History on the Couch

Crowds and Power

by Elias Canetti
Viking, $7.50

Sooner or later, Europe was bound to break the American monopoly in the manufacture of new social theories and facts. Since the war the study of society has become an American industry, and though the sociologists have naturally been the biggest producers, a few historians, some glossy journalists, and a number of freelance thinkers have also made their contribution to the national effort. There were of course some solid works, but most of the new studies were little more than progress reports on the growth of American society. They claimed to be empirical and open-minded, but what they really did was to create a new style of observation that made their theories and insights look like facts. Some of these studies used the new style for cultural apologetics instead of analysis. Others seemed to be more critical, and many of them complained about the slickness of the culture. But their complaints were themselves so slick that they immediately became fashionable. The result of all these advances in social thought was that the thing criticized became indistinguishable from the criticism of it, and soon both became part of the same cultural package.

Now we have a new work from abroad, combining politics, psychology, sociology, and certified to be the original, profound, and imaginative book we have all been waiting for. It is said to present a new view of civilization that combines the qualities of vision with those of analysis. The book is so extravagantly well-blurbed, and by such respectable figures as Arnold Toynbee, Kathleen Raine, C.V. Wedgewood, and Iris Murdoch, that one is actually put on one’s guard instead of being impressed. When a new book is hailed in the way Crowds and Power is, as “a new Golden Bough,” “a Twentieth Century Leviathan,” or its author as the Spengler of the sixties, one cannot help remembering how many great books were born without such fanfare, or how long they had to wait for serious opinion to build up.

Yet despite the fact that Crowds and Power has been advertised as the thinking man’s guide to reality, it is very difficult to say just what the book is about. Canetti’s theme seems to be that history boils down to two elements: society, which is just a more complicated form of what he calls the “crowd,” and power, which is created by the fact that the needs of the “crowd” coincide with those of its rulers. Thus, according to Canneti, we have the ruled and the rulers. Now, this is not a very startling idea or image; at most it is an insight, and not a new one at that, since most studies of modern society have dealt in one way or another with the manipulation of the masses by leaders and rulers. And the value of such an insight depends on how it is argued and developed. But Canetti does not really develop the idea; what he does instead is to spin a web of illustrations, associations, and analogies. In this sense, he has written a poem. The trouble, however, is that it is a bad poem, far too long, cluttered up with home-made jargon, and much too pretentious. Its method is to convert truisms into metaphors, to state a fact as though it were a discovery, such as that “a soldier on duty acts only in accordance with commands,” or that war consists of one crowd fighting another, or that “in revolutionary periods executions are accelerated”; and then to give these inflated facts all kinds of historical resonance. Frequently, the idea itself is a bad metaphor: the most picturesque example is Canetti’s description of spermatozoa as a crowd, with one survivor. Sometimes the metaphor is purely verbal, as when Canetti says that in an inflation the “unit of money loses its identity.” Here we have just the opposite of what goes on in a good poem: instead of an original and concrete association that puts things in a new light or makes for a new experience, an ordinary observation is given “poetic” overtones, and made to sound more suggestive. And unlike good poetry which loses in paraphrase, some of Canetti’s inspired rhetoric might easily gain by a paraphrase.

The scheme of the book is quite simple. Canetti begins by cataloguing the various kinds of crowds and their attributes. Thus we learn that the crowd “wants to grow,” is based of “equality,” “loves density,” and “needs a direction.” And all crowds are either “rhythmic” or “stagnating.” Then we discover that there are: baiting crowds, flight crowds, prohibition crowds, reversal crowds, feast crowds, panic crowds, double crowds, invisible crowds, etc. (No lonely crowds!) Next, Canetti goes back to tribal cultures to explore what he calls the pack, which is a more primitive form of the crowd. Then Canetti brings the idea of the crowd up to date by explaining such recent phenomena as the rise of Hitler, the parliamentary system, inflation, capitalism, and socialism in terms of “crowd symbols.” Here, I think, is the most absurd part of the book, for Canetti talks about both capitalism and socialism as societies obsessed with the idea of production as though production were a disease. In Canetti’s system, production is nothing but “the modern frenzy of increase.” Since “increase” is a characteristic of crowds, production becomes just another instance, a double one, of the crowd gone wild, for goods and consumers each make up a crowd. Finally, Canetti goes into the question of power, which he explains in a long and ingenious rumination on the psychological myths that surround the idea of the ruler in all civilizations. What we end up with is a portrait of the despot as a paranoid, whose “passion for survival” leads him to destroy all those who might survive him. The book closes with an impassioned epilogue which sounds like a hopped-up version of the current mood. Here Canetti warns us that we are in a new dangerous period, because “the survivor is himself afraid.” “Rulers tremble today,” says Canetti, “not…because they are rulers, but as the equals of everyone else….Today either everyone will survive or no-one.”

There are a few nice observations scattered through Crowds and Power, as when Canetti says that a fire sometimes unifies a theater more than the play can. But most of the book reads like a psychoanalysis of history, and this really says no more about history than logical analysis does about a person.