The Psychology of Revolution
Part 2 out of 6
individual men were of service: but unity was in fact maintained
and independence assured by the grouping of the French into
communes and popular societies--people's clubs. It was the
municipal and Jacobin organisation of France that forced the
coalition of Europe to retreat. But in each group, if we look
more closely, there were two or three individuals more capable
than the rest, who, whether leaders or led, executed decisions
and had the appearance of leaders, but who (if, for instance, we
read the proceedings of the people's clubs) seem to us to have
drawn their strength far more from their group than from
M. Aulard's mistake consists in supposing that all these groups
were derived ``from a spontaneous movement of fraternity and
reason.'' France at that time was covered with thousands of
little clubs, receiving a single impulsion from the great
Jacobin Club of Paris, and obeying it with perfect docility.
This is what reality teaches us, though the illusions of the
Jacobins do not permit them to accept the fact.
 In the historical manuals which M. Aulard has prepared for
the use of classes in collaboration with M. Debidour the
role attributed to the people as an entity is even more
marked. We see it intervening continually and spontaneously;
here are a few examples:--
The ``Day'' of June the 20th: ``The king dismissed the
Girondist members. The people of Paris, indignant, rose
spontaneously and invaded the Tuileries.''
The ``Day'' of August 10th: ``The Legislative Assembly dared
not overthrow it; it was the people of Paris, aided by the
Federals of the Departments, who effected this revolution at the
price of its blood.''
The conflict of the Girondists and the Mountain: ``This
discord in the face of the enemy was dangerous. The people put
an end to it on the days of the 31st of May and the 2nd of June,
1793, when it forced the Convention to expel the leaders of the
Gironde from its midst and to decree their arrest.''
4. The Popular Entity and its Constituent Elements.
In order to answer to certain theoretical conceptions the people
was erected into a mystic entity, endowed with all the powers and
all the virtues, incessantly praised by the politicians, and
overwhelmed with flattery. We shall see what we are to make of
this conception of the part played by the people in the French
To the Jacobins of this epoch, as to those of our own days, this
popular entity constitutes a superior personality possessing the
attributes, peculiar to divinities, of never having to answer for
its actions and never making a mistake. Its wishes must be
humbly acceded. The people may kill, burn, ravage, commit the
most frightful cruelties, glorify its hero to-day and throw him
into the gutter to-morrow; it is all one; the politicians will
not cease to vaunt its virtues, its high wisdom, and to bow to
its every decision.
 These pretensions do at least seem to be growing untenable to
the more advanced republicans.
``The rage with the socialists'' writes M. Clemenceau, ``is to
endow with all the virtues, as though by a superhuman reason, the
crowd whose reason cannot be much to boast of.'' The famous
statesman might say more correctly that reason not only cannot be
prominent in the crowd but is practically nonexistent.
Now in what does this entity really consist, this mysterious
fetich which revolutionists have revered for more than a century?
It may be decomposed into two distinct categories. The first
includes the peasants, traders, and workers of all sorts who need
tranquillity and order that they may exercise their calling.
This people forms the majority, but a majority which never caused
a revolution. Living in laborious silence, it is ignored by the
The second category, which plays a capital part in all national
disturbances, consists of a subversive social residue dominated
by a criminal mentality. Degenerates of alcoholism and poverty,
thieves, beggars, destitute ``casuals,'' indifferent workers
without employment--these constitute the dangerous bulk of the
armies of insurrection.
The fear of punishment prevents many of them from becoming
criminals at ordinary times, but they do become criminals as soon
as they can exercise their evil instincts without danger.
To this sinister substratum are due the massacres which stain all
It was this class which, guided by its leaders, continually
invaded the great revolutionary Assemblies. These regiments of
disorder had no other ideal than that of massacre, pillage, and
incendiarism. Their indifference to theories and principles was
To the elements recruited from the lowest dregs of the populace
are added, by way of contagion, a host of idle and indifferent
persons who are simply drawn into the movement. They shout
because there are men shouting, and revolt because there is a
revolt, without having the vaguest idea of the cause of shouting
or revolution. The suggestive power of their environment
absolutely hypnotises them, and impels them to action.
These noisy and maleficent crowds, the kernel of all
insurrections, from antiquity to our own times, are the only
crowds known to the orator. To the orator they are the sovereign
people. As a matter of fact this sovereign people is principally
composed of the lower populace of whom Thiers said:--
``Since the time when Tacitus saw it applaud the crimes of the
emperors the vile populace has not changed. These barbarians who
swarm at the bottom of societies are always ready to stain the
people with every crime, at the beck of every power, and to the
dishonour of every cause.''
At no period of history was the role of the lowest elements
of the population exercised in such a lasting fashion as in the
The massacres began as soon as the beast was unchained--that is,
from 1789, long before the Convention. They were carried
out with all possible refinements of cruelty. During the killing
of September the prisoners were slowly chopped to bits by sabre-
cuts in order to prolong their agonies and amuse the spectators,
who experienced the greatest delight before the spectacle of the
convulsions of the victims and their shrieks of agony.
Similar scenes were observed all over France, even in the early
days of the Revolution, although the foreign war did not excuse
them then, nor any other pretext.
From March to September a whole series of burnings, killings, and
pillagings drenched all France in blood. Taine cites one hundred
and twenty such cases. Rouen, Lyons, Strasbourg, &c., fell into
the power of the populace.
The Mayor of Troyes, his eyes destroyed by blows of scissors, was
murdered after hours of suffering. The Colonel of Dragoons
Belzuce was cut to pieces while living. In many places the
hearts of the victims were torn out and carried about the cities
on the point of a pike.
Such is the behaviour of the base populace so soon as imprudent
hands have broken the network of constraints which binds its
ancestral savagery. It meets with every indulgence because it is
in the interests of the politicians to flatter it. But let us
for a moment suppose the thousands of beings who constitute it
condensed into one single being. The personality thus formed
would appear as a cruel and narrow and abominable monster, more
horrible than the bloodiest tyrants of history.
This impulsive and ferocious people has always been easily
dominated so soon as a strong power has opposed it. If its
violence is unlimited, so is its servility. All the despotisms
have had it for their servant. The Caesars are certain of
being acclaimed by it, whether they are named Caligula, Nero,
Marat, Robespierre, or Boulanger.
Beside these destructive hordes whose action during revolution is
capital, there exists, as we have already remarked, the mass of
the true people, which asks only the right to labour. It
sometimes benefits by revolutions, but never causes them. The
revolutionary theorists know little of it and distrust it, aware
of its traditional and conservative basis. The resistant nucleus
of a country, it makes the strength and continuity of the latter.
Extremely docile through fear, easily influenced by its leaders,
it will momentarily commit every excess while under their
influence, but the ancestral inertia of the race will soon take
charge again, which is the reason why it so quickly tires of
revolution. Its traditional soul quickly incites it to oppose
itself to anarchy when the latter goes too far. At such times it
seeks the leader who will restore order.
This people, resigned and peaceable, has evidently no very lofty
nor complicated political conceptions. Its governmental ideal is
always very simple, is something very like dictatorship. This is
why, from the times of the Greeks to our own, dictatorship has
always followed anarchy. It followed it after the first
Revolution, when Bonaparte was acclaimed, and again when, despite
opposition, four successive plebiscites raised Louis Napoleon to
the head of the republic, ratified his coup d'etat,
re-established the Empire, and in 1870, before the war, approved
of his rule.
Doubtless in these last instances the people was deceived. But
without the revolutionary conspiracies which led to disorder, it
would not have been impelled to seek the means of escape
The facts recalled in this chapter must not be forgotten if we
wish fully to comprehend the various roles of the people
during revolution. Its action is considerable, but very unlike
that imagined by the legends whose repetition alone constitutes
THE FORMS OF MENTALITY PREVALENT DURING REVOLUTION
INDIVIDUAL VARIATIONS OF CHARACTER IN TIME OF REVOLUTION
1. Transformations of Personality.
I have dwelt at length elsewhere upon a certain theory of
character, without which it is absolutely impossible to
understand divers transformations or inconsistencies of conduct
which occur at certain moments, notably in time of revolution.
Here are the principal points of this theory:
Every individual possesses, besides his habitual mentality,
which, when the environment does not alter, is almost constant,
various possibilities of character which may be evoked by passing
The people who surround us are the creatures of certain
circumstances, but not of all circumstances. Our ego consists of
the association of innumerable cellular egos, the residues of
ancestral personalities. By their combination they form an
equilibrium which is fairly permanent when the social environment
does not vary. As soon as this environment is considerably
modified, as in time of insurrection, this equilibrium is broken,
and the dissociated elements constitute, by a fresh aggregation,
a new personality, which is manifested by ideas, feelings, and
actions very different from those formerly observed in the same
individual. Thus it is that during the Terror we see honest
bourgeois and peaceful magistrates who were noted for their
kindness turned into bloodthirsty fanatics.
Under the influence of environment the old personality may
therefore give place to one entirely new. For this reason the
actors in great religious and political crises often seem of a
different essence to ourselves; yet they do not differ from us;
the repetition of the same events would bring back the same men.
Napoleon perfectly understood these possibilities of character
when he said, in Saint Helena:--
``It is because I know just how great a part chance plays in our
political decisions, that I have always been without prejudices,
and very indulgent as to the part men have taken during our
disturbances. . . . In time of revolution one can only say what
one has done; it would not be wise to say that one could not have
done otherwise. . . . Men are difficult to understand if we want
to be just. . . . Do they know themselves? Do they account for
themselves very clearly? There are virtues and vices of
When the normal personality has been disaggregated under the
influence of certain events, how does the new personality form
itself? By several means, the most active of which is the
acquisition of a strong belief. This orientates all the elements
of the understanding, as the magnet collects into regular
curves the filings of a magnetic metal.
Thus were formed the personalities observed in times of great
crises: the Crusades, the Reformation, the Revolution notably.
At normal times the environment varies little, so that as a rule
we see only a single personality in the individuals that surround
us. Sometimes, however, it happens that we observe several,
which in certain circumstances may replace one another.
These personalities may be contradictory and even inimical. This
phenomenon, exceptional under normal conditions, is considerably
accentuated in certain pathological conditions. Morbid
psychology has recorded several examples of multiple personality
in a single subject, such as the cases cited by Morton Prince and
In all these variations of personality it is not the intelligence
which is modified, but the feelings, whose association forms the
2. Elements of Character Predominant in Time of Revolution.
During revolution we see several sentiments developed which are
commonly repressed, but to which the destruction of social
constraints gives a free vent.
These constraints, consisting of the law, morality, and
tradition, are not always completely broken. Some survive the
upheaval and serve to some extent to damp the explosion of
The most powerful of these restraints is the soul of the race.
This determines a manner of seeing, feeling, and willing
common to the majority of the individuals of the same people; it
constitutes a hereditary custom, and nothing is more powerful
than the ties of custom.
This racial influence limits the variations of a people and
determines its destiny within certain limits in spite of all
For example, to take only the instances of history, it would seem
that the mentality of France must have varied enormously during a
single century. In a few years it passed from the Revolution to
Caesarism, returned to the monarchy, effected another
Revolution, and then summoned a new Caesar. In reality only
the outsides of things had changed.
We cannot insist further here on the limits of national
variability, but must now consider the influence of certain
affective elements, whose development during revolution
contributes to modify individual or collective personalities. In
particular I will mention hatred, fear, ambition, jealousy or
envy, vanity, and enthusiasm. We observe their influence during
several of the upheavals of history, notably during the course of
the French Revolution, which will furnish us with most of our
Hatred.--The hatred of persons, institutions, and things which
animated the men of the Revolution is one of these affective
phenomena which are the more striking the more one studies their
psychology. They detested, not only their enemies, but the
members of their own party. ``If one were to accept
unreservedly,'' said a recent writer, ``the judgments which they
expressed of one another, we should have to conclude that they
were all traitors and boasters, all incapable and corrupt,
all assassins or tyrants.'' We know with what hatred, scarcely
appeased by the death of their enemies, men persecuted the
Girondists, Dantonists, Hebertists, Robespierrists, &c.
One of the chief causes of this feeling resided in the fact that
these furious sectaries, being apostles in possession of the
absolute verity, were unable, like all believers, to tolerate the
sight of infidels. A mystic or sentimental certitude is always
accompanied by the need of forcing itself on others, is never
convinced, and does not shrink from wholesale slaughter when it
has the power to commit it.
If the hatreds that divided the men of the Revolution had been of
rational origin they would not have lasted long, but, arising
from affective and mystic factors, men could neither forget nor
forgive. Their sources being identical in the different parties,
they manifested themselves on every hand with identical violence.
It has been proved, by means of documents, that the Girondists
were no less sanguinary than the Montagnards. They were the
first to declare, with Petion, that the vanquished parties
should perish. They also, according to M. Aulard, attempted to
justify the massacres of September. The Terror must not be
considered simply as a means of defence, but as the general
process of destruction to which triumphant believers have always
treated their detested enemies. Men who can put up with the
greatest divergence of ideas cannot tolerate differences of
In religious or political warfare the vanquished can hope for no
quarter. From Sulla, who cut the throats of two hundred senators
and five or six thousand Romans, to the men who suppressed the
Commune, and shot down more than twenty thousand after
their victory, this bloody law has never failed. Proved over and
over again in the past, it will doubtless be so in the future.
The hatreds of the Revolution did not arise entirely from
divergence of belief. Other sentiments--envy, ambition, and
self-love--also engendered them. The rivalry of individuals
aspiring to power led the chiefs of the various groups in
succession to the scaffold.
We must remember, moreover, that the need of division and the
hatred resulting therefrom seem to be constituent elements of the
Latin mind. They cost our Gaulish ancestors their independence,
and had already struck Caesar.
``No city,'' he said, ``but was divided into two factions; no
canton, no village, no house in which the spirit of party did not
breathe. It was very rarely that a year went by without a city
taking up arms to attack or repulse its neighbours.''
As man has only recently entered upon the age of knowledge, and
has always hitherto been guided by sentiments and beliefs, we may
conceive the vast importance of hatred as a factor of his
Commandant Colin, professor at the College of War, remarks in the
following terms on the importance of this feeling during certain
``In war more than at any other time there is no better inspiring
force than hatred; it was hatred that made Blucher victorious
over Napoleon. Analyse the most wonderful manoeuvres, the most
decisive operations, and if they are not the work of an
exceptional man, a Frederick or a Napoleon, you will find they
are inspired by passion more than by calculation. What
would the war of 1870 have been without the hatred which we bore
The writer might have added that the intense hatred of the
Japanese for the Russians, who had so humiliated them, might be
classed among the causes of their success. The Russian soldiers,
ignorant of the very existence of the Japanese, had no animosity
against them, which was one of the reasons of their failure.
There was assuredly a good deal of talk of fraternity at the time
of the Revolution, and there is even more to-day. Pacificism,
humanitarianism, and solidarity have become catchwords of the
advanced parties, but we know how profound are the hatreds
concealed beneath these terms, and what dangers overhang our
Fear.--Fear plays almost as large a part in revolutions as
hatred. During the French Revolution there were many examples of
great individual courage and many exhibitions of collective
Facing the scaffold, the men of the Convention were always brave
in the extreme; but before the threats of the rioters who invaded
the Assembly they constantly exhibited an excessive
pusillanimity, obeying the most absurd injunctions, as we shall
see if we re-read the history of the revolutionary Assemblies.
All the forms of fear were observed at this period. One of the
most widespread was the fear of appearing moderate. Members of
the Assemblies, public prosecutors, representatives ``on
mission,'' judges of the revolutionary tribunals, &c., all sought
to appear more advanced than their rivals. Fear was one of the
principal elements of the crimes committed at this period.
If by some miracle it could have been eliminated from the
revolutionary Assemblies, their conduct would have been quite
other than it was, and the Revolution itself would have taken a
very different direction.
Ambition, Envy, Vanity, &c.--In normal times the influence of
these various affective elements is forcibly contained by social
necessities. Ambition, for instance, is necessarily limited in a
hierarchical form of society. Although the soldier does
sometimes become a general, it is only after a long term of
service. In time of revolution, on the other hand, there is no
need to wait. Every one may reach the upper ranks almost
immediately, so that all ambitions are violently aroused. The
humblest man believes himself fitted for the highest employments,
and by this very fact his vanity grows out of all measure.
All the passions being more or less aroused, including ambition
and vanity, we see the development of jealousy and envy of those
who have succeeded more quickly than others.
The effect of jealousy, always important in times of revolution,
was especially so during the great French Revolution. Jealousy
of the nobility constituted one of its most important factors.
The middle classes had increased in capacity and wealth, to the
point of surpassing the nobility. Although they mingled with the
nobles more and more, they felt, none the less, that they were
held at a distance, and this they keenly resented. This frame of
mind had unconsciously made the bourgeoisie keen supporters of
the philosophic doctrine of equality.
Wounded self-love and jealousy were thus the causes of
hatreds that we can scarcely conceive today, when the social
influence of the nobility is so small. Many members of the
Convention--Carrier, Marat, and others--remembered with anger
that they had once occupied subordinate positions in the
establishments of great nobles. Mme. Roland was never able to
forget that, when she and her mother were invited to the house of
a great lady under the ancien regime, they had been sent to
dine in the servants' quarters.
The philosopher Rivarol has very well described in the following
passage, already cited by Taine, the influence of wounded self-
love and jealousy upon the revolutionary hatreds:--
``It is not,'' he writes, ``the taxes, nor the lettres de
cachet, nor any of the other abuses of authority; it is not the
sins of the intendants, nor the long and ruinous delays of
justice, that has most angered the nation; it is the prejudices
of the nobility for which it has exhibited the greatest hatred.
What proves this clearly is the fact that it is the bourgeois,
the men of letters, the men of money, in fact all those who are
jealous of the nobility, who have raised the poorer inhabitants
of the cities against them, and the peasants in the country
This very true statement partly justifies the saying of Napoleon:
``Vanity made the Revolution; liberty was only the pretext.''
Enthusiasm.--The enthusiasm of the founders of the Revolution
equalled that of the apostles of the faith of Mohammed. And it
was really a religion that the bourgeois of the first Assembly
thought to found. They thought to have destroyed an old
world, and to have built a new one upon its ruins. Never
did illusion more seductive fire the hearts of men. Equality and
fraternity, proclaimed by the new dogmas, were to bring the reign
of eternal happiness to all the peoples. Man had broken for ever
with a past of barbarity and darkness. The regenerated world
would in future be illuminated by the lucid radiance of pure
reason. On all hands the most brilliant oratorical formulae
saluted the expected dawn.
That this enthusiasm was so soon replaced by violence was due to
the fact that the awakening was speedy and terrible. One can
readily conceive the indignant fury with which the apostles of
the Revolution attacked the daily obstacles opposed to the
realisation of their dreams. They had sought to reject the past,
to forget tradition, to make man over again. But the past
reappeared incessantly, and men refused to change. The
reformers, checked in their onward march, would not give in.
They sought to impose by force a dictatorship which speedily made
men regret the system abolished, and finally led to its return.
It is to be remarked that although the enthusiasm of the first
days did not last in the revolutionary Assemblies, it survived
very much longer in the armies, and constituted their chief
strength. To tell the truth, the armies of the Revolution were
republican long before France became so, and remained republican
long after France had ceased to be so.
The variations of character considered in this chapter, being
conditioned by certain common aspirations and identical changes
of environment, finally became concrete in a small number
of fairly homogeneous mentalities. Speaking only of the more
characteristic, we may refer them to four types: the Jacobin,
mystic, revolutionary, and criminal mentalities.
THE MYSTIC MENTALITY AND THE JACOBIN MENTALITY
1. Classification of Mentalities predominant in Time of
The classifications without which the study of the sciences is
impossible must necessarily establish the discontinuous in the
continuous, and for that reason are to a certain extent
artificial. But they are necessary, since the continuous is only
accessible in the form of the discontinuous.
To create broad distinctions between the various mentalities
observable in time of revolution, as we are about to do, is
obviously to separate elements which encroach upon one another,
which are fused or superimposed. We must resign ourselves to
losing a little in exactitude in order to gain in lucidity. The
fundamental types enumerated at the end of the preceding chapter,
and which we are about to describe, synthetise groups which would
escape analysis were we to attempt to study them in all their
We have shown that man is influenced by different logics, which
under normal conditions exist in juxtaposition, without mutually
influencing one another. Under the action of various events they
enter into mutual conflict, and the irreducible differences
which divide them are visibly manifested, involving considerable
individual and social upheavals.
Mystic logic, which we shall presently consider as it appears in
the Jacobin mind, plays a very important part. But it is not
alone in its action. The other forms of logic--affective logic,
collective logic, and rational logic--may predominate according
2. The Mystic Mentality.
Leaving aside for the moment the influence of affective,
rational, and collective logic, we will occupy ourselves solely
with the considerable part played by the mystic elements which
have prevailed in so many revolutions, and notably in the French
The chief characteristic of the mystic temperament consists in
the attribution of a mysterious power to superior beings or
forces, which are incarnated in the form of idols, fetiches,
words, or formulae.
The mystic spirit is at the bottom of all the religious and most
political beliefs. These latter would often vanish could we
deprive them of the mystic elements which are their chief
Grafted on the sentiments and passionate impulses which it
directs, mystic logic constitutes the might of the great popular
movements. Men who would be by no means ready to allow
themselves to be killed for the best of reasons will readily
sacrifice their lives to a mystic ideal which has become an
object of adoration.
The principles of the Revolution speedily inspired a wave of
mystic enthusiasm analogous to those provoked by the various
religious beliefs which had preceded it. All they did was to
change the orientation of a mental ancestry which the
centuries had solidified.
So there is nothing astonishing in the savage zeal of the men of
the Convention. Their mystic mentality was the same as that of
the Protestants at the time of the Reformation. The principal
heroes of the Terror--Couthon, Saint-Just, Robespierre, &c.--were
Apostles. Like Polyeuctes, destroying the altars of the false
gods to propagate his faith, they dreamed of converting the
globe. Their enthusiasm spilled itself over the earth.
Persuaded that their magnificent formulae were sufficient to
overturn thrones, they did not hesitate to declare war upon
kings. And as a strong faith is always superior to a doubtful
faith, they victoriously faced all Europe.
The mystic spirit of the leaders of the Revolution was betrayed
in the least details of their public life. Robespierre,
convinced that he was supported by the Almighty, assured his
hearers in a speech that the Supreme Being had ``decreed the
Republic since the beginning of time.'' In his quality of High
Pontiff of a State religion he made the Convention vote a decree
declaring that ``the French People recognises the existence of
the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.'' At the
festival of this Supreme Being, seated on a kind of throne, he
preached a lengthy sermon.
The Jacobin Club, directed by Robespierre, finally assumed all
the functions of a council. There Maximilien proclaimed ``the
idea of a Great Being who watches over oppressed innocence and
who punishes triumphant crime.''
All the heretics who criticised the Jacobin orthodoxy were
excommunicated--that is, were sent to the Revolutionary Tribunal,
which they left only for the scaffold.
The mystic mentality of which Robespierre was the most celebrated
representative did not die with him. Men of identical mentality
are to be found among the French politicians of to-day. The old
religious beliefs no longer rule their minds, but they are the
creatures of political creeds which they would very soon force on
others, as did Robespierre, if they had the chance of so doing.
Always ready to kill if killing would spread their faith, the
mystics of all ages have employed the same means of persuasion as
soon as they have become the masters.
It is therefore quite natural that Robespierre should still have
many admirers. Minds moulded like his are to be met with in
their thousands. His conceptions were not guillotined with him.
Old as humanity, they will only disappear with the last believer.
This mystic aspect of all revolutions has escaped the majority of
the historians. They will persist for a long time yet in trying
to explain by means of rational logic a host of phenomena which
have nothing to do with reason. I have already cited a passage
from the history of MM. Lavisse and Rambaud, in which the
Reformation is explained as ``the result of the free individual
reflections suggested to simple folk by an extremely pious
conscience, and a bold and courageous reason.''
Such movements are never comprehended by those who imagine that
their origin is rational. Political or religious, the beliefs
which have moved the world possess a common origin and
follow the same laws. They are formed, not by the reason, but
more often contrary to reason. Buddhism, Christianity, Islamism,
the Reformation, sorcery, Jacobinism, socialism, spiritualism,
&c., seem very different forms of belief, but they have, I
repeat, identical mystic and affective bases, and obey forms of
logic which have no affinity with rational logic. Their might
resides precisely in the fact that reason has as little power to
create them as to transform them.
The mystic mentality of our modern political apostles is strongly
marked in an article dealing with one of our recent ministers,
which I cite from a leading journal:
``One may ask into what category does M. A----fall? Could we
say, for instance, that he belongs to the group of unbelievers?
Far from it! Certainly M. A---- has not adopted any positive
faith; certainly he curses Rome and Geneva, rejecting all the
traditional dogmas and all the known Churches. But if he makes a
clean sweep it is in order to found his own Church on the ground
so cleared, a Church more dogmatic than all the rest; and his own
inquisition, whose brutal intolerance would have no reason to
envy the most notorious of Torquemadas.
`` `We cannot,' he says, `allow such a thing as scholastic
neutrality. We demand lay instruction in all its plenitude, and
are consequently the enemies of educational liberty.' If he does
not suggest erecting the stake and the pyre, it is only on
account of the evolution of manners, which he is forced to take
into account to a certain extent, whether he will or no. But,
not being able to commit men to the torture, he invokes the
secular arm to condemn their doctrines to death. This is exactly
the point of view of the great inquisitors. It is the same
attack upon thought. This freethinker has so free a spirit that
every philosophy he does not accept appears to him, not only
ridiculous and grotesque, but criminal. He flatters himself that
he alone is in possession of the absolute truth. Of this he is
so entirely sure that everyone who contradicts him seems to him
an execrable monster and a public enemy. He does not suspect for
a moment that after all his personal views are only hypotheses,
and that he is all the more laughable for claiming a Divine right
for them precisely because they deny divinity. Or, at least,
they profess to do so; but they re-establish it in another shape,
which immediately makes one regret the old. M. A---- is a
sectary of the goddess Reason, of whom he has made a Moloch, an
oppressive deity hungry for sacrifice. No more liberty of
thought for any one except for himself and his friends; such is
the free thought of M. A----. The outlook is truly attractive.
But perhaps too many idols have been cast down during the last
few centuries for men to bow before this one.''
We must hope for the sake of liberty that these gloomy fanatics
will never finally become our masters.
Given the silent power of reason over mystic beliefs, it is quite
useless to seek to discuss, as is so often done, the rational
value of revolutionary or political ideas. Only their influence
can interest us. It matters little that the theories of the
supposed equality of men, the original goodness of mankind, the
possibility of re-making society by means of laws, have
been given the lie by observation and experience. These empty
illusions must be counted among the most potent motives of action
that humanity has known.
3. The Jacobin Mentality.
Although the term ``Jacobin mentality'' does not really belong to
any true classification, I employ it here because it sums up a
clearly defined combination which constitutes a veritable
This mentality dominates the men of the French Revolution, but is
not peculiar to them, as it still represents one of the most
active elements in our politics.
The mystic mentality which we have already considered is an
essential factor of the Jacobin mind, but it is not in itself
enough to constitute that mind. Other elements, which we shall
now examine, must be added.
The Jacobins do not in the least suspect their mysticism. On the
contrary, they profess to be guided solely by pure reason.
During the Revolution they invoked reason incessantly, and
considered it as their only guide to conduct.
The majority of historians have adopted this rationalist
conception of the Jacobin mind, and Taine fell into the same
error. It is in the abuse of rationalism that he seeks the
origin of a great proportion of the acts of the Jacobins. The
pages in which he has dealt with the subject contain many truths,
however, and as they are in other ways very remarkable, I
reproduce the most important passages here:--
``Neither exaggerated self-love nor dogmatic reasoning is
rare in the human species. In all countries these two roots of
the Jacobin spirit subsist, secret and indestructible. . . . At
twenty years of age, when a young man is entering into the world,
his reason is stimulated simultaneously with his pride. In the
first place, whatever society he may move in, it is contemptible
to pure reason, for it has not been constructed by a philosophic
legislator according to a principle, but successive generations
have arranged it according to their multiple and ever-changing
needs. It is not the work of logic, but of history, and the
young reasoner shrugs his shoulders at the sight of this old
building, whose site is arbitrary, whose architecture is
incoherent, and whose inconveniences are obvious. . . . The
majority of young people, above all those who have their way to
make, are more or less Jacobin on leaving college. . . .
Jacobinism is born of social decomposition just as mushrooms are
born of a fermenting soil. Consider the authentic monuments of
its thought--the speeches of Robespierre and Saint-Just, the
debates of the Legislative Assembly and the Convention, the
harangues, addresses, and reports of Girondists and Montagnards.
Never did men speak so much to say so little; the empty verbiage
and swollen emphasis swamp any truth there may be beneath their
monotony and their turgidity. The Jacobin is full of respect for
the phantoms of his reasoning brain; in his eyes they are more
real than living men, and their suffrage is the only suffrage he
recognises--he will march onward in all sincerity at the head of
a procession of imaginary followers. The millions of
metaphysical wills which he has created in the image of his own
will sustain him by their unanimous assent, and he will
project outwards, like a chorus of triumph and acclamation, the
inward echo of his own voice.''
While admiring Taine's description, I think he has not exactly
grasped the psychology of the Jacobin.
The mind of the true Jacobin, at the time of the Revolution as
now, was composed of elements which we must analyse if we are to
understand its function.
This analysis will show in the first place that the Jacobin is
not a rationalist, but a believer. Far from building his belief
on reason, he moulds reason to his belief, and although his
speeches are steeped in rationalism he employs it very little in
his thoughts and his conduct.
A Jacobin who reasoned as much as he is accused of reasoning
would be sometimes accessible to the voice of reason. Now,
observation proves, from the time of the Revolution to our own
days, that the Jacobin is never influenced by reasoning, however
just, and it is precisely here that his strength resides.
And why is he not accessible to reason? Simply because his
vision of things, always extremely limited, does not permit of
his resisting the powerful and passionate impulses which guide
These two elements, feeble reason and strong passions, would not
of themselves constitute the Jacobin mind. There is another.
Passion supports convictions, but hardly ever creates them. Now,
the true Jacobin has forcible convictions. What is to sustain
them? Here the mystic elements whose action we have already
studied come into play. The Jacobin is a mystic who has
replaced the old divinities by new gods. Imbued with the power
of words and formulae, he attributes to these a mysterious
power. To serve these exigent divinities he does not shrink from
the most violent measures. The laws voted by our modern Jacobins
furnish a proof of this fact.
The Jacobin mentality is found especially in narrow and
passionate characters. It implies, in fact, a narrow and rigid
mind, inaccessible to all criticism and to all considerations but
those of faith.
The mystic and affective elements which dominate the mind of the
Jacobin condemn him to an extreme simplicity. Grasping only the
superficial relations of things, nothing prevents him from taking
for realities the chimerical images which are born of his
imagination. The sequence of phenomena and their results escape
him. He never raises his eyes from his dream.
As we may see, it is not by the development of his logical reason
that the Jacobin exceeds. He possesses very little logic of this
kind, and therefore he often becomes dangerous. Where a superior
man would hesitate or halt the Jacobin, who has placed his feeble
reason at the service of his impulses, goes forward with
So that although the Jacobin is a great reasoner, this does not
mean that he is in the least guided by reason. When he imagines
he is being led by reason it is really his passions and his
mysticism that lead him. Like all those who are convinced and
hemmed in by the walls of faith, he can never escape therefrom.
A true aggressive theologian, he is astonishingly like the
disciples of Calvin described in a previous chapter. Hypnotised
by their faith, nothing could deter them from their object. All
those who contradicted their articles of faith were considered
worthy of death. They too seemed to be powerful reasoners.
Ignorant, like the Jacobins, of the secret forces that led them,
they believed that reason was their sole guide, while in reality
they were the slaves of mysticism and passion.
The truly rationalistic Jacobin would be incomprehensible, and
would merely make reason despair. The passionate and mystical
Jacobin is, on the contrary, easily intelligible.
With these three elements--a very weak reasoning power, very
strong passions, and an intense mysticism--we have the true
psychological components of the mind of the Jacobin.
THE REVOLUTIONARY AND CRIMINAL MENTALITIES
1. The Revolutionary Mentality.
We have just seen that the mystic elements are one of the
components of the Jacobin mentality. We shall now see that they
enter into another form of mentality which is also clearly
defined, the revolutionary mentality.
In all ages societies have contained a certain number of restless
spirits, unstable and discontented, ready to rebel against any
established order of affairs. They are actuated by the mere love
of revolt, and if some magic power could realise all their
desires they would simply revolt again.
This special mentality often results from a faulty adaptation of
the individual to his surroundings, or from an excess of
mysticism, but it may also be merely a question of temperament or
arise from pathological disturbances.
The need of revolt presents very different degrees of intensity,
from simple discontent expressed in words directed against men
and things to the need of destroying them. Sometimes the
individual turns upon himself the revolutionary frenzy that he
cannot otherwise exercise. Russia is full of these madmen,
who, not content with committing arson or throwing bombs at
hazard into the crowd, finally mutilate themselves, like the
Skopzis and other analogous sects.
These perpetual rebels are generally highly suggestible beings,
whose mystic mentality is obsessed by fixed ideas. Despite the
apparent energy indicated by their actions they are really weak
characters, and are incapable of mastering themselves
sufficiently to resist the impulses that rule them. The mystic
spirit which animates them furnishes pretexts for their violence,
and enables them to regard themselves as great reformers.
In normal times the rebels which every society contains are
restrained by the laws, by their environment--in short, by all
the usual social constraints, and therefore remain undetected.
But as soon as a time of disturbance begins these constraints
grow weaker, and the rebel can give a free reign to his
instincts. He then becomes the accredited leader of a movement.
The motive of the revolution matters little to him; he will give
his life indifferently for the red flag or the white, or for the
liberation of a country which he has heard vaguely mentioned.
The revolutionary spirit is not always pushed to the extremes
which render it dangerous. When, instead of deriving from
affective or mystic impulses, it has an intellectual origin, it
may become a source of progress. It is thanks to those spirits
who are sufficiently independent to be intellectually
revolutionary that a civilisation is able to escape from the yoke
of tradition and habit when this becomes too heavy. The
sciences, arts, and industries especially have progressed by
the aid of such men. Galileo, Lavoisier, Darwin, and Pasteur
were such revolutionaries.
Although it is not necessary that a nation should possess any
large number of such spirits, it is very necessary that it should
possess some. Without them men would still be living in caves.
The revolutionary audacity which results in discoveries implies
very rare faculties. It necessitates notably an independence of
mind sufficient to escape from the influence of current opinions,
and a judgement that can grasp, under superficial analogies, the
hidden realities. This form of revolutionary spirit is creative,
while that examined above is destructive.
The revolutionary mentality may, therefore, be compared to
certain physiological states in the life of the individual which
are normally useful, but which, when exaggerated, take a
pathological form which is always hurtful.
2. The Criminal Mentality.
All the civilised societies inevitably drag behind them a residue
of degenerates, of the unadapted, of persons affected by various
taints. Vagabonds, beggars, fugitives from justice, thieves,
assassins, and starving creatures that live from day to day, may
constitute the criminal population of the great cities. In
ordinary times these waste products of civilisation are more or
less restrained by the police. During revolution nothing
restrains them, and they can easily gratify their instincts to
murder and plunder. In the dregs of society the revolutionaries
of all times are sure of finding recruits. Eager only to kill
and to plunder, little matters to them the cause they are
sworn to defend. If the chances of murder and pillage are better
in the party attacked, they will promptly change their colours.
To these criminals, properly so called, the incurable plague of
all societies, we must add the class of semi-criminals.
Wrongdoers on occasion, they never rebel so long as the fear of
the established order restrains them, but as soon as it weakens
they enrol themselves in the army of revolution.
These two categories--habitual and occasional criminals--form an
army of disorder which is fit for nothing but the creation of
disorder. All the revolutionaries, all the founders of religious
or political leagues, have constantly counted on their support.
We have already stated that this population, with its criminal
mentality, exercised a considerable influence during the French
Revolution. It always figured in the front rank of the riots
which occurred almost daily. Certain historians have spoken with
respect and emotion of the way in which the sovereign people
enforced its will upon the Convention, invading the hall armed
with pikes, the points of which were sometimes decorated with
newly severed heads. If we analyse the elements composing the
pretended delegations of the sovereign people, we shall find
that, apart from a small number of simple souls who submitted to
the impulses of the leaders, the mass was almost entirely formed
of the bandits of whom I have been speaking. To them were due
the innumerable murders of which the massacres of September and
the killing of the Princesse de Lamballe were merely typical.
They terrorised all the great Assemblies, from the Constituent
Assembly to the Convention, and for ten years they helped to
ravage France. If by some miracle this army of criminals could
have been eliminated, the progress of the Revolution would have
been very different. They stained it with blood from its dawn to
its decline. Reason could do nothing with them but they could do
much against reason.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF REVOLUTIONARY CROWDS
1. General Characteristics of the Crowd.
Whatever their origin, revolutions do not produce their full
effects until they have penetrated the soul of the multitude.
They therefore represent a consequence of the psychology of
Although I have studied collective psychology at length in
another volume, I must here recall its principal laws.
Man, as part of a multitude, is a very different being from the
same man as an isolated individual. His conscious individuality
vanishes in the unconscious personality of the crowd.
Material contact is not absolutely necessary to produce in the
individual the mentality of the crowd. Common passions and
sentiments, provoked by certain events, are often sufficient to
The collective mind, momentarily formed, represents a very
special kind of aggregate. Its chief peculiarity is that it is
entirely dominated by unconscious elements, and is subject to a
peculiar collective logic.
Among the other characteristics of crowds, we must note their
infinite credulity and exaggerated sensibility, their short-
sightedness, and their incapacity to respond to the influences of
reason. Affirmation, contagion, repetition, and prestige
constitute almost the only means of persuading them. Reality and
experience have no effect upon them. The multitude will admit
anything; nothing is impossible in the eyes of the crowd.
By reason of the extreme sensibility of crowds, their sentiments,
good or bad, are always exaggerated. This exaggeration increases
still further in times of revolution. The least excitement will
then lead the multitude to act with the utmost fury. Their
credulity, so great even in the normal state, is still further
increased; the most improbable statements are accepted. Arthur
Young relates that when he visited the springs near Clermont, at
the time of the French Revolution, his guide was stopped by the
people, who were persuaded that he had come by order of the Queen
to mine and blow up the town. The most horrible tales concerning
the Royal Family were circulated, depicting it as a nest of
ghouls and vampires.
These various characteristics show that man in the crowd descends
to a very low degree in the scale of civilisation. He becomes a
savage, with all a savage's faults and qualities, with all his
momentary violence, enthusiasm, and heroism. In the intellectual
domain a crowd is always inferior to the isolated unit. In the
moral and sentimental domain it may be his superior. A crowd
will commit a crime as readily as an act of abnegation.
Personal characteristics vanish in the crowd, which exerts an
extraordinary influence upon the individuals which form it. The
miser becomes generous, the sceptic a believer, the honest
man a criminal, the coward a hero. Examples of such
transformations abounded during the great Revolution.
As part of a jury or a parliament, the collective man renders
verdicts or passes laws of which he would never have dreamed in
his isolated condition.
One of the most notable consequences of the influence of a
collectivity upon the individuals who compose it is the
unification of their sentiments and wills. This psychological
unity confers a remarkable force upon crowds.
The formation of such a mental unity results chiefly from the
fact that in a crowd gestures and actions are extremely
contagious. Acclamations of hatred, fury, or love are
immediately approved and repeated.
What is the origin of these common sentiments, this common will?
They are propagated by contagion, but a point of departure is
necessary before this contagion can take effect. Without a
leader the crowd is an amorphous entity incapable of action.
A knowledge of the laws relating to the psychology of crowds is
indispensable to the interpretation of the elements of our
Revolution, and to a comprehension of the conduct of
revolutionary assemblies, and the singular transformations of the
individuals who form part of them. Pushed by the unconscious
forces of the collective soul, they more often than not say what
they did not intend, and vote what they would not have wished to
Although the laws of collective psychology have sometimes been
divined instinctively by superior statesmen, the majority of
Governments have not understood and do not understand
them. It is because they do not understand them that so many of
them have fallen so easily. When we see the facility with which
certain Governments were overthrown by an insignificant riot--as
happened in the case of the monarchy of Louis-Philippe--the
dangers of an ignorance of collective psychology are evident.
The marshal in command of the troops in 1848, which were more
than sufficient to defend the king, certainly did not understand
that the moment he allowed the crowd to mingle with the troops
the latter, paralysed by suggestion and contagion, would cease to
do their duty. Neither did he know that as the multitude is
extremely sensible to prestige it needs a great display of force
to impress it, and that such a display will at once suppress
hostile demonstrations. He was equally ignorant of the fact that
all gatherings should be dispersed immediately. All these things
have been taught by experience, but in 1848 these lessons had not
been grasped. At the time of the great Revolution the psychology
of crowds was even less understood.
2. How the Stability of the Racial Mind limits the Oscillations
of the Mind of the Crowd.
A people can in a sense be likened to a crowd. It possesses
certain characteristics, but the oscillations of these
characteristics are limited by the soul or mind of the race. The
mind of the race has a fixity unknown to the transitory mind of
When a people possesses an ancestral soul established by a long
past the soul of the crowd is always dominated thereby.
A people differs from a crowd also in that it is composed of a
collection of groups, each having different interests and
passions. In a crowd properly so-called--a popular assembly, for
example--there are unities which may belong to very different
A people sometimes seems as mobile as a crowd, but we must not
forget that behind its mobility, its enthusiasms, its violence
and destructiveness, the extremely tenacious and conservative
instincts of the racial mind persist. The history of the
Revolution and the century which has followed shows how the
conservative spirit finally overcomes the spirit of destruction.
More than one system of government which the people has shattered
has been restored by the people.
It is not as easy to work upon the mind of the people--that is,
the mind of the race--as on the mind of a crowd. The means of
action are indirect and slower (journals, conferences, speeches,
books, &c.). The elements of persuasion always come under the
headings already given: affirmation, repetition, prestige, and
Mental contagion may affect a whole people instantaneously, but
more often it operates slowly, creeping from group to group.
Thus was the Reformation propagated in France.
A people is far less excitable than a crowd; but certain events--
national insults, threats of invasion, &c.--may arouse it
instantly. Such a phenomenon was observed on several occasions
during the Revolution, notably at the time of the insolent
manifesto issued by the Duke of Brunswick. The Duke knew little
indeed of the psychology of the French race when he
proffered his threats. Not only did he considerably prejudice
the cause of Louis XVI.; but he also damaged his own, since his
intervention raised from the soil an army eager to fight him.
This sudden explosion of feeling throughout a whole race has been
observed in all nations. Napoleon did not understand the power
of such explosions when he invaded Spain and Russia. One may
easily disaggregate the facile mind of a crowd, but one can do
nothing before the permanent soul of a race. Certainly the
Russian peasant is a very indifferent being, gross and narrow by
nature, yet at the first news of invasion he was transformed.
One may judge of this fact on reading a letter written by
Elizabeth, wife of the Emperor Alexander I.
``From the moment when Napoleon had crossed our frontiers it was
as though an electric spark had spread through all Russia; and if
the immensity of its area had made it possible for the news to
penetrate simultaneously to every corner of the Empire a cry of
indignation would have arisen so terrible that I believe it would
have resounded to the ends of the earth. As Napoleon advances
this feeling is growing yet stronger. Old men who have lost all
or nearly all their goods are saying: `We shall find a way of
living. Anything is preferable to a shameful peace.' Women all
of whose kin are in the army regard the dangers they are running
as secondary, and fear nothing but peace. Happily this peace,
which would be the death-warrant of Russia, will not be
negotiated; the Emperor does not conceive of such an idea, and
even if he would he could not. This is the heroic side of our
The Empress describes to her mother the two following traits,
which give some idea of the degree of resistance of which the
soul of the Russian is capable:--
``The Frenchmen had caught some unhappy peasants in Moscow, whom
they thought to force to serve in their ranks, and in order that
they should not be able to escape they branded their hands as one
brands horses in the stud. One of them asked what this mark
meant; he was told it signified that he was a French soldier.
`What! I am a soldier of the Emperor of the French!' he said.
And immediately he took his hatchet, cut off his hand, and threw
it at the feet of those present, saying, `Take it--there's your
``At Moscow, too, the French had taken a score of peasants of
whom they wished to make an example in order to frighten the
villagers, who were picking off the French foraging parties and
were making war as well as the detachments of regular troops.
They ranged them against a wall and read their sentence in
Russian. They waited for them to beg for mercy: instead of that
they took farewell of one another and made their sign of the
cross. The French fired on the first of them; they waited for
the rest to beg for pardon in their terror, and to promise to
change their conduct. They fired on the second, and on the
third, and so on all the twenty, without a single one having
attempted to implore the clemency of the enemy. Napoleon has
not once had the pleasure of profaning this word in Russia.''
Among the characteristics of the popular mind we must mention
that in all peoples and all ages it has been saturated
with mysticism. The people will always be convinced that
superior beings--divinities, Governments, or great men--have the
power to change things at will. This mystic side produces an
intense need of adoration. The people must have a fetich, either
a man or a doctrine. This is why, when threatened with anarchy,
it calls for a Messiah to save it.
Like the crowd, but more slowly, the people readily passes from
adoration to hatred. A man may be the hero of the people at one
period, and finally earn its curses. These variations of popular
opinion concerning political personalities may be observed in all
times. The history of Cromwell furnishes us with a very curious
 After having overthrown a dynasty and refused a crown he was
buried like a king among kings. Two years later his body was
torn from the tomb, and his head, cut off by the executioner, was
exposed above the gate of the House of Parliament. A little
while ago a statue was raised to him. The old anarchist turned
autocrat now figures in the gallery of demigods.
4. The Role of the Leader in Revolutionary Movements.
All the varieties of crowds--homogeneous and heterogeneous,
assemblies, peoples, clubs, &c.--are, as we have often repeated,
aggregates incapable of unity and action so long as they find no
master to lead them.
I have shown elsewhere, making use of certain physiological
experiments, that the unconscious collective mind of the crowd
seems bound up with the mind of the leader. The latter gives it
a single will and imposes absolute obedience.
The leader acts especially through suggestion. His success
depends on his fashion of provoking this suggestion. Many
experiments have shown to what point a collectivity may be
subjected to suggestion.
 Among the numerous experiments made to prove this fact one of
the most remarkable was performed on the pupils of his class by
Professor Glosson and published in the Revue Scientifique for
October 28, 1899.
``I prepared a bottle filled with distilled water carefully
wrapped in cotton and packed in a box. After several other
experiments I stated that I wished to measure the rapidity with
which an odour would diffuse itself through the air, and asked
those present to raise their hands the moment they perceived the
odour. . . . I took out the bottle and poured the water on the
cotton, turning my head away during the operation, then took up a
stop-watch and awaited the result. . . . I explained that I was
absolutely sure that no one present had ever smelt the odour of
the chemical composition I had spilt. . . . At the end of
fifteen seconds the majority of those in front had held up their
hands, and in forty seconds the odour had reached the back of the
hall by fairly regular waves. About three-quarters of those
present declared that they perceived the odour. A larger number
would doubtless have succumbed to suggestion, if at the end of a
minute I had not been forced to stop the experiment, some of
those in the front rows being unpleasantly affected by the odour,
and wishing to leave the hall.''
According to the suggestions of the leaders, the multitude will
be calm, furious, criminal, or heroic. These various suggestions
may sometimes appear to present a rational aspect, but they will
only appear to be reasonable. A crowd is in reality inaccessible
to reason; the only ideas capable of influencing it will always
be sentiments evoked in the form of images.
The history of the Revolution shows on every page how easily the
multitude follows the most contradictory impulses given by
its different leaders. We see it applaud just as vigorously at
the triumph of the Girondists, the Hebertists, the Dantonists,
and the Terrorists as at their successive downfalls. One may be
quite sure, also, that the crowd understood nothing of these
At a distance one can only confusedly perceive the part played by
the leaders, for they commonly work in the shade. To grasp this
clearly we must study them in contemporary events. We shall then
see how readily the leader can provoke the most violent popular
movements. We are not thinking here of the strikes of the
postmen or railway men, in which the discontent of the employees
might intervene, but of events in which the crowd was not in the
least interested. Such, for example, was the popular rising
provoked by a few Socialist leaders amidst the Parisian populace
on the morrow of the execution of Ferrer, in Spain. The French
crowd had never heard of Ferrer. In Spain his execution was
almost unnoticed. In Paris the incitements of a few leaders
sufficed to hurl a regular popular army upon the Spanish Embassy,
with the intention of burning it. Part of the garrison had to be
employed to protect it. Energetically repulsed, the assailants
contented themselves with sacking a few shops and building some
At the same time, the leaders gave another proof of their
influence. Finally understanding that the burning of a foreign
embassy might be extremely dangerous, they ordered a pacific
demonstration for the following day, and were as faithfully
obeyed as if they had ordered the most violent riot. No
example could better show the importance of leaders and the
submission of the crowd
The historians who, from Michelet to M. Aulard, have represented
the revolutionary crowd as having acted on its own initiative,
without leaders, do not comprehend its psychology.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE REVOLUTIONARY ASSEMBLIES
1. Psychological Characteristics of the great Revolutionary
A great political assembly, a parliament for example, is a crowd,
but a crowd which sometimes fails in effectual action on account
of the contrary sentiments of the hostile groups composing it.
The presence of these groups, actuated by different interests,
must make us consider an assembly as formed of superimposed and
heterogeneous crowds, each obeying its particular leaders. The
law of the mental unity of crowds is manifested only in each
group, and it is only as a result of exceptional circumstances
that the different groups act with a single intention.
Each group in an assembly represents a single being. The
individuals contributing to the formation of this being are no
longer themselves, and will unhesitatingly vote against their
convictions and their wishes. On the eve of the day when Louis
XVI. was to be condemned Vergniaud protested with indignation
against the suggestion that he should vote for his death; but he
did so vote on the following day.
The action of a group consists chiefly in fortifying hesitating
opinions. All feeble individual convictions become confirmed
upon becoming collective.
Leaders of great repute or unusual violence can sometimes, by
acting on all the groups of an assembly, make them a single
crowd. The majority of the members of the Convention enacted
measures entirely contrary to their opinions under the influence
of a very small number of such leaders.
Collectivities have always given way before active sectaries.
The history of the revolutionary Assemblies shows how
pusillanimous they were, despite the boldness of their language
respecting kings, before the leaders of the popular riots. The
invasion of a band of energumens commanded by an imperious leader
was enough to make them vote then and there the most absurd and
An assembly, having the characteristics of a crowd, will, like a
crowd, be extreme in its sentiments. Excessive in its violence,
it will be excessive in its cowardice. In general it will be
insolent to the weak and servile before the strong.
We remember the fearful humility of the Parliament when the
youthful Louis XIV. entered, whip in hand, to pronounce his brief
speech. We know with what increasing impertinence the
Constituent Assembly treated Louis XVI. as it felt that he was
becoming defenceless. Finally, we recall the terror of the
Convention under the reign of Robespierre.
This characteristic of assemblies being a general law, the
convocation of an assembly by a sovereign when his power is
failing must be regarded as a gross error in psychology. The
assembling of the States General cost the life of Louis
XVI. It all but lost Henry III. his throne, when, obliged to
leave Paris, he had the unhappy idea of assembling the Estates at
Blois. Conscious of the weakness of the king, the Estates at
once spoke as masters of the situation, modifying taxes,
dismissing officials, and claiming that their decisions should
have the force of law.
This progressive exaggeration of sentiments was plainly
demonstrated in all the assemblies of the Revolution. The
Constituent Assembly, at first extremely respectful toward the
royal authority and its prerogatives, finally proclaimed itself a
sovereign Assembly, and treated Louis XVI as a mere official.
The Convention, after relatively moderate beginnings, ended with
a preliminary form of the Terror, when judgments were still
surrounded by certain legal guarantees: then, quickly increasing
its powers, it enacted a law depriving all accused persons of the
right of defence, permitting their condemnation upon the mere
suspicion of being suspect. Yielding more and more to its
sanguinary frenzy, it finally decimated itself. Girondists,
Hebertists, Dantonists, and Robespierrists successively ended
their careers at the hands of the executioner.
This exaggeration of the sentiments of assemblies explains why
they were always so little able to control their own destinies
and why they so often arrived at conclusions exactly contrary to
the ends proposed. Catholic and royalist, the Constituent
Assembly, instead of the constitutional monarchy it wished to
establish and the religion it wished to defend, rapidly led
France to a violent republic and the persecution of the clergy.
Political assemblies are composed, as we have seen, of
heterogeneous groups, but they have sometimes been formed of
homogeneous groups, as, for instance, certain of the clubs, which
played so enormous a part during the Revolution, and whose
psychology deserves a special examination.
2. The Psychology of the Revolutionary Clubs.
Small assemblies of men possessing the same opinions, the same
beliefs, and the same interests, which eliminate all dissentient
voices, differ from the great assemblies by the unity of their
sentiments and therefore their wills. Such were the communes,
the religious congregations, the corporations, and the clubs
during the Revolution, the secret societies during the first half
of the nineteenth century, and the Freemasons and syndicalists of
The points of difference between a heterogeneous assembly and a
homogeneous club must be thoroughly grasped if we are to
comprehend the progress of the French Revolution. Until the
Directory and especially during the Convention the Revolution was
directed by the clubs.
Despite the unity of will due to the absence of dissident parties
the clubs obey the laws of the psychology of crowds. They are
consequently subjugated by leaders. This we see especially in
the Jacobin Club, which was dominated by Robespierre.
The function of the leader of a club, a homogeneous crowd, is far
more difficult than that of a leader of a heterogeneous crowd.
The latter may easily be led by harping on a small number of
strings, but in a homogeneous group like a club, whose
sentiments and interests are identical, the leader must
know how to humour them and is often himself led.
Part of the strength of homogeneous agglomerations resides in
their anonymity. We know that during the Commune of 1871 a few
anonymous orders sufficed to effect the burning of the finest
monuments of Paris: the Hotel de Ville, the Tuileries, the
Cour des Comptes, the buildings of the Legion of Honour, &c. A
brief order from the anonymous committees, ``Burn Finances, burn
Tuileries,'' &c., was immediately executed. An unlooked-for
chance only saved the Louvre and its collections. We know too
what religious attention is in our days accorded to the most
absurd injunctions of the anonymous leaders of the trades unions.
The clubs of Paris and the insurrectionary Commune were not less
scrupulously obeyed at the time of the Revolution. An order
emanating from these was sufficient to hurl upon the Assembly a
popular army which dictated its wishes.
Summing up the history of the Convention in another chapter, we
shall see how frequent were these irruptions, and with what
servility the Assembly, which according to the legends was so
powerful bowed itself before the most imperative injunctions of a
handful of rioters. Instructed by experience, the Directory
closed the clubs and put an end to the invasion of the populace
by energetically shooting them down.
The Convention had early grasped the superiority of homogeneous
groups over heterogeneous assemblies in matters of government,
which is why it subdivided itself into committees composed each
of a limited number of individuals. These committees--of
Public Safety, of Finance, &c.--formed small sovereign assemblies
in the midst of the larger Assembly. Their power was held in
check only by that of the clubs.
The preceding considerations show the power of groups over the
wills of the members composing them. If the group is
homogeneous, this action is considerable; if it is heterogeneous,
it is less considerable but may still become important, either
because the more powerful groups of an assembly will dominate
those whose cohesion is weaker or because certain contagious
sentiments will often extend themselves to all the members of an
A memorable example of this influence of groups occurred at the
time of the Revolution, when, on the night of the 4th of August,
the nobles voted, on the proposition of one of their members, the
abandonment of feudal privileges. Yet we know that the
Revolution resulted in part from the refusal of the clergy and
the nobles to renounce their privileges. Why did they refuse to
renounce them at first? Simply because men in a crowd do not act
as the same men singly. Individually no member of the nobility
would ever have abandoned his rights.
Of this influence of assemblies upon their members Napoleon at
St. Helena cited some curious examples: ``Nothing was more
common than to meet with men at this period quite unlike the
reputation that their acts and words would seem to justify. For
instance, one might have supposed Monge to be a terrible fellow;
when war was decided upon he mounted the tribune of the Jacobins
and declared that he would give his two daughters to the two
first soldiers to be wounded by the enemy. He wanted the
nobles to be killed, &c. Now, Monge was the most gentle and
feeble of men, and wouldn't have had a chicken killed if he had
had to do it with his own hands, or even to have it done in his
3. A Suggested Explanation of the Progressive Exaggeration of
Sentiments in Assemblies.
If collective sentiments were susceptible of exact quantitative
measurement, we might translate them by a curve which, after a
first gradual ascent, runs upward with extreme rapidity and then
falls almost vertically. The equation of this curve might be
called the equation of the variations of collective sentiments
subjected to a constant excitation.
It is not always easy to explain the acceleration of certain
sentiments under the influence of a constant exciting cause.
Perhaps, however, one may say that if the laws of psychology are
comparable to those of mechanics, a cause of invariable
dimensions acting in a continuous fashion will rapidly increase
the intensity of a sentiment. We know, for example, that a force
which is constant in dimension and direction, such as gravity
acting upon a mass, will cause an accelerated movement. The
speed of a free object falling in space under the influence of
gravity will be about 32 feet during the first second, 64 feet
during the next, 96 feet during the next, &c. It would be easy,
were the moving body allowed to fall from a sufficient height, to
give it a velocity sufficient to perforate a plate of steel.
But although this explanation is applicable to the acceleration
of a sentiment subjected to a constant exciting cause, it
does not tell us why the effects of acceleration finally and
suddenly cease. Such a fall is only comprehensible if we bring
in physiological factors--that is, if we remember that pleasure,
like pain, cannot exceed certain limits, and that all sensations,
when too violent, result in the paralysis of sensation. Our
organism can only support a certain maximum of joy, pain, or
effort, and it cannot support that maximum for long together.
The hand which grasps a dynamometer soon exhausts its effort, and
is obliged suddenly to let go.
The study of the causes of the rapid disappearance of certain
groups of sentiments in assemblies will remind us of the fact
that beside the party which is predominant by means of its
strength or prestige there are others whose sentiments,
restrained by this force or prestige, have not reached their full
development. Some chance circumstance may somewhat weaken the
prevailing party, when immediately the suppressed sentiments of
the adverse parties may become preponderant. The Mountain
learned this lesson after Thermidor.
All analogies that we may seek to establish between the laws of
material phenomena and those which condition the evolution of
affective and mystic factors are evidently extremely rough. They
must be so until the mechanism of the cerebral functions is
better understood than it is to-day.
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
THE ORIGINS OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
THE OPINIONS OF HISTORIANS CONCERNING THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
1. The Historians of the Revolution.
The most contradictory opinions have been expressed respecting
the French Revolution, and although only a century separates us
from the period in question it seems impossible as yet to judge
it calmly. For de Maistre it was ``a satanic piece of work,''
and ``never was the action of the spirit of darkness so evidently
manifested.'' For the modern Jacobins it has regenerated the
Foreigners who live in France still regard it as a subject to be
avoided in conversation.
``Everywhere,'' writes Barrett Wendell, ``this memory and these
traditions are still endowed with such vitality that few persons
are capable of considering them dispassionately. They still
excite both enthusiasm and resentment; they are still regarded
with a loyal and ardent spirit of partisanship. The better you
come to understand France the more clearly you see that even to-
day no study of the Revolution strikes any Frenchman as
having been impartial.''
This observation is perfectly correct. To be interpretable with
equity, the events of the past must no longer be productive of
results and must not touch the religious or political beliefs
whose inevitable intolerance I have denoted.
We must not therefore be surprised that historians express very
different ideas respecting the Revolution. For a long time to
come some will still see in it one of the most sinister events of
history, while to others it will remain one of the most glorious.
All writers on the subject have believed that they have related
its course with impartiality, but in general they have merely
supported contradictory theories of peculiar simplicity. The
documents being innumerable and contradictory, their conscious or
unconscious choice has readily enabled them to justify their
The older historians of the Revolution--Thiers, Quinet, and,
despite his talent, Michelet himself, are somewhat eclipsed to-
day. Their doctrines were by no means complicated; a historic
fatalism prevails generally in their work. Thiers regarded the
Revolution as the result of several centuries of absolute
monarchy, and the Terror as the necessary consequence of foreign
invasion. Quinet described the excesses of 1793 as the result of
a long-continued despotism, but declared that the tyranny of the
Convention was unnecessary, and hampered the work of the
Revolution. Michelet saw in this last merely the work of the
people, whom he blindly admired, and commenced the glorification
continued by other historians.
The former reputation of all these historians has been to a great
extent effaced by that of Taine. Although equally impassioned,
he threw a brilliant light upon the revolutionary period, and it
will doubtless be long before his work is superseded.
Work so important is bound to show faults. Taine is admirable in
the representation of facts and persons, but he attempts to judge
by the standard of rational logic events which were not dictated
by reason, and which, therefore, he cannot interpret. His
psychology, excellent when it is merely descriptive, is very weak
as soon as it becomes explanatory. To affirm that Robespierre
was a pedantic ``swotter'' is not to reveal the causes of his
absolute power over the Convention, at a time when he had spent
several months in decimating it with perfect impunity. It has
very justly been said of Taine that he saw well and understood
Despite these restrictions his work is highly remarkable and has
not been equalled. We may judge of his immense influence by the
exasperation which he causes among the faithful defenders of
Jacobin orthodoxy, of which M. Aulard, professor at the Sorbonne,
is to-day the high priest. The latter has devoted two years to
writing a pamphlet against Taine, every line of which is steeped
in passion. All this time spent in rectifying a few material
errors which are not really significant has only resulted in the
perpetration of the very same errors.
Reviewing his work, M. A. Cochin shows that M. Aulard has at
least on every other occasion been deceived by his quotations,
whereas Taine erred far more rarely. The same historian shows
also that we must not trust M. Aulard's sources.
``These sources--proceedings, pamphlets, journals, and the
speeches and writings of patriots--are precisely the authentic
publications of patriotism, edited by patriots, and edited, as a
rule, for the benefit of the public. He ought to have seen in
all this simply the special pleading of the defendant: he had,
before his eyes, a ready-made history of the Revolution, which
presents, side by side with each of the acts of the `People,'
from the massacres of September to the law of Prairial, a ready-
made explanation according to the republican system of defence.''
Perhaps the fairest criticism that one can make of the work of
Taine is that it was left incomplete. He studied more especially
the role of the populace and its leaders during the
revolutionary period. This inspired him with pages vibrating
with an indignation which we can still admire, but several
important aspects of the Revolution escaped him.
Whatever one may think of the Revolution, an irreducible
difference will always exist between historians of the school of
Taine and those of the school of M. Aulard. The latter regards
the sovereign people as admirable, while the former shows us that
when abandoned to its instincts and liberated from all social
restraint it relapses into primitive savagery. The conception of
M. Aulard, entirely contrary to the lessons of the psychology of
crowds, is none the less a religious dogma in the eyes of modern
Jacobins. They write of the Revolution according to the methods
of believers, and take for learned works the arguments of virtual
2. The Theory of Fatalism in respect of the Revolution.
Advocates and detractors of the Revolution often admit the
fatality of revolutionary events. This theory is well
synthetised in the following passage from the History of the
Revolution, by Emile Olivier:--
``No man could oppose it. The blame belongs neither to those who
perished nor to those who survived; there was no individual force
capable of changing the elements and of foreseeing the events
which were born of the nature of things and circumstances.''
Taine himself inclines to this idea:--
``At the moment when the States General were opened the course of
ideas and events was not only determined but even visible. Each
generation unwittingly bears within itself its future and its
past; from the latter its destinies might have been foretold long
before the issue.''
Other modern authors, who profess no more indulgence for the
violence of the revolutionaries than did Taine, are equally
convinced of this fatality. M. Sorel, after recalling the saying
of Bossuet concerning the revolutions of antiquity: ``Everything
is surprising if we only consider particular causes, and yet
everything goes forward in regular sequence,'' expresses an
intention which he very imperfectly realises: ``to show in the
Revolution, which seems to some the subversion and to others the
regeneration of the old European world, the natural and necessary
result of the history of Europe, and to show, moreover, that this
revolution had no result--not even the most unexpected--that did
not ensue from this history, and was not explained by the
precedents of the ancien regime.''
