Access your downloads at our archive site. Visit Archive
Adorno scale
Magazine Article

The Adorno Scale

In 1950, the book “The Authoritarian Personality” argued that people holding certain views about society could be judged racists, and to prove it, the authors (Adorno & Horkheimer) created an “F-Scale” (F for fascist) by which people could “measure” one another’s opinions and thereby be held guilty.

  • Otto Scott,
Share this


(Editor’s note: The following was the author’s introduction to the June 1993 Chalcedon Report magazine reprint of his original article. It was entitled “The Adorno Scale Revisited.”)

A little over ten years ago I submitted an essay to this publication regarding the Adorno Scale. That scale, which was in the book The Authoritarian Personality, by Theodor Adorno, was originally headed The F Scale (F for fascist).

It sought to establish a link between fascism and conservatism in the US (as the essay explains) and convinced a majority of the American Jewish community that this is a valid connection.

I was reminded of it (and its influence) by a review in Chronicles[i] by Alan J. Levine (April 1993) titled “Every Man a Victim.” The subject of the review, by the way, is Charles Sykes’ book: A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character. I have not read Sykes’ work, but, according to Levine, it examines the tendency to place ideas into a medical category—a widespread tendency today that is having very dangerous effects upon both intellectual life and freedom. I was especially caught, in this context, by one of Levine’s parenthetical observations.

In the past, many people have described their political opponents as mad, sometimes with justification; it was for Adorno and his colleagues to transform their own political views into psychoanalytical diagnoses of their rightist opponents. In purely political terms, The Authoritarian Personality was an important milestone in the progressive blurring of the difference between conservatism and fascism and in the identification of middle-class values as the roots of fascism.

It is a sign of Christian intellectual provinciality that this “milestone,” as Levine calls it, was largely unknown to Christians and when it appeared, remained unknown ten years ago when I mentioned it here, and is still largely unknown.

Yet when The Authoritarian Personality first appeared, it was the number one topic in general conversation among intellectual circles in San Francisco, where I first encountered the subject—and the book. That was over a generation ago! That a book can remain influential so long and still be unknown to Christians is simply appalling. The Christian community apparently lives in an intellectual cocoon bounded by the Bible, serenely unaware of the surrounding world, indifferent to what is said about it or its beliefs as translated into social opinions. The average Christian seems to expect the clergy to do all his intellectual work for him. That is an illusion.

The clergy has to be supported and protected by the congregation. A clergyman explains and defines the faith. But the congregation is composed of people who work in the world, and it is their duty to protect and defend the faith in the world. They cannot do that if they are indifferent to the world, inattentive to what it says and does to members of the faith.

In the context The Authoritative Personality did not openly attack the faith: it attacked the traditional values of most Americans and charged that they are inherently fascist. That these values reflect Christianity led to later charges by others that Christianity was responsible for the suffering of Jews under Hitler. In time, as Levine makes clear, this had led to the charge that the American First people in the Thirties were anti-Semites, because they did not believe that this nation should go to war against Germany. We have today seen similar charges escalated to the level where those who demur against the flood of present immigration (legal and illegal) are called racists because that flood is dominated by black and brown people.

There are echoes of these trends on all sides. Bill Bennett, the former Secretary of Education and the former Drug “Czar” who did nothing to improve education and less to halt drugs, heard Pat Buchanan defend our traditional culture and said Buchanan was “flirting with fascism.” That is not a small charge. Levine cites Willian Ryan’s book (1971) Blaming the Victim “which details, in hysterical style, how anyone who suggests that there was a culture of poverty, or that the downtrodden might have to change some of their own behavior, was a bigot.”

In the real world, one ignores such developments at one’s peril. The Christian community does not seem to pay any attention to its critics, and one result is that they have multiplied almost beyond calculation. They produce anti-Christian books, films, plays, satires and even pornography, while Christians pretend that this tide is not lapping at their churches, seeping into the minds of their children, pressing the government of the United States into increasingly anti-Christian regulations, rulings and restrictions.

It is more than time that these threats to the faith be recognized and their authors named and read. For that reason, I have decided to resubmit my decade-old essay on the Adorno Theory. Perhaps its relevance will be more easily recognized, this time around.

The Adorno Scale

(Originally published in the March 1982 Chalcedon Report newsletter.)

It is not enough to agree with Richard Weaver that “ideas have consequences”; it is necessary to remember the evil influence of mistaken ideas. One great example of a bad idea floated through intellectual circles during World War II; it slid easily into Academia and emerged with devastating effect upon our democratic processes in a book titled The Authoritarian Personality (Harper & Row, 1950).

Authored by Dr. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, with pages of “research” by other social scientists, The Authoritarian Personality argued that persons holding certain views about society could, by nature of these views, be accurately adjudged racists and anti-Semites. So certain were the authors of their assumptions that they even provided an “F-Scale” (F for fascist) by which individuals could measure one another, and on the basis of certain held opinions, could determine that an individual could be held guilty of harboring prejudices he did not voice.

Although most great intellectual breakthroughs have had a difficult time being accepted, the Adorno Theory met with little initial resistance. It traveled from Academia throughout American society with great rapidity, and to this day remains one of the more popular myths of the nation. For many Americans, including many who have never heard of Dr. Adorno, it is an article of faith upon which their social and political ideas are rooted.

