Saturday, June 19, 2010

Ronald Kitching: About Crowds

"The renewal of civilisation has nothing to do with movements which bear the character of experiences of the crowd; these are never anything but reactions to external happenings. But civilisation can only revive when there shall come into being in a number of individuals a new tone of mind independent of the one prevalent among the crowd and in opposition to it, a tone of mind which will gradually win influence over the collective one, and in the end determine its character. It is only an ethical movement which can rescue us from the slough of barbarism, and the ethical comes into existence only in individuals..." So wrote the late Dr. Albert Schweitzer.

The point of this essay is to draw to your attention, a book titled The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon.

First published in 1895, the book has never ever been out of print. The book is not only a classic, but is one of the best selling scientific books in social psychology and collective behaviour ever written.

Le Bon analyses the nature of crowds and their role in political movements. He presents crowd behaviour as a problem of science and power - a natural phenomenon with practical implications. The book was the first to to expand the scope of inquiry beyond criminal crowds to include all possible kinds of collective phenomena.

Le Bon emphasises the various areas of modern life where crowd behaviour holds sway, particular political upheavals. He focuses on electoral campaigns, parliaments, juries, labour agitation and street demonstrations. His treatment of crowds is far from complimentary.

Although I have not been able to find any hard evidence, there are some who believe that the book was closely studied by both Hitler and Mussolini. Both were great readers and both had natural gifts as to how to manipulate and influence crowds. It is arguable that the fascist theories of leadership that emerged in the 1920s owed much to his theories of crowd psychology. Indeed, Hitler’s Mien Kampf largely drew on the propaganda techniques proposed in Le Bon's 1895 book.

Hitler certainly had all of the essential characteristics of a successful crowd leader. “That is an unshakeable belief in himself, and an iron will. More of a man of action than a great thinker, not gifted with great foresight as this quality generally conduces to doubt and inactivity. Morbidly nervous excitable, and half deranged, bordering on madness, but an unshakeable faith in himself and his cause, with convictions so strong that all reasoning was lost on him.

Written in 1895, the above description fitted the German Fuhrer to a T, written when Hitler was only four years old.

The description also fits Napoleon and Mussolini and Chairman Mao. Likewise, General Franco of Spain, and Peron, the Argentinean Dictator. And, likewise, Pol Pot. Other outstanding examples were Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, especially Lenin.

“Contempt and persecution do not effect them, or only serve to excite them the more. They sacrifice their personal interest, their family - everything. The very instinct of self preservation is entirely obliterated in them, so much so that often the only recompense they solicit is that of martyrdom” - Chile’s Communist leader Allende was a perfect example of this phenomenon.

“The intensity of their faith gives great power of suggestion to their words. The multitude is 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 possesses the quality they lack.”

Not all great leaders have the unique gifts of say, the German Fuhrer. Quoting Le Bon:

“The men of ardent convictions who have stirred to souls of crowds have been the Peter the Hermits, the Luthers, the Savonarolas, the men of the French Revolution, [we can add all of the above, including Ghandi and others], have only exercised their fascination after having themselves been fascinated first of all by a creed. They are able to call up in the souls of their fellows that formidable force known as faith, which renders a man the absolute slave of his dream. To endow a man with faith is to multiply his strength by ten.

“It is not by the aid of the learned or of philosophers and still less sceptics, that have been built up the great religions which have swayed the world, or the vast empires which which have spread from one hemisphere to the other.”

In the cases just cited, we are dealing with great leaders, and they are so few in number that history can easily reckon them up. The book though mainly deals with the crowd.

“The facts of history demonstrate that social organisms being every whit as complicated as those of all beings, it is in no wise in our power to force them to undergo a sudden far reaching transformation. Nature has recourse at times to radical measures, but never after our fashion, which explains how it is that nothing is more fatal to a people than a mania for great reforms, however excellent these reforms may appear theoretically. They would only be useful were it possible to change instantaneously the genius of nations.

“This power however, is only possessed by time. Men are ruled by ideas, sentiments and customs - matters which are the essence of ourselves. Institutions and laws are the outward manifestation of our character, the expression of its needs. Being its outcome, institutions and laws cannot change this character.”

Neither Ludwig von Mises nor F. A. Hayek mention Le Bon in any of their writings, yet I’m sure they would be familiar with this great European masterpiece. On page 864 of his “Human Action” Mises says:

“The masses, the hosts of common men, do not conceive any ideas, sound or unsound. They only choose between the ideologies developed by the intellectual leaders of mankind. But their choice is final and determines the course of events. If they prefer bad doctrines nothing can prevent disaster.......The [Classical] Liberals gave the world Capitalism, a higher standard of living for a steadily increasing number of people. But the pioneers and supporters of capitalism overlooked one essential point; a social system, however beneficial, cannot work if it is not supported by public opinion......”

Is our civilisation degenerating? There is ground to fear that this is the case, but we are not as yet in a position to be certain of it.

Summing up, discover the nature of different types of crowds, their complete lack of reason, their brutality etc etc. Le Bon’s unique 232 page book is a great intellectual investment.

Every person who deals with society should read and understand this great book. If I taught economics, I would be making my economics classes aware of it and its great value in understanding Human Action.

Ronald Kitching author of “Understanding Personal and Economic Liberty” is a keen student of the Austrian Classical Liberal philosophy having joined the International Mont Pelerin Society in 1978 on the invitation of founder Friedrich Hayek.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting article. Thank you for wiriting it.

Anonymous said...

I had no idea crowd theory dated back to the 1800s - I thought it was a more recent development. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. I will find the book and study it.

Anonymous said...

Manipulation of the crowds is an interesting topic, and seems to be to be as relevant today as it has at any time in history.

I would suggest the techniques of crowd psychology have today been mastered by special interest groups, rather than individuals. Take the green movement (Greenpeace as the prime example but also Al Gore's ficitonal movie). They knowingly tell untruths specially intended to attract media attention and appeal to emotion so as to rile discontent among the impressionable. It is actualy the art of popaganda, which the leaders you mention in the article all exercised. The socialist movements do propaganda very well, and the sensationalist media are more than willing to play their part in communicating that propaganda to the world.