Written in 1895, more than one hundred years ago, in an age that most people today are inclined to consider antediluvian, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (the French original title, Psychologie des foules, sounds more like “Psychology of the crowds”), can still appeal to the reader of the twenty-first century as a work of unexpected actuality.
Its author, Gustave Le Bon, was a French polymath who delved into subjects as different as the history of the Arabs and India, psychology, and nuclear physics. A physician by training, he devoted himself to theory and never practised as a doctor. Born in 1841, at twenty-nine he took part in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, which ended in France’s defeat by the ascendant power of Prussia and dealt a serious blow, from which France was never really to recover, to France’s great power status. The year later Le Bon witnessed the Paris Commune, one of the many French revolutionary experiments.
Both experiences, the war and the chaos of the first ever dictatorship of the proletariat, profoundly affected Le Bon’s worldview and understanding of man. The teachings he drew from there were of rather pessimistic nature, some would say, but appeared to be marked by an extreme form of healthy and disenchanted realism too.
Psychologie des Foules is written around one hundred years after the French Revolution, that most significant popular upheaval that for the first time put the “people” at the centre of European history, and at the end of a century characterized by the faith in the possibilities of science, progress and the enlightenment to improve the life of nations and the destiny of man, not just materially but morally as well. Mass education, the universal suffrage, a raising concern with the issues of the working class and the birth of socialism, they all were based on the assumption that man, regardless of his current social position, is essentially improvable and that the greatest happiness is the happiness of the greatest number, like the English utilitarian philosophers Bentham and Mill had put it.
The current era is the age of the crowd, writes Le Bon, with apparent regret, noting that all powers have to bend to the caprices of the crowd in this new era. These words clearly strike the twenty-first century European or American reader as very disparaging, since the Western citizen has become accustomed to the universal rhetoric of democracy and is not faced too often with a criticism of the very foundation of the Western source of immense pride, a political system based on the principles of freedom and democracy. These two words recur endlessly in all high-level discourse about political affairs and seem to the Westerner to represent the greatest invention in the entire history of humanity.
But freedom and democracy are two very generic words, recalling two very universal concepts, things that can mean different things to different people, like Le Bon would note, and big words can easily be used to manipulate the masses through emotions. Surprisingly though, Le Bon’s criticism of the imperfections of democracy sounds in a way similar to the arguments some twenty-first century champions of democracy use to attack populism, arguably an inferior form of democracy, when a demagogue without many scruples exploits the weaknesses of a gullible crowd of intellectually deficient people. It is only an apparent contraction, arguably, that the greatest champions of democracy and liberal and progressive values are all too ready to dismiss a large part of the population of their own countries as unworthy of democratic representation.
Written in in era when sociology was still undergoing a process of formalization as a science, Psychologie des Foules may seem to some readers to be a work without enough scientific grounding and based entirely on the intuitions of the author. Yet innumerable influential historical figures in the past century, good and bad, from Churchill to Mussolini, from Freud to Hitler, have found this writing inspiring and for this reason only this little book has left a profound mark on history.