The Western Intellectual Behind China’s Distrust of the Crowd

Joseph Chan/Wan Chai, Hong Kong

The outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Wuhan has since been proved to be more than a crisis of public health. It has now become an issue of political trust. The government’s early suppression of whistleblowing, the bureaucratic apparatus’s inefficiency in dealing with a health crisis, and the Red Cross Society of China’s monopolization and mysterious distribution of public donations, are all under massive fire. Amid this rare episode of collective anger at the government, a specter that has been haunting the Chinese public sphere for two decades has promptly returned. It is Gustave Le Bon’s 1895 book, The Crowd. Since the early 2000s, Le Bon’s mass psychology has appeared in numerous discussions of collective sentiments and collective action in the Chinese public sphere. The name-dropping of Le Bon in this context usually serves as a reminder of the alleged “carnivalistic” nature of collective sentiments: irrationality, receptiveness, and anti-intellectualism.

Originally, The Crowd was Le Bon’s theoretical footnote to the Paris Commune. On May 23, 1871, facing the irreversible fate of defeat, leaders of the Paris Commune burned down symbols of the government, including the Tuileries Palace and Hôtel de Ville. The 31-year-old Le Bon, who had just left the French Army where he served as a medical officer during the Franco-Prussian War, witnessed this fire. Utterly shocked, he was determined to develop a new science of the human mind that could explain the seemingly inexplicable phenomenon of collective passion in his eyes.

Roughly a quarter-century later, The Crowd was published under the title Psychologie des Foules, which means “crowd psychology.” Traumatized by the Paris Commune, the upper-class Parisians found themselves in an urgent need of explanations of the Communards’ behaviors. Back then, the predominant theories about the Communards characterized them as lunatics, social wastes, or criminals. All these characterizations zoomed in on the individualist level of human behaviors. It was Le Bon who creatively introduced the perspective of the mass. He argued that it was the crowd that changed people’s behaviors: “whoever be the individuals that compose it…the fact that they have been transformed into a crowd puts them in possession of a sort of collective mind which makes them feel, think, and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would feel, think, and act were he in a state of isolation.”

Le Bon believed that crowd psychology functioned on the level of unconsciousness, an irrational layer of the human mind that was hidden behind our conscious intentions. When an individual becomes one of the crowd, the personal characteristics that distinguish them from others diminishes, and the shared unconsciousness begins to emerge as the dominant force of actions. Since unconsciousness is irrational, it does not seek intellectual aptitudes; therefore, the crowd can only accumulate “stupidity and not mother-wit.” Moreover, Le Bon postulated that behaviors were contagious in the crowd setting, rendering the whole crowd gullible. Hence, even when a crowd is assembled for progressive ideas, it is essentially regressive. The emergence of mass politics, for Le Bon, is a symbol of a degenerating civilization.

Le Bon’s theory also borrowed from hypnosis, then an inchoate method in psychiatry. Reflecting on the process of hypnosis, Le Bon argued that a crowd, once formed, was likely to place itself under the leadership of an authoritative figure. The leader was often hypnotized by radical political ideas. When he sacrifices his personal safety and interests in pursuit of these ideas, he also hypnotizes the crowd, exploiting the crowd’s weaknesses for his own ends.

Europe’s public and intellectual spheres widely discussed The Crowd after it was published. But more than a century later, Le Bon’s psychological theory is now mostly introduced merely as an episode in the long history of European social thought. Unlike more enduring theorists, like Max Weber, Le Bon significantly limits the understanding of the masses to an elitist perspective.

Le Bon failed to explain why individual members would choose to be part of the crowd. A straightforward answer is that feelings of anger, anxiety, fear, and powerlessness, or even just meaninglessness or dissatisfaction with the current order, are pervasive in the lives of many or most people in society. These feelings are usually suppressed in everyday life, but in the crowd, they find an outlet. The anonymous crowd provides a self-reinforcing social context of felt impunity and comradery, and even a revolutionary vision that promises to alleviate the everyday struggle in a grand uprising towards a new way of being. This energetic feeling of possibility isn’t always realistic, but in the powerful social context of the crowd, awash in social proof and apparent transformative power, it is nevertheless compelling.

But this kind of answer was not available from Le Bon’s angle. He abstracted the subject of his study from the historical, sociological, and psychological conditions they were rooted in, reducing a social problem of organizing or mis-organizing people’s intense feelings of need to one of individual morality and choice. This went hand-in-hand with a strikingly narrow understanding of the role passion plays in politics, which he always deemed undesirable and detrimental, without any redeeming ability to be constructive or transformative.

Le Bon also significantly misunderstood a leader’s impact on mass politics, seeing the crowd as merely being shaped. In reality, they mutually shape each other’s ideas and actions. For instance, even in the 1960s China, when Mao Zedong’s cult of personality was deeply entrenched to the legitimacy of the Cultural Revolution, the seemingly unchallengeable Mao Zedong Thought was constantly re-interpreted by his followers. Some of these interpretations were even more radically democratic than Mao’s original intentions, forcing Mao to turn away from egalitarianism and adopt antidemocratic and oppressive elements in his program.

These flaws in Le Bon’s theory deeply undermines the possible contributions The Crowd makes to mass psychology. By the 1960s, Le Bon’s crowd psychology had been gradually replaced by collective action theories.

However, The Crowd has experienced an unexpected afterlife in China at the beginning of the 21st century.

Le Bon’s works were already introduced to China at the beginning of the twentieth century. Thinkers of the late Qing and early Republic era, including Liang Qichao, Liang Shuming, Lu Xun, and Zhou Zuoren, were familiar with Le Bon’s other book, The Psychology of Peoples. Confronted with the question of national salvation, Le Bon’s discussion of how later generations of a race inherited psychological traits from their ancestors prepared a ground for their analysis of the relationship between the national character of the Chinese people and the backwardness of the Chinese nation. The Crowd was translated into Chinese in the 1920s, and it provoked a series of debates about the malleability of crowds and the political opportunities present in this malleability among intellectuals. After the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949, Le Bon’s thought, together with other “bourgeois sociologies,” was banned from Chinese academia. The academic silence on Le Bon ended in the late 1970s when Deng Xiaoping pushed for the reestablishment of social science disciplines. But its entry to the public sphere would have to wait until the year 2000.

In that year, Chinese translator Feng Keli, who also translated works of Friedrich Hayek, Benjamin Constant, and Isaiah Berlin later in his career, published a new translation of The Crowd with the ‎Central Compilation and Translation Press, an institution belonging to Compilation and Translation Bureau, an organ under the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. This time, the title of the book was translated as the pejorative phrase Wuhe zhi zhong (乌合之众), meaning “the mob.”

That a work advocating for an elitist dismissal of mass politics was published in a press directly linked to the Central Committee of the CPC exemplifies two favorable conditions for the impact of Le Bon’s thought in the Chinese public sphere in the Reform era.

The first condition is the intellectual search for the roots of chaos and violence during the Cultural Revolution. Feng’s own remarks as a translator reveal why Le Bon’s mass psychology became part of this search. Feng believes that at the end of the Qing Dynasty, China was forced to learn from the West in a historic moment when Prussian militarism was on the rise, a moment he calls “the deterioration of Western civilization.” To him, the defining character of this era of deterioration is the appearance of various forms of collectivism, including nationalism, racism, communism, social Darwinism, anarchism, and others. This wave of collectivism blurred the boundary between individuals, turning the existential meaning of individuals into components of grand ideological schemes. Forced to enter the global order of this era, China learned from the dark side of the West and neglected Western discontents who were critical of this zeitgeist. For Feng, the anti-collectivist elements in the writings of Le Bon, Hayek, and Berlin are an important source of theoretical reflection for Chinese intellectuals, who had been enraptured by the mythology of Western superiority, and therefore previously unable to criticize Western political thought.

In particular, Feng highlights democratization as the political manifestation of such deterioration. In this process of democratization, philistine and snobbish voters replaced artful, reasonable, virtuous aristocrats as the political agency and the driving force of the society. “The Crowd, a book I translated, was a reflection…of the Europeans’ lack of faith in their own civilization. All sorts of ideological doctrines only emerged afterwards,” Feng said in a 2017 interview.