In a later explanation, Dr. Adorno said he originally toyed with the idea of adding hostility to modern art as one of the links between attitudes and prejudice, but dropped that thought because such “hostility presupposed a certain level of culture” at a time when most Americans had not been exposed to modern art. Dr. Adorno did not add the obvious: that a preference for modern art could be linked, by his theory, to a lack of racial prejudice. But that assumption, implicit in the Theory from the start, gained popular credibility. A recognition of this enables one to perceive the reason for many social and political arguments in American postwar society that are otherwise inexplicable.

Of course, the Adorno Theory did not retain scholarly respectability very long. Dr. Sidney Hook and Dr. Ronald Berman and others were coolly sarcastic about Adorno’s assumptions. Dr. Berman referred to it in 1969 as “a theory which for two decades has been increasingly dissipated by the cold light of inquiry. There may be an authoritarian personality,” he continued, “but it makes precious few distinctions among systems, and is diffused throughout the political spectrum … If anything, [quoting Edwin N. Barker], the authoritarian leftists appear to be more selective in their intolerance, e.g., they tend to censure only rightists” (America in the Sixties, The Free Press; 1968; p. 181). By that standard, Dr. Adorno himself was an authoritarian personality.

Nevertheless, the Adorno Theory lives and is accepted by millions as automatically valid, though seldom given coherent expression. A small army of writers march to the tune of the F-Scale, and their works are available in every library and bookstore.

One consequence of the Theory has been the intrusion of sociology and psychoanalytic theory into politics and even into judicial decisions. Another has been the expansion of the Theory into our culture, into the theater, media and advertising. Advertising is especially important in the context of popular ideas because most American publications are supported, directly or indirectly, by the private sector, and advertising is the vehicle of that support.

Once congeries of conservative attitudes in religion, politics, national defense and culture were accepted as the equivalent of racism and anti-Semitism, the advertising agencies began to look coldly at conservatively-oriented publications. One of the first to suffer was the old Saturday Evening Post, despite its circulation of over six million. Once the editors of the Post realized they were the targets of a Madison Avenue boycott, they turned handsprings in order to gain reapproval—to no avail. Meanwhile, leftist publications became respectable. Rolling Stone can carry vicious cartoons without being accused of prejudice: that is the unenviable monopoly of the right.

That is not to say that the advertising industry mounted a conspiracy. The agencies merely reflected the lower levels of popular rationalizations. It is the nature of advertising to go along with popular myths. The actual selection of media outlets is done by media buyers inside the agencies. Large clients believe in letting experts handle such details; few firms dispute a media buyer’s recommendations.

To my knowledge, no survey has ever been undertaken to examine the attitudes and opinions of media buyers, to see if there is any correlation between their attitudes and their choices. It would be a phenomenon close to the miraculous, however, if no correlation could be discovered.

The reasons for my persistence and the popularity of the Adorno Theory are far from mysterious. The F-Scale provides a standard against which the protests of the judged are held to be hypocritical. And the unpleasant fact is that the passage of time has strengthened, and not reduced, the effectiveness of the Theory. The F-Scale now includes Fundamentalist Christians and others not originally categorized. Although Dr. Jerry Falwell is a supporter of Israel, he is, nevertheless, held to lead an anti-Semitic organization. The Moral Majority is considered, by believers in the F-Scale, to be obviously fascistic.

The Adorno Theory, therefore, is all around us, and it seems likely to remain for the rest of our lives. It may even last for generations, for militant prejudice cloaked as intellectuality is one of the more difficult demons to exorcise from a nation. Only adherence to the F-Scale, which brands all dissenters to a liberal catechism with the labels of racism and anti-Semitism, explains the disdain of the media for conservative spokesmen and policies, and the otherwise mysterious preference of advertising agencies for the more leftist publication choices. It also explains the reluctance of so many politicians to be associated with conservative positions and groups, especially in respect to “social” issues.

It is more than time, therefore, that conservatives and Christians (who are not synonymous, and not always together on a number of issues) should realize that they are tarred, and have been for a number of years, by the same brush. It is more than time that the assumptions of Dr. Adorno, conceived in the heat of a terrible war and in the distress of his expulsion from Germany, should be dragged into the light of day to be examined and laid to rest in name of freedom, justice, and truth.

[i] Published monthly by the Rockford Institute, 934 North Main Street, Rockford, IL 61103.

  • Otto Scott

Otto Scott (May 26, 1918—May 5, 2006), a former Chalcedon staffer, was a journalist, business executive, and historian. He began his newspaper career at the age of sixteen and later worked for United Features Syndicate and The San Diego Union. When WWII broke out he joined the Merchant Marine.  After the war, Scott worked in the advertising industry, then became editor of a manufacturing trade journal, Rubber World. In the course of his assignments, he interviewed Paul Blazer, the chairman of Ashland Oil, in Ashland, Kentucky, and was invited to write the history of the company. He would later write corporate histories for Raytheon, Black & Decker, and Arch Mineral Corporation.  After his conversion to Christianity, he focused on writing about modern history, politics, and cultural trends.  In his later years, he worked for Chalcedon before publishing his own newsletter, The Compass.

More by Otto Scott