The Sanity of Crowds and the Madness of Power: Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power (1960)
Canetti’s Crowds and Power is the only masterpiece of crowd theory. The triumph of crowd politics with the rise of National Socialism in Germany enables Canetti to survey the whole experience of the crowd from its anthropological beginnings, and to re-work the whole tradition of crowd theory. In Canetti, crowd theory is completed in a sense that was not available to his predecessors whose crowd theory could only be complete as prediction. In Canetti, the whole crowd experience itself is complete; the crowd and its leaders have come to power out of a decayed civilization; in the form of Nazism the paranoid delusions of a leader of crowds became ‘the creed of a great nation, leading under a “Mongol Prince”, to the conquest of Europe and coming within a hair’s breadth of the conquest of the world’ (CP, p. 447).1 Impressive though crowd theory was before 1914, there was not much in it to predict the casualty figures of the Great War, and there was certainly nothing in it, or in the crowd theory of the 1920s, to predict the heap of corpses left by Hitler’s war. Canetti accepts that all the important events of the modern world, inflations, revolutions and wars, are crowd phenomena (CP, p. 183). All have barbarous consequences, but Canetti avoids the ‘atavistic-evolutionary’ style of crowd explanation of his predecessors in the crowd tradition because ‘lt is not for a European of the 20th century to regard himself as above savagery’ (CP, p. 411). The evolutionist perspective was only possible in a civilization still capable of believing in its own superiority over all the cultures of the past, and over all those contemporary cultures which were not yet up to its own mark; being superior put it in a position to feel threatened by the crowd as a throwback to an earlier stage of evolutionary progress. The era Canetti deals with begins with the Great War and ends with the threat of the nuclear holocaust; its masses are on the move, and they leave masses of the dead behind them; the superiority of evolutionary distance is no longer available. Canetti dismisses all Darwinism (CP, p. 384), not because he thinks Darwinism is untrue or because he is unaware of the existence of ‘pessimistic Darwinism’, but because he wants to put as much distance as he can between his own crowd theory and the progressive biology on which so much of the crowd theory tradition rested.