Who was Gustave Le Bon?
by Chetan Parikh
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In a great book, “The Age of the Crowd”, the author, Serge Moscovici, writes on Gustave Le Bon.


“EVERYONE KNOWS that Le Bon was the founder of crowd psychology. There is, however, a kind of Le Bon mystery. For the last fifty years, works in French have made no mention of his extraordinary influence on the social sciences, preferring to devote inordinate space to minor scholars and amorphously general schools of thought. Why should he receive such unfavourable treatment? How has it been possible to ignore one of the dozen or so most decisively influential thinkers in the field of the social sciences in the twentieth century? To be quite honest, no French thinker apart from Sorel and probably de Tocqueville has had an influence as great as Le Bon's. None of their books has caused anything like the same stir. For those reasons, we should first of all look at the man himself and his place in his time. This will help us to understand the circumstances in which the discipline came into being and why it did so specifically in France.


Le Bon was born in 1841 at Nogent-le-Rotrou in Normandy and died in Paris in 1931, and his life was remarkable from many points of view. He happened to be born in a period of incipient social progress, and his adult life spanned the Second Empire, a time of industrial revolution, military defeat and civil war. He also lived long enough to see the triumph of science, the crises of democracy and the spread of socialism and the popular forces whose rise he had anxiously observed and whose increasing power he had condemned.


He seems in his person to have continued the long line of amateur scholars and pamphleteers previously represented so illustriously by men like Mirabeau, Mesmer and Saint-Simon. He continued a tradition, but did so within an environment marked by rapid changes. This provincial physician, short in stature and fond of good food, had abandoned the practice of medicine to become a populariser of science. He was successful enough to be able to live from his writing, to mix freely with men of letters and to rub shoulders with the greatest of them. Why was he so eminently successful? Was it perhaps a case of an outstanding talent imposing itself on a milieu which had initially been unfavourable and even hostile? Should his writings be seen as incorporating both new and progressive scientific ideas and an older literary tradition? Or had he an outstanding flair for discovering and expressing currents of thought and a hidden sensibility in his age? No doubt there was something of all that in Le Bon, but his own particularly highly-developed gift was for synthesising and expressing in a direct and telling way ideas which were in the air but which others had either not had the courage to articulate or had only put forward unsystematically. An unusual combination of circumstances turned the studious doctor into the founder of a new; branch of science and the originator of a new kind of politics.




After the humiliating defeat of her army in 1870, France (and the French bourgeoisie in particular) discovered within the space of a few months just how fragile the latter was and how ill-prepared to govern the country and control the social forces operating in it. Under Napoleon III, it had applauded Offenbach's operettas and been charmed by their music without understanding their words. The country had unconsciously played the most spineless of roles and had not recognised the signs of the impending catastrophe or the lack of seriousness that was paving the way for it. Armand Lanoux made this point forcefully when he said that when nowadays we look at Offenbach in a historical perspective, we cannot help seeing his work as a kind of danse macabre leading to Sedan. And from Sedan to its logical consequence, the Commune. As always, the bourgeoisie saw the cause of the disaster in urban disorder, disobedient workers and undisciplined soldiers and the welter of social movements swarming towards Paris as the Huns had once swarmed over Europe. Sluggish governments and divided political factions were powerless to contain the insurrection.


Logically, the only answer was a strong government capable of re-establishing authority. ‘The only reasonable thing,’ Flaubert wrote to George Sand on 29 April 1871, ‘is a government of mandarins, as the people will remain minors all their lives.’ And all this at a time when the Paris Commune, with its insolent claim to be changing the world, was proclaiming a glorious future at the very moment when France was on her knees, the territory of France reduced in size and the army defeated. The Commune was in fact a fairly good manifestation of the link between defeat and popular uprising, between the collapse of state power and the rebellion of the citizens. The intellectuals shuddered with their mother, the bourgeoisie, at the spectacle of the humiliation of the nation, at the same time raising their voices against the hereditary enemy, Germany, the chief external danger, and the French Revolution, which had never been completed in the years since 1789, was seen as the chief internal one despite its perpetual defeats. As Francois Furet writes, ‘The whole of French nineteenth-century history was that of a struggle between Revolution and Restoration, passing through 1815, 1830, 1848, 1851, 1870 and 16 May 1877’ (Furet, 1978: 16).


