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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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In the recent period of its history, the idea of au-
thority has been examined most intensively in its social
context and the idea has been developed most reveal-
ingly in social science and social theory. As in the other
main periods and contexts of its development, two
distinct stages must be identified. From the late nine-
teenth century to the 1920's changes in the approach
to authority were embodied especially in the writings
of sociologists who took over from the preceding pe-
riod the integral association of authority and power
in politics but who sought to work out autonomous
roles for social authority as such, consonant with the
autonomy of the social science which they were estab-
lishing. In its second stage the ideas of social authority
have been reunited with political power both approv-
ingly in the ideology of fascist totalitarianism and
reprovingly in the equally total revulsion of the
New—i.e., post-communist—Left from it.

1. Sociology of Authority. Because they reflected
the new preeminence of industrial society as the pri-
mary unit of human association and the main arena
of collective activity, the great pioneers of sociology
assiduously recast authority into a social relation signi-
fying a voluntary or conventional interaction categor-
ically detached from its political connection with
coercive power. But because this early age of the
industrial society was also a period of democratization
these founders of sociology had also to take into ac-
count the interpenetration of society and state. They
tended also to be political sociologists who approached
politics as a special kind of social relation. Hence they
sought to develop the idea of autonomous social au-
thorities which were independent of the modern state
in their origins but were integrated into it, as a social
dimension of politics, in their contemporary effects.
They thus carried one stage further the sociological
politics of the conservative positivists and reversed
their priorities: where the positivists extended the state
into society and applied political criteria of coercion
to social relations, the sociologists extended society into
the state and sought to develop double-edged concepts
appropriate to the intersection.

The only pure—i.e., spontaneous and uncoercive—
social authorities in the new sociology tended to be
dead authorities. Almost invariably these authorities
were identified as prestigious individuals, patriarchal
elders, hallowed traditions, or divinely anointed men
and offices whose origins in and relevance to an earlier
stage of society were emphatically acknowledged by
the sociologists. They also acknowledged the persist-
ence of such authorities into modern times, to be sure,
but only as atavisms. Thus the early Émile Durkheim


(1893) assigned authority to the declining repressive
type of society and equality to the progressing organic
type. “The authority of the collective conscience is...
in large part composed of the authority of tradition,”
and, in turn, “it is the authority of age [the old people,
the unique intermediary between the present and the
past] which gives tradition its authority.” Both of these
associated authorities—of tradition and the elders—
“necessarily diminish” along with the archaic, seg-
mental type of society from which they come
(Durkheim, Division of Labor, pp. 291-93).

The sociologists' atavistic definition of social author-
ity received a precise terminological confirmation from
Max Weber, divergent as his sociological assumptions
were from Durkheim's in other respects. Weber care-
fully distinguished from the concept of “power”
(Macht) the “more precise sociological concept of 'au-
thority'” (Herrschaft), defining power as “any proba-
bility of imposing one's will within a social relationship
even against resistance” and authority as “the proba-
bility of securing obedience to definite commands from
a relevant group of men” (Weber, Grundriss, pp.
28-29). Weber's general definition of authority was
obviously designed to include within the sociological
concept the social dimension of political “commands”
which produced obedience without coercion, but, as
the connotation of Herrschaft—lordship or dominion—
indicates, this general definition enclosed an ambiguity
between the more or less compelling motives of obedi-
ence. Weber made no explicit distinctions of principle
within authority as Herrschaft, since he acknowledged
“the belief in legitimacy” to be the indispensable basis
of all its forms, but in his elaboration of the three main
types of authority a verbal distinction appeared which
reflected a subtle differentiation within his idea of
authority. When analyzing the concept of Herrschaft
in the context of the “compliance,... the will to obey”
on the part of its objects, Weber added the imported
term Autorität in apposition with Herrschaft, and in
his analysis of the three legitimate bases of Herrschaft
he applied Autorität to the charismatic and traditional
types of authority but only Herrschaft to the legal, or
bureaucratic, type (ibid., p. 122; Weber, Religions-
I, 268-73). Since Weber thought of the
three types as successively dominant in the develop-
ment of society he was implying a distinctive connota-
tion of authority—Autorität—for the two types he
recognized frankly to be primarily representative of
“the past” and to extend only “as survivals” into the

