The Psychology of Socialism
by Gustave Le Bon
The Psychology of Socialism
by Gustave Le Bon
Sometimes man requires centuries of effort to rebuild, painfully, that which he destroyed in a day - GB
As for the young man who wishes to make his way in the world, as we understand the matter today, the most important advice one can give him is that he should studiously cultivate the art of lying skillfully. Hatred and envy in the lower classes, intense egoism and the exclusive cult of wealth in the directing classes, pessimism among thinkers: such are the general modern tendencies. A society must be very solidly established to resist such causes of dissolution. It is doubtful if it can resist them long.
At first sight Socialism would appear to draw the greater number of its recruits from the popular classes, and more especially from the working classes. The new ideal presents itself to them in this very elementary, and, therefore, very comprehensible shape: less work and more pleasure.
Socialism as a Religion
So soon as we penetrate a little into the mechanism of civilizations we quickly discover that a society, with its institutions, its beliefs, and its arts, represents a tissue of ideas, sentiments, customs, and modes of thought determined by heredity, the cohesion of which constitutes its strength. No society is firmly held together unless this moral heritage is solidly established, and established not in codes but in the natures of men; the one declines when the other crumbles, and when this moral heritage is finally disintegrated the society is doomed to disappear.
Socialism is becoming a belief of a religious character rather than a doctrine. Now the great power of beliefs, when they tend to assume this religious form...lies in the fact that their propagation is independent of the proportion of truth or error that they may contain, for as soon as a belief has gained a lodging in the minds of men its absurdity no longer appears; reason cannot reach it, and only time can impair it. The most profound thinkers of humanity - Leibnitz, Descartes, Newton - have bowed themselves without a murmur before religious doctrines whose weaknesses reason would quickly have discovered, had they been able to submit them to the ordeal of criticism.
The present age is one of those periods of transition in which the old beliefs have lost their empire, while those which must replace the old are not yet established. Hitherto man has been unable to live without divinities. They fall often from their throne, but that throne has never remained empty; new phantoms are rising always from the dust of the dead gods.
The most flourishing civilizations have always been propped up by religious dogmas which, from the rational point of view, possessed not an atom of logic, not a spice of truth, nor even of simple good sense. Reason and logic have never been the true guides of nations. The irrational has always been one of the most powerful motives of action known to humanity.
Socialism, whose dream is to substitute itself for the ancient faiths, proposes but a very low ideal, and to establish it appeals but to sentiments lower still. What, in effect, does it promise, more than merely our daily bread, and that at the price of hard labor? With what lever does it seek to raise the soul? With the sentiments of envy and hatred which it creates in the hearts of multitudes? To the crowd, no longer satisfied with political and civic equality, it proposes equality of condition, without dreaming that social inequalities are born of those natural inequalities that man has always been powerless to change.
In order that the Socialism of the present day might assume so quickly that religious form which constitutes the secret of its power, it was necessary that it should appear at one of those rare moments of history when the old religions lose their might (men being weary of their gods), and exist only on sufferance, while awaiting the new faith that is to succeed them.
World in Decline
Civilizations have always had, as their basis, a certain small number of directing or controlling ideas. When these ideas, after gradually waning, have entirely lost their force, the civilizations which rest on them are doomed to change. We are to-day in the midst of one of those phases of transition so rare in the history of the world.
Socialism = Collectivism
What in effect is Socialism, speaking philosophically or, at least, what is its best-known form, Collectivism?
A collective belief has the immense advantage of uniting in a single bundle all the manifold individual desires, of making a nation act as a single individual would act.
Modern Socialism presents itself in a number of forms greatly differing in detail. By their general characteristics they rank themselves under the head of Collectivism. All would invariably have recourse to the State to repair the injustice of destiny, and to proceed to the re-distribution of wealth. Their fundamental propositions have at least the merit of extreme simplicity: confiscation by the State of capital, mines, and property, and the administration and re-distribution of the public wealth by an immense army of functionaries. The State, or the community, if you will - for the Collectivists now no longer use the word State - would manufacture everything, and permit no competition.
Perhaps the French Revolution, the culmination of all the doctrines of the eighteenth-century writers, represents the first serious attempt at reaction of Individualism, but in enfranchising the individual (at least theoretically), it has also isolated him.
Hitherto religion has succeeded in persuading the individual to sacrifice his personal interests to those of his fellows only to replace individual egoism by the collective egoism.
Only the strong can support isolation, and rely only on themselves; the weak are unable to do so. To isolation, and the absence of support they prefer servitude; even painful servitude.
From the philosophic point of view, then, Socialism is certainly a reaction of the collectivity against the individual: a return to the past. Individualism and Collectivism are, in their general essentials, two opposing forces, which tend, if not to annihilate, at least to paralyses one another. In this struggle between the generally conflicting interests of the individual and those of the aggregate lies the true philosophic problem of Socialism.
All that has gone to make the greatness of civilizations, sciences, arts, philosophies, religions, military power, etc., has been the work of individuals and not of aggregates. It is by favored individuals, the rare and supreme fruits of a few superior races, that the most important discoveries and advances, by which all humanity profits, have been realized. The peoples among whom Individualism is most highly developed are by this fact alone at the head of civilization, and to-day dominate the world.
Individualism vs. Collectivism
The crowd may become cruel, but it is above all altruistic, and is as easily led away to sacrifice itself as to destroy others. Dominated by the subconscious, it has a morality and a generosity which are always tending towards activity, whilst those of the individual generally remain contemplative, and most frequently are limited to his speeches. Reflection and reasoning most frequently lead to egoism; and egoism, so deeply rooted in the isolated individual, is a sentiment unknown to the crowd, simply because the crowd cannot reason and reflect. No religions, no empires could ever have been founded had the armies of their disciples been able to reason and reflect. Very few soldiers of such armies would have sacrificed their lives for the triumph of any cause.
Despite their momentary outbursts of violence, the masses have always shown themselves ready to suffer all things. The tyrants and fanatics of all ages have never had any difficulty in finding crowds ready to immolate themselves to defend whatever cause.
Socialism and Government
…Government is always a power absorbing everything, manufacturing everything, and controlling the least details of the citizen’s life. Socialism is only the extension of this concept. It would be a dictatorship; impersonal, but absolute.
By Individualism man is abandoned to himself; his initiative is carried to a maximum, and that of the State to a minimum. By Collectivism a man’s least actions are directed by the State, that is to say, by the aggregate; the individual possesses no initiative; all the acts of his life are mapped out.
Under the domination of the capitalist, the worker can at least dream of becoming, and sometimes does become, a capitalist in his turn. What dream could lie indulge in under the anonymous and brutally despotic tyranny of a leveling State which should foresee all his needs?…Would it not resemble rather the organization of the negroes on the old slave-plantations?
The idea of remedying the unforeseen consequences of the Revolution was bound to germinate, and the adversaries of Individualism have had no lack of sound pretexts for attacking it. It was easy for them to maintain that the social organism was of greater importance than the individual organism, and most often strongly opposed to it, and that the latter must give way before the former; that the weak and incapable have a right to be protected, and that the inequalities created by nature must be corrected by a new partition of wealth made by society itself. Thus was born the Socialism of the present day, the offspring of the ancient Socialism, and which, like the old, wishes to change the division of wealth by depriving the rich for the benefit of the poor.
The Middle Class
Socialistic tendencies to-day are far more prevalent among the middle classes than among the populace. They spread by simple contagion, and with remarkable rapidity. Philosophers, writers, and artists follow the movement with docility, and contribute actively to spread it. The theatre, books, pictures even, are becoming more and more steeped in this tearful and sentimental Socialism, which is entirely reminiscent of the humanitarianism of the controlling, classes at the time of the Revolution.
