I have always been interested in the psychology of crowds. However, the past decade has renewed a free interest, in the wake of Barack Obama’s emergence, and then Donald Trump, and the rise of populist nationalism across the globe. So, when a friend recommended Gustave Le Bon’s book, I was looking forward to reading it.
In the preface, Le Bon was keen to embrace, and even celebrate, the fact that he did not belong to any of his contemporary schools of thought. “To belong to a school”, he argued, “is necessarily to espouse its prejudices and preconceived opinions”. Le Bon was clearly proud to be above all of that. Yet what you find in the following pages is an author who was very much a man of his time, locked in its Eurocentric prejudices and sharing in its preconceived opinions. He did, in fact seemed blissfully unaware of these prejudices as he declared that “the special characteristics of crowds…such as impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason, the absence of judgment and of the critical spirit, the exaggeration of sentiments… are almost always observed in beings belonging to inferior forms of evolution- in women, savages, and children, for instance” (page 17). It is galling, but it should nevertheless not distract from his more important contribution on a subject that of timeless relevance, to wit: why do individuals behave and act differently when they are part of a crowd? How does the “mind” of a crowd work, and what attributes of leaders of crowds make them to powerful and deadly?
The book is organised into three parts, with Book 1 focusing on “the mind of crowds”, book 2 on “the opinion and beliefs of crowds”, and book 3 addressing “the classification and description of the different minds of crowds”. The first two parts have four chapters each, and the third has five chapters. In the introduction which precedes the three parts, Le Bon sets out his main thesis that his contemporary world (the book was written in 1895) was entering the era of crowds. The divine rights of kings was going to give way to the divine rights of the masses. The power of the crowd is irresistible, but the crowd is mentally inferior, little adapted to reasoning, and quick to act. “Crowds are only powerful for destruction”. “When the structure of civilisation is rotten, it is always the masses that bring about its downfall. It is at such a juncture that their chief mission is plainly visible, and for a while the philosophy of numbers seems the only philosophy of history’. This is why, Le Bon argues, the statesman must pay attention, not so much to govern the crowd, but in order not to be too governed by them.
The isolated individual is different from the crowd in several respects: first the individual acquires the sentiments of the crowd which leads them to submit to instincts they would otherwise resist in solitary reflection. This sentiment is reinforced by contagion within the crowd, and together they lead to the disappearance of the conscious personality in which the individual is no longer conscious of their acts. Stripped of this consciousness, the crowd becomes impulsive and impressionable, at the mercy of any suggestion of those positioned as leaders of crowds. “Given to exaggeration in its feelings, a crowd is only impressed by excessive sentiments. An orator wishing to move a crowd must make an abusive use of violent affirmations”. Given its propensity for extremes, brooking no doubts or uncertainty, the crowd would only accept heroes and leaders men of similar dispositions: “the multitude is always ready to listen to the strong-willed man, who knows how to impose himself upon it. Men gathered in a crowd lose all force of will, and turn instinctively to the person who posses the quality they lack”.
Perhaps this is why the ideal of the philosopher king is always a practical rarity. Philosophers and thinkers may be men of great foresight, but also tend to struggle more with doubts and inactivity. On the other hand, the leaders of crowds tend to be persons whose “convictions are so strong that all reason is lost upon them”. It must be here noted that Le Bon here tries to make a brief distinction between leaders of nations and leaders of crowds. Leaders of nation tends to be more subtle rhetoricians, more conscious and self-aware. Le Bon also accepts, albeit grudgingly, that leaders of crowds are not always monsters. Some combines high intelligence with overwhelming convictions and an irresistible force of will. These are more than agitators, and their influence endures. I reckon this hybrid category are effectively leaders of crowds who became leaders of nations.
Le Bon also argues that personal prestige is central to en enduring power of leaders of crowds. This prestige, which can be acquire or artificial, is “a sort of domination exercised on our mind by an individual, a work, or an idea”. It is the “mainspring of all authority”. It often gives the leader of crowd to do as he wishes, and typically condition people to accept the most inhuman treatment without protest. Nevertheless, prestige also works as a double-edged sword. The psychology of prestige is such that “the hero whom the crowd acclaimed yesterday is insulted today should he have been overtaken by failure”
Le Bon also put crowds into two broad categories: homogenous and heterogenous crowds. The homogenous crowds can be anonymous or non-anonymous; while heterogenous crowds can be sects, castes and classes. Faith, including religious faith, plays a key role in the mobilisation of crowds- both for destructive and productive end. I will conclude my comments on the book on this instructive note. It is interesting how politicians today make great efforts to foray to religious assemblies, employing rhetorics that would appeal to emotions of religious congregations, even when their antecedents reveal they had little or no interest in religion. Donald Trump enthusiastically embraced religious rhetorics in the lead to, and since, the 2016 US presidential election. We also remember David Cameron making a sensational visit to a Nigerian mega church in London where he paid homage to “Daddy G.O.” The crowd lapped it up without much thought. In Nigeria today, most politicians also bear the titles of Pastor and Evangelist-for strategic ends. Nevertheless, the sentiments and convictions of religious crowds have not always been appropriated for ill, or always by men of questionable antecedents. Martin Luther KingJr was as much an effective mobiliser of crowds as he was a great leader of people- and for a great purpose.
Whatever you make of Le Bon’s own prejudices, we must accept that he has made an important contribution to the understanding of the psychology of crowds. No matter what you think of the mental inferiority of crowds, it is naive to dismiss its potent utility, either for destructive or productive ends.
Author Gustave Le Bon
Date of original publication: 1895 (this version was published in 2014)
Publisher: Aristeus Books