Gustave Le Bon on the World in Revolt

Le Bon 02 Portrait Right-Gazing

Gustave Le Bon (1841 – 1931)

Albert Camus produced in L’Homme revolté [Man in Revolt] or The Rebel (1951) a milestone of postwar philosophical writing, widely admired for its diagnosis of a combat-shattered, God-deprived, and ideologically disgruntled world.  In The Rebel Camus (1913 – 1960) was distancing himself from Existentialism – that of Sartre, anyway – in favor of something more like a tradition-rooted perspective.  Existentialism had already caricatured itself in the early 1950s so that its slogans might serve undergraduates and taxicab drivers.  Camus quoted at length from Friedrich Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoevsky; he reiterated that modernity itself was askew and had become bitterly unsatisfying to those caught up in its tenacious grip.  Despite his range of reference, however, Camus makes no mention in The Rebel of Gustave Le Bon (1841 – 1931), author of The Psychology of Revolution (1895) and The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1896).  Nevertheless Le Bon’s sharp-eyed meditations prefigure Camus’ “Absurdist” critique of society and culture, but from a non-disgruntled and distinctly right-wing point of view.  Le Bon’s book The World in Revolt: A Psychological Study of our Times (1920) even anticipated Camus’ title.  Le Bon’s follow-up, Le déséquilibre du monde [The Disequilibrium of the World] (1923) offered a trope – that of vertigo – which the Existentialists, including Camus, would eagerly receive and exploit.  Camus’ protagonist in The Stranger, Meursault, feels such dizziness just before he murders a random Arab on the Algerian beach.

Except for The Crowd, Le Bon’s work has largely disappeared from the institutional memory.  The Crowd maintains a tenuous grip because of its debt-holding position in respect to the work of René Girard.  But because Le Bon belongs on the political right, his few contemporary commentators treat him dismissively.  The Wikipedia article on Le Bon offers an example.  The article-writer attributes to Le Bon the recommendation of various techniques for crowd manipulation employed by the totalitarian states in the mid-Twentieth Century.  In various books related to the French Revolution and the First World War, Le Bon had indeed described such techniques, always critically, while condemning them for their corrosiveness of individual responsibility.  Such confusion of the descriptive with the prescriptive offers itself as entirely deliberate – an attempt to anathematize a perceptive thinker because he rejected socialism.  In an amusing exchange among Internet correspondents at a “Gustave Le Bon” chat-site, the message-writers argue this way and that whether a Société Gustave Le Bon ever existed or whether it still exists.  No one seems to know. The issue lingers unresolved.  Occultists have sometimes heard of Le Bon, who expounded the theory that matter had evolved, and who argued that each atom was a separate microcosmic world.  Le Bon had many admirers, not least the poet Paul Valéry, another Man of the Right, and the philosopher Henri Bergson.

Le Bon 08 Anti-Fa

The High Mass of the Left

I. In his Psychology of Revolution, Le Bon advanced the thesis that insurrectionist political movements, far from being rational, as they portray themselves, have much in common with religious upheavals and sectarian furor. According to Le Bon the French Revolution needed careful reanalysis from the standpoint of “ancestral influences, the laws which rule the action of the crowd, data relating to the disaggregation of personality, mental contagion, the foundation of beliefs, and the distinction between the various forms of logic.”  Above all, one could never take the French Revolution’s explanation of itself at face value – or any revolution’s explanation of itself, for that matter.  In the ecstatic discourse of revolutionaries, whether sectarian or political, the triumph of the cause never appears as other than the working-out of what Le Bon calls “imperious fatality.”  Revolution sees itself as foreordained and as the goal of an agency named History.  Objective investigation would necessarily treat revolutionary self-explanation as suspect, bracketing all subjective iteration of complaints and justifications while looking elsewhere for an understanding of causes.  Man in his conscious fullness, Le Bon says, is precisely the creature who averts fatality; one should never confuse him with the degraded being that merges with fatality to share in its promised consummation.  In Le Bon’s opinion, “The historians who have judged the events of the French Revolution in the name of rational logic could not comprehend them, since this form of logic did not dictate them.”

That revolution, generally considered, follows a consistent pattern and so conforms to a describable ontogeny or inner logic, Le Bon never denies; but revolutions never think themselves through.  Inwardly, revolutions declare themselves to be remarkably irrational; they unfold, not logically, but pathologically.  In The Psychology, Le Bon writes, “Although the Jacobin is a great reasoner, this does not mean that he is in the least guided by reason.”  Revolutions give riotous vent to inarticulate resentment and frustration, as acted out by urban masses, and as led by demagogues whose talent is mobilization of the mass through crystallizing slogans that fit the passing moment.  The demagogues, however, can suffer re-infection from the atmosphere of irrational excitement that they exacerbate.  Mentally, insurrection and revolution tend to the lowest common denominator.  This downward-tending process has put itself fully on view in the United States of America subsequent to the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016.  The reaction of the Left was at first wordy but swiftly descended into the non-verbal.  When an alleged comedienne held up the simulacrum of Mr. Trump’s severed head, she not only confirmed Le Bon’s assertion, but established a link between anti-Trumpism and the Jacobins, who will be forever remembered for their employment of mechanical decapitation the service of the insurrection.

Le Bon argues in The Psychology that it is cultic enthusiasm, which must already exist in simmering latency, rather than any kind of programmatic reason, that makes a violent outburst successful.  Insurrection and agitation therefore always exhibit the traits of Dionysiac frenzy; they incline by their atavistic character toward dramatic sacrificial gestures that satisfy the un-bottled lusts of the rout.  Of the year 1789 and its train, Le Bon writes: “That the Revolution was potent indeed, that it made France accept the violence, the murders, the ruin of a frightful civil war, that it finally defended itself victoriously against a Europe in arms, was due to the fact that it had founded not a new system of government but a new religion.”  This new religion even proffered a substitute-Trinity.  Nevertheless, “the fraternity and liberty which [the Revolution] proclaimed never seduced the peoples [but] equality became their gospel: The pivot of socialism and of the entire evolution of modern ideas.”  Goading the mob to regard custom and the law as, by their mere existence, offenses against equality the agitators excited it “to regard itself as a victim and to pillage, burn, and massacre, imagining that in so doing it as exercising a right.”  The fetish of equality, inflated to the status of “an absolute truth,” imbued its adherents with murderous intolerance.  Once again, the contemporary scene in the U.S.A. offers numerous parallels. The black-clad, masked Anti-Fas match themselves perfectly in appearance and behavior to Le Bon’s description, as do the mobs which chase members of the Trump government on the streets or surround them in restaurants while they try to enjoy a meal with their families.

Le Bon 03 Sheeple

The Revolution Revolving

As it was in 1789, so too was it in the Sixteenth Century.  Thus, “Violence, hatred, and persecution… were the habitual accompaniments of the great political and religious revolutions, notably of the Reformation and the French Revolution.”  Turning to The Crowd, where Le Bon distills into principles the range of empirical observations in The Psychology, we find that the qualities that the historian associates with insurrections and revolutions coincide with those that the sociologist or psychologist associates with groups, mobs, and collectives.  Crowds, which have a low power of reason, move in response to slogans and images of the simplest type; the convictions of crowds stem from childish feelings and inclinations, not from ideas or arguments, which indeed arouse their impatience and hostility.  Le Bon writes: “When [the crowd’s] convictions are closely examined, whether at epochs marked by fervent religious faith, or by great political upheavals such as those of the last century, it is apparent that they always assume a peculiar form which I cannot better define than by giving it the name of a religious sentiment.”  These words look forward to those of Girard, whose study of Violence and the Sacred (1966) and other books build, with much original development, on Le Bon’s insight.  In joining the crowd, as both Le Bon and Girard posit, one submits to an imagined power that acts from a perch beyond the limitations of morality and restraint.  Discarding conscience to merge with the mass, the subject falls prone, in Le Bon’s words, to “worship of a being supposed superior, fear of the power with which the being is credited, blind submission to its commands, inability to discuss its dogmas, the desire to spread them, and a tendency to consider as enemies all by whom they are not accepted.”

Le Bon remarks, anticipating an objection, that, “a person is not religious solely when he worships a divinity, but when he puts all the resources of his mind… and the whole-souled ardor of fanaticism at the service of a cause [which] becomes the goal and guide of his thoughts and actions.”  Crowds not only feel themselves to be participants in a movement that subsumes them, but also they regard themselves as the bearers or vessels of uniquely vouchsafed knowledge, “the secret of earthly or eternal happiness.”  Just this delight in putative knowledge assimilates the secular utopian with the sectarian zealot: “The Jacobins of the Reign of Terror were at bottom as religious as the Catholics of the Inquisition,” sharing as they did the “intolerance and fanaticism that are the necessary accompaniments of the religious sentiment.”  Le Bon cites Fustel de Coulanges on the sacred character of the Roman Empire, for whose multitudes the reigning Caesar assumed a mantle of godhood.  William Shakespeare anticipated and perhaps influenced Le Bon in the foregoing assertion.  Marc Antony’s speech before the crowd at Caesar’s funeral brilliantly illustrates Le Bon’s argument.  Le Bon adds that while modern mass-politics has dispensed with the altar, the political leaders “have statues, or their portraits are in the hands of their admirers, and the cult of which they are the object is not notably different from that accorded to their predecessors.”  In Julius Caesar, in the opening scene, two patriots of the Republic find themselves arrested for removing the garlands that decorate the busts of Caesar that Caesar has had placed around the city.

In The Crowd as elsewhere Le Bon refers repeatedly to the French Revolution, his most constant case-in-point.  Adding a century to his experience, modern readers can find supplementary evidence to support Le Bon’s argument in the recent and contemporary ideological-collectivist movements.  These too tend toward “assuming the religious shape [that] obviates discussion.”  Le Bon addresses the corrosive effect of the crowd-mentality on language, whose richness of distinctions threatens the solidarity of unanimous predilection.  Because “the power of words is bound up with the images they evoke, and is quite independent of their real significance,” it follows, as Le Bon writes, that as motivators of collective solidarity, “words whose sense is the most ill-defined are sometimes those that possess the most influence.”  The entire race-class-gender vocabulary of the contemporary Left corresponds to Le Bon’s description.  The language of the contemporary Left shows itself at once restricted and esoteric.  Its restriction consists in the centrality to it of the magical accusation of racism, classism, and genderism.  Its esotericism consists in the equally magical and incomprehensible language that it deploys in its so-called scholarly or academic discourse to back up the magical accusations.  Shakespeare once again proves useful.  Brutus convinces himself that Caesar’s death is necessary through a glaring sophism that goes, in defiance of facts and logic, only where it wants to go:

And, since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus; that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities:
And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg
Which, hatch’d, would, as his kind, grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.
Le Bon 10 Uniform

Mobilization and Uniformity

II. Writing just after the imposition of the Versailles Treaty, Le Bon discerned in the patterns of recent history, beginning with the cataclysm of the French Revolution, a single fluctuating crisis of Western civilization. The genealogy of troubles could be pushed back into history beyond the last one hundred and thirty years before the second decade of the Twentieth Century. Le Bon thus saw the French Revolution itself as springing from causes traceable to Luther, Calvin, and the sectarian fervor that their teachings unleashed.  The World in Revolt articulates Le Bon’s historical and sociological perceptions.  The World War had fused the mobilized masses with the state, reinforcing a pattern already many times rehearsed on European soil.  Historically, the separation of the temporal and spiritual dimensions and of the public and private domains had distinguished the feudal order from the top-heavy imperial order that predeceased it.  Pope and king, bishop and baron: these authorities stood apart, as separate realms in tension with one another.  In this space of such tension, a new type of independent person could emerge, shaped by Gospel ethics, Gothic stubbornness, and the settled local dispensation.  At the same time the market began to assert itself and to generate wealth.  True independence is rare and fleeting.  That the independent-minded minority will exercise a dominant influence on the society is, moreover, a proposition by no means guaranteed.  De-differentiating forces always threaten to overwhelm the ethical subject and to subdue his stabilizing, productive influence.  In the first two centuries before and in the first five centuries after the First Christian Millennium, Islam constituted the major external threat to Europe’s achievement, whereas, internally, beginning eve before the Reformation, dissolution of the articulated social forms through religious contagion constituted the danger.

To Le Bon, in the moment just after the war, the prospect appeared stark.  Britain and France, with American help, had achieved unexpected victory over Germany and Austria, but the war had stimulated “State intervention,” which had acquired the character of dogma.  Thus, “According to the apostles of State intervention, the Government, by reason of its supposed superiority, ought to control the complex of a nation’s industrial and commercial activities, depriving citizens of initiative, and therefore of liberty.”  Once fully mobilized, the masses of a nation, having forfeited independent thought and enjoying the intoxication of collective enthrallment, resist de-mobilization.  They cling rather to the de-individuated state that absolves them of responsibility, mistaking the condition for liberty.  It is the liberty, perhaps, of a soldier on liberty – a kind of strictly limited license under the certainty that someone higher in rank remains in charge.  Socialists, as Le Bon sees it, took advantage of the situation, hectoring and sloganeering, to prevent a reversion to the status quo ante; a widespread sense of perpetual conflict, continuing beyond the armistice, served their crass cause.  “The world is at present,” The Revolt would have it, “as much disturbed by political beliefs as it was during the great religious movements: Islamism, the Crusades, the Reformation, the wars of religion and many others.”

Socialism in particular, “the Gospel according to Karl Marx,” constitutes a new intrusion of “contradictory and irreducible mystic ideals” into the social mass, in which ideals that mass then invests its “blind faith” even while its leaders “are incessantly invoking reason.”  Socialism illustrates for Le Bon how imperialism, rooted in the aggressive nationalism of 1914, and internationalism, rooted in the mutinous exhaustion of 1918, sustain themselves, in the supposed new world of the formal peace, despite the illogic of their coexistence.  Le Bon stakes out an essentially conservative position.  It is not that reason does not exist; but that emotions and basic drives almost always trump reason in the behavior of large groups of people.  On the one hand, “The appearance of reason in the world is comparatively recent”; on the other hand, “the appetites, feelings and passions hark back to the origins of life, so that it is only natural that they, by their hereditary accumulation, should have acquired a weight with which the intellect is rarely strong enough to contend.”  One remarks, however, that everything that is not reason is not necessarily the opposite of reason.  Morality, for Le Bon, is not rational, but as a nation’s “internal discipline” it functions as reason might, checking and deflecting disintegrative impulses.  The rebellion of which Socialism is the outward sign attacks even that dearly bought heritage of “internal discipline,” with calamitous results.

Le Bon 11 Lenin

The Immanent Messiah

Le Bon gives several examples of the phenomenon.  In Russia, “an empire of one hundred and seventy million souls, which took centuries to shape, was destroyed in a few months by the action upon primitive minds of those crude formulae which are often more destructive than artillery.” The Germans and Austrians, thinking to have gained by the dissolution of Russia, soon found, to their stupefaction, that the impartial tide would sweep them away too.  Le Bon credits the discipline of the American Expeditionary Force with saving Britain and France from similar spreading cataclysm.  Then, inflated by what was almost a chance victory, Britain and France became jealous of one another and predatory towards the defeated enemies.  They could agree only on the vengeful, profiteering cynicism of the 1919 Peace Conference and its Treaty.  War, writes Le Bon, “completely reverses the customary scale of values.”  The total-war mentality of the combatant powers would infect the nominal peace and not merely through the injustice of the Versailles Treaty: “It is not only international morality that has deteriorated, but also… the morality of the individual members of each nation.  The moral equipment has been more or less shattered everywhere.”

As would Oswald Spengler in The Hour of Decision (1934), Le Bon denounces the greed of the political wage, which unions extort from governments and private enterprise alike by threats of work stoppages and hints of sabotage; low productivity of unionized labor, once appeased, belongs to the greedy pattern of the political wage.  Everywhere a similar “mad race for wealth” prevails, but without the discipline of thrift.  Cynics seek easy gain; they abuse credit.  Governments, producing no real goods and therefore no real wealth, pretend to solvency by printing money, so that “each fresh issue of notes [corresponds] with a fresh diminution of output and fresh cravings for enjoyment.”  In one of The Psychology’s biological metaphors, almost every deliberate measure to allay economic and social problems in the wake of the conflict has been maladaptive.  It is invariably fascinating, in examining studies of the state of society and culture that appeared in the interstice between the two world wars, such as Le Bon’s, to remark both their prescience and their increased validity when applied to the explanation of the recent and contemporary phases of history.  The contemporary American Left, which now confesses its socialist character, takes as one of its platforms the raising of the minimum-wage; but the Left takes no notice when, in localities that implement a higher minimum-wage, employment shrinks.  It is a case of magical thinking: The idea that words can alter reality, but such false convictions belong to the crowd, which identifies its great number with an increase in all its capacities including the cognitive ones.

Technical advances, while superficially evidence of progress in civilization, and while celebrated as such, likewise generate unforeseen and maladaptive results; chiefly, in connection with wire services and radio, they facilitate instantaneous communications on a global scale.  The Great War having depressed the average intellectual acuity to an alarmingly low level, the new global audience stood receptive not to argument and evidence but rather to the selfsame degraded cues – the shibboleths and images – that most efficiently vector the “mental contagion” which, according to Le Bon, animates a mindless collectivity and conduces to collective violence.  The distance between the technical achievement and the ethical condition reflects the principle that, “the great civilizations grow complex as they develop, leaving behind them in their rapid progress a host of human beings who have not the capacity to keep pace with them.”  A constant propaganda of “equality, wealth, and happiness” marshals that “host,” which might well be the majority, into a classic proletariat.  “We have innumerable leagues against alcoholism, depopulation, etc.,” writes Le Bon, “but none has been founded to teach the masses and to point out the economic realities that condition their life.”  Socialism reduces education to empirical training.  Socialism in alliance with technology turns the worker into a type of rock-pusher, whose boulder when it reaches the top rolls back down again and reasserts its demand.

Le Bon 12 Crucifixion

Not the Crowd — But the Person

III. The modern age since the French Revolution at the latest is, in Le Bon’s view, an age of religious fervor, taking the term religion in his special pejorative sense as a mob-like response to primitive stimuli, or to “irreducible mystic ideas,” and thus also as a reactionary leap-backwards from civilization.  Many of Le Bon’s contemporaries shared the observation: Spengler, for example, and the American writer-journalist T. Lothrop Stoddard (1883 – 1950) whose study of the Revolt against Civilization: The Menace of the Underman (1922) cites Le Bon and owes much to him.  Le Bon in his turn owed something to Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821) whose Considérations sur la France (1796) and Soirées du Saint Petersbourg (1821) examine the French Revolution from an anthropological perspective, remarking the similitude of insurrectionist bloodletting with ancient sacrificial practices.  Although we can see the sanguinary and cultic aspect of Lenin, Hitler, and Mao, and although some analysts identify environmentalism and multiculturalism as exhibiting traits of primitive religion, it remains difficult even for informed conservative observers to grasp politicized modernity – from the Jacobins to post-Constitutional America – in its entirety as religious to the core.  One way of ameliorating the difficulty is to append Girard to Le Bon.  Girard’s notion of the sacred helps to distinguish the religiosity, invariably sacrificial, of tribes and mobs from the higher religions.  Christianity in particular is, in Girard’s view, anti-crowd.  The Passion indeed functions as the indictment of the crowd, of its obtuseness, self-righteousness, and bloodthirstiness.

An earlier paragraph quoted a sentence from The World in Revolt that shows Le Bon assimilating the Reformation and the French Revolution with “Islamism.”  This will shock good liberal people even more than does describing modernity as essentially religious.  In Islam Le Bon finds the outstanding example of “mental contagion” as “the instantaneous propagation of beliefs unsupported by any element of reason.”  Le Bon remarks with equal emphasis on the spectacular inability of Islam’s victims to understand the power that confronted them.  Civilized people assess fanatics from a sadly disadvantaged position: They cannot believe that arrogance and ferocity correspond with inclination and capacity.  They conjure a moral reserve that does not exist.  Le Bon imagines the Sixth-Century King of the Persians receiving “some Arab emissaries” who demand his submission.  “They are madmen,” the King says; “let them be sent away.”   Three months later “the King of Kings is cast down”; the Sassanid civilization, which traces its origins to the Sixth Century BC, passes with him into the dust of history.  Think: France, Germany, Sweden, and Britain today!  In The Psychology of Socialism (1896), Le Bon writes: “Whatever beliefs have once reigned in the world – whether Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam, or merely some political theory – they have only been propagated by the efforts of that particular class of converts we call apostles.  Hypnotised by the belief that has conquered them, they are ready for every sacrifice that may propagate it, and finally have no object in life but to establish its empire.”  For Le Bon the “apostles” are démi-hallucinés.”

The World in Revolt returns to the subject of the destructive ferocity that, “engendered by doctrines,” is “based on the hatred of any sort of superiority, whether of wealth or… intellect.”  Le Bon cites by way of topical illustration various barbaric incidents from Russia under the Bolsheviks.  He records the intolerance of all variants of militant socialism for one another.  Thus the Bolsheviks piled vilification on the parliamentary socialists under the short-lived Alexander Kerensky regime and in the Soviet press the Bolsheviks continuously heaped insults on all non-Bolshevik socialist parties elsewhere in the world.  The actual goal of socialism lies not in any utopian scheme, which socialists might seek to realize in detail, but rather in “absorption by the state” of everything – all conceivable institutions and along with them private conscience that emerged, in the West, in the Middle Ages.  “Absorption” means destruction; the motive for destruction is envy elevated to a metaphysical principle.  “The Bolshevik mentality,” Le Bon writes, “is as old as history,” the Biblical Cain having “had the mind of a Bolshevik.”  Le Bon writes: “Until the time, which is probably distant, when the truths which I have expressed are regarded as obvious, Bolshevism will continue to increase, absorbing the vast legion of the unadapted: Discontented teachers, indifferent workers, envious pupils of the elementary schools; in other words, the alarming mass of vanity, incapacity and hatred of which the world is full.”  In another of The World in Revolt’s metaphors, Le Bon likens Bolshevism to the absurd totems of the antique kingdoms.  Like equality, “the serpent, the bullock, the crocodile and other animals have had millions of worshippers” and “innumerable were the divinities who demanded human sacrifice.”

Le Bon 13 World in Revolt

Old Books Come Back To Life

Where Bolshevism does not yet prevail, the swelling State nevertheless continues to assimilate institutions and customs in Bolshevik fashion.  Bureaucracy kills off invention and prosperity less swiftly than insurrectionist socialism, but its hostility to freedom battens on the society just as fatally in the long run.  Again, the Great War drove the organization of life under state control; and no state but one (the United States) seems capable of shaking itself loose from the untoward transformation.  Among “The Perils of State Intervention,” as one of The World in Revolt’s chapters sets out, are: the inevitable atrophy of private initiative under layers of stifling regulation and a resulting “commercial decadence”; “incompetent agents” intruding their dictates into all domains in order “to tax, regulate, and prohibit”; and finally “the autocracy of an anonymous caste,” which “presses heavily upon the lives of citizens compelled to support it.”  Contemporary readers will probably react to Le Bon’s description of governmentally top-heavy societies with a sigh of weary recognition.  In The World in Revolt, Le Bon fears most for his own country, France, and opines that the United States – for him the quintessentially pragmatic nation – will likely disencumber itself of the wartime political machinery.  After a second Great War, a so-called Cold War, and an infantile spasm of the electorate, however, Le Bon’s picture of a stultified quasi-socialist society well fits the current United States.

That, in 1921, Le Bon with such clairvoyance knew what would happen should socialism and statism prevail might lead one to pose the question, if the chain of cause and effect were so obvious, with the implementation of invidious doctrines issuing in nothing but “irremediable decadence,” then how would such doctrines contrive to persist beyond their dolorous effects?  Especially how should they persist into the present moment, which, despite the failure of their largest experiment, the Soviet Union, seems suicidal in its eagerness to speed again down the same path of utopian delusion?  What makes the démi-hallucinés” so fixed in their visions?  Le Bon is ready with his by now familiar answer: “If we wish to understand how educated men can become victims of illusions, of which some, at least, could not bear the most superficial examination, we must always remember that Socialism is a religion much more than a doctrine, so that all arguments derived from reason or experience are necessarily powerless to affect it.  The convinced Socialist believes in the Gospel of Karl Marx as the Mussulman believes in the Koran.”

IV. One could add that the terrible illusions persist not only through being privatively religious in Le Bon’s sense, hence immune to logical dissolution, but also because of their rootedness in resentment, which is the most powerful and primal of all emotions save love, as the story of Cain and Abel strives to tell. Marxism, feminism, environmentalism, and multiculturalism – the rampant variants and hybrids of socialism – begin, in fact, not by deflecting resentment, but rather by making it the center of existence, a gesture that occurs already in the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the moment of writing The World in Revolt, Le Bon judged that “mystic elements” had prevailed: “Internationalists, Socialists, Bolsheviks and other theorists, the champions of peace between the peoples but of civil war in the interior of the nations… have undertaken a crusade against society as sinister as the [late] German crusade against the independence of peoples.”  A new mystic formula, “The Society of Nations,” had emerged in the diplomatic mess of euphoria and grudge holding after the armistice.  In their recoil from the war, the multitudes and their leaders seized on that formula and began to be organized by it, the way all crowds coalesce around totemic notions of minimal semantic content.  Whereas concerning the new mystic formula “the German philosophers condemn it” and “the diplomatists distrust it”; nevertheless as Le Bon writes, “the Socialist dreamer… regards it as the regenerator of the human race.”  The crowd is the bearer of a type of immanent Messianism.  It is the Body of Christ without Christ.

Insofar as any genuine possibility of realization attached itself to the “semi-radiance” of the regenerating idea, Le Bon saw it only “in a phase of evolution… still distant.”  In the meantime, however, under the idea’s influence and using the prestige of the post-Armistice Peace Conference, bevies of hallucinating politicians had “conceived the idea of rearranging the equilibrium of the world, forgetting that such equilibrium is the work of centuries.”  The future boded ill.  The break-up of Austria-Hungary, when its apparatus of organization and its traditions were sorely needed, punitive reparations laid against Germany, the powder-keg of the Danzig settlement: These things guaranteed near-term chaos, resentment, and conflict.  Add to the destabilized international politics stemming from the Great War the technical possibilities in new weaponry – “whole fleets and armies could be instantly destroyed” – and the likelihood of a nightmare world, as Le Bon sees it in the moment, only increases.  The vagueness of occult symbols and the stupidity of the masses will exacerbate everything, as “the nations and their rulers are swept off their feet by passions and beliefs.”  The remainder of the Twentieth Century largely bore out Le Bon’s misgivings.  The beginning of the Twenty-First Century adds much to that bearing-out.

Le Bon 14 Sisyphus

The Revolution Comes Around

In the aftermath of another world war, acute people like Albert Camus sensed again, at a new pitch, what Le Bon had sensed in the early 1920s: The transformation of life into a topsy-turvy of self-ordering rationality.  In The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) and The Rebel [L’homme revolté] Camus calls this condition “the Absurd.”  In those two books he links the Absurd to the issues respectively of suicide and murder, failing however in The Rebel clearly to disambiguate that latter term from killing.  As earlier remarked, the title and language of Le Bon’s World in Revolt anticipate the title and the language of The Rebel, while yet Camus never mentions Le Bon.  In The World in Revolt, moreover, in a discussion of “class hatred,” we find this comment, in connection with the hortators of socialism: “Repeating the time-honored formulae of hope which cast a spell on humanity in the dawn of history, they have returned to the Hebraic myth of the Promised Land, and are undertaking yet once again the task of Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods continually to roll a rock to the summit of a mountain, whence it invariably rolled back again.”  One remarks the mechanical quality in the perpetually repeated pattern of Sisyphus and his boulder.  He routine is machine-like.  It obliterates both time and thought.  Why could Camus not incorporate Le Bon’s work in his own?

One answer is that where Le Bon stands outside what he describes, addressing it as a moralist, Camus stands inside it, addressing it as an advocate or at least as an apologist, and he finds that he is hard pressed therefore to make a real critique of the mentality that he calls, with no little sympathy, rebellious.  Camus asserts that the ideological-totalitarian state and the man who rebels against the structure of existence (the “metaphysical rebel”) stand separate from one another and that the latter directs his revolt primarily against the former.  In The Rebel, Camus writes: “Revolution is only the logical consequence of metaphysical rebellion, and we shall discover, in our analysis of the revolutionary movement, the same desperate and bloody effort to affirm the dignity of man in defiance of the things that deny its existence.  The revolutionary spirit thus undertakes the defense of that part of man which refuses to submit.”  It is not exactly that Camus fails to see much of what Le Bon saw, but rather that he feels the magnetism of submission, the impulse to merge with shared resentment – and thus with the crowd – against the structure of reality.  Thus in The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus notes that his eponymous hero “was disposed to practice the profession of a highwayman” and to have expressed “levity in regard to the gods.”  Sisyphus is, for Camus, “the proletarian of the gods,” a phrase that buys into rebellious vocabulary.

None of this is meant gratuitously to diminish Camus; it is meant merely to reveal Camus’ limitations in comparison with Le Bon.  Much of The Rebel, which follows The Myth of Sisyphus by ten years, is clearsighted, as in its discussion of the French Revolution and the Terror.  That grim sectary of Terror Louis de Saint-Just, writes Camus, expressed in every one of his pronouncements for the Committée “a profound passion… for unity.”  According to Saint-Just, anyone who might “threaten unity” is apriori a criminal in the eyes of the Revolution.  Camus’ unity is, of course, Le Bon’s crowd.  Saint-Just had discovered how to apply the Rousseauvian yearning for primitive fusion over civilized individuation as an instrument of political action.  One might even say, of Camus, that his presentation in The Rebel tantalizingly anticipates a revaluation of his own values that he did not live to fulfill.  Even so, even in its brilliance, that presentation remains repetitive.  Le Bon had written all of it, or nearly all of it, thirty years before and earlier, including an analysis of Saint-Just.  Camus adds to the fund of understanding his experience during the Second World War and immediately thereafter, which affirms Le Bon without adding anything essential.  Le Bon, his prose unencumbered by the locutions of French-Hegelian dialectics or the chic vocabulary of “Absurdism,” gets to essentials more plainly than Camus – even granting that the “Absurdist” vocabulary is meaningful in its way.  Le Bon retains his absolute priority.

8 thoughts on “Gustave Le Bon on the World in Revolt

  1. Pingback: Gustave Le Bon on the World in Revolt | @the_arv

  2. The Wikipedia article on Le Bon offers an example. The article-writer attributes to Le Bon the recommendation of various techniques for crowd manipulation employed by the totalitarian states in the mid-Twentieth Century. In various books related to the French Revolution and the First World War, Le Bon had indeed described such techniques, always critically, while condemning them for their corrosiveness of individual responsibility. Such confusion of the descriptive with the prescriptive offers itself as entirely deliberate – an attempt to anathematize a perceptive thinker because he rejected Socialism.

    Yeah, one has to be very careful about what he reads (and assumes to be true) at Wikipedia (or any media source, for that matter). It’s a wonderfully convenient resource, but that fact makes it all the more dangerous. One must be ever mindful that certain persons so disposed will, in fact, take the time to write a thing down when it isn’t true.
    As with Sick Societies, your current essay has convinced me that I should procure a copy of Le Bon’s book as well. I recently purchased and downloaded the former onto my *Kindle per the contents of your preceding essay, but haven’t dived into it as yet. Thanks for turning your readership on to yet another resource that I, for one, was not aware existed.
    (*I am sort of the “old school” type, who prefers actual books to their electronic counterparts. As such, I have resisted the goadings of my older kids to acquire a Kindle or similar electronic device to the purpose. Until recently, that is, when they surprised me with a Kindle they had purchased for me. The convenience of downloading and storing books onto an electronic device is undeniable, and I have to admit that, as my kids predicted I would, I have come to appreciate its usefulness.)

    • For whatever reason, I am the topic of a Wikipedia entry. I must monitor it regularly because anonymous manipulators frequently rewrite it to call me by the usual contemporary leftwing epithets and to mischaracterize my convictions.

      The Crowd is a classic study; it ought to be on a mandatory reading-list for first-year college undergraduates — but then that would give away the game, wouldn’t it?

      • Dr. B.:
        I have understood that from some of your past iterations. I’ve personally *never* looked at the Wikipedia entry on you, as I consider it/them to be completely inaccurate and without warrant. I am not important enough to warrant a Wikipedia entry, but if I were it is clear that my adversaries would paint me as a “racist,” a misogynist, a xenophobe, a homophobe, and whatever else modernists consider unacceptable. Some months back I was labeled a “Federalist” by certain individuals who have a penchant for delving into the past of individuals who disagree with them. I’m not especially embarrassed to have advocated for federalism, but these certain individuals think I ought to have a forcible vasectomy for my views. Too late now! Ha!

      • The Crowd is a classic study; it ought to be on a mandatory reading-list for first-year college undergraduates — but then that would give away the game, wouldn’t it?

        Judging by what I’ve read in it so far, I’d say, yes, that is correct.

  3. Instead of revolution or reactionary movments, would reform movements be a preferable alternative since they can unleash revolutionary or reactionary spirits than can be more predictable considering the source from which they both come hail would be reform?

    • Hello, Jim. A Traditional society is continuously self-reforming, in the way that it perpetually readjusts itself to conform to the objective reality. At the same time the Traditional society knows that it cannot adjust itself perfectly to the objective reality, and that it will need to deal ad hoc with the results of its failure to adjust itself perfectly to the objective reality, forever. The Tradition is prior to time, orthogonal to time, so there has never been in time a perfectly Traditional society. There is a sequence in human affairs: Adoption of the Tradition (that is, of the optimal adjustment to objective reality); the fall from that adoption (which occurs immediately); and the attempt to make good the fall (what you call “reaction”). The proper word for “reaction” is “restoration.” Modern people, especially college faculty members, have no comprehension of fallenness. Therefore they have no comprehension of restoration. Modern people imagine that they are perfected; that they are participating in progress. The empirical survey of the modern world puts that thesis to rest. The stark choice for people is: Do you want to endorse your fallenness, and then deal with it, or do you want to endorse perfection, even knowing that it is a lie and that it will never achieve the totality of its aims, and that in its failure it will immiserate people? I believe that you belong in the first category. (By the way, I have just summarized Wagner’s Ring.)

  4. Here is the problem I find with our current state of affairs. Depending on the context we find people regardless of political claiming to know all. The falleness you mention and modern people’s utopian thoughts seems to infect more than just people of a liberal persuasion. I often discuss with people about what was, is, and what could be. All of these should be mentioned together in discussion for certain historical reasons.

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