Gustave Le Bon. Image credit: Arnopeters/Creative Commons.
In May, the New York Times published an opinion piece I wrote on the position taken by Democratic Socialists of America and Jacobin magazine on the presidential election. Both DSA and the magazine had expressed opposition to support for Joseph Biden, and the editor of Jacobin announced his intention to vote for the Green Party candidate.
I wrote an article criticizing these stands. I said that the risk of a Trump victory was too great, that immigrants and that people of color would suffer disproportionately from the victory that might result from their position. “Taking a principled stand is courageous only when those taking it put themselves at risk,” I wrote. “Placing others at risk requires no courage at all.”
The day before it was to appear, my son, wiser in the ways of the Web than I, told me he was preparing to defend me. He assured me that the supporters of these two groups would not take my criticism lightly. I shrugged it off. These were my comrades. We just disagreed on the proper tactical position.
My son was right. Within minutes of the article’s appearance, I was getting battered on Twitter.
The hatred expressed, the threats, the insults, the slanders, the vituperation is something others are familiar with. It was new to me. It all grew so massive over the next couple of days that the usual explanations of bad conduct on Twitter seemed insufficient. This was not simply a matter of the shelter provided by anonymity, or of the ease with which an online warrior can retweet or “like” a tweet and bury its subject under a mound of invective.
There was more at play here: after all, Twitter is social media, and therefore a social system.
How, I wondered, did people who supposedly fought for the reign of fraternity, justice, and equality turn into a virtual mob? Defense of ideas didn’t explain it: who threatens, as a writer for Jacobin did, to “kick [the] hairless ass” of someone he doesn’t know over a question of electoral politics?
The fury of one person on Twitter seemed to set off the fury of the next, like a virus passing through a population. The hatred reached frightening proportions, although a Brazilian friend — who had himself been the victim of a Twitter mob made up of police from Rio de Janeiro — reassured me that while right-wing Twitter mobs were liable to be armed, I had little to fear from the verbal violence of a left-wing one.
It was, nonetheless, an unsettling experience. I needed an explanation for this conduct.
And so I turned to the great classic of crowd psychology, Gustave Le Bon’s La Psychologie des foules — in English, The Psychology of Crowds. Published in 1895, this volume, along with some of Le Bon’s other works, read like the writings of a seer. A century before his full meaning would be clear and long before the virtual world and its threats were even science fiction, Le Bon would warn in a 1911 volume that “[m]ental contagion does not solely take place through direct contact of individuals. Books, newspapers, telegraphic wire services, even simple rumors can produce it. The more the means of communication are multiplied, the more people’s will is touched and infected. We daily become more connected to those around us. Individual mentality is receding easily to its primitive collective form.”
In The Psychology of Crowds, I could even discern an explanation for the formation of Twitter mobs. “Thousands of separated individuals can,” Le Bon wrote, “at a given moment, under the influence of certain violent emotions . . . acquire the characteristic of a psychological crowd. Some chance event uniting them then suffices for their behavior to take on the special form of the acts of crowds.”
This made perfect sense. In my case, in their separate homes, having no direct physical contact, a Twitter mob had formed in a similar way. “A crowd in the process of formation does not always imply the simultaneous presence of several individuals in one place. Thousands of separate individuals can, at a given moment . . . under the influence of violent emotions, acquire the characteristics of a psychological crowd.”
That the Twitter mob contained the educated should not have surprised me, for, as Le Bon informed me, “[f]rom the time they are part of a crowd, the ignorant and the learned become equally incapable of observation.” And that journalists would respond in as vulgar ways as anonymous trolls was also not a surprise: “A gathering of scholars and artists, by the sole fact that they are gathered together,” Le Bon explained, “does not render judgments on general subjects markedly different from those of an assembly of bricklayers or grocers.”
Gustave Le Bon was born in 1841, died in 1931, and wrote on a dizzying array of subjects. A capacious intellect, he would have loved the Internet. Le Bon studied, but never practiced, medicine, so we find among his published books a treatise on illnesses of the genitourinary organs; a volume called Apparent Deaths and Premature Burials; and a collection of slides for a conference on anatomy and histology. He was also the author of volumes on smoking, Annamite archaeology, travels to Nepal, and equestrianism and its principles. But politics and society were the heart of his oeuvre.
Le Bon was very much a conservative of his time and place, with a profoundly pessimistic vision of the life span of civilizations, much of it based on notions of race and racial hierarchy. Hatred of socialism, democracy, and education for all feature prominently in his works. All of this no doubt serves to explain why he has been banished to the sidelines of social thought.
And yet there is no denying that despite — or perhaps more accurately, because of — his unblinkered vision, Gustave Le Bon saw mass society with a gimlet eye. His works, intended descriptively, were used prescriptively by politicians, particularly fascists. Mussolini read him closely; Goebbels and Hitler are said to have done so, as well. But Le Bon also had broad appeal: Sigmund Freud and his nephew, Edward Bernays, the father of American advertising, were also admirers.
