Review of The Crowd by G. Le Bon

Arthur F. Bentley

GUSTAVE LE BON : The Crowd: a Study of the Popular Mind. New York: Macmillan & Сo., 1896. $1.50.

IN this work Le Bon makes a careful study of the character and scope of the activities of crowds and mobs. He bases all his propositions about these phenomena on his general theory of the nature of social interpretation as set forth in his prior work, Lois psychologiques de l'evolution des peuples. This theory involves a very sharp distinction between the social institutions and the social soul, the institutions being simply manifestations of the soul, and the latter alone a living or creative element. L'âme du peuple must then be studied first and

(613) foremost by the sociologist and all social phenomena must be explained by reference to this soul as cause.

In the present work this theory appears throughout ; for it is the mind of the crowd that is primarily studied. The sub-title for the English edition of the work is "A Study of the Popular Mind." This raises in the thought of the reader at once all the difficulties which were involved in the other work referred to.

One form of this difficulty may be illustrated by reference to what Le Eon calls the "law of the mental unity of crowds." This law, propounded at the outset of the work, sets up for each crowd its own soul, permanent or transitory as the case may be. While Le Bon has here undoubtedly a firm basis of fact, his general theory leads him to give it very inadequate expression. It is on this account, I think, that the proposition estranges so many readers at the start. If the same phenomena were stated in terms of a unity of activity (these activities understood as intelligent) the proposition would be much fuller and truer and would carry much more force than when stated as a mere soul-unity in the sense, to me very abstract, which Le Bon gives to the term " soul."

Another result of Le Bon's general theory is seen in his continual use of the "unconscious" as a factor in society. Here again there are at the basis of Le Bon's remarks facts which much need to be recognized ; but with a more adequate statement of them that mystic, awe-inspiring unconscious would quickly disappear.

Although the question brought up in the points just referred to is probably the most fundamental one which the book raises, involving, as it does, the whole subject of social interpretation and of the adequate statement of social phenomena, it is not the most important matter in the author's own intention, and should not be further insisted on in a brief note.

Let us look, then, at the more concrete issues of the book.

Le Bon holds that this is an age of crowds, and that their activities are increasing in range and in power day by day. The organized crowd is a group of men acting together under stimuli which are in most cases novel and transitory. The activities of crowds are usually described as unconscious, and the best of them exhibit only very slight rational elements. Pictures, symbols, sparkling superficiality can best move them. Yet race characteristics of the men who compose them act largely as determining elements. Their deeds are marked by an

(614) intensity and immediateness which can best be characterized as "religious" in quality.

In Book I, "The Mind of Crowds," it is the processes of crowd action which Le Bon mainly treats. In Book II, "The Opinions and Beliefs of Crowds," the emphasis is on the content of their souls—that is, the scope and concrete conditions of their activities. Book III discusses several forms of heterogeneous crowds. Probably these chapters on the criminal crowd, the jury, the electoral crowd, and the parliamentary crowd are the ones which will excite the greatest practical interest. Assuredly anyone who has been watching from a nonpartisan standpoint those processes called discussion and argument in the present political campaign will find much here to interest him.

The homogeneous crowds, sect, caste, and class are not discussed in this volume, but a treatment of them is promised in a later work.

The translation is as a whole very satisfactory, though occasionally an amusing error creeps in; rarely, however, to the serious detriment of the sense. Despite the general good appearance of the volume, the student cannot but regret the tripling in both bulk and price which it has undergone in the process of reproduction.



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