This book—which may be said to have the clarity, simplicity, and explanatory flexibility of a metaphysical system—is an erudite and fascinating work of immense distinction. In it, the fruits of human action en bloc have been wisely tabled and formulated. Original and massively documented, it provides us with new means of thinking, with new explanatory models likely to prove indispensable in any further study of collective behaviour. It enables us to begin to understand the significance of such historical figures as Hitler and Stalin, and for this reason alone would deserve our respect and gratitude. In addition, Dr. Canetti leads the reader with him up to a high eminence, from which both Marx and Freud can be reconsidered and reappraised, supplying him with endless entertainment and provocation to thought on the way.

Such was the impression a casual reader might have gathered of a book called “Crowds and Power”, by Elias Canetti, from a perusal of the review sections of certain weekly papers.footnote1 True, some misgivings were also expressed by the critics. And there was one hostile review, in the Observer. But the latter was too brief, and too brusquely impatient, to counter the combined onslaught of the others, while the praise which on the whole far outweighed any doubts was of so lavish a kind that only one conclusion seemed reasonably possible: to run to the nearest bookshop, buy the book, and put off doing everything else until one had read it.

“Crowds and Power” is divided into two parts, one mainly concerned with crowds and the other with power. In the first, Canetti discusses and classifies various sorts of collectivities, while in the second he attempts to show how and why certain individuals manage to dominate these groups.

It should be observed at once that both sections are characterized by remarkable redefinitions of the meanings of the principal terms employed. By a “crowd”, in fact, Dr. Canetti does often mean a crowd in the usual sense; but very often too he uses it to refer to clubs, churches or religions, armies, nations, and inter-continental military alliances. The author nowhere justifies or explains this extension of meaning. He drifts imperturbably from one meaning to another throughout the book, but the point of these apparently random movements is clearly felt: the crowd, in the sense of an actual physical assembly of people, or of a “mob”, is for Dr. Canetti a valid symbol of society as a whole. Here is the fundamental intuition of the book. Society is a large herd, or mob, composed of a number of smaller herds, or mobs.

In the second part, there is a no less striking restriction of meaning. Canetti claims to be investigating power and rulers, and plainly would not feel at ease with anything less than the very essence of these phenomena. But in fact he is only really interested in tyrants, especially those suspected of mental derangement. He thinks that the relationship between ruler and ruled is always a kind of symbolic eating and digestion, that the ruler’s real aim is “. . . to incorporate men into himself and to suck the substance out of them” (p. 210). With all due respect to the essence in question, one could scarcely say this about, for example, Stanley Baldwin or Clement Attlee.

As in the case of most social and political treatises, Dr. Canetti’s theory is founded upon a certain conception of human nature. The author’s conception of the essence of homo sapiens is, loosely, a Darwinian one. Loneliness and aggressivity are the main attributes of the species. Such essential aloneness is revealed, for instance, in that familiar mainspring of most human conduct, the fear of being touched (p.15). And all ordinary social groupings apparently only crystallize and magnify this aloneness. In an interesting passage (which one is tempted to call the German-metaphysical view of English bourgeois society), Dr. Canetti sketches the human predicament:

“A man stands by himself on a secure and well-defined spot, his every gesture asserting his right to keep others at a distance . . . All life, so far as he knows it, is laid out in distances—the house in which he shuts himself and his property, the positions he holds, the rank he desires—and these serve to create distances, to confirm and extend them. Any free or large gesture of approach towards another human being is inhibited. Impulse and counter impulse ooze away as in a desert.” (pp. 17–18)