The Psychology of Socialism

Book 2: Socialism as a Belief
Chapter 3: The Evolution of Socialism Towards a Religious Form

Gustave Le Bon

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I. The present tendency of Socialism to substitute itself for the old beliefs: The religious evolution of Socialism-The elements of success in Socialistic concepts considered as religious beliefs able to attach themselves to anterior beliefs-The sentiment of religion is an ineradicable instinct--Man aspires not to liberty of thought but to slavery of thought--The new doctrine responds to needs and hopes of the present hour-The powerlessness of those who defend the old dogmas--The small scientific value of the dogmas of Socialism cannot hinder their propagation--The great religious beliefs which have swayed humanity were never born of reason. 2. The propogation of the belief. Its apostles: -- The part of apostles in establishing beliefs-Their means of persuasion-The important part played in the world by visionaries-The religious spirit of the apostles of Socialism-- Inaccessible to all reasoning, they experience an imperious need to propagate their faith--Their exaltation, their devotion, their simplicism, and their passion for destruction-Their psychology is that of the apostles of all times-Bossuet and the Dragonnades, Torquemada and Robespierre-The baneful influence of philanthropists-Why the apostles of Socialism must not be confounded with ordinary madmen and criminals -- How the apostles of Socialism receive additional recruits from the various classes of degenerates. 3. The propagation of beliefs among the masses: -- All political, social, or religious concepts finally establish their roots in the masses--The nature of the masses or of the crowd-It is never directed by personal interest-The collective interests of the race arc manifested by the crowd-By the crowd are accomplished such works of general interest as demand a blind devotion-The apparent violence and real conservatism of crowds--They are the slaves of fixity, and of mobility-Why Socialism will not attract them for long.


 HAVING considered the part played by our beliefs, and the distant foundations of those beliefs, we are prepared to understand the religious form of evolu-

(88) the cause they uphold. Almost their only method of defence is painfully to mumble ancient economic or theological formulae, which were decrepit long ago, and have now lost all their virtue. They are like so many mummies trying to struggle in spite of their windings. In a notice of a meeting of the Academy, M. Léon Say called attention to the astonishing mediocrity of the works destined to oppose Socialism, despite the importance of the recompense offered. Not even the defenders of paganism showed themselves more powerless when a new god came out of the plains of Galilee, struck the last blows at the old tottering divinities, and gathered their heritage.

Certainly the new beliefs are not based on logic, but what beliefs have, since the beginning of the world, ever been so based ? Nevertheless the greater number have presided over the blossoming of brilliant civilisations. The irrational that endures becomes the rational, and man ends always by accommodating himself to it. Societies are founded on desires, beliefs, and wants ; that is to say, on sentiments, and never on reasons or even on probabilities. These sentiments are no doubt evolved according to some hidden logic, but no thinker has ever yet discovered its laws.

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. There is one quality that beliefs[1]

(89) possess in a high degree, while reason has never possessed it; the splendid power to bind together things that have no relation to one another, to transform the most glaring errors into glittering truths ; absolutely to enslave the soul, to seduce the heart, and finally to transform civilisations and empires. Beliefs are not the slaves of logic - they are the queens of history.

Given the seductive side of these new dogma ; their extreme simplicity, which renders them accessible to every mind ; the present hatred of the populace for the wrongful possessors of wealth and power; the absolute power of changing their political institutions which the populace enjoy, thanks to universal suffrage ; given, 1 say, such remarkably favourable conditions of propagation, we may well inquire why the progress of the new doctrines is relatively so slow, and what are the mysterious forces that control their advance. The explanation we have given of the origins of our beliefs and of the slowness of their transformations will give us the answer to this question.


The present hour affords us the spectacle of the elaboration of the Socialist religion. We are able to study the actions of its apostles and of all the important factors

(90) whose parts I have elsewhere shown-illusions, words and formulae, affirmation, repetition, prestige, and contagion.

Perhaps it is above all through its apostles that Socialism may be able to triumph for a moment. Only these enthusiasts possess the zeal indispensable to create a faith, the magic power which has at several periods transformed the world. They are skilled in the art of persuasion ; an art simple at once and subtle, whose actual laws no book has ever taught. They know that the crowd has a horror of doubt ; that they know none but extreme sentiments ; energetic affirmation, energetic denial, intense love, or violent hatred; and they know how to evoke these sentiments, and how to develop them.

They need not, necessarily, be very numerous In order to accomplish their task. Witness the small number of zealots who sufficed to provoke an event so colossal as the Crusades ; an event perhaps more marvellous than the founding of a religion, since many millions of men were moved to leave all behind and to fling themselves upon the East, and to recommence their task over and over again, in spite of all reverses and terrible privations.

Whatever beliefs have once reigned in the world whether Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam, or merely some political theory, such as was predominant at the time of the Revolution -they have only been propagated by the efforts of that particular class of converts we call apostles. Hypnotised by the belief that has conquered them, they are ready for every sacrifice that may propagate it, and finally have no object in life but to establish its empire. They are demi-halluncinés, and their study is the especial province of mental pathology, but they have always played a stupendous part In the history of the world.

They are recruited, for the most part, from those who

(91) possess the instinct of religion ; an instinct of which the chief characteristic is the craving to be ruled by no matter what being or creed, and to sacrifice all to secure the triumph of the adored object.

The religious instinct, being a sub-conscious sentiment, naturally survives the disappearance of the belief which first maintained it. The apostles of Socialism, who anathematise 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 paradisial 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 ?

The apostle, then, is always a religious person, desirous of propagating his faith ; but he is also, and above all, a simplician, totally refractory to the influences of reason. His logic is rudimentary. Necessities and the relations of things are quite beyond his understanding. We may form a very clear idea of his perceptions by perusing the interesting extracts from one hundred and seventy autobiographies of militant Socialists which were recently published by M. Hamon, a writer of their persuasion. Among this number are many who profess very different doctrines ; for Anarchism is really only an exaggeration of Individualism, since it wishes to suppress all government and leave the individual to himself, while Collectivism implies a rigid subjection of the individual to the State. But in practice these differences, which are scarcely perceived by the apostles, entirely disappear.

(92) The members of the various sects of Socialism manifest the same hatred of society, capital, and the bourgeoisie, and propose identical means to suppress them. The more pacific would simply deprive the rich of their possessions ; the more belligerent would absolutely insist on completing this spoliation by exterminating the vanquished.

Their declamations betray before all things the simplicity of their minds. They are embarrassed by no difficulty. To them nothing is easier than to reconstruct a society. " We have only to expel the Government by revolution, expropriate the wrongful possessors of social wealth, and place it at the disposition of all. . . . In a society in which the difference between capitalists and workers had disappeared there would be no need of Government."

M. de Vogué has given the following interesting account of an interview with one of these apostles : -

"He had one of those narrow, stubborn skulls, in which the cerebral convolution., only seize hold of two or three ideas, of which they never let go ; a wonderful microcosm for one desirous of investigating the distillation which remains of the general thought of a period after the popular alembic has deposited the essence of it in these little retorts. Here we find the great systems of philosophy concentrated into a few Liebig's tabloids. My man had only two tabloids at his service ; they represented two centuries of effort of the human mind. He explained his Utopia : a society without laws, without ties, without hierarchies, in which each individual, absolutely free, would be paid by the collectivity according to his capacity and his needs. To all the objections one could devise lie opposed his first axiom : ' Man is naturally good ; it is society that depraves him. Suppress the social State, and there will no longer be any need of laws

93) and mutual protection.' This is not exactly novel ; you recognise the Rousseau tabloid, the residue of all the dreams of the eighteenth century. But as 1 insisted on the difficulty of producing in sufficient quantity the necessaries of life, and of distributing them in proportion to requirements, given the little taste that a large number of citizens exhibit for voluntary work when their wellbeing is otherwise assured, 1 ran up against the second axiom : 'Thanks to the indefinite progress of science and machinery man will obtain abundance of all he requires, with little labour. Science will better his condition, and will resolve the difficulties you raise.'"

Hypnotised more and more completely by the two or three formulae he incessantly repeats, the apostle experiences a burning desire to propagate the faith that is in him, and publish to the world the gospel which shall raise humanity from the error in which it has hitherto stagnated. Is not the torch he carries plain to see, and must not all, save hypocrites and sinners, be converted ?

" Prompted by their proselytising zeal," writes M. Hamon, " they spread their faith without fear of suffering for it. For it they break the ties of family and friendship ; for It they lose their place, their very means of existence. In their enthusiasm they run the risks of imprisonment and death ; they are determined to enforce their ideal, to effect the salvation of the populace despite itself. They are like the Terrorists of 1793, who slaughtered human beings for the love of humanity."

Their instinct of destruction is a phenomena found in the apostles of all cults. One of those mentioned by AI, Hamon was anxious to destroy all monuments, and especially churches, convinced that their destruction "would effect the destruction of all the spiritualistic religions." This ingenuous soul was only following illustrious examples. Not otherwise did the Christian

(94) Emperor Theodosius reason when in the year 389 he destroyed all the religious monuments that had been erected by the Egyptians on the banks of the Nile during six thousand years, leaving upright only the walls and columns too solid to be broken.

It would seem, then, that it is a psychological law, almost universal in all ages, that one cannot be an apostle without experiencing an intense craving to massacre some one or smash something.

The apostle who is concerned only with monuments belongs to a variety relatively inoffensive, but evidently a little lukewarm. The perfect apostle is not satisfied with these half-measures. He understands that when you have destroyed the temples of the false gods you must proceed to suppress their worshippers. What are hecatombs, what are massacres, when it is a question of regenerating humanity, establishing truth, and destroying error ? Is it not plain that the best means of suppressing infidels is to kill all you may meet, and leave none standing but the apostles and their disciples ? This is the programme for purists, for those who disdain the compromises of hypocritical and cowardly transactions with heresy.

Unhappily the heretics are still refractory, and while awaiting the possibility of exterminating them one must content oneself with isolated murders and with threats. The latter, by the way, are perfectly explicit, and leave the future victims no illusions. One of the vanguard of the Italian Socialists, quoted by Signor Garofalo, sums up his programme thus: "We shall slit the throats of all we find with arms in their hands ; the old men, women, and children we shall pitch over the balconies or throw into the sea."

These proceedings of the new sectaries have nothing very novel about them ; they recur in the same form at

(95) various historical periods. All the apostles have thundered at the impiety of their adversaries in the same terms, and as soon as they have obtained the power to do so they have employed the same tactics of swift and energetic destruction. Mohammed converted by the sabre, the men of the Inquisition by faggots, the men of the Convention by the guillotine, and our modern Socialists by dynamite. Only the implements have a little changed,

The most lamentable thing about these explosions of fanaticism, which societies must, periodically, suffer, is that among the converts the highest intelligence is powerless against the ferocious seductiveness of their faith. Our modern Socialists act and speak just as did Bossuet with regard to the heretics, when he began the campaign which was to end in their massacre and expulsion. In what sulphurous terms does the illustrious prelate thunder against the enemies of his faith ! "who love better to rot in their ignorance than to avow it, and to nourish in their stubborn souls the liberty to think all that it pleases them to think, rather than to bow to the Divine authority." One should read, in the writings of the time, the savage joy with which the clergy welcomed the Dragonnades and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The bishops and pious Bossuet were delirious with enthusiasm. "You have exterminated the heretics," said the latter to Louis Quatorze. " It is the great work of your reign ; it is your crown."

The extermination was really sufficiently thorough. This "great work " had as its consequence the emigration of 400,000 French, the elect of the nation, to say nothing of a considerable number of recalcitrant persons who were burned at the stake, hung, drawn, and quartered, or sent to the King's galleys. Not less did the Inquisition decimate Spain ; and the Convention, France. The Convention too possessed the absolute truth, and was

(96) anxious to extirpate error. It had always far more the air of an ecclesiastical council than of a political assembly.

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.

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. But this qualification is far too summary, and more often than not very inexact, for it embraces individuals belonging to very different classes, for the most part without any kinship to the true criminal. That there are a certain number of criminals among the propagandists of the new faith is indubitable ; but the greater number of the criminals who qualify as Socialist Anarchists only do so to give a political gloss to crimes against the common law. The true apostle may commit acts which arc justly qualified as crimes by the Code, but which have nothing criminal about them from a psychological point of view. Far from being the result of personal interest, which is the characteristic of true crime, their acts are most often contrary to their most obvious interests. 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

(97) 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.

"They are almost always the least certain and most debated ideas that give a free rein to the enthusiasm of fanatics. You will find a hundred fanatics for a problem in theology or metaphysics; you will find none for a theorem in geometry. The more strange and absurd an idea is the more it will drag after it the alienated and the hysterical ; above all, in the political world, in which every private triumph is a failure, or a public triumph ; and this idea will often sustain these fanatics in death, and will serve as a compensation for the life they lose or the torments they endure."