The obvious point of this historical approach to
social authority was to indicate as sociological fact
what had for some three centuries been proposed as
anthropological principle: that the religious and natu-
ral hierarchies, such as the church and the family,
which had traditionally anchored the social roots of
authority were now declining institutions, supported
rather by the inertia of past social relations than by
relevance to contemporary society. But this empirical
confirmation was not the main function of the social
analysis. Its main function was rather to set in relief
the separate identity of the principle of authority
which was relevant to the contemporary industrial
society. This modern principle of authority had to be
defined both in terms of the new dependence upon
the rational calculations of coercive power which dis-
tinguished it from the outmoded autonomous social
authorities of the past, and in terms of its inheritance
from these social authorities of the past. Hence the
sociologists analyzed the relationship of the old and
new authorities as both a difference of type and a
succession of stages for the purposes of demonstrating
the political categories dominating modern ideas of
authority and examining the modern role of the ata-
vistic social authorities. The results of these inquiries
indicated, in general, the actual role of modern ideas
of authority to be the social buttressing of political
hierarchy, but their normative role to be the rational
organization of the highly integrated modern industrial
society. For an example of the first kind of analysis
we may refer to Pareto's revealing categories. For an
example of the second we may refer to the collabo-
rative sociological study by Max Horkheimer's Institute
for Social Research on “authority and family.”

Although Pareto, in The Mind and Society, distin-
guished formally between “a governing, political elite”
and “a non-governing, non-political elite” within the
generic elite class and defined membership in this
generic elite by a superior capacity in any social activ-
ity whatsoever, he proceeded to work out the authority
of this elite in terms of its relations with political
power. It became, in the context of its authority over
the nonelite, simply “the higher stratum of society,
which usually contains the rulers”; their superior
capacities were epitomized into what was suitable for
“keeping them in power” and “exercising the functions
of government” and what kept them “willing enough
to use force” (Pareto, #2041-57). The circulation of
elites, moreover, is a process which is effected primar-
ily in the lower-class nonelite's moving into the gov-
erning elite and in elitists' dropping out of the govern-
ing class through a process which demonstrates the
inevitable triumph of superior political capacity,
wherever it may be found, over social “label.” Thus
Pareto's theory of the elite served both to blur the lines
between social and political dominant classes in favor


of the latter and to subordinate authority, as a tool
of social persuasion, to the ever-changing possessors
of political power.

In their monumental Studien über Autorität und
(Studies of Authority and the Family) of 1936,
the team of democratic socialists associated with
Horkheimer in the Institute for Social Research (Insti-
tut für Sozialforschung
) faced squarely the decisive
problem raised by the sociological approach to author-
ity: that social authority was a characteristic product
of the declining, pre-industrial stage of Western civili-
zation and yet that authority in some form remained
a prominent feature of the industrial age. Alerted by
the recent rise of fascist totalitarianism—in Hork-
heimer's words, by “the transition to so-called authori-
tative forms of state in the present period”—the Insti-
tute team, which included Erich Fromm and Herbert
Marcuse, saw authority, in the general sense of the
“affirmed dependence” of “the larger part of men”
upon “the smaller,” as a central category of “all forms
of society,” both archaic and modern, and they con-
ceived their mission to be the understanding of the
changing forms of authority which corresponded to the
changing forms of society (Studien, pp. 22-25).

