Democracy’s Scars: Adorno’s Lecture on Right-Wing Radicalism

The battle against fascism is never over; it must be fought anew by each generation and we must never forget what this ideology stands for.

Theodor W. Adorno’s book is a wake-up call, because of its unfortunately continued relevance, writes Katrine Fangen.

NPD in Würzburg, Germany. Photo: Christian Horvat / Wikimedia Commons

Liberal democracies are fragile and fascist tendencies will always constitute a threat, claimed Adorno in a lecture he gave to the Socialist Students at the University of Vienna in 1967. Adorno died two years later, at the age of 66.

The lecture was highly topical at the time because the relatively new National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD, Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands) had very recently achieved record electoral success, passing the threshold for representation in several West German state parliaments.

In his lecture, Adorno argues strongly against all those who think of fascism as a thing of the past. He describes fascist movements as traumas – or scars on democracy.

Adorno’s father was an assimilated Jew and his mother was a Catholic. Consequently, the Nazis classified Adorno as a ‘non-Aryan’ and revoked his appointment as a university lecturer  in 1933 (Wilcock 2000), a year before the Frankfurt School (Institut für Sozialforschung) was closed down by the Gestapo. Adorno relocated to Oxford, where he became a doctoral student, until in 1937 he was invited by Horkheimer to join the Frankfurt School, which since 1934 had been operating in New York.

It may seem strange for a lecture to be transcribed and published over 50 years after the event. According to the historian Volker Weiss, who has written an afterword for the book, Adorno himself was not enthusiastic about the idea of publishing his lectures in written form. But the German publisher Suhrkamp justifies the publication on the grounds of the continued relevance of Adorno’s warnings. The Norwegian publisher Cappelen Damm followed up with a Norwegian edition, in Pål Veiden’s translation, in 2020.

And I agree, many of the tendencies that Adorno describes as present in late-1960s Germany are unfortunately still present today, even though the context has changed. Even so, the title, Aspects of the New Right-Wing Radicalism, may seem rather misplaced, in that ‘New’ refers to the late 1960s. Perhaps the issue is more about the enduring features of right-wing radicalism, regardless of historical period, while what is new, the features that are different in different historical periods, is not the focus of attention here.

Adorno turns his spotlight on different aspects of right-wing radicalism (or fascism – he uses these concepts interchangeably) that were present in 1967. I will discuss each of these aspects, and also add some thoughts about the extent to which similar aspects are also typical of our own times.

A class-based analysis

With regard to the social preconditions for fascism, Adorno presents a class-based analysis of society. According to Adorno, few classes are vaccinated against support for right-wing radicalism.

The bourgeoisie want to retain their privileges and social status, and fear social downgrading. They blame their downgrading on the socialists, instead of on the social mechanisms that in fact contributed to their downgrading.

Manufacturing workers fear unemployment as a result of automation. They also fear cheap labour from Eastern Europe, a result of the lower living standards there.

Farmers fear the consequences for agricultural markets of the European Economic Community’s Common Agricultural Policy, and an increase in tensions between urban and rural areas.

Small business owners, particularly retail traders, feel threatened by large supermarkets. All these people share a common and widespread fear of an undermining of their material living standards.

The sense of crisis in these various tiers of society could lead to an attitude of “now Germany must get back on top”, not unlike the atmosphere that existed in Germany in the 1930s, following the depression after World War I, which was one of the reasons for the emergence of Nazism. Adorno points out that it is typical that these movements flourish in times of crisis. They feed on catastrophes and cultivate apocalyptic fantasies. But at the same time, these movements do not want any fundamental change.

The fact that right-wing radicalists garner greater support in connection with various ‘crises’ is something that we recognise in our own times – both the financial crisis and the refugee crisis have mobilized support for the far right.

But saying that right-wing radicalists do not want change is different. We can rather say that they want change, but change that is based on a nostalgic yearning for the past. They want to replace liberal democracies with illiberal white ethno-states (Miller-Idriss 2020). They promote a nostalgic yearning for a return to a homogeneous society – a society not influenced by immigration, a yearning that is characteristic of support for far-right political parties or right-wing radical movements (Lubbers & Coenders 2017, Fangen 1998).

In our own times as well, there are people in most social strata who support one form or another of right-wing radicalism, even though research shows greater support among people who have technocratic jobs than among those in other socio-cultural sectors (Lucassen & Lubbers 2012). An extensive comparative study by Napier & Jost (2008) shows that people of high and low socio-economic status lend their support to right-wing radicalism for different reasons.

It seems that people with high incomes can, in accordance with what Adorno found, be motivated to preserve their advantageous position in society, while individuals with little education and low incomes are attracted to far-right leaders, parties and policies because of their moral and ethnic intolerance, in other words, due to the presence of a certain level of authoritarianism.

