Read CROWDS AND MACHINES - CHAPTER II of Crowds A Moving-Picture of Democracy, free online book, by Gerald Stanley Lee, on


Time was when a man was born upon this planet in a somewhat lonely fashion.  A few human beings out of all infinity stood by to care for him.  He was brought up with hills and stars and a neighbour or so, until he grew to man’s estate.  He climbed at last over the farthest hill, and there, on the rim of things, standing on the boundary line of sky and earth that had always been the edge of life to him before, he looked forth upon the freedom of the world, and said in his soul, “What shall I be in this world I see, and whither shall I go in it?” And the sky and the earth and the rivers and the seas and the nights and the days beckoned to him, and the voices of life rose around him, and they all said, “Come!”

On a corner in New York, around a Street Department wagon, not so very long ago, five thousand men were fighting for shovels, fifty men to a shovel-a tool for living a little longer.

The problem of living in this modern world is the problem of finding room in it.  The crowd principle is so universally at work through modern life that the geography of the world has been changed to conform to it.  We live in crowds.  We get our living in crowds.  We are amused in herds.  Civilization is a list of cities.  Cities are the huge central dynamos of all being.  The power of a man can be measured to-day by the mile, the number of miles between him and the city; that is, between him and what the city stands for-the centre of mass.

The crowd principle is the first principle of production.  The producer who can get the most men together and the most dollars together controls the market; and when he once controls the market, instead of merely getting the most men and the most dollars, he can get all the men and all the dollars.  Hence the corporation in production.

The crowd principle is the first principle of distribution.  The man who can get the most men to buy a particular thing from him can buy the most of it, and therefore buy it the cheapest, and therefore get more men to buy from him; and having bought this particular thing cheaper than all men could buy it, it is only a step to selling it to all men; and then, having all the men on one thing and all the dollars on one thing, he is able to buy other things for nothing, for everybody, and sell them for a little more than nothing to everybody.  Hence the department store-the syndicate of department stores-the crowd principle in commerce.

The value of a piece of land is the number of footsteps passing by it in twenty-four hours.  The value of a railroad is the number of people near it who cannot keep still.  If there are a great many of these people, the railroad runs its trains for them.  If there are only a few, though they be heroes and prophets, Dantes, Savonarolas, and George Washingtons, trains shall not be run for them.  The railroad is the characteristic property and symbol of property in this modern age, and the entire value of a railroad depends upon its getting control of a crowd-either a crowd that wants to be where some other crowd is, or a crowd that wants a great many tons of something that some other crowd has.

When we turn from commerce to philosophy, we find the same principle running through them both.  The main thing in the philosophy of to-day is the extraordinary emphasis of environment and heredity.  A man’s destiny is the way the crowd of his ancestors ballot for his life.  His soul-if he has a soul-is an atom acted upon by a majority of other atoms.

When we turn to religion in its different phases, we find the same emphasis upon them all-the emphasis of mass, of majority.  Not that the church exists for the masses-no one claims this-but that, such as it is, it is a mass church.  While the promise of Scripture, as a last resort, is often heard in the church about two or three gathered together in God’s name, the Church is run on the working conviction that unless the minister and the elders can gather two or three hundred in God’s name, He will not pay any particular attention to them, or, if He does, He will not pay the bills.  The church of our forefathers, founded on personality, is exchanged for the church of democracy, founded on crowds; and the church of the moment is the institutional church, in which the standing of the clergyman is exchanged for the standing of the congregation.  The inevitable result, the crowd clergyman, is seen on every hand amongst us-the agent of an audience, who, instead of telling an audience what they ought to do, runs errands for them morning and noon and night.  With coddling for majorities and tact for whims, he carefully picks his way.  He does his people as much good as they will let him, tells them as much truth as they will hear, until he dies at last, and goes to take his place with Puritan parsons who mastered majorities, with martyrs who would not live and be mastered by majorities, and with apostles who managed to make a new world without the help of majorities at all.

Theology reveals the same tendency.  The measuring by numbers is found in all belief, the same cringing before masses of little facts instead of conceiving the few immeasurable ones.  Helpless individuals mastered by crowds are bound to believe in a kind of infinitely helpless God.  He stands in the midst of the crowds of His laws and the systems of His worlds:  to those who are not religious, a pale First Cause; and to those who are, a Great Sentimentality far away in the heavens, who, in a kind of vast weak-mindedness (a Puritan would say), seems to want everybody to be good and hopes they will, but does not quite know what to do about it if they are not.