The most striking theoretical contribution of the
project was embodied in the convergent demonstration
(by Horkheimer, Fromm, and Marcuse from their re-
spective sociological, socio-psychological, and socio-
philosophical approaches) of the underlying authori-
tarianism in the apparently anti-authoritarian attitudes
of the modern, liberal. “bourgeois” era. Liberals, in
this view, created a new form of authority by stressing
the voluntary submission of putatively free individuals
to natural, metaphysical, or psychic constraints which
were actually reified forms of authoritarian control by
a dominant social group. The Institute team acknowl-
edged, from this historical analysis, that authority had
both progressive (innovative) and reactionary (repres-
sive) functions for society. But they stopped short of
applying their models of authority to the mature in-
dustrial society of their own day. The signs of dissolu-
tion in the characteristically bourgeois forms of
authority—the forms of economic exploitation—were
both obviously perceptible and theoretically account-
able, but contemporary forms of authority to replace
them were not. For there was a profound difference
between the team's theoretical expectation of a “ra-
tional authority,” freely accepted by “the executors”
from “the directors” of joint social enterprises in the
common interest of both, and their actual perception
of the “total-authoritarian state” which made impossi-
ble “the hierarchy of authorities” in society necessary
for any “system of authority” (ibid., pp. 48, 134-35,

Nor was the problem posed by the gulf between the
normative and actual tendencies of modern authority
resolved by the Institute's empirical inquiry into the
structure of the contemporary family, which was ap-
proached not as an archaic locus of authority but rather
as a social microcosm of all authority. The empirical
section of the Studien was a progress report, stipulating
the completeness of the method and the incompleteness
of the result. Only the tentative indication of a social
split between a peasantry still involved in the patriar-
chal family, an urban working class inclined toward
the matriarchal family, and a lower middle class
(Mittelstand) caught indecisively between both tend-
encies, furnished a substantive confirmation of the crisis
of divided social authorities which was throwing the
social “education for authority” into the hands of the
totalitarian state (ibid., pp. 75, 304-18, 905).

2. Totalitarian Authority. Even the furthest socio-
logical advance toward the definition of a modern
principle of social authority fell short of the reality
of contemporary society and remained an essentially
historical definition. The further development of the
idea of authority lay with the political totalitarians and
with the radical antitotalitarians who have reacted
constructively against them. Both groups acknowledge
that the contemporary vacuum of social authority is
being filled with political instruments of social control.
Both the totalitarians and the radical antitotalitarians
of the twentieth century have thus gone a crucial step
beyond the conservatives and liberals of the nineteenth:
where nineteenth-century political thinkers had de-
fended the superiority of authority or liberty respec-
tively but admitted the autonomy and subordinate
validity of the opposite principle, their twentieth-
century socio-political successors asserted the exclusive
validity of authority or liberty respectively, and cate-
gorically worked out the entire absorption or denial
of the opposite principle.

The development of a distinctive totalitarian idea
of authority has been largely the work of fascists, for
however authoritarian in practice the structure and
policies of communist parties and regimes may be, they
correspond to no viable idea of authority. Soviet ideol-
ogy has tended to exacerbate the special ambiguity of
authority which arose when Lenin specified Marx's
innovative dictatorship of the majority to be in the
charge of a centralized and disciplined professional
vanguard who would use violence and terror to initiate
the regime of freedom—the ambiguity, that is, of
stressing power and liberty to the detriment of any
intermediary concept of authority. Thus the occasional
ideological concessions, during the Stalin period, to the
factual conversion of the revolutionary vanguard into
a long-term political and bureaucratic elite—conces-


sions manifest in such concepts of authority as “the
vocation of leadership” and the “monolithic Party”—
remained theoretically isolated, alternating with the
more frequent endorsement of democratic controls
from below and excluded from the dominant theory
which justifies present political power in terms of fu-
ture freedom from politics (Moore, passim).

Despite the actual penetration of state and party
into the society, moreover, communists distinguish in
principle between the political power which withers
away and the social organization which remains, a
distinction which again obscures the idea of authority.
For it remains uncertain, in doctrine, whether the
replacement of the government of men by the admin-
istration of things is making for a rational society with
an uncoercive guiding authority or for a free society
with a functionally differentiated collaboration among

For the fascists, on the contrary, the idea of authority
was so central to both their programs and their policies
as to escape the problems of interpretation which the
professed instrumentalism of their doctrine and the
glaring inconsistencies of their theory and practice
raise for so many of their other ideas. Certain of these
problems, indeed—like the relations between the con-
servative and revolutionary facets of fascism—are illu-
minated by the clarity of their approach to authority.
For the fascists, the political model of authority—the
recognition of legitimacy in the organs which actually
exercise the collective power of the society—was the
model of authority as such, and the conservative reten-
tion or the revolutionary dismantling of the existing
social authorities varied with the requirements of the
political model.

The political definition of social authority was ex-
plicit in La dottrina del Fascismo, published under
Mussolini's name but written by Giovanni Gentile,
philosopher of Italian Fascism: “The State not only is
authority which governs and molds individual wills
with laws and values of spiritual life, but it is also
power which makes its will prevail abroad.... For
the Fascist, everything is within the State and...
neither individuals or groups are outside the State....
For Fascism the State is an absolute, before which
individuals and groups are only relative” (Mussolini,
pp. 12-16, 33). The Fascist model of political authority
thus extended through the social structure and the
external spheres of private rights to implant the rule
of coercive power within the innermost spirit of the
individual. “The Fascist State... is the form and
internal norm of the whole person.... Fascism aims
at discipline, and at an authority which penetrates the
soul and rules there incontestably” (ibid., pp. 17-18).
For, as Gentile would explain in his own name, there
is no essential distinction between “the two terms
'State' and 'individual': far from being “a limit to his
liberty,” the State “is the universal aspect of the indi-
vidual,... the concrete actuality of his will” (Gentile,
pp. 124-31).

Like fascists in general, the German National So-
cialists used the idea of authority in a political context
to link the public power with an original principle
detached from any roots in and responsibility to social
tradition or democratic rights. In Mein Kampf Hitler
almost invariably referred to authority as “state au-
thority” (Staatsautorität) and he repeatedly charac-
terized the Nazi conception of authority as one “which
knows only an authority which proceeds downward
from the top and a responsibility which proceeds up-
ward from the bottom” (Speeches, I, 180, 201, 502).
But unlike the Italian Fascists, the Nazis denied the
cultural primacy of the State and hence undermined
the ultimacy of its authority as the valid source of
political power. For Hitler, the belief that the very
existence of the State is the ground of its sanctity and
requires “the dog-like veneration of the so-called state
authority” was a “legitimist” absurdity which distorted
a means into an end-in-itself. Actually, the State is “a
means to the end of maintaining and promoting the
racial nation (Volkstum),” and the State authority is
“the sovereign incorporation of a racial nation's in-
stinct and common will for self-preservation” (Mein
pp. 426, 433, 440). For the Nazis, then, politi-
cal authority was explicitly instrumental, and they
referred it, for its own legitimacy, to the suprapolitical
good of the race whose instrument it was. Here was
the basis in Nazi doctrine for the later claim, to be
made by Nazis and anti-Nazis alike, that National
Socialism neither espoused nor realized the totalitarian
state, since political institutions composed but one of
its several lines of control. But it was precisely because
it was deemed a political instrument that the principle
of authority became crucial in the Nazi scheme, for
it became the transferable means of applying the po-
litical model of power to all the lines of fascist control—
Party, corporate, and personal—and made possible a
plural totalitarianism transcending the traditional
organs of state.

The idea of authority was the point at which the
traditional principle of hierarchy and the modern
principle of national sovereignty were joined to be-
come compatible means of power for all social orga-
nizations whatsoever. Hitler, for example, endorsed
two ideas of authority which were reminiscent of its
original meanings, but he now linked them closely to
the exercise of coercive power: first, “the authority of
personality,” which cannot brook control by “any ma-
jority”; secondly, the authority of leadership in the


sense of initiation, which is a power conferred by the
community, is “a high responsibility to the commu-
nity,” and makes the fundamental natural relationship
between “initiation” (Führung) and “execution” (Aus-
) the justification of the power relationship be-
tween “domination” (Überordnung) and “subordina-
tion” (Unterordnung) (Hitler, Tischgespräche, p. 171).

Thus Hitler, and the fascists in general, took the
distinctive ideas of authority out of their original per-
sonal and social contexts, applied them to the justifica-
tion of coercive power, and in this politicized form,
reapplied them to the organization of man's social and
personal activities and to the molding of his ideas about
them. Since, indeed, the idea of authority laid particu-
lar stress upon the voluntary component in the submis-
sion to power, it was particularly appropriate to total-
itarian use for thought-control.

3. Post-totalitarian Ideas of Authority. The con-
temporary intellectual opposition to fascism tended to
defend familiar liberal ideas, including those of the
democratic limits upon and accountability of authority.
The intellectually significant response to totalitarianism
has been a post-fascist phenomenon. The change from
the liberal view of authority to a radical attack on
authority was developed after World War II by the
movements of the New Left, which sees in fascism not
a case of the political abuse of authority but a key
to the ubiquity of oppressive authoritative power
throughout society.

This conviction of the New Left has taken two forms,
depending on whether the oppression in the power-
authority syndrome is seen to come primarily from the
power or from the authority. The first of these alterna-
tives has been developed by those in the New Left
who represent a connection with the old: for them
social authority, in the sense of the force for voluntary
submission in men's primary relation, is the charac-
teristic means of power produced by advanced indus-
trial society; it is essentially a pre-coercive power
which controls men's will by determining their needs
and as such it is continuous with the coercive political
power which is merely its extension. “Contemporary
industrial society,” in the formulation of Herbert
Marcuse, a prominent spokesman for this group, is
“one-dimensional.” It “tends to be totalitarian. For
'totalitarian' is not only a terroristic political coordi-
nation of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-
technical coordination which operates through the
manipulation of needs by vested interests.... Under
the rule of a repressive whole, liberty can be made
into a powerful instrument of domination” (Marcuse,
One-Dimensional Man, pp. 3, 7).

But this strand of the New Left has not gone the
whole way to the rejection of authority. It condemns
every real form of authority because of its unvarying
association with repressive power rather than the idea
of authority as such. Marcuse, for example, asserts the
desirability of “the combination of centralized author-
ity and direct democracy” and implies the authority
of Reason in the shape of the “dialectical concept”
and “the critical theory of society”—forms of authority
devoid of social or political power. The categorical
rejection of authority is the result rather of other
spokesmen of the New Left whose deliberately formless
attitudes are most clearly grasped in the glosses they
have contributed to anarchism. The most obvious shift
of emphasis in the new anarchism has been from the
concentration on political authority characteristic of
“historical anarchism”—i.e., the anarchism of Godwin,
Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin—to “the rejection
of authority as such, whatever its form or field”
(Heintz, pp. 9-12).

But this shift has been more than one of scope, for
along with the expansion of the anarchist target from
all political forms to all social forms of authority has
come a shift from the denial of authority as the source
of compulsive power to the denial of the very elements
which have always distinguished the idea of authority
from the idea of power. First, where the historical
anarchists denied the validity of any natural hierarchy
or scale of moral values or conferral of rights which
could serve as the basis of the legal authority of some
individuals over others, the neo-anarchists insist upon
the natural, moral, social, intellectual, and personal
equality of all individuals and upon the consequent
illegitimacy of any relationship based on the pretended
superiority of some individuals over others, whether
innate, ethical, conventional, or contracted. Second,
neo-anarchism condemns all institutions—that is, en-
during arrangements—not only because of their inevi-
table tendency toward bureaucratization (as in histori-
cal anarchism) but more fundamentally because as such
they inevitably entail the authority of the past over
the present. Finally, the neo-anarchists insist on the
spontaneity, the open-endedness, and the planlessness
of their enterprises because the definition of universal
ends and the elaboration of programmatic designs to-
ward those ends entail the authority of the future over
the present.

In this set of rejections the New Left clearly denies
the whole set of original, unperverted meanings of
authority. It denies the personal authority of natural
capacity and acquired merit; it denies the creation of
authority by transfer or delegation of rights; it denies
the authority of age and experience, whether in fami-
lies or traditions; and it denies the authority of the
author, both in terms of a special regard for founders
and their foundations and in terms of the viability of


designs which require the execution by some of what
is initiated by others. And all these authentic kinds of
authority are denied, moreover, not because they have
been corrupted by their association with power but
because they are in themselves illegitimate exercises
of power and because the functions of personal respect,
social continuity, and communicated creation which
these authorities purport to serve are better served by
the untrammeled interaction of absolutely free and
equal individuals.