The Crowd in History, 1730-1848
The century of the common man calls for the history of the common man; the era of mass civilization for the study of the masses. It is all the more curious that it has taken the historians—and even the sociologists—so long to take a serious interest in this subject. Largely the product of the 1950s, its relative immaturity is obvious. It does not even possess that essential characteristic of any “discipline” which wishes to establish university departments and raise money from foundations: an agreed brand name. The sociologists hover between two or three labels, of which “Collective Behavior” seems to have the best chances until something more authentically Greek-sounding comes along. The historians of the common people still shelter under the wide umbrella of “social history,” which is itself an extremely vague though increasingly popular category gradually emancipating itself from a modest existence as a euphemism for the history of radical organizations, an after-thought to “economic history,” or another way of describing the history of such things as clothing and furniture. In the Anglo-Saxon world it still lacks even a specialist journal.
Nevertheless, without awaiting the proper academic baptismal rites, scholars from various starting-points have been spontaneously converging. Anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, historians, experts on religion, orientalists, and even a professor of French, have in the past ten years produced a substantial literature about millenarian movements. Historians, sociologists, literary scholars, psychologists, and old-fashioned amateurs have contributed numerous studies about popular culture. There are more studies of labor movements, and what is more novel, of the working classes, than ever before. The study of the French Revolution (and through it of other revolutions) has been transformed by the pupils of the late Georges Lefebvre, the greatest man in this field in our lifetime, whose most original contribution to it was piecisely the discovery that it could be studied “from below.” Indeed his definition of “the essential problem of social history” is a very fair description of what the students of “collective behavior”—few of whom have read the passage—are trying to do: “to determine precisely the needs, interests, sentiments, and above all the mental content of the popular classes.” The curious fact is that, while Lefebvre’s research program was formulated in the 1920s, and his masterpiece in this genre, the study of La Grande Peur—the remarkable agrarian agitation of the summer of 1789—is more than thirty years old, he did not acquire pupils and major influence until after the Second World War.
The reason is, of course, political. Ours is the characteristic age not merely of the passive “mass civilization” of the industrial West, but of activist mass revolutionary movements. There were almost certainly more millenial movements active in the world in the 1950s than at any time in the Middle Ages. The subject is inescapable, all the more so because the conceptual framework into which the traditional, social, and political movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were fitted, is clearly incapable of holding all …