.

Other Causes of Leftism

There are, however, many other possible reasons for Leftism. Some that appear related to the prime motivation (ego need) given initially above would appear to be:

Some Leftists just think themselves clever for being able to criticize.

Some Leftists are simply cynical opportunists who see opportunity for themselves in change.

Some Leftists are simply hiding their real hatred of their fellow man in a cloak of good intentions. They want to hurt their fellow man but need to change the system (a "revolution") to get the opportunity of doing so.

The more "revolutionary" and Trotskyite Left often use the word "smash" in their slogans (e.g. smash racism, smash capitalism, smash various political leaders) so it seems probable that some Leftists simply lust to smash things. They seek a socially acceptable excuse for their barely suppressed destructive urges. They presumably are the ones who are responsible for the violence and destruction that often accompanies Leftist street and campus demonstrations. Violent change is what they are interested in. Presumably, in another time and place, many of them would have joined Hitler's Brownshirts.


But not all motivations for Leftism are as discreditable as the ones given above. Among the more sincere motivations for Leftism would be:

Some are genuinely outraged by things that they do not understand and are unwise enough to want to change those things willy nilly. In particular, they may be genuinely grieved by the unhappy experiences of others and want to fix that ASAP without being wise enough to seek for means of fixing it that have some prospect of working or that are not self-defeating. They might, for instance, be disturbed by the impact of rising rents on the poor and propose rent-control as a quick-fix solution -- though a few minutes of thought or the most elementary inquiry should tell them that rent control will after a time also have the effect of degrading and shrinking the existing stock of rental accomodation and drying up the supply of new rental accomodation, both of which make the poor much worse off in the long run.

The Leftist may still be young and unaware of most of life's complexities so that the drastically simple "solutions" and mantras proffered by the Left simply seem reasonable. Leftism has the appeal of simplicity.

Some, again particularly the young, are idealists who find the imperfect state of the real world unsatisfying. That there is some genuine idealism even among extreme Leftists is shown by the exoduses from Communist Parties in the economically successful "Western" democracies that followed the violent Soviet suppression of the East German, Hungarian and Czechoslovak uprisings against Communist rule in 1953, 1956 and 1968. Once the real nature of Communist regimes became too clear to be denied, honest decent people whose wishful thinking had led them to believe Communist protestations of benevolence and good intentions saw the light and abandoned Communism. In the USA (in New York particularly), some liberal intellectuals even saw enough in the Soviet actions of those times to cause them to abandon "liberalism" and found neo-conservatism. Similarly in Australia of the 1950s and '60s, the Andersonian libertarians of Sydney were also intellectuals who might otherwise have been Leftists but who were united by realism about Soviet brutality.

Some Leftists know that they themselves are weird by general social standards so preach change towards greater tolerance for all weirdness out of sheer self-interest. As George Orwell apparently once said long ago: "There is the horrible -- the really disquieting -- prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'socialism' and 'communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex maniac, Quaker, 'nature-cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England."

Leftism works as a religion for atheists. There would appear to be a strong inborn need for religion in human beings. Even in the present skeptical, scientific and materialistic age about half of all Americans are churchgoers and years of indoctrination into atheism by the Communists seem to have left the Church stronger than ever in Russia and Poland. And even among those with no formal religious affiliations, very few are outright atheists. So Leftism could be seen as a Godless religion -- something that meets the religious needs of those who for various reasons are dissatisfied either with other religions or with supernatural ideas in general. Not all religions have a dominant God or father-figure at their centre (e.g. Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto) and a religion that dispenses with the supernatural altogether does not therefore seem impossibly paradoxical. The identification of Leftism as a religion is very commonly made and the ability to believe in things that sound good but have very little supportive evidence would certainly seem to constitute a common core between Leftism and other religions. Both Leftists and the religious could, in other words, be seen as the wishful thinkers of the world: A very large throng. And, as a religion originally emanating from the economically successful "Western" democracies, Leftism is typical in being very proselytizing and intolerant of competing religions.

Another reason for Leftism that seems worth considering comes from biological theory. If there can be sociological and psychological explanations for Leftism, why not biological ones too? Martin & Jardine (1986) and Eaves, Heath, Martin, Meyer & Corey (1999) have reported strong genetic heritability for political orientation so the possibility of a biological explanation must be taken seriously. A possible biological or evolutionary explanation would be that Leftism is a remnant of the primitive hunter-gatherer in us. A liking for change might have been highly adaptive among hunter-gatherers because it caused them to wander around the landscape more and thus exposed them to a greater diversity of food-sources. Some support for this is the strong tradition, still occasionally observable today, for Australian Aborigines to want to "go walkabout" (leave their current environment) from time to time. Australian Aborigines were, of course, a purely hunter-gatherer people before the coming of the white man. Against this view, however, one must put the fact that hunter gatherer societies in general seem to be characterized more by changelessness than anything else. In hunter-gatherer tribes the same things are done in the same way for generation after generation. It could be however that a changeless environment usually prevents significant change in practices regardless of any desire for change. The corollary of this explanation, of course, is that a conservative orientation has been selected for by the requirements of civilization: People who are psychologically settled are needed to make civilization work.

