Mystifying Gustav Lebon’s Irrational Crowd
Published 02 Dec 2016
The subject of mass movement or crowd behavior and action has long been a contentious point for scholars. On the one hand, there are those who consider such movements as symptoms of the inherent pathology in human nature, of the failure of culture to subdue the basic instincts that make humans no lesser than animals. On the other hand, there are scholars who contend that human beings not only retain their humanity but in fact preserve it by their ability to work en masse to achieve common goals and ideals. In providing a framework for the study of the behavior of mass movements, Gustav Lebon’s work on group psychology continues to resonate among scholars who have put his work to use either by completely debunking his claims or erecting evidence to support them. However, a reading of Lebon’s main assertion clearly raises more questions than answers as he fails to substantiate his claims logically and therefore fails to illuminate the critical audience on the behavior of the mob.
Gustav Lebon’s main theoretical point is encapsulated in his seminal work The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Published in 1895, Lebon’s work on crowd psychology became popular and influential among statesmen and scholars alike. Here, Lebon argued that the crowd will always be inferior to the inpidual. The crowd is the provisional being created when inpiduals become organized for a goal or a cause. (122) However, this being is defined by its stark contrast to inpiduals, that is, the crowd is incapable of critical analysis and logical reasoning thus making them vulnerable to stimulation from the machinations of provocateurs and the captivation of illusory and abstract ideas.
Using this framework, Lebon attempts to explain the behavior of historical mass movements such as the French revolution and forms his primary thesis of “the law of mental unity of the crowd.” This law stipulates that the “minds of crowds” (122) are organized according to race, composition, and the nature of the stimulation. Lebon further argues that the crowd, as a provisional being, has entirely different characteristics from the inpiduals that form it since membership in a crowd dissolves the conscious personality of inpiduals. Thus, the characteristics of the crowd do not depend on the accumulation of the positive traits or values of the inpidual. On the contrary, the crowd brings out the inherent attitudes, values, and motives of inpiduals that have heherto been masked by the elements of education, social expectations, and social status.
Undoubtedly, the strength of Lebon’s ideas lies in the empirical approach with which he approaches the subject. Building upon and utilizing the advancements in psychology during his time, he uses these to analyze historical and current events to demonstrate the soundness of his argument. Thus, he comes up with the concept of the psychological crowd; one that does not necessarily confine inpiduals to the traditional notion of being gathered in the same space at the same time but connected by their common characteristic and commonality of entrenched ideas.
Likewise, by acknowledging that ideas have no intrinsic value in themselves, Lebon also debunks the idea of the absolute Truths in much as the same manner that postmodern scholars have abandoned absolutism in favor of relativism. Ideas then become superior only when it is embraced by the crowd, which has the ability to bring ideas to reality. It is by rallying the crowd behind ideas that change in society and history is created.
On the other hand, the racist and biological determinist bias is apparent in Lebon’s work. He observes, for instance, that the characteristics of crowds are influenced by their race and by the limits of heredity. It is implied in these statements that particular races, due to their inherent inferiority from other races, are bound to be less irrational and therefore more prone to crowd-like behavior than others. It is therefore in these assumptions that Lebon’s arguments ultimately weaken as he presumes that the audience shares the same view of a predistined or innate weakness among humans arising from their faulty biology and abnormality.
Lebon’s insistence on the incapability of the crowd for rational action and judgment is also its pitfall. This idea stems from his assertion that the crowd is governed by the unconcious or the primal instincts of humankind. However, Lebon contradicts himself when he acknowledges that it is often necessary to first establish an idea—implant it even—in the mind of the crowd before they can be made to act on its account. This implantation of the idea, he grudgingly accedes, can take a long time (129) and resembles the formation of human habits. It is here that the discrepancy between his arguments, primary of which is of the irrational and illogical crowd, becomes pronounced. If the crowd is not capable of critical analysis and retrospection, then the need for establishing the validity and the acceptability of an idea is unnecessary, there is only the need to seduce the crowd with captivating images to gain their sympathy.
For instance, there will be no need to convince the peasant crowd of the validity of the idea of revolution or uprising against the cruel rule of the landlords and the monarchy, there is only the need to stir the desire for bloodshed and the masses will spontaneously rebel. However, Lebon himself has observed that it took nearly a century before the peasants and the newly rising bourgoisie were able to mobilize themselves into a formidable force enough to confront the monarchy.
Lebon clearly glosses over the fact that human beings are not subject to ideas alone, they are also subject to the myriad of experiences which shape the realm of knowledge and learning. Hence, the crowd or the masses must be able to relate accessible ideas to its reality to gain validity, test the soundness of these ideas in empirical practice, and acknowledge their superiority or inferiority from victory or defeat.
Alas, in denying these realities as inferior, Lebon himself condemns the concept of an “intelligent crowd,” and refuses to accept that a gathering of intelligent minds will effect intelligent actions and decisions. By creating the myth of the violent mob, Lebon expects the audience to accept his claims. This is unfortunate, as he only mentions the grim parts of history as evidence in support of his theory (125) but fails to account for specific instances where the crowd is able to act in a rational and well-planned manner such as in civil disobedience and consensus-building.
Consequently, Lebon reduces popular sentiment as a mere product of “contagion” and of the hypnosis wherein the ideas are transmitted in almost the same manner as a viral infection that transforms its members into destructive and vindictive creatures. He attacks the conformity with which inpiduals are likely to perceive ideas and images as the reason why only a few are able to rise from the ranks of the crowd to be its master. However, Lebon fails to account for the role of social and cultural institutions and norms in mythmaking and in the preservation of dominant ideas that hold the crowd in thrall in the same way that the tyrannical leader does. He therefore fails to account for the behavior clearly meant to break the dominant norms, and indeed, against the oppression and domination of a few despot.
In the end, Gustav Lebon’s definition of the crowd as incapable of reflection despite several proofs in history to show the contrary crumbles upon the heavy weight of criticism. Ironically, it is in his quest of illuminating the mob that Lebon creates more myths around crowd behavior and succeeds in convoluting matters even more. It is therefore in his haste to prove that the crowd would never be superior over the inpidual, that Lebon not only undermines the capability of the “intelligent crowd” for collective retrospection and learning but also attempts to escape criticism and judgment from the mob for his hasty and unsubstantiated generalizations.
Lebon, Gustav. (1895) The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind.