chapter  7
31 Pages

Crowd Theory Makes its Way in the World: The Le Bon Phenomenon

Gustave Le Bon and Crowd Theory as Conservative Ideology The part played by the mob in the French Revolution was being drawn to the attention of literate Europe by Taine’s great Origins of Contemporary France (which appeared volume by volume between 1876 and 1894) at a time when crowd or mass politics appeared to be the developing political style. While the Origins was being published, social thinkers in France, England, Italy and America were drawing on them, and on anything else that lay to hand to construct a theory of the crowd which was intended to be as scientific as the theories of biology, physiology, psychiatry and anthropology which they ransacked for analogies or simply lifted whole and applied to the crowd. By 1895, when Le Bon’s The Crowd appeared, the psychology of the crowd was a recognized intellectual genre with considerable scientific claims which nobody seemed to deny, though there were grumblings about common sense parading itself in doctors’ robes (Barrows, 1981, p. 134). Crowd psychology was scientific, even technical, in all the appropriate senses: it had its own special vocabulary; it might be able to provide a technique of crowd manipulation or control, and it fitted well into the evolutionary-scientific view of things which the second half of the nineteenth century had made its own. Le Bon’s The Crowd was a great publishing success1 because it was able to summarize what had been worrying the savants within the academic world of social science at a time when the literate public were themselves worrying about much the same things. The secret of Le Bon’s success was to use science to frighten the public, and then to claim that what science could understand it could also control. His advice to public men about how to deal with crowds, or at least how not to be dominated by them, was put before a public that was quick to make heroes of great engineers, men who had brought technologies out of science to control the waywardness of nature. The technique of crowd control that Le Bon offered was not very impressive, but he saw himself, and was seen by others, as a de Lesseps of social engineering. He sat back, and the plaudits and the royalties came.