e. j. wang

The Revolt of the Masses: excerpts

I recently read José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses (La rebelión de las masas). A fun little book, if not terribly ground-breaking; erudite and articulate, while pulling few punches. It is heartening that Ortega is able to outline and assail the “mass-man” without verging into Frankfurter paranoia or some sort of esoteric fascism.

Now, there’s little new in this book for anyone who’s perceptive enough. Talk to the average student at an elite university about politics, for instance, and you’ll see what Ortega calls the “mass-man” writ large. The mass-man is now a permanent fixture of modern life — especially in America, which Ortega calls “paradise of the masses.” But if nothing else, Ortega gives an explanation for why the mass is the way it is, and some comfort to those who have to deal with it.

There is no doubt that Ortega is an elitist. He admits openly to upholding “a radically aristocratic conception of history.” But the aristocracy Ortega believes in isn’t the decadent hereditary aristocracy of Europe, or even the new class of experts and civil servants that had emerged in the 19th century. Ortega, unapologetic liberal that he is, believes in hoi aristoi — a small grouping of “superior minorities” across social classes who, through struggle, had gained the ability and refinement to lead the lives of themselves and those around them with legitimate authority.

This book is chicken soup for the curmudgeonly soul. It is perennially relevant, and the problems it points out have only worsened since its publication in 1929. What follows are some excerpts; all page numbers are with respect to the 1994 Norton edition1.

The mass and the minorities

The multitude has suddenly become visible, installing itself in the preferential positions in society. Before, if it existed, it passed unnoticed, occupying the background of the social stage; now it has advanced to the footlights and is the principal character. There are no longer protagonists; there is only the chorus.

The concept of the multitude is quantitative and visual. Without changing its nature, let us translate it into terms of sociology. We then meet with the notion of the “social mass.” Society is always a dynamic unity of two component factors: minorities and masses. The minorities are individuals or groups of individuals which are specially qualified. The mass is the assemblage of persons not specially qualified. By masses, then, is not to be understood, solely or mainly, “the working masses.” The mass is the average man. In this way what was mere quantity- the multitude- is converted into a qualitative determination: it becomes the common social quality, man as undifferentiated from other men, but as repeating in himself a generic type. What have we gained by this conversion of quantity into quality? Simply this: by means of the latter we understand the genesis of the former. It is evident to the verge of platitude that the normal formation of a multitude implies the coincidence of desires, ideas, ways of life, in the individuals who constitute it. […]

Strictly speaking, the mass, as a psychological fact, can be defined without waiting for individuals to appear in mass formation. In the presence of one individual we can decide whether he is “mass” or not. The mass is all that which sets no value on itself — good or ill — based on specific grounds, but which feels itself “just like everybody,” and nevertheless is not concerned about it; is, in fact, quite happy to feel itself as one with everybody else. Imagine a humble-minded man who, having tried to estimate his own worth on specific grounds — asking himself if he has any talent for this or that, if he excels in any direction — realises that he possesses no quality of excellence. Such a man will feel that he is mediocre and commonplace, ill-gifted, but will not feel himself “mass.”

When one speaks of “select minorities” it is usual for the evil-minded to twist the sense of this expression, pretending to be unaware that the select man is not the petulant person who thinks himself superior to the rest, but the man who demands more of himself than the rest, even though he may not fulfil in his person those higher exigencies. For there is no doubt that the most radical division that it is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort towards perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves. (p. 13-15)

An incomplete education

[H]eap after heap of human beings have been dumped on to the historic scene at such an accelerated rate, that it has been difficult to saturate them with traditional culture. And in fact, the average type of European at present possesses a soul, healthier and stronger it is true than those of the last century, but much more simple. Hence, at times he leaves the impression of a primitive man suddenly risen in the midst of a very old civilisation. In the schools, which were such a source of pride to the last century, it has been impossible to do more than instruct the masses in the technique of modern life; it has been found impossible to educate them. They have been given tools for an intenser form of existence, but no feeling for their great historic duties; they have been hurriedly inoculated with the pride and power of modern instruments, but not with their spirit. Hence they will have nothing to do with their spirit, and the new generations are getting ready to take over command of the world as if the world were a paradise without trace of former footsteps, without traditional and highly complex problems. (p. 51)

The collapse of authority

Hence, we are in presence of a mass stronger than that of any preceding period, but differing from the traditional type in that it remains, hermetically enclosed within itself, incapable of submitting to anything or anybody, believing itself self-sufficient — in a word, indocile. If things go on as they are at present, it will be every day more noticeable in Europe — and by reflection, throughout the whole world — that the masses are incapable of submitting to direction of any kind. In the difficult times that are at hand for our continent, it is possible that, under a sudden affliction, they may for a moment. have the good will to accept, in certain specially urgent matters, the direction of the superior minorities.

