Dr. Carson is Professor of American History at Grove City College, Pennsylvania.
Newspaper headlines call attention to the events. They tell of demonstrations, of threatened nation-wide strikes, of freedom marches, of crowds turning ugly in their behavior and becoming mobs, of union violence, of sit-downs and sit-ins, of panty raids, of protest meetings, and of giant rallies. Pictures which accompany these stories frequently show police employing night sticks, cattle prods, bloodhounds, and fire hoses, or the National Guard advancing with fixed bayonets behind the cover of tear gas. The particular actors and causes change from time to time. In the 1930′s, union violence was the most prominent national phenomenon. In the 1950′s, rebels without a cause formed gangs of teenagers to prey upon one another, as well as the innocent. In the 1960′s, Negroes and their sympathizers are the actors.
Taken together, however, these events constitute major trends of our times. On the one hand, the developments can be described as massed action by some group, which frequently is transformed by its fervor, or by some unfortunate event, into mob action. On the other, there are the harsh methods of the law enforcers, which appear to become harsher with each new device employed.
The chances are good, of course, that the headline writers will have found new topics before this is published. Shifting from ephemera to ephemera as they do, they are not likely to convey any sustained sense of crisis, even when one exists. It is possible, but unlikely, that Congress will have dealt satisfactorily with the railroad issue and with civil rights. It is much more probable, however, that if they pass any labor legislation it will be but another expedient patch to stave off the inevitable consequences of the crazy-quilt of protective legislation passed earlier.
Be that as it may, it is most unlikely that the trends of this century will be reversed in the immediate future. Massed action by groups, and terror and violence to contain it, are not exclusively, or even particularly, American phenomena. They are worldwide in scope. Violence by groups has been epidemic in this century. It may be reviewed in its most instructive manifestation in Germany during and before the rise to power of the Nazis. Hitler’s followers terrorized the opposition and capitalized on the crucial failure to restrain them. Once in power, Hitler used brutal coercion to subdue his own forces and to remove competitors among them. But this was only a more dramatic example of patterns of behavior among communists, fascists, Moslems, newly created African countries, and older European and American countries.
Groups Threaten Civilization
It is tempting to draw the conclusion that civilization has broken down. Those who use the blunderbuss approach to social analysis have pre-empted the position already. But such a conclusion is too all-inclusive to be useful, and it is of doubtful validity. By any criteria that we would be likely to devise, civilization still prevails in many countries and may, for aught we know, be spreading to the remainder. Nevertheless, if my surmise is correct, civilization is gravely endangered by massed group action and political terror and violence.
The phenomena to which I call attention have not gone unobserved, nor is there a lack of popular explanations. Current explanations usually follow one of two lines. If the explainer approves of the group action, he usually accounts for it in terms of intolerable social conditions which have provoked it. For example, it is now a cliché that labor strikes arise from deprivations of the laborer. (Anyone who thinks that this view has been much modified by sociological studies should read some books on economic history.) Already, Negro demonstrations are being explained environmentally. On the other hand, if the writer disapproves the objectives of the action, he will incline to make psychological explanations, e. g., of Nazi behavior or of current American "rightist" movements (which, despite the fact that they have not resorted to violence, are treated by many writers and speakers as if they were underground movements to overthrow the government). Such explanations reveal the ideological predispositions of those who make them. The explanations are chosen to fit the explainer’s program.
Mob Action Is a Product
It is not my intention, however, to join the psychologizers and environmentalists in their methods of accounting for group action. Most of what they have to say is either guesswork or irrelevant. History is replete with sufferings which could have provided occasions for mass eruptions. In most cases, no such action occurred. Nor is there any consistently demonstrable connection between the degree of deprivation and the occurrence of resistance. Even if they were right in their causal explanations, however, they offer little by way of solution for the problems raised by mass violence. A man being chased by a mob would receive small comfort from the notion that it was "all in their minds." A Kulak would still be unprotected when he had been told that his fate had been occasioned by economic deprivation. Mobs must still be subdued if anarchy is to be forestalled, whatever the explanation for their existence, subdued by whatever means are necessary.
