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 full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in