In a classic, “The Age of the Crowd”, the author, Serge Moscovici, writes on the nature of crowds.
“WHEN THE MASSES APPEARED more or less everywhere in Europe, posing a threat to the social structure, the question of the nature of the crowd was raised. Three answers, all equally ubiquitous and equally superficial, were proposed.
1. Crowds are collections of individuals who temporarily come together outside and in opposition to institutions. In other words, crowds were antisocial and composed of antisocial individuals, the result of a temporary or permanent dissolution of groups or classes. A worker or wage-earner leaving his workshop or office to go home to his family might escape from the normal social framework for an hour or two and become an atom in a swarming and multiple crowd in the street or the metro. While strolling around or watching what was going on, he might be drawn to some group that was assembling and melt into it with intense pleasure. Baudelaire, in Le Spleen de Paris, describes this as an art.
The lonely and pensive stroller derives an intense and pleasurable intoxication from that kind of universal communion. The man who finds no difficulty in losing himself in the crowd experiences heady pleasures forever denied to the egoist in his iron self-sufficiency or the slothful man as limited in his contacts with the external world as a mollusc.
The crowd was still equated with the 'populace', the 'mob', the Lumpenproletariat, in short with what had always been thought of as the plebs, men and women with no specific identity, on the fringes of society, pushed into ghettoes or industrial suburbs, with no jobs and no aims and living outside laws and customs. Or at least thought to be living in that way. It was therefore an accumulation of disintegrated social elements, human waste swept out of society and hence hostile to it. Consequently, for sociologists the crowd was neither a separate nor an important nor a new phenomenon, but simply an epiphenomenon. It was not an object of investigation, and was seen merely as a perturbation following upon a breakdown in the normal functioning of things. Society was order, the crowd its related disorder and ultimately a collective rather than a social phenomenon.
2. Crowds are mad. This second answer, seen and proposed as a truth, was as clinging and tenacious as ivy and part of the stock wisdom handed down from generation to generation. We still have the madness of crowds of fans worshipping a pop star or of thousands of fans rising to their feet as one man and waving flags and banners when their team scores, or of tumultuous masses coming to see a great man or lynch some unfortunate out of hand, or of the faithful rushing to places like Lourdes or Fatima where a miracle is supposed to have occurred (De Felice, 1947: 372).
Numberless lurid fables or books (see for example Mackay 1847 and 1932) tell of the unlimited enthusiasm or the unbridled panic of popular masses travelling over whole continents singing or flagellating themselves. Full of fervour for a religion or a man, they followed it or him like the Jews their false Messiah or the Christians their fanatical monks until the final catastrophe. As their whim changed, they burnt today what they had adored yesterday, changing ideas like shirts and, depending on the situation, changing serious history into a grotesque carnival or a bloodbath.
Colourful and extravagant crowds have always stimulated the eloquence and aroused the interest of witnesses who have remained miraculously sober. Their exploits have sometimes been described as mad voyages in a ship of fools, sometimes as the criminal misdeeds of a band of brigands. When those writing such accounts adopt the 'eyewitness' formula, their work achieves Dantesque dimensions, its columns fleshed out with tens and hundreds of thousands of men, medieval crusaders or heretics, leaving their families, possessions and homes under the spell of a shared illusion and, despite their faith, perpetrating terrible destruction and frightful slaughter without the slightest hesitation or the least remorse. If their faith evaporates, they adopt a new illusion and follow it just as stubbornly, making the same sacrifice for it and committing equally great crimes in its service.
In the minds of both the writers and the readers of such tales these mass phenomena are fits of madness which feed obscure dreams, unveil the darker side of human nature and exorcise it by presenting it as a spectacle. Their extraordinary, crazy and pathological nature is captivating because, in Claudel’s words, order is the delight of our reason, disorder the frenzy of our imagination. Beyond this spectacular aspect, however, it would seem that crowds offer no interest. They have the inconsistency of dreams and exert no real effect on real history.
3. The third reason takes the first two a stage further. Crowds are criminal. They are mobs, scum, made up of angry men attacking, injuring and destroying anything. They are the incarnation of violence unleashed without any apparent motive, the uncontrolled sweep of unlawful assemblies. Bodily harm and offences against property are ascribed to them. They resist the authorities and act with a total disrespect for the law. At the end of the nineteenth century, there was an enormous increase in the number of crowds, and their unexpected actions began to alarm the authorities. It was at that point in particular that the expression 'criminal mobs' began to be heard, designating criminal assemblies threatening the security of the state and the peace of its citizens. The fact that it was not possible to apprehend them, impose a penalty on them or attribute responsibility for what they had done to any particular individual was disturbing for jurists and meant that any law applied to them would be purely arbitrary. The most that could be done was to arrest one or two people at random, mere small fry or perhaps innocent onlookers, as unlike the maddened monster as the millpond the stormy ocean.
It is not by chance that amongst the first to try to explain crowd behaviour was Lombroso, whose theory of the born criminal had become notorious. In his view, crowds were either composed of or led by individuals with criminal tendencies. He also claimed that mass psychology could be treated simply as part of ‘criminal anthropology, criminality being the internal characteristic of any crowd’. This was an aspect of a general trend quite new at the time. There was an attempt to produce a body of law aimed at penalising illegal collective acts. As one scholar wrote, ‘What is characteristic of our time is the attempt to introduce into criminal law the principle that the crowd can have its own guilt and hence its own responsibility’ (Fauconnet, 1920: 341).
The Italian Sighele extended the theory put forward by his compatriot, Lombroso, and was the first to give a technical meaning to the term 'criminal crowds'. For him, the expression included every social movement and political group from the anarchists to the socialists and, of course, striking workers, street assemblies and so on. His analysis prepared the ground for the introduction of repressive measures by preparing public opinion and providing arguments and a justification for the politicians, if not for the lawyers.
Crowds thus became an object of study as a result of their legally suspect nature. This 'criminality' needs to be described and understood, for it explains their violence, their terrorist acts and their destructive instincts. The general agreement was that it was a question of groups operating like bands of thieves or highwaymen, mafia killers or any other criminal association without a moral conscience or any legal responsibility.
A society which is convinced of its own de facto and de jure stability is relatively tolerant of deviant and nonconformist movements. It is always indulgent towards those who have lost their reason and perhaps even gone beyond what the law allows, and although it may occasionally punish them it does not agonise about them. Their asocial and anomalous nature does not threaten the established order, and they are seen as harmless or even as complete fabrications. But if a society is internally unstable or attacked from outside, the danger to its internal and external security means that such movements are a more serious threat. It is at that stage that they are judged to be harmful and abnormal. That is why crowds, a product of urban and working-class surroundings, were seen right from the start as psychologically and legally suspect, as showing pathological symptoms or symptoms of deviation from normal collective life. This meant that they were diseased growths in a healthy body trying as best it could to expel them. In short, because of their criminal, mad and plebeian nature, crowds seemed to be the waste products or maladies of the existing social order. In themselves, they had no reality and were of no interest.
Le Bon's bold idea, his stroke of genius, was to ignore this way of looking at things. None of the three answers to the problem of the nature of the crowd was acceptable to him. His reasoning was simple and direct. The basic characteristic of crowds is the fusion of individuals into a common spirit and feeling which blurs personality differences and lowers intellectual capacities. Everyone tries to follow his neighbour. By its very weight, the aggregate draws him in its direction, as the tide carries pebbles along with it. That is what happens whatever the level of education and culture or the social class of those involved: 'To combat what precedes, the mental quality of the individuals composing a crowd must not be brought into consideration. This quality is without importance. From the moment that they form part of a crowd, the learned man and the ignoramus are equally incapable of observation' (Le Bon, 1952: 42).
In other words, whatever the wealth or culture of the individual members of a crowd, their own characters will disappear and their personalities fuse in the group in just the same way. It would be wrong to suppose that the educated or upper classes of a society are better able to resist this collective influence than the uneducated or inferior ones or that forty members of the French Academy would behave differently from forty housewives. One commentator stresses this particularly: ‘Both the examples and the systematic explanations in Le Bon show that he had not only street riots and popular assemblies in mind but also all bodies - parliaments, castes, clans within a people, the broad masses of the more developed races and the originators of national intellectual movements and trends, and hence the whole people as a cultural community. The mass for him was almost the exclusive opposite of the individual’ (Vierkandt, 1928: 432).
Masses made up of aristocrats or philosophers, of readers of Le Monde or the Nouvel Observateur, that is, non-conformists very aware of their own individuality, would react just the same as any other. The author of L'Education sentimentale was expressing the same idea when, within the space of a few pages, he spoke of ‘Ie peuple sublime’ and then of 'universal madness' and described the repression in the following terms:
Fear overflowed everywhere. . . . Equality, as if to chastise its defenders and deride its opponents, was triumphally evident. It was an equality of brute beasts, a universal level of base and bloody acts, for fanatical partisan interests balanced out the delirium of need, the aristocrats were as full of furious outbursts as the scum, and the cotton bonnet was no less hideous than the revolutionary one.
(Flaubert, 1952: 432)
The universal nature of these effects, the identical transformation to which all individuals assembled in groups are subject means that the mass is not synonymous with the plebs, the populace, the poor, the ignorant, the proletariat, the hoi polloi as opposed to the elite or the aristocracy. The crowd is everyone, you, me, all of us. All men, when they come together, become a mass, and there are no distinctions in this matter.
And what was seen as the criminal nature of crowds is an illusion. Of course they are violent and anarchical and are often easily carried away by a destructive fury. As a group, they pillage, demolish, lynch and engage in acts that no individual member would dare to perpetrate. And Le Bon is quite happy to see their historical role as an eminently negative one. For him, civilisations had always been created and led by a tiny aristocracy and never by crowds, whose only power was to destroy. If they were dominant, it was always at a period of disorder (Le Bon, 1952: 18).
Crowds can also be more heroic and just than individuals, and have the enthusiasms and generosity of simple beings, and when they are offered an ideal or a strong faith, they are capable of almost limitless unselfishness. For Le Bon, their inability to reason meant that they could develop great altruism, something that reason inevitably suppresses, but which is a very useful social virtue (Le Bon, 1910: 129).
He criticised in stubborn detail all those who held criminality to be the distinctive feature of crowds. To that end, he pointed out that even at the worst moments of the French Revolution they took care to set up tribunals and judge their future victims with equity. Their honesty was just as marked, because they brought back to the tables of the revolutionary committees all the money and jewels taken from the condemned men and women. Their crimes were therefore just one particular aspect of their psychological make-up, and were for the most part committed at the instigation of a leader.
In short, crowds were neither preponderantly criminal nor preponderantly virtuous, and violence was no more a characteristic of them than heroism. They could be violent and heroic at the same time. For Le Bon, that was where those writers who had only studied crowds as criminal phenomena went wrong. Crowds were, of course, often criminal, but they were also often heroic. They could easily be led to sacrifice their lives for a belief or an idea, be filled with enthusiasm for glory and honour or be led, as in the crusades, without bread or weapons to free the tomb of a God or, as in 1793, to defend the soil of their native land. Such heroism, Le Bon maintained, was perhaps unconscious, but history is made up of it. If all that could be attributed to the peoples of the world was coldly calculated major acts, the annals of the world would be distinctly empty (Le Bon, 1952: 33-4). It is also worth adding that the best way of motivating a crowd is by appealing to its collective idealism.