My point is this: we are forgetting and have to a considerable extent discarded the methods for civilizing groups. Techniques for subduing mobs are substituted for methods of civilizing groups. Learned treatises on mob psychology vie for attention with psychological and environmental explanations of group behavior. The police and armies get special training in dealing with groups, and modern technology provides the instruments. Terror and violence used by modern dictators to hold the masses in check are but an extension of methods employed almost everywhere to a more moderate degree. Both the mob action and the techniques by which it is quelled are eloquent testimony to our failure to civilize groups. The current alternatives favored by "liberals" amount to admonitions to submit to the pressure and coercion of the group.
As implied above, there is another possibility of dealing with groups. It is to civilize them. And there was an American tradition of the civilizing of groups. But it has rarely, if ever, been articulated, and it has now fallen into such obscurity that it must now be exhumed, as it were. I may be pardoned then for taking a circuitous path to view the remains. The tradition can best be understood after we have reviewed the steps we have taken away from it.
Our failure to civilize groups stems from three directions: (1) not keeping clearly before us the important distinctions between individuals and groups; (2) falling prey to certain delusions about group behavior; (3) discarding the principles men have learned for civilizing groups. The corrective of these was once a part of the American tradition.
Group Action Is Different
Groups are not simply collections of individuals. This fact is well enough known, yet it needs to be spelled out in order to demonstrate that we have fallen into some delusions. Any reflective person should be able to provide examples from his own experience of differences between individuals and groups. For example, everyone must have had this happen to him. In a conversation with one other person, you have discovered that person to be sympathetic, polite, and thoughtful. You may go away from such an experience concluding that you have met and are coming to know a genuine human being. Your next meeting, however, may take place in a group. Here the person who was congenial when alone with you may make cutting remarks and align himself with the others of the group against you on matters upon which you were sure you would agree. A little reflection should convince us, if we are not entirely unusual, that we have done the same thing ourselves.
An explanation for this transformation is not far to seek. Most of us are to some extent insecure when we enter a group, however casual and temporary the grouping. To allay this uneasiness, most men will attempt to identify with the crowd. In so doing, they take on the coloration and mood of the group, tend to suppress their differences, subordinate their reason to the common passion, and make common cause against whoever or whatever would upset the mood. Little boys will give chase to the one whose differences are too apparent; grown men will turn upon the intruder and subject him to ridicule.
If the grouping is temporary and the occasion social, men will soon go their separate ways and reassume their individual identities. However, if the grouping is more nearly permanent, if it articulates a cause or has been brought together for a cause, the identity of the individual may be more nearly merged with it. In that case, the sense of power which comes from identification with and of righteousness in a shared cause will replace the insecurity. At this point, a group can easily become a mob; at the least, it poses a potential threat to all outside of it. Not all groups, of course, become mobs. But that is my point. There are useful groups, and there are dangerous groups. The difference between them is the degree to which they have been civilized.
Anyone who has worked with aggregates of people should have noted some differences between groups and individuals. Groups do not think or reason; that is solely a function of the individual. On the other hand, individuals, feeling the strength of numbers, are emboldened to do things which they would be afraid to do alone. Children in a classroom will become defiant if they sense the class is with them, and one may observe them darting their eyes about over the room to assure themselves that the others are behind them. At a more serious level, anyone who has endured the abuse of massed pickets when he crossed the line can testify to the loss of inhibition which accompanies the merging with a group. People tend to lose their sense of individual responsibility as they become a part of a crowd. Moreover, it is very doubtful that groups can create, whereas, they are very adept at destruction. No mob could erect a building, for such an undertaking requires an ordering of activity which would remove the mob character of a collection of people, but a mob can readily wreck a building.
Delusions About Group Behavior
With these differences in mind, some contemporary ideas about groups take on the appearance of delusions. The most general of these notions is that direct action by groups (or the people) is desirable. In American history, this idea was advanced most forcefully by those whom we call Progressives. They were particularly prominent in the early twentieth century, but most of the political reforms enacted since were promoted during that time. Progressives had in mind the more or less direct political action involved in the direct election of Senators, the recall of judges, and the initiative and referendum. This, as it turns out, was the program of reformers out of power, for once in the power they have preferred to use the established machinery of government for their ends.
Other kinds of direct action by groups, however, were fostered by reformers over the years, under such rubrics as "industrial democracy" and "agricultural democracy." Under the former, union members voted to bind individuals to their decisions; under the latter, farmers voted themselves a cut of the tax take. Such direct action, of course, advances the interest of the in-group both at the expense of the individual and of the general welfare.
Ideologies Are Not Enough
Another delusion is that causes and ideologies can provide a sufficient basis for controlling groups in their common endeavors. This is a delusion which appears to pervade intellectual circles around the world. Ideologies can, at least in theory, unite people; causes can provide a focus for collective action. But they do not usually contain limits which would control the people. For example, democracy is considered by many in the West to be a sufficient cause for social unity and common action in the world today. By contrast, many in the East have succumbed to the notion that communism can provide an ideology which will accomplish these ends. Both are wrong. Democracy, cut loose from its mooring in an older tradition, serves, as do all ideologies in our day, as a shibboleth by would-be dictators in their thrust to power.
This is not accidental; it is central. We appear to be regularly astonished that governments which were announced as democratic, by our press as well as the propaganda outlets within the country involved, shortly become despotic and quite often turn into military dictatorships. I cite Castro’s regime as an example, but the number of them around the world today is legion. The people cannot create; they can only destroy when they act collectively and directly. Ideologies cannot change this. They can serve as a basis of unity for destroying whatever exists, but this only raises the problem of order rather than settling it. Most modern revolutions have foundered as the leaders attempted to come to grips with this problem. If a predetermined ideology is to be realized, if tradition is discarded, that order must be centrally directed and imposed from above. For this, dictators, terror, and violence are the usual means.
"The End Justifies the Means"
The third delusion is the belief that the end justifies the means. So baldly stated, I suppose that most Americans would deny that they believe it. Yet many Americans speak and act as if they believed it. Direct group action is supposed to be justified if the circumstances are bad enough to warrant it, or if the cause is sufficiently just in the eyes of the person making the judgment. Thus, direct action violence and sabotage by labor unions would be supposed by many to have been justified by the deprivation of the workers. Or, to take a current example, many people apparently believe that direct action by Negro groups is justified by wrongs that have been perpetrated upon Negroes. But the righteousness of the cause does not alter the character of groups. For aught I know, the violence of groups during the reformations of the sixteenth century was activated by the purest of human visions, the protection of the immortal souls of men, but this did not prevent the rape and pillage which were widespread. In like manner, "nonviolent" Negro groups are readily transformed into violent groups, and even mobs.
There are various other delusions about groups which I can only suggest here. There is the belief that some are made "good" by the make-up of their membership, i. e., laborers, farmers, minority groups, and so forth. This is sheer nonsense, and it would need to be disproved only to those who are victims of ideologically induced blindness. There is the notion that the individual’s interest is permanently merged with that of some group. Yet this is only so if his belonging is prescribed by law. Otherwise, men will shift from group to group depending upon inclination and circumstances. One of the prime delusions is that freedom can be advanced by direct action. Having loosed the potential mob, however, nothing is more likely than that dictatorship and oppression will be used to contain it. The French Revolution is the classic example of the working out of the eventualities of the arousal of the crowd while destroying the traditional checks upon it.
Forgotten Principles of Law and Order
In large, my point is that the ideologies to which many intellectuals have fallen prey, along with those who have simply been attracted by the glowing phrases informed by ideology, have tended to rely upon some kind of group action and solidarity. But they have not taken into account the nature of groups, and thus the thrust toward the realization of these ideologies has been accompanied by terror, violence, dictatorship, and totalitarianism.
In America, of course, the violence has been somewhat restrained thus far, the repression less pronounced. This was true because Americans had a long tradition of law-abidingness, and American institutions provided a framework for civilizing groups. Ideologues have been shielded from the consequences of their ideas by the very tradition they have deplored.
With this background in mind, the American tradition of the civilizing of groups can be profitably examined. More than one way has been devised for civilizing groups, however. Medieval Europe developed quite different means from those we associate with America, and the American tradition was made both in opposition to this older way and with the remains of it. Thus, something should be said on this head. It will be useful also in providing a standard of comparison.