Besides the class of apostles we have described, the propagandists necessary to all religions, there are other less important varieties whose state of hypnosis is limited to a single point of the understanding. We constantly meet, in everyday life, people who are highly intelligent, and even eminent, yet become absolutely incapable of reasoning on approaching certain subjects, when they are dominated by their political or religious passion, and

(98) show a surprising intolerance or incomprehension. These are the occasional fanatics whose fanaticism grows dangerous as soon as it is sufficiently excited. They reason with clearness and moderation on all questions excepting those in which their ruling passion is their only guide. On this narrow ground they array themselves with all the persecuting fury of the true apostles, who find in them, at the hour of a crisis, auxiliaries full of blind zeal.

There is, finally, another category of Socialists, who are not attracted by ideas alone, and whose beliefs even are feeble. They belong to the great family of the degenerates. Maintained by their hereditary taints, their physical or mental deficiencies, in inferior positions, from which they cannot escape, they are the natural enemies of a society to which they are prevented from adapting themselves by their incurable incapacity, by the morbid heredities of which they are the victims. They are the spontaneous defenders of doctrines which promise them, together with a happier future, a kind of regeneration. These outcasts form an immense addition to the crowd of apostles. The part of our civilisations is precisely to create, and, by a sort of fantastic humanitarian irony, to conserve and protect, with the most short-sighted solicitude, an ever-increasing stock of social failures, under whose weight they will necessarily end by foundering.

The new religion of Socialism is now entering on the phase in which its propagation is undertaken by its apostles. To these apostles may already be added a few martyrs ; they constitute a new element of success. After the last executions of Anarchists in Paris the intervention of the police was necessary to prevent pious.pilgrimage to the tombs of the victims, and the sale of their images surrounded with all kinds of religious attributes. Fetichism

(99) is the most ancient of cults, and will be perhaps the last. A people must always have a few fetiches to embody their dreams, desires, and hates.

Thus do these dogmas disseminate themselves, and no reasoning can struggle against them. Their might is invincible, for it is based on the material inferiority of the masses, and on the external illusion of happiness, whose mirage is always alluring men, and preventing them from seeing the barriers which separate realities from dreams.


Having explained at length in my two last works the mechanism of the propagation of beliefs, I can only refer the reader to them. He will there see how every civilisation is based on a small number of fundamental beliefs, which, after a whole series of transformations, finally appear, in the form of religions, in the popular mind. This process of fixation is of great importance, for ideas do not play their part in society, whether for good or ill, until they have descended into the mind of the crowd. Then, and only then, they become general opinions, and then invulnerable beliefs ; that is to say, the essential factors of religions, revolutions, and changes of civilisation.

It is into this deepest soil, the soul of the crowd, that all our metaphysical, political, social, and religious conceptions finally thrust their roots. It is of importance to understand this, and for this reason a study of the mechanism of the mental evolution of nations and of the psychology of the crowd appeared to be a necessary preface to a work on. This study was the more indispensable in that these important subjects, and the latter especially, were very little known. The few

(100) writers who have studied the subject of the crowd have arrived at conclusions which present, with sufficient precision, either the exact reverse of the reality,[2] or at least one facet of a question which comprises many. They have hardly perceived in the crowd anything but 'tan insatiable wild beast, thirsting for blood and rapine." When we sound the subject a little we find, on the contrary, that the worst excesses of crowds have often arisen from extremely generous and disinterested ideas, and that the crowd is as often victim as murderer. A book entitled The Virtuous Masses would be as justifiable as a book entitled The Criminal Masses. I have elsewhere insisted at length on this point. But one of the fundamental characteristics which most profoundly divide the

101) isolated individual from the crowd is the fact that the first is almost always guided by his personal interest, while the masses are rarely swayed by egoistical motives, but most often by collective and disinterested interests.[3] Heroism and self -forgetfulness are more frequently found in crowds than in individuals. Behind all collective cruelty there is more often than not a belief, an idea of justice, a desire for moral satisfaction, a complete forgetfulness of personal interest, or readiness to sacrifice to the general interest, which is precisely the opposite of egoism.

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 sub-consciousness, 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.

History can only be clearly understood if we bear always in mind that the morale and the conduct of the isolated man are very different to those of the same man when he has become part of a collectivity. The collective interests of a race, interests which always imply greater or less forgetfulness of personal interest, are

(102) maintained by the crowd. Profound altruism, the altruism of acts, and not of words, is a collective virtue. All work of general import, demanding for its accomplishment a minimum of egoism and a maximum of blind devotion, self -abnegation, and sacrifice, can scarcely be accomplished but by crowds.

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. 0 religious and political tyranny-the tyranny of the living and the dead-they have never shown themselves rebellious. To become their master a man must make himself loved or feared, and by prestige rather than by force.

A distinguished thinker, M. Mazel, in his recent work, La Synergie sociale, remarks, of the hecatombs of the Terror, massacres which affected all the classes of society, not excluding the most humble, that " nothing is more astonishing than to see the Jacobin staff come and go, without danger, in a city peopled with the relations or friends of their victims, or of their countless future victims." One cannot but perceive, in the bloody ferocity of the men of the Terror on the one, and the submission of the victims on the other hand, those two so contrary qualities of the crowd, already mentioned : violence and resignation equally unlimited. The Jacobin crowd believed all things permitted, and committed deeds from which an isolated tyrant had recoiled. The victims formed another crowd, which proved itself capable of suffering all things, even death.

Occasional ephemeral violence, and more frequent blind submission, are two opposing characteristics, but two that we must not separate if we wish to understand

(103) the mind of the crowd. Their bursts of violence are like the tumultuous waves which the tempest raises on the surface of the ocean, but without troubling the serenity of its profounder waters. The agitations of the crowd have their being above immutable depths that the movements of the surface do not reach ; and this depth consists of those hereditary instincts whose sum is the soul of a nation. This substratum is solid in proportion as the race is ancient, and in consequence possesses a greater fixity. To these hereditary instincts the crowd always returns. Such is the solid woof on which every civilisation has hitherto reposed.

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. Their destructive instincts may, for a moment, suffer the triumph of Socialism, but their conservative instincts will not permit of its duration ; at least, in its present form. In its triumph, as in its fall, the heavy arguments of theorists will play no part. The hour is yet to sound when logic and reason shall be called to guide the current of History.


  1. The advance of science showed at first how slight are the foundations of all religious beliefs, but in advancing further it has also demonstrated that they have been of immense utility, quite apart from the part they have played in history. In the time of Voltaire the pilgrimages to miraculous relies and waters might be regarded as utterly ridiculous. But the modern investigations of the effects of suggestion we know that the curative action of miraculous waters, relics, and Madonnas, is at least equal and often superior to that of the most potent remedies. From the point of view of pure reason it may seem altogether absurd to implore the aid of gods and saints who exist only in our imagination. Science, however, has shown us that these prayers are not vain. The auto-suggestion produced by sufficiently fervent prayer has comforted innumerable minds, and has given them the necessary strength to bear up against the cruelest trials. It is prayer, again, that strengthens faith, the most powerful lever humanity has ever wielded Far from despising the error, we must recognise that the part it has played in the history of humanity has always been preponderant, and that it has constituted a motive of action that has never yet been equalled.
  2. I may cite, as an example of the total incomprehension of this subject, the compilation of an Italian writer, Signor Sighele, entitled The Criminal Masses. The book contains scarcely a trace of personal thought, and is almost entirely composed of quotations intended to prop up the old theory that the masses must be considered as ferocious beasts, always ready for the most atrocious crimes. In order to make his book known to his compatriots, the author for several months inundated the small Italian papers with letters in which a number of French writers were accused, with all manners of invective, of having stolen his ideas from him. One must be indulgent towards the meridional exaggerations of a beginner; but this indulgence must have its limits. I have been well accustomed these twenty years to see my books regarded as a kind of public mine where any one may dig without scruple, and I do not complain, considering that an author must hold himself rewarded if his ideas make headway-even if they are hardly ever quoted. I am happy, therefore, to see Signor Sighele profit from the perusal of my books, and will confine myself to asking him to observe that before complaining so loudly of French writers who, for the greater part, do not know his name, he should have refrained from availing himself of so many loans, and above all of such dissimulated loans such as that which figures on page 38, lines 12 et seg., of his little work on The Psychology of Sects, in which, after a quotation between inverted commas, taken from one of my books, the author gives as being his own, changing only a few words, a passage copied directly out of My Psychology of Crowds, page 8 lines 4 el seq. (3rd edition). Otherwise I can say with pleasure that Signor Sighele's last work is not nearly so mediocre as his preceding one.
  3. This fundamental point does not appear to have been clearly seized by the critics, of my book on The Psychology of Crowds. I must, however, make exception of M. Pillon, who, in the Anneé Philosophique, has very clearly shown that it is by this demonstration that I stand entirely apart from other writers on the same subject.

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