In the last analysis there is nothing mad or pathological in the so-called madness, crazes or illusions of the crowd. If, that is, we accept the hypothesis that they are composed of normal individuals like you or me. Quite simply, when such individuals become part of a crowd, they feel, reason and react on a different mental plane. Of course, the way they think and react is far from being the way in which an isolated individual would think and react, but the contrast does not imply any anomaly. And we have no grounds for passing a severe judgement here, except in extreme cases of overt mental illness. Even then, we cannot be sure whether we are dealing with a real kind of madness or a stereotype that allows us to escape from what we do not understand and which consequently frightens us. It is too easy to label the bizarre behaviour or excesses of a crowd (the brawls after a football match, panic after a disaster, the surging of a mass of people cramped into insufficient space and so on) as hysteria or collective madness. The label may be wrong, the behaviour wrongly understood. What Georges Lefebvre wrote about the revolutionary assemblies is universally valid:
Attributing excesses of this kind to ‘collective madness’ or ‘criminal folly’ is very superficial. The revolutionary assembly was not unconscious and did not consider itself guilty. Indeed, it was convinced that it was punishing justly and advisedly.
(Lefebvre, 1954: 282)
It would be just as superficial as attributing the abuse of power of a despotic leader such as Hitler to an 'individual madness' or a 'criminal individual'. A despot of that kind acts to maintain his authority and enforce his law. And indeed, when we examine a crowd at close quarters and over a long period, the impression of hysteria vanishes. We merely observe that crowd and individual psychology are quite dissimilar. What seems abnormal in one case seems perfectly normal in the other.
These various responses to the problem of the nature of crowds are still widespread and we still think and talk in terms of them. For the reasons I have given, however, we cannot accept them. Crowds or masses (from the psychological point of view, the two words are synonymous) constitute an autonomous reality. The question of whether they are plebeian or bourgeois, criminal or heroic, mad or sensible, no longer arises. They are a collective form, the outstanding form of collective life, and that is enough.
In what way, you might ask, is that a discovery? Current notions hide the fact that the mass is the basis of society, as the animal is in man or wood in a carving. It is, after all, the raw material of all political institutions, the potential energy of all social movements and the original state of all civilisations. Until modem times, so Le Bon and Tarde believed, it was not even noticed. It took social collapse and social upheavals for them to strike men's minds. The masses existed in the past, in Rome, Alexandria and Carthage. They re-appeared in the Middle Ages with the crusades and in the Renaissance in the towns. They were at work in the revolutionary period, particularly during the French Revolution, which saw their rebirth. From then on they spread like an epidemic as a result of contagion and imitation, toppling states and overthrowing societies.
As long as their role was a peripheral one, governments showed little interest in them. They were a source of amusement for moralists and historians. The theorists pointed them out on their way to more important things. They were merely the supporting players in a play, carrying out the lowlier jobs and having virtually only walking-on parts. But their role in the drama of states has increased impressively. They claim the centre stage and the chief part, that of the ruling class. Le Bon declares that:
The progressive growth of the power of the masses took place at first by the propagation of certain ideas, which have slowly implanted themselves in men's minds, and afterwards by the gradual association of individuals bent on bringing about the realisation of theoretical conceptions. It is by association that crowds have come to procure ideas with respect to their interests which are very clearly defined if not particularly just, and have arrived at a consciousness of their strength. The masses are founding syndicates before which the authorities capitulate one after the other; they are also founding labour unions, which in spite of all economic laws tend to regulate the conditions of labour and wages. They return to assemblies in which the Government is vested, representatives utterly lacking initiative and independence, and reduced most often to nothing else than the spokesmen of the committees that have chosen them.
(Le Bon, 1952: 15-16)
So that is what the workers were for Le Bon: crowds. But why should their power be opposed? What reasons does he give for condemning them in this way? For him, these waves of men raised and carried along by waves of ideas were tolling the death-knell of civilisation, destroying it as water penetrating into the hull of a ship will sink it. Left to their own devices, the masses were the evil genius of history, the force that would destroy everything created by an elite. Only a new elite, or more precisely a leader, could change them into a constructive force to create a new social structure. The working-class masses were no exception. This was not because of their jobs, their poverty, their hostility towards the other social classes or any intellectual inferiority, but simply because they were masses. The reasons given were therefore psychological and not social.
If they sometimes gave the opposite impression and seemed to have opinions, be guided by ideas and respect the law, such things never came from within the masses, but were always inculcated from outside. To quote Le Bon once more:
It is only by obtaining some sort of insight into the psychology of crowds that it can be understood how slight is the action upon them of laws and institutions, how powerless they are to hold any opinions other than those which are imposed upon them, and that it is not with rules based on theories of pure equity that they are to be led, but by seeking what produces an impression on them, and what seduces them.
(Le Bon, 1952: 20)
Those are very hard words. Le Bon made no bones about saying that the masses were irrational or reducing them to the level of children or savages. And indeed the idea that the consciousness of the masses comes to them from outside sources and cannot be acquired spontaneously has always been a very widespread one and even persists in the Bolshevik concept of the working-class party. As Porchnev, a Soviet psychologist, writes, ‘In Lenin's works, the question of the relationship between psychology and ideology is often presented as that existing between spontaneity and consciousness. . . . Here, the contrasting concepts are blind unconsciousness in human behaviour and scientific awareness.’
And, as is well known, the function of the party and the revolutionary elites is precisely to inculcate such consciousness into all the masses and to impose on them a discipline of thought and action.
Thus it was that a set of phenomena, crowds, which had previously received very little attention, came out into the foreground. For established scholarly thought, such human aggregates had been anomalous, exceptional states without any unity and of no interest. Only classes, social movements and their institutions, which were seen as real associations, regular social states, were worthy of study. But things changed radically, and the ‘abnormality’ of the crowd was now a reflection of the hidden forces of history and a vehicle for the explosive force of real life breaking through the shell of a congealed and repetitive civilisation. Crowds were no longer simply oddities, a string of feverish outbursts and historical accidents and an excuse for breathtaking and colourful tales. They had become an intellectual category, a subject of study and a basic aspect of society.
Historical parallels are always a little clumsy and unconvincing. There is, however, an element of truth in the following one. With Freud, dreams and unconscious actions, which had hitherto been brushed aside as accidents or non-events, assumed the status of symptoms of mental life and scientific fact. There was a similar development in Le Bon's case. The masses and their strange behaviour and ways of thinking became scientific phenomena which could be described and needed explaining. Misunderstanding or ignoring them meant running the risk of understanding nothing of the contemporary world, which is chiefly characterised by the creation of mass societies and in which the chief actors are the masses.
The importance of the establishment of a previously ignored field of research cannot be emphasised enough. Irrational behaviour, emotional explosions and the so-called disturbances of crowds and the human mind were no longer merely aberrations or errors or distortions of human nature. They were periscopes showing movements beneath the waters, the hidden patterns of our lives working themselves out as we go about our daily tasks and society follows its grey and meaningless routine. But if crowds were not 'criminal' or 'hysterical' (and hence pathological) products of individual psychology, a new science, a different kind of psychology, had to be created in order to study them. Le Bon wrote that crowds, about which so much was beginning to be said, were a phenomenon about which virtually nothing was known, that professional psychologists had had little direct contact with them and had ignored them, considering them only from the point of view of the crimes they might commit (Le Bon, 1952: 18-19). The new psychology that was needed was of course crowd psychology, and Le Bon predicted a great, future for it.
But there is a further point. Science could seek neither a psychiatric nor: a legal solution to the problem raised by crowds, which were neither essentially mad nor essentially criminal. This meant that the only solution: was a political one, and the only task that could be allotted to that: discipline was that of finding a method of government consonant with mass psychology. This could be done by amassing scientifically verified data. The results of such investigations would make it possible to teach politicians how to lead crowds. This would mean that, in politics, intuitive psychology would be replaced by scientific psychology, just as in medicine old wives' cures had been replaced by scientific knowledge and techniques. Le Bon's burning ambition for his new science was that it would provide a method and a solution for the problem of governing mass societies.”