Parliamentary crowds present most of the characteristics common

to heterogeneous crowds that are not anonymous--The simplicity of

their opinions--Their suggestibility and its limits--Their

indestructible, fixed opinions and their changed opinions--The

reason of the predominance of indecision--The role of the

leaders--The reason of their prestige--They are the true masters

of an assembly whose votes, on that account, are merely those of

a small minority--The absolute power they exercise--The elements

of their oratorical art--Phrases and images--The psychological

necessity the leaders are under of being in a general way of

stubborn convictions and narrow-minded--It is impossible for a

speaker without prestige to obtain recognition for his

arguments-- The exaggeration of the sentiments, whether good or

bad, of assemblies-- At certain moments they become

automatic--The sittings of the Convention--Cases in which an

assembly loses the characteristics of crowds--The influence of

specialists when technical questions arise--The advantages and

dangers of a parliamentary system in all countries--It is adapted

to modern needs; but it involves financial waste and the

progressive curtailment of all liberty--Conclusion.

In parliamentary assemblies we have an example of heterogeneous

crowds that are not anonymous. Although the mode of election of

their members varies from epoch to epoch, and from nation to

nation, they present very similar characteristics. In this case

the influence of the race makes itself felt to weaken or

exaggerate the characteristics common to crowds, but not to

prevent their manifestation. The parliamentary assemblies of the

most widely different countries, of Greece, Italy, Portugal,

Spain, France, and America present great analogies in their

debates and votes, and leave the respective governments face to

face with identical difficulties.

Moreover, the parliamentary system represents the ideal of all

modern civilised peoples. The system is the expression of the

idea, psychologically erroneous, but generally admitted, that a

large gathering of men is much more capable than a small number

of coming to a wise and independent decision on a given subject.

The general characteristics of crowds are to be met with in

parliamentary assemblies: intellectual simplicity, irritability,

suggestibility, the exaggeration of the sentiments and the

preponderating influence of a few leaders. In consequence,

however, of their special composition parliamentary crowds offer

some distinctive features, which we shall point out shortly.

Simplicity in their opinions is one of their most important

characteristics. In the case of all parties, and more especially

so far as the Latin peoples are concerned, an invariable tendency

is met with in crowds of this kind to solve the most complicated

social problems by the simplest abstract principles and general

laws applicable to all cases. Naturally the principles vary with

the party; but owing to the mere fact that the individual members

are a part of a crowd, they are always inclined to exaggerate the

worth of their principles, and to push them to their extreme

consequences. In consequence parliaments are more especially

representative of extreme opinions.

The most perfect example of the ingenuous simplification of

opinions peculiar to assemblies is offered by the Jacobins of the

French Revolution. Dogmatic and logical to a man, and their

brains full of vague generalities, they busied themselves with

the application of fixed-principles without concerning themselves

with events. It has been said of them, with reason, that they

went through the Revolution without witnessing it. With the aid

of the very simple dogmas that served them as guide, they

imagined they could recast society from top to bottom, and cause

a highly refined civilisation to return to a very anterior phase

of the social evolution. The methods they resorted to to realise

their dream wore the same stamp of absolute ingenuousness. They

confined themselves, in reality, to destroying what stood in

their way. All of them, moreover--Girondists, the Men of the

Mountain, the Thermidorians, &c.--were alike animated by the same


Parliamentary crowds are very open to suggestion; and, as in the

case of all crowds, the suggestion comes from leaders possessing

prestige; but the suggestibility of parliamentary assemblies has

very clearly defined limits, which it is important to point out.

On all questions of local or regional interest every member of an

assembly has fixed, unalterable opinions, which no amount of

argument can shake. The talent of a Demosthenes would be

powerless to change the vote of a Deputy on such questions as

protection or the privilege of distilling alcohol, questions in

which the interests of influential electors are involved. The

suggestion emanating from these electors and undergone before the

time to vote arrives, sufficiently outweighs suggestions from any

other source to annul them and to maintain an absolute fixity of


long experience doubtless applies to these opinions, fixed

beforehand, and rendered unalterable by electioneering

necessities: "During the fifty years that I have sat at

Westminster, I have listened to thousands of speeches; but few of

them have changed my opinion, not one of them has changed my


On general questions--the overthrow of a Cabinet, the imposition

of a tax, &c.--there is no longer any fixity of opinion, and the

suggestions of leaders can exert an influence, though not in

quite the same way as in an ordinary crowd. Every party has its

leaders, who possess occasionally an equal influence. The result

is that the Deputy finds himself placed between two contrary

suggestions, and is inevitably made to hesitate. This explains

how it is that he is often seen to vote in contrary fashion in an

interval of a quarter of an hour or to add to a law an article

which nullifies it; for instance, to withdraw from employers of

labour the right of choosing and dismissing their workmen, and

then to very nearly annul this measure by an amendment.

It is for the same reason that every Chamber that is returned has

some very stable opinions, and other opinions that are very

shifting. On the whole, the general questions being the more

numerous, indecision is predominant in the Chamber--the

indecision which results from the ever- present fear of the

elector, the suggestion received from whom is always latent, and

tends to counterbalance the influence of the leaders.

