Thousands of Little White Blobs

Daniel Pick

  • The Crowd and the Mob: From Plato to Canetti by J.S. McClelland
    Unwin Hyman, 343 pp, £35.00, December 1988, ISBN 0 04 320188 1

J’ai horreur de la foule, admitted Hippolyte Taine, author of the vastly influential and vastly hostile history of the French Revolution which appeared in stages during the 1870s and 1880s. Whether we translate foule as ‘crowd’ or ‘mob’ here, English moves the noun from the feminine to the neuter, losing in the process one significant element of the loathing to which Taine confessed. In Taine’s History crowds and revolutions are shown alike to degenerate inevitably into collective insanity. Indeed sanity is not some ‘normal’ human condition any more than equality is a birthright. Within Taine’s hereditarian terms of reference, the living crowd which had erupted in the Paris Commune in 1871 was united with a crowd of the dead, all those earlier pathological revolutionaries who had tainted the blood of the race. The crowd at the Commune was supposedly composed of prostitutes, alcoholics, atavists and degenerates. These ‘gamboling baboons’, crazed women and insane opportunist leaders had apparently plagued France from 1789 to 1871, and they represented for Taine both a symptom of and a devastating rejoinder to Rousseau’s optimistic maxims about human nature, or Michelet’s celebration of ‘the people’.

The conventional distinction in English between the words ‘crowd’ and ‘mob’ turns on the apparent neutrality of the former as against the undisguisedly pejorative meaning of the latter. ‘Mob’, from mobile vulgus, evokes an immense demonology not obviously associated with ‘crowd’. For as the OED informs us, the crowd is only a throng or dense multitude, while the mob may mean the lower orders, rabble, tumultuous crowd or a promiscuous assemblage of persons. In fact, the connotations of ‘crowd’ are more mobile and more complex than they may look at first glance. According to J.S. McClelland in The Crowd and the Mob: From Plato to Canetti, ‘crowds’ have served a complex, shifting but generally reactionary function across much of the Western tradition of political thought. There has been, he suggests, an immemorial moral panic about numbers and about the union of the numberless. The crowd, moreover, has its own gallery of demons for the critic today: namely, the first positivist crowd theorists themselves. Since at least the late 19th century, the crowd has become the focus of interminable and often reductionist social scientific study: psychologists, criminologists and sociologists have pondered the riddles of its nature. They first substituted ‘crowd’ for ‘mob’, not to insist on the ‘neutrality’ of the object they scrutinised, but to signifiy the cool, clinical detachment of their investigations. Gustave Le Bon offered the politicians a manual for crowd manipulation; he achieved vast sales in many languages and many a posthumous political commendation (fascist and otherwise), although never in his lifetime the full academic recognition he had always craved.

The crowd, indeed, as presented in the writings of Le Bon, Scipio Sighele and Gabriel Tarde, was an extraordinarily volatile creature, while the observer was ostensibly calm and collected. But amidst the ponderous discussions and detailed discriminations (about the psychological dynamics of the ‘masses’, groups, cliques, parties, unions, parliaments) of these pioneering Fin-de-Siècle commentators, the horror keeps emerging: their crowds are in constant need of surveillance and policing; the desperate self-imposed task of the theorist is to reduce the crowd’s protean qualities to manageable positive laws, to master the irrational through ‘the social defence’ of science and reason. The point was not, as today, to give out identity cards thereby to retrieve from the undifferentiated violent crowd the silent, law-abiding majority or the good constituency of legitimate club members, but to find, as it were, the identikit of the crowd-beast in its entirety. The crowd, it appeared, was always more than the sum of its parts, irreducible to the aggregate of individual psychologies.

The crowd then is no straightforward concept: it moves; it has a history; and in recent years a large secondary historical literature has emerged to explore it. Faced by the dense mediating social scientific language of Le Bon and company, historians have taken two very different paths. Along the first, we find a series of social historical studies which aim to recover the actual composition of a particular gathering of people from the weight of earlier erroneous representations. Thus George Rudé, amongst others, has sought to trace the real physiognomy of famous historical crowds in the 18th and 19th centuries, rejecting the picture of some crazed revolutionary rabble painted by the great mob-haters of the past, from Burke and Carlyle to Taine and Le Bon. Rudé seeks to demythologise the crowd and to re-animate, as he puts it, the true ‘flesh and blood’ of its participants, struggling to move once and for all ‘beyond the stereotype’ towards the reality of the ‘crowd’s outlook, objects and behaviour’. A wealth of empirical information emerges in this ‘history from below’ tradition, with its often painstaking pursuit of real lives, its concern to recover the genuine social composition of the ‘people’ who may actually have ‘stormed’, say, the Bastille in 1789. But although such research affords a more variegated and often benign portrait of social aggregates,it also begs many questions; not least, it fails to interrogate fully the conceptual category of ‘the crowd’ which it inherits from the world of late 19th-century science. Taine and Le Bon are briefly disparaged and then the historian moves on to the perceived serious business of discovering the crowd itself.

In the second approach, the concern is not so much to discard the ‘false’ 19th-century representation of the crowd as to place it historically and politically. Here it is not ‘the people’ which is the primary object of investigation, but a particular language about society. The focus shifts from, say, the rediscovery of the real crowds of the Third Republic (through analysing, perhaps, the class, gender or age of those who congregated at certain demonstrations, gathered appreciatively around Boulanger, or intervened in the Dreyfus affair), to a particular writing of the crowd – for instance, the crowd as a complex metaphor and motif stretching across Zola’s novels. Indeed the crowd itself can no longer be regarded here as a quasi-natural object, albeit covered over with political metaphors, as it is for Rudé, but is itself perceived to be an irreducibly problematic figure. Thus in Susanna Barrows’s Distorting Mirrors (1981) the point is to investigate how ‘the crowd’ came to be constituted as a subject of later 19th-century science, history and fiction.

McClelland’s The Crowd and the Mob moves uneasily between these genres and methodologies. A certain ‘common sense’ view prevails – that there have always been crowds in history (who could argue?). This apparently unproblematic notion underwrites his study, providing the ‘empirical base’ upon which the superstructure of ideas, the ‘canon’ of crowd literature rests. The two questions are constantly counterposed, McClelland assuring us, for instance, that ‘there was no shortage of great crowds in the Medieval period,’ though not much of the ‘theoretical panic’ he locates earlier in Plato and later in Le Bon. This is either a platitude or a certain sleight of hand in which ‘the crowd’ – exactly what the book is putatively examining, de-naturalising – slips back unexposed to the bottom of the pack. It is as though McClelland keeps wishing that crowds and mobs could easily be unshuffled, cut into two suits: real and imaginary. The book seems very even-handed, but the argument and the points of reference are in fact constantly anticipating and pulling towards the late 19th century. Not only is the crowd as such converted into a quasi-natural phenomenon, risking reproducing in the process aspects of the naturalist ideology of the early crowd scientists, but earlier parts of the book (on Plato, Machiavelli, Montesquieu) seem to be cast teleologically at points, as though Western political thought was inexorably moving towards a later apotheosis, some supreme exemplification of the theory of the crowd, whether in Le Bon, Freud, Hitler or Canetti: all of these figure as end-points in this discussion, although it is upon the last-named that the Owl of Minerva is shown to come finally to rest. Canetti is cast as a kind of Hegel of the theory of the crowd, the last repository of truth. Canetti apparently provides the only masterpiece of the genre and manages finally to ‘free the crowd from the absolute empire of Le Bon’, even if he in his turn divides the concept into an arcane and arguably mystifying taxonomy of his own, containing some two hundred and eighty different classifications.

McClelland’s paean to Canetti is a way of bypassing any question of disturbance and ambiguous genealogy in Crowds and Power, which first appeared in 1960. Canetti’s study is certainly remarkable, indeed often rivetting: but it is in no way transparent or transcendent, whatever we may make of the ‘gesture’ of omitting the name of Le Bon altogether from its bibliography. It is as though Canetti’s text veils something of its own force and drive, unwilling fully to engage with the implications of its spellbinding writing. Crowds and Power is not only a lyrical account of power and persuasion but is also a compelling exercise in that field.

If McClelland is uncritical of Canetti, he nevertheless usefully summarises the views of a miscellany of other writers on crowds. The most sustained and convincing section of his discussion concerns late 19th-century France. We are shown how crowd theory formed one element in a much wider critique of the Enlightenment and of classical liberalism. The crowd theorists believed themselves to be presiding not only over the birth of the science of the crowd, but over the age par excellence of the crowd. New political circumstances and scientific advances, it was now argued, invalidated all existing political theories. This was a conviction often shared by new liberals in England, although McClelland says little about the English ramifications of the Continental theories he surveys.

J. A. Hobson’s The Psychology of Jingoism(1901), for instance, drew strongly on the new science of crowds. The behaviour of contemporary throngs, Hobson argued, was unlike all earlier manifestations of the ‘war spirit’ because it was inextricably connected with the conditions of the late 19th-century city. These were typified by unprecedented rapidity of communications, which placed an impossible strain on the nervous system of metropolitan inhabitants. Ironically, it was in the great Imperial cities, supreme symbols of the concentration of power and modern ‘progress’, that the crowd’s perversity and malaise was displayed at its most extreme. At stake in jingoism, Hobson suggested, was not just atavism, the return to some lower evolutionary stage, which the influential criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso saw written, like a tattoo, all over the bodies of European delinquents. The crowds who cheered for military victory in the Empire displayed an ‘animal lust of the blood’ and perverse ‘cravings’ for sensation, which were transmitted by contagion from member to member in the unimpeded space of the city. Yet the crowd’s psychopathology could never quite be made visible; morbid but intangible forces were at work in public demonstrations, and whether physical or psychical, these processes were ‘convincing testimony’ – as Hobson put it in a play upon Darwin’s title – to ‘the descent of man’.

It cannot be claimed, of course, that the question of the crowd addressed by Hobson, as by so many other turn-of-the-century writers, liberal or otherwise, can now be reduced to a mere chimera or ideology. Who could deny some experience of the power of crowds? Real and unresolved questions remain in abundance: the sway of groups upon individual subjects cannot be simply dissolved away by some ‘anti-social psychology’, any more than the sufferings of madness can be erased by ‘anti-psychiatry’. Some of the most interesting and best-researched work in this field, like the studies by Robert Nye and Susanna Barrows, is scrupulous to avoid both the reduction of crowds to mythology and the perpetuation of élitist generalisations about so-called mass society and its inevitable horror, mediocrity or vulgarity.

It is a difficult position to maintain. Even Serge Moscovici, for instance, in his well-known study, The Age of the Crowd, which appeared here in translation in 1985, sometimes lapses into the clichés which once plagued the writing of Le Bon. It is often unclear when Moscovici is recounting and when endorsing particular views, like the claim that ‘whenever men come together they are all filled with similar emotions.’ One of the axioms of late 19th-century crowd theory was that the crowd dissolved contradictions. Often, in fact, it was the texts about crowds which sought to dispel or ignore their own contradictions. Such theorists characteristically excluded themselves from the object of their study; or if they perhaps admitted to the occasional foray into the crowd or into mass culture, this only seemed to confirm their posture as individuals outside it. When Moscovici writes that ‘we live in an age of mass societies and mass men,’ or claims that since the First World War society is marked by ‘the irruption of the masses, their particular way of thinking and their irresistible beliefs’, it is the uncomplicated distancing between ‘us’ and ‘them’ which is so striking.

In much late 19th-century crowd theory, socialism, democracy and women’s suffrage were cast as symptoms of a biological relapse in which society reverted to its beginnings. The castration scene in Zola’s Germinal(1885), much discussed by crowd theorists, describes a mob of frenzied women from the striking village who seize a man identified with the bosses and ‘doctor’ him. The social scientists were divided on whether Zola had got his crowd descriptions quite right, but many were convinced that Germinal’s vision of castration captured something profound about the crowd – exactly the dreadfulness of the threat it posed to all necessary human divisions, even sexual difference. To explicit misogynists like Le Bon, the call for women’s emancipation stemmed from destructive envy. Should such demands be conceded, civilisation itself would be for the chop. The crowd which cannibalised or emasculated the hapless individual was cast as quintessential1y feminine – a point which Le Bon’s rival crowd theorist Tarde also confirmed in his study, L’Opinion et la foule (1901): ‘by its routine capriciousness ... its credulity, its excitability, its rapid leaps from fury to tenderness, from exasperation to bursts of laughter, the crowd is woman, even when it is composed, as almost always happens, of masculine elements.’

The crowd was not a sign of social solidarity or a symbol of democracy, but, as Hobson put it, the site of a ‘democratic saturnalia’. The evidence of his own eyes confirmed the theories of Le Bon, to whom he duly deferred. Le Bon, in turn, had drawn on the English liberal populariser of science, Herbert Spencer, for the evolutionary key to the phenomenon of the crowd. Development and progress, Spencer had claimed, could always be defined as the passage from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous structure. Retrogression was literally the return towards the undifferentiated state. The ghastly image of retrogression to some inchoate mass of matter was thus frequently evoked, whether to characterise the madness which followed from the ‘dissolution’ of the cortical layers of the brain, according to the models of both Spencer and, later, Hughlings Jackson, or to sketch out the eventual condition of a degenerate society at large.

The peaks of Victorian progress were continually threatened by a flat land of swamps and sickness, inhabited by primitive jelly-like creatures, like the post-civilisation metropolis which Jefferies described so graphically in his tale After London in 1885. So when Hobson surveyed the psychology of the jingoist crowds, he quickly identified something akin to Spencer’s homogeneous and regressive biological state, like some terrible landscape of primal mud in which each unit of the crowd screamed or vomited the ‘black slime’ of its ‘malice’. The crowd was not only linked to slime but to blackness too; elements of the ‘primitive world’ which Victorian Imperial theorists had located in the colonised now rebounded on Hobson’s Imperial race. London, the heart of the Empire, as Hobson’s fellow new liberal, Charles Masterman, declared in The Condition of England (1909), was inhabited by that ‘homogeneous substance: the City Dweller’. This creature had strange crowd propensities which were a source of irresolvable mysteries and riddles. Moreover, ‘it is in the city Crowd, where the traits of individual distinction have become merged in the aggregate and the impression (from a distance) is of little white blobs of faces borne upon little black twisted or misshapen bodies, that the scorn of the philosopher for the mob, the cynic for humanity, becomes for the first time intelligible.’ The distance parenthetically acknowledged here is crucial. The late 19th and early 20th-century science of the crowd insisted on the possibility of a neutral, detached observation of society which would produce positive laws of mass behaviour useful to governments and élites. In an age where many thought that, as McClelland puts it, there was ‘no social space that the crowd could not invade, and there was no country in the world where one could feel safe,’ a social and political science of the crowd seemed the last best hope. But the trouble with the crowd was that it kept invading the studies which sought to master it (from a distance). The contours kept slipping and blurring; the crowd was faceless and anonymous; it could not be fixed in some Lombrosian classification or in the composite photography machine with which Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, sought to discover once and for all the features of the felon. Everybody, it appeared, might descend in(to) a crowd.

As McClelland tellingly remarks at one point, the ‘science’ of the crowd was inevitably caught up in the collective vertigo which it sought in vain to view dispassionately. It provided an intoxicating, manipulative crowd oratory in itself; it proselytised and cajoled, like the soap-box speakers it scrutinised and condemned. But what was conceived as a strategic political project for the ‘defence’ of particular interests and values, always unwittingly expressed a whole underworld of unconscious fears irreducible to those ‘rational interests’. Le Bon and his rivals may not offer the last word about the nature of the crowd: but they provide a rich index to the paralysing anxieties of one particular self-styled élite.