Gustave Le Bon on "Revolutionary & Criminal Mentalities"

"The Revolutionary and Criminal Mentalities" is excerpted from Chapter III of Le Bon's book The Psychology of Revolution (1913)

1. The Revolutionary Mentality

We have just seen that the mystic elements are one of the components of the Jacobin mentality. We shall now see that they enter into another form of mentality which is also clearly defined, the revolutionary mentality.

In all ages societies have contained a certain number of restless spirits, unstable and discontented, ready to rebel against any established order of affairs. They are actuated by the mere love of revolt, and if some magic power could realise all their desires they would simply revolt again.

This special mentality often results from a faulty adaptation of the individual to his surroundings, or from an excess of mysticism, but it may also be merely a question of temperament or arise from pathological disturbances.

The need of revolt presents very different degrees of intensity, from simple discontent expressed in words directed against men and things to the need of destroying them. Sometimes the individual turns upon himself the revolutionary frenzy that he cannot otherwise exercise. Russia is full of these madmen, who, not content with committing arson or throwing bombs at hazard into the crowd, finally mutilate themselves, like the Skopzis and other analogous sects.

These perpetual rebels are generally highly suggestible beings, whose mystic mentality is obsessed by fixed ideas. Despite the apparent energy indicated by their actions they are really weak characters, and are incapable of mastering themselves sufficiently to resist the impulses that rule them. The mystic spirit which animates them furnishes pretexts for their violence, and enables them to regard themselves as great reformers.

In normal times the rebels which every society contains are restrained by the laws, by their environment—in short, by all the usual social constraints, and therefore remain undetected. But as soon as a time of disturbance begins these constraints grow weaker, and the rebel can give a free reign to his instincts. He then becomes the accredited leader of a movement. The motive of the revolution matters little to him; he will give his life indifferently for the red flag or the white, or for the liberation of a country which he has heard vaguely mentioned.

The revolutionary spirit is not always pushed to the extremes which render it dangerous. When, instead of deriving from affective or mystic impulses, it has an intellectual origin, it may become a source of progress. It is thanks to those spirits who are sufficiently independent to be intellectually revolutionary that a civilisation is able to escape from the yoke of tradition and habit when this becomes too heavy. The sciences, arts, and industries especially have progressed by the aid of such men. Galileo, Lavoisier, Darwin, and Pasteur were such revolutionaries.

Although it is not necessary that a nation should possess any large number of such spirits, it is very necessary that it should possess some. Without them men would still be living in caves.

The revolutionary audacity which results in discoveries implies very rare faculties. It necessitates notably an independence of mind sufficient to escape from the influence of current opinions, and a judgement that can grasp, under superficial analogies, the hidden realities. This form of revolutionary spirit is creative, while that examined above is destructive.

The revolutionary mentality may, therefore, be compared to certain physiological states in the life of the individual which are normally useful, but which, when exaggerated, take a pathological form which is always hurtful.

2. The Criminal Mentality

All the civilised societies inevitably drag behind them a residue of degenerates, of the unadapted, of persons affected by various taints. Vagabonds, beggars, fugitives from justice, thieves, assassins, and starving creatures that live from day to day, may constitute the criminal population of the great cities. In ordinary times these waste products of civilisation are more or less restrained by the police. During revolution nothing restrains them, and they can easily gratify their instincts to murder and plunder. In the dregs of society the revolutionaries of all times are sure of finding recruits. Eager only to kill and to plunder, little matters to them the cause they are sworn to defend. If the chances of murder and pillage are better in the party attacked, they will promptly change their colours.

To these criminals, properly so called, the incurable plague of all societies, we must add the class of semi-criminals. Wrongdoers on occasion, they never rebel so long as the fear of the established order restrains them, but as soon as it weakens they enrol themselves in the army of revolution.

These two categories—habitual and occasional criminals—form an army of disorder which is fit for nothing but the creation of disorder. All the revolutionaries, all the founders of religious or political leagues, have constantly counted on their support.

We have already stated that this population, with its criminal mentality, exercised a considerable influence during the French Revolution. It always figured in the front rank of the riots which occurred almost daily. Certain historians have spoken with respect and emotion of the way in which the sovereign people enforced its will upon the Convention, invading the hall armed with pikes, the points of which were sometimes decorated with newly severed heads. If we analyse the elements composing the pretended delegations of the sovereign people, we shall find that, apart from a small number of simple souls who submitted to the impulses of the leaders, the mass was almost entirely formed of the bandits of whom I have been speaking. To them were due the innumerable murders of which the massacres of September and the killing of the Princesse de Lamballe were merely typical.

They terrorised all the great Assemblies, from the Constituent Assembly to the Convention, and for ten years they helped to ravage France. If by some miracle this army of criminals could have been eliminated, the progress of the Revolution would have been very different. They stained it with blood from its dawn to its decline. Reason could do nothing with them but they could do much against reason.

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