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.

The Crowd A Creature Of Hate The Crowd And The Unconscious facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail