J'ai horreur de la foule, admitted Hippolyte Taine, author of the vastly influential and vastly hostile history of the French Revolution which appeared in stages during the 1870s and 1880s. Whether we translate foule as 'crowd' or 'mob' here, English moves the noun from the feminine to the neuter, losing in the process one significant element of the loathing to which Taine confessed. In Taine's History crowds and revolutions are shown alike to degenerate inevitably into collective insanity. Indeed sanity is not some 'normal' human condition any more than equality is a birthright. Within Taine's hereditarian terms of reference, the living crowd which had erupted in the Paris Commune in 1871 was united with a crowd of the dead, all those earlier pathological revolutionaries who had tainted the blood of the race. The crowd at the Commune was supposedly composed of prostitutes, alcoholics, atavists and degenerates. These 'gamboling baboons', crazed women and insane opportunist leaders had apparently plagued France from 1789 to 1871, and they represented for Taine both a symptom of and a devastating rejoinder to Rousseau's optimistic maxims about human nature, or Michelet's celebration of 'the people'.
LRB 23 November 1989 | PDF Download