But even that good will will result in failure. For the basic texture of their soul is wrought of hermetism and indocility; they are from birth deficient in the faculty of giving attention to what is outside themselves, be it fact or person. They will wish to follow someone, and they will be unable. They will want to listen, and will discover they are deaf. (p. 67)

Intellectual complacency

It is not a question of the mass-man being a fool. On the contrary, to-day he is more clever, has more capacity of understanding than his fellow of any previous period. But that capacity is of no use to him; in reality, the vague feeling that he possesses it seems only to shut him up more within himself and keep him from using it. Once for all, he accepts the stock of commonplaces, prejudices, fag-ends of ideas or simply empty words which chance has piled up within his mind, and with a boldness only explicable by his ingenuousness, is prepared to impose them everywhere. This is what in my first chapter I laid down as the characteristic of our time; not that the vulgar believes itself super-excellent and not vulgar, but that the vulgar proclaims and imposes the rights of vulgarity, or vulgarity as a right. (p.70)

Civilisation becomes more complex and difficult in proportion as it advances. The problems which it sets before us to-day are of the most intricate. The number of people whose minds are equal to these problems becomes increasingly smaller. … This disproportion between the complex subtlety of the problems and the minds that should study them will become greater if a remedy be not found, and it constitutes the basic tragedy of our civilisation. (p. 90)

The civilisation of the XIXth Century is, then, of such a character that it allows the average man to take his place in a world of superabundance, of which he perceives only the lavishness of the means at his disposal, nothing of the pains involved. He finds himself surrounded by marvellous instruments, healing medicines, watchful governments , comfortable privileges. On the other hand, he is ignorant how difficult it is to invent those medicines and those instruments and to assure their production in the future; he does not realise how unstable is the organisation of the State and is scarcely conscious to himself of any obligations. This lack of balance falsifies his nature, vitiates it in its very roots, causing him to lose contact with the very substance of life, which is made up of absolute danger, is radically problematic. The form most contradictory to human life that can appear among the human species is the “self-satisfied man.” (p. 101-102)

The end of history

I am referring to the fact that the most reactionary of Europeans knows, in the depths of his conscience, that the effort made by Europe in the last century, under the name of liberalism, is, in the last resort, something inevitable, inexorable; something that Western man to-day is, whether he likes it or no.

Even though it be proved, with full and incontrovertible evidence, that there is falsity and fatality in all the concrete shapes under which the attempt has been made to realise the categorical imperative of political liberty, inscribed on the destiny of Europe, the final evidence that in the last century it was right in substance still holds good. This final evidence is present equally in the European Communist as in the Fascist, whatever attitudes they may adopt to convince themselves to the contrary. All “know” that beyond all the just criticisms launched against the manifestations of liberalism there remains its unassailable truth, a truth not theoretic, scientific, intellectual, but of an order radically different and more decisive, namely, a truth of destiny. […]

Well, then, the “satisfied man” is characterised by his “knowing” that certain things cannot be, and nevertheless, for that very reason, pretending in act and word to be convinced of the opposite. The Fascist will take his stand against political liberty, precisely because he knows that in the long run this can never fail, but is inevitably a part of the very substance of European life, and will be returned to when its presence is truly required, in the hour of grave crisis. For the tonic that keeps the mass-man in form is insincerity, “the joke.” All his actions are devoid of the note of inevitability, they are done as the fils de famille carries out his escapades. All that haste, in every order of life, to adopt tragic, conclusive, final attitudes is mere appearance. Men play at tragedy because they do not believe in the reality of the tragedy which is actually being staged in the civilised world. […]

Diogenes, in his mud-covered sandals, tramps over the carpets of Aristippus. The cynic pullulated at every corner, and in the highest places. This cynic did nothing but saboter the civilisation of the time. He was the nihilist of Hellenism. He created nothing, he made nothing. His role was to undo — or rather to attempt to undo, for he did not succeed in his purpose. The cynic, a parasite of civilisation, lives by denying it, for the very reason that he is convinced that it will not fail. What would become of the cynic among a savage people where everyone, naturally and quite seriously, fulfils what the cynic farcically considers to be his personal role? What is your Fascist if he does not speak ill of liberty, or your surrealist if he does not blaspheme against art?

