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

By Michael Tratner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
Mass Minds and Modernist Forms
Political, Aesthetic, and Psychological Theories

Two French political theorists set the terms for most analyses of the mass mind in the early twentieth century: Gustave Le Bon , in The Crowd ( 1895), and Georges Sorel, who extended Le Bon's ideas into a method for inciting mass movements in Reflections on Violence ( 1906). Sorel's theory became the basis of syndicalism, which powerfully influenced such diverse movements as the International Workers of the World in the United States and the Fascists in Italy. (Mussolini began his career as a syndicalist.)

Much of the power of Le Bon's and Sorel's theories came from their usefulness to both the Left and the Right. Le Bon's influence on twentieth- century politics was somewhat paradoxical, since he declared in 1896 that the coming "Era of the Crowd" marked the end of all civilization. Previously in history, he claimed, the crowd had gained power only in brief "barbarian phases" between periods of "elevated . . . culture." The crowd always had slipped back into passivity when a new "intellectual aristocracy" arose. But in the twentieth century, Le Bon feared, there would be no new aristocracy because the masses were not only destroying leadership, they were taking it over: "The destinies of nations are elaborated at present in the heart of the masses, and no longer in the councils of princes" (p. xv). What Le Bon did not predict was that politicians and social analysts would study "the heart of the masses" and would use his analysis of the unusual mentality found there as the basis of new kinds of political appeals. And modernist writers were as attracted as any contemporary intellectuals by those appeals, the sociopolitical analyses that lay behind them, and the techniques of representation and address those analyses made possible.

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