Classic Essays

Le Bon: Prophet of the 20th Century

Gustave_Le_BonIN 1895, in the closing years of the West’s most vortical century, a French social scientist wrote a book which talked about the unconscious before Freud, the revolt of the masses before Ortega y Gasset, and residues (manifestations of instincts) before Pareto.

The title of the work was La psychologie des foules, which has been variously rendered into English as The Psychology of the Crowd, Mob Psychology and latterly The Crowd. The author was Gustave Le Bon (pictured), who lived through the three most disquieting and shabby episodes of France’s Third Republic: (1) the Dreyfus Affair which was concerned with the deification of a Jewish army officer who was first convicted and then cleared of spying for Germany; (2) the rise and pathetic fall of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the hero of the Suez Canal, who was sent to jail for financial scandals arising out of his failures in Panama; (3) the career of General Boulanger, the man on horseback who could have been an early DeGaulle, but who, blind to the beckoning finger of fate, ended up a suicide.

Le Bon could not escape being disheartened and disgusted by these sleazy events, which he blamed on the emergence of the crowd or mob as the decisive factor in human affairs. “The divine right of the masses,” he predicted, “is about to replace the divine right of kings.”

The mob, Le Bon assures us, is not the sum of its parts. Its behavior is quite different from that of the individuals who compose it. “Civilizations as yet have only been created and directed by a small intellectual aristocracy, never by crowds. Crowds are only powerful for destruction.”

Crowds, according to Le Bon, are characterized by their anonymity, the contagious nature of their acts and, more importantly, their proneness to suggestion. Juries pronounce verdicts of which the jurors as individuals would disapprove. The French nobility voted to give up all its privileges on the night of August 4, 1789 — an act of renunciation to which its members, taken singly, would never have agreed.

People who make up crowds act as if they were under the influence of their spinal cords rather than their brains. Their sentiments are exaggerated out of all proportions, as “in beings belonging to inferior forms of evolution.” Often they are distinguished by their feminine and childish characteristics, being incapable of sorting out the subjective from the objective. “Isolated,” Le Bon declares, “[a man] may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd he is a barbarian ….”

Le Bon’s masterwork, however, is far more than an insightful essay on mass behavior. His many meanderings are often more enlightening than his central thesis. Here is what he thinks of history books:

[They are] works of pure imagination …. fanciful accounts of ill-observed facts …. To write such books is the most absolute waste of time. Had not the past left us its literary, artistic, and monumental works, we should know absolutely nothing in reality with regard to bygone times. Are we in possession of a single word of truth concerning the lives of the great men who have played preponderant parts in the history of humanity — men such as Hercules, Buddha, or Mahomet? In all probability we are not … It is legendary heroes, and not for a moment real heroes, who have impressed the minds of crowds.

Equally illuminating is Le Bon’s attitude towards science:

Science promised us truth, or at least a knowledge of such relations as our intelligence can seize: it never promised us peace or happiness. Sovereignly indifferent to our feelings, it is deaf to our lamentations. It is for us to endeavor to live with science, since nothing can bring back the illusions it has destroyed.

On education:

[I]nstruction neither renders a man more moral nor happier. Statisticians have brought confirmation of these views by telling us that criminality increases with the generalization of instruction … and that some of the worst enemies of society are recruited among the prize-winners of schools.

On socialism:

Not truth, but error has always been the chief factor in the evolution of nations, and the reason why socialism is so powerful today is that it constitutes the last illusion that is still vital. In spite of all scientific demonstrations it continues on the increase. Its principal strength lies in the fact that it is championed by minds sufficiently ignorant of things as they are in reality to venture boldly to promise mankind happiness. The social illusion reigns today upon all the heaped-up ruins of the past, and to it belongs the future. The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduces them. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.

On religion:

There are great difficulties in the way of establishing a general belief, but when it is definitely implanted its power is for a long time to come invincible, and however false it be philosophically it imposes itself upon the most luminous intelligence. Have not the European peoples regarded as incontrovertible for more than fifteen centuries religious legends which, closely examined, are as barbarous as those of Moloch? The frightful absurdity of the legend of a God who revenges himself for the … disobedience of one of his creatures by inflicting horrible tortures on his son remained unperceived during many centuries.

And finally on what Le Bon considers to be the chief determinant of human behavior:

This factor, race, must be placed in the first rank, for in itself it far surpasses in importance all the others … [It] dominates all the feelings and all the thoughts of men … [It] should be considered as an essential law that the inferior characteristics of crowds are the less accidental in proportion as the spirit of race is strong.

Le Bon died in 1931 at the age of ninety, after most of his predictions about the shape of the future had come to pass. Precisely because he x-rayed events and trends so thoroughly, his works were relegated to the “file and forget” basket of the all-powerful, liberal-minority scholasts. Like Cassandra, whose prognostications were never believed, Le Bon spoke the truth about the future, but no one would listen. Cassandra had promised bodily favors to Apollo for the gift of prophecy, but when the time came to pay up she reneged. Though he had not doublecrossed Apollo or any other deity, Le Bon suffered the same penalty.

Truth, it seems, can be slanted, desecrated and tortured, but it cannot be murdered. Le Bon and his ideas are still around, though almost totally unknown to the general public and, incredibly, not mentioned once in the entire twenty-four volumes of the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The fact that such shamans and intellectual con artists as Marx and Freud are household words, while Le Bon remains an unknown soldier in the battle for rationality, is only one more proof of his own thesis about the credulity and ignorance of that most important and credulous of all crowds — the intelligentsia.

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Source: Instauration magazine, November 1976

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