Social failures, misunderstood geniuses, lawyers without clients, writers without readers, doctors without patients, professors ill-paid, graduates without employment, clerks whose employers disdain them for their insufficiency, puffed-up university instructors — these are the natural adepts of Socialism. In reality they care very little for doctrines. Their dream is to create by violent means a society in which they will be the masters. Their cry of equality does not prevent them from having an intense scorn of the rabble who have not, as they have, learned out of books. They believe themselves greatly the superiors of the working man, and are really greatly his inferiors in their lack of practical sense and their exaggerated egotism. If they became masters their despotism would be no less than that of Marat, Saint-Just, or Robespierre, those excellent types of the unappreciated demi-savant. The hope of tyrannizing in one’s turn, when one has always been ignored, humiliated, thrust into the shade, must have created many disciples of Socialism.
Destroyers of Men
We can easily account for the ravages committed by these terrible destroyers of men when we know how to read their souls. Torquemada, Bossuet, Marat, Robespierre considered themselves to be gentle philanthropists, dreaming of nothing but the happiness of humanity. Philanthropists, whether social, religious, or political, all belong to the same family. They regard themselves in all good faith as the friends of humanity, and have always been its most pernicious enemies. They are more dangerous than wild beasts.
There is not a Socialist who does not constantly invoke the work of Karl Marx on Capital, but I very much doubt if one in ten thousand has even turned over the leaves of this indigestible volume. The obscurity of such works is, however, a fundamental condition of their success. Like the Bible for the Protestant clergy, they constitute a sort of prophetic conjuring book, which one has only to open at random to find - provided that one possesses faith - the solution of any question in the world. The indoctrinator, then, may be highly educated; that in no way saves him from being always obtuse and ingenuous, and most often an envious malcontent as well. Struck only by one side of a question, he remains in ignorance of the march of events and their recurrence. He is incapable of understanding anything of the complexity of social phenomena, of economic necessities, of atavistic influences, of the passions which really rule men. Having no guide but a bookish and rudimentary logic he readily believes that his ideas are about to transform the evolution of humanity and overcome destiny. The lucubrations of all these noisy doctrinaires are sufficiently vague, and their ideal of the future society sufficiently chimerical; but one thing is not at all chimerical, and that is their furious hatred of the actual state of society, and their burning desire to destroy it. If the revolutionaries of all ages have always shown themselves powerless to construct anything whatever, they have never found much difficulty in destroying.
The Plan Backfires
The Socialists imagine that they will easily carry the masses with them. They are wrong; they will very quickly discover that they will find among the masses, not their allies, but their most implacable enemies. The crowd may, doubtless, in its anger of a day, shatter, furiously, the social edifice; but, on the morrow, it will acclaim the first-come Caesar of whose plume it shall catch a glimpse, and who shall promise to restore to it what it has broken. The actual dominating principle of crowds, among nations having a long past, is not mobility, not fickleness, but fixity. Their destructive and revolutionary instincts are ephemeral; their conservative instincts are of an extreme tenacity.
How Little Changes
This slowness of the evolution of beliefs constitutes one of the most essential facts of history, and at the same time one of the facts the least explained by historians. Psychology alone permits us to determine its causes...man is especially guided in life by conceptions of two kinds - ancestral or sentimental concepts and acquired or intellectual concepts.
Evil of the Universities
If one were to review the parts played by the various classes in the dissolution of society among the Latin peoples, one would say that the indoctrinators and malcontents manufactured by the universities act above all by attacking ideals, and are, by reason of the intellectual anarchy they give rise to, one of the most corrosive factors of destruction; the middle classes help the downfall by their indifference, their egotism, their feeble will, and their absence of initiative or political perception; the lower classes act in a revolutionary manner by seeking to destroy, so soon as It shall be sufficiently undermined, the edifice which is tottering on its foundations.
The Anglo-Saxon peoples succeeded long ago in ridding themselves of our odious educational system, and it is in part because they have done so that they are now in the front rank of civilization, and have left the Latin nations so far behind them.
The principles of Anglo-Saxon education are as different from those of the Latin system of education as the principles which form the bases of instruction.
Needing Systems of Belief
Not one of the great beliefs that have ruled humanity was ever born of reason; and although each has bowed before the common law, which forces gods and empires, one by one, to decline and die, it was never reason that compassed their end.
Hitherto, humanity has not been able to exist without beliefs. When an old belief is on the point of death a new one immediately comes to replace it. The sentiment of religion, that is to say, the need of submitting oneself a faith of some kind, whether divine, political, or social, is one of our most imperious instincts.
The ancient faiths have lost their might, the altars of the old gods are deserted, the family becomes disunited, institutions crumble, hierarchies disappear; only the mirage of Socialism hovers over the heaped-up ruins. It spreads without encountering very serious detractors. While its disciples are ardent apostles, persuaded, as were formerly the disciples of Jesus, that they are the possessors of a new ideal, destined to regenerate the world, the timid defenders of the old state of things are but slightly persuaded of the worth of the cause they uphold.
The religious instinct, being a subconscious sentiment, naturally survives the disappearance of the belief which first maintained it. The apostles of Socialism, who anathematize or deny the old dogmas of Christianity, are none the less eminently religious persons. The nature of their faith has changed, but they are still under the sway of all the ancestral instincts of their race. The paradisaical society of their dreams is very like the celestial paradise of our fathers. In these ingenuous minds, entirely at the mercy of atavism, the old deism is objectified under the earthly form of a providential State, repairing all injustice, and possessing the illimitable power of the ancient gods. Man does sometimes change his idols, but how shall he shatter the hereditary matrices of thought that give them birth?
Latin vs. Anglo-Saxon Man
The modern man, and above all the of Latin race, is bound by his unconscious desires to the past, although his reason incessantly seeks to escape from its yoke. While awaiting the appearance of fixed beliefs, he possesses only those beliefs which, by the sole fact that they are not hereditary, are transient and momentary. They are generated spontaneously by the events of the day, like waves raised by the tempest. They are often vehement, but they are also ephemeral.
The social ideal of the Anglo-Saxons is very clearly defined, whether under the English monarchy or the republic of the United States. It consists in reducing the functions of the State to a minimum, and increasing the functions of the individual to a maximum, precisely the contrary of the Latin ideal.
It is only in our days, and above all since the Revolution, that Individualism, at least under certain forms, has at all developed among the Latin races.
The revolutionary ideal was to shatter the classes and corporations, to reduce every individual to a common type, and to absorb all these individuals, thus dissociated from their categories, into the guardianship of a strongly centralized State. Nothing could be more strongly opposed to the Anglo-Saxon Individualism, which favors the banding together of individuals, obtains everything by it, and confines the action of the State within narrow limits. The work of the Revolution was far less revolutionary than is generally believed. By exaggerating the absorption and centralization of the State it only continued in a Latin tradition deeply rooted through centuries of monarchy, and followed by all governments alike. By dissolving the industrial, political, religious, and other corporations, it has made this absorption and centralization still more complete, and, moreover, by so doing, has obeyed the inspirations of all the philosophers of the period.
The strength of the Anglo-Saxons consists in this: that while accepting the influence of the past they understand how to escape its tyranny in the necessary degree. The weakness of the Latins, on the contrary, is that they desire entirely to reject the influence of the past, and entirely to rebuild, without ceasing, all their institutions, beliefs, and laws. For this sole reason they have been living, for a century in a state of revolution and incessant upheavals, from which they do not appear to be emerging.
The Englishman acting in the character of a private person is extremely conscientious, extremely honest, and respects his engagements in general; but English statesmen, acting in the name of the collective interests of England, are of quite another complexion.
The Latins are guided above all by individual egoism; the Anglo-Saxons by collective egoism.
Some Latin nations live under monarchies, some under republics, but under these constitutions, so nominally opposed, the political role of the State and the individual remains the same, and represents the invariable ideal of the race. Be the nominal government of a Latin people what it may, the action of the State will always be preponderant, and that of the private person very small Among the Anglo-Saxons the same constitution, republic or monarchy, realizes absolutely the opposite of the Latin ideal. Instead of being carried to a maximum, the role of the State is with them reduced to a minimum, while the political or social part reserved for private initiative reaches, on the contrary, a maximum.