Le Bon’s central insight was that once he becomes a member of a crowd, the individual ceases to exist. He is as if “hypnotized” and is “no longer conscious of his acts.” With the fading of the conscious personality, the unconscious personality predominates, “orient[ed] through suggestion and the contagion of feelings and ideas in the same direction” as those around him. The result is that while “isolated he was perhaps a cultivated individual; in a crowd he become someone driven by instincts, consequently a barbarian.” Any act becomes possible.
Le Bon’s theories grounded in over a century of French politics driven by the masses. The bloodiest events of the French Revolution (which Le Bon despised), like the September Massacres of 1792, when prisoners of the Revolution were slaughtered in prisons all over Paris based on groundless rumors, were the result of a murderous madness that converted ordinary individuals into a criminal crowd. “The crimes of crowds generally have a powerful suggestion as their motive,” Le Bon theorized about this transformation, “and the individuals who took part are afterwards persuaded that they obeyed an obligation.”
Even disinterested acts of legislators, whom Le Bon understood as another form of crowd, along with juries, criminals, and voters, could adopt this mentality. Again citing the French Revolution, Le Bon pointed out that among the “most ferocious members of the Convention could be found inoffensive bourgeois who, in ordinary circumstances would have been peaceful notaries or virtuous magistrates.” But gathered as a crowd “they did not hesitate to approve the most ferocious proposals. . . . And, contrary to their own interests, renounced their inviolability and decimated themselves.”
Two centuries later, we do not usually face events as dramatic as the French Revolution, but lately, the crowd has not just assembled on Twitter. In June 2020, residents of the towns of Coquille and Klamath Falls, Oregon, became convinced that busloads of antifa “members” were headed their way to tear up their towns and attack white people led to armed mobs lining the streets. The mass delusion even went so far as lead residents to believe the failure of the non-existent buses to arrive was a result of their willingness to use their weaponry.
All of this makes the accomplishments of the recent racial justice demonstrations that much more striking. At almost no point did they fall into the mass irrationality that Le Bon saw as the essence of the crowd. The justice of their cause seemed to lift them above that which so often stains gathered masses.
Le Bon also speculated on the qualities of a successful leader, something that comes to mind when we think about how responsive these crowds are to Donald Trump’s tweets. A leader, he insisted, must have god-like qualities, and surely the Trump crowd’s devotion, with people lining up hours before the rally is to begin, bedecked in Trumpian attire, tells us something about why these tweets are so successful. As Le Bon wrote, “We can’t succeed in understanding the philosophy of history even a little without having grasped this fundamental point in crowd psychology: one must be a god for them, or nothing.”
The success of the repeated and countless falsehoods and the impoverished language of our president are also explained by Le Bon. “Pure and simple affirmation, freed of any reasoning or proof, constitutes a sure method to have an idea penetrate the mind of the crowd,” he observes. “The more concise and free of proof and demonstration it is, the more authority it has. [This affirmation] nevertheless only acquires real influence on condition it is constantly repeated and, insofar as possible, in the same terms.”
The Trumpian crowd, unswayed and unswayable, is also in Le Bon’s sights — as are my own left-wing Twitter trolls. All are driven by what they feel to be unshakably true. “Having no doubts about what it believes to be truth or error and possessing a clear idea of its strength, the crowd is as authoritarian as it is intolerant,” he writes. “An individual can accept contradiction and discussion; a crowd, never.” The futility of arguing with members of any crowd is clear, for in the psychology of crowds what matters is “the impotence of reason upon them. The ideas capable of influencing crowds are not rational ideas but feelings expressed in the form of ideas.”
Our current political divisions are also already limned in Le Bon’s pages, as well as the ways online controversies characterize the moral worth of individuals by a single expressed opinion. “One moment of conversation with an individual suffices for one to know what he reads, is usual occupations, and the environment in which he lives,” Le Bon wrote. The political split we now experience over scientific matters — in everything from evolution to climate change to Covid-19 — simply updates Le Bon’s observation that mass opinion is “derived from the adoption of some fundamental belief,” Le Bon wrote. “A monarchist knew for certain that man did not descend from monkeys, and a republican knew just as certainly that he did.”
But ideas are not what really matter to crowds. “People who seem to be fighting for ideas are really fighting for feelings from which the ideas are derived,” Le Bon explained, and feelings are impervious to reason. In fact, he insists, all debate is useless in the realms of religion, politics, and morals. It’s not only useless, it’s counter-productive, for “[t]o debate rationally a mystical or affective belief serves only to exalt it.”
Writing in 1895, Le Bon thought that civilization was on the verge of collapse, a “worm-eaten edifice supported by nothing that will collapse at the first storm.” He was wrong in that regard. But what would he think of our own time, when the storms are Twitter storms, and the social and political civilization that remains standing after three and a half years of Donald Trump resembles the nightmare world he described in too many ways for us to be smug about it?
A writer and translator, Mitch Abidor’s latest book is Down with the Law: Anarchist Individualist Writings from Early Twentieth-Century France.