Civilisation & the Savage Crowd

spiteriAnyone familiar with ‘crowd theory’ will have been told repeatedly that Gustave Le Bon is an origin. This assertion is quickly masked by obfuscation. He is not a first, of course, preceded by the historian Taine and the early criminologists Lombroso and Sighele. But Le Bon is the one who draws these dispersed though influential works together into a tradition or a theory. He constitutes an identity of crowd psychology, crowd theory or even social psychology. Le Bon was a popularizer and a synthesizer, rejected by the academic and scientific establishment, he writes for popular audiences. And with The Crowd he certainly finds one. In a sense, Le Bon perfectly instantiates the paradox of origins. They do not begin anything but are still the beginning. Le Bon is not the start of thinking about crowds. But he constitutes a discourse, or better, we retrospectively constitute the discourse of crowd theory by ascribing Le Bon the originating status. To put it in the most banal and obvious of ways: when we start talking about crowds with Le Bon, we make him the start. This origin then echoes through the oeuvre, requiring that each person who takes up the theorisation must work hard to try to overcome the origin that we ourselves perpetuate.

Le Bon’s crowd is a savage thing. But savagery does not simply equate to condemnation – although that comes as well. To begin, the crowd is not an aggregation of individuals. It is not made up of a collection of single entities, but rather in this gathering a new subject it born. The crowd is a collective unconsciousness. When men enter the heaving mass of the crowd they descend the levels of civilisation, losing their individuality and regressing to their common unconscious nature.1 In this sense, Man’s most base instincts are released.

A crowd is not merely impulsive and mobile [in its sentiments]. Like a savage, it is not prepared to admit anything can come between its desire and the realisation of its desire. It is the less capable of understanding such interventions, in consequence of the feeling of irrestible power given it by its numerical strenght. The notion of impossibility disappears for the individual in a crowd. An individual knows well enough that alone he cannot set fire to a palace or loot a shop, and should he be tempted to do so, he will easily resist the temptation. Making part of a crowd, he is conscious of the power given to him by number, and it is sufficient to suggest to him the ideas of murder and pillage for him to yield immediately to temptation.2

The crowd, ‘like a savage’ will not allow any interruption between that which it desires and the realisation of this desire. The individual can quickly repress any desire he might have had to overthrow, loot or pillage. His civilisation depends precisely upon his ability to suspend the realisation of his desire. In fact, the extent to which he is civilised is determined by the extent to which this thought even enters his head. Someone who has to consciously repress the urge to transgress has not sufficiently interiorised this civilisation.

The suspension of individuality in the crowd is a manifestation of the suspension of civilisation. Man is ‘torn between the primal elements of sentiment and reason, the latter having emerged only recently in human evolution and seldom exercising real influence on human affairs…. All emotions, fear, hate and sexual passions, were survivals of savagery, and, according to Le Bon, especially dominant in those who lacked the opposite principle, reason.’3 The crowd is savage, unreasoned. With the suspension of individuality, comes suggestibility. The crowd is a collective subject capable of being infinitely directed from above. This sounds like the crowd is being framed as a pure instrument, but the leader’s own psychology is not the rational Machiavellian idea that we might expect. Leaders:

are especially recruited from the ranks of those morbidly nervous, excitable, half-deranged persons who are bordering on madness…. They sacrifice their personal interest, their family – everything. The very instinct for self-preservation is entirely obliterated in them, and so much so that often the only recompense they solicit is that of martyrdom….. The multitude is always 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.4

These leaders start from the mass, but break away by their fixation upon an idea. The are possessed by the idea. ‘It has taken posession of him to such a degree that everything outside it vanishes, and that every contrary opinion appears to him an error or a superstition.’5 The leader uses the crowd instrumentally, certainly, but they are not in control of their use, their desires. Instead it is the idea which possesses them that has become sovereign. Their maddness, their possession by the idea, generates a crowd that is rabid.

Crucially then, the crowd become an expression of the leaders unconsciousness. 6 This unconsciousness however, is not a mystical thing, but rather it stems from the shared hereditary (racial) nature of the crowd. And this is what so often goes unsaid in the various accounts of Le Bon, particularly in the post-Freudian readings. In their regression down the line of civilisation, the crowd return to their ‘common origns’. Previously in The Psychology of Peoples, Le Bon wrote:

This identity of the mental constitution of the majority of the individuals of a race is due to very simple physiological reasons. Each individual is the product not merely of his immediate precidents but also of his race, that is of the entire series of his ascendents. A learned economist M. Cheysson has calculated that in France, supposingthere to be three generations in a century, each of us would have in his veins the blood of twenty million of the people living in the year 1000. ‘In consequence all inhabitants of a given locality, of a given district, necessarily possess common ancestors, are moulded of the same clay, bear the same impress, and they are all brought back unceasingly to the average type by this long and heavy chain, of which they are merely the last links. We are the children at once of our parents and our race. Our country is our second mother for physiological and hereditary as well as sentimental reasons.’’7

As he repeats, throughout his odious oeuvre, the crowd is an expression of the psychology of quasi-national races.8 Thus he can say that crowds ‘are everywhere distinguished by feminine characteristics, but Latin crowds are the most feminine of all.’9 He contrasts the ‘latin crowd’ with the ‘anglo-saxon crowd’, which is more stable and less likely to spring into being at the slightest national insult.10

Race is the crucial determining feature of Le Bon’s work. In Orientalism, Said was correct to say that Les Lois Psychologiques de L’Evolution des Peuples (1894) is the paradigm of a type of orientalism that:

was linked… to elements in Western society (delinquents, the insane, women, the poor) having in common an identity best described as lamentably alien. Orientals were rarely seen or looked at; they were seen through, analysed not as citizens, or even people, but as problems to be solved or confined or – as the colonial powers openly coveted their territory – taken over. The point is that the very designation of something as Oriental involved an already pronounced evaulative judgment, and in the case of the peoples inhabiting the decayed Ottoman Empire, an implicit program of action. Since the Oriental was a member of a subject race, he had to be subjected: it was that simple.11

But unlike the rest of his work where the savage others are analysed through the degenerates of France, The Crowd uses the oriental to understand ‘western civilisation’. The savage other is there within ‘western civilisation’, as Said notes.

In The Crowd, it is not simply a matter of denigrating the crowds as oriental, but making them ‘the objects of a new technology of power.’12 The crowds’ formation and tendencies are shaped by the shared herditary unconsciousness of the participants.13 The crowd was the savage within society/the individual, capable of terrible acts of degridation. However, Le Bon also notes that the crowd, the savage beast, is also capable of acts of ferocious heroism. In fact, he insists that were it not for the crowd, ‘civilisation would not have grown up on our planet, and humanity would have had no history.’14 The crowd is the motor of history, brutally driving mankind forward. Thus, we discover a strange moment in Le Bon’s analysis of crowds. The crowd is an echo of an old form of mankind (sentiment), supersceded in Western society by the higher level of consciousness (reason). But yet the motor of this progress, this evolution of Man, is precisely the crowd. To have history which leads to higher consciousness, Man must first regress to the unthinking, unconscious Man. Irrationality is the motor of reason. Le Bon sees a metaphysical dichotomy between ‘sentiment’ and ‘reason’; between passion, affect and savagery on one side; with civilisation, reason and individuality on the other. Because he sees reason as a recent addition in the long chain of the history of man’s evolution, it has not been ‘bedded in’. Civilisation still lies on the surface. To ‘bed it in’ further, Man must live through reason for generations. The progress of civilisation does not march inexorably, however, because the crowd (of sentiment and savagery) threatens its course. And yet this threat also presents the process whereby reason progresses.

Le Bon draws our attention15 to the continuity between western civilisation and savage colonialism. Identifying that beastial acts are performed in the name of reason, but this beastiality is not external to reason, it is its dark side. In other words, The Crowd intuits that beastiality is actually a fundamental part of civilisation. If Man is beastial to ensure civilisation, if civilisation is civilised because of beastiality, then the two form a continuity not a break: Civilisation and barbarism are on a moebus strip, front turns into back and then front again without interruption. Civilisation is/becomes barbarism, and barbarism is/becomes civilisation. Le Bon, however, does not see this as a critique. Perhaps Le Bon did not even quite realise the contours of the idea that he was proposing. But this continuity between civilisation and barbarism, would later become crucial to the radical responses to European ‘enlightenment’ and colonialism. The Surrealists,16 for instance, in 1932 penned the Murderous Humanitarianism pamphlet: ‘The colonial machinery that extracts the last penny from natural advantages hammers away with the joyful regularity of a pole ax. The white man preaches, doses, vaccinates, assassinates and (from himself) receives absolution. With his psalms, his speeches, his guarantees of liberty, equality and fraternity, he seeks to drown the noise of his machine guns.’ Or again, differently in 1950 Aimé Césaire would write in Discourse on Colonialism:

First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism; and we must show that each time a head is cut off in Vietnam and in France they accept the fact, each time a little girl is raped and in France they accept the fact, each time a Madagascan is tortured and in France they accept the fact, civilisation acquires another dead weight, a universal regression takes place, a gangrene sets in, a centre of infection begins to spread; and that at the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated…, at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been distilled into the veins of Europe and slowly but surely, he continent proceeds toward savagery.17

He notes that Fascism was the result of a ‘boomerang effect’: ‘before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples.’18

As Laclau notes, The Crowd stands at a crossroads, between the nineteenth century ways of thinking about crowds as an abberation and the modern reality wherein they were destined to stay. In this, ‘they cannot be dismissed and summarily condemned, but have to become the objects of a new technology of power.’19 The life of the crowd must become the new political technology, it is difficult to imagine a more perfect instantiation of biopolitics. In fact the entire edifice of Le Bon’s thought is like a microcosm of an intense biopolitics: The common heredity (the biological life and lineage) of a race determines the unconscious of a particular national grouping. The racial heredity is fed back to the same grouping as a process of valorising its power to overcome its denigration. This unconscious emerges in crowds which are, to be turned to the task of renewing western civilisation. The savage crowd must be disciplined, but also it must be brought to bear on the declining civilisation to drive its evolution onwards. It is disciplined by the right sort of leaders.

With Le Bon, as I began, we have reached an origin. The origin of a thinking of crowds, whose line runs from the colonial through to fascism and into certain (paramilitary) police logics. It is not the denigration of the crowd that is the problem. It is not his politics, as many theorists suggest. Rather it is his very ontology that is at stake. As we have seen from the various recuperations of Schmitt, one’s politics can be undermined if there is the germ of utility in your ontology. However, Le Bon’s ontology is poison. When placed upon the racial register it becomes precisely the stuff of fascism.

  1. It is worth noting at the outset that Le Bon is an intensely problematic thinker, deeply racist, mysoginistic and conservative. But if I have to interrupt the flow of his ideas at every point to take the obvious distance from this author, this prose will become more tedious than it needs to be.
  2. Le Bon, The Crowd, 42-3
  3. Nye, Origins of crowd Psychology, 42
  4. Le Bon, The Crowd,  134-5
  5. Le Bon  The Crowd, 134
  6. I cannot imagine a better character to typify this relation between the leader and the crowd than General Mangin who features in Le Bon’s dedication of The World Unbalanced (1923): ‘To The Illustrious General Charles Mangin. In the sombre days of Verdun, when your penetrating wisdom and your valour contributed so powerfully to changing the orientation of Destiny, I received from you, my dear General, a photograph with a dedication reminding me that you were my disciple. Since that day you have told me that it was my teaching which guided you in preparing the decisive victory of the 18 July 1918 and during the subsequent operations. The psychologist, having the rare fortune of finding such a pupil to apply his principles, must needs owe him a debt of gratitude. This is what I feel in dedicating my book to you.’ General Mangin, knicknamed ‘the Butcher’ by his troops, was one of the most aggressive and sacrificial of the French first world war generals. He was responsible for massive casualties at Charleroi, Verdun, Nivelle and the second battle of the Marne.
  7. Le Bon, The Psychology of Peoples (Fisher Unwin, 1899), 8-9. Published in French in 1894.
  8. Le Bon’s oeuvre is odious, there is no other word for it. It is full to the brim of the bloody ideas of the others savagery and Europe’s civilisation (and its loss). In every turn, in every crevice, is another obnoxious idea. To the extent that reading beyond The Crowd feels like wading through the most excremental of ‘European civilisation’.
  9. Le Bon  The Crowd, 44
  10. After the first world war he continues to insist: ‘It is these characteristics, special to each people, that determine its destiny. That sixty thousand Englishmen are able to keep under the yoke three thousand millions of Hindoos (sic) who are their equals in intelligence is due to certain qualities of character possessed by the invaders. That the Spaniards have merely brought anarchy upon the Latin countries of South America is due to their defects of character.’ (Le Bon, The World in Revolt, (Fisher Unwin, 1921), 20-1). South America appears to have particularly troubled Le Bon. Nye suggests that this is because of his understanding of miscegenation. ‘The fate of the racially mixed populations of South America was their subjection to an eternal political chaos and social anarchy.’ (Nye, 43)
  11. Said, Orientalism, 207
  12. Laclau, On Populist Reason, 21.
  13. The savage does so much work for Le Bon that we might even call him a ‘savage philosopher’ in his crowd psychology: (Bracken, Magical Criticism (University of Chicago Press, 2007))
  14. Le Bon,  The Crowd, 66
  15. It is certainly worth noting that it is not his intention to critique western civilisation for this continuity, as we will see, if anything it is only to intensify this continuity.
  16. The Surrealist Group, ‘Murderous Humanitarianism’ (1932) available at (viewed on14/04/14).
  17. Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 35-6
  18. Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 36
  19. Laclau, On Populist Reason, 21.