We only need to read Taine or Renan to appreciate the strength of the disquiet brought into the open again by the last two of those dates and the response it evoked in the thought of the time, and its effect on society can be seen in the new interest in social movements and the popular classes. Zola’s novels are as striking an indication of this as more purely historical studies. The whole of society saw the masses at work and judged their importance or the threat they posed in terms of individual political convictions. Rather than concern, it was fear that ‘illicit and shifting populations’ and 'the anti-social scum’, as they were described in expressions used at the time, caused in the hearts of the French citizenry.


If the threat was to be overcome, there had to be some explanation for what was happening. What was perhaps even more necessary was how to find the key to the modem world. The eyes of the whole of France were on the social order, and everyone was aware of the shaky foundations on which power was based. The attempts at returning to an earlier order and restoring the old regime with its monarchy and its Church had not had the hoped-for results. Views which condemned the modem world, the claims of science, universal suffrage and the overriding principle of equality and the like were very much in vogue. Those who supported progressive ideas were held up to public obloquy. None of this, however, stopped political parties from proliferating, the bourgeoisie from hanging on to its control of society, or revolutionary ideas from taking root. Some drastic remedy was needed, some bold, clear and simple idea that would purge minds, bring men to their senses and channel their energies. There had to be a convincing counter-blast to socialism, some proof that France could regain her strength and become mistress of her fate. It was clearly no easy undertaking, but everyone knew what was at stake and was aware of the need for a fresh solution.




At last, one is tempted to write, Le Bon's time had come. The scientist manque, the man of the people without a platform, had understood what was involved. He was completely obsessed with curing the ills of society, and once his medical studies were completed he associated with men concerned with the same problems, politicians, philosophers and many learned writers. He was anxious to make a career for himself, to become a member of the Academy or obtain a University post, and embarked on a whole range of research which included physics and anthropology, biology and psychology. This last was still in its infancy, and he was one of the first to see its future importance. Despite his many contacts and his enormous scientific industry, however, his deepest ambitions were never fulfilled. The doors of the University and even of the Academy of Sciences remained firmly closed to him.


It was thus as an outsider, excluded from official circles, that he worked so indefatigably, handling knowledge as a financier handles money, setting up intellectual project after intellectual project without ever achieving any remarkable discoveries. His dilettante research and his scientific popularisation did, however, give him considerable skill as a synthesiser and perfected his gift for presenting broad outlines and telling phrases. He acquired the journalist's sixth sense for the facts and ideas that will grip the mass of readers at a particular time. The academic resistance he encountered meant that increasingly he sought success in the political and social field. In dozens of works published over many years he perfected the same brew of biological, anthropological and psychological theories, suggesting the main lines of a psychology of peoples and races inspired by both Taine and Gobineau. Historians say that his contribution in that field was decisive enough to ensure him a place amongst the not very glorious list of the forerunners of racialism in Europe.


In his psychological studies, Le Bon was naturally struck by the phenomenon of crowds, and particularly that of popular movements and terrorism, which his contemporaries found so disturbing. Indeed, a number of books on this topic had recently been published, particularly in Italy, which stressed the fear caused by what some saw as a return to barbarism. Le Bon skilfully took up the theme, which had been discussed in general and purely legal terms, and erected around it a plausible if not entirely coherent body of doctrine.


He first gave his diagnosis of parliamentary democracy, its sickness and lack of resoluteness. The strength to govern, he maintained, led to social order, the lack of it to social disorder, the will to govern to political security and the lack of it to public danger and incitement to revolution. The ruling classes in such democracies, he maintained, had remained intelligent, which caused irresoluteness, but lost the will which is the source of all strength. They no longer had the necessary confidence in their mission, and this meant that political functions and institutions were foundering in a morass of indecision and irresponsibility. Such classes did not even have the virtue of honesty, for although in a democracy the majority vote, it is the minority who govern.