None other could be the conduct of this type of man born into a too well-organised world, of which he perceives only the advantages and not the dangers. His surroundings spoil him, because they are “civilisation,” that is, a home, and the fils de famille feels nothing that impels him to abandon his mood of caprice, nothing which urges him to listen to outside counsels from those superior to himself. Still less anything which obliges him to make contact with the inexorable depths of his own destiny. (p. 103-106)


For it is necessary to insist upon this extraordinary but undeniable fact: experimental science has progressed thanks in great part to the work of men astoundingly mediocre, and even less than mediocre. That is to say, modern science, the root and symbol of our actual civilisation, finds a place for the intellectually commonplace man and allows him to work therein with success. The reason of this lies in what is at the same time the great advantage and the gravest peril of the new science, and of the civilisation directed and represented by it, namely, mechanisation. A fair amount of the things that have to be done in physics or in biology is mechanical work of the mind which can be done by anyone, or almost anyone. For the purpose of innumerable investigations it is possible to divide science into small sections, to enclose oneself in one of these, and to leave out of consideration all the rest. The solidity and exactitude of the methods allow of this temporary but quite real disarticulation of knowledge. The work is done under one of these methods as with a machine, and in order to obtain quite abundant results it is not even necessary to have rigorous notions of their meaning and foundations. In this way the majority of scientists help the general advance of science while shut up in the narrow cell of their laboratory, like the bee in the cell of its hive, or the turnspit in its wheel.

But this creates an extraordinarily strange type of man. The investigator who has discovered a new fact of Nature must necessarily experience a feeling of power and self-assurance. With a certain apparent justice he will look upon himself as “a man who knows.” And in fact there is in him a portion of something which, added to many other portions not existing in him, does really constitute knowledge. This is the true inner nature of the specialist, who in the first years of this century has reached the wildest stage of exaggeration. The specialist “knows” very well his own tiny corner of the universe; he is radically ignorant of all the rest. […]

Anyone who wishes can observe the stupidity of thought, judgment, and action shown to-day in politics, art, religion, and the general problems of life and the world by the “men of science,” and of course, behind them, the doctors, engineers, financiers, teachers, and so on. That state of “not listening,” of not submitting to higher courts of appeal which I have repeatedly put forward as characteristic of the mass-man, reaches its height precisely in these partially qualified men. They symbolise, and to a great extent constitute, the actual dominion of the masses, and their barbarism is the most immediate cause of European demoralisation. Furthermore, they afford the clearest, most striking example of how the civilisation of the last century, abandoned to its own devices, has brought about this rebirth of primitivism and barbarism. (p. 110-112)

Mob justice

When the mass acts on its own, it does so only in one way, for it has no other: it lynches. It is not altogether by chance that lynch law comes from America, for America is, in a fashion, the paradise of the masses. And it will cause less surprise, nowadays, when the masses triumph, that violence should triumph and be made the one ratio, the one doctrine. (p. 116)

The mass and the State

The contemporary State is the easiest seen and best-known product of civilisation. And it is an interesting revelation when one takes note of the attitude that mass-man adopts before it. He sees it, admires it, knows that there it is, safeguarding his existence; but he is not conscious of the fact that it is a human creation invented by certain men and upheld by certain virtues and fundamental qualities which the men of yesterday had and which may vanish into air to-morrow. Furthermore, the mass-man sees in the State an anonymous power, and feeling himself, like it, anonymous, he believes that the State is something of his own. Suppose that in the public life of a country some difficulty, conflict, or problem presents itself, the mass-man will tend to demand that the State intervene immediately and undertake a solution directly with its immense and unassailable resources.

