The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

33. Traditional Reactionary Attitudes Toward the Masses

This chapter consists largely of a sequence of reactionary quotations about the masses—only as many as I can stand and enough to clearly make the point as to what the reactionary point of view is. In this book I assume there is no need to rebut these excrescences.

There is a long tradition of reactionary attitudes towards the masses. The ultimate sources of such attitudes are of course the ruling classes throughout history. But within this we can isolate certain ruling class agencies and institutions such as individual rulers, ruling bodies, religious organizations, specific reactionary trends, and so forth. Similarly we may categorize many of these reactionary attitudes into a number of favorite themes.

Before giving examples of a variety of these, it is appropriate to set the stage with the following commentary about the reactionary use of the term 'masses' itself, written by Raymond Williams:

[The term] the masses... is especially interesting because it is ambivalent: a term of contempt in much conservative thought, but a positive term in much socialist thought.
      Terms of contempt for the majority of a people have a long and abundant history. In most early descriptions the significant sense is of base or low, from the implicit and often explicit physical model of a society arranged in successive stages or layers... the 1830s, at latest, the masses was becoming a common term, though still sometimes needing a special mark of novelty...
      Most English radicals continued to use the people and its variations—common people, working people, ordinary people—as their primary positive terms, but the masses and its variants—the broad masses, the working masses, the toiling masses—have continued to be specifically used (at times in imperfect translation) in the revolutionary tradition.
      In the modern social sense, then, masses and mass have two distinguishable kinds of implication. Masses (i) is the modern word for many-headed multitude or mob: low, ignorant, unstable. Masses (ii) is a description of the same people but now seen as a positive or potentially positive social force...
      The most piquant element of the mass and masses complex, in contemporary usage, is its actively opposite social implications. To be engaged in mass work, to belong to mass organizations, to value mass meetings and mass movements, to live wholly in the service of the masses: these are the phrases of an active revolutionary tradition. But to study mass taste, to use the mass media, to control a mass market, to engage in mass observation, to understand mass psychology or mass opinion: these are the phrases of a wholly opposite social and political tendency....
      It is thus possible to visualize, or at least hope for, a mass uprising against mass society, or a mass protest against the mass media, or mass organization against massification. The distinction that is being made, or attempted, in these contrasting political uses, is between the masses as the subject... and the masses as the object of social action.[1]

Specific Sources of Reactionary Attitudes Toward the Masses

In ancient times the first hostile attitudes towards the masses appeared in the ideology of the slave-owning aristocracy. Such views are evident in most of the political and social writings of the time such as in Plato's Republic. But Plato was by no means the only aristocratic ideologue. Here is a rather revealing example of the "enlightened" Greek ruling class perspective on the matter by the historian Polybius (204?-122? BC):

Since the masses of the people are inconsistent, full of unruly desires, passionate, and reckless of consequence, they must be filled with fears to keep them in order. The ancients did well, therefore, to invent gods, and the belief in punishment after death.[2]

The Roman aristocrats quite openly despised the masses, as is well illustrated in this line by the poet Horace: "Odi profanum vulgus et arceo." [I hate the vulgar herd and hold it far.][3] The Roman orator Cicero remarked that "In the common people there is no wisdom, no penetration, no power of judgment."[4] And the Stoic philosopher Seneca said that "It is proof of a bad cause when it is applauded by the mob."[5]

In the East too, the aristocracy had its ideologists, such as Confucius (551-479 BC), to summarize their opinions about the masses. Here are three of his remarks: "The people may be made to follow a path of action, but they may not be made to understand it."[6] "A person not in a particular government position does not discuss its policies."[7] "Insubordination of the common people is the root of all disorder."[8]

The religions of the world are a major source of reactionary views about the masses. Here's a choice item from the Christian Bible where God is explaining to Jonah why he is not going to destroy the city of Nineveh on the Tigris River even though Jonah, his prophet, had proclaimed its imminent destruction to its inhabitants:

And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?[9]

Yes, it wouldn't do to destroy the valuable cattle.

There are always divisions in a ruling class, with some sections taking a harder line toward the masses than others. Just as a hostile attitude towards the masses is a mark of the ruling exploiters in general, a relatively more hostile attitude is a mark of a relatively more reactionary stand. Thus we come to the Nazis and other fascists. It should be noted, however, that the attitudes of fascists towards the masses, while they may be somewhat more extreme, are not really different in kind than any bourgeois ruling class attitudes.

