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


"And I saw the free souls of poets, The loftiest bards of all ages strode before me Strange large men, long unwaked, undisclosed, were disclosed to me ...  O my rapt verse, my call, mock me not! ...  I will not be outfaced by irrational things, I will penetrate what is sarcastic upon me, I will make cities and civilizations defer to me This is what I have learnt from America-

    I will confront these shows of the day and night
    I will know if I am to be less than they,
    I will see if I am not as majestic as they,
    I will see if I am not as subtle and real as they,
    I will see if I have no meaning while the houses and
        ships have meaning,

    ...  I am for those that have never been mastered,
    For men and women whose tempers have never been mastered,
    For those whom laws, theories, conventions can never master.

    I am for those who walk abreast of the whole earth
    Who inaugurate one to inaugurate all."_


I was spending a little time not long ago with a man of singularly devoted and noble spirit who had dedicated his life and his fortune to the Socialist movement.  We had had several talks before, and always with a little flurry at first of hopefulness toward one another’s ideas.  We both felt that the other, for a mere Socialist or for a mere Individualist, was really rather reasonable.  We admitted great tracts of things to one another, and we always felt as if by this one next argument, perchance, or by one further illustration, we would convince the other and rescue him like a brand from the burning.

The last time I saw him he started in at once at the station as we climbed up into the car by telling me what he was doing.  He was studying up the heroes of the American Revolution, and was writing something to show that they were not really heroes after all.  All manner of things were the matter with them.  They had always troubled him, he said.  He knew there was something wrong, and he was glad to have the matter settled.  He said he did not, and never had believed in heroes, and thought they did a great deal of harm-even dead ones.  Heroes, he said, always deceived the people.  They kept people from seeing that nothing could be done in our modern society by any one man.  Only crowds could do things, he intimated-each man, like one little wave on the world, wavering up to the shore and dying away.

As the evening wore on our conversation became more concrete, and I began to drag in, of course, every now and then, naturally, an inspired or semi-inspired millionaire or so.

I cannot say that these gentlemen were received with enthusiasm.

Finally, I turned on him.  “What is it that makes you so angry (and nearly all the Socialists) every time you hear something good, something you cannot deny is good, about a successful business man?  If I brought a row of inspired millionaires, say ten or twelve of them one after the other, into your library this minute, you would get hotter and hotter with every one, wouldn’t you?  You would scarcely speak to me.”

- intimated that he was afraid I was deceived; he was afraid that I was going about deceiving other people about its being possible for mere individual men to be good; he was afraid I was doing a great deal of damage.

He then confided to me that not so very long ago he dropped in one Monday morning into his guest-chamber just after his guest had gone and found a copy of “Inspired Millionaires,” which his guest had obviously been reading over Sunday, lying on the little reading-table at the head of the bed.

He said that he took the book back to his library, took out two or three encyclopaedias from the shelf in the corner, put my inspired millionaires in behind them, put the encyclopaedias back, and that they had been there to this day.

With this very generous and kindly introduction we went on to a frank talk on the general attitude of Socialists toward the instinct of hero-worship in human nature.

A Socialist had said only a few days before, speaking of a certain municipal movement in which the people were interested, that he thought it really had a very good chance to succeed “if only the heroes could be staved off a little longer.”  He deprecated the almost incurable idea people seemed to have that nothing could ever be done in this world without being all mixed up with heroes.

My mind kept recurring in a perplexed way to this remark for a few days after I had heard it, and I soon came on the following letter from a prominent Socialist which had been read at a dinner the night before: 

“I am glad to join with others of my comrades in conveying greetings to Comrade Cahan on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his birth and in recognition of the eminent services that he has rendered in the Socialist movement.

“Yet my gladness is not untinged with a certain note of apprehension lest in expressing so conspicuously our esteem of an honoured comrade we obscure the broader scene which, if equally illumined, would disclose tens of thousands of other comrades, labouring with equal devotion, and each no less worthy of praise....

“In our rejoicing over the services of Comrade Cahan let us not forget that the facilities that he and that each of us enjoy are the products of thousands of other men and women, and sometimes of children too.

“In our rejoicing let us recall that we cannot safely assume that any comrade’s services to the movement have been greater than the movement’s services to him; that we are but fellow-workers together, deriving help and perhaps inspiration one from another and each from all.

    “In our rejoicing let us place the emphasis rather upon the
    services of the many to each, than upon the services of any
    one of the many.”

I have not quoted from this letter because I disagree with the idea in it.  I am ready to admit that though the idea is a somewhat dampening one perhaps for a banquet, that it is true and important.

What I object to in the letter is the Fear in it.

In spite of the fineness and truth of the motive that lies, I know, underneath every line, the letter is baleful, sinister, and weary.

I accuse the letter of being, in a kind of nobly sick way, visionary, unpractical, and socially destructive.

I would heartily agree with the writer of the letter about the quality of many heroes, possibly about most heroes.  I would agree in a large measure that the heroes the crowds choose are the wrong ones.

But there is a great difference between his belief and mine as to our practical working policy in getting the things for crowds that we both want for them.  It seems to me that he does not believe in crowds.  He is filled with fear that they would select the wrong heroes.  He says they must not have heroes, or must be allowed as few as possible.

I believe in crowds, and I believe that the more they have the hero-habit, the more heroes they have to compare and select from, the finer, longer, and truer heroes they will select, the more deeply, truly, and concretely the crowds will think, and the more nobly they will express themselves.

But the great argument for the hero as a social method is that the crowd in a clumsy, wistful way, deep down in its heart, in the long run, loves the beautiful.  Appealing to the crowd’s ideal of the beautiful in conduct, its sense of the heroic, or semi-heroic, is the only practical, hard-headed understanding way of getting out of the crowd, for the crowd, what the crowd wants.

I saw the other day in Boston several thousand schoolboys in the street keeping step.  It was a band that held them together.  A band is a practical thing.

Is it not about time, in our dreary, drab, listless procession of economics, stringing helplessly across the world, that we have a band of music?  What economics needs now is a march.

We have to-day a thousand men who can tell people what to do where we have one who can touch the music, the dance, the hurrah, the cry, the worship in them, and make them want to do something.  The hero is the man who makes people want to do something, and strangely and subtly, all through the blood, while they watch him, he makes them believe they can.

It is socially destructive to throw away the overpowering instinct of human nature which we have called hero-worship.