Support for the far right in our own times is not caused to such a great extent by fears of material decline, but more by fears of the influences of other cultures (Lucassen & Lubbers 2012), especially fear of Islam (Fangen 2021). But fear of economic downgrading as a consequence of migration also plays a role in our own times. Opposition to immigration of cheap labour from Eastern Europe has been put forward, among other things, as one of the main causes of Brexit (Becker & Fetzer 2017). The automation of production processes is also no less relevant today than in the late 1960s, with robots taking over ever-expanding roles in the workplace (Taylor 2019).

‘Lunatic fringes’ and authoritarian personalities

What kinds of people tend to become right-wing radicalists? According to Adorno, these people are typically competent at technical matters, and also at propaganda, but they sweep social problems under the carpet.

More specifically, Adorno is thinking of the type of people who were described in the 1950 book The Authoritarian Personality, the result of a research project headed by Adorno. In his lecture, Adorno claims that a person with an authoritarian personality is a manipulative individual who is cold, has a strictly technological mindset, lacks close relationships and indeed, in a certain sense, is insane. People with this type of personality equate humanity with weakness.

Here I allow myself to describe this study, which Adorno refers to a couple of times in his lecture, in slightly more detail. The study investigated the psychological and social foundations of authoritarian tendencies, and interpreted the findings as expressing a personality type. The question after World War II was whether it was possible to find a connection between prejudices and personality traits, and whether there was such a thing as an individual predisposition to hold prejudices.

Adorno’s central hypothesis is that an individual’s convictions form a relatively broad and coherent pattern, which can be referred to as that individual’s ‘mentality’ or ‘spirit’.

To Adorno, these are the underlying foundations of a personality, which are formed in childhood. Personality is the product of a person’s social environment and accordingly is not predetermined. According to Adorno, racism and anti-Semitism relates to a particular personality type that is authoritarian, anti-democratic, conservative, politically right-wing, and governed by a markedly ethnocentric ideology.

This authoritarian personality is more usual among people with religious links, especially when those religious links are associated with submission to a parental authority figure. The consequence is that the individual feels little affection for his parents, but instead glorifies them in a stereotypical, superficial fashion that is overlaid with bitterness and a feeling of being a victim of parental dominance. The emotion of admiration is accepted in the consciousness, while the underlying hostility is suppressed.

A person with an authoritarian personality underestimates his conflicts with his parents and reproduces family discipline as he learned it in his childhood, a time when he experienced it as arbitrarily imposed. The combination of the child’s superficial identification with his parents and his bitterness towards them and authority in general, is expressed in the form of excessive conformity, accompanied by a simultaneous desire to destroy established authority, traditions and institutions.

This ambivalence lay at the heart of Nazism. A person with an authoritarian personality is markedly conformist, and shows little desire to recognize, and thus master, his own impulsive tendencies. Accordingly, threats and weaknesses are externalized towards others.

An important objection to Adorno’s study, and the subsequent studies that he inspired, is that ideology is presented as a process that arises outside the situation where it is expressed. It relates to something apparently unchangeable, namely personality factors. Consequently, anti-Semites become individuals who, given their personalities, are primed to react in particular ways in specific situations. According to Adorno, the powers of personality are not reactions but rather a preparedness to react in a particular way.

A study conducted by Thomas Pettigrew (1958) is useful for shedding light on the way in which Adorno’s approach fails to capture all the relevant factors that lead to right-wing radicalism. Pettigrew compared prejudices against Jews and Black people in southern Africa with similar prejudices in the United States, and concluded that it is not possible to attribute the differences to personality traits.

Non-Jewish white people in southern Africa and the northern part of the United States have very similar attitudes with regard to anti-Semitism and authoritarianism, but the kinds of negative attitudes they have towards Black people are very different (ibid.). In other words, cultural and social factors must also play a role in determining which prejudices come to expression. This was also one of the points in Zygmunt Bauman’s (1989: 153) critique. He pointed out that for the results of this study to be capable of explaining Nazism during World War II, Germany must have had an unusual surge in the number of authoritarian personalities. In other words, personality factors could not be the only explanation for fascist or far-right tendencies, although personality could be one of several factors influencing people’s support for authoritarian movements (Napier & Jost 2008).

Although Germany did confront its Nazi past in the wake of World War II, Adorno points out that in any democracy there will always be what he calls ‘lunatic fringes’, an American expression used to describe those members of a social movement who become fanatical and extreme, and who are not receptive to learning.

This may lead one to think of various proponents of conspiracy theories, ranging from COVID deniers to Trump supporters who refuse to acknowledge that the Democrats won the election. Many people have also described Trumpism as a form of fascism (Morris 2019).

Far-right tricks

In addition to societal traits and personality factors, Adorno introduces a second set of explanations for susceptibility to right wing radicalism, namely a series of tricks or strategies used by extreme right-wing movements to gain support.

One such strategy is the salami method (first one claims that the true number of Jews killed in the Holocaust wasn’t 6 million, but 5.5 million. Then, when that number becomes generally accepted, one claims the actual number was even lower, all the way until it becomes possible to distort the picture and claim that no Jews were murdered at all).

