The atheist conservatism of Gustave Le Bon
As more scholars start recognizing the emerging “Secular Right” (or atheist conservatism) there will be increased research into the historical precedents of this phenomenon. There can be little doubt that these scholars will take a renewed interest in Gustave Le Bon.
Aside from the obligatory nod to his work on crowd psychology, Gustave Le Bon is all but forgotten in the history of science and political thought. This is quite ironic since Le Bon’s prolific output was in no small measure motivated by his desire to establish broad recognition for his work. His writings were quite well read during his lifetime by the French population and (conservative) politicians, but, with the exception of his anti-clericalism, the core ideas that make up Le Bon’s work are now surrounded by great controversy and taboos.
It should not be surprising that mainstream conservatives have largely ignored Gustave Le Bon. Like most conservatives, Le Bon was hostile to socialism and big government. However, one of the defining characteristics of his oeuvre is that he identifies socialism as the modern expression of religious instinct. To Le Bon, Socialism and Christianity reflect the same kind of backwards irrational human psychology.
One would think that such an outlook would make him more acceptable to classical liberals, and indeed, there has been some interest from those quarters in Le Bon’s work. For example, in 1979, Liberty Fund published a selection of his works called Gustave Le Bon: The Man and His Works, with an introduction by Alice Widener. There is little evidence that this publication was a great success. Yes, Le Bon was horrified by the growth of government and the welfare state, but he was not a starry-eyed optimistic rights-based liberal either. As such, he has little in common with the rationalist Rand-Rothbard strand of libertarianism that has dominated classical liberalism to date.
What really makes Le Bon’s work problematic for modern conservatives and libertarians, not to mention progressives, is that it is heavily informed by biological concepts and extensive discussions about race. To Le Bon, it makes little sense to talk about “politics” or “the economy” without situating these topics in their specific ethnic and cultural context. This was not controversial during the time he was writing, but the strong emphasis he puts on these concepts does not make him the poster-child of the kind of blank slate universalism that informs most political ideologies. What also does not help Le Bon’s case is his generous use of medical pathological terminology to characterize developments in society and politics. Le Bon was deeply concerned about the prospect that democracy and universal suffrage would give rise to an unhealthy combination of populism and socialism, culminating in the general decline of society.
To my knowledge, little serious analysis of his work has been conducted in the English language. A notable exception is Robert Allen Nye’s dissertation, An Intellectual Portrait of Gustave Lebon: a Study of the Development and Impact of a Social Scientist in his Historical Setting (1969). This work contains a lot of interesting biographical and bibliographical information about Le Bon, but the rather explicit left-wing aim for writing this study excludes a more balanced approach.
For a writer who published around 40 volumes and 250 articles, not much is known about the youth of Le Bon. Nye even mentions that there has been some controversy about the question of whether he was really a medical doctor or not, but adds that some of the claims to the contrary may have been motivated by political animosity. It is a fact, however, that Le Bon published widely on biological and medical matters and even conducted ongoing experimental research throughout his life (reportedly, costing him his eyesight during his old age). In a letter to Albert Einstein he even claimed to have anticipated relativity. In turn, Einstein responded that no experimental nor mathematical proofs were being offered by Le Bon. Such confrontations with specialists in other fields were a defining feature of Le Bon’s productive life. Nye mentions that it was typical of Le Bon that he corrected the proofs of his last published article on the very morning of his death.
One of the tensions in Le Bon’s work is his explicit aim to be an objective scientist (of the secular, positivist variety) and his obvious atheist-conservative leanings. Unlike most people with political ideals, Le Bon thought that free will is an unscientific metaphysical construct that has no place in the study of man and society. This perspective, combined with his evolutionary outlook, explains why Le Bon had little confidence in the transformative nature of grandiose abstract ideas.
His physiological investigations led him to reject the fashionable view that all men are equal and only separated by educational opportunities. In fact, his work anticipates the current debate about the “education bubble” when he argues that most modern education has few lasting benefits (while creating a mass of potential public servants and resentment against capitalism) and should be replaced by more emphasis on real science, practical matters, and vocational skills. He has little confidence in the emerging science of sociology and advocates the study of physical anthropology and the comparative psychology of people instead. Le Bon has little sympathy for the works of Rousseau and associated theories about the innocence of primitive cultures. Interestingly, his hereditarian outlook also makes him suspicious of attempts to impose abstract political Western ideas on other cultures.
Advocates of the idea of natural rights will return empty handed from consulting his works. Ness quotes from Le Bon’s L’Homme et les Societies:
The idea that an individual has certain rights by the very virtue of the fact that he has entered the world is one of those infantile conceptions which easily take root in the brains of ignorant socialists.
It would be a mistake to assume that Le Bon’s interests in ethnic diversity were confined to making superficial general statements. During his lifetime he conducted experimental investigations into comparative physiology and skull size, published book-length studies on the Indian and the Arabian people, and even envisioned a ten volume Histoire des Civilizations. He also published a small volume of his work in differential social psychology called Lois psychologiques de l’évolution des Peuples (translated in English as The Psychology of Peoples), which, reportedly, was one of Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite works.
With such a non-trivial output (most of which remains untranslated), it is difficult to exactly define Le Bon’s views on the role of the State. Le Bon was clearly influenced by the English classical economists and writers such as Herbert Spencer. In his view, “the true role of law is to codify custom” and the law should not be used to legislate happiness, impose confiscatory tax rates on the productive, or excessively interfere in people’s lives. Le Bon believed that by enforcing common law, which itself is the product of a gradual evolution to reconcile conflict of interest between people, the state will unify instead of divide people – as opposed to doctrines like socialism that preach inevitable conflict of interests between social classes. Nye writes, “the anti-socialist quest was, for Le Bon, something of a permanent character trait. It is not surprising that he became the symbol for many members of the French political and intellectual community of the struggle against collectivist ideology.”
Like many of his contemporaries, such as Vilfredo Pareto and even Ludwig von Mises (on von Mises and fascism, see Ralph Raico’s article), Le Bon at some point found himself forced to choose between Bolshevism and the growing fascist counter-movement. Not surprisingly, Le Bon sided with Benito Mussolini but his support was conditional and he retained his preference for a different kind of government:
It is better to undergo the anonymous dictatorship of the law than that of a chief – those who will not accept the first are compelled to undergo that of the second.
He hoped that the Fascism of Italy would simplify “the administrative machinery” while leaving “the maximum of liberty to private initiative.” Mussolini himself seemed to have been quite enamored with the works of Gustave Le Bon, strongly recommended his work to others, and considered The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, “an excellent work, to which I frequently refer.”
Le Bon’s writings on crowd psychology have often been associated with the rise of fascism and modern propaganda techniques. And indeed, Le Bon himself was hopeful that his insights could be used favorably by politicians who shared his outlook. But a closer inspection of his output reveals that Le Bon was not a stereotypical advocate of the totalitarian state but an atheist conservative with strong individualist and anti-collectivist tendencies. His secular social outlook, which aimed to merge the biological and social sciences, combined with a distinct Burkean skepticism about radical social change, fits right in with the concerns of today’s Secular Right.