In the Middle Ages, groups were civilized, to the extent that they were, by giving legal recognition to them, chartering them, giving them status, and regulating them. Workmen were organized in guilds, landholders and fighters into a nobility, students in colleges, people with a religious vocation into clerical orders, and so forth. Orders were granted privileges presumed to be suited to their task, or their members claimed rights by ancient usage and by virtue of their role in society. Charters served as a basis for regulating the activities of townsmen. Guilds minutely regulated the quantity and quality of goods produced, the prices for which they could be sold, and the methods of tradesmen. The nobility was regulated by a hierarchy of nobles in which the members were bound together by oaths of allegiance and fidelity.
Conflicts between groups occurred, of course, and were even ritualized into tournaments. Men were supposed to be held to their oaths by fear of the dread consequences which were expected to follow if they should be broken. The church could punish offenders in a variety of ways, such as denying absolution, excommunication, and refusal to bury the dead in consecrated ground. As kings grew in power, they were able to subdue unruly groups by force.
Rules, Forms, Rituals
One of the most potent means for the civilizing of groups is the use of rules, forms, and rituals. These are to groups what good manners are to the individual—habitual and customary means for order and discipline. Ideals may also be most useful in restraining and directing the behavior of groups. All of these were dramatically exemplified in the Middle Ages. Almost every activity was preceded by ceremony and done according to prescribed forms. Elaborate rituals were developed for initiation into certain groups. For example, here is a description of the ceremony by which some became knights:
The candidate was first given a ritual bath…, a sort of baptism purifying him from sin. He was then clothed in a white linen tunic symbolic of his purity, a scarlet robe to remind him of his duty if need be to shed his blood for the Church, and black hose to symbolize death. He must fast for the twenty-four hours preceding his initiation, and spend the night watching upon his arms before the high altar of the church…. The following morning he must confess his sins, attend Mass, and make his communion.1
After which, the formal ceremony of knighting took place. In addition, knights were supposed to conform to a code of behavior and strive to realize certain ideals. John of Salisbury described these duties as follows:
To defend the Church, to assail infidelity, to venerate the priesthood, to protect the poor from injuries, to pacify the province, to pour out their blood for their brothers (as the formula of their oath instructs them), and, if need be, to lay down their lives…. But to what end?… Rather to the end that they may execute the judgment that is committed to them to execute; wherein each follows not his own will but the deliberate decision of God, the angels, and men, in accordance with equity and the public utility….2
The relationships between lord and vassal were spelled out in great detail in contracts. If a man had more than one lord, these contracts became quite complex, as in the following example: "I, John of Toul, make known that I am the Liege man of the Lady Beatrice, Countess of Troyes, and of her son Theobald, Count of Champagne, against every creature, living or dead, saving my allegiance to Lord Enjorand of Coucy, Lord John of Arcis, and the Count of Grandpré."³.
Other orders lived according to rules as well. Here is a description of some of the rules under which the Cistercian Order lived:
They have two tunics with cowls, but no additional garment in winter, though, if they think fit, in summer they may lighten their garb. They sleep clad and girded, and never after matins return to their beds…. Directly after (singing)… hymns they sing the prime, after which they go out to work for stated hours. They complete whatever labour or service they have to perform by day without any other light.4
The following are prescriptions for those who occupied certain papal lands:
These are the things which the people of Nimfa should do. They should do fealty to St. Peter and Lord Pope Paschal and his successors whom the higher cardinals and the Romans may elect. Service of army and court when the court may command. The service which they have been accustomed to do…, they should do to St. Peter and the pope. The fourth which they ought to render henceforth, they should render at the measure of the Roman modius….5
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to determine how well the medieval system succeeded in civilizing groups. It is probably an irrelevant question, in any case. Most of the system has long since disappeared, preserved only in records and some practices of the Roman Catholic Church, hardly enough to offer a viable alternative in contemporary circumstances. Suffice it to say, the medieval system was designed to establish order and stability, that it provided little room for liberty and was entirely antithetical to equality.
