A Guide for Tyrans and Would-Be Dictators

Gustave Le Bon: La Psychologie des Foules. (Psychology of Crowds) ISBN 978-2-13–062062-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Over the past two decades, several historic developments have baffled me: the high approval rates of the Russian president Vladimir Putin, the naive belief of Islamists that they can submit Western democracies, Brexit and finally the electoral victory of Donald Trump. Each event involved fascinated crowds, masses of people obeying a type of logic that defied my understanding. I was intrigued, and while I was reading books about Putin, the grief of ordinary Americans and the theories of the political scientist Eric Voegelin assimilating Communism and Fascism to modern religions, a distant memory from my studies in sociology re-surfaced: Gustave Le Bon’s early study of the psychology of crowds.

I had only read a short introduction to Le Bon’s theories as a student, which was good enough to pass that exam, but now that I actually had read “Psychology of Crowds”, I realize I should have read it much earlier. Even if certain ideas of Le Bon did not survive the test of time – social sciences, psychology and medicine have made a lot of progress since 1895 – the general trust of his theory remains valid.

Crowds, in Le Bon’s sense, are marked by “the evanescence of the conscious personality [of the individuals forming the crowds] and the orientation of feelings and thoughts in one direction.” Crowds cannot undertake actions that require a high degree of intelligence, they are easily manipulated, animated mostly by emotions and prone to violence that can take the shape of an act of heroism – soldiers charging in a battle against all odds – or an act of riot or vandalism. One of Le Bon’s basic ideas is that a crowd will act in a way that may harm its individual members, but since the individual’s conscience has been switched of, this apparent contradiction becomes irrelevant. Thus a crowd will take decisions that the isolated member of the crowd would most likely not take.

A crowd easily takes up any ideas “whose time has come”, ideas that have been around for some time without being articulated by a large number of people. Le Bon identifies long-term factors preparing the ground and short-term factors triggering a crowd into action. Crowds just as easily switch ideas, and the attention of a crowd is best captured by an image that embodies such an idea. Two telling examples came to my mind:  Christ on the cross and Donald Trump’s border wall between Mexico and the United States.

Even if the fact of Jesus’ existence and his crucifixtion can be scientifically disputed, the oral transmission of this “breaking news”, the exceptional character of the story and much later the graphic representation made this, real or imagined, act of martyrdom a symbol so pwerful that it became one of the key elements of a 2000-year-old religion.

A more modern idea is Donald Trump’s wall. Everybody can picture a wall, the image suggests a means of defence against an invasion of “bad hombres”, another powerful Trumpesque image, a protection against an external enemy. It may also suggest the protection of an internal resource, like the US steel economy. Again, it is not important whether the wall will ever be built or whether it will actually keep criminals out. A positive emotion is attached to the image, and that’s why this idea animated so many to vote for Trump. That’s also why Trump fights so hard for it. The key element of his credibility is at stake.

From these initial findings, Le Bon moves on to other interesting theories. A dysfunctional society cannot be changed for the better by remodeling its institutions. What has this to do with crowds? Le Bon identified in the French society at the turn of the century a crowd of unhappy citizens, the product of a misguided educational system. He was greatly concerned about it and he was right. World War I was seen in France as a great chance to purify the a society deemed rotten. An illusion of course, but it explains the initial enthusiasm of French soldiers and the huge public support for the war.

In our days we see unhappy crowds too: the “Gilets jaunes” in France, the Brexiteers in the United Kingdom. The European Union has failed to mitigate the consequences of a globalised and deregulated economy. They angry crowds have no constructive solutions at hand, their power is exclusively destructive. If Le Bon is right, these crowds could only be tamed by a new narrative of Europe, a convincing image of prosperity, hope, pride and protection, embodied in a new a European identity. What is Europe supposed to be? What do we Europeans want it to be? Those are the questions to be asked. Giving the European Parliament greater leverage and holding a referendum on the issue of summertime was not nearly enough. Europe suffers an identity crisis. If Europeans cannot be fascinated by the idea of building a peaceful, economically thriving and cosmopolitan society, then the European project is dead.

To amuse you I would like to quote Le Bon’s idea about leaders, leaders of a crowd or leaders of a pack. “They are being recruited among those neurotic, excited, half-alieniated who border the insanity.” Well? Anyone coming to your mind? I bet. And how did this person come to power? Partly by aaccusing the media to spread “fake news” and circulating through social networks a counter-narrative, full of lies, half-truths and distorted facts that appealed to his voters.

Le Bon would have been horrified by the possibilities of social media. At the end of the 19th century he identified three elements threatening good governance: the weakening of traditional beliefs, the freedom of speech of the crowds and the many newspapers printing everything and anything. At this early stage of modernity already, Le Bon observed that politicians lose the initiative in setting an agenda and are increasingly driven by the opinions popular with the crowds. “If one single opinion could gain sufficient track to impose itself, it would soon exert a tyrannic power”, he writes. Lenin’s communism, Hitler’s totalitarian regime, Trump’s wall and Brexit – they all fit perfectly into this scheme. What a prescient man Le Bon was!

However his book deserves a cautious interpretation. Le Bon derived a large part of his theories from his personal observations. He did not collect and analyse empirical data as modern sociologists would do. His opinions about the natural inferiority of women and a hierarchy among races are obviously wrong. Nevertheless Le Bon’s “Psychology of Crowds” remains a n interesting read, especially in these troubled times. I am sure that Steve Bannon has read it. I am sorry Hillary Clinton did not read it.

The Nazis used a powerful, evocative music written by Franz Liszt as a propaganda tool. It was broadcasted several times a day as the jingle announcing the news from the Eastern front. It’s from the symphonic poem “Les Préludes”:

How a romantic composer got hijacked by the Nazis

Exposing the Pitfalls of Capitalism

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Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels: Das Kommunistische Manifest (English title: The Communist Manifesto) ISBN 978-3-88619-322-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Why should one read a Communist manifesto, written more than 150 years ago and decades after the obvious failure of Communism throughout the world? Today Marx would call his book “Capitalism for dummies”. He anticipated the human drama on the stage of a globalized economy, and, as he intended to speak to workers with limited education, he explained in simple yet powerful words the pitfalls of the capitalist economy. Although his systems analysis was based on a limited and not necessarily representative volume of information available in 1847, Marx isolated certain distinctive features of capitalism that have not changed over time.

It is those distinctive features that movements like “Occupy Wall Street” in New York or the “Gilets Jaunes” recently in France pointed their fingers at: the widening income gap between a handful of really, really rich people and a growing number of lower middle class people, the neglected infrastructure in rural areas, the increasing number of low paid jobs, the lack of access to education for certain parts of the population, the systematic discrimination of migrants in terms of employment.

None of these phenomena is new, they existed already in the 19th century and encouraged Marx to explore how these came about. He developed the theory of class conflicts: master against slave, feudal landowner against peasant, worker against company owner. In “Das Kommunistische Manifest” Marx and his associate Friedrich Engels postulate for the first time that this conflict is a necessary element of the human condition and thus unavoidable. Capitalism – and with it the class conflict – has to reach a climax and will break down right after that. That moment would be the beginning of the proletarian dictatorship. Classes would disappear and all means of productions (workforce, tools, factories, transport…) would come under collective ownership. It would be the birth of a new, more equal society.

In this respect Marx and Engels obviously where wrong. Capitalism proved to be adaptive and the fact that the two political thinkers published their ideas in the manifesto, and expanded it later in the monumental work “Das Kapital” may have contributed to it. The much despised capitalist bourgeoisie took Marx very seriously, they saw the signs on the wall. Anticipating revolutions in Europe, politicians and businessmen managed to forestall the proletarian dictatorship. Marx had deemed it impossible that the capitalist class would voluntarily raise workers pay, allow unions to negotiate salaries and contribute to a social security system. But that what capitalists all over Europe did, proving that there were alternatives to scenario Marx had sketched.

