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Le Bon, The Psychology of Revolution


Gustave Le Bon (1841–1931) disparaged the Revolution and the revolutionary legacy because he distrusted the common person, particularly when making collective decisions. His analysis of revolutionary crowds pictured them as primitive animals devoid of good decision–making abilities who had to be reigned in by a "strong man" or dictatorial figure.

This source is a part of the Legacies of the Revolution source collection.



General Characteristics 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. 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 shortsightedness, 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 them 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 civilization. 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 skeptic 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 because they do not understand that so many of them have fallen so easily.


Illusions respecting Primitive Man, the Return to a State of Nature, and the Psychology of People

We have already repeated, and shall again repeat, that the errors of a doctrine do not hinder its propagation, so that all we have to consider here is its influence upon men's minds.

But although the criticism of erroneous doctrines is seldom of practical utility, it is extremely interesting from a psychological point of view. The philosopher who wishes to understand the working of men's minds should always carefully consider the illusions which they live with. Never, perhaps, in the course of history have these illusions appeared so profound and so numerous as during the Revolution.

One of the most prominent was the singular conception of the nature of our first ancestors and primitive societies. Anthropology not having as yet revealed the conditions of our remoter forbears, men supposed, being influenced by the legends of the Bible, that they had issued perfect from the hands of the Creator. The first societies were models which were afterwards ruined by civilization, but to which mankind must return. The return to the state of nature was very soon the general cry. "The fundamental principle of all morality, of which I have treated in my writings," said Rousseau, "is that man is a being naturally good, loving justice and order."

Modern science, by determining, from the surviving remnants, the conditions of life of our first ancestors, has long ago shown the error of this doctrine. Primitive man has become an ignorant and ferocious brute, as ignorant as the modern savage of goodness, morality, and pity. Governed only by his instinctive impulses, he throws himself on his prey when hunger drives him from his cave, and falls upon his enemy the moment he is aroused by hatred. Reason, not being born, could have no hold over his instincts.

The aim of civilization, contrary to all revolutionary intentions, has been not to return to the state of nature but to escape from it. It was precisely because the Jacobins led mankind back to the primitive condition by destroying all the social restraints without which no civilization can exist that they transformed a political society into a barbarian horde.

The ideas of these theorists concerning the nature of man were about as valuable as those of a Roman general concerning the power of omens. Yet their influence as motives of action was considerable. The Convention was always inspired by such ideas.

The errors concerning our primitive ancestors were excusable enough, since before modern discoveries had shown us the real conditions of their existence these were absolutely unknown. But the absolute ignorance of human psychology displayed by the men of the Revolution is far less easy to understand.

It would really seem as though the philosophers and writers of the eighteenth century must have been totally deficient in the smallest faculty of observation. They lived amidst their contemporaries without seeing them and without understanding them. Above all, they had not a suspicion of the true nature of the popular mind. The man of the people always appeared to them in the likeness of the chimerical model created by their dreams. As ignorant of psychology as of the teachings of history, they considered the plebeian man as naturally good, affectionate, grateful, and always ready to listen to reason.

The speeches delivered by members of the Assembly show how profound were these illusions. When the peasants began to burn the chateaux they were greatly astonished, and addressed them in sentimental, harangues, praying them to cease, in order not to "give pain to their good king" and adjured them "to surprise him by their virtues."

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"Le Bon, The Psychology of Revolution," in World History Commons, [accessed July 23, 2024]