In a must-read book, “The Age of the Crowd”, the author, Serge Moscovici, writes on crowd psychology.
“Tarde adopted Le Bon’s description of crowds almost to the letter, but maintained that they were spontaneous and transitory associations which could not remain perpetually in turmoil. They were destined either to break up and disappear as quickly as they had formed, leaving no trace, like a crowd of idlers, a meeting or a short-lived mob, or to develop into disciplined and stable bodies. Between the first and second kinds there was a chain of transformations that produced a new and distinctive character.
To see this clearly it is enough to observe the contrast between groups of individuals experiencing the same emotion or under the control of the same man during an earthquake, a football match or a pop festival and those formed deliberately and developing into a church, a political party or a firm. The difference, as can easily be seen, arises from the existence of an organisation based on a system of shared beliefs and operation in a hierarchy recognised by all its members.
That then is the characteristic that separates natural from artificial crowds and improvised, spontaneous associations from controlled and formal ones. There is a logical development between the two. A striking event of any kind will spontaneously produce:
that first level of association that we call a crowd. From that rudimentary, transitory and amorphous aggregate, a series of intermediate stages lead up to the kind of organised, hierarchical, durable and regular crowd that can be called a corporation, in the widest sense of the word. The most intense form of a religious corporation is a monastery, the most intense form of a secular one is a regiment or a workshop. The largest forms of them are respectively Church and State. (Tarde, 1910: 168)
We need not spend too long on something we are perfectly familiar with. What we perhaps ought rather to be concerned with is the nature of the transformation. From what we know, spontaneous crowds always come into being under the stimulus of a psychic factor or external conditions such as traffic jams, wet or fine weather (they are always popular in summer!) the time of day and so on. They are formed by a series of impulses and maintained by a quasi-mechanical series of actions and reactions such as shouting, processing and marching arm-in-arm.
Organised crowds, however, which are associations of a higher order, are formed and develop as a result of internal conditions and are moved by collective desires and beliefs and a chain of imitations which make their constituent individuals more like each other and their shared model, the leader. They are independent of variations in the physical milieu and immediate interpersonal stimuli. They also divide up time and space to suit their own convenience. Examples of this are calendars of parliamentary sessions, national or religious occasions, meeting-places, the arrangement of court-rooms or the positioning of platforms.
There are many instructive differences between the two kinds of crowd. The most important one, and the one that enables us to say that some are natural and some artificial, is the capacity that the latter have for imitation. This is what produces the much greater conformity visible in churches, political parties and the like, in which the individual is wholly caught up and shaped by a mimetic force for which there is no counterweight. When they are organising themselves, crowds simply intensify that potential force and transform an almost physical pressure into social suggestion. In Tarde's words, ‘an organisation of itself creates nothing, invents nothing and differentiates nothing. Its only function is to coordinate and to suggest inventions’ (Tarde, 1895b: 227).
That provides the advantage that goes with replacing spontaneous masses by disciplined ones, a transformation that is always accompanied by an increase in general intelligence. As we have seen, anonymous, amorphous crowds reduce the reasoning power of individuals to the lowest common denominator, whereas those in which there is a certain amount of discipline oblige the inferior to imitate his superior, thus raising his faculties to a level perhaps higher than the average. Why should this be so? The answer is simple. Every member of an artificial crowd is always bound to imitate the leader who created it. It follows that his intelligence becomes theirs. Tarde, alluding to Le Bon, wrote:
And so we are right to see them as being generally of lower intelligence and morality than the average of their members. From this point of view not only is the social compound they represent, as is always the case, unlike that of its elements (of which it is the product and the combination rather than the sum) but it is usually inferior in value. That, however, is only true of crowds which come close to it. The opposite is the case when the esprit de corps is more dominant than the ‘crowd spirit’. When that happens, the social compound perpetuating the genius of a great organiser is superior to its current elements. (Tarde, 1910: 180)
Just as every logician can learn the rules of Aristotelian logic and reason like the great philosopher, every member of a political party or every officer in an army can acquire the political or military intelligence of the leader who founded the party or raised the army, whether he be a Lenin or a Napoleon. In other words, it is as if individuals, after having regressed and lost their own intellectual faculties in natural crowds, acquired, once they had become organised and made up to resemble each other through the discipline of imitation, social and intellectual faculties and raised themselves to the level of the leader of the artificial crowd they had joined.
We can take the police as an example. Their methods of seeking out criminals, procedures for enquiries and set forms for compiling statements have all, in principle, been worked out by people of above-average intelligence. This means that every policeman applies rules and reasoning processes that he would have been unable to work out for himself, since to do so would be beyond his natural ability. This fact drew the following humorous comment from Tarde:
If, according to the Latin proverb, it is true that ‘the senators are good men, but the Senate is an evil beast’, I have had many opportunities to note that policemen, although they are usually intelligent, are less intelligent than the police force. (Tarde, 1910: 180)
The irony of the phrase reverses its meaning, and the police force becomes more intelligent than its individual officers. The same would be true of any body of people. Professors and students would be less intelligent than the University, priests and people less virtuous than the Church, the secretary-general and members of the Communist Party less politically conscious than the party itself, and so on. That is why the University, the Church and the Party would always be right.
To sum up, what differentiates between crowds is the existence or otherwise of a system of organisation. Natural crowds obey mechanical laws, artificial ones the laws of social imitation. The former reduce the level of individual intelligence, the latter raise it to the level of a social intelligence that the leader shares with everyone. The great superiority of artificial crowds, and hence of corporations, comes from the fact that they embody the achievements of a superior and unusual man and reproduce thousands or millions of copies of the characteristics of a single individual like de Gaulle, Einstein or Jesus Christ. From the social point of view, the existence of these reproductions, these groups of leaders, the essential transmission belt between the individual and the crowd, is the hardest and the most important thing to achieve. In one sense they are more necessary than the mass itself, for they can act and invent without it, whereas the mass can do little or nothing without them. The mass is the dough, and they are the yeast.
This idea has also been very clearly expressed by Gramsci, who saw such people as being the motive element in a party, the main cog that effectively and powerfully harnessed a range of national forces which left to themselves would achieve virtually nothing. In itself, of course, this element would not form a party, but it would form one much more surely than the average mass, given the right conditions. They would, he said, be generals without an army, but in fact it was easier to create an army than to create generals. It was also true that an already existing army would be destroyed if the generals disappeared, while the existence of a group of generals trained to work together, in agreement among themselves and with common aims, would soon create an army where none existed (Gramsci, 1953: 24). I am not suggesting that the great Marxist theorist followed Tarde's teaching or was inspired by it, although such links cannot be ruled out. It is simply that he very clearly expresses the essentials of the latter’s ideas, and his words show just how far they had spread.”