Still, it is the leaders who are definitely the masters in those

numerous discussions, with regard to the subject-matter of which

the members of an assembly are without strong preconceived


The necessity for these leaders is evident, since, under the name

of heads of groups, they are met with in the assemblies of every

country. They are the real rulers of an assembly. Men forming a

crowd cannot do without a master, whence it results that the

votes of an assembly only represent, as a rule, the opinions of a

small minority.

The influence of the leaders is due in very small measure to the

arguments they employ, but in a large degree to their prestige.

The best proof of this is that, should they by any circumstance

lose their prestige, their influence disappears.

The prestige of these political leaders is individual, and

independent of name or celebrity: a fact of which M. Jules Simon

gives us some very curious examples in his remarks on the

prominent men of the Assembly of 1848, of which he was a


"Two months before he was all-powerful, Louis Napoleon was

entirely without the least importance.

"Victor Hugo mounted the tribune. He failed to achieve success.

He was listened to as Felix Pyat was listened to, but he did not

obtain as much applause. `I don't like his ideas,' Vaulabelle

said to me, speaking of Felix Pyat,' but he is one of the

greatest writers and the greatest orator of France.' Edgar

Quinet, in spite of his exceptional and powerful intelligence,

was held in no esteem whatever. He had been popular for awhile

before the opening of the Assembly; in the Assembly he had no


"The splendour of genius makes itself less felt in political

assemblies than anywhere else. They only give heed to eloquence

appropriate to the time and place and to party services, not to

services rendered the country. For homage to be rendered

Lamartine in 1848 and Thiers in 1871, the stimulant was needed of

urgent, inexorable interest. As soon as the danger was passed

the parliamentary world forgot in the same instant its gratitude

and its fright."

I have quoted the preceding passage for the sake of the facts it

contains, not of the explanations it offers, their psychology

being somewhat poor. A crowd would at once lose its character of

a crowd were it to credit its leaders with their services,

whether of a party nature or rendered their country. The crowd

that obeys a leader is under the influence of his prestige, and

its submission is not dictated by any sentiment of interest or


In consequence the leader endowed with sufficient prestige wields

almost absolute power. The immense influence exerted during a

long series of years, thanks to his prestige, by a celebrated

Deputy,[28] beaten at the last general election in consequence of

certain financial events, is well known. He had only to give the

signal and Cabinets were overthrown. A writer has clearly

indicated the scope of his action in the following lines:--

"It is due, in the main, to M. X---- that we paid three times as

dearly as we should have done for Tonkin, that we remained so

long on a precarious footing in Madagascar, that we were

defrauded of an empire in the region of the Lower Niger, and that

we have lost the preponderating situation we used to occupy in

Egypt. The theories of M. X---- have cost us more territories

than the disasters of Napoleon I."

We must not harbour too bitter a grudge against the leader in

question. It is plain that he has cost us very dear; but a great

part of his influence was due to the fact that he followed public

opinion, which, in colonial matters, was far from being at the

time what it has since become. A leader is seldom in advance of

public opinion; almost always all he does is to follow it and to

espouse all its errors.

The means of persuasion of the leaders we are dealing with, apart

from their prestige, consist in the factors we have already

enumerated several times. To make a skilful use of these

resources a leader must have arrived at a comprehension, at least

in an unconscious manner, of the psychology of crowds, and must

know how to address them. He should be aware, in particular, of

the fascinating influence of words, phrases, and images. He

should possess a special description of eloquence, composed of

energetic affirmations--unburdened with proofs-- and impressive

images, accompanied by very summary arguments. This is a kind of

eloquence that is met with in all assemblies, the English

Parliament included, the most serious though it is of all.

"Debates in the House of Commons," says the English philosopher

Maine, "may be constantly read in which the entire discussion is

confined to an exchange of rather weak generalities and rather

violent personalities. General formulas of this description

exercise a prodigious influence on the imagination of a pure

democracy. It will always be easy to make a crowd accept general

assertions, presented in striking terms, although they have never

been verified, and are perhaps not susceptible of verification."

Too much importance cannot be attached to the "striking terms"

alluded to in the above quotation. We have already insisted, on

several occasions, on the special power of words and formulas.

They must be chosen in such a way as to evoke very vivid images.

The following phrase, taken from a speech by one of the leaders

of our assemblies, affords an excellent example:--

"When the same vessel shall bear away to the fever-haunted lands

of our penitentiary settlements the politician of shady

reputation and the anarchist guilty of murder, the pair will be

able to converse together, and they will appear to each other as

the two complementary aspects of one and the same state of


The image thus evoked is very vivid, and all the adversaries of

the speaker felt themselves threatened by it. They conjured up a

double vision of the fever-haunted country and the vessel that

may carry them away; for is it not possible that they are

included in the somewhat ill-defined category of the politicians

menaced? They experienced the lurking fear that the men of the

Convention must have felt whom the vague speeches of Robespierre

threatened with the guillotine, and who, under the influence of

this fear, invariably yielded to him.