Another trick is ‘vulgar idealism’ (the standpoint that it is important to have an idea to support, regardless of whether that idea has any merit).

A third strategy is to claim the opposite of what is in fact the case – for example, that the world was discriminating against Germans, although according to Adorno, it was more striking how little appetite there was for revenge, despite the atrocities that took place.

Other strategies have characteristics of defence mechanisms, such as covering up the truth. Similar strategies are common among right-wing radicalists in our own times. Most obvious is the popularity of fake news, which to some extent can take the form of deliberate misinformation, as described by Miller-Idriss in her book Hate in the Homeland(Miller-Idriss 2020).

Archetypal enemies: intellectuals and communists

The far right cultivate archetypal enemies, both past and present. Adorno puts most weight on opposition to intellectuals and communists. Adorno points out that so long as it’s not possible to be openly anti-Semitic, now (in 1967) as in the past, the hatred is targeted at intellectuals. Supporters of far-right movements fall short when it comes to intellectual abilities, and accordingly it is natural for them to target their hatred at intellectuals.

We are familiar with the contemporary far right’s mistrust of intellectuals and the accusations that intellectuals are left-leaning and that their research lacks credibility. Look no further than the campaign against the respected political scientist Nonna Mayer in French academia today. According to Adorno, the opposition to communism takes on a mystical character, since communism is no longer an influential force (a slightly strange thing to say in 1967, since communist governments would remain in power for many years in Eastern Europe). In today’s terminology, far right movements explicitly oppose what they define as cultural Marxism (Miller-Idriss 2020), but communism has so little significance that it has somewhat vanished as an archetypal enemy.

Far right voter mobilization

Adorno’s lecture was motivated in part by concern over the emergence of the extreme right-wing National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD, Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands), which was founded in 1964. This party has never gained any significant political support, however. With the exception of 1969, two years after Adorno’s lecture, it has never met the threshold for participation in any Bundestag elections. Since 2016, the NPD has not been represented even in any German state parliaments (Fangen & Lichtenberg 2021).

In fact, one could say that a greater cause for concern currently is the party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which was founded in February 2013. Initially, the AfD was primarily a critic of EU monetary policy. After a split in 2015, however, the party’s focus shifted and it has become increasingly hostile to immigrants and moved ever further to the right. Angela Merkel’s liberal refugee policy since 2015 (characterized by the slogan “Wir schaffen das” – “We can do it”) has been seen as an important reason why the AfD began to garner increased support. The party warned against “uncontrolled mass immigration”, foreign refugees and the loss of national identity (Fangen & Lichtenberg 2021).

At the most recent Bundestag election in 2017, the AfD became Germany’s third largest party. The next Bundestag election will be held on 26 September this year, and opinion polls currently suggest that the AfD will come fourth, overtaken this time by the Greens.

The future of the far right

In conclusion, Adorno asks whether right-wing radicalism will play a prominent role in the future: “Well, ladies and gentlemen, strictly speaking that is up to us.”

With this statement, Adorno puts a heavy responsibility on our shoulders. According to Adorno, the only way to counter right-wing radicalism is to describe the consequences of its proposed policies to its own supporters.

For young people, this will involve oppression of their freedom to choose their own ways of life. One must warn against the movement’s sectarian tendencies, against discipline being presented as a goal in itself, and warn that by supporting such a movement, Germany will remain provincial in a global context. In addition one must uncover the psychological manipulation, show that a portion of the claims are false, and at the same time show that the opposite policies will benefit even supporters of the far right. Then one has a good chance of success, according to Adorno.

One must counter right-wing radicalism with all the force of common sense. But this is no easy task. Firstly, supporters of so-called alternative news and various conspiracy theories will be consistently sceptical about information that is presented by researchers and by more mainstream media, precisely because they think that both academia and journalists are part of an elite that disseminates lies (Fangen & Holter 2020).

In other words, it is not so simple as explaining to a few adherents that they are mistaken, or that another policy is better. One achieves the best results by influencing people at an early stage to evaluate information critically (not least information from so-called alternative channels), and by communicating the importance of democracy and social citizenship.

In accordance with this thinking, Germany has initiated extensive measures to counter right-wing radicalism (see Miller-Idriss 2020). Despite these measures, Germany remains the country in Europe with the most cases of far-right violence and terrorism (Jupskås & Köhler 2020). And so perhaps the most important conclusion from this perspective is that the battle against fascism is never over; it must be fought anew by each generation and we must never forget what this ideology stands for. In this respect, Adorno’s book may be a wake-up call, precisely because the book is unfortunately still so relevant.



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Napier, J., and Jost, J. (2008). The antidemocratic personality revisited: A cross-national investigation of working-class authoritarianism. Journal of Social issues64(3), 595.

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  • Katrine Fangen is Professor at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo. She is thematic leader at C-REX and is a research associate at PRIO.
  • This text is based on a book review published in Norwegian at on 14 June 2021, Demokratiets arr: Adornos foredrag om høyreradikalisme – Sosiologen.
  • Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext
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