As the medieval order broke down, groups were either crushed by monarchs or made subservient to them. The long range tendency was for the powers once vested in groups to be subsumed by kings, who ruled more or less absolutely. These powers, in turn, came to be vested in the state, according to the doctrine of sovereignty and modern practice. Both individuals and groups were often at the mercy of capricious monarchs. It is too gross a judgment to say that the countries of continental Europe never managed to develop a tradition that would provide for individual liberty and the civilizing of groups. Yet much of modern history is filled with the anarchy of contending groups and the oppressions by which they were brought to heel.
England and America followed a different course, and it looked for a time in the nineteenth and early twentieth century as if Europe might follow their example. Currently, the direction of emulation has been to a considerable extent reversed, of course. I would speak, however, of the emergence of the American tradition of the civilizing of groups.
Principles of the American Tradition
The American tradition can be reduced to several principles.
(1) Americans used forms and rituals for the civilizing of groups. These were largely from the inheritance from the Old World. They consisted of parliamentary rules for debates, prayers at the beginning and end of meetings, inaugurations, and installations of officers, the taking of oaths of office, and similar practices of great number and variety. To the thoughtless, these practices may seem of little moment. They are not. Every gathering of people is potentially disorderly, and as numbers increase, the threat to the peace and to individuals mounts. Following rules and forms diminishes this danger. The meeting that begins with prayer is less likely than otherwise to end riotously. The observance of parliamentary rules protects individuals who would speak out and helps maintain order. Following predetermined orders of business helps to prevent precipitous action.
(2) The American tradition is one of limited action by groups or the populace as a whole. Constitutionalism was the device adopted to serve this end. The Constitution set limits upon what governments could do, and, by implication, denied the force of government to groups who might use it for unlimited ends. True, the Constitution could be amended, but it takes so long and is so cumbersome that groups are not likely to maintain solidarity long enough to amend it. If they do, the more dangerous aspects of group behavior are likely to have been stilled.
(3) The republican form of government prescribes indirect political action. Laws were supposed to be passed by representatives of the people. When the crowd cannot act directly, much of its force is lost, and its danger is apt to be dissipated. Representatives, even when they represent groups, are likely to be confronted by representatives of other groups in a large country, or so James Madison argued in the Federalist, Number 10. In that case, they will probably have to resort to reason and persuasion to win their case. The group is civilized not only by having had a voice in decisions but also by participating indirectly and by having to submit to the discipline of parliamentary rules.
(4) The United States Constitution did not give legal recognition to groups.6 At law, there were no classes, orders, or groupings of men possessing privileges, duties, immunities, or exemptions. A New York judge was speaking out of this tradition when he delivered his opinion on the actions of a tailor’s union in 1836:
The law leaves every individual master of his own individual acts. But it will not suffer him to encroach upon the rights of others. He may work or not, as suits his pleasure, but he shall not enter into a confederacy with a view of controlling others, and take measures to carry it into effect. The reason for the distinction is manifest. So long as individual members of the community do not resort to any acts of violence, their hostility can be guarded against. But who can withstand an extensive combination to injure him in his calling? When such cases, therefore, occur, the law extends its protecting shield.7
When groups are prohibited by law from committing depredations, long strides have been made toward civilizing them.
(5) Groups were dependent upon the recruiting of volunteers for their membership and upon their appeal for their continuation. Individuals were free to join or not to join, to continue their membership or to resign. Far from bringing about the end of all organizations, however, groups of all sorts proliferated in America. Visitors from other shores were astounded at their number and variety. Note, too, that this system made possible the greatest amount of liberty both for individuals and for groups. In this tradition, there was no need to prescribe rules for groups by law. The members of a group could do nothing legally that they could not do as individuals. The group is deactivated as a mob, actual or potential, when it is broken up into individuals. This, the American tradition provided for doing.
Departure from Tradition
To say that there was an American tradition of the civilizing of groups is not to say that groups always behaved in a civilized manner in America. Indeed, Americans did form mobs on occasion. These mobs did sometimes commit lynchings and other depredations upon the citizenry. But the remedy was ready at hand. Punish the individuals for their unlawful acts and, if conspiracy was involved, punish them for that also.