The only Marxist revolution that created a new type of society happened in Russia, an agricultural country with almost no proletariat. And the population had to be manipulated a coerced to participate in the creation of this new society – it had nothing at all of a historically unavoidable process as Marx had predicted it. The Communist manifesto is worth reading not only to see on a few pages where Marx was right, but also where he was wrong. Besides this, the German edition is wonderful to read, with almost every third sentence an aphorism.

The composer Dmitry Shostakovich initially believed in building a better world under the flag of Communism. While Nazis seemed to triumph over the liberal democracies in Europe, he like many other Soviet citizens were convinced that Communism was a bulwark against Germany’s expansionism. In 1929 he conceived his Symphony No. 3 “First of May”:

Thriving for a better, more human world

What If Karl Marx Was Right after All?

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Jürgen Neffe: Marx. Der Unvollendete. ISBN 978-3-570-10273-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ A colleague of mine once remarked that one had to believe in Marxism at least for a short time in life. Well, after my studies is was done with Karl Marx and Marxism-Leninism. Five years of political science had taught me enough to disregard both as out-of-date and as failed experiment with disastrous consequences for millions. But… my judgment may have been both too harsh and premature with Karl Marx. Since in 2018 the revolutionary philosopher would have celebrated his 200th birthday and since he has been born very close to my home country, I decided to read Jürgen Neffe’s biography on Marx. Quite an eye-opener as I quickly had to admit.

No, I will not become a defender of an ideology that I still consider as failed. Marx once quipped he may be called anything except a Marxist. But Neffe’s book connects Marx’ reflections on the evolution of a form of capitalism, marked by a quickly developing industrial society with most of the wealth detained by a handful of factory owners, to the present day capitalism characterized by an incredible power concentrated in the hand of stock markets, rating agencies and banks. The dependence of workers and the middle class on more or less wise decisions of an elite represented by investment bankers, central bank directors, stock market traders and shareholders is worse than anything that Marx had imagined. Proletarians, unite? It’s rather the wealthy elite that stands united against any form of substantial top-to-bottom wealth distribution resulting in an ever-widening gap between the very rich and the very poor, the famous one percent pitted against the 99 percent, criticized by the movement “Occupy Wall Street”. Has Marx been finally proven right?

It is still too early answer affirmatively. But when I read how meticulously Marx had studied the capitalist mode of production of his time I was stunned by the fact that many – not all – conclusions he derived from his observations still applied today. The proletarian world revolution obviously never happened. But the fact that today even governments are at the mercy of capital owners and stock markets is something Marx had anticipated. He was frighteningly right in this respect.

Neffe must be applauded for his endeavour to link Marx’ theories to the world we live in some 150 years later and to highlight that this great thinker is not yet out-of-date. This said, the biography as such is a fantastic reading experience: the evolution of Marx’ political thinking, the birth of the Communist Party and its many failures, the rift between Communists and Mikhail Bakunin’s anarchists, the important logistical and intellectual role that Jenny Marx, the philosopher’s wife played, the birth of the twin-like relationship between Marx and Friedrich Engels – so many interesting chapters catapulting the reader into the 19th century and making him relive an epoch of tremendous societal changes and challenges.

The detailed explanation of Marx economic theories obviously required a minimum of knowledge on how a national economy is run. Nevertheless, it remains an indispensable part of any Marx biography as it is not possible to dissociate the man and the theory. Only a mind like Marx could come up with such a theory at this turning point of his history. Historical materialism always was and still is a tough nut, but again, it is worthwhile to read since the comparison of Marx forecast and the actual evolution of history shows where Marxism underestimated the inventiveness of capitalistic societies to ban the Communist ghost haunting Europe and prevented a revolution in these countries that according to Marx were most likely to experience one.

Marx was an enthusiast of classical music, but unfortunately Neffe doesn’t mention whether he had any preference in terms of composers. That’s why I picked a contemporary of Marx, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who, as a music teacher, supported the revolution of 1905 in Russia and defended the rights of his students to demonstrate at a time when the struggle between students and authorities became increasingly violent. In 1897, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his Piano Trio in C minor:

Landmarks and memories of sunny days