First, a comment by that great representative of the German bourgeoisie, Adolf Hitler: "The German has no idea how much the people must be misled if the support of the masses is required."[10] And then a quote from the Italian bourgeoisie, in the person of Benito Mussolini: "The mass, whether it be a crowd or an army, is vile."[11]

Favorite Reactionary Themes

Let's now run through some of the favorite reactionary themes on the masses. First, the masses' "ignorance": "Nil tam inaestimabile est quam animi multitudinis." [Nothing is so valueless as the minds of the multitude.][12] That sentiment by the Roman poet Livy is repeated continuously down until the present day. I'll mention just one example, the comment of the American Union general, William Tecumseh Sherman: "Vox populi, vox humbug." [The voice of the people is the voice of humbug.][13]

Closely related to the masses' presumed ignorance is their presumed gullibility, which, to the extent it truly does exist, is of course welcomed by all reactionary "leaders" and politicians:

The receptive ability of the great masses is only very limited, their understanding is small; on the other hand, their forgetfulness is great. (Adolf Hitler)[14]

Similarly, from Hitler's lieutenant, Herman Goering, in what is probably the most open confession of the actual role of patriotism that has ever come out of the mouth of a bourgeois ideologist:

Naturally the common people don't want war... Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders... All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism.[15]

And Hitler again:

In the size of the lie is always contained a certain factor of credulity, since the great masses of the people... will more easily fall victims to a great lie than to a small one.[16]

And finally, a cynical comment by D. H. Lawrence, who was something of a fascist himself:

The public, which is feebleminded like an idiot, will never be able to preserve its individual reactions from the tricks of the exploiter. The public is always exploited and always will be exploited.... Why? Because the public has not enough wit to distinguish between mob-meanings and individual-meanings. The mass is forever vulgar, because it can't distinguish between its own original feelings and feelings which are diddled into existence by the exploiter.[17]

Of course it is fear of the masses, and the view that the masses are dangerous (to their continued rule), which really alarms the reactionaries. First, Martin Luther:

God would prefer to suffer the government to exist no matter how evil, rather than allow the rabble to riot, no matter how justified they are in doing so.[18]

And the reactionary philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset:

The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified, and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated.[19]

Even adherents of bourgeois democracy hold similar views, which however are usually expressed in a less extreme manner. Here, for example is a comment by the American philosopher and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Leave this hypocritical prating about the masses. Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered but schooled.[20]

Since the masses pose dangers to the ruling class, they must be immoral. As Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) put it: "Mankind in the mass has no virtues; only the individual has them."[21] In the same vein, the famous American individualist, Henry David Thoreau remarked that "There is little of virtue in the action of masses of men."[22]

Since the masses are ignorant, gullible, dangerous, and immoral, there is of course no hope for them from the reactionary point of view. This is one aspect of Saint Augustine's remark, "Cursed is everyone who placeth his hope in man."[23]

Even revolutionaries (of sorts) have been known to give up on the masses, as this comment by the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin illustrates:

To my utter despair I have discovered, and discover every day anew, that there is in the masses no revolutionary idea or hope or passion.[24]

And of course when ex-revolutionaries turn against revolution they also turn against the masses. Here's an example from the Russian ex-"Marxist" renegade, Nicholas Berdyaev:

The majority of men do not in the least love freedom and do not seek after it. The revolutions of the masses have never displayed any great love of freedom....[25]

Since to reactionaries the masses are vile, ignorant and immoral, whatever virtue there is in the world must reside in individuals who separate themselves from the masses and set themselves above them. If ever there was a favorite theme about the masses which reactionaries love to harp on ad nauseum it is the supposed superiority of the individual to the masses. First, Thoreau again:

The mass never comes up to the standard of its best member, but on the contrary degrades itself to the level with the lowest.[26]

Next, Herbert Hoover: "In my opinion, we are in danger of developing a cult of the Common Man, which means a cult of mediocrity."[27] I won't burden the reader with any extracts from Ayn Rand who constructed a whole philosophy based on this theme.

The summary view of reactionaries is that the masses are despicable. "The murdering and thieving rabble of the peasants," was a phrase Martin Luther used.[28] Alexander Pope said that "The people are a many-headed beast."[29] A founder of the United States, and hero to modern conservatives, Alexander Hamilton, seconded that view: "The people—that great beast!"[30] And lastly we have that bit of "brilliant" doggerel so popular with recent generations of conservative American college students: "The masses are asses."

