Gustave Le Bon on "The Psychology of Revolutionary Crowds"

International Journal of Radical Critique  via PROJECT GUTENBERG, March 15, 2012 | by GUSTAVE LE BON

"The Psychology of Revolutionary Crowds" is excerpted from Chapter IV of Le Bon's Book The Psychology of Revolution (1913)

1. General Characteristics of the Crowd.
"Reality and experience have no effect upon them. The multitude will admit anything; nothing is impossible in the eyes of the crowd."
Whatever their origin, revolutions do not produce their full effects until they have penetrated the soul of the multitude. They therefore represent a consequence of the psychology of crowds.

Although I have studied collective psychology at length in another volume, I must here recall its principal laws.

Man, as part of a multitude, is a very different being from the same man as an isolated individual. His conscious individuality vanishes in the unconscious personality of the crowd.

Material contact is not absolutely necessary to produce in the individual the mentality of the crowd. Common passions and sentiments, provoked by certain events, are often sufficient to create it.

The collective mind, momentarily formed, represents a very special kind of aggregate. Its chief peculiarity is that it is entirely dominated by unconscious elements, and is subject to a peculiar collective logic.

Among the other characteristics of crowds, we must note their infinite credulity and exaggerated sensibility, their short- sightedness, and their incapacity to respond to the influences of reason. Affirmation, contagion, repetition, and prestige constitute almost the only means of persuading them. Reality and experience have no effect upon them. The multitude will admit anything; nothing is impossible in the eyes of the crowd.

By reason of the extreme sensibility of crowds, their sentiments, good or bad, are always exaggerated. This exaggeration increases still further in times of revolution. The least excitement will then lead the multitude to act with the utmost fury. Their credulity, so great even in the normal state, is still further increased; the most improbable statements are accepted. Arthur Young relates that when he visited the springs near Clermont, at the time of the French Revolution, his guide was stopped by the people, who were persuaded that he had come by order of the Queen to mine and blow up the town. The most horrible tales concerning the Royal Family were circulated, depicting it as a nest of ghouls and vampires.

These various characteristics show that man in the crowd descends to a very low degree in the scale of civilisation. He becomes a savage, with all a savage's faults and qualities, with all his momentary violence, enthusiasm, and heroism. In the intellectual domain a crowd is always inferior to the isolated unit. In the moral and sentimental domain it may be his superior. A crowd will commit a crime as readily as an act of abnegation.

Personal characteristics vanish in the crowd, which exerts an extraordinary influence upon the individuals which form it. The miser becomes generous, the sceptic a believer, the honest man a criminal, the coward a hero. Examples of such transformations abounded during the great Revolution.

As part of a jury or a parliament, the collective man renders verdicts or passes laws of which he would never have dreamed in his isolated condition.

One of the most notable consequences of the influence of a collectivity upon the individuals who compose it is the unification of their sentiments and wills. This psychological unity confers a remarkable force upon crowds.

The formation of such a mental unity results chiefly from the fact that in a crowd gestures and actions are extremely contagious. Acclamations of hatred, fury, or love are immediately approved and repeated.

What is the origin of these common sentiments, this common will? They are propagated by contagion, but a point of departure is necessary before this contagion can take effect. Without a leader the crowd is an amorphous entity incapable of action.

A knowledge of the laws relating to the psychology of crowds is indispensable to the interpretation of the elements of our Revolution, and to a comprehension of the conduct of revolutionary assemblies, and the singular transformations of the individuals who form part of them. Pushed by the unconscious forces of the collective soul, they more often than not say what they did not intend, and vote what they would not have wished to vote.

Although the laws of collective psychology have sometimes been divined instinctively by superior statesmen, the majority of Governments have not understood and do not understand them. It is because they do not understand them that so many of them have fallen so easily. When we see the facility with which certain Governments were overthrown by an insignificant riot—as happened in the case of the monarchy of Louis-Philippe—the dangers of an ignorance of collective psychology are evident. The marshal in command of the troops in 1848, which were more than sufficient to defend the king, certainly did not understand that the moment he allowed the crowd to mingle with the troops the latter, paralysed by suggestion and contagion, would cease to do their duty. Neither did he know that as the multitude is extremely sensible to prestige it needs a great display of force to impress it, and that such a display will at once suppress hostile demonstrations. He was equally ignorant of the fact that all gatherings should be dispersed immediately. All these things have been taught by experience, but in 1848 these lessons had not been grasped. At the time of the great Revolution the psychology of crowds was even less understood.

