Book Review: The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon

I was interested in the book The Crowd; Study of the Popular Mind by Gustave Le Bon to gain an understanding of the psychology of crowds (doing a little research). What causes people to become acquiescent, and in many cases participate in the oppression of others?

Here are a couple of responses to that question Le Bon provided in his book:

“The crowd is always dominated by considerations of which it is unconscious—the disappearance of brain activity and the predominance of medullar activity—the lowering of intelligence and the complete transformation of the sentiments. The transformed sentiments may be better or worse than those of the individuals of which the crowd is composed. A crowd is as easily heroic as criminal.”

“The individual forming part of a crowd acquires, solely from numerical considerations, a sentiment of invincible power which allows him to yield to instincts which, had he been alone, he would perforce have kept under restraint. He will be the less disposed to check himself from the consideration that, a crowd being anonymous, and in consequence irresponsible, the sentiment of responsibility which always controls individuals disappears entirely.”

I chose this book expecting to read an objective study into crowd psychology, and while the book contains some interesting, even frightful, insights that are worth studying, I wasn’t prepared for the elitist, racist, and misogynistic statements made by the author.

Regarding the classification of crowds:

“It’s most inferior form is met with when the multitude is composed of individuals of different races…On a higher level than these multitudes composed of different races are those which under certain influences have acquired common characteristics, and have ended by forming a single race.”

“It will be remarked that among the special characteristics of crowds there are several…which are almost always observed in beings belonging to inferior forms of evolution—in women, savages, and children, for instance.”

According to him the notions of the aforementioned groups do not have merit. Sounds a little like oppression, doesn’t it? He also had this to say about religion:

“Tiberius, Ghengis Khan, and Napoleon were assuredly redoubtable tyrants, but from the depth of their graves Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Mahomet have exerted on the human soul a far profounder despotism.”

W-what? It’s true that horrible atrocities have been committed in the name of religion (The Thirty Years War, the Crusades, etc.), but does the following sound like the words of a despot?

“A new commandment I give to you: love one another. As I have loved you, you are also to love one another.” ~John 13:34

Le Bon’s “study” of the psychology of crowds is so littered with personal prejudices, presented as scientific research on the psychology of others, that it’s difficult to look beyond his narrow-minded and pessimistic view of the world. If anything, it seems to be a manual on how to rise to power as a dictator through psychological manipulation. It’s not surprising that Hitler was known to have studied the book and apparently deployed its ideas with great success.  Hitler was quoted as saying, “by the skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise.”

Le Bon also believed “it is the need, not of liberty, but of servitude, that is always predominant in the soul of crowds. They are so bent on obedience that they instinctively submit to whoever declares himself their master.”

I believe self-preservation —one of the strongest basic human instincts—is what predominates, followed closely by freedom. Evil can rise to power when the masses are in a depressed economic state. People can blindly turn to the voice of a gifted orator that plays on the self-preservation instinct with promises of prosperity. They are so caught up in the story they fail to see the truth of what is happening until it can no longer be denied. At that point, they are controlled by fear of death as the self-preservation instinct becomes firmly rooted.

The temper of a crowd is fickle. As Le Bon said, just “as easily heroic as criminal.” But if one person has the intestinal fortitude to speak out against injustice, the fear among the crowd can give way to courage and spark a revolution. The world is fortunate to have known the likes of those who do not follow the crowd when it is silent about injustice.

I wonder what Le Bon would have had to say about Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Nelson Mandela?

2 out of 5 stars

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