A final possibility among the more creditable motivations for Leftism locates the appeal of Leftism solely in its usual stress on equality. The French Leftist Todd (1985) has put forward anthropological evidence to suggest that Leftism has strong appeal only in countries where child-rearing practices stress equality of treatment between siblings. Thus Russia showed easy acceptance of Communism because Russian parents normally go to great length to treat all their children equally -- particularly by dividing up inheritances (property) equally. Whereas Britain has only ever had a tiny Communist party because of the traditional English practice of primogeniture -- where the eldest son gets almost all of the inherited property. English child-rearing practices have never had a devotion to treating siblings equally so the English do not usually expect or hope for equality of property distribution in later life. So your attraction to the dream of equality may reflect a childhood where parents imposed a rule of equality. Because of your childhood experiences, equality seems emotionally "right", regardless of its practicality. Note however, that the work by Martin & Jardine (1986) and Eaves, Heath, Martin, Meyer & Corey (1999) showing that Leftism is to a very considerable extent genetically transmitted rather than learnt militates against this as a general explanation for Leftism. Explanations of Leftism in terms of personality variables -- such as strong ego-need -- do not encounter this objection as the strong genetic transmission of personality characteristics has often been demonstrated (e.g. Lake, Eaves, Maes, Heath & Martin, 2000).


The initial focus in this paper has been on defining and explaining what Leftism is. But, large a project though it is, it is also of course necessary to give at least a skeletal outline of what Rightism is. If Leftism and Rightism are NOT mirror-images, as this paper asserts, some such account is necessary in order to complete the picture. I have, however, written one book and many previous papers for those who wish to study conservatism at greater length than is offered here (See Ray, 1972b, 1973, 1974, 1979 & 1981). Briefly, however, it will be proposed here that the main focus of conservatism has now for many centuries been a stress on individual liberties and a concomitant dislike of big governmernt and of centralized power generally.

Military Dictators?

In the late 20th century, it was a common rhetorical ploy of the more "revolutionary" Left in the "Western" world simply to ignore democracy as an alternative to Communism. Instead they would excuse the brutalities of Communism by pointing to the brutalities of the then numerous military dictatorships of Southern Europe and Latin America and pretend that such regimes were the only alternative to Communism. These regimes were led by generals who might in various ways be seen as conservative (though Peron was Leftist) so do they tell us anything about conservatism?

Historically, most of the world has been ruled by military men and their successors (Sargon II of Assyria, Alexander of Macedon, Caesar, Augustus, Constantine, Charlemagne, Frederick II of Prussia etc.) so it seems unlikely but perhaps the main point to note here is that the Hispanic dictatorships of the 20th century were very often created as a response to a perceived threat of a Communist takeover. This is particularly clear in the case of Spain, Chile and Argentina. They were an attempt to fight fire with fire. In Argentina of the 60s and 70s, for instance, Leftist "urban guerillas" were very active -- blowing up anyone they disapproved of. The nice, mild, moderate Anglo-Saxon response to such depredations would have been to endure the deaths and disruptions concerned and use police methods to trace the perpetrators and bring them to trial. Much of the world is more fiery than that, however, and the Argentine generals certainly were. They became impatient with the slow-grinding wheels of democracy and its apparent impotence in the face of the Leftist revolutionaries. They therefore seized power and instituted a reign of terror against the Leftist revolutionaries that was as bloody, arbitrary and indiscriminate as what the Leftists had inflicted. In a word, they used military methods to deal with the Leftist attackers. So the nature of these regimes was only incidentally conservative. What they were was essentially military. We have to range further than the Hispanic generals, therefore, if we are to find out what is quintessentially conservative.

It might be noted, however, that, centuries earlier, the parliamentary leaders of England -- led by Fairfax, Cromwell etc. -- did something similar to the Hispanic generals of the 20th century. Faced by an attempt on the part of the Stuart tyrant to abrogate their traditional rights, powers and liberties, they resorted to military means to overthrow the threat. There is no reason to argue that democracy cannot or must not use military means to defend itself or that Leftists or anyone else must be granted exclusive rights to the use of force and violence.

German Origins

What modern-day Rightists of the English-speaking world are, then, traces right back to the invaders (Angles and Saxons) from coastal Germany who overran Romano-Celtic Britannia around 1500 years ago and made it into England. They brought with them a very decentralized, largely tribal system of government that was very different from the Oriental despotisms that had ruled the civilized world for most of human history up to that time. And they liked their decentralized system very much. So much so that the system just kept on keeping on in England, century after century, despite many vicissitudes. Only the 20th century really shook it.

My thesis here is, of course, not exactly original. Montesquieu, De Tocqueville and Jefferson all saw English exceptionalism and independence of spirit as tracing back to German roots and all relied particularly on Tacitus for their view of the early German character. The work of Macfarlane (1978 & 2000) is however probably the best modern reference on the topic.

But let us look at what Tacitus said. Excerpts:

They choose their kings by birth, their generals for merit. These kings have not unlimited or arbitrary power, and the generals do more by example than by authority.

About minor matters the chiefs deliberate, about the more important the whole tribe. Yet even when the final decision rests with the people, the affair is always thoroughly discussed by the chiefs. They assemble, except in the case of a sudden emergency, on certain fixed days, either at new or at full moon; for this they consider the most auspicious season for the transaction of business. Instead of reckoning by days as we do, they reckon by nights, and in this manner fix both their ordinary and their legal appointments. Night they regard as bringing on day. Their freedom has this disadvantage, that they do not meet simultaneously or as they are bidden, but two or three days are wasted in the delays of assembling. When the multitude think proper, they sit down armed. Silence is proclaimed by the priests, who have on these occasions the right of keeping order. Then the king or the chief, according to age, birth, distinction in war, or eloquence, is heard, more because he has influence to persuade than because he has power to command. If his sentiments displease them, they reject them with murmurs; if they are satisfied, they brandish their spears.

In truth neither from the Samnites, nor from the Carthaginians, nor from both Spains, nor from all the nations of Gaul, have we received more frequent checks and alarms; nor even from the Parthians: for, more vigorous and invincible is the liberty of the Germans than the monarchy of the Arsacides.

Our modern-day parliamentary procedures are a little more sophisticated but the basic values and principles seem to me not to have changed at all.

It could also be said that the decentralized nature of the early German communities was no different from the decentralization in Greece before the Athenian Empire, the decentralization in Italy before the ascendancy of the Roman Republic or indeed the decentralization of the original Mesopotamian civilization. The important point, here, however is the much longer survival of that form of organization among Germans -- and it is certainly to Germans that the English must trace it.

Where the English get their traditional dislike of unrestrained central power is not the main point or even an essential point of the present account. Nonetheless, tracing that dislike to the ultimately German descent of most of the English population might seem colossally perverse in view of Germany's recent experience. Was not Hitler a German and was he not almost the ultimate despot and centralizer of power in his own hands? One could quibble here by saying that Hitler was NOT a German (he was an Austrian) and the Israeli historian Unger (1965) has pointed out that Hitler was much less of a despot than Stalin was but neither of those points is really saying much in the present context.

The important thing here again is to see things with an historian's eye and realize that recent times are atypical. Right up until Bismarck's ascendancy in the late 19th century, Germany was remarkable for its degree of decentralization. What we now know as Germany was once always comprised of hundreds of independent States (kingdoms, principalities, Hanseatic cities etc.) of all shapes and sizes: States that were in fact so much in competition with one another in various ways that they were not infrequently at war with one-another. And even with the armed might of Prussia behind him even Bismarck had a lot of trouble with the other German States. He could not even get his Prussian monarch declared as being "Emperor of Germany". He had to make do with "German Emperor" as a title.

And it was of course only the fractionated and competing centres of power existing in mediaeval Germany that enabled the successful emergence there of the most transforming and anti-authority event of the last 1000 years: The Protestant Reformation. Despite the almost immediate and certainly widespread popularity of his new teachings among Germans, Luther ran great risks and would almost certainly have been burnt at the stake like Savonarola, Hus and his other predecessors in religious rebellion had it not been for his (and our) good fortune that he was a Saxon. His Prince, Frederick III ("The Wise") of Saxony gave him constant protection. As one of the Electors of the Holy Roman Empire, Frederick was strong enough and independent enough to protect Luther from Pope, from Emperor and from other German potentates.

So only after Bismarck engineered the defeat of the French at Sedan in 1870 did most of Germany become unified -- with the Germans of the Austrian lands remaining independent even then. And to this day Germany has a Federal system very similar to that of their largely Germanic brethren in the United States, Canada and Australia -- a system of State governments which markedly limits central (Federal) government power. So the German origins of the English do make their historic dislike of concentrated power at the Centre just one part of a larger picture.

In 1066, William of Normandy disrupted the traditional decentralized and competitive power structure of England to some degree but by the time of King John and Magna Carta it was back with a vengeance. And the ascendancy of Simon de Montfort not long after that also displayed the traditional English belief in the limited nature of central government power. Even in the reign of that great Tudor despot, Henry VIII, there were still in England great and powerful regional Lords and many less powerful but numerous local notables representing local interests that the King had to take great care with. Even Tudor central government power was highly contingent, far from absolute and much dependant on the popularity of the ruler among ordinary English people. And when the Stuarts, with their doctrine of "the divine right of Kings", ignored all that and tried to turn the English monarchy into something more like a centralized Oriental despotism, off came the head of the Stuart King.

Protestantism versus Catholicism

Luther has been mentioned as a beneficiary of Germanic power decentralization but Luther's message received wide acclaim in Germany generally so it seems reasonable to say that German distrust of centralized power not only protected Protestantism but was was in fact a major cause of Protestantism. Because what is Protestantism after all if it is not a rejection of centralized religious authority? So in that sense, conservatism and Protestantism are twin children of Germanic suspicion of centralized power. Looking at it another way, we could say that conservatism is a political expression of religious Protestantism.

Further, where the Roman Catholic believes that the sacraments administered by a religious authority (a priest) are essential for his ascent into heaven, the Protestant believes that he can commune with the Almighty directly. Catholicism fosters habits of submission to authority whereas Protestantism inculcates hardy independence. So acceptance of government authority over oneself should come as naturally to the Catholic as it is alien to the Protestant.

So German history could at a pinch be seen as a struggle between native decentralizing tendencies and Catholic centralizing tendencies --- with the German lands closest to Rome remaining Catholic and Imperial while the (Northern) German lands farthest from Rome remained independent, Protestant and decentralized. And the struggle the North had to resist the Imperial South was indeed a titanic one --including the famous 30 years war from 1618 to 1648.

As some evidence that there is still something left of that difference, it might be noted that, in interwar Germany, the Protestant North was largely "Red" (revolutionary) whereas the Catholic South was largely Nazi -- i.e. more prepared to operate within the existing power structures and more prepared to accept the Church. Hitler did after all have a Catholic education.

So how do we account for the fact that "Christian Democratic" (i.e. Catholic) political parties seem generally to be the major conservative forces within modern European politics? And how indeed do we account for the fact that at least 50% of Germans are to this day Catholic?

A essential part of the answer is of course the counter-reformation -- a process that began in response to Luther and which restored the acceptabity of Catholicism to many Germans. This reform process within the Catholic church may have begun in response to Luther but has in fact been an ongoing process within the Catholic Church ever since --- with the relatively recent Vatican II ecumenical council being a particular highpoint of the process. So the Catholic church could only combat the power of Luther's message by partially bending to it and thus becoming itself to a large degree Protestantized and weakened in authority. And the way a huge proportion of otherwise convinced Catholics now disregard the teachings of their church on such matters as contraception shows vividly that the authority of the Church is now in fact mostly an empty shell.

So in various guises Germanic Protestantism has won the day over Roman authority in the religious sphere just as Germanic conservatism has won the day over socialism in the political sphere. We now have Protestantized Catholics and "Thatcherized" socialists in much of the world.

Nonetheless, even in a weakened form, the Catholic church offers a model of "top down" social organization that must make it easier for Catholics to accept political arrangements of a "top down" sort. If you look up to the Pope as an essential part of your salvation in the spiritual sphere, to look up to the government as an essential agency in securing your material wellbeing is surely only a small step. So the fact that the vast majority of Europeans are still Catholic (even if the Catholicism is much watered down from what it was) should make Europeans more accepting of all-pervasive government than Anglo-Saxons would ever be. And so, of course, it has come to pass. In Bismarck, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Salazar and Papadopoulos Europe has had authoritarianism in government on a scale unknown in the English-speaking world.

So how conservatism has evolved in the modern-day English-speaking world is rather different from how conservatism has evolved in Europe. Anglo-Saxon conservatism benefited greatly from Henry VIII, who made England almost totally Protestant. Protestants in Germany failed to achieve this dominance and so England has been better able to stay close to its Germanic and Protestant roots -- whereas European conservatism has never totally escaped Catholicism. European conservatism has therefore mostly lost its anti-centralization principles and conforms much more closely to the stereotyped image of conservatism as being merely a defence of traditional arrangements generally. This of course makes it a much weaker form of conservatism and the huge bureaucratization that now characterizes the European Union is vivid evidence of that. European conservatives have been much less effective as opponents of big government because opposition to big government is much less of a central position for them.

A Conservative Revolution

The English parliamentarians who were responsible for beheading King Charles I in 1649 were perfectly articulate about why. They felt that Charles had attempted to destroy the ancient English governmental system or "constitution" and that he had tried to take away important rights and individual liberties that the English had always enjoyed -- liberty from the arbitrary power of Kings, a right to representation in important decisions and a system of counterbalanced and competing powers rather than an all-powerful central government. It is to them that we can look for the first systematic statements of conservative ideals -- ideals that persevere to this day. And they were both conservatives (wishing to conserve traditional rights and arrangements) and revolutionaries!

So right back in the 17th century we had the apparent paradox of "conservatives" (the parliamentary leaders -- later to be referred to as "Whigs") being prepared to undertake most radical change (deposing monarchy) in order to restore treasured traditional rights and liberties and to rein in overweening governmental power. So Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were not at all breakaways from the conservatism of the past. They had very early and even more determined predecessors. Nobody who knew history should have been surprised by the Reagan/Thatcher "revolution". And it was in deliberate tribute to the parliamentarians of Cromwell's day and their immediate successors that two of the most influential conservative theorists prior to Reagan and Thatcher both described themselves as "Old Whigs" -- Burke (1790) and Hayek (1944). Hayek described Whig ideals as "the only set of ideals that has consistently opposed all arbitrary power" (Hayek, 1960).

And it is not only conservative theorists who still see overweening government power as their bete noir. Even practical conservative politicians do. Note this excellent statement of the conservative mission from one of America's most notable conservative politicians in the second half of the 20th century:

"Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. And let me remind you, they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies. Absolute power does corrupt, and those who seek it must be suspect and must be opposed. Their mistaken course stems from false notions of equality, ladies and gentlemen. Equality, rightly understood, as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences. Wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism.

Fellow Republicans, it is the cause of Republicanism to resist concentrations of power, private or public, which enforce such conformity and inflict such despotism. It is the cause of Republicanism to ensure that power remains in the hands of the people. And, so help us God, that is exactly what a Republican president will do with the help of a Republican Congress.

It is further the cause of Republicanism to restore a clear understanding of the tyranny of man over man in the world at large. It is our cause to dispel the foggy thinking which avoids hard decisions in the illusion that a world of conflict will somehow mysteriously resolve itself into a world of harmony, if we just don't rock the boat or irritate the forces of aggression - and this is hogwash.

And who said that? It is from the acceptance speech by Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican convention which nominated him as its candidate for President. So, for over three centuries, the central values of conservatism -- at least in the English-speaking world -- have remained the same.