2. How the Stability of the Racial Mind limits the Oscillations of the Mind of the Crowd.

A people can in a sense be likened to a crowd. It possesses certain characteristics, but the oscillations of these characteristics are limited by the soul or mind of the race. The mind of the race has a fixity unknown to the transitory mind of the crowd.

When a people possesses an ancestral soul established by a long past the soul of the crowd is always dominated thereby.

A people differs from a crowd also in that it is composed of a collection of groups, each having different interests and passions. In a crowd properly so-called—a popular assembly, for example—there are unities which may belong to very different social categories.

A people sometimes seems as mobile as a crowd, but we must not forget that behind its mobility, its enthusiasms, its violence and destructiveness, the extremely tenacious and conservative instincts of the racial mind persist. The history of the Revolution and the century which has followed shows how the conservative spirit finally overcomes the spirit of destruction. More than one system of government which the people has shattered has been restored by the people.

It is not as easy to work upon the mind of the people—that is, the mind of the race—as on the mind of a crowd. The means of action are indirect and slower (journals, conferences, speeches, books, &c.). The elements of persuasion always come under the headings already given: affirmation, repetition, prestige, and contagion.

Mental contagion may affect a whole people instantaneously, but more often it operates slowly, creeping from group to group. Thus was the Reformation propagated in France.

A people is far less excitable than a crowd; but certain events— national insults, threats of invasion, &c.—may arouse it instantly. Such a phenomenon was observed on several occasions during the Revolution, notably at the time of the insolent manifesto issued by the Duke of Brunswick. The Duke knew little indeed of the psychology of the French race when he proffered his threats. Not only did he considerably prejudice the cause of Louis XVI.; but he also damaged his own, since his intervention raised from the soil an army eager to fight him.

This sudden explosion of feeling throughout a whole race has been observed in all nations. Napoleon did not understand the power of such explosions when he invaded Spain and Russia. One may easily disaggregate the facile mind of a crowd, but one can do nothing before the permanent soul of a race. Certainly the Russian peasant is a very indifferent being, gross and narrow by nature, yet at the first news of invasion he was transformed. One may judge of this fact on reading a letter written by Elizabeth, wife of the Emperor Alexander I.

``From the moment when Napoleon had crossed our frontiers it was as though an electric spark had spread through all Russia; and if the immensity of its area had made it possible for the news to penetrate simultaneously to every corner of the Empire a cry of indignation would have arisen so terrible that I believe it would have resounded to the ends of the earth. As Napoleon advances this feeling is growing yet stronger. Old men who have lost all or nearly all their goods are saying: `We shall find a way of living. Anything is preferable to a shameful peace.' Women all of whose kin are in the army regard the dangers they are running as secondary, and fear nothing but peace. Happily this peace, which would be the death-warrant of Russia, will not be negotiated; the Emperor does not conceive of such an idea, and even if he would he could not. This is the heroic side of our position.''

The Empress describes to her mother the two following traits, which give some idea of the degree of resistance of which the soul of the Russian is capable:—

``The Frenchmen had caught some unhappy peasants in Moscow, whom they thought to force to serve in their ranks, and in order that they should not be able to escape they branded their hands as one brands horses in the stud. One of them asked what this mark meant; he was told it signified that he was a French soldier. `What! I am a soldier of the Emperor of the French!' he said. And immediately he took his hatchet, cut off his hand, and threw it at the feet of those present, saying, `Take it—there's your mark!'

``At Moscow, too, the French had taken a score of peasants of whom they wished to make an example in order to frighten the villagers, who were picking off the French foraging parties and were making war as well as the detachments of regular troops. They ranged them against a wall and read their sentence in Russian. They waited for them to beg for mercy: instead of that they took farewell of one another and made their sign of the cross. The French fired on the first of them; they waited for the rest to beg for pardon in their terror, and to promise to change their conduct. They fired on the second, and on the third, and so on all the twenty, without a single one having attempted to implore the clemency of the enemy. Napoleon has not once had the pleasure of profaning this word in Russia.''

Among the characteristics of the popular mind we must mention that in all peoples and all ages it has been saturated with mysticism. The people will always be convinced that superior beings—divinities, Governments, or great men—have the power to change things at will. This mystic side produces an intense need of adoration. The people must have a fetich, either a man or a doctrine. This is why, when threatened with anarchy, it calls for a Messiah to save it.

Like the crowd, but more slowly, the people readily passes from adoration to hatred. A man may be the hero of the people at one period, and finally earn its curses. These variations of popular opinion concerning political personalities may be observed in all times. The history of Cromwell furnishes us with a very curious example.[5]

[5] After having overthrown a dynasty and refused a crown he was buried like a king among kings. Two years later his body was torn from the tomb, and his head, cut off by the executioner, was exposed above the gate of the House of Parliament. A little while ago a statue was raised to him. The old anarchist turned autocrat now figures in the gallery of demigods.

4. The Role of the Leader in Revolutionary Movements.

All the varieties of crowds—homogeneous and heterogeneous, assemblies, peoples, clubs, &c.—are, as we have often repeated, aggregates incapable of unity and action so long as they find no master to lead them.

I have shown elsewhere, making use of certain physiological experiments, that the unconscious collective mind of the crowd seems bound up with the mind of the leader. The latter gives it a single will and imposes absolute obedience.

The leader acts especially through suggestion. His success depends on his fashion of provoking this suggestion. Many experiments have shown to what point a collectivity may be subjected to suggestion.[6]

[6] Among the numerous experiments made to prove this fact one of the most remarkable was performed on the pupils of his class by Professor Glosson and published in the Revue Scientifique for October 28, 1899.

``I prepared a bottle filled with distilled water carefully wrapped in cotton and packed in a box. After several other experiments I stated that I wished to measure the rapidity with which an odour would diffuse itself through the air, and asked those present to raise their hands the moment they perceived the odour. . . . I took out the bottle and poured the water on the cotton, turning my head away during the operation, then took up a stop-watch and awaited the result. . . . I explained that I was absolutely sure that no one present had ever smelt the odour of the chemical composition I had spilt. . . . At the end of fifteen seconds the majority of those in front had held up their hands, and in forty seconds the odour had reached the back of the hall by fairly regular waves. About three-quarters of those present declared that they perceived the odour. A larger number would doubtless have succumbed to suggestion, if at the end of a minute I had not been forced to stop the experiment, some of those in the front rows being unpleasantly affected by the odour, and wishing to leave the hall.''

According to the suggestions of the leaders, the multitude will be calm, furious, criminal, or heroic. These various suggestions may sometimes appear to present a rational aspect, but they will only appear to be reasonable. A crowd is in reality inaccessible to reason; the only ideas capable of influencing it will always be sentiments evoked in the form of images.

The history of the Revolution shows on every page how easily the multitude follows the most contradictory impulses given by its different leaders. We see it applaud just as vigorously at the triumph of the Girondists, the Hebertists, the Dantonists, and the Terrorists as at their successive downfalls. One may be quite sure, also, that the crowd understood nothing of these events.

At a distance one can only confusedly perceive the part played by the leaders, for they commonly work in the shade. To grasp this clearly we must study them in contemporary events. We shall then see how readily the leader can provoke the most violent popular movements. We are not thinking here of the strikes of the postmen or railway men, in which the discontent of the employees might intervene, but of events in which the crowd was not in the least interested. Such, for example, was the popular rising provoked by a few Socialist leaders amidst the Parisian populace on the morrow of the execution of Ferrer, in Spain. The French crowd had never heard of Ferrer. In Spain his execution was almost unnoticed. In Paris the incitements of a few leaders sufficed to hurl a regular popular army upon the Spanish Embassy, with the intention of burning it. Part of the garrison had to be employed to protect it. Energetically repulsed, the assailants contented themselves with sacking a few shops and building some barricades.

At the same time, the leaders gave another proof of their influence. Finally understanding that the burning of a foreign embassy might be extremely dangerous, they ordered a pacific demonstration for the following day, and were as faithfully obeyed as if they had ordered the most violent riot. No example could better show the importance of leaders and the submission of the crowd

The historians who, from Michelet to M. Aulard, have represented the revolutionary crowd as having acted on its own initiative, without leaders, do not comprehend its psychology.

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