The Crowd And The Unconscious

Throughout the discussion thus far I have been making repeated reference

to the psychology of the unconscious, without going into detail any more

than was necessary. Let us now take a closer look at some of Freud's

discoveries. In this way, what Brill would call the "psychogenesis" of

certain characteristic ideas and practices of crowds will be, I think,

made clear. Up to this point we have dealt generally with those mental

processes by which the crowd is formed. There are certain traits,

tendencies, ways of thinking which crowds so uniformly display that one

is justified, in want of other explanation, in assuming them to be

unconsciously determined. The remarkable blindness of organized crowds

to the most obvious of their own performances is so common as to be the

regularly expected thing--that is, of crowds other than our own. Long

and extensive operations may be carried on for years by crowds whose

members repeatedly declare that such things are not being done. The way

in which a nation will carefully prepare for war, gradually organizing

its whole life on a military basis with tremendous cost and effort, all

the while declaring that it is interested only in peace, denying its

warlike intentions, and even in the moment of picking a quarrel with its

neighbors declare to all the world that it had been wantonly and

unexpectedly attacked, is all a matter of general comment. The American

colonists, during the decade before the signing of the Declaration of

Independence, of course had no conscious thought of separating from

Great Britain. Almost to the very last they professed their loyalty to

the King; but looking back now it is clear that Independence was the

motive all along, and doubtless could not have been achieved more

opportunely or with greater finesse if it had been deliberately planned

from the start. The Hebrew Scriptures contain a story which illustrates

this aspect of crowd-behavior everywhere. The Children of Israel in

bondage in Egypt merely wished to go out in the wilderness for a day or

so to worship their God. All they asked was religious liberty. How

unjust of the authorities to assume they were planning to run away

from their masters! You will remember that at the last moment they

incidentally borrow some jewelry from their Egyptian neighbors. Of

course they will pay it back after their little religious holiday,

but ... later a most unforeseen thing happens to that jewelry, a

scandalous thing--it is made into an idol. Does it require that one be a

psychologist to infer that it was the unconscious intention all along to

use this metal for just that, the first good chance they had--and that,

too, notwithstanding repeated prohibitions of idolatry? The motive for

borrowing the jewelry is evident.

Certain crowd-movements in America to-day give marked evidence of this

unconscious motivation. Notice how both the radical and reactionary

elements behave when, as is frequently the case with both, the

crowd-spirit comes over them. Certain radicals, who are fascinated with

the idea of the Russian Revolution, are still proclaiming sentiments of

human brotherhood, peace, and freedom, while unconsciously they are

doing just what their enemies accuse them of--playing with the welcome

ideas of violence, class war, and proletarian dictatorship. And

conservative crowds, while ostensibly defending American traditions and

ideals against destructive foreign influence, are with their own hands

daily desecrating many of the finest things which America has given to

the world in its struggle of more than a century for freedom and

justice. Members of each crowd, while blissfully unaware of the

incompatibility of their own motives and professions, have no illusions

about those of the counter-crowd. Each crowd sees in the professions of

its antagonist convincing proof of the insincerity and hypocrisy of the

other side. To the student of social philosophy both are right and both

wrong. All propaganda is lies, and every crowd is a deceiver, but its

first and worst deception is that of itself. This self-deception is a

necessary step in crowd-formation and is a sine qua non of becoming a

crowd. It is only necessary for members of a crowd to deceive themselves

and one another for the crowd-mind to function perfectly; I doubt if

they are often successful in deceiving anybody else. It was this common

crowd-phenomenon of self-deception which led Gobineau and Nietzsche to

the conclusion that the common people are liars. But as has been said,

the crowd is by no means peculiar to the working class; some of its

worst features are exhibited these days among employers, law-makers, and

the well-to-do classes. This deception is moreover not really conscious

and deliberate. If men deliberately set about to invent lies to justify

their behavior I have little doubt that most of them would be clever

enough to conjure up something a little more plausible. These naive and

threadbare "hypocrisies" of crowds are a commonplace mechanism of the

unconscious. It is interesting to note that the delusions of the

paranoiac likewise deceive no one but himself, yet within themselves

form a perfectly logical a priori system. They also serve the

well-understood purpose, like that of crowd-ideas, of keeping their

possessor in a certain fixed relation toward portions of his own psychic

material. As Brill says, they are "compromise formations."

Those who have read Freud's little book, Delusion and Dream, an

analysis of a psychological romance written by Wilhelm Jensen, will

recall how extensive a fabric of plausibilities a delusion may build up

in its defense in order at the same time to satisfy a repressed wish,

and keep the true meaning of the subject's acts and thoughts from

conscious attention. In the story which Freud has here taken as his

subject for study, a young student of archaeology has apparently

conquered all adolescent erotic interest and has devoted himself

whole-heartedly to his science. While at the ruins of ancient Pompeii,

he finds a bas-relief containing the figure of a young woman represented

in the act of walking with peculiar grace. A cast of this figure he

brings home. His interest is curiously aroused. At first this interest

appears to be scientific only, then aesthetic, and historical. Finally he

builds up about it a complete romance. He becomes restless and very much

of a misogynist, and is driven, he knows not why, again to the ruins.

Here he actually meets the object of his dreams in the solitude of the

excavated city. He allows himself to believe that the once living model

of his treasured bas-relief has again come to life. For days he meets

and talks with the girl, living all the while in a world of complete

unreality, until she finally succeeds in revealing herself as the young

woman who lives next door to him. It also appears that in their

childhood he and this girl had been playmates, and that in spite of all

his conscious indifference to her his unconscious interest was the

source of his interest in the bas-relief and the motive which led him to

return to Pompeii, where he unconsciously expected to find her. The

interesting thing about all this for our present study is the series of

devices, fictions, and compromises with reality which this repressed

interest made use of while having its way with him, and at the same time

resisting whatever might force it upon his conscious attention, where a

recognition of its significance might result in a deliberate rejection.

We shall not go into Freud's ingenious analysis of the mental processes

at work here. The following passage is sufficient for our purpose:

There is a kind of forgetting which distinguishes itself by the

difficulty with which memory is awakened, even by strong

appeals, as if a subjective resistance struggled against the

revival. Such forgetting has received the name of "repression"

in psychopathology ... about repression we can assert that

certainly it does not coincide with the destruction, the

obliteration of memory. The repressed material can not of itself

break through as memory, but remains potent and effective.

From this, and from what was said in our previous chapter, it is plain

that the term "unconscious" as used in psychology does not mean total

absence of psychic activity. It refers to thoughts and feelings which

have purposefully been forgotten--to experiences or impulses to which

we do not pay attention nor wish to attend to, but which influence us

nevertheless. Everyone of us, when he dreams, has immediate knowledge of

the unconscious as here defined. Certainly we pass into unconsciousness

when we sleep. Yet something is unquestionably going on inside our

heads. One wakens and says, "What strange, or exciting, or delightful

dreams I have had!" Bergson says that sleep is due to the relaxing of

attention to our environment. Yet in dreams attention is never turned

away from ourselves. Possibly instead of the word "unconscious" the term

"unattended" might be used with less danger of confusion.

Consciousness is, therefore, not the whole of our psychic activity. Much

of our behavior is reflex and automatic. James used to be fond of

showing how much even of our higher psychic activity was reflex in its

nature. We may be conscious of various portions of our psychic material,

but never of all of it at once. Attention is like a spotlight thrown on

a semi-darkened stage, moving here and there, revealing the figures upon

which it is directed in vivid contrast with the darkly moving objects

which animate the regions outside its circle. A speaker during his

discourse will straighten his tie, make various gestures, and toy with

any object which happens to be lying on the desk, all without being

aware of his movements, until his attention is called to the fact.

Absent-minded persons habitually amuse us by frequently performing

complete and rather complex series of actions while wholly oblivious to

what they are doing. Everyone can recall numerous instances of

absent-mindedness in his own experience.

Now all pathological types of mental life have in common this quality of

absent-mindedness, and it is held that the thing said or done

absent-mindedly has in every instance, even when normal, a meaning which

is unconscious. But the unconscious or unattended is by no means

confined to the infrequent and the trivial. As temperament, or

character, its activity is a determining factor in all our thought and

conduct. Dream fancies do not really cease when we awake; the dream

activity goes on all about our conscious thoughts, our associations now

hovering near long-forgotten memories, now pulled in the direction of

some unrecognized bit of personal conceit, now skipping on tiptoe over

something forbidden and wicked and passing across without looking in;

only a part of our mental processes ever directly finding expression in

our conscious acts and words. The unchosen and the illogical run along

with the desired and the logical material, only we have learned not to

pay attention to such things. Under all our logical structures there

flows a ceaseless stream of dream stuff. Our conscious thought is like

little planks of attention laid end to end on the stones which here and

there rise above the surface of our thinking. The mind skips across to a

desired conclusion, not infrequently getting its feet wet, and, on

occasion, upsetting a plank or slipping off and falling in altogether.

We have only to relax our attention a little to enter the world of day

dreams, of art, and religion; we can never hold it so rigid as to be

wholly rational for long.

Those interested in the general psychology of the unconscious are

referred to the writings of such authorities in this field as Freud,

Jung, Adler, Dr. A. A. Brill, and Dr. William White. In fact, the

literature dealing with psychoanalysis is now so widely read that,

unless the reader has received his information about this branch of

science from hostile sources alone, it is to be assumed that he has a

fairly accurate acquaintance with its general history and theory. We

must confine our discussions to those aspects of unconscious behavior

which can be shown by analogy with the psychoneurosis to be determinants

of crowd-thinking. As the details and technical discussions of

psychoanalytical material belong strictly to the psychiatric clinic, any

attempt at criticism by the medical layman of the scientific processes

by which they are established is of course impossible. Consequently, I

have sought to make use of only those principles which are now so well

established as to become rather generally accepted commonplaces of


All analysis reveals the fact that the unconscious of the individual is

concerned primarily with himself. This is true in the psychosis, and

always in dreams. Freud says:

Every dream is absolutely egotistical; in every dream the

beloved ego appears, even though it be in a disguised form. The

wishes that are realized in dreams are regularly the wishes of

this ego; it is only a deceptive appearance if interest in

another person is thought to have caused the dream.

Freud then proceeds to give analyses of several dreams in which the

naive egoism of childhood which lies at the core of the unconscious

psyche is apparently absent, and shows that in each and every case it is

there. The hero of our dreams, notwithstanding all appearances to the

contrary, is always ourself.

Brill, in his book, Psychoanalysis, says of the neurosis:

Both hysteria and compulsion neurosis belong to the defense

neuropsychoses; their symptoms originate through the psychic

mechanism of defense, that is, through the attempt to repress a

painful idea which was incompatible with the ego of the patient.

There is still another more forceful and more successful form of

defense wherein the ego misplaces the incompatible idea with its

emotions and acts as though the painful idea had never come to

pass. When this occurs the person merges into a psychosis which

may be called "hallucinatory confusion."

Thus the psychoneurosis is in all its forms, I believe, regarded as a

drama of the ego and its inner conflicts. The egoism of the unconscious

belongs alike to the normal and the unadjusted. The mental abnormalities

appear when the ego seeks to escape some such conflict by means of a

closed system of ideas or symbolic acts which will divert attention from

the unwelcome psychic material. Adler, in The Neurotic Constitution,

is even, if possible, more emphatic in affirming the egoism of the

unconscious as revealed in neurotics. His thesis is that the mainspring

of all the efforts of achievement and the source of all the

vicissitudes of the psyche is a desire to be important, or will to "be

above," not wholly unlike Nietzsche's theory of the "will to power." The

neurosis goes back to some organic defect or other cause of childish

humiliation. As a result, the cause of such humiliation, a defective

bodily organ, or whatever it may be, gains special attention. The whole

psyche is modified in the process of adjustment. In cases where the

psyche remains normal, adjustment is achieved through stimulation to

extra effort to overcome the disadvantage, as in the triumph of

Demosthenes, Byron, Pope.

On the contrary, this disadvantage may result in a fixed feeling of

inferiority. Such a feeling may be brought about in the sensitive child

by a variety of circumstances, physical facts such as smallness of

stature, adenoids, derangements of the alimentary organs, undersized

genitals, homeliness of feature, or any physical deformity or weakness;

again by such circumstances as domineering parents or older brothers and

sisters. The child then thinks always of himself. He forms the habit of

comparing himself with others. He creates, as a protection against the

recognition of this feeling of inferiority, what Adler calls the

"masculine protest."

The feeling which the individual has of his own inferiority,

incompetency, the realization of his smallness, of his weakness,

of his uncertainty, thus becomes the appropriate working basis

which, because of the intrinsically associated feelings of

pleasure and pain, furnishes the inner impulse to advance toward

an imaginary goal....

In all similar attempts (and the human psyche is full of them),

it is the question of the introduction of an unreal and abstract

scheme into actual life.... No matter from what angle we observe

the psychic development of a normal or neurotic person, he is

always found ensnared in the meshes of his particular fiction--a

fiction from which the neurotic is unable to find his way back

to reality and in which he believes, while the sound and normal

person utilizes it for the purpose of reaching a definite goal

... the thing which impels us all, and especially the neurotic

and the child, to abandon the direct path of induction and

deduction and use such devices as the schematic fiction,

originates in the feeling of uncertainty, and is the craving for

security, the final purpose of which is to escape from the

feeling of inferiority in order to ascend to the full height of

the ego consciousness, to complete manliness, to attain the

ideal of being "above."...

Even our judgments concerning the value of things are determined

according to the standard of the imaginary goal, not according

to "real" feelings or pleasurable sensations.

That repressed sexuality plays an important part in the conflicts of the

ego is well known to all who are acquainted with analytical psychology.

According to Freud, the sexual impulse dates from earliest childhood and

is an essential element in every stage of self-appreciation. A summary

of the process by which the infantile ego develops to maturity is as

follows: The child is by nature "polymorphous perverse"--that is, both

physically and psychically he possesses elements which in the mature

individual would be considered perversions. Physiologically, what are

known as "erogenous zones"--tissue which is capable of what in mature

life is sexual excitation--are diffused through the organism. As the

child passes through the "latent period" of later childhood and

adolescence, these "erogenous zones" are concentrated as it were in the

organs which are to serve the purpose of reproduction. If for any reason

this process of concentration is checked, and remains in later life

incomplete, the mature individual will be afflicted with certain

tendencies to sex perversion.

Similarly the psychosexual passes through a metamorphosis in normal

development. The erotic interest of the child, at first quite without

any object at all, is soon attached to one or the other of the parents,

then, in the "narcissus period" is centered upon the individual himself,

after which, normally, but not without some storm and stress, it becomes

detached and capable of "object love"--that is, love of a person of the

opposite sex. This psychic process is by no means a smooth and easy

matter. It is attended at every stage with such dangers that a very

large number of people never achieve it entire. Various kinds of "shock"

and wrong educational influence, or overindulgence on the part of the

parents, may cause the psychosexual interest of the ego--or "libido"--to

remain "fixed" at some point in its course. It may retain vestiges of

its early undifferentiated stage, appearing then in the perverted forms

of "masochism"--sexual enjoyment of self-torture--or "sadism"--sexual

pleasure in torturing others. Or the libido may remain fixed upon the

parent, rendering the individual in some degree incapable of a normal

mature love life. He has never quite succeeded in severing his infantile

attachment to his mother and transferring his interest to the world of

social relations and mature experiences. If he meets with a piece of

misfortune, he is likely to seek imaginary security and compensation by

a "regression" of the libido and a revival of childlike affection for

the mother image. As this return is, in maturity, unconsciously resisted

by the horror of incest, a conflict results. The individual then

develops certain mechanisms or "complex formations" in defense of his

ego against this painful situation. The withdrawal of the libido from

the ordinary affairs of life renders the latter valueless. Thoughts of

death and like compulsory mechanisms ensue. The patient has become a


Psychoanalysts make much of this latter situation. They term it the

"Oedipus complex." They assert that in its severer forms it is a common

feature of psychoneurosis, while in less marked form, according to Jung,

it underlies, and is the real explanation of the "birth of tragedy,"

being also the meaning of much religious symbolism, including the Divine

Drama of Christian tradition. It is not, therefore, only the

psychoneurotic whose unconscious takes the form of the "Oedipus

complex." Under certain conditions it is manifest in normal people. I

have already indicated that the crowd is one of those conditions, and

shall have something a little more specific to say about this later on.

Again the growing libido may become fixed in the "narcissus stage."

Between the period of love of parents and object love, the adolescent

youth passes through a period when he is "in love with himself." The

fact that many people remain in some measure fixed in this period of

their development is not surprising when we remember that self-feeling

occupies a central place in the unconscious at all times. Many of the

world's greatest men have doubtless been characters in which there was a

slightly more than average fixation at this point. Inordinate ambition

is, I should say, an evidence of such a fixation. If one possesses great

natural ability he may under such circumstances be able to forge ahead

to his goal, overcoming the conflicts which such a fixation always

raises, and show no greater evidence of pathology in his career than is

seen in the usual saying that "genius is always a little queer." The

typical crowd-leader would, on analysis, I think, show something of this

"narcissus complex," as would doubtless the great run of fanatics,

bigots, and doctrinaires, "hundred per cent" crowd-men all.

According to Brill, these "auto erotic" persons are always homosexual,

their homosexuality manifesting itself in various ways. The overt

manifestations of this tendency are known as perversions. Certain

persons who have suppressed or sublimated these tendencies, by means of

certain defense mechanisms, or "fictions," as Adler would call them, get

along very well so long as the defense mechanism functions. There are

cases when this unconsciously constructed defense breaks down. An inner

conflict is then precipitated, a marked form of which is the common type

of insanity, "paranoia." Persons suffering with paranoia are

characterized by an insatiable demand for love along with a psychic

incapacity to give love. They have an exaggerated sense of their own

importance which is sustained by a wholly unreal but deadly logical

system of a priori ideas, which constitute the "obsessions" common to

this type of mentality. The inner conflict becomes external--that is, it

is "projected." The paranoiac projects his own inner hostility and lack

of adjustment upon others--that is, he attributes his own feeling of

hostility to some one else, as if he were the object, not the author, of

his hatred. He imagines that he is persecuted, as the following example

will show. The passage here quoted is taken from a pamphlet which was

several years ago given to me by the author. He ostensibly wished to

enlist my efforts in a campaign he believed himself to be conducting to

"expose" the atrocious treatment of persons, like himself, who were

imprisoned in asylums as the innocent victims of domestic conspiracy. By

way of introducing himself the author makes it known that he has several

times been confined in various hospitals, each time by the design and

instigation of his wife, and after stating that on the occasion

described he was very "nervous and physically exhausted" and

incidentally confessing that he was arrested while attempting homicide

"purely in self-defense," he gives this account of his incarceration:

I was locked in a cold cell, and being in poor health, my

circulation was poor, and the officer ordered me to go to bed

and I obeyed his orders, but I began to get cold, and believing

then, as I still believe, that the coffee I got out of the

coffee tank for my midnight lunch had been "doped," and fearful

that the blood in my veins which began to coagulate would stop

circulating altogether, I got out of bed and walked the floor to

and fro all the remainder of the night and by so doing I saved

my life. For had I remained in bed two hours I would have been a

dead man before sunrise next morning. I realized my condition

and had the presence of mind to do everything in my power to

save my life and put my trust in God, and asked his aid in my

extremity. But for divine aid, I would not now have the

privilege of writing my awful experiences in that hell-hole of a


The officer who arrested me without any warrant of law, and

without any unlawful act on my part was the tool of some person

or persons who were either paid for their heinous crime, or of

the landlady of the ---- hotel (he had been a clerk there) who

allowed gambling to go on nearly every night, and thought I was

a detective or spy, and so was instrumental in having me thrown

into jail.

I begged so hard not to be locked in the cell that I was allowed

to stay in the corridor in front of the cells. I observed

chloral dripping through the roof of the cell-house in different

places, and as I had had some experience with different drugs, I

detected the smell of chloral as soon as I entered the


Sometime after midnight some one stopped up the stovepipe and

the door of the coal stove was left open so that the coal gas

issued from the stove, so that breathing was difficult in the

jail. The gases from the stove and other gases poisoned the air

... and your humble servant had the presence of mind to tear up

a hair mattress and kept my nostrils continually filled with

padding out of the mattress. I would often and instantly change

the filling in one nostril, and not during the long hours of

that awful night did I once open my mouth. In that manner I

inhaled very little gases. Why in my weakened condition and my

poor health anyone wanted to deprive me of my life I am at a

loss to know, but failing to kill me, I was taken after nearly

three days of sojourn in that hell-hole to the courthouse in

----. But such thoughts as an innocent man in my condition would

think, in among criminals of all sorts, can better be imagined

than described.... I thought of Christ's persecutors and I

thought how the innocent suffer because of the wicked.

In general we may say that the various forms of psychoneurosis are

characterized by a conflict of the ego with primitive impulses

inadequately repressed. In defense against these impulses, which though

active remain unconsciously so, the individual constructs a fictitious

system of ideas, of symbolic acts, or bodily symptoms. These systems are

attempts to compromise the conflict in the unconscious, and in just the

degree that they are demanded for this function, they fail of their

function of adjusting the individual to his external world. Thought and

behavior thus serve the purpose of compensating for some psychic loss,

and of keeping up the individual's self feeling. Though the unconscious

purpose is to enhance the ego consciousness, the mechanisms through

which this end is achieved produce through their automatic and

stereotyped form a shrinking of personality and a serious lack of

adjustment to environment.

Now it is not at all the aim of this argument to try to prove that

crowds are really insane. Psychoanalysts commonly assert that the

difference between the normal and the abnormal is largely one of degree

and of success in adjustment. We are told that the conflict exists also

in normal people, with whom, however, it is adequately repressed and

"sublimated"--that is, normal people pass on out of the stages in which

the libido of the neurotic becomes fixed, not by leaving them behind,

but by attaching the interests which emerge in such stages to ends which

are useful in future experience. The neurotic takes the solitary path of

resolving the conflict between his ego and the impulses which society

demands shall be repressed.

It is altogether conceivable that another path lies open--that of

occasional compromise in our mutual demands on one another. The force

of repression is then relaxed by an unconscious change in the

significance of social ideas. Such a change must of course be mutual and

unconscious. Compromise mechanisms will again be formed serving a

purpose similar to the neurosis. As in the neurosis, thought and action

will be compulsory, symbolic, stereotyped, and more or less in conflict

with the demands of society as a whole, though functioning in a part of

it for certain purposes. Many of the characteristics of the unconscious

will then appear and will be similar in some respects to those of

neurosis. It is my contention that this is what happens in the crowd,

and I will now point out certain phases of crowd-behavior which are

strikingly analogous to some of the phenomena which have been described


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