Just to reinforce the point, note this summary from a speechwriter for one Richard Milhous Nixon:

Richard Nixon kicked off his historic comeback in 1966 with a column on the South (by this writer) that declared we would build our Republican Party on a foundation of states' rights, human rights, small government, and a strong national defense, and leave it to the "party of Maddox, Mahoney, and Wallace to squeeze the last ounces of political juice out of the rotting fruit of racial injustice."

The words of another well-known American conservative, Patrick Buchanan.

Mahoney and Wallace were of course Southern Democrats. And Nixon subsequently swept the polls for the Republicans with a 49 State landslide. His conservative policies were popular even if his subsequent Machiavellianism was not.

Anf finally, another old warrior of American conservatism, W.F. Buckley says: "The conservative instinctively rejects collectivization": A pretty useful short definition.

Other conservative voices in history

Showing a continuity that moves all the way from Cromwell to Goldwater is surely impressive but it does leave out a great deal of history in between. So let us also look briefly at some of the intervening history:

To quote one history of the earliest English Tories (Conservative Party):

"The principles of Tory paternalism do not lend themselves to effective legislation or improved administration. Coleridge, the most profound and influential of these theorists, looked to the moral regeneration of the individual, not to the reforming State, and he envisaged the Church of England as the head of a paternalistic society. He despised what he called "act of Parliament reforms", and he exalted the Church as much as he feared the State." (Roberts, 1958).

Of a slightly later period we read:

"Only State aid to all voluntary schools could extend education, but the Tories would not tolerate State intervention in a sphere reserved for the Church. In a grandiloquent speech to the Commons, Disraeli played deftly on this deep jealousy of the State. He raised the spectre of a centralized despotism comparable to those which oppressed China, Persia and Austria, and sombrely warned that the grant would force a return "to the system of a barbarous age, the system of a paternal government"." (Roberts, 1958).

So dislike of State intervention has long been a prominent theme (though not of course the only theme) among conservatives. Nor do we have to go so far back in history to come up with instances of this sort. Two notable quotations that might be referred to for further reading are by the eminent British Conservative Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill and by the noted Conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott (See Buck, 1975 p.139-141 and p. 154 as a convenient reference for the detailed texts of both statements). Although both statements were made long before the Reagan/Thatcher/Gorbachev era, both stress how important to Conservatism is the limiting of State power and activity -- though neither of course limits the concerns of Conservatives to that one theme.

Note the following from a pre-election raido broadcast by Winston Churchill on June 4th., 1945:

"My friends, I must tell you that a Socialist policy is abhorrent to the British ideas of freedom. Although it is now put forward in the main by people who have a good grounding in the Liberalism and Radicalism of the early part of this century, there can be no doubt that Socialism is inseparably interwoven with Totalitarianism and the abject worship of the State. It is not alone that property, in all its forms, is struck at; but that liberty, in all its forms, is challenged by the fundamental conceptions of Socialism."

Is individualism basic to conservatism?

It has then been shown that there is large historical precedent for the current conservative preoccupation with individual liberty and it is argued here that a love of individual liberty is a basic value for conservatives. It is reasonable to ask, however, whether this is really FUNDAMENTAL to conservatism. Could there not be a deeper level of motivation that underlies a love of individual liberty?

We find one such proposal in the conclusions drawn by some historians of the British Conservative party -- who find a certain realistic, practical and pragmatic outlook as the main enduring characteristics of Conservative thought (Feiling, 1953; Gilmour, 1978; Norton & Aughey, 1981; Standish, 1990) and this is clearly a theory about the wellsprings of conservatism rather than a description of what conservatives have tended to stand for. And it is not at all difficult to see why such skepticism has led to doubt about the benefits of extending the inevitably ham-fisted activities of government ever further into the life of the community. So we might say that this proposal is that a certain STYLE of thinking leads to a predictable CONTENT in thinking.

While this is a reasonable proposal, it does have a large philosophical problem: How do we define what is realistic, practical and pragmatic? So while I think that this proposal may well be true, garnering evidence for its truth is too big a task at least for me.

A more important alternative theory for the origins of conservatism is one that is very often quoted and finds its principal exponents in Burke (1790), Hayek (1944) and Oakeshott (1975) -- though the two former thinkers in fact described themselves as "Whigs" rather than as conservatives. This theory also traces policy to a style of thought. The theory basically is that there is an underlying wariness and skepticism in conservatives that makes them question ANY political policies whatever -- including policies that call for change. Conservatives need good evidence that something will work well and have the intended consequences before they will support it. And for this reason conservatives prefer "the devil they know" and want any change to be of a gradual and evolutionary kind -- progressing by small steps that can easily be reversed if the intended outcomes are not realized.

And it is this preference for "the devil they know" that has led to conservatives being caricaturized as wanting NO change when in fact all that they insist on is CAREFUL change. From Cromwell on, conservatives have never been characterized by a rejection of change for its own sake. When a regime is clearly oppressive or an experiment has clearly failed (such as State ownership of industry) conservatives find no difficulty in abandoning it and changing to something else.

