Modernism and Mass Politics: Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Yeats

By Michael Tratner | Go to book overview

Introduction

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, a new phenomenon swept across politics: the masses. Groups that had struggled as marginal parts of the political system--particularly workers and women--suddenly exploded into vast and seemingly unstoppable movements. In England, the Labour and suffrage movements became militant before World War I, suspended actions during the war, and then achieved what seemed a remarkable success in the Reform Bill of 1918, which tripled the number of voters in national elections. In 1917, the Russian Revolution generated intense fears and hopes by providing an image of what the millions of new voters might do. At the same time, the fact that most workers' and women's parties throughout Europe had supported national war efforts revealed that mass movements that seemed to have the potential of overthrowing the system could, under the right influences, be turned into powerful supports for that same system. Politicians became intensely interested in understanding how to speak to and influence the masses. A whole subgenre of sociological-political treatises purporting to analyze the mass mind emerged all over Europe, particularly in England, where books on the subject by William McDougall, Georges Sorel, Graham Wallas, Wilfred Trotter, and Sigmund Freud were published around the time of World War I. 1

All these texts drew heavily on the theories put forth in The Crowd, written in 1895 by a French writer, Gustave Le Bon, and translated into English in 1897. Le Bon developed the idea that when a crowd forms, a whole new kind of mentality that "is perpetually hovering on the borderland of un

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