chapter  5
13 Pages

The Crowd as the Clue to the Mystery of the Modern World: Taine against the Enlightenment

The period during which Taine’s Origins of Contemporary France was appearing (187694) was also the period in which crowd theory became a recognizable concern for thinkers everywhere. Two years after Taine’s death in 1893, Le Bon published The Crowd: a Study of the Popular Mind, a skilful compendium of the crowd theory of the past twenty years got up in generalizations so bold and so sweeping that every social group became a crowd, so that all branches of social science became branches of crowd theory. Taine had already taught his readers to look at idealized versions of the storming of the Bastille for the origins of the illusions about popular sovereignty which still encouraged crowd politics, so there was something fortuitous in the fact that Le Bon’s The Crowd was the first best-seller of social science since Tom Paine’s Rights of Man. Le Bon’s obsession with breaking into the world of official science led him to make ludicrous claims for the originality of The Crowd at almost the exact moment when the wrangle between Gabriel Tarde and Scipio Sighele inside the world of official science about priority in crowd theory was about to degenerate into something like a public squabble (Barrows, 1981, pp. 152ff.), and Le Bon patronized Taine in the same outrageous way that he patronized the other crowd theorists whom he plagiarized. He gave Taine quite good marks as a describer of revolutionary crowds, an honest spadeworker whose account of the mob in the French Revolution had to wait for Le Bon himself to give the crowd the theoretical attention which only he was capable of giving it. By assenting with civil leer to Taine’s European reputation as the chronicler of revolutionary crowds, Le Bon felt free to gut the Origins for crowd material, but that was not the only support that Le Bon got from Taine. The Crowd also contained in a simplified form the view of the history of Europe since the Enlightenment which Taine worked out while writing the Origins.