What is reflected in Feng’s intention of translating The Crowd is a larger agenda shared among many liberal intellectuals since the late 1970s. Similar to the historical background of its reception in Europe and America in the early twentieth century, The Crowd’s reintroduction in China also coincided with a search of explanations for collective trauma. After the Cultural Revolution, many Chinese intellectuals were not merely shocked and traumatized but also puzzled. They were driven to identify the possible sources of violence they witnessed and experienced during the Cultural Revolution. Some, like the novelist Han Shaogong, turned to the destruction of local traditions to search for the causes of the Cultural Revolution. Confucianists like Chen Lai blamed “Western radicalism” for misleading the Chinese nation. The psychological dynamics in a group setting and the threats posed by radical groups were, of course, also topics of investigation.

Feng’s remarks epitomize a recurring theme in the post-Cultural Revolution liberal search for the roots of trauma: their diagnosis is that the absence of individualism and the suppression of individual rationality are part and parcel of the “ten years of chaos.” Therefore, the introduction of Le Bon, among other social and political thinkers who reproached mass politics from this perspective, reflects a layer of the liberal vision of China’s political future, that mass politics is a hostile setting to individuality and a price China probably cannot afford again.

The second favorable condition lies in the Party’s shifting view of mass politics. After the Tiananmen Square incident, claims to mass politics that were pervasive throughout the discourse of the Chinese Revolution gradually gave way to the Party’s new attitude towards social movements. To the post-Mao leadership, mass protests like Tiananmen no longer symbolized democratic expression and participation. On the contrary, they were now outspoken indicators of ideological cleavages and obstacles to stable governance. The appearance of the phrase “mass incidents” in governmental documents as a reference to actions of civil disobedience in the early 1990s reveals precisely this transition.

A new attitude towards mass politics demands new techniques for dealing with mass politics. Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 speeches during his Southern Tour underlined the urgency of modernizing the Party’s propaganda practice, among which was the call for incorporating Western social science to the Party’s toolkit. Themes such as “handling mass opinion” and “governmental public relations” began to surface in books written for public officials. Most of these works accentuate the importance of public opinion in shaping the image and the political trust of the government.

Le Bon’s mass psychology, among other psychological theories that emphasize the elite-mass difference and the potentiality of shaping mass opinions, plays a double-sided role in this agenda. On the one hand, it reminds governmental officials, especially those working in the propaganda section, of the mass’ threatening nature to the Party’s governance. For instance, in a recent issue of New Media, a journal published by the Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission, author Li Ao cites The Crowd to demonstrate how Internet users are typically vulnerable to demagogic opinion leaders. On the other hand, Le Bon’s portrayal of a collective unconscious that is irrational, violent, and susceptible, explains to governmental officials the internal psychological dynamics of groups and the possible ways of handling such dynamics. In CNKI, China’s main platform for full-text academic resources, there are numerous articles about the application of The Crowd to the understanding of both online and offline collective actions in China, indicating how Le Bon’s theory has now become part of the toolkit for authoritarian governance.

It’s not hard to see Le Bon’s dual utility. His elitist diagnosis of the crowd fits perfectly into the liberal attempt at delving deep into the roots of the Cultural Revolution and also the Party’s attempt at transitioning from a revolutionary Party to a stable bureaucratic apparatus. The result is that in the post-2000 era, The Crowd has steadily secured its position in public discussion of collective actions and collective sentiments. Almost in every such discussion, participants are regularly reminded that it is time to read The Crowd. In discussions about the patriotic boycotts of Japanese elements in Wuhan in 2009, The Crowd appeared. In debates about Chinese teachers’ concerns over income adjustment and intensifying teacher-student relations, The Crowd arrived just in time in an author’s attempt to discourage teachers from angrily expressing their anxiety. The recent wave of #MeToo feminism also could not escape the specter of Le Bon. The pervasiveness of Le Bon’s psychology in the Chinese public sphere constructs a dichotomy: you can either be a fanatic member of the group, or a rational, objective, neutral critic outside the group.

This development, however, is probably better understood from the perspective of the sociology of knowledge than of psychological theory. It reflects how, in a public sphere characterized by heavy censorship and restrained political memory, available knowledge of politics for the people is simultaneously shaped by the ruling class’s political agenda, the limited sources of information, and the demands of the cultural market. For years, the Chinese public sphere suffered from the lack of alternative angles in making sense of collective action. The Crowd, along with its elitist, dismissive tone, has ironically become the predominant approach to mass politics in a self-identified socialist state.

But in 2020, with the outbreak of the coronavirus, new political knowledge about collective action is emerging. Four years after the adoption of the Law on Administration of Activities of Overseas Nongovernmental Organizations in the Mainland of China, which signaled the state’s crackdown on civil society associations, the suppressed public sphere erupted with surprising positive energy in response to the coronavirus crisis. Millions of RMB and numerous masks, medical protective suits, and goggles were donated within days. Volunteers almost immediately organized themselves to take over the transportation of patients and medical staff after the Wuhan government shut down public transportation on January 23. When these actions were confronted with the government’s inefficiency, disorientation, bureaucratism, and unaccountability, civic actions in a situation of emergency turned into political questioning. The death of Dr. Li Wenliang, the whistleblower who warned his colleagues about a possible epidemic outbreak and who was “disciplined” by the local police the next day, sparked massive online discussions about the necessity of freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech isn’t just about anti-government protest and organization; it’s about having lines of communication and information flow open, so that lower level actors can rapidly disseminate important information, or engage higher level actors in discourse and critique that’s important for the whole society, including the authorities. More generally, this is the flipside of Le Bon’s pathologization of the crowd. It’s not always an irrational hysteria, but also a constructive idealism that can leap into action in response to a crisis or opportunity. The destructive potential of the liberated crowd is not so much in that they are inherently irrational and destructive, but in that they are pursuing the wrong opportunities in the wrong ways, for lack of positive organization or alternative ways to handle their struggles. The power of collective action, once manifested in society constructively, begins to tear apart Le Bon’s disdainful conclusions about mass politics.

Perhaps it takes a critical juncture for many citizens on the sidelines to realize that it is easier to share Le Bon’s elitist posture when the bubble of secure private life remains intact. Once it is broken, collective action based on collective anger, anxiety, and fear is often the only available tool—and a tool that is extremely powerful. The coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan served precisely this function. However, it would be presumptuous to say Le Bon and his portrayal of mass politics as foolish and destructive are on their way out of the Chinese public sphere. A narrative that stresses the necessity and constructive potential of collective action has a long, thorny road ahead. The Party’s official line still takes the spread of false information and panic in the public sphere as a central problem. For pro-state thinkers who are critical of the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, such as Jiang Shigong, what is exposed is not the relevance of collective action but the permeating “agricultural mindset,” that is, the lack of awareness of systemic risks inherent in post-industrial highly connected modern society, among parts of the Chinese people and public servants:

All in all, the Wuhan epidemic has revealed two fundamental problems in the governance of our country. First, we are already in the post-industrial Internet era, but the decision-making system and mechanism for responding to emergencies is still the product of the industrialization era. This is a vertical system that lacks a flat, fast decision-making system. Second, we are already in a risk society in the post-industrial era, but some officials and people are still in the mindset of a “small-scale peasant society,” lacking a sense of crisis and risk.

But even in his “flat, fast decision-making system,” and his praise elsewhere in the article for lateral action, horizontal information flows through the public Internet, and the heroism and initiative of frontline workers in fighting the virus, he is speaking, if only implicitly, of the constructive and positive power of the crowd. The same applies to Neo-Confucianist political philosophers Daniel A. Bell and Wang Pei. In an effort to interpret the coronavirus as an opportunity of “vitality for the Chinese society,” they are also forced to confront the demands of information transparency, political accountability, and freedom of speech generated in the public discussion about the outbreak. In the aftermath of this crisis, the statist theorists, too, will be grappling with the necessity of distributed public mobilization in antifragile governance.

Whether the specter of Le Bon will remain prevalent or gradually wither in the Chinese public sphere at least partly depends on whether memories of the coronavirus can live on. But more importantly, it depends on whether memories can generate future political actions, and generate political momentum. The dominant power of direct and indirect state controls will continue to preclude direct challenges to central authority. Even in a scenario where that authority was broken by internal collapse and external interference, it would doubtless be reassembled, and the new structure beset by the same challenges.

Ultimately, any progress will come not from destructive uprising, but from the creation and institutionalization of a new and wiser political memory, where the power of the crowd is seen as positive and constructive. This new political vision and momentum will come from the grassroots level, as the concerned citizens now looking for a voice find ways to phrase their needs in terms the state can understand. The theorists of the state like Jiang Shigong will in turn have to learn to positively incorporate the horizontal, distributed, and idealistic power of the crowd in their outlooks of the new political order.

Simon Luo is a PhD Candidate in political theory. He studies Marxism, critical theory, political emotions, political memories, and contemporary China.