This is the gravest danger that to-day threatens civilisation: State intervention; the absorption of all spontaneous social effort by the State, that is to say, of spontaneous historical action, which in the long run sustains, nourishes, and impels human destinies. When the mass suffers any ill-fortune or simply feels some strong appetite, its great temptation is that permanent, sure possibility of obtaining everything- without effort, struggle, doubt, or risk- merely by touching a button and setting the mighty machine in motion. The mass says to itself, “L’Etat, c’est moi,” which is a complete mistake. The State is the mass only in the sense in which it can be said of two men that they are identical because neither of them is named john. The contemporary State and the mass coincide only in being anonymous. But the mass-man does in fact believe that he is the State, and he will tend more and more to set its machinery working on whatsoever pretext, to crush beneath it any creative minority which disturbs it- disturbs it in any order of things: in politics, in ideas, in industry.

The result of this tendency will be fatal. Spontaneous social action will be broken up over and over again by State intervention; no new seed will be able to fructify. Society will have to live for the State, man for the governmental machine. And as, after all, it is only a machine whose existence and maintenance depend on the vital supports around it, the State, after sucking out the very marrow of society, will be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty death of machinery, more gruesome than the death of a living organism. (p. 119-120)

What is the State?

There was much ingenuity in the well-known political emblem of Saavedra Fajardo: an arrow, and beneath it, “It either rises or falls.” That is the State. Not a thing, but a movement. The State is at every moment something which comes from and goes to. Like every movement, it has its terminus a quo and its terminus ad quem. If at any point of time the life of a State which is really such be dissected there will be found a link of common life which seems to be based on some material attribute or other- blood, language, “natural frontiers.” A static interpretation will induce us to say: That is the State. But we soon observe that this human group is doing something in common- conquering other peoples, founding colonies, federating with other States; that is, at every hour it is going beyond what seemed to be the material principle of its unity. This is the terminus ad quem, the true State, whose unity consists precisely in superseding any given unity. When there is a stoppage of that impulse towards something further on, the State automatically succumbs, and the unity which previously existed, and seemed to be its physical foundation- race, language, natural frontier — becomes useless; the State breaks up, is dispersed, atomised. (p. 163)

Rights and duties

If we leave out of question, as has been done in this essay, all those groups which imply survivals from the past-Christians, Idealists, the old Liberals- there will not be found amongst all the representatives of the actual period, a single group whose attitude to life is not limited to believing that it has all the rights and none of the obligations2. It is indifferent whether it disguises itself as reactionary or revolutionary; actively or passively, after one or two twists, its state of mind will consist, decisively, in ignoring all obligations, and in feeling itself, without the slightest notion why, possessed of unlimited rights. Whatever be the substance which takes possession of such a soul, it will produce the same result, and will change into a pretext for not conforming to any concrete purpose. If it appears as reactionary or anti-liberal it will be in order to affirm that the salvation of the State gives a right to level down all other standards, and to manhandle one’s neighbour, above all if one’s neighbour is an outstanding personality. But the same happens if it decides to act the revolutionary; the apparent enthusiasm for the manual worker, for the afflicted and for social justice, serves as a mask to facilitate the refusal of all obligations, such as courtesy, truthfulness and, above all, respect or esteem for superior individuals. I know of quite a few who have entered the ranks of some labour organisation or other merely in order to win for themselves the right to despise intelligence and to avoid paying it any tribute. As regards other kinds of Dictatorship, we have seen only too well how they flatter the mass-man, by trampling on everything that appeared to be above the common level.

This fighting-shy of every obligation partly explains the phenomenon, half ridiculous, half disgraceful, of the setting-up in our days of the platform of “youth” as youth. Perhaps there is no more grotesque spectacle offered by our times. In comic fashion people call themselves “young,” because they have heard that youth has more rights than obligations, since it can put off the fulfilment of these latter to the Greek Kalends of maturity. The youth, as such, has always been considered exempt from doing or having done actions of importance. He has always lived on credit. It was a sort of false right, half ironic, half affectionate, which the no-longer young conceded to their juniors. But the astounding thing at present is that these take it as an effective right precisely in order to claim for themselves all those other rights which only belong to the man who has already done something. (p. 188-189)

  1. The anonymous translator of the English edition did a lackluster job. They fall victim to a number of false cognates (e.g. vital, actual) and cook up some rather unidiomatic phrasings. But it is always difficult to strike the right balance with Romance languages. 

  2. Taken from https://socialsystemstheory.com/2017/04/21/duties-rights/.