But this account of conservatism is insufficient by itself. It fails to ask what the CRITERION is in evaluating change. How do we evaluate whether a policy is beneficial or not? How do we define "beneficial"? And it is in answering that question that we come back to individual liberty as being a basic value. Conservatism is a broad church and conservatives will of course use many criteria in evaluating the desirability or efficacy of particular political policies but, in making such evaluations, it is the high value that one gives to leaving the individual free to make his/her own decisions and obtain his/her own preferences that makes one a conservative. Rejection of change may be an INSTRUMENT in protecting the individual but it is no more than that.

The "Germanic" USA

My thesis tracing both conservatism and Protestantism to an originally Germanic spirit of independence and dislike of centralized power or authority is of course well exemplified in the early history of the USA. At the time of independence, the USA was not only "Germanic" (in the sense of having a large Anglo-Saxon population) but it was also literally German in that German ancestry was nearly as common among Americans at that time as was British ancestry. And what was the American revolution if not a rebellion against the centralized and remote authority of King George III? And what did the architects of the new American constitution set up if it was not a decentralized system -- with the Federal government at that time being little more than an appendage to the various State governments? And what was the American revolution fought in the name of if not in the name of individual rights and liberties?

The role of Christianity generally

Many influential conservative writers of the past (e.g. Burke, 1790) have held that Christianity is an essential foundation for conservatism -- though others (e.g. Hayek, 1944) disagree. A large part of the reason for that is the traditional role of the churches as arbiters and enforcers of morality in general and sexual morality in particular. Although suspicious of authority generally, conservatives have never shrunk from the need for authority if they consider it essential to the functioning of a civil society. And morality has always to them seemed essential for any kind of civilization. And morality generally has to be taught and to some degree enforced. It does not always come naturally. And both the church and the State have generally seemed needed for setting and maintaining moral standards.

In the modern very secular world where religion has a strong influence only on a minority of the population, however, it is clear that civil society and a modicum of morality (both sexual and otherwise) can survive with or without the church. So the Burkean view that religion and its moral codes are essential to a good life and a reasonably well-ordered society has to be seen as disproved by history.

Christian conservatives still claim with some justice, however, that traditional Christian moral standards make for a better society than it otherwise would be and sometimes agitate energetically for such standards to be widely applied. Their view of the benefits of Christian standards may well be correct but any attempt to have such standards applied to non-believers is both un-Christlike (tyrannical) and shows the Christians concerned as mired in an obsolete past. The best that one can say about such attempts is that those who makes such attempts are mistaken about what is essential.

Nonetheless, many American Christian conservatives are adamant that there would be no survival of morality or civility in the US without the widespread transforming power of the Christian faith. They see their faith as the historical and still real foundation of American values. They believe that, without anchors in Christ, Americans would all succumb to the mindless "all is relative" doctrine of the Leftist and be unable to make any distinction between right and wrong. The restraint of faith is seen as needed to prevent everyone from behaving like mindless, selfish beasts. And certainly, even to a foreign visitor, there does seem to be a marked contrast between the Piranha-like attitudes that are often to be found in big cities such as New York or Los Angeles and the more generous and humane attitudes prevalent in smaller, more faith-based American communities.

Although I was once myself a fervent Christian and still retain enormous respect and admiration for the teachings of the carpenter of Nazareth, I see the view of Christianity as essential to civility and social cohesion as having only some truth, however. I agree wholeheartedly that Christianity is an enormously beneficial influence on ethical behaviour but cannot see that it is essential or unique.

It seems to me that, in the US, the national traditions embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the ideas of the American Revolution are still great unifiers also, even among those with little or no religious faith. Americans on the whole still do (with good reason) believe in the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", and in democratic institutions, in protection of property rights, in the rule of law, and in the "American Dream." And the "American Dream" is about working hard and taking risks to become well-off, not about winning the lottery or robbing the rich.

A second reason for my skepticism is the reality of another venerable democracy of the English speaking world: Britain. England is one of the most Godless places on earth these days. A huge proportion of the population appear to have virtually no religious belief and only about 2% go to church regularly. And when they do go to church what they hear from their Church of England clergy is much more akin to Leftist politics than traditional Christianity.

So has the United Kingdom collapsed into anarchy or Stalinism? Not at all. Margaret Thatcher was as energetic and as effective a conservative reformer as Ronald Reagan and her influence has arguably been more long-lasting. A prominent member (Peter Mandelson) of the nominally Leftist political party that presently governs Britain recently declared that "we are all Thatcherites now". And that is the LEFT of British politics. Can we imagine Ted Kennedy saying that "We are all Reaganites now"?

So how does Britain do it? If Britain lacks the cohesive force of Christian faith, what keeps Britain as still one of the world's more civilized and prosperous places? One answer, I believe, is the influence of the monarchy. I myself am in the happy position of being both a keen monarchist and a citizen of a monarchy (Australia) and I tend to assent to the usual monarchist claim that the House of Windsor, for all its human weaknesses, is infinitely more reliable as a model of worthiness than are certain American Presidents with (for instance) strange uses for cigars. Be that as it may, however, I think the reality is that the claims of monarchy are emotional. To be ruled by a distant, glamorous and prestigious figure with access to a lifestyle unimaginable to the ordinary person is the normal lot of mankind. It is democracy that is the freak. The Roman republic succumbed to Caesar and Augustus and the ancient Greek democracies succumbed to the tyrants of first Sparta and then Macedon. So people seem to have evolved to need a monarch. They need that glorious and distant figure at the centre of power in their community.

