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Gustave Le Bon, harbinger of the “peril of statism”

Matthieu Creson

Article originally published in French on November 5, 2021 for the website of Revue Politique et Parlementaire –

Matthieu Creson, a docent and researcher living in Paris, stresses how Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931), an acute observer of past and present political and social phenomena who came to extensively explore the psychology of human beings and human societies, should be regarded as a writer who fully belongs to the intellectual tradition of classical liberal individualism. In the face of the extraordinary rise in power of states around the world that has taken place since the beginning of the health crisis, and given the resurgence of collectivism and anti-capitalism fueled recently both by wokeness and the current radical eco-socialism (which should be markedly distinguished from a genuine, non-ideological environmentalism), Matthieu Creson underlines how Gustave Le Bon’s warning against the “peril of statism” regains all its relevance in the political and cultural context of the moment.

In France, the name of Gustave Le Bon is generally associated with his seminal work published for the first time in 1895, and for which he is still regarded as the founder of modern social psychology: the Psychology of crowds1. However, far from being the author of a single book, Le Bon actually wrote about forty (not counting his articles) in his sixty-year career! Among all of these works, mention should be made in particular of his Psychology of Socialism, published for the first time in 1898, and which undoubtedly constitutes one of the most precociously lucid refutations of the impasses and misdeeds of socialism, communism (nearly 20 years before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917), collectivism and statism. In this work emerges the profile of an uncompromising slayer of the “socialist religion”, which, Le Bon tells us, only engenders the opposite of the goals it had initially proposed, in complete defiance of the facts most easily verifiable since Marx’s ideas had begun to be applied. Moreover, as we read through the Psychology of Socialism, we are all the more struck by the clairvoyance Le Bon had manifested in it very early on concerning the real nature of state socialism as we know how, in the second half of the 20th century until the eve of the final rout of communism in 1989-1991, many left-wing intellectuals on the contrary deluded themselves on this subject with unfailing stubbornness.

The criticism made by Le Bon of socialism is in fact inseparable from his criticism of statism and collectivism, disseminated almost everywhere in his work, but concentrated in particular throughout an entire chapter of his work The Psychology of New Times (1920), and whose title – “The Peril of Statism” – immediately exposes the fundamentally liberal tenor of the author’s remarks. Le Bon begins by pointing out how France was perhaps never so threatened with extinction as at the dawn of the First World War. “France, he writes, has gone through many serious crises since the distant beginnings of its history. None, perhaps, threatened its existence as much as the two perils it has seen arise in recent years: the German peril and the statist peril” (Gustave Le Bon, Psychologie des temps nouveaux: Paris, Flammarion, 1920, p. 241.). In writing these lines, Le Bon may have mistakenly considered that France had succeeded in definitively neutralizing the threat posed to it by the expansionist tendencies of Germany at the time. The fact remains that Le Bon anticipates in a surprisingly precocious manner the observations that classical liberal economists were to make a few decades later on the state’s fundamental tendency to grow excessively, not only in the world of “real socialism”, but also in open societies based on capitalism and political democracy.

What Le Bon calls the “peril of statism” is all the more worrying for him because it is less obvious to everyone. “Thanks to four years of prodigious efforts, to the death of fourteen hundred thousand men and to 200 billion (francs) of expenses, we were able to triumph over the German peril. Now remains the statist danger. Less visible than the first, it could become just as dangerous by bringing about irremediable economic defeats” (p. 242). Indeed, Le Bon often insists on the fact that the struggles with which human societies will now increasingly be confronted will be economic and commercial. The rise of “humanitarian sentiments”, as Le Bon calls them, sentiments which had already been widely developed in his time (philanthropy, charity, etc.), tends, according to him, to make us forget that despite all our efforts to attenuate the effects of the struggles waged between human societies, it is these same struggles which characterize the life of men in society, just as they characterize the relations existing between various societies. In several passages of his work, Le Bon anticipates with remarkable insight the rise of economic and commercial globalization in the 20th century, involving the emergence of new competition emanating from developing countries, and thereby forcing developed countries to react consequently. For Le Bon, the growing tendency to nationalize the economy of a country like France can only constitute a serious future handicap in the economic and commercial struggles that it will have to wage against its new rivals, with the possible outcome of a decline from which it may never recover.

Le Bon is also very insightful in his perception of the statist phenomenon as a structural danger – and not a merely circumstantial one: far from being a mere passing trend, statism, Le Bon tells us, with its endless regulations and its pervasive bureaucracy, will continue growing in all areas, at the risk of undermining the one condition without which there can be no healthy economy or society: private initiative. “All the restrictive laws that are multiplying in France show (…) that, far from diminishing, our statist policy will worsen and weigh heavily on national work” (p. 244). As a psychologist of the laws of the human mind, Le Bon has little difficulty in establishing the obvious reason for the inferiority of statism in relation to classical liberal, laissez-faire capitalism: “The fundamental psychological basis of production is the initiative driven by risk and profit. As soon as responsibility vanishes, as in the anonymous organization of the state, initiative disappears” (p. 245). And here is Le Bon stating this truth which will end up being accepted in France more than 60 years after it had been formulated by him, following the debacle of Mitterrandian socialism: “As soon as the state intervenes within an industry, this industry withers away” (Ibid.). According to Le Bon, statism can never succeed for this double psychological reason: a company can hope to prosper only if those who started it and who manage it are directly linked to its success, and only if they know that they will be held personally accountable in the event of failure. Faced with the constant expansion of the prerogatives of the state in innumerable branches of the economy, Le Bon can thus write: “The modern state represents in reality a large trading house managed by anonymous and irresponsible employees and where, from the boss to the last of the agents, no one is interested in the success of the enterprise” (p. 247).

One of the consequences of statism is obviously the squandering of public money, the already alarming level of which at the time of Le Bon aroused his concern: “The waste of public funds under statist management is beyond anyone’s comprehension. Hence the general increase in the price of products, the increasing difficulty of existence for free workers, the artificial increase in the labor force” (p. 248-249). Admittedly, the state, after having granted itself new economic and social missions (thus inaugurating the era of the Welfare State), and after having spread to innumerable sectors of the economy for decades, has indeed been constrained since the 1980s, willy-nilly, to carry out, under the weight of realities, a certain disengagement from economic life, a disengagement which remains after all in a country such as France very partial. The history of statism in the 20th century, even in many capitalist countries, remains that of an irresistible rise, the pernicious excesses of which could no longer continue to be eternally concealed, as generalized bankruptcy came to be seen as prospect likely to occur. As far as state bureaucrats are concerned, if Le Bon does not spare them, it is because he senses that we are trying to replace social spontaneity, the only real source of wealth creation and development, with what Karl Popper was to call “social engineering”: according to its proponents, society can be entirely rebuilt according to an overall plan which never derives from experience, and which imposes itself on reality following a purely top-down pattern. In this regard, Le Bon may be said to foreshadow Ortega y Gasset, who, in his Revolt of the masses (1930), was to write a few years later: “This is the greatest danger that threatens civilization today; the nationalization of life, state interventionism, the absorption of all social spontaneity by the state, that is to say the cancellation of the historical spontaneity which, ultimately, sustains, nourishes and drives human destinies” (Ortega y Gasset, La Révolte des masses: Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2020, p. 196.) For Le Bon, we should therefore, on the contrary, place our trust above all in social players (entrepreneurs, industrialists, merchants, etc.), and not hand over the destiny of our societies, as we tend to do, in the hands of a new bureaucratic class, deciding everything for us. “Requisitioning, taxing, ordering, prohibiting at the pleasure of the most incompetent agents, locking up each enterprise in an inextricable and paralyzing network of annoying formalities, destructive of all initiatives, such is the prospect with which we are threatened” (p. 244). Le Bon makes a distinction here between Anglo-Saxon peoples and Latin peoples. The former, he tells us, have always been used to relying only on themselves and never turn to the state to solve their own problems. The latter, he adds, are the exact antithesis of the former: private initiative tends to be very limited among them, and the disposition to delegate to a large extent, even the conduct of their own existence, very great. It is because of the existence of these fundamental tendencies which would be specific, according to Le Bon, to Latin peoples, that he comes to think that there is in fact in France, beyond the apparent plurality of political parties which seem to oppose one another, only one party, which he calls the statist party. “Unfortunately for our future,” Le Bon writes, “statism is a very ancient mental need among Latin peoples.” There are few political parties in France that do not constantly call for state intervention. This observation led me to write in the past that our country, so divided in appearance, has, under various labels, only one political party, the statist party, that is to say the party which ceaselessly demands from the state to forge chains upon us” (p. 245). Le Bon thus very clearly perceives that statism is driven not by the will to power inherent in the state itself, but by the desire for servitude expressed by the masses.

Prefiguring Hayek, Le Bon goes so far as to write that the “statist regime” constitutes the “modern form of slavery” (p. 249). We could at most possibly tolerate this situation, he adds, if statism had clearly demonstrated its superiority in the management of the companies placed under its control. However, the observation of the practical bankruptcy of statism in all the sectors of the economy where it expanded can only add to its moral reprobation. To statism, he writes, “we could resign ourselves if the state had, at least, shown in the management of companies a capacity superior to that of the citizens. However, it is precisely (…) the opposite that experience teaches. Countless facts have abundantly demonstrated that the management of the state, whether it be railways, monopolies, shipping or any other industry, is always very costly, very slow and accompanied by incalculable disorder” (Ibid.). If Le Bon attacks statism with such verve, it is also and perhaps above all because its misdeeds go beyond the sole boundaries of the economy to extend to the lives of citizens as a whole. By subjecting individuals to its yoke, it tends to dispossess them of their autonomy and to annihilate their creative faculties. Statism is not only costly and ineffective, it also fundamentally destroys freedom and tends to be disempowering. Its victory would thus undoubtedly mark a point of no return on the road to the decline of open societies. This is the meaning of the warning that Le Bon addresses to us on the future ravages of statism, a warning that the man of the 21st century would no doubt be very wrong to consider as outdated: “Statism, he writes, represents the autocracy of an anonymous caste and, like all collective despotisms, it weighs heavily on the lives of the citizens compelled to bear it. Its new development would not only bring about the weakness of our industries, but the disappearance of all our freedoms. (…) If we do not manage to curb its march we will (…) quickly be defeated in the economic struggle which is about to begin. It will then appear to all eyes that statism, so peaceful in appearance, can be more disastrous than the most destructive invasions. Its definitive triumph among a people would thus result in irremediable decadence” (p. 254).

1 Le Bon’s renown as a pre-eminent author extended far beyond France. Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, declared Le Bon’s Psychology of crowds was one of his bedside books.

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