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The Psychology of Revolution

Gustave Le Bon


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Description

Chapters include: Scientific And Political Revolutions; Religious Revolutions; The Action Of Governments In Revolutions; The Part Played By The People In Revolutions; Individual Variations Of Character In Time Of Revolution; The Mystic Mentality And The Jacobin Mentality; The Revolutionary And Criminal Mentalities; The Psychology OF Revolutionary Crowds; The Psychology Of The Revolutionary Assemblies; The Opinions Of Historians Concerning The French Revolution; The Psychological Foundations Of The Ancien Regime; Mental Anarchy At The Time Of The Revolution And The Influence Attributed To The Philosophers, and more.

This book has 240 pages in the PDF version. This translation by Bernard Miall was originally published in 1913.

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Excerpt from 'The Psychology of Revolution'

1. Classification of Revolutions.

We generally apply the term revolution to sudden political changes, but the expression may be employed to denote all sudden transformations, or transformations apparently sudden, whether of beliefs, ideas, or doctrines. We have considered elsewhere the part played by the rational, affective, and mystic factors in the genesis of the opinions and beliefs which determine conduct. We need not therefore return to the subject here.

A revolution may finally become a belief, but it often commences under the action of perfectly rational motives: the suppression of crying abuses, of a detested despotic government, or an unpopular sovereign, etc.

Although the origin of a revolution may be perfectly rational, we must not forget that the reasons invoked in preparing for it do not influence the crowd until they have been transformed into sentiments. Rational logic can point to the abuses to be destroyed, but to move the multitude its hopes must be awakened. This can only be effected by the action of the affective and mystic elements which give man the power to act. At the time of the French Revolution, for example, rational logic, in the hands of the philosophers, demonstrated the inconveniences of the ancien regime, and excited the desire to change it. Mystic logic inspired belief in the virtues of a society created in all its members according to certain principles. Affective logic unchained the passions confined by the bonds of ages and led to the worst excesses. Collective logic ruled the clubs and the Assemblies and impelled their members to actions which neither rational nor affective nor mystic logic would ever have caused them to commit.

Whatever its origin, a revolution is not productive of results until it has sunk into the soul of the multitude. Then events acquire special forms resulting from the peculiar psychology of crowds. Popular movements for this reason have characteristics so pronounced that the description of one will enable us to comprehend the others.

The multitude is, therefore, the agent of a revolution; but not its point of departure. The crowd represents an amorphous being which can do nothing, and will nothing, without ahead to lead it. It will quickly exceed the impulse once received, but it never creates it.

The sudden political revolutions which strike the historian most forcibly are often the least important. The great revolutions are those of manners and thought. Changing the name of a government does not transform the mentality of a people. To overthrow the institutions of a people is not to re-shape its soul.

The true revolutions, those which transform the destinies of the peoples, are most frequently accomplished so slowly that the historians can hardly point to their beginnings. The term evolution is, therefore, far more appropriate than revolution.

The various elements we have enumerated as entering into the genesis of the majority of revolutions will not suffice to classify them. Considering only the designed object, we will divide them into scientific revolutions, political revolutions, and religious revolutions.

2. Scientific Revolutions.

Scientific revolutions are by far the most important. Although they attract but little attention, they are often fraught with remote consequences, such as are not engendered by political revolutions. We will therefore put them first, although we cannot study them here.

For instance, if our conceptions of the universe have profoundly changed since the time of the Revolution, it is because astronomical discoveries and the application of experimental methods have revolutionised them, by demonstrating that phenomena, instead of being conditioned by the caprices of the gods, are ruled by invariable laws.

Such revolutions are fittingly spoken of as evolution, on account of their slowness. But there are others which, although of the same order, deserve the name of revolution by reason of their rapidity: we his instance the theories of Darwin, overthrowing the whole science of biology in a few years; the discoveries of Pasteur, which revolutionised medicine during the lifetime of their author; and the theory of the dissociation of matter, proving that the atom, formerly supposed to be eternal, is not immune from the laws which condemn all the elements of the universe to decline and perish.

These scientific revolutions in the domain of ideas are purely intellectual. Our sentiments and beliefs do not affect them. Men submit to them without discussing them. Their results being controllable by experience, they escape all criticism.

3. Political Revolutions.

Beneath and very remote from these scientific revolutions, which generate the progress of civilisations, are the religious and political revolutions, which have no kinship with them. While scientific revolutions derive solely from rational elements, political and religious beliefs are sustained almost exclusively by affective and mystic factors. Reason plays only a feeble part in their genesis. I insisted at some length in my book Opinions and Beliefs on the affective and mystic origin of beliefs, showing that a political or religious belief constitutes an act of faith elaborated in unconsciousness, over which, in spite of all appearances, reason has no hold. I also showed that belief often reaches such a degree of intensity that nothing can be opposed to it. The man hypnotised by his faith becomes an Apostle, ready to sacrifice his interests, his happiness, and even his life for the triumph of his faith. The absurdity of his belief matters little; for him it is a burning reality. Certitudes of mystic origin possess the marvellous power of entire domination over thought, and can only be affected by time.

By the very fact that it is regarded as an absolute truth a belief necessarily becomes intolerant. This explains the violence, hatred, and persecution which were the habitual accompaniments of the great political and religious revolutions, notably of the Reformation and the French Revolution.

Certain periods of French history remain incomprehensible if we forget the affective and mystic origin of beliefs, their necessary intolerance, the impossibility of reconciling them when they come into mutual contact, and, finally, the power conferred by mystic beliefs upon the sentiments which place themselves at their service.

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