The Psychology of Socialism

Book 2: Socialism as a Belief
Chapter 2: Tradition as a Factor of Civilisation -- The Limits of Variability of the Ancestral Soul

Gustave Le Bon

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1. The Influence of tradition in the life of nations :-Difficulty of shaking off the yoke of tradition -- The rarity of true freethinkers -- Difficulty of establishing the clearest truths -- Origins of our everyday opinions -Slight influence of reason -- Influence of traditions in institutions, beliefs, and arts-Artists unable to shake off the influences of the past. 2. The Limits of variability of the ancestral soul: --The various elements of which the soul bequeathed us by our ancestors is composed - Its heterogeneous elements -- How such arise. 3. The conflict between traditional beliefs and modern necessities - The modern instability of opinion :-How the nations are enabled to shake off the yoke of tradition--The impossibility of doing so suddenly--The tendency of the Latin races to reject the influence of the past entirely, and categorically to rebuild their institutions and laws--The struggle between their traditions and the needs of the present moment- Transitory and momentary beliefs are substituted for permanent beliefs -- Fickleness, violence, and influence of opinionsVarious examples -- Public opinion dictates their decrees to judges, and wars and alliances to governments-The influence of the press and the secret power of financiers--The necessity of a universally accepted belief -- Socialism is impotent to play this part.


WE may abjure the fetters of tradition that bind us; but how few, at any period, is the number of those-artists, thinkers, or philosophers-capable of shaking off the yoke ! It is given to very few to disengage themselves in any degree from the ties of the past. The persons who call themselves freethinkers may be counted perhaps by millions ; in reality, there are

(74) scarcely a few dozen to an epoch. The clearest scientific truths often establish themselves only with the greatest difficulty, and even when they are so established it is by the reputations of those that uphold them,[1] rather than by demonstration. The doctors for a whole century denied the phenomena of magnetism, although they might observe them everywhere, until a scientist of great prestige affirmed that these phenomena were real.

In everyday parlance the word " freethinker " is merely a synonym for "anti-clerical." The provincial apothecary, who passes for a freethinker because he does not go to mass, and persecutes the parish priest by laughing at his dogmas, is, at the bottom, as little of a freethinker as the priest. They belong to the same psychological family, and are equally guided by the thoughts of the dead.

We must be able to study, in detail, the everyday opinions which we form on everything, to see how true is the preceding theory.

These opinions, which we suppose to be so free, are imposed on us by our surroundings, by books, by journals ; and according to our hereditary traditions we accept or reject them en bloc, and most often reason plays no part whatever in this acceptance or refusal.

(75) Reason is invoked often enough, but in reality it plays as small a part in the formation of our opinions as in the determination of our actions. To discover the principal sources of our ideas we must go to heredity for our fundamental opinions, and to suggestion for our secondary opinions, and it is for this reason that individuals of the same profession in the different social classes are so much alike. Living in the same environment, incessantly mouthing the same words, the same phrases, the same ideas, they finally end by possessing ideas as banal as identical.

In matters of institutions, beliefs, arts, or of any elements whatever of civilisation, we are always heavily weighed upon by our surroundings, and above all by the past. If we do riot as a rule perceive this to be so it is because our facility in giving new names to old things deludes us into believing that in changing these words we have also changed the things they represent.

To make the weight of ancestral influences clearly sensible, we must take some well-defined element of civilisation -for instance, the arts. The weight of the past appears clearly in these, and also the struggle between tradition and the modern ideas. When an artist imagines he is shaking off the burden of the past, he is in reality only returning to more ancient forms, or altering the most necessary elements of his art ; replacing, for example, one colour by another, the pink of the face by green, or abandoning himself to all those fantasies, the spectacle of which we have been afforded by our recent annual exhibitions. But even in his incoherent ramblings the artist is only confirming his impotence to throw off the yoke of tradition. A penetrating writer, Daniel Lesueur, has a page on these atavistic influences, which I reproduce here, because it very clearly develops the preceding remarks :-


"Powerlessness to create outside the limits of everyday things. Tyranny of the memory, which deceives the artist in every attempt, and sends him straying back to the ancient altars, to the forms that bygone generations adored.

" The less audacious resign themselves to this servitude of inspiration, the prisoner of ancient dreams. With a humble and fervent brush, with a chisel that has never trembled with the mystic fear of an unknown ideal, they represent the visions and the symbols, they eternise the legends, they set up the gods that no longer have worship, that no longer give oracles, and that every new 1 incarnation brings a little closer to the earth.

"Again, by a plainly inevitable aberration, certain minds, impatient of the yoke, exasperated by the haunting of this past without which all becomes petrified -- in art more than in any other branch of human evolution certain artists, finally exasperated, have sought to react by denying this too rigid reign of the traditions of splendour, by insulting the conventional beauty, the classic perfection, and the ideals of the academics and schools.

"How shall we describe the work of our modern artists, masters of technique, but destitute of inspiration, who imagine themselves to produce original work by calmly parodying the sincere awkwardness and the anguished uncertainties of sublime initiators ?

"They, too, are copyists, but they are going in the wrong direction. These revolutionaries have no more true independence than those who have submitted to the traditional. On them, as on the latter, weighs the formidable yoke of the past.

"Symbolists by intention, in literature as in painting, they symbolise nothing but vanished dreams and dead emotions.


"This malady of exasperated Impotence reaches a crisis only in the case of poets, painters, and sculptors. The architects have up to the present escaped the fever. They do not appear to suffer in any way from their frightful 1 incapacity to conceive of anything 1 outside of the forms which the centuries have established. Theirs is a placid impotence, a serene nullity. They raise tip their neo-Grecian palaces, their Renaissance railway stations, and their pseudo-Gothic villas with the most touching unconsciousness."


Such is the influence of the past ; and we must bear it always in mind, if we would understand the evolution of all the elements of a civilisation : how our institutions, our beliefs, and our arts form and develop themselves, and the enormous influence which the bygone centuries exert over their growth. The modern man has made the most conscientious efforts to escape from the Past. Our great Revolution thought to cast it off for ever. But how vain are such attempts! A people may be conquered, enslaved, annihilated; but where is the power shall change its soul?

But this hereditary soul, from whose influence it is so difficult to escape, has taken centuries to form itself. Many different elements have found place in it, and under the influence of certain exciting causes the most hidden of these elements may come to the surface. A complete change of environment may develop in us germs that are at present dormant. Hence those which I have spoken in possibilities of character of which in another work, and which certain circumstances may bring to light. Thus it is that the peaceable nature of

(78) a chef de bureau, a magistrate, or a shopkeeper, may contain a Robespierre, a Marat, a Fouquier-Tinville, and certain exciting elements will bring these latent personalities to the front. Then we see Government clerks shooting hostages, artists ordering the destruction of monuments, and after the crisis, having come to themselves again, asking themselves of what aberration they have been the victims. The bourgeois of the Convention, having returned, after the Terror, to their peaceful occupation as notary, professor, magistrate, or advocate, more than once asked themselves, in stupefaction, how they could have followed such bloody instincts, and immolated so many victims. It is not without danger that one disturbs the sediment deposited by our ancestors in the depths of our beings. We do not know what will arise from it : whether the soul of a hero or the soul of a bandit.



Thanks to those few original minds to which every period gives birth, every civilisation escapes, little by little, from the fetters of tradition ; very slowly, it is true, because such minds are rare. This double necessity of fixity and variability is the fundamental condition of the birth and development of societies. A civilisation only becomes established when it creates a tradition, and it progresses only when it succeeds in modifying this tradition a little in each generation. If it does not so modify tradition it does not progress ; like China, it remains stationary. If it attempts to modify it too quickly it loses all fixity ; it becomes disintegrated, and is quickly doomed to disappear. The strength of the Anglo-Saxons consists in this : that while accepting the

(79) 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 great danger of the present is that we have scarcely any common beliefs. Collective and identical interests are becoming further and further supplanted by dissimilar and particular interests. Our institutions, our laws, our arts, our education, have been established on beliefs which are crumbling every day, and which science and philosophy cannot replace ; and of old it was never their part to do so.

We certainly have riot escaped from the influence of the past, since man cannot avoid that influence ; but we no longer believe in the principles on which our entire social edifice is built. There is a perpetual discord between our hereditary sentiments and the ideas of the present day. In morals, in religion, in politics, there is no recognised authority as there used to be of old, and no one can hope nowadays to enforce any one aim on these essential things. It follows that the Governments instead of directing opinion, are obliged to submit to it, and to obey its incessant fluctuations.

The modern man, and above all he 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

(80) vehement, but they are also ephemeral. Whatever circumstances may give rise to them, they are propagated by contagion and imitation. By reason of the neurotic condition of certain peoples to-day, the slightest cause provokes excessive sentiments. Explosions of hate, fury, indignation, enthusiasm, thunder forth at the most trivial event. A few soldiers are surprised by the Chinese in Langson ; an explosion of fury overthrows the Government in a few hours. A village, hidden away in a corner of Europe, is destroyed by floods ; there follows an explosion of national sympathy, which displays itself in subscriptions, charity bazaars, and what not, and makes us send to a distance sums of money which we need only too much to alleviate our own misery. Public opinion no longer knows anything but extreme sentiment or profound indifference. It is terribly feminine, and, like woman, has no control over its reflex movements. it veers without ceasing to every wind of external circumstance.

This extreme mobility of sentiments which are no longer directed by any fundamental belief renders them highly dangerous. In default of authority deceased, public opinion becomes more and more the master of all things, and, as it has at its service an all-powerful press to excite it or follow it, the rôle of the Government becomes day by day more difficult, and the policy of statesmen more vacillating. We may discover many useful qualities in the popular mind, hut never the thought of a Richelieu, nor even the lucid views of a modest diplomatist having some consistency in his ideas and conduct.

This power of public opinion, so great, and so fluctuating, extends not only to politics, but to all the elements of civilisation. It dictates to artists their works, to judges their decrees, to governments their conduct.

(81) One of the most curious examples of its invasion of the courts, formerly presided over by the firmest characters, is afforded by the very instructive case of Dr. Laporte. It will remain an example to be cited in all the treatises of psychology.

He was called out at night to an extremely difficult accouchement. Not having any of the necessary instruments at hand, and seeing hat the patient was at the point of death, the doctor made use of an instrument of iron borrowed from a workman in the neighbourhood, which differed from the classic instrument only in insignificant details. But as the makeshift instrument did not come out of a surgeon's case (a mysterious thing, enjoying a certain prestige) the gossips of the neighbourhood immediately declared that the surgeon was an ignorant fool and a butcher. They stirred up all the neighbours by their clamouring ; the rumour spread, the papers recorded the matter ; public opinion waxed indignant; a magistrate was found to commit the unfortunate doctor to prison ; then a tribunal, to condemn him to a new imprisonment, after a long remand. But in the meantime the affair was taken in hand by eminent specialists, who entirely reversed the opinion of the public, and in a few weeks the murderer had become a martyr. The case was carried to the Court of Appeal, and the magistrates, continuing to follow the opinion of the public, this tune acquitted the accused.

The dangerous character of this influence of the tides of popular opinion consists in the fact that they act unconsciously on our ideas, and modify them without our suspecting it. The magistrates who condemned Laporte, as well as those who acquitted him? certainly obeyed public opinion without realizing the tact; Their subconsciousness became transformed in order to follow it, and their reason only served them to find justifications

(82) for the reversal of judgment, which really took place, unknown to themselves, in their own minds.

These popular movements, so characteristic of the present hour, deprive all governments of all stability in their conduct. Public opinion decrees alliances : the Franco- Russian , for example, which arose from an explosion of national enthusiasm. It also declares war : for example, the Spanish-American war, which arose from a movement created by journalists and financiers.

An American writer, Mr. Godkin, in his recent book, Unforeseen Tendencies of Democracy, denounces the lamentable part which the American papers play in respect of public opinion, most of them being in the pay of advertisers and speculators. A prospective war, he says, will always be favoured by the journals, simply because the new soldiers, victorious or defeated, will enormously increase their sales. The book was written before the war in Cuba, which event has shown how just were the author's previsions. The journals direct the opinion of United States, but a few financiers direct the journals from their office chairs. Their power is more evil than that of the worst tyrants, for it is anonymous, and it is guided by their sole personal interest, and not that of their country. One of the great problems of the future will be to find the means of escaping from the sovereign and demoralising power of the cosmopolitan financiers, who in many countries are tending more and more to become, indirectly, the masters of public opinion, and consequently of governments. An American paper, the Evening Post, recently remarked that although all other influences have little or no effect on popular movements, the power of the daily press has grown immeasurably : a power the more to be feared because it is without limit, without responsibility, without control, and is exercised by anonymous and absolute individuals. The two

(83) most influential "public organs " of the United States, those that obliged the public authorities to declare war, are directed the one by an ex-cab-driver, and the other by a very young man who has inherited millions. Their opinion, observes the American critic, has more influence over the manner in which the nation employs its army, its navy, its credit, and its traditions, than have all the statesmen, philosophers, and professors of the country.

Here again we discover one of the great desiderata of the present hour ; we see the necessity of discovering some belief, universally accepted, which shall replace those that have hitherto ruled the world.

We may sum up this and the preceding chapter by saying that civilisations have always reposed on a certain small number of beliefs, very slow to establish themselves and very slow to disappear ; that a belief does not become accepted, or at least does not sufficiently penetrate the nature to become a factor of conduct, until it has more or less attached itself to previous beliefs ; that modern man possesses by inheritance the beliefs on which his institutions and his moral ideas are still based, but that these beliefs are to-day in perpetual conflict with his reason. From this he is reduced to seeking for elaborate new dogmas which shall be sufficiently attached to the old beliefs, and shall yet conform with his present ideas. In this conflict between the past and the present, that is, between our sub-conscious nature and our self-conscious reason, are to be found the causes of the present anarchy of minds.

Will Socialism be the new religion which shall come to substitute itself for the old beliefs ? It lacks one factor of success ; the magic power of creating a future life, hitherto the principal strength of the great religions which have conquered the world and have endured. All

(84) the promises of happiness given by Socialism must be realised here on earth. Now the realisation of such promises will clash fatally with the economic and psychologic necessities over which man has no power, and therefore the hour of the advent of Socialism will undoubtedly be the hour of its decline. Socialism may triumph for an instant, as the humanitarian ideas of the Revolution triumphed, but it will quickly perish in bloody cataclysms, for the soul of a nation is not stirred up in vain. It will constitute one of those ephemeral religions of which the same century sees the birth and the death, and which are only of use in preparing or renewing other religions better adapted to human nature and to the manifold necessities to whose laws all societies are doomed to submit. It is in considering Socialism as an agent of dissolution, destined to prepare the advent of new dogmas, that the future will perhaps judge the part played by Socialism to have been not absolutely baneful.


  1. There is no error that prestige cannot palm off as a truth. Thirty years ago the Academy of Sciences-in which one would suppose the critical spirit to be found in its highest degree--published, as authentic, several hundreds of letters supposed to be written by Newton, Pascal, Galileo, Cassini, &c., which, as a matter of fact, were one and all fabricated by an almost illiterate forger. They teemed with vulgarities and errors, but the prestige of their supposed authors, and of the illustrious scientist who brought them to light, made everybody accept them. The majority of the academicians, including the permanent secretary, had no doubts of the authenticity of these documents until the day when the forger admitted his guilt. When once their prestige had vanished the style of the letters, which at first was considered marvellous, and fully worthy of their supposed authors, was declared by everybody to be wretched in the extreme.

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