In general, political sociologists agree on the significance of the role of the crowd in history – more specifically, in historical change. In 1895, Gustave Le Bon wrote that, despite movements of mass politics occurring in the 18th and 19th Century, ‘the age we are about to enter will in truth be the era of crowds’. Marx too had stressed the significance of mass mobilisation in his slightly earlier theories of political sociology. The distinct difference between these two specific theorists, from whose work much scholarship on crowd sociology has developed, was that they held the respectability of the crowd in completely different lights. More than this, they held the social structures within which crowds operate in similar disparity. Theoretical historian George Rudé lays out the historiographical squabble, comparing Michelet’s The People, to Burke’s The Mob, commenting that they both make errors in presenting the crowd as a ‘disembodied abstraction’. In some ways, it is this difference and abstraction that has defined modern political science – the fundamental disagreements over the nature of society therefore influences the perception of everything and everyone within it.
Le Bon, Science and Knowledge
The crux of Le Bon’s theories on the crowd and society holds roots in conservatism; that is, respect and value in the traditional social structure. He does, however, understand that change is inevitable, and highlights two factors at the base of such flux: (i) the destruction of religious, political and social beliefs in which all the elements of civilisation are rooted; and (ii) the creation of new conditions of existence and thought as a result of modern scientific and industrial discoveries. What is interesting about Le Bon’s thought, however, is that he had, not a prejudice, but a distrust of the effect of science on society – what he thought of as an underlying agent of change. To quote from his The Crowd (1895):
‘Science promised us truth…not peace or happiness. It is for us to endeavour to live with science, since nothing can bring back the illusions it has destroyed’.
The point is though that Le Bon understood that upheaval and change were caused by the effects of the two mentioned factors on the ideas of the abstract ‘people’, underlined by science and the accessibility of knowledge. He did not consider this a good thing at all; in fact, Le Bon goes as far as to describe the crowd as similar to ‘microbes which hasten the dissolution of enfeebled bodies’. He shows nostalgia for a time in which ‘the destinies of nations’ were in the ‘councils of princes’, not the ‘heart of the masses’.
There is a distinct correlation between, not Le Bon’s grievances, but his theories on relative consciousness, and the ideas presented in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, especially in relation to the Church and its attitude to scientific advancement. See (http://wp.me/p3g0mz-4f) for a more detailed discussion of such themes.
Marx, Society and Revolution
In contrast, Marx’s all-encompassing socio-economic theories blame the lack of agency on behalf of the crowds as a failure of society. The historical materialist reasoning behind this is that the only means by which the distribution of resources can be ‘fairly’ achieved, and the only way in which class conflict can be resolved, is by revolution – that is, a revolt against the paradigms that set up the social relations that cause and maintain material inequality and class conflict in the favour of a ruling minority.
The crowd, Marx discerned, was essential to this movement, and therefore, in contrast to Le Bon’s disdain, Marx granted much respect towards mass movement as a concept. What has been misinterpreted however, is that such revolution can be forced without the agency of such a crowd. This has been evident in the failure of political ‘experiments’ – not that the instigators of such programmes would refer to them as ‘experiments’ – in the 20th century, most notably, the Soviet Union. Perhaps the role of the crowd is under-emphasised in Marxist ideology. There certainly has been little patience in the Marxist-Leninist regimes of the last 100 years to allow the completion of the cyclical social progression that Marx himself set out in theory.
The sociological theories of Le Bon and Marx have been used in very different ways, to achieve very different goals. The Young Turks in the latter days of the Ottoman Empire, for instance, in an attempt to structure a post-‘revolution’ socio-economic dynamic in favour of their interests, actively avoided the cohesion of a crowd – they took Le Bon literally in his fear of the potential impact that his crowd could have. Le Bon claimed that crowds were able to develop characteristics that not a single individual member of its collective was able to show in isolation. Marx was able to turn this theory the other way around – to discern that mass movements were able to shed the ‘undesirable’ – i.e. selfish and materialistic – qualities of individuals. However one may put it, the abstract crowd – influenced by science, knowledge and consciousness – drove through significant social change throughout the 20th Century, and while the 21st Century may be termed the age of liberalism and self-determination, it is likely that mass movements will continue to have an effect.