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“Civilizations as yet have only been created and directed by a small intellectual aristocracy, never by crowds. Crowds are only powerful for destruction.”

— Gustave Le Bon

“Mass politics occurs when large numbers of people engage in political activity outside of the procedures and rules instituted by a society to govern political action. Mass politics in democratic society therefore is anti-democratic, since it contravenes the constitutional order…. Bureaucracy poses the strongest threat to social pluralism and liberal democracy.”

— William Kornhauser

Elaborate studies of mass societiesare very relevant to the understanding of post-Liberation Bangladesh state and society, where masses join the main stream of politics, in fact, the only stream, because mass societies eventually lead to one-party totalitarianism. In essence, we can agree with Kornhauser that “mass politics in democratic society therefore is anti-democratic…. the extreme case of mass politics is the totalitarian movement.” He also believes that although “elite” is a pejorative in the discourse of democracy, elites nevertheless ensure the existence of pluralism, while the so-called mass politics lead to the bureaucratization of the polity to the detriment of the “plurality of group interests and organizations”. Eventually, “the nihilism of masses tends to be a greater threat to liberal democracy than the antagonism between classes”.[1] Mass society is not something that ever disappears completely in poor and backward countries. Even post-World War I Germany and Italy, which were substantially industrialised and developed, were not immune to the rise of mass society. Initially, the masses had access and influences on Hitler and Mussolini. However, the would-be-dictators’ clever manipulations overpowered the delusional masses who had earlier thought of them as their own people.

In the case of Bangladesh, masses made Mujib and called him “Mujib Bhai” (“Brother Mujib”) up to late February 1969. Even after they decided to call him “Bangabandhu” (“Friend of Bengal”), they had unlimited access to him, and were virtually leading Mujib to say and do things, which he was unwilling or reluctant to say or do up to 25th March 1971, until the Pakistani military crackdown. In March 1969, Bengali masses coined the slogan, Jai Bangla (Victory to Bengal), which later became the battle cry, and later Mujib had to raise this slogan frequently despite his earlier strong reservations about it. The masses designed a new flag of Bangladesh, and forced Mujib to raise it on 2nd March 1971, the day after Pakistani military ruler Yahya Khan declared to prorogue the National Assembly session for some time. Last but not least, despite Mujib’s strong reservations against even informally declaring the independence of Bangladesh as his ultimate motive, he had to mention this in his now famous 7th March (1971) speech at a public rally in Dhaka. So, it is evident from the events that led to the separation of East Pakistan from Pakistan, as independent Bangladesh, that masses went ahead of Sheikh Mujib and were virtually telling Islamabad what they wanted through Mujib, who was less of a leader and more of a spokesman of the Bengali masses in East Bengal. Once Mujib and his party were well-entrenched after the Liberation, it was altogether a different situation. The masses were fast losing their access to Mujib, and they lost it completely once he declared Bangladesh a one-party dictatorship on 25 January 1975. It is noteworthy that the sequence of events from the rise of a mass society from early 1969 to its hibernation (not demise) in January 1975 – including mass proclivity to anarchy, cruelty, defiance of law and authorities, and terrorism in Bangladesh – validates the classical definitions and theories about mass society. Peasants, and rural and urban poor have been the main components of mass society in Bangladesh. We need a broad understanding of mass and peasant culture to study the problem of underdevelopment in the country.

Bangladesh is a pre-modern, post-colonial country with a tremendous colonial hangover in the realm of its culture. British colonial rulers also established a neo-feudal relationship in Bengal through the Permanent Settlement, popularly known as the Zamindari System of 1793. Since British rule in agrarian East Bengal did not establish capitalist relationship, the bulk of the people here still cling to pre-capitalist “neo-feudal” values that nurture vertical relationship between the elites and the ordinary people.Thus, the society at large here is a mirror image of mass society. Since it is diametrically opposite to plural societies, it is uncongenial to liberal democracy, freedom, and egalitarian social order. Mass society emerges in postcolonial or post-revolutionary countries, is another name for massive exploitation of the masses in the name of freedom and revolution by the same freedom fighters and revolutionary leaders who once led them. The Soviet Union, China since Mao, North Korea, Cambodia, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Uganda, Egypt, Libya, Zimbabwe, and last but not least, Bangladesh are examples in this regard.

Postcolonial and post-Liberation leaders in what is Bangladesh today directly or indirectly created extravagant expectations among the ordinary people before and after the creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh. While Pakistan promised a never-ending period of “eternal Eid”[2] or extreme joy and happiness to the East Bengali Muslim masses – around eighty per cent of the population during the Partition – to the overwhelming majority of people in East Pakistan, Bangladesh meant the real land of prosperity and happiness, their Sonar Bangla or Golden Bengal. Although Pakistan was not a by-product of any revolutionary war of independence, nevertheless, the wild promises by Muslim League leaders who championed the Partition created some sort of mass society in East Bengal, which is all about the creation of a society where its members remain delusional, happy, and identify themselves with their leaders as one of them, albeit for a short while only. This happens to all mass societies who evolve in the wake of liberation under leaders who not-long-after the liberation or revolution abruptly distance themselves from the masses. However, they never stop identifying themselves as the masses’ “own people” in love with them. Kim Il Sung, Mugabe, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, and Sheikh Mujib – among others –were leaders of failed revolutions. Leaders in mass societies demonise some people within and some entities outside the national boundary as the enemies of their country, their freedom, and prosperity.

Mass society runs oligarchies controlling “the conditions of life of the many” who have no say in running of the state machinery.[3]We find Encyclopaedia Britannica’s definition of mass society useful to understand the post-Liberation Bangladesh, where people are more or less “homogenized but also disaggregated, because it is composed of atomized individuals”.[4] Paradoxically, masses do not run mass societies; they are not integrated to the state, and remain peripheral. Nevertheless, most totalitarian uprisings, including the Bolshevik, Fascist, and Nazi takeovers in Europe were “mass uprisings” in name only. As communist/socialist revolutions have so far installed party and military elites to power, Nazism was mostly about protecting the big non-Jewish business in Germany, the Bangladesh Revolution was no exception in this regard. William Kornhauser aptly elucidates the nature of mass society, which is neither synonymous with working class nor is it by design a promoter of totalitarian states, but mass societies are somehow inherently incapable of promoting democracy, and thus “vulnerable to capture by totalitarian elites”. The atomized pre-modern society “invites the totalitarian movement [which appears to be democratic, libertarian, and pro-people], which provides both pseudo-authority in the form of the charismatic leaders and pseudo-community in the form of the totalitarian party.”[5] One may read Hitler and  the Nazi Party, