Gustave Le Bon (1841–1931) was a French medical doctor and psychologist who had a major impact on the study of crowd psychology and mass political behavior. Le Bon was a prolific writer and a popular fixture in French intellectual society in the early years of the twentieth century. His work defends an elitist view on the behavior of social classes and non-European societies. In his book La psychologie desfoules (The Crowd), published in 1895, Le Bon was very critical of the tendency toward democratization and mass behavior in contemporary societies. He argued that an individual could act rationally, but that unconscious powers took over when the individual was submerged in a crowd or another form of collectivity. In his view, crowds led to a regression toward primary instincts, emotional behavior, and group hysteria. This rejection of mass behavior, which during Le Bon’s time referred mainly to the emerging labor movement, was not uncommon among conservative intellectuals in western Europe.
Le Bon’s theories were highly influential. Well-known Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud further developed the idea that the rational force of the individual could be undermined by subconscious powers and emotions that emerge when the individual is submerged in a mass. Le Bon’s work was quoted widely in the field of mass behavior until the 1950s. It was assumed that mass gatherings constituted a major threat to democratic and social stability, and authors also stressed that crowds could easily be manipulated by movement leaders or agitators. After the 1950s, however, a new, more positive paradigm for the study of collective behavior emerged.
Le Bon went on to apply his ideas in his book The Psychology of Socialism (1898), arguing that socialism amounts to a rebellion against the natural and rational order of society. According to his view, socialist movements are inspired by a feeling of resentment among members of the labor class, as they are envious of the riches enjoyed by the well-off in society. This group envy leads to an attack on the legitimate power position of the social and intellectual elite and on the social order the elite embodies. Le Bon further suggested that maintaining civilization and protecting social values were mostly the work of this ruling elite.
Le Bon was widely quoted by various authoritarian authors and movements during the 1930s. He also tried to apply his insights in a comparative manner, examining the national psychological characteristics of nations in Europe, Asia, and the Arabic world.
- Le Bon, Gustave. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. New Brunswick, N.J.:Transaction, 1995.
- Moscovici, Serge. The Age of the Crowd: A Historical Treatise on Mass Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
- Widener, Alice, ed. Gustave Le Bon: The Man and His Works. Indianapolis: Liberty, 1979.
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