Every age has its typical idea of heaven and its typical idea of hell (in some of them it would be hard to tell which is which), and every civilization, has its typical idea of God.  A civilization with sovereign men in it has a sovereign God; and a crowd civilization, reflecting its mood on the heavens, is inclined to a pleasant, large-minded God, eternally considering everybody and considering everything, but inefficient withal, a kind of legislature of Deity, typical of representative institutions at their best and at their worst.

If we pass from our theology to our social science we come to the most characteristic result of the crowd principle that the times afford.  We are brought face to face with Socialism, the millennium machine, the Corliss engine of progress.  It were idle to deny to the Socialist that he is right-and more right, indeed, than most of us, in seeing that there is a great wrong somewhere; but it would be impossible beyond this point to make any claim for him, except that he is honestly trying to create in the world a wrong we do not have as yet, that shall be large enough to swallow the wrong we have.  The term “Socialism” stands for many things, in its present state; but so far as the average Socialist is concerned, he may be defined as an idealist who turns to materialism, that is, to mass, to carry his idealism out.  The world having discovered two great ideals in the New Testament, the service of all men by all other men, and the infinite value of the individual, the Socialist expects to carry out one of these ideals by destroying the other.

The principle that an infinitely helpful society can be produced by setting up a row of infinitely helpless individuals is Socialism, as the average Socialist practises it.  The average Socialist is the type of the eager but effeminate reformer of all ages, because he seeks to gain by machinery things nine tenths of the value of which to men is in gaining them for themselves.  Socialism is the attempt to invent conveniences for heroes, to pass a law that will make being a man unnecessary, to do away with sin by framing a world in which it would be worthless to do right because it would be impossible to do wrong.  It is a philosophy of helplessness, which, even if it succeeds in helplessly carrying its helplessness out-in doing away with suffering, for instance-can only do it by bringing to pass a man not alive enough to be capable of suffering, and putting him in a world where suffering and joy alike would be a bore to him.

But the main importance of Socialism in this connection lies in the fact that it does not confine itself to sociology.  It has become a complete philosophy of life, and can be seen penetrating with its subtle satire on human nature almost everything about us.  We have the cash register to educate our clerks into pure and honest character, and the souls of conductors can be seen being nurtured, mile after mile, by fare-recorders.  Corporations buy consciences by the gross.  They are hung over the door of every street car.  Consciences are worked by pulling a strap.  Liverymen have cyclometres to help customers to tell the truth, and the Australian ballot is invented to help men to be manly enough to vote the way they think.  And when, in the course of human events, we came to the essentially moral and spiritual reform of a woman’s right to dress in good taste-that is, appropriately for what she is doing, what did we proceed to do to bring it about?  Conventions were held year after year, and over and over, to get women to dress as they wanted to; dress reform associations were founded, syndicates of courage were established all over the land-all in vain; and finally,-Heaven help us!-how was this great moral and spiritual reform accomplished?  By an invention of two wheels, one in front of the other.  It was brought about by the Pope Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut in two short years.

Everything is brought about by manufacturing companies.  It is the socialist spirit; the idea that, if we can only find it, there is some machine that can surely be invented that will take the place of men:  not only of hands and feet, but of all the old-fashioned and lumbering virtues, courage, patience, vision, common sense, and religion itself, out of which they are made.

But we depend upon machinery not only for the things that we want, but for the brains with which we decide what we want.  If a man wants to know what he thinks, he starts a club; and if he wants to be very sure, he calls a convention.  From the National Undertakers’ Association and the Launderers’ League to the Christian Endeavour Tournament and the World’s Congress-the Midway Pleasance of Piety-the Convention strides the world with vociferousness.  The silence that descends from the hills is filled with its ceaseless din.  The smallest hamlet in the land has learned to listen reverent from afar to the vast insistent roar of It, as the Voice of the Spirit of the Times.

Every idea we have is run into a constitution.  We cannot think without a chairman.  Our whims have secretaries; our fads have by-laws.  Literature is a club.  Philosophy is a society.  Our reforms are mass meetings.  Our culture is a summer school.  We cannot mourn our mighty dead without Carnegie hall and forty vice-presidents.  We remember our poets with trustees, and the immortality of a genius is watched by a standing committee.  Charity is an Association.  Theology is a set of resolutions.  Religion is an endeavour to be numerous and communicative.  We awe the impenitent with crowds, convert the world with boards, and save the lost with delegates; and how Jesus of Nazareth could have done so great a work without being on a committee is beyond our ken.  What Socrates and Solomon would have come to if they had only had the advantage of conventions it would be hard to say; but in these days, when the excursion train is applied to wisdom; when, having little enough, we try to make it more by pulling it about; when secretaries urge us, treasurers dun us, programs unfold out of every mail-where is the man who, guileless-eyed, can look in his brother’s face; can declare upon his honour that he has never been a delegate, never belonged to anything, never been nominated, elected, imposed on, in his life?

Everything convenes, revolves, petitions, adjourns.  Nothing stays adjourned.  We have reports that think for us, committees that do right for us, and platforms that spread their wooden lengths over all the things we love, until there is hardly an inch of the dear old earth to stand on, where, fresh and sweet and from day to day, we can live our lives ourselves, pick the flowers, look at the stars, guess at God, garner our grain, and die.  Every new and fresh human being that comes upon the earth is manufactured into a coward or crowded into a machine as soon as we get at him.  We have already come to the point where we do not expect to interest anybody in anything without a constitution.  And the Eugenic Society is busy now on by-laws for falling in love.

What this means with regard to the typical modern man is, not that he does not think, but that it takes ten thousand men to make him think.  He has a crowd soul, a crowd creed.  Charged with convictions, galvanized from one convention to another, he contrives to live, and with a sense of multitude, applause, and cheers he warms his thoughts.  When they have been warmed enough he exhorts, dictates, goes hither and thither on the crutch of the crowd, and places his crutch on the world, and pries on it, if perchance it may be stirred to something.  To the bigotry of the man who knows because he speaks for himself has been added a new bigotry on the earth-the bigotry of the man who speaks for the nation; who, with a more colossal prejudice than he had before, returns from a mass meeting of himself, and, with the effrontery that only a crowd can give, backs his opinions with forty states, and walks the streets of his native town in the uniform of all humanity.  This is a kind of fool that has never been possible until these latter days.  Only a very great many people, all of them working on him at once, and all of them watching every one else working at once, can produce this kind.

Indeed, the crowd habit has become so strong upon us, has so mastered the mood of the hour, that even you and I, gentle reader, have found ourselves for one brief moment, perhaps, in a certain sheepish feeling at being caught in a small audience.  Being caught in a small audience at a lecture is no insignificant experience.  You will see people looking furtively about, counting one another.  You will make comparisons.  You will recall the self-congratulatory air of the last large audience you had the honour to belong to, sitting in the same seats, buzzing confidently to itself before the lecture began.  The hush of disappointment in a small audience all alone with itself, the mutual shame of it, the chill in it, that spreads softly through the room, every identical shiver of which the lecturer is hired to warm through-all these are signs of the times.  People look at the empty chairs as if every modest, unassuming chair there were some great personality saying to each and all of us:  “Why are you here?  Did you not make a mistake?  Are you not ashamed to be a party to-to-as small a crowd as this?” Thus do we sit, poor mortals, doing obeisance to Empty Chairs-we who are to be lectured to-until the poor lecturer who is to lecture to us comes in, and the struggle with the Chairs begins.

When we turn to education as it stands to-day, the same self-satisfied, inflexible smile of the crowd is upon it all.  We see little but the massing of machinery, the crowding together of numbers of teachers and numbers of courses and numbers of students, and the practical total submergence of personality, except by accident, in all educated life.

The infinite value of the individual, the innumerable consequences of one single great teaching man, penetrating every pupil who knows him, becoming a part of the universe, a part of the fibre of thought and existence to every pupil who knows him-this is a thing that belongs to the past and to the inevitable future.  With all our great institutions, the crowds of men who teach in them, the crowds of men who learn in them, we are still unable to produce out of all the men they graduate enough college presidents to go around.  The fact that at almost any given time there may be seen, in this American land of ours, half a score of colleges standing and waiting, wondering if they will ever find a president again, is the climax of what the universities have failed to do.  The university will be justified only when a man with a university in him, a whole campus in his soul, comes out of it, to preside over it, and the soul that has room for more than one chair in it comes out of it to teach in it.