And the British genius has been to find a way of having their cake and eating it too. They have a monarchy with all the trappings of greatness and real reserve powers yet are nonetheless governed by one of the world's oldest, most stable and effective democracies.

And, as it is so often re-iterated, the monarch is the symbol of the nation and of the continuity of national traditions. The popularity and prestige of the Queen is enormous and her powers are no less real for not being exercised. The reality of the reserve powers of the monarchy was vividly seen in Australia in 1974 when the Queen's representative dismissed a Leftist Federal government that tried to continue governing against constitutional precedent (failure to get its budget through both houses). In short, the monarchy gives the British people a strong sense of security against arbitrary power, a strong sense of their identity, history and nationhood and serves as a model for what is decent and allowable. It is a unifying and cohesive force that transcends differences of class, accent, education, occupation, region etc.

So it may be that in the US, Christianity plays an important part in preserving civility and a healthy common culture but I submit that the monarchy does a similar job for Britain and the other countries where the Queen reigns.

And is it coincidence that the other enduring European monarchies (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands and Belgium) are also highly civilized and stable democracies that have never turned to dictatorship and remain among the more peaceful and prosperous places to live?

More potted history of the European monarchies: The Fascist dictator Mussolini came to power only because the Italian King allowed it. Monarchy is weak in Greece and Spain (though the Spanish have recently restored theirs) and both suffered years of military dictatorship. Germany abandoned their monarchy (with good reason) after World War I and got Hitler in exchange. France decapitated Louis 16th only to get the military dictator Napoleon and the incredible loss of life of his wars in exchange. And look what happened to Russia when they deposed the Tsar! I think it is not unreasonable to conclude from all this that, incredible though it might sound to American ears, monarchy has a powerful role to play in maintaining a civil society and is not easily replaced, once lost.

American isolationism

US conservatives do of course differ from British conservatives in various ways that reflect their different history and different national situations. And attitude to monarchy is not the only difference. Another major difference is isolationism. American conservatives would like to tell the rest of the world to go hang if they could. And this attitude is not dead yet. Religious US conservative, Patrick Buchanan still expresses it. And he knows his history. He uses a knowledge of history to support his isolationist views. He points out (as I have done in "Front Page" online magazine) that Mussolini was initially anti-Nazi and with some justice blames the Western Allies for Mussolini's going over to Hitler's side eventually. He omits to mention that Hitler would probably have been a lot better off if Mussolini had stayed neutral. Mussolini's alliance with Germany gave Germany so many additional problems that it is probably the best thing that Mussolini could have done for the Allied cause!

But Buchanan's conclusion -- that Britain and the USA should have stayed out of the war with Hitler -- is one only for the ostrich brigade. England could not have afforded to let Hitler grab the whole of Europe unopposed. Once Hitler had wrapped up Europe, the world would have been his oyster.

And it is a tribute to what a hardly plant American isolationism is that it survives even today when the world is a global village and the US has been savagely attacked by Islamic terrorists from half a world away.

Other theories of conservatism

Perhaps the best-known work on political psychology is that by Adorno et al. (1950) -- who claim that conservatives are pro-authority whereas Leftists are anti-authority. This vast oversimplification is perhaps an understandable mistake given the characteristic opposition by Leftists in the economically successful "Western" democracies to the existing centres of authority and power in their countries and given the characteristic acceptance by conservatives of those same authorities but it once again lacks in historical perspective. 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. See Ray (1988, 1989 & 1990) for a more extensive critique of the Adorno claims.

The biggest mistake that has been made by psychologists (e.g. Altemeyer 1981 & 1988) and others, however, is to identify conservative motivation with opposition to change. Obviously, from Cromwell to Reagan and Thatcher, change has never bothered "conservatives" one bit -- but preservation of their rights and liberties from governments that would take those rights and liberties away always has. THAT is what has always made a "conservative" -- and it still does.


The work of Altemeyer on "Right-wing authoritarianism" has however become quite popular among psychologists and The American Academy for the Advancement of Science did give Altemeyer's 1988 book its prize for Behavioral Science research. So perhaps we need to take a close look at that work here.

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 later book made no attempt to update that review. So most of what has been written on his topic since 1973 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 the obvious 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 later 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 is ignored by Altemeyer.

He also ignores that the most ferocious enemies of change were not to be found anywhere in the West in the 20th century but rather in the Communist countries (Brahm, 1982). Stalin, Brezhnev and Li Peng were the great enemies of change and defenders of their status quo for their peoples in the 20th century. So Communists are Rightists and Margaret Thatcher is a Leftist according to Altemeyer's naive 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.

It is true that some historians of the British Conservative party find skepticism, practicality and pragmatism as the main enduring characteristics of Conservative thought (Feiling, 1953; Gilmour, 1978; Norton & Aughey, 1981) but this is more a theory about the wellsprings of conservatism than a description of what conservatives have tended to stand for. And it is not at all difficult to see why such skepticism has led to doubt about the benefits of extending the inevitably ham-fisted activities of government ever further into the life of the community. But, for whatever reason, conservatives have never been characterized by a 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.

And, strangely, his ideas were even less sophisticated than the ideas he claims to supersede: the ideas of Adorno et al. (1950). The Adorno work did at least attempt to measure conservatism and authoritarianism separately so that any association between them could be examined empirically. They did it very badly but they did at least make an attempt at it. Altemeyer made no such attempt. He just assumed what he had to prove: that conservatism and authoritarianism were intimately associated. There can be no advancement in knowledge from "research" like that.