But Americans have broken radically from this tradition in the last eighty years. Today it is doubtful that there is any longer much of a tradition for civilizing groups. The break was most prominent in several directions. Sophisticates, assorted intellectuals, cynics, and aliens to the culture, along with the careless, undermined the supports to forms, rituals, and rules of order. The falling away from religion removed much of the underpinning from oaths, made prayer on public occasions empty or at least slightly ridiculous, and took away much of the support from forms. A determined informality in America, promoted by relativism, has made those who insist upon observing rules appear stodgy. It has been my misfortune to sit in meetings where the chairman addressed participants informally, thus removing the safeguards to individual dissent and making noisy dissent the alternative to mute acquiescence in what was proposed.
At another level, class theories began to occupy thinkers in the latter part of the nineteenth century. They began to describe labor as a class, business as a class, and farmers as a class. Socialists and assorted reformers were at the forefront of this class thought and the subsequent appeal to people as a class. Notions of the populace as consisting in the main of inert masses of people became prominent.
This development was followed by a thrust to the recognition and empowering of groups by law. The United States government virtually recognized the existence of economic classes by creating departments of agriculture, commerce, and labor. Progressives pressed to remove the safeguards against direct action by advocating the direct election of Senators, the recall of judges, and the initiative and referendum. Corporations were likened to individuals by court decision. Labor unions were given special exemptions by the Clayton Anti-trust Act, the Wagner-Connery Act, and others. Farmers were empowered to vote themselves price supports by various acts.8
Extra-Legal Grants of Power
However, much of the practical empowering of groups has not been accomplished by either constitutional amendment or legislative act. Instead, in many instances law enforcement officers have looked the other way while unions employed coercion and violence. Politicians have practiced a policy of divide and conquer on the American people. The Democratic Party has been most adept at this, though the Republicans have often attempted to compete. They have forged a party out of numerous minority groups, making promises and presumably providing favors for them. Many of these groups have become vested interests, both legally and extra-legally.
As I write these words, Congress has just been engaged in providing compulsory arbitration for the railroads and the related unions. Negroes have gathered in Washington for a massive demonstration. The pattern is repeating itself. The birds are coming home to roost. If the restraints are removed from group behavior by the grant of special privilege, if groups are empowered by law, if direct action is advanced because the end is "good," if the means for civilizing of groups are abandoned, compulsion and authoritarianism must be used to preserve order.
If anyone doubts that the situation is perilous, let him imagine this situation. Suppose the companies in a major American industry were to decide to operate without a union agreement, to throw their doors open and employ whom they would, and to announce this course as their policy in the future. Could anyone doubt that the violence that would ensue could only be curbed by violence? When groups become accustomed to having others submit to threats and pressure, they will become less and less willing to brook resistance. But there comes a time when social order requires resistance to the anarchy of contending groups. The road of resistance, however, leads to despotism in one form or another. Something analogous to the medieval way might be tried, of course, at the expense of liberty and equality. Or, we might begin the now difficult and forbidding task of the restoring of the American tradition of civilizing groups.
The next article in this series will treat "Of Rights and Responsibilities."
1 James W. Thompson and Edgar N. Johnson, An Introduction to Medieval Europe (New York: W. W. Norton, 1937), p. 324.
2 Quoted in James B. Ross and Mary M. McLaughlin, The Portable Medieval Reader (New York: Viking, 1949), p. 90.
3 Quoted in Thompson and Johnson, op. cit., p.302.
4 Ross and McLaughlin, op. cit., p. 57.
5 Norton Downs, ed.,Basic Documents in Medieval History (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, 1959), p. 54.
6 The one exception was Negro slavery, and that was abolished, of course, by the Thirteenth Amendment. However, states sometimes recognized the existence of groups by privileges and exemptions.
7 New York v. Faulkner, reprinted in Henry S. Commager, The Era of Reform, 1830-1860 (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, 1960,), p. 106. It does not speak well for his objectivity that historian Commager characterizes it as a "notorious" decision.
8 I have treated this development more fully in The Fateful Turn (Irvington-on-Hudson: Foundation for Economic Education, 1963), pp. 107-127.