Before Camus: Gustave Le Bon on ‘The World in Revolt’
Excerpt from Thomas F. Bertonneau’s article:
Socialism in particular, “the Gospel according to Karl Marx,” constitutes a new intrusion of “contradictory and irreducible mystic ideals” into the social mass, in which ideals that mass then invests its “blind faith” even while its leaders “are incessantly invoking reason.” Socialism illustrates for Le Bon how imperialism, rooted in the aggressive nationalism of 1914, and internationalism, rooted in the mutinous exhaustion of 1918, sustain themselves, in the supposed new world of the formal peace, despite the illogic of their coexistence. Le Bon stakes out an essentially conservative position: not that reason does not exist, but that emotions and basic drives almost always trump reason in the behavior of large groups of people. On the one hand, “The appearance of reason in the world is comparatively recent”; on the other hand, “the appetites, feelings and passions hark back to the origins of life, so that it is only natural that they, by their hereditary accumulation, should have acquired a weight with which the intellect is rarely strong enough to contend.”(4)
One remarks, however, that everything that is not reason is not necessarily the opposite of reason. Morality, for Le Bon, is not rational, but as a nation’s “internal discipline” it functions as reason might, checking and deflecting disintegrative impulses. The rebellion of which Socialism is the outward sign attacks even that dearly bought heritage of “internal discipline,” with calamitous results.
Le Bon gives several examples of the phenomenon. In Russia, “an empire of one hundred and seventy million souls, which took centuries to shape, was destroyed in a few months by the action upon primitive minds of those crude formulae which are often more destructive than artillery.” The Germans and Austrians, thinking to have gained by the dissolution of Russia, soon found, to their stupefaction, that the impartial tide would sweep them away too. Le Bon credits the discipline of the American Expeditionary Force with saving Britain and France from similar spreading cataclysm. Then, inflated by what was almost a chance victory, Britain and France became jealous of one another and predatory towards the defeated enemies. They could agree only on the vengeful, profiteering cynicism of the 1919 Peace Conference and its Treaty. War, writes Le Bon, “completely reverses the customary scale of values.” The total-war mentality of the combatant powers would infect the nominal peace and not merely through the injustice of the Versailles Treaty: “It is not only international morality that has deteriorated, but also… the morality of the individual members of each nation. The moral equipment has been more or less shattered everywhere.”