Both Adorno et al. and Altemeyer, however, relied heavily on questionnaire research to support their conclusions. And note that much of what has been said above vitiates the entire notion of using questionnaire methods to examine political values and attitudes. If it is true that the real motives of many Leftists are too grim to be normally admitted, the normal assumption of questionnaire research -- that the respondent is giving a reasonably frank account of himself/herself will not be met. We can therefore give little weight to ANY self-report data in that situation and must base our interpretations of motivation -- as has been done in this article -- primarily on observed behaviour. And history is by far the most persuasive source of data on behaviour.


As is evident from the above, describing the entire domain of political attitudes in terms of a single Right/Left dimension does have its problems. For this reason various authors (e.g. Eysenck, 1954; Rokeach, 1960; Kerlinger, 1967) have proposed that an adequate description of world politics really needs two dimensions. They propose, for example, that the Left-Right dimension be supplemented by an Authoritarian/Permissive dimension. So that democratic Leftists and Rightists are Permissive Leftists and Rightists whereas Communists and Fascists are Authoritarian Leftists and Rightists.

Although such proposals have considerable intuitive appeal, they do not, unfortunately, seem to coincide with how people's attitudes are in fact organized when we do surveys of public opinion. It is very easy to find people's attitudes polarizing on a Left/Right dimension but nobody has yet managed to show in a satisfactory way any polarization of attitudes on the postulated second dimension (Ray, 1980 & 1982).

The account of Left/Right attitudes given in this paper suggests why this is so. For a start, the assumption that Fascists or Nazis are Right-wing is false. Hitler himself energetically claimed to be a socialist and Mussolini (the founder of Fascism) was a prominent Marxist theoretician. The evidence for the view that Fascism is simply another Leftist sect has been summarized at great length here and here so will not be further elaborated here.

Historically, the core of conservatism has always been a suspicion of government power and intervention -- and conservatives therefore accept only the minimum amount of government that seems needed for a civil society to function. So it is no wonder that there is no authoritarian version of conservative ideology. If it were authoritarian it could not be conservative.

Leftism, on the other hand, IS intrinsically authoritarian and power-loving and will always therefore tend in the direction of government domination. It is only non-authoritarian to the extent that is thwarted by external influences (such as democracy) from achieving its aims. Leftists in democratic societies do of course commonly deny authoritarian motivations but that is just part of their "cover". Deeds speak louder than words.


It is concluded that the one thing that all Leftists have in common (until they get into complete power) is a desire for big changes in society -- and it is hypothesized that for most bourgeois Leftists, advocating change serves mainly to meet the Leftist's strong ego-needs -- the need for attention, praise and, ultimately power. That bourgeois Left activists generally have high needs of that kind would seem to be an eminently testable hypothesis.

Conservatives are held to be characterized primarily by a committment to individual liberty and a suspicion of government power.


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.
Altemeyer, R. (1988) Enemies of freedom: Understanding Right-wing authoritarianism. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Brahm, H. (1982) Die Sowjetunion -- eine konservative Gesellschaft? Osteuropa 32(7), 531-544.
Buck, P.W. (1975) How Conservatives think. Harmondsworth: Mddx.: Penguin
Burke, E. (1790) Reflections on the revolution in France. Any edition. Eaves, L.J., Martin, N.G., Meyer, J.M. & Corey, L.A. (1999) Biological and cultural inheritance of stature and attitudes. In: Cloninger, C.R. Personality and psychopathology. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press.
Eysenck, H.J. (1954) The psychology of politics. London: Routledge Feiling, K. (1953) Principles of conservatism. Political Quarterly, 24, 129-133.
Gilmour, I.H.J.L. (1978) Inside right. London: Quartet
Hayek, F.A. (1944) The road to serfdom. London: Routledge
Kerlinger, F. N. (1967). Social attitudes and their criterial referents: A structural theory. Psychological Review, 74, 110-122.
Lake, I.E., Eaves, L.J., Maes, H.H.M., Heath, A.C. & Martin, N.G. (2000) Further evidence against the environmental transmission of individual differences in neuroticism from a collaborative study of 45,850 twins and relatives on two continents. Behavior Genetics 30 (3), 223-233.
Lenin, V.I. (1952) "Left-Wing" Communism, an Infantile Disorder. In: Selected Works, Vol. II, Part 2. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.
Levite, A. (1998) Guilt, Blame, and Politics. San Francisco: Stanyan Press.
Macfarlane, A. (1978) The origins of English individualism. Oxford: Blackwell.
Macfarlane, A. (2000) The riddle of the modern world. N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan
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Oakeshott, M. (1975) On Human Conduct. Oxford: Clarendon Press
Ray, J.J. (1972) Acceptance of aggression and Australian voting preference.
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Ray, J.J. (1972b) Acceptance of aggression and Australian voting preference. Australian Quarterly, 44, 64-70 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. (1974) Conservatism as heresy. Sydney: ANZ Book Co.
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Warby, M. (2002) The labelling game. Policy, 18(1), 35-38. Also see here
Wilson, G. (1978) The psychology of conservatism: Comment on Stacey New Zealand Psychologist 7, 21.


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