The most eminent of English Socialist writers (Herbert Spencer, for example), are partisans of the liberty of the citizen and the limitation of the role of the State. The Socialist writers of Latin race profess, on the contrary, a perfect disdain of liberty, and invariably clamor for extended action on the part of the State, and the utmost State regulation.
One must run through the works of all the theorists of Latin race - those of August Comte, for example - in order to see to what extent the disdain of liberty and the desire to be governed may be carried.
Socialism and Psychosis
Mental pathologists of the present day are generally of opinion that the sectaries of the vanguard of Socialism belong to a criminal type, to the type they call criminal born.
They are ingenuous mystics, absolutely incapable of reasoning, and possessed by a religious sentiment which invades every corner of their understanding. They are certainly dangerous enough, and a society which does not desire to be destroyed by them must eliminate them carefully from its midst; but their mental state is a matter for the pathologist, not for the criminologist.
History is full of their exploits; for they constitute a psychologic species which has existed in every age.
“Insane persons and fanatics with altruistic tendencies have arisen in all ages,” writes Lombroso, “even in savage times, but then they draw their aliment from religious. Later, they throw themselves into the political factions and anti-monarchical conspiracies of the period. First crusaders; then rebels; then knights-errant; then martyrs of faith or atheism. “In our days, and more especially among the Latin races, when one of these altruist fanatics arises he can only find food for his passions in the social and economic regions.”
Although they have set out from different principles, in which may be found the fundamental characteristics of the two races, both German Socialists and Latin Socialists arrive exactly at the same conclusions - reconstruct society by making the State absorb it. The first desire to effect this reconstruction in the name of evolution, of which, they maintain, it is the consequence…Both demand the destruction of the modern State; but both would reconstruct it, immediately, under another name, with an administration which would differ from the modern State only in its possession of more extensive powers.
United States Then
We have only to cross the Atlantic in order to find these qualities yet further developed among the Anglo-Saxons of America, in which country, above all others, no one ever counts on the State. It would never enter an American’s mind to require the State to establish railways, ports, universities, etc. Private enterprise alone suffices for all such matters, and is shown above all, and to a most remarkable degree, in the construction of the immense railroads which enmesh the great Republic. Nothing could better show the gulf which separates the Latin from the Anglo-Saxon mind in matters of enterprise and independence.
United States Now
…it is more especially in the United States that the Socialists possess an immense army of disciples; an army which grows every day more numerous and more menacing, recruited from the increasing flood of immigrants of foreign blood, without resources, without energy, and without adaptability to the conditions of existence in their new country, who to-day form an immense social drain.
The Question of Race
Civilized man cannot live without discipline. This discipline may be internal - that is to say, in the man himself. It may be external, or outside the man himself; and in that case, necessarily, enforced by others. The Anglo-Saxon, having, amongst his hereditary characteristics, which are confirmed by his education, this internal discipline, is able to direct and control himself, and has no need of the direction of the State. The man of Latin race, having, through his heredity and his education, very little internal discipline, requires an external discipline. This is imposed on him by the State, and it is for this reason that he is imprisoned in a network of regulations, which are innumerable, because they have to direct him in all the circumstances of his life.
The principle of Anglo-Saxon education is this: the child goes through his school life not to be disciplined by others, but to learn to make use of his own independence. He has to discipline himself, and by this means acquire self-control, from which self-government is derived. The young Englishman may possibly leave college knowing little of Greek, Latin, or theoretical science; but he leaves it a man, able to guide himself in life, and to rely on himself alone.
The Latin system of education has a precisely contrary object. Its dream is to crush the initiative, independence, and will of the pupil by severe and minute regulations. His only duty is to learn, to recite, to obey.
After seven or eight years of this galley discipline all traces of initiative and will-power are eradicated. Then, when the young man is left to himself, how will he be able to do what he has never learnt to conduct himself? Can we be astonished that the Latin peoples understand so ill how to govern themselves, and show themselves so incapable in the commercial and industrial struggles that the modern development of the world has engendered? Is it not natural that Socialism, which will merely multiply the fetters with which the State envelopes them, should be cordially welcomed by all those who have been so well prepared for servitude by their college training?
The study of Socialism among the Anglo-Saxons has shown us that among these peoples all Socialistic theories must clash with racial characteristics which will render their development impossible. We are about to show that among the Latin peoples, on the contrary, Socialism is the result of previous evolution, of a system of government to which they have, unconsciously, for a longtime submitted, and whose development they call for more and more loudly.
…when I speak of the Latin peoples, I speak of the peoples which may, perhaps, have no Latin elements in their blood, and which greatly differ from one another, but which for centuries and centuries have been subjected to the yoke of the Latin ideals. They are Latin by sentiment, in their institutions, their literature, their beliefs, and their arts, and their education continues to maintain the Latin ideals among them.
After the Renascence the image of Rome inscribed itself in ineffaceable characters on the face of France.... For three centuries French civilization appeared nothing but a patchwork of Roman civilization - M. Hanotaux
Words and dialectic have always been the most terrible enemies of the Latin peoples. “The French,” said von Moltke, “always take words for facts.” This is equally true of the other Latin peoples.
An Anglo-Saxon complies with facts and necessities, never throws the responsibility for what happens to him on the Government, and cares very little for the obvious indications of logic. He believes in experience, and knows that men are not conducted by reason.
A Latin always deduces all from logic, and reconstructs societies from bottom to top on plans traced by the light of reason. Such was the dream of Rousseau, and of all the writers of his century. The Revolution merely applied their doctrines, and so far no amount of deception has shaken the power of such illusions.
The system of education imposed on the young of the Latin nations is gradually destroying what remains of these qualities. Persistent will-power, perseverance, and enterprise are vanishing one by one, and, above all, that self-control is vanishing which allows a man to dispense with a master.
Degeneration of France
France is practicing Darwinism the wrong way about. She is relying, for the recruiting of her population, on the selection of inferior types. The more wealthy classes, who by means of work and intelligence have arrived at a certain degree of ease, and by this very fact exhibit a certain intellectual superiority, are precisely those who are eliminating themselves by a voluntary sterility. On the other hand, imprudence, unintelligence, idleness, insanity, and misery intellectual and material, are prolific, and are responsible for a great proportion of the national population - M. Fouillée
Thus we see that three conceptions - those of religion, politics, and education - have contributed to the formation of the Latin mind.
Without suddenly breaking with the beliefs of the past, the Anglo-Saxons have been able to create a broader religion, able to adapt itself to every modern necessity. All too inconvenient dogmas have been softened down, have taken a symbolic character, a mythological value. Religion has thus been able to exist on good terms with science; at most it is not a declared enemy which has to be contended with. The Catholic dogma of the Latins, on the other hand, has preserved its rigid, absolute, intolerant form, which was useful, perhaps, of old, but which to-day is extremely pernicious. It remains what it was five hundred years ago. Without it is no salvation. It attempts to impose the most ridiculous historical absurdities on its faithful. No conciliation is possible; one must submit to it or fight it.
Victims of their hereditary conceptions, the Latin nations turn towards Socialism, which promises to think and act for them, but in coming under its rule they will only be submitting to new masters, and will thus still further retard the acquisition of the qualities they lack
Utopia or Dystopia?
The preceding chapters have sufficiently shown that Socialism, under the form of State Socialism, very nearly akin to Collectivism, is in France the culmination of a long past, the ultimate consequence of institutions already very old. Far from deserving to be considered revolutionary, modern Collectivism should be regarded as a highly retrograde doctrine, and its disciples as timid reactionaries, limiting themselves to developing the most ancient and least elevated of the Latin traditions. They announce uproariously, every day, the approaching triumph of their Utopias. But we were the victims of them long before they were born.