The literature of 20th–century psychology, sociology, and political science reflects a variety of conflicting and even contradictory uses of this term. The concept has assumed particular importance as a description of the "prepolitical dispositions" that render a people susceptible to the imposition of totalitarian rule. Psychologists attribute to the mass person such qualities as spatial and temporal rootlessness, affectivity, susceptibility to appeals to blind passion (especially of a negative nature), a lack of felt need for a "personal privacy," a strong impulse to be "like everyone else," and an aggressive assertion of rights without a sense of corresponding duties or responsibilities. Sociologists analyze the dominant characteristics of mass communication media, e.g., the predominance of large-scale organization, the depersonalization of human relationships, the decline of a socially unifying "public philosophy," and the substitution of the irrational dynamism of a social myth exalting a class, a race, or the state.
Contemporary Meanings . Since the concept of the masses is so elusive, its meaning may be better clarified by a series of contrasts than by direct definition. (1) Mass vs. individual: the human person, conscious of his or her own uniqueness and personal worth, is self-directed and self-responsible; seeks to develop his or her own special endowments, to find his or her own life vocation, and to make his or her own contribution to the communities of which he or she is a member [see person (in philoso phy)]. The mass person lacks a sense of personal worth, is "other directed," loses his or her identity in the mass, and seeks fulfillment and meaning for life through total immersion in the collectivity. (2) Mass vs. elite: to theorists of the elitist school (e.g., ortega y gasset, Mosca, Pareto), the masses lack quality, culture, and dignity; they are alienated; they have no respect for traditions and do not recognize that the great achievements of civilization have been made possible by hard work and sacrifice on the part of the "creative minority" who have self-discipline and a sense of noblesse oblige. The mass person expects to enjoy all the benefits of civilization (and claims them as a right) though he or she lacks the self-discipline to make the sacrifices requisite to preserve them and the capacity and sense of responsibility to contribute to their advancement. Many elitists consider de mocracy to be an unrealistic dream. (3) Mass vs. people:
this contrast describes two distinct prepolitical dispositions in the members of a body politic. Pope Pius XII made use of it as the basis for his analysis of the preconditions for sound democracy in his Christmas message of 1944. The people, he said, "lives and moves by its own life energy"; the masses are "inert of themselves and can only be moved from the outside." The people is made up of persons, each "conscious of his own responsibility and his own views"; the masses are "an easy plaything in the hands of anyone who seeks to exploit their instincts and impressions." The state based on a people possesses a "constantly self-renewing vigor" because it encourages personal initiative and a sense of responsibility for the common good; the mass state utilizes the elementary power of the masses who have been "reduced to the minimum status of a mere machine," and used to impose the whims of manipulators on the whole community. The masses are the "capital enemy of true democracy and of its ideal of liberty and equality." For them, "liberty becomes a tyrannous claim to give free rein to one's impulses and appetites," and "equality degenerates to a
mechanical level and becomes a colorless uniformity" [Acta Apostolicae Sedis (Rome 1909) 37 (1945) 10–23].
Totalitarian Concepts . The theory and practice of totalitarianism give a critical role to the masses. To Marx, the proletarian person, alienated from capitalist society because of his or her lack of property, was destined to be the new revolutionary force. Lenin envisioned the Communist party as the "vanguard of the proletariat," the elite of the "toiling masses" who would spearhead the revolution because they were enlightened and liberated through insight into the dialectical process of history.
The consolidation of power under a dictatorship depends in large part on the incorporation of the masses through the dynamism of social myth. The myth is the core of the secular religion of totalitarianism, the means of "moral regeneration" of the masses through their absolute commitment to the collective goal. Its value as an integrating force lies not in its truth or in its power to fulfill human needs, but rather in its power to stir the masses to a delirium of enthusiasm and hatred that keeps them always in readiness for action against the "enemy" designated by the leaders.
Although totalitarianism is the extreme of the mass society, many of the phenomena of mass psychology are to be found in the so–called free societies; for example, the manipulation of public opinion by irresponsible pro paganda, sensational journalism, and the encouragement of a climate of hatred and violence by extremist political groups. The "latent masses" can be made active through appropriate leadership and organization and an effective social myth.
Bibliography: pius xii, Benignitas et humanitas (Radio address, Dec. 24, 1944); Acta Apostolicae Sedis (Rome 1909) 37 (1945) 10–23; Catholic Mind (Eng.) 43 (Feb. 1945) 65–77. t. a. corbett, People or Masses: A Comparative Study in Political Theory (Washington 1950), contains 20 pages of bibliography. j. monnerot, Sociology and Psychology of Communism, tr. j. degras and r. rees (Boston 1960). h. broch, Massenpsychologie (Zurich 1959). p. reiwald, Vom Geist der Massen: Handbuch der Massenpsychologie (Zurich 1946).
[t. a. corbett]