Finally we come to the crux of the whole reactionary attitude towards the masses: Since the masses are despicable, sub-human, and mere beasts, they are fit only to be slaves, in one form or another. Usually this is expressed somewhat "delicately", but the meaning is clear:

I uphold a radically aristocratic interpretation of history... For the mass to claim the right to act of itself is then a rebellion against its own destiny. (Ortega y Gasset)[31]

Even that great champion of bourgeois liberalism and democracy, John Stuart Mill, holds essentially the same view when you get right down to it.

At present individuals are lost in the crowd. In politics it is almost a triviality to say that public opinion now rules the world. The only power deserving the name is that of the masses, and of governments while they make themselves the organ of the tendencies and instincts of masses. This is as true in the moral and social relations of private life as in public transactions. Those whose opinions go by the name of public opinion are not always the same sort of public: in America they are the whole white population; in England, chiefly the middle class. But they are always a mass, that is to say, collective mediocrity. And what is a still greater novelty, the mass do not now take their opinions from dignitaries in Church or State, from ostensible leaders, or from books. Their thinking is done for them by men much like themselves, addressing them or speaking in their name, on the spur of the moment, through the newspapers.[32]

*    *    *

What is the purpose of reviewing such nauseating opinions as those presented above? The point is to fix them firmly in our minds as reactionary views so that when we hear the much more common milder versions of the same viewpoints we will recognize them for what they are. Are there faint echoes of these views within the revolutionary movement? Yes there are, and sometimes not all that faint. As Lenin said, "You cannot live in society and be free of society..." We must be on guard against these echoes, be alert to them when they crop up, and oppose them fiercely.


[1] Raymond Williams, Keywords (NY: Oxford University Press, 1976), pp. 158-163.

[2] Polybius, Histories, vi; quoted in George Sledes, The Great Quotations, (Seacaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1977), p. 571.

[3] Horace, Odes III; quoted in George Seldes, op. cit., p. 332.

[4] Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC), Pro Planchio; quoted in George Seldes, op. cit., p. 159.

[5] Seneca (4? BC-65 AD), quoted in George Seldes, op. cit., p. 627.

[6] Confucian Analects, Book VII (T'ai-po), Ch. IX.

[7] Ibid., Book VII, CH. XIV.

[8] Confucius, quoted in A. Z. Manfred, A Short History of the World (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), Vol. 1, p. 50.

[9] Bible (King James version), Jonah 4:11. Emphasis in original.

[10] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf; quoted by George Seldes, op. cit., p. 317. This comment was left out of later editions of Mein Kampf.

[11] Benito Mussolin (1883-1945), Pagine Libere, Jan. 1, 1911; quoted by George Seldes, op. cit., p. 513.

[12] Livy, Ab urbe condita libri..., Book XXI, 34.

[13] William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891), quoted in George Seldes, op. cit., p. 637.

[14] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf; quoted by George Seldes, op. cit., p. 317.

[15] Herman Goering, quoted in Laurence J. Peter, Peter's Quotations (NY: Bantam, 1979), p. 390.

[16] Adolf Hitler, quoted in Laurence J. Peter, op. cit., p. 314.

[17] D. H. Lawrence, "Pornography and Obscenity", quoted by George Seldes, op. cit., p. 402.

[18] Martin Luther, quoted in George Seldes, op. cit., p. 277.

[19] José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), Revolt of the Masses; quoted in George Seldes, op. cit., p. 537.

[20] Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Conduct of Life; quoted in George Seldes, op. cit., p. 235.

[21] Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, quoted in Rudolf Flesch, The New Book of Unusual Quotations (NY: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 406.

[22] Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849), quoted in George Seldes, op. cit., p. 683.

[23] Saint Augustine (354-430 AD); quoted in Laurence J. Peter, op. cit., p. 216.

[24] Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1879), Gesammelte Werke, III, p. 272; quoted in George Seldes, op. cit., pp. 78-9.

[25] Nicholas Berdyaev, Dream and Reality: An Essay in Autobiography, quoted in James M. Edie, et al., eds., Russian Philosophy (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1969), Vol. 3, p. 169.

[26] Henry David Thoreau, quoted in George Seldes, op. cit., p. 684.

[27] Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), quoted in George Seldes, op. cit., p. 331.

[28] Martin Luther, quoted in Laurence J. Peter, op. cit., p. 394.

[29] Alexander Pope (1688-1744), Imitations of Horace, I. i.

[30] Alexander Hamilton (1759-1804); quoted in Laurence J. Peter, op. cit., p. 395.

[31] José Ortega y Gasset; quoted in Laurence J. Peter, op. cit., p. 333.

[32] John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), On Liberty, Chapter 3. Included in Edwin Burtt, ed., The English Philosophers From Bacon to Mill (NY: Modern Library, 1939), pp. 1000-1.

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