When we turn from education to journalism, the pressure of the crowd is still more in evidence.  To have the largest circulation is to have the most advertising, and to have the most advertising means to have the most money, and to have the most money means to be able to buy the most ability, and to have the most ability means to keep all that one gains and get more.  The degradation of many of our great journals in the last twenty years is but the inevitable carrying out of the syndicate method in letters-a mass of contributors, a mass of subscribers, and a mass of advertisers.  So long as it gives itself over to the circulation idea, the worse a newspaper is, the more logical it is.  There may be a certain point where it is bound to stop some time, because there will not be enough bad people who are bad enough to go around; but we have not come to it yet, and in the meantime about everything that can be thought of is being printed to make bad people.  If it be asserted that there are not enough bad people to go around even now, it may be added that there are plenty of good people to take their places as fast as they fail to be bad enough, and that the good people who take the bad papers to find fault with them are the ones who make such papers possible.

The result of the crowd principle is the inevitable result.  Our journals have fallen off as a matter of course, not only in moral ideals (which everybody realizes), but in brain force, power of expression, imagination, and foresight-the things that give distinction and results to utterance and that make a journal worth while.  The editorial page has been practically abandoned by most journals, because most journals have been abandoned by their editors:  they have become printed counting-rooms.  With all their greatness, their crowds of writers, and masses of readers, and piles of cablegrams, they are not able to produce the kind of man who is able to say a thing the kind of way that will make everybody stop and listen to him, cablegrams and all.  Horace Greeley and Samuel Bowles and Charles A. Dana have passed from the press, and the march of the crowd through the miles of their columns every day is trampling on their graves.  The newspaper is the mass machine, the crowd thinker.  To and fro, from week to week and from year to year, its flaming headlines sway, now hither and now thither, where the greatest numbers go, or the best guess of where they are going to go; and Personality, creative, triumphant, masterful, imperious Personality-is it not at an end?  It were a dazzling sight, perhaps, to gaze at night upon a huge building, thinking with telegraph under the wide sky around the world, the hurrying of its hundred pens upon the desks, and the trembling of its floors with the mighty coming of a Day out of the grip of the press; but even this huge bewildering pile of power, this aggregation, this corporation of forces, machines of souls, glittering down the Night-does any one suppose It stands by Itself, that It is its own master, that It can do its own will in the world?  In all its splendour It stands, weaving the thoughts of the world in the dark; but that very night, that very moment, It lies in the power of a little ticking-thing behind its doors.  It belongs to that legislature of information and telegraph, that owner of what happens in a day, called the Associated Press.

If the One who called Himself a man and a God had not been born in a crowd, if he had not loved and grappled with it, and been crucified and worshipped by it, He might have been a Redeemer for the silent, stately, ancient world that was before He came, but He would have failed to be a Redeemer for this modern world-a world where the main inspiration and the main discouragement is the crowd, where every great problem and every great hope is one that deals with crowds.  It is a world where, from the first day a man looks forth to move, he finds his feet and hands held by crowds.  The sun rises over crowds for him, and sets over crowds; and having presumed to be born, when he presumes to die at last, in a crowd of graves he is left not even alone with God.  Ten human lives deep they have them-the graves in Paris; and whether men live their lives piled upon other men’s lives, in blocks in cities or in the apparent loneliness of town or country what they shall do or shall not do, or shall have or shall not have-is it not determined by crowds, by the movement of crowds?  The farmer is lonely enough, one would say, as he rests by his fire in the plains, his barns bursting with wheat; but the murmur of the telegraph almost any moment is the voice of the crowd to him, thousands of miles away, shouting in the Stock Exchange:  “You shall not sell your wheat!  Let it lie!  Let it rot in your barns!”

And yet, if a man were to go around the earth with a surveyor’s chain, there would seem to be plenty of room for all who are born upon it.  The fact that there are enough square miles of the planet for every human being on it to have several square miles to himself does not prove that a man can avoid the crowd-that it is not a crowded world.  If what a man could be were determined by the square mile, it would indeed be a gentle and graceful earth to live on.  But an acre of Nowhere satisfies no one; and how many square miles does a man want to be a nobody in?  He can do it better in a crowd, where every one else is doing it.

In the ancient world, when a human being found something in the wrong place and wanted to put it where it belonged, he found himself face to face with a few men.  He found he had to deal with these few men.  To-day, if he wants anything put where it belongs, he finds himself face to face with a crowd.  He finds that he has to deal with a crowd.  The world has telephones and newspapers now, and it has railroads; and if a man proposes to do a certain thing in it, the telephones tell the few, and the newspapers tell the crowd, and the crowd gets on to the railroad; and before he rises from his sleep, behold the crowd in his front yard; and if he can get as far as his own front gate in the thing he is going for, he must be-either a statesman? a hero? or a great genius?  None of these.  Let him be a corporation-of ideas or of dollars; let him be some complex, solid, crowded thing, would he do anything for himself, or for anybody else, or for everybody else, in a world too crowded to tell the truth without breaking something, or to find room for it, when it is told, without breaking something.

This is the Crowd’s World.

What I have written I have written.

I have been sitting and reading it.  It is a mood.  But there is an implacable truth in it, I believe, that must be gotten out and used.

As I have been reading I have looked up.  I see the quiet little mountain through my window standing out there in the sun.  It looks around the world as if nothing had happened; and the bobolinks out in the great meadow are all flying and singing in the same breath and rowing through the air, thousands of them, miles of them.  They do not stop a minute.

A moment ago while I was writing I heard the Child outside on the piazza, four years old, going by my window back and forth, listening to the crunch of her new shoes as if it were the music of the spheres.  Why should not I do as well?  I thought.  The Child is merely seeing her shoes as they are with as many senses and as many thoughts and desires at once as she can muster, and with all her might.

What if I were to see the world like the Child?

Yesterday I went to Robert’s Meadow.  I saw three small city boys, with their splendid shining rubber boots and their beautiful bamboo poles.  They were on their way home.  They had only the one trout between them, and that had been fondled, examined, and poked over and bragged about until it was fairly stiff and brown with those boys-looked as if it had been stolen out of a dried-herring box.  They put it reverently back, when I saw it, into their big basket.  I smiled a little as I walked on and thought how they felt about it.

Then suddenly it was as if I had forgotten something.  I turned and looked back; saw those three boys-a little retinue to that solitary fish-trudging down the road in the yellow sun.  And I stood there and wanted to be in it!  Then I saw them going round the bend in the road thirty years away.

I still want to be one of those boys.

And I am going to try.  Perhaps, Heaven helping me, I will yet grow up to them!

I know that the way those three boys felt about the fish-the way they folded it around with something, the way they made the most of it, is the way to feel about the world.

I side with the three boys.  I am ready to admit that as regards technical and comparatively unimportant details or as regards perspective on the fish the boys may not have been right.  It is possible that they had not taken a point of view, measured in inches or volts or foot-pounds, that was right and could last forever; but I know that the spirit of their point of view was right-the spirit that hovered around the three boys and around the fish that day was right and could last forever.

It is the spirit in which the world was made, and the spirit in which new worlds in all ages, and even before our eyes by Boys and Girls and-God, are being made.

It is only the boys and the girls (all sizes) who know about worlds.  And it is only boys and girls who are right.

I heard a robin in the apple tree this morning out in the rain singing, "I believe!  I believe!"

At the same time, I am glad that I have known and faced, and that I shall have to know and face, the Crowd Fear.

I know in some dogged, submerged, and speechless way that it is not a true fear.  And yet I want to move along the sheer edge of it all my life.  I want it.  I want all men to have it, and to keep having it, and to keep conquering it.  I have seen that no man who has not felt it, who does not know this huge numbing, numberless fear before the crowd, and who may not know it again almost any moment, will ever be able to lead the crowd, glory in it, die for it, or help it.  Nor will any man who has not defied it, and lifted his soul up naked and alone before it and cried to God, ever interpret the crowd or express the will of the crowd, or hew out of earth and heaven what the crowd wants.

We want to help to express and fulfil a crowd civilization, we want to share the crowd life, to express what people in crowds feel-the great crowd sensations, excitements, the inspirations and depressions of those who live and struggle with crowds.

We want to face, and face grimly, implacably, the main facts, the main emotions men are having to-day.  And the main emotion men are having to-day about our modern world is that it is a crowded world, that in the nature of the case its civilization is a crowd civilization.  Every other important thing for this present age to know must be worked out from this one.  It is the main thing with which our religion has to deal, the thing our literature is about, and the thing our arts will be obliged to express.  Any man who makes the attempt to consider or interpret anything either in art or life without a true understanding of the crowd principle as it is working to-day, without a due sense of its central place in all that goes on around us, is a spectator in the blur and bewilderment of this modern world, as helpless in it, and as childish and superficial in it, as a Greek god at the World’s Fair, gazing out of his still Olympian eyes at the Midway Pleasance.

After the Crowd Fear there comes to most of us the machine fear.  Machines are the huge limbs or tentacles of crowds.  As the crowds grow the machines grow; grasping at the little strip of sky over us, at the little patch of ground beneath our feet, they swing out before us and beckon daily to us new hells and new heavens in our eyes.