Guizot also had formerly attempted to prove that our Revolution,
which he quite wrongly compared to that of England, was perfectly
natural and effected no innovations:--
``Far from having broken with the natural course of events in
Europe, neither the English revolution nor our own did, intended,
or said anything that had not been said, intended, and done a
hundred years before its outbreak.
`` . . . Whether we regard the general doctrines of the two
revolutions or the application made of them--whether we deal with
the government of the State or with the civil legislation, with
property or with persons, with liberty or with power, we shall
find nothing of which the invention can be attributed to them,
nothing that will not be encountered elsewhere, or that was not
at least originated in times which we qualify as normal.''
All these assertions merely recall the banal law that a
phenomenon is simply the consequence of previous phenomena. Such
very general propositions do not teach us much.
We must not try to explain too many events by the principle of
fatality adopted by so many historians. I have elsewhere
discussed the significance of such fatalities, and have shown
that the whole effort of civilisation consists in trying to
escape therefrom. Certainly history is full of necessities, but
it is also full of contingent facts which were, and might not
have been. Napoleon himself, on St. Helena, enumerated six
circumstances which might have checked his prodigious career. He
related, notably, that on taking a bath at Auxonne, in 1786, he
only escaped death by the fortuitous presence of a sandbank. If
Bonaparte had died, then we may admit that another general would
have arisen, and might have become dictator. But what would have
become of the Imperial epic and its consequences without
the man of genius who led our victorious armies into all the
capitals of Europe?
It is permissible to consider the Revolution as being partly a
necessity, but it was above all--which is what the fatalistic
writers already cited do not show us--a permanent struggle
between theorists who were imbued with a new ideal, and the
economic, social, and political laws which ruled mankind, and
which they did not understand. Not understanding them, they
sought in vain to direct the course of events, were exasperated
at their failure, and finally committed every species of
violence. They decreed that the paper money known as assignats
should be accepted as the equivalent of gold, and all their
threats could not prevent the fictitious value of such money
falling almost to nothing. They decreed the law of the maximum,
and it merely increased the evils it was intended to remedy.
Robespierre declared before the Convention ``that all the sans-
culottes will be paid at the expense of the public treasury,
which will be fed by the rich,'' and in spite of requisitions and
the guillotine the treasury remained empty.
Having broken all human restraints, the men of the Revolution
finally discovered that a society cannot live without them; but
when they sought to create them anew they saw that even the
strongest society, though supported by the fear of the
guillotine, could not replace the discipline which the past had
slowly built up in the minds of men. As for understanding the
evolution of society, or judging men's hearts and minds, or
foreseeing the consequences of the laws they enacted, they
scarcely attempted to do so.
The events of the Revolution did not ensue from
irreducible necessities. They were far more the consequence of
Jacobin principles than of circumstances, and might have been
quite other than they were. Would the Revolution have followed
the same path if Louis XVI. had been better advised, or if the
Constituent Assembly had been less cowardly in times of popular
insurrection? The theory of revolutionary fatality is only
useful to justify violence by presenting it as inevitable.
Whether we are dealing with science or with history we must
beware of the ignorance which takes shelter under the shibboleth
of fatalism Nature was formerly full of a host of fatalities
which science is slowly contriving to avoid. The function of the
superior man is, as I have shown elsewhere, to avert such
3. The Hesitations of recent Historians of the Revolution.
The historians whose ideas we have examined in the preceding
chapter were extremely positive in their special pleading.
Confined within the limits of belief, they did not attempt to
penetrate the domain of knowledge. A monarchical writer was
violently hostile to the Revolution, and a liberal writer was its
At the present time we can see the commencement of a movement
which will surely lead to the study of the Revolution as one of
those scientific phenomena into which the opinions and beliefs of
a writer enter so little that the reader does not even suspect
This period has not yet come into being; we are still in the
period of doubt. The liberal writers who used to be so positive
are now so no longer. One may judge of this new state of
mind by the following extracts from recent authors:--
M. Hanotaux, having vaunted the utility of the Revolution, asks
whether its results were not bought too dearly, and adds:--
``History hesitates, and will, for a long time yet, hesitate to
M. Madelin is equally dubious in the book he has recently
``I have never felt sufficient authority to form, even in my
inmost conscience, a categorical judgment on so complex a
phenomenon as the French Revolution. To-day I find it even more
difficult to form a brief judgement. Causes, facts, and
consequences seem to me to be still extremely debatable
One may obtain a still better idea of the transformation of the
old ideas concerning the Revolution by perusing the latest
writings of its official defenders. While they professed
formerly to justify every act of violence by representing it as a
simple act of defence, they now confine themselves to pleading
extenuating circumstances. I find a striking proof of this new
frame of mind in the history of France for the use of schools,
published by MM. Aulard and Debidour. Concerning the Terror we
read the following lines:--
``Blood flowed in waves; there were acts of injustice and crimes
which were useless from the point of view of national defence,
and odious. But men had lost their heads in the tempest, and,
harassed by a thousand dangers, the patriots struck out in their
We shall see in another part of this work that the first of the
two authors whom I have cited is, in spite of his
uncompromising Jacobinism, by no means indulgent toward the men
formerly qualified as the ``Giants of the Convention.''
The judgments of foreigners upon our Revolution are usually
distinctly severe, and we cannot be surprised when we remember
how Europe suffered during the twenty years of upheaval in
The Germans in particular have been most severe. Their opinion
is summed up in the following lines by M. Faguet:--
``Let us say it courageously and patriotically, for patriotism
consists above all in telling the truth to one's own country:
Germany sees in France, with regard to the past, a people who,
with the great words `liberty' and `fraternity' in its mouth,
oppressed, trampled, murdered, pillaged, and fleeced her for
fifteen years; and with regard to the present, a people who, with
the same words on its banners, is organising a despotic,
oppressive, mischievous, and ruinous democracy, which none would
seek to imitate. This is what Germany may well see in France;
and this, according to her books and journals, is, we may assure
ourselves, what she does see.''
For the rest, whatever the worth of the verdicts pronounced upon
the French Revolution, we may be certain that the writers of the
future will consider it as an event as passionately interesting
as it is instructive.
A Government bloodthirsty enough to guillotine old men of eighty
years, young girls, and little children: which covered France
with ruins, and yet succeeded in repulsing Europe in arms; an
archduchess of Austria, Queen of France, dying on the
scaffold, and a few years later another archduchess, her
relative, replacing her on the same throne and marrying a sub-
lieutenant, turned Emperor--here are tragedies unique in human
history. The psychologists, above all, will derive lessons from
a history hitherto so little studied by them. No doubt they will
finally discover that psychology can make no progress until it
renounces chimerical theories and laboratory experiments in order
to study the events and the men who surround us.
 This advice is far from being banal. The psychologists of
the day pay very little attention to the world about them, and
are even surprised that any one should study it. I have come
across an interesting proof of this indifferent frame of mind in
a review of one of my books which appeared in the Revue
philosophique and was inspired by the editor of the review. The
author reproaches me with ``exploring the world and the
newspapers rather than books.''
I most gladly accept this reproach. The manifold facts of the
journals and the realities of the world are far more instructive
than philosophical lucubrations such as the Revue is stuffed
Philosophers are beginning to see the puerility of such
reproaches. It was certainly of the forty volumes of this
fastidious publication that Mr. William James was thinking when
he wrote that all these dissertations simply represented ``a
string of facts clumsily observed and a few quarrelsome
discussions.'' Although he is the author of the best known
treatise on psychology extant, the eminent thinker realises ``the
fragility of a science that oozes metaphysical criticism at every
joint.'' For more than twenty years I have tried to interest
psychologists in the study of realities, but the stream of
university metaphysics is hardly yet turned aside, although it
has lost its former force
4. Impartiality in History.
Impartiality has always been considered as the most essential
quality of the historian. All historians since Tacitus have
assured us that they are impartial.
In reality the writer sees events as the painter sees a
landscape--that is, through his own temperament; through his
character and the mind of the race.
A number of artists, placed before the same landscape, would
necessarily interpret it in as many different fashions. Some
would lay stress upon details neglected by others. Each
reproduction would thus be a personal work--that is to say, would
be interpreted by a certain form of sensibility.
It is the same with the writer. We can no more speak of the
impartiality of the historian than we can speak of the
impartiality of the painter.
Certainly the historian may confine himself to the reproduction
of documents, and this is the present tendency. But these
documents, for periods as near us as the Revolution, are so
abundant that a man's whole life would not suffice to go through
them. Therefore the historian must make a choice.
Consciously sometimes, but more often unconsciously, the author
will select the material which best corresponds with his
political, moral, and social opinions.
It is therefore impossible, unless he contents himself with
simple chronologies summing up each event with a few words and a
date, to produce a truly impartial volume of history. No author
could be impartial; and it is not to be regretted. The claim to
impartiality, so common to-day, results in those flat, gloomy,
and prodigiously wearisome works which render the comprehension
of a period completely impossible.
Should the historian, under a pretext of impartiality, abstain
from judging men--that is, from speaking in tones of admiration
This question, I admit, allows of two very different solutions,
Back to Full Books