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The Crowd And The Social Problem Of To-day

Every one at times feels himself in the grip of social forces over which
he has no control. The apparently impersonal nature of these forces has
given rise to various mechanistic theories of social behavior. There are
those who interpret the events of history as by-products of economic
evolution. Others, more idealistic but determinists, nevertheless, see
in the record of human events the working out of a preordained plan.

There is a popular notion, often shared by scholars, that the individual
and society are essentially irreconcilable principles. The individual is
assumed to be by nature an antisocial being. Society, on the other hand,
is opposed in principle to all that is personal and private. The demands
of society, its welfare and aims, are treated as if they were a tax
imposed upon each and every one by something foreign to the natural will
or even the happiness of all. It is as if society as "thing-in-itself"
could prosper in opposition to the individuals who collectively
constitute it.

It is needless to say that both the individual and the social, according
to such a view, are empty abstractions. The individual is, in fact, a
social entity. Strip him of his social interests, endowments, and
habits, and the very feeling of self, or "social me" as William James
called it, vanishes and nothing is left but a Platonic idea and a reflex
arc. The social also is nothing else than the manner in which
individuals habitually react to one another. Society in the abstract, as
a principle opposed to individual existence, has no more reality than
that of the grin which Alice in Wonderland sees after the famous
Cheshire cat has vanished. It is the mere logical concept of others in
general, left leering at us after all the concrete others have been
thought away.

Much social thinking is of this cat-grin sort. Having abstracted from
the thought of self everything that is social, and from the idea of the
social all that has to do with concrete persons, the task remains to get
pure grin and pure cat together again in such a way that neither shall
lose its identity in the other. It is, of course, impossible to
reconcile these mutually exclusive abstractions either in theory or in
practice. It is often difficult enough, even with the aid of empirical
thinking, to adjust our relations with the other people about us. But on
the Cheshire-cat hypothesis, the social problem can never be solved,
because it is not a real problem at all.

Since the individual is therefore a social being as such, and the social
is just a way of acting together, the social problem does not grow out
of a conflict between the self and an impersonal social principle. The
conflicts are, in fact, clashes among certain individuals and groups of
them, or else--and this is a subject to which social psychology has paid
insufficient attention--the social struggle is in certain of its phases
a conflict within the personal psyche itself. Suppose that the
apparently impersonal element in social behavior is not impersonal in
fact, but is, for the most part, the result of an impersonal manner of
thinking about ourselves. Every psychic fact must really be an act of
somebody. There are no ideas without thinkers to think them, no
impersonal thoughts or disembodied impulses, no "independent" truths, no
transcendental principles existing in themselves and outside of human
heads. Life is everywhere reaction; it is nowhere a mere product or a
passive registering of impersonal forces. It is the organism's behavior
in the presence of what we call environment.

Individual opinions cannot be tossed into a common hat, like small
coins. Though we may each learn from the others, there is no magic by
which our several thoughts can sum themselves up into a common fund of
public opinion or super-personal whole which thinks itself, there being
no collective head to think it. No matter how many people think and
behave as I do, each of us knows only his own thought and behavior. My
thought may be about you and what I judge you are thinking, but it is
not the same as your thought. To each the social is nil except in so
far as he experiences it himself, and to each it is something unique
when viewed from within. The uniformity and illusion of identity--in
short, the impersonal aspect of social thinking and activity appears
only when we try to view social behavior from without--that is, as
objectively manifest in the behavior of others.

What then is the secret of this impersonal view of the social? Why do we
think of ourselves socially in the same impersonal or external way that
we think of others? There is an interesting parallel here in the
behavior of certain types of mental pathology. There are neurotics who
commonly feel that certain aspects of their behavior are really not of
their own authorship, but come to them as the result of influences
acting from without. It was such phenomena in part that led
psychologists of a generation ago to construct the theory of "multiple
personality." It is known now that the psychic material which in these
cases appears to be automatic, and impersonal, in the sense that it is
not consciously willed, is really motivated by unconscious mechanisms.
The apparently "impersonal" behavior of the neurotic is psychologically
determined, though unconsciously.

