Gustave Le Bon’s Psychologie des foules  ends grandly by responding to a self-posed question, “Si nous envisageons dans leurs grandes lignes la genèse de la grandeur et de la décadence des civilisations qui ont prédédé la nôtre, que voyons-nous?” In the beginning, Le Bon says, at the ‘zero degree’ of civilization, there is only a “pousière d’hommes” (123) These are the very definition of barbarians, because nothing links them together. Over time, however, things change:
“L’identité de milieux, la répétition des croisements, le nécessités d’une vie commune agissent lentement. L’agglomération d’unités dissemblables commence à se fusionner et à se former une race, c’est-à-dire un agrégat possédant des caractères et des sentiments communs, que l’hérédité fixera progressivement. La foule est devenue un peuple...” (124)
After long struggles, this people, this race, will escape from barbarity. They will have, along the way, acquired an ideal—“peu importe la nature de cet idéal,” could be Rome, Athens, or Allah, Le Bon says. The possession of (or by) an ideal is the condition of escaping from barbarism.
“Entraînée par son rêve, la race acquerra successivement tout ce qui donne l’éclat, la force, et la grandeur. Elle sera foule encore sans doute à certaines heures, mais derrière les caractères mobiles et changeants des foules, se trouvera ce substratum solide, l’âme de la race, qui limite étroitement les oscillations d’un peuple et règle le hasard” (124).
After a period of striving for the ideal, degeneration sets in. The civilization grows, and when it stops growing, it declines. “Cette heure inévitable est toujours marquée par l’affaiblissement de l’idéal qui soutenait l’âme de la race.” Individuals have, as the level of the civilization grew, themselves become more strongly individual, “l’egoïsme colectif de la race est remplacé par un développement excessif de l’égoisme individuel...” What had been a bloc, a unity, becomes again simply a collection of individuals, holding on and held briefly together by old institutions and rituals that no longer hold any meaning. At this late stage, “divisés par leurs intérêts et leurs aspirations, ne sachant plus se gouverner, les hommes demandent à être dirigés dans leurs moindres actes, et...l’Etat exerce son influence absorbante.” The civilization has snuffed out the flame of its own ideal, and by consequence, “la race finit par perdre aussi son âme” (125). The civilization dissolves again into the dust of individuals out of which it was first constituted.
Usually, I believe, when Le Bon is discussed, one begins at the other end of this short book. The crowd is fickle, it is non-rational; it requires a leader who knows how to use simple images and forceful repetition to manipulate it. As I read Psychologie des foules, however, what most struck me (aside from the relatively low level of self-consistency) was the use of the concept of ‘race,’ and the basically skeptical (even anti-intellectual) approach to historical knowledge. It therefore seems to me that it is best to begin with the ‘philosophy of history’ in which Le Bon roots his vision of the crowd.
Indeed, every instance of a crowd is like a miniature demonstration of this philosophy of history. A crowd is most characterized by its trait of laying bare, or bringing to the surface, the ‘racial soul’ of those making up the crowd. The crowd, therefore, is a demonstration of the principle of history writ small. This resort to a single, unifying principle is typical of ‘pre-scientific’ sociology. The whole point of Durkheim’s intervention, it seems to me, is that there are different levels of phenomena, which therefore require different kinds of explanations. Le Bon’s mode of essentially psychological sociology is a typical target of Durkheim’s critique.
Gabriel Tarde, the other major French sociologist of the period, stands similarly accused by Durkheim. Not having yet read Tarde’s strictly sociological work, I am not in a position to say more, but it does seem to me that a comparison of Le Bon’s little essay with Tarde’s Monadology is instructive. In that bizarre text, Tarde is performing the typically modern philosophical operation (at least it is typically modern according to the Foucault I have been reading) of deriving a unifying principle or underlying direction from the thought of his contemporaries. For Tarde, this is the return in modern physics and social thought of the monad. It seems to me better to read Le Bon’s nearly-incoherent Psychologie less as a handbook for crowd manipulation, less as a sociological treatise, and more as an involuntary speaking of its own context. The book is a bundled and forcefully phrased translation (to avoid the word: reflection) of Le Bon’s anxieties, intellectual frameworks, and essential problematics.
Hence the pseudo-materialist psychology. Hence the (very 19th century) ‘spiritual’ biological racism (which, it should be noted, rests firmly on Lamarkian, rather than Darwinian evolutionary theory). Le Bon needs, somehow, to reconcile the ideal and the material. So the ideal becomes a force within the material world, manifested through collectivities and their basic underlying behavior patterns. The tautology of this kind of racialism is, to me, fascinating. People form a race because they live together and have similar experiences over a period of time. Then they have durably similar opinions and tendencies because they belong to the same race. As always, the boundaries of races are unclear, it seems at times as if ‘French’ is a race, but Le Bon refers more often to the ‘Latin’ race (which, by the by, carries in its soul a tendency to solve social problems through centralized governmental control working on abstract principles). In a similarly circular fashion, crowds are both the principle agents of historical change, and the reason that it is essentially impossible to have accurate knowledge of historical events. I wonder if those who have written on Le Bon have called this a ‘Heisenbergian’ theory of history.
There are other fascinating things about this book, but they all have to do with its rootedness in context, rather than any kind of reasoning or critical distance that it might achieve from this context. The back of the PUF edition I read calls it a ‘classique.’ It seems to me the opposite of a classic. I cannot imagine reading it without thinking about the late 19th century, the anxieties about democracy, socialism, decadence, the obsessive re-reading of the ‘pathologies’ of the Revolution, the racialism, the incredibly impoverished historical vision. The tensions I find in the text are interesting because of this context. For instance, Le Bon wants to be a relativist. Everyone knows, and no one admits, he says, that Homer is boring (77). But he can’t imagine (although some of his contemporaries could) a relativistic psychology. He can’t imagine a world without ‘ideals.’ So he ends up with a very thin, almost nihilistic relativism. All of which puts him quite squarely in his time, striking a pose of scientific observation of the various ‘pathologies’ of his era, while in fact participating fully in them.
[added: I have just finished reading Susanna Barrows' excellent *Distorting Mirrors* (1981), which I knew was largely about Le Bon, but which I'd only ever flipped through before. Highly recommended.]