Lise Reinke Hymn to the Masses

A system in which ‘confidence tricksters, rich men, quacks may be given power by the votes of an electorate composed in great part of mental Peter Pans, whose childishness renders them peculiarly susceptible to the blandishments of demagogues and the tirelessly repeated suggestions of the rich men’s papers’. That could have been any number of contemporary commentators, from Richard Dawkins to Andrew Sullivan, expressing their fears about democracy after the Brexit vote in Britain or the rise of Donald Trump in the USA. It was, in fact, Aldous Huxley a century ago denouncing parliamentary democracy as undermining ‘liberty’. A few weeks ago I compared quotes critical of democracy from the early twentieth century and from today. As I am away over the next few weeks, I thought I might publish from my books extracts that deal with historical discussions about the dangers of democracy. The aim is not to suggest that today’s debate is merely a replay of those of the past – it clearly is not. But there are echoes, and it is useful to consider what are the common themes, and where the discussions differ.

This first extract is from The Meaning of Race (1996), and considers the debate – and fears – about the coming of mass democracy in the early twentieth century, in the context of racial ideas that then dominated political discourse.


The Fear of the Masses
From The Meaning of Race, pp104-109

In the latter decades of the nineteenth century the vote was gradually extended to sections of society beyond the hitherto magic circle of white propertied males. Sections of the working class, and then women too, were drawn into the electoral process. By the early part of the twentieth century most Western countries had something close to universal suffrage.

This extension of suffrage took place at a time when the major Western nations were beset by economic crisis – exemplified by the Great Depression of the 1880s – and increasing social and class conflict. These changes introduced a spirit of pessimism into what had been up until then an optimistic era…The unease revealed itself through anxiety about the lower orders. It was in this context that nineteenth-century society – and particularly Victorian England – ‘rediscovered’ the poor. The fin de siècle concern with the urban poor was a reflection not of growing poverty – in reality the standard of living even for the most wretched sections of society was rising – but of fears for social progress. There is, wrote George Sims in How the Poor Live, ‘a dark continent that is within easy walking distance of the General Post Office.’ It was the darkness within that most concerned observers. As Gertrude Himmelfarb has observed in her outstanding study on The Idea of Poverty, the poor were ‘important not so much in themselves, nor even in relation to the rest of society, as in revealing the limits of progress, the precariousness of civilisation’:

There evidently existed, not in ‘darkest Africa’ but in the most advanced city in the most advanced country in the world, at the very apex of civilisation, the equivalent of Bushmen and Fingoes, tribes which resisted amerioration, refused to be drawn into the mainstream of culture, perversely persisted in a way of life and work that was an affront to civilised society. It was as if some primitive spirit, some vestige of primeval nature, were mocking the proud presumptions of modernity.

Liberals welcomed the social advancement that was embodied in the extension of political suffrage. Yet the persistence of poverty seemed to question the very idea of progress. It seemed to imply a sense of degeneration rather than evolutionary advancement and it brought to fore anxieties about the ability of the elite to govern. If progress as not inevitable, many were forced to ask themselves, what was the basis on which the ruling class ruled? Encapsulated in the ‘rediscovery of poverty’ in the late nineteenth century were the ambiguities in the liberal attitudes to social progress and social power. These developments led to a debate in fin de siècle Britain about democracy and the masses. Fabian Beatrice Webb summed up in her autobiography the two major topics of discussion in her circle:

[O]n the one hand the meaning of the poverty of masses of men, and on the other the practicability or desirability of political and industrial democracy as a means of redressing the grievances of the majority of people. Was the poverty of the many a necessary condition of the wealth of the nation and of its progress in civilization? And if the bulk of the people were to remain poor and uneducated, was it desirable, was it even safe, to entrust them with the weapon of trade unionism, and, through the ballot box, with the making and controlling of Great Britain with its enormous wealth and far-flung dominions?

The outcome of these debates was to strengthen racist sentiment, but in a contradictory fashion. Elite theories became even more important in sustaining the self-belief of the governing classes. The idea of race became central in establishing within the elite the sense of its being and mission. As Houston Stewart Chamberlain observed, ‘Nothing is so convincing as the consciousness of the possession of race’:

Race lifts a man above himself, it endows him with extraordinary – I might almost say supernatural – powers, so entirely does it distinguish him from the individual who springs from the chaotic jumbles of peoples drawn from all parts of the world.

The concept of race provided a sense of superiority when social reality might suggest otherwise. But the coming of mass democracy made it more difficult to pursue such discussion in public. Racial ideas thus became more important but the nature of racial theories were transformed and many aspects of what had hitherto been an open discussion now became more internal to the ruling elite.

For conservative thinkers, the extension of the suffrage confirmed their traditional opposition to democracy. Now, however, many hitherto liberals joined them in warning of the menace of the masses. ‘The crowd’ was an important motif in fin de siècle discussion. In the eyes of an increasingly fearful intelligentsia, the ‘sodden mass of unskilled labour’, to use CF Masterman’s phrase were ‘reared in a Crowd, labour in a Crowd, in a Crowd take their enjoyment, die in a Crowd and in a Crowd are buried.’

Nicky Spaulding

John Carey, in The Intellectuals and the Masses, his entertaining study of the relationship between elitism and modernism, demonstrates well how deep-seated was this elite fear of the masses. Writers, poets, scientists, philosophers – all betrayed their concern about the new development. In his significantly titled The Revolt of the Masses, Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset claimed that society had created ‘a gigantic mass of humanity which, launched like a torrent over the historic area, has inundated it.’ Such a mixture of contempt and fear was typical. ‘I believe’, wrote Gustav Flaubert, ‘that the mob, the mass, the herd will always be despicable’. Flaubert’s fellow countryman Émile Zola – who, we should remember, was an ardent socialist – drew on the work of racial science in his cycle of Rougon-Macquart novels to show not only that physical characteristics determined mental and moral attributes but also that the crowd was the medium through which the degenerate racial traits expressed themselves. TS Eliot’s famous lines from The Waste Land, which echo Dante’s Inferno, capture the belief within the elite that the masses were dead to humanity:

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

The fear of the masses found its scientific expression in the new discipline of crowd psychology. Its pioneer was Frenchman Gustav LeBon, who applied to the study of crowd behaviour the growing fashion to ascribe human behaviour to instinct. LeBon regarded humanity as torn between the primal elements of instinct and reason. The elite was capable of suppressing the former and making use of reason. The mass, however, could not reason and was controlled wholly by instinct, which, for LeBon, was an expression in modern society of an atavistic characteristic perpetuated by heredity beyond the stage of social evolution where it served a real adaptive function.

Crowds, argued LeBon, are moved entirely by suggestion, impulse and emotion. They are by nature violent and destructive. In a crowd an individual loses his individuality and becomes simply part of an animal herd. The crowd manifests a single mind and acts as one through pure instinct. Further, argued LeBon, the masses behave in a similar way even when not in a crowd. What LeBon termed a ‘psychological crowd’ – such as the democratic electorate – was also moved by atavistic impulses, not reason. The notion of liberty, LeBon wrote, ‘is merely ignorance of the causes of which man is slave’. ‘To be slaves’, he added, ‘is the natural condition of all living beings.’

Sigmund Freud, who considered LeBon’s character sketch of the group mind’ to be ‘brilliant’, appropriated many of his ideas. Mass man, wrote Freud, threw off the mechanisms which repressed his unconscious instinct. ‘The apparently new characteristics that he then displays’, Freud believed, ‘are in fact the manifestations of this unconscious, in which all that is evil in the human mind is contained as a predisposition.’ For Freud, the relationship between the ego and the id was akin to the relationship between the elite and the masses. The mind, wrote Freud, is like ‘the modern State in which a mob, eager for enjoyment and destruction, has to be held down forcibly by a prudent superior class.’ The superior class was superior because it could suppress the promptings of the unconscious within its own psyche, unlike the masses who were ‘lazy and unintelligent’ and ‘have no love for instinctual renunciation’.

Vilfredo Pareto translated these ideas into a sociological theory. For Pareto, all societies were divided into a minority governing elite and the masses, distinguished biologically. The elite acted primarily on the basis of enlightened self-interest, whereas the lower, subject classes were moved largely by sentiment. To further its interest, the elite found it expedient to appeal for support to the sentiments of the lower classes. The mass was impelled into action by blind forces, whereas the elite conducted itself according to a rational understanding of its situation.

The lesson many drew from the work of psychologists such as Freud and LeBon, and of sociologists such as Pareto, was that liberty was too precious to entrust to democracy. When Beatrice Webb asked ‘are men to be governed by emotions or by reason… in harmony with the desires of the bulk of citizens or according to the fervent aspirations of a militant minority, in defiance of the will of the majority?’, she summed up one of the key debates in intellectual circles. For many, the answer was that liberty was irreconcilable with democracy. ‘[I]ntellectual freedom and social equality’, claimed YB Yeats, ‘are incompatible.’

Lee Stapleton

The laws of biology, many argued, were inimical to the tenets of democracy. Since the masses were incapable of rational behaviour, they should not be allowed to participate in the governance of society. Such a view was not confined to conservatives. Many socialists too believed that the lower orders simply were not intelligent or rational enough to be able to know their own interests. Parliamentary democracy, Aldous Huxley believed, was a system in which ‘confidence tricksters, rich men, quacks may be given power by the votes of an electorate composed in great part of mental Peter Pans, whose childishness renders them peculiarly susceptible to the blandishments of demagogues and the tirelessly repeated suggestions of the rich men’s papers.’ The vast majority of people, Huxley believed, were imbeciles:

About 99.5% of the entire population of the planet are as stupid and philistine (‘tho in different ways) as the great masses of the English. The important thing, it seems to me, is not to attack the 99.5% – except for exercise – but to try to see that the 0.5% survives, keeps its quality up to the highest possible level and, if possible, dominates the rest. The imbecility of the 99.5% is appalling – but, after all, what else can you expect?

Given the imbecility of the masses, the ‘ideal state’ would be one ‘controlled by an aristocracy of intellect’. The attempt to provide mass education was widely decried because inculcating the masses with the false belief that they could reason would weaken, in the words of TS Eliot, ‘our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanised caravans’. Until now, the argument ran, the masses had known their station in society. The extension of suffrage and education facilities would break down the natural hierarchy in society. That is why, as William Bateson suggested, it was necessary to follow the dictates of biology rather than those of democracy:

The essential difference between the ideals of democracy and those which biological observation teaches us to be sound, is this: democracy regards class distinctions as evil; we perceive them to be essential. It is the heterogeneity of modern man which has given him his control over the forces of nature. The maintenance of that heterogeneity, that differentiation of members, is a condition of progress. The aim of social reform must not be to abolish class, but to provide that each individual shall so far as is possible get into the right class, stay there and usually his children after him.

Even those that held that democracy was useful often did so because it helped to further biological aims. Sociologist Gaetano Mosca, for instance, believed that if democracy was used conservatively, it could help replenish the elite:

When the democratic tendency does not exert too great an influence, to the exclusion of other tendencies, it represents a conservative force. It enables ruling classes to be continually replenished through the admission of new elements who have inborn talents for leadership and a will to lead, and so prevents the exhaustion of aristocracies of birth which usually paves the way for great social cataclysms.

Within limits, democracy would help humanity overcome the limits of biology. But, wrote Mosca, ‘the dogma of equality’ propounded by Rousseau and Marx inevitably undermined social order, for it replaced moderation with fanaticism. Even for Mosca, then, democracy always had to be subservient to be subservient to biology.


The paintings are of crowds by Lisa Reinke, Nicky Spaulding and Lee Stapleton.


  1. Once more, echoes of Plato. Aldous Huxley’s 0.5% correspond to the Guardians; an elite group with a monopoly of wisdom, to which, by a remarkable coincidence, both writer and audience belong.

  2. I think it is quite fascinating that the 19th century revulsion of the body politik was largely orchestrated by conservatives who at the time believed in the continuance of the old regime and that the 21st century revulsion of the body politik was largely orchestrated by liberals who believe in the continuance of the eu regime. Obviously both regimes are unelected, one aristocratic, the other technocratic and both erroneously see the body politik as a single set of views and perspectives to be feared rather than as a diverse range of views and perspectives to engage with.

    Does this mean that the technocratic-liberals are the new conservatives and the post-liberal communitarians and Burkean conservatives the new liberals?🙂

  3. Paul S

    An interesting post. I’m an idiot but wondered whether:
    a) there is a danger that views opposing democracy get tarred with the same brush, even if they come from ‘the masses’, e.g. libertarian socialist;
    b) whether Huxley’s grounds for rejecting democracy changed as he got older and wrote ‘Ends and Means’ and ‘The Island’?;
    c) the elite seems quite content with democracy most of the time, perhaps because ‘the mass’ so rarely gets a real chance to frustrate them?; and
    d) do we need to be careful about using a term like ‘democracy’ when it clearly means different things to different people? I wouldn’t say we live in a democracy in the UK, but then perhaps I’m not smart enough to realize.

Comments are closed.