John Steinbeck and the crowd mind

I saw a movie version of IN DUBIOUS BATTLE by John Steinbeck (1936) a couple of weeks ago,  I liked the movie  so much that I re-read the novel.

Anybody who likes military or political fiction should like this novel.  It is about a kind of asymmetric warfare.

Anybody who is interested in social history should like it.   So far as I can judge, it is a true to life description of labor and labor strife among fruit pickers in California in the early 1930s.

The movie is mostly true to the novel.   What the novel has that the movie lacks is John Steinbeck’s ideas about crowd psychology and the group mind.

Steinbeck believed that there are times when a group of people lose their individuality and become a kind of collective being with a mind of its own.   I think there is truth in this, and I find it frightening.  Steinbeck saw it as a fact of life.

The movie was part of the annual Labor Film series at the Dryden Theater of the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, here in Rochester, NY.

The film curator explained that John Steinbeck originally intended to write a magazine article about the great fruit pickers strike in northern California in 1933, but he had so much material that he decided to write a historical novel instead.

Once he got started, his story diverged from the historical facts.   The fruit pickers won a partial victory, but the novel and movie end with them about to make one last stand and go down to glorious defeat—which, however, will help the cause of the workers in the long run.

The hero of In Dubious Battle is the labor organizer Mac, explicitly a member of “the Party” in the novel and implicitly in the movie, as seen by Jim, his young apprentice.   His manipulations supposedly are justified because he cares only for the workers’ cause and wants nothing for himself.

In the movie, Mac says that the basic human desire is to have control of one’s own life.  In the novel, he says that the basic human desire is to be part of a meaningful collective effort.   One of his goals is to get the fruit pickers used to the idea of working together instead of individually and at cross purposes.

Mac has a lot to say about crowd psychology—for example, that nothing galvanizes a crowd as much as the sight of blood.   I think Steinbeck’s spokesman in the novel is his Doc Burton character, who helps the strikers, but doesn’t believe in Mac’s ideals.

Here’s Doc Burton talking to Mac—

“… A man in a group isn’t himself at all, he’s a cell in an organism that isn’t him any more than the cells in your body are like you.  I want to watch the group and see what it’s like.  People have said, ‘mobs are crazy, you can’t tell what they’ll do.’  Why don’t people look at mobs not as men, but as mobs?  A mob nearly always seems to act reasonably, for a mob.”

“Well, what’s this got to do with the cause?”

“It might be like this, Mac: What group-man wants to move, he makes a standard.  ‘God wills that we re-capture the Holy Land,’ or he says, “We fight to make the world safe for democracy,’ or he says, ‘We’ll wipe out social injustice with communism.’  But the group doesn’t care about the Holy Land, or Democracy, or Communism.  Maybe the group simply wants to move, to fight, and uses these words simply to reassure the brains of individual men.  I say it might be like that, Mac.”

And here’s Mac talking to Jim, some 172 pages later—

“Right!” said Mac.  “People think a mob is wasteful, but I’ve seen plenty; and I tell you, a mob with something it wants to do is just about as efficient as trained soldiers, but tricky.  They’ll knock over the barricade, but then what?  They’ll want to do something else before they cool off.”  And he went on, “That’s right, what you said.  It’s a big animal.  It’s different from the men in it.  And it’s stronger than all the men put together.  It doesn’t want the same things men want—it’s like Doc said—and we don’t know what it’ll do.”

“It’ll get that barricade,” said Jim.

“That’s not what I mean.  The animal don’t want the barricade.  I don’t know what it wants.  Trouble is, guys that study people always think it’s men, and it isn’t men.  It’s a different kind of animal.  It’s as different from men as dogs are.  Jim, it’s swell when we can use it, but we don’t know enough.  When it gets started, it might do anything.”  His face was alive and excited, and slightly fearful.

The idea of a sentient supra-human group mind is fanciful, but I think there is such a thing as group emotion overriding individual reason.

The best account I ever read of this was AMONG THE THUGS: The Experience and the Seduction of Crowd Violence by Bill Buford (1990), an American who took up with violent British football hooligans.

He not only described, but experienced, the moments when a crowd ceased to be a collection of individuals, but instruments of a collective emotion.   It was exhilarating, he wrote; it was exciting; it was addictive.   Crown consciousness was a kind of evil mysticism, in which the sense of self merged into something larger.

There is scientific research, which I have not studied, into how emotion can be communicated directly.  It has to do with mirror neurons, which enable you to share an emotion based on observing someone else’s expression and body language; it has to do with pheromones, which has to do with the biochemistry of emotion.

The other great book on this topic is THE TRUE BELIEVER: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer (1951), which is about the psychology of people who are able to find meaning in their lives only by submerging themselves in something greater than themselves.  Hoffer distrusted mass movements, as I do, but he saw them as the only means to bring about social change.


“What is a crowd?”  Excerpt from Among the Thugs by Bill Buford.

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One Response to “John Steinbeck and the crowd mind”

  1. Edward Says:

    The CIA specializes in manipulating mass movements. Social media make them easier to manipulate.


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