It is important to be clear here. Le Bon was not accusing the governing classes of dishonesty or a lack of principles, but of being unable to turn their backs on the past and of being ineffectual. In troubled and demoralised times, decisions lay with them. By choosing a democracy which combined Jacobin ideas and oligarchical practices and wrapped everything up in general and vague speeches, they had condemned themselves to impotence and the risk of being manipulated and outflanked, crushed by ambitious, intelligent and unscrupulous men supported by popular forces under their own control. If they were not to fail in their task of bringing civilisation and progress, they would have to recognise the facts of the situation and the real nature of the conflict which was tearing society apart. And Le Bon, of course, gave them the long-awaited answer: in that conflict, the masses played the major part, and they alone held the key to the situation in France and the modem world.


As a recent writer on the subject notes, ‘Writing in a prophetic mood, Le Bon began by putting the masses right at the centre of any possible interpretation of the modem world’ (Giner, 1976: 58). Towards the masses, Le Bon certainly felt the traditional bourgeois contempt for the lower classes and the scorn of the socialist for the sub-proletariat. But the masses are a fact, and the scientist does not scorn facts but respects and tries to understand them. Le Bon, faced with this situation, did not hanker after the restoration of the monarchy or of an aristocratic regime. What he dreamed of was rather a patrician and individualist democracy in the English style.


From the Second to the Fifth Republic, and including both of them, English liberalism continued to have a considerable impact on French social thought, but never made a decisive intellectual breakthrough. Neither did the French financial and industrial upper middle classes have any definitive political impact on the French state, which was conceived by and for the middle reaches of a mercantile, administrative, peasant and even working-class bourgeoisie. France's distinctly uneasy and rather abstruse relationship with modernity, the fact that she was tom between the English model which was close in time and German power to which she was close in space, her loyalty to a kind of crusading nationalism based on an inner picture of a world distinctly French-looking, for which the eighteenth century provided the model and the sense of nostalgia, all went to explain these part-failures.


Le Bon was anxious about what was happening in France, and sought a cure for the disorders brought about by the masses. This he found not in history or economics, but in psychology, which showed him that there was a ‘crowd soul’ consisting of basic impulses and shaped by strong beliefs and taking little account of experience or reason. Just as an ‘individual soul’ responds to the suggestions of the hypnotist who has put someone to sleep, the ‘crowd soul’ responds to those of the leader who has imposed his will on it. In such states of trance, everyone does what under normal circumstances individuals neither would nor could do. The leader, by conjuring up images which replace reality, takes possession of the group soul. The crowd, like the patient hypnotised by a doctor, is at his mercy.


So the basic idea was a simple one. All the catastrophes of the past and the difficulties of the present had been caused by the masses breaking in. The weakness of parliamentary democracy was accounted for by the fact that it went against the findings of psychology. The dominant classes had made mistakes and failed to recognise the cause of crowds and the laws that govern them. To cure the evil and return to a status quo that had long been compromised, all that was needed was a recognition of past errors and an awareness of those laws.


The expression of this idea in lively and straightforward language and supported by a quasi-scientific content explains why his books were so successful that he ‘finished by gaining a reading public no other social thinker could rival’ (Nye, 1975: 3). Overnight, the scientific populariser became an intellectual mentor, a role which he was to play for the rest of his life. In the words of his only biographer (English, of course) ‘For the rest of his life . . . Le Bon bent his efforts towards educating the elites to their growing military-political responsibilities’ (Nye, 1975: 78).


For thirty years, this work brought to his home, which he rarely left, a stream of major politicians, men of letters and scientists, amongst whom were the psychologists Ribot and Tarde, the philosopher Bergson, the mathematician Henri Poincare, that unclassifiable genius Paul Valery, and the princesses Marthe Bibesco and Marie Bonaparte, who both played a large part in spreading his ideas. Nor should one forget the politicians who knew and, as far as one can See, respected him, such as Raymond Poincare, Briand, Barthou and Theodore Roosevelt. It should also be mentioned that all these admirers were convinced of the importance of his view of human nature, although it was a difficult one to accept. In social and political matters, they took his imperative advice seriously. Indeed, his ideas were at the height of their influence in the nineteen-twenties, when ‘the appeal of the new discipline was strongest for the democratic elites who saw it as a conceptual device that confirmed their deepest fears about the masses, but also gave them a body of rules for the manipulation and control of their violent potential’ (Nye, 1975: 161).”