It is all to the interest of the leaders to indulge in the most

improbable exaggerations. The speaker of whom I have just cited

a sentence was able to affirm, without arousing violent

protestations, that bankers and priests had subsidised the

throwers of bombs, and that the directors of the great financial

companies deserve the same punishment as anarchists.

Affirmations of this kind are always effective with crowds. The

affirmation is never too violent, the declamation never too

threatening. Nothing intimidates the audience more than this

sort of eloquence. Those present are afraid that if they protest

they will be put down as traitors or accomplices.

As I have said, this peculiar style of eloquence has ever been of

sovereign effect in all assemblies. In times of crisis its power

is still further accentuated. The speeches of the great orators

of the assemblies of the French Revolution are very interesting

reading from this point of view. At every instant they thought

themselves obliged to pause in order to denounce crime and exalt

virtue, after which they would burst forth into imprecations

against tyrants, and swear to live free men or perish. Those

present rose to their feet, applauded furiously, and then,

calmed, took their seats again.

On occasion, the leader may be intelligent and highly educated,

but the possession of these qualities does him, as a rule, more

harm than good. By showing how complex things are, by allowing

of explanation and promoting comprehension, intelligence always

renders its owner indulgent, and blunts, in a large measure, that

intensity and violence of conviction needful for apostles. The

great leaders of crowds of all ages, and those of the Revolution

in particular, have been of lamentably narrow intellect; while it

is precisely those whose intelligence has been the most

restricted who have exercised the greatest influence.

The speeches of the most celebrated of them, of Robespierre,

frequently astound one by their incoherence: by merely reading

them no plausible explanation is to be found of the great part

played by the powerful dictator:--

"The commonplaces and redundancies of pedagogic eloquence and

Latin culture at the service of a mind childish rather than

undistinguished, and limited in its notions of attack and defence

to the defiant attitude of schoolboys. Not an idea, not a happy

turn of phrase, or a telling hit: a storm of declamation that

leaves us bored. After a dose of this unexhilarating reading one

is attempted to exclaim `Oh!' with the amiable Camille


It is terrible at times to think of the power that strong

conviction combined with extreme narrowness of mind gives a man

possessing prestige. It is none the less necessary that these

conditions should be satisfied for a man to ignore obstacles and

display strength of will in a high measure. Crowds instinctively

recognise in men of energy and conviction the masters they are

always in need of.

In a parliamentary assembly the success of a speech depends

almost solely on the prestige possessed by the speaker, and not

at all on the arguments he brings forward. The best proof of

this is that when for one cause or another a speaker loses his

prestige, he loses simultaneously all his influence, that is, his

power of influencing votes at will.

When an unknown speaker comes forward with a speech containing

good arguments, but only arguments, the chances are that he will

only obtain a hearing. A Deputy who is a psychologist of

insight, M. Desaubes, has recently traced in the following lines

the portrait of the Deputy who lacks prestige:--

"When he takes his place in the tribune he draws a document from

his portfolio, spreads it out methodically before him, and makes

a start with assurance.

"He flatters himself that he will implant in the minds of his

audience the conviction by which he is himself animated. He has

weighed and reweighed his arguments; he is well primed with

figures and proofs; he is certain he will convince his hearers.

In the face of the evidence he is to adduce all resistance would

be futile. He begins, confident in the justice of his cause, and

relying upon the attention of his colleagues, whose only anxiety,

of course, is to subscribe to the truth.

"He speaks, and is at once surprised at the restlessness of the

House, and a little annoyed by the noise that is being made.

"How is it silence is not kept? Why this general inattention?

What are those Deputies thinking about who are engaged in

conversation? What urgent motive has induced this or that Deputy

to quit his seat?

"An expression of uneasiness crosses his face; he frowns and

stops. Encouraged by the President, he begins again, raising his

voice. He is only listened to all the less. He lends emphasis

to his words, and gesticulates: the noise around him increases.

He can no longer hear himself, and again stops; finally, afraid

that his silence may provoke the dreaded cry, `The Closure!' he

starts off again. The clamour becomes unbearable."

When parliamentary assemblies reach a certain pitch of excitement

they become identical with ordinary heterogeneous crowds, and

their sentiments in consequence present the peculiarity of being

always extreme. They will be seen to commit acts of the greatest

heroism or the worst excesses. The individual is no longer

himself, and so entirely is this the case that he will vote

measures most adverse to his personal interests.

The history of the French Revolution shows to what an extent

assemblies are capable of losing their self-consciousness, and of

obeying suggestions most contrary to their interests. It was an

enormous sacrifice for the nobility to renounce its privileges,

yet it did so without hesitation on a famous night during the

sittings of the Constituant Assembly. By renouncing their

inviolability the men of the Convention placed themselves under a

perpetual menace of death and yet they took this step, and were

not afraid to decimate their own ranks, though perfectly aware

that the scaffold to which they were sending their colleagues

to-day might be their own fate to-morrow. The truth is they had

attained to that completely automatic state which I have

described elsewhere, and no consideration would hinder them from

yielding to the suggestions by which they were hypnotised. The

following passage from the memoirs of one of them,

Billaud-Varennes, is absolutely typical on this score: "The

decisions with which we have been so reproached," he says, "WERE

OF CROWDS. POLITICAL AND SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail