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Saturday, August 27, 2005

Gustav LeBon, Hitler, and the Bush Administration
Posted by Jill | 8:17 AM

Yesterday I happened to mention to someone that the United States is reminding me of Germany in the 1930's more every day, and she pointed me to a book Hitler read called "The Psychology of the Masses." Thanks to Google, I found what she was talking about. It's called The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, by Gustav LeBon (1895). It's known that Hitler read this book, and much of what LeBon postulates fits right in with the insistent need that so many Americans have to continue to support the Bush Administration in the face if its lies and deceit.

Snippets from LeBon's Law of the Mental Unity of Crowds:

To acquire the special characteristics of such a crowd, the influence is necessary of certain predisposing causes of which we shall have to determine the nature.

The disappearance of conscious personality and the turning of feelings and thoughts in a definite direction, which are the primary characteristics of a crowd about to become organised, do not always involve the simultaneous presence of a number of individuals on one spot. Thousands of isolated individuals may acquire at certain moments, and under the influence of certain violent emotions - such, for example, as a great national event - the characteristics of a psychological crowd. It will be sufficient in that case that a mere chance should bring them together for their acts to at once assume the characteristics peculiar to the acts of a crowd. At certain moments half a dozen men might constitute a psychological crowd, which may not happen in the case of hundreds of men gathered together by accident. On the other hand, an entire nation, though there may be no visible agglomeration, may become a crowd under the action of certain influences.

A psychological crowd once constituted, it acquires certain provisional but determinable general characteristics.


The most striking peculiarity presented by a psychological crowd is the following: Whoever be the individuals that compose it, however like or unlike be their mode of life, their occupations, their character, or their intelligence, the fact that they have been transformed into a crowd puts them in possession of a sort of collective mind which makes them feel, think, and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would feel, think, and act were he in a state of isolation.


...the individual forming part of a crowd acquires, solely from numerical considerations, a sentiment of invincible power which allows him to yield to instincts which, had he been alone, he would perforce have kept under restraint. He will be the less disposed to check himself from the consideration that, a crowd being anonymous, and in consequence irresponsible, the sentiment of responsibility which always controls individuals disappears entirely.


...an individual immerged for some length of time in a crowd in action soon finds himself - either in consequence of the magnetic influence given out by the crowd, or from some other cause of which we are ignorant - in a special state, which much resembles the state of fascination in which the hypnotised individual finds himself in the hands of the hypnotiser.


by the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian - that is, a creature acting by instinct. He possesses the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity, and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings, whom he further tends to resemble by the facility with which he allows himself to be impressed by words and images - which would be entirely without action on each of the isolated individuals composing the crowd - and to be induced to commit acts contrary to his most obvious interests and his best-known habits. An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will.

Here are LeBon's characteristics of crowds. Interestingly, they describe the very terrorists the Bush Administration is telling us we're fighting against, as much as they describe the Americans the Bush Junta has manipulated (with annotations by Yours Truly in brackets []):

IMPULSIVENESS, MOBILITY, AND IRRITABILITY OF CROWDS. The crowd is at the mercy of all exterior exciting causes, and reflects their incessant variations - The impulses which the crowd obeys are so imperious as to annihilate the feeling of personal interest. [Thus explaineth Republicans]

CROWDS ARE CREDULOUS AND READILY INFLUENCED BY SUGGESTION. The images evoked in the mind of crowds are accepted by them as realities [such as the continued belief that Saddam was involved in 9/11, that WMD were found in Iraq]

THE EXAGGERATION AND INGENUOUSNESS OF THE SENTIMENTS OF CROWDS. Crowds do not admit doubt or uncertainty, and always go to extremes.

THE INTOLERANCE, DICTATORIALNESS, AND CONSERVATISM OF CROWDS. The reasons of these sentiments - The servility of crowds in the face of a strong authority - The momentary revolutionary instincts of crowds do not prevent them from being extremely conservative - Crowds instinctively hostile to changes and progress

THE MORALITY OF CROWDS. The morality of crowds, according to the suggestions under which they act, may be much lower or much higher than that of the individuals composing them - Explanation and examples - Crowds rarely guided by those considerations of interest which are most often the exclusive motives of the isolated individual - The moralising role of crowds. [In other words, people who might individually say in the abstract that torture is not what civilized people do, put them in the context of the Bush-supporting crowd, and suddenly Abu Ghraib becomes a moral imperative.]

Hitler, of course, read only what he wanted to out of this -- that if you can manipulate people into a crowd via extreme nationalism or scapegoating, or both, you can make them support just about anything. It's tempting to note the connections between Hitler and C-Plus Caligula's grandfather, but one doesn't have to believe that the Bush family supported Nazis (even though they did) to realize that 9/11 presented just the sort of Great National Event that allowed manipulation of a frightened population into the Crowd LeBon write about 110 years ago.

What Hitler chose to ignore, is LeBon's contention that in this tendency of people in crowds lies the seeds of the death of empire as well as its creation:

This progressive restriction of liberties shows itself in every country in a special shape which Herbert Spencer has not pointed out; it is that the passing of these innumerable series of legislative measures, all of them in a general way of a restrictive order, conduces necessarily to augment the number, the power, and the influence of the functionaries charged with their application. These functionaries tend in this way to become the veritable masters of civilised countries. Their power is all the greater owing to the fact that, amidst the incessant transfer of authority, the administrative caste is alone in being untouched by these changes, is alone in possessing irresponsibility, impersonality, and perpetuity. There is no more oppressive despotism than that which presents itself under this triple form.

This incessant creation of restrictive laws and regulations, surrounding the pettiest actions of existence with the most complicated formalities, inevitably has for its result the confining within narrower and narrower limits of the sphere in which the citizen may move freely. Victims of the delusion that

equality and liberty are the better assured by the multiplication of laws, nations daily consent to put up with trammels increasingly burdensome. They do not accept this legislation with impunity. Accustomed to put up with every yoke, they soon end by desiring servitude, and lose all spontaneousness and energy. They are then no more than vain shadows, passive, unresisting and powerless automata.

Arrived at this point, the individual is bound to seek outside himself the forces he no longer finds within him. The functions of governments necessarily increase in proportion as the indifference and helplessness of the citizens grow. They it is who must necessarily exhibit the initiative, enterprising, and guiding spirit in which private persons are lacking. It falls on them to undertake everything, direct everything, and take everything under their protection. The State becomes an all-powerful god. Still experience shows that the power of such gods was never either very durable or very strong.

This progressive restriction of all liberties in the case of certain peoples, in spite of an outward license that gives them the illusion that these liberties are still in their possession, seems at least as much a consequence of their old age as of any particular system. It constitutes one of the precursory symptoms of that decadent phase which up to now no civilisation has escaped.

Judging by the lessons of the past, and by the symptoms that strike the attention on every side, several of our modern civilisations have reached that phase of extreme old age which precedes decadence. It seems inevitable that all peoples should pass through identical phases of existence, since history is so often seen to repeat its course.


To pass in pursuit of an ideal from the barbarous to the civilised state, and then, when this ideal has lost its virtue, to decline and die, such is the cycle of the life of a people.

The open question is whether societies can escape this fate if they understand the forces that lead to it. Those Hitler manipulated into worshipping an all-powerful state didn't. Can those of us who understand that the Bush Administration has similarly studied its Gustav LeBon do differently?
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Blogger Constance Cumbey said...
This was my first visit to your blogspot, which I found on a google.com search for Gustave LeBon's THE CROWD, but it certainly will not be my last. Well done!

Anonymous Anonymous said...
And Obama is Bush on steroids.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
If you read LeBon's The Psychology of Revolution, you would see clearly that he was an opponent to Despotic regimes of terror (i.e. Jacobin) entirely based on leading crowds by sentiment. LeBon clearly denounces intolerance in this book.