May there not be a like unconscious psychic determination of much that
is called social behavior? It is my thesis that this is so, and that
there are certain types of social behavior which are characterized by
unconscious motivation to such a degree that they may be placed in a
definite class of psychological phenomena. This group of phenomena I
have, following to some extent the terminology of Le Bon, called "The
Crowd." I wish there were a more exact word, for it is very difficult to
use the word crowd in its psychological sense without causing some
confusion in the mind of the reader. In ordinary speech "a crowd" is any
gathering of people. In the writings of Le Bon, as we shall see, the
word has a special meaning, denoting not a gathering of people as such,
but a gathering which behaves in a certain way which may be classified
and described psychologically as "crowd mentality." Not every gathering
of people shows this crowd-mentality. It is a characteristic which
appears under certain circumstances. In this discussion the word "crowd"
must be understood to mean the peculiar mental condition which sometimes
occurs when people think and act together, either immediately where the
members of the group are present and in close contact, or remotely, as
when they affect one another in a certain way through the medium of an
organization, a party or sect, the press, etc.

The crowd while it is a social phenomenon differs greatly from the
social as such. People may be social--the family is an example of
this--without being a crowd either in thought or action. Again a
crowd--a mob is an example of this--may be distinctly antisocial, if we
attach any ethical meaning to the term. Both the individual and society
suffer, as we shall see, from crowd-behavior. I know of nothing which
to-day so menaces not only the values of civilization, but also--it is
the same thing in other words, perhaps--the achievement of personality
and true knowledge of self, as the growing habit of behaving as crowds.

Our society is becoming a veritable babel of gibbering crowds. Not only
are mob outbreaks and riots increasing in number, but every interest,
patriotic, religious, ethical, political, economic, easily degenerates
into a confusion of propagandist tongues, into extravagant partisanship,
and intemperance. Whatever be the ideal to which we would attain, we
find the path of self-culture too slow; we must become army worms,
eating our way to the goal by sheer force of numbers. The councils of
democracy are conducted on about the psychological level of commercial
advertising and with about the same degree of sincerity. While it cannot
be said that the habit of crowd-making is peculiar to our times--other
ages, too, have indulged in it--it does seem that the tendency to
crowd-mindedness has greatly increased in recent years.

Whether it is temperance, or justice, or greater freedom, moral
excellence or national glory, that we desire--whether we happen to be
conservatives or radicals, reformers or liberals, we must become a cult,
write our philosophy of life in flaming headlines, and sell our cause in
the market. No matter if we meanwhile surrender every value for which we
stand, we must strive to cajole the majority into imagining itself on
our side. For only with the majority with us, whoever we are, can we
live. It is numbers, not values, that count--quantity not quality.
Everybody must "moral-crusade," "agitate," "press-agent," play politics.
Everyone is forced to speak as the crowd, think as the crowd,
understand as the crowd. The tendency is to smother all that is unique,
rare, delicate, secret. If you are to get anywhere in this progressive
age you must be vulgar, you must add to your vulgarity unction. You must
take sides upon dilemmas which are but half true, change the tempo of
your music to ragtime, eat your spiritual food with a knife, drape
yourself in the flag of the dominant party. In other words, you must be
"one hundred per cent" crowd man.

The effect of all this upon the individual is that he is permitted
neither to know nor to belong to himself. He becomes a mere banner
toter. He must hold himself ever in readiness to wiggle-waggle in the
perpetual Simon-says-thumbs-up game which his crowd is playing. He
spends his days playing a part which others have written for him; loses
much of his genuineness and courage, and pampers himself with imitation
virtues and second-hand truths.

Upon the social peace the effect is equally bad. Unnecessary and
meaningless strife is engendered. An idolatry of phrases is enthroned. A
silly game of bullying and deception is carried on among contending
crowds, national, religious, moral, social. The great truths of
patriotism, morality, and religion become hardly more than
caricatures--mere instruments of crowds for putting their rivals on the
defensive, and securing obeisance from the members of the crowd itself,
easily repudiated in the hour of the crowd's victory. The social harmony
is menaced by numerous cliques and parties, ranging in size all the way
from the nation-crowd down to the smallest sect, each setting out like a
band of buccaneers bent upon nothing but its own dominance, and seeking
to justify its piratical conduct by time-worn platitudes.

That which is meant by the cry of the Russian Revolution, "All power to
the soviets," is peculiar neither to Russia nor to the working class.
Such in spirit is the cry of every crowd, for every crowd is,
psychologically considered, a soviet. The industrial and political
danger of the soviet would amount to little or nothing, were it not for
the fact that the modern world is already spiritually sovietized. The
threatened soviet republic is hardly more than the practical result of a
hundred years of crowd-thinking on almost every subject. Whether
capitalist or proletarian, reformer or liberal, we have all along been
behaving and thinking in soviet fashion. In almost every important
matter in life we have ignored Emerson's warning that we must rely upon
ourselves, and have permitted ourselves to behave and think as crowds,
fastening their labels and dogmas upon our spirits and taking their
shibboleths upon our tongues, thinking more of the temporary triumph of
our particular sect or party than of the effect of our behavior upon
ourselves and others.

There is certainly nothing new in the discovery that our social behavior
is not what it ought to be. Mediaeval thinkers were as much aware of the
fact as we are, but they dismissed the social problem with the simple
declaration of the "sinfulness of human nature." Nineteenth-century
utilitarians felt that the social problem could be solved by more
enlightened and more reasonable behavior on the part of individuals.
Recent social psychology--of which the writings of Prof. William
McDougall are probably the best example, has abandoned the theory that
social behavior is primarily governed by reason or by considerations of
utility. A better explanation of social phenomena is found in instinct.
It is held that the true motives of social behavior are pugnacity, the
instinct of self-appreciation or self-debasement, of sex,
gregariousness, and the like. Each instinct with its "affective emotion"
becomes organized through various complex reactions to the social
environment, into fairly well established "sentiments." These sentiments
are held to be the controlling social forces. As McDougall says:

We may say then that directly or indirectly the instincts are
the prime movers of all human activity; by the conative or
impulsive force of some instinct (or of some habit derived from
an instinct), every train of thought, however cold and
passionless it may seem, is borne along toward its end, and
every bodily activity is initiated and sustained. The
instinctive impulses determine the ends of all activities and
supply the driving-power by which all mental activities are
sustained; and all the complex intellectual apparatus of the
most highly developed mind is but a means toward those ends, is
but the instrument by which these impulses seek their
satisfactions.... These impulses are the mental forces that
maintain and shape all the life of individuals and societies,
and in them we are confronted with the central mystery of life
and mind and will.

This is all very good so far as it goes. But I confess that I am
somewhat at loss to know just what it explains so far as crowd-behavior
is concerned. Do these instincts and sentiments operate the same under
all social conditions? Are some of them suppressed by society and forced
to seek their satisfaction in roundabout ways? If so, how? Moreover, I
fail to find in present-day social psychology, any more than in the
writings of Herbert Spencer, Sumner, Ward, and others, any clear
distinction between the characteristic behavior of crowds and other
forms of social activity. Only the school of Le Bon has shown any
definite appreciation of these facts. It is to Le Bon, therefore, in
spite of the many and just criticisms of his work, that we must turn
for a discussion of the crowd as a problem apart from social psychology
in general. Le Bon saw that the mind of the crowd demanded special
psychological study, but many of the psychological principles which he
used in solving the problem were inadequate to the task. Certain of his
conclusions were, therefore, erroneous. Since the close of the
nineteenth century, however, psychology has gained much insight into the
secret springs of human activity. Possibly the most significant
achievement in the history of this science is Freud's work in analytical

So much light has been thrown upon the unconscious by Freud and other
analytical psychologists, that psychology in all its branches is
beginning to take some of Freud's discoveries into account. Strictly
speaking, psychoanalysis is a therapeutic method. It has, however,
greatly enriched our knowledge of mental pathology, and thus much of its
data has become indispensable to general psychology and to social
psychology in particular.

In his book the Interpretation of Dreams, Freud has shown that there
exist in the wish-fulfilling mechanisms of dream formation certain
definite laws. These laws undoubtedly underlie and determine also many
of our crowd-ideas, creeds, conventions, and social ideals. In his book,
Totem and Taboo, Freud has himself led the way to the application of
the analytical psychology to the customs and ideas of primitive groups.
I am sure that we shall find, as we proceed, that with the analytical
method we shall gain an entirely new insight into the causes and meaning
of the behavior of crowds.

Next: How Crowds Are Formed


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