The future belongs to crowds

The memorable events of history, wrote the psychologist Gustave Le Bon in his book The Crowd, “are the visible effects of the invisible changes of human thought”. Writing in 1895, less than 50 years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto, he believed that the future of politics belonged to the masses, and predicted that society was on the cusp of “the era of crowds”.

Even in an age of mass political activity, 1989 stands out as a year of profound change and convulsion. This issue is dedicated to recalling some of its more dramatic crowd set pieces. “When a civilisation is rotten,” Le Bon wrote, “it is always the masses that bring about its downfall.” By 1989, the communist states of eastern Europe were corrupt and decaying; yet it was the power of crowds which pulled the Iron Curtain down during a time of extraordinary optimism.

The protests in the great cities of central and eastern Europe were starkly different from the failed rebellion of Tiananmen Square, Beijing. But that event, too, in which thousands of people were killed, ultimately changed China for the better.

Elsewhere, there were the crowds of frenzied mourners at Ayatollah Khomeini’s funeral in Tehran and, back at home, the tragic crush at the Hillsborough Stadium from which emerged the new game of football. The future belongs to crowds, wrote the novelist Don DeLillo. Not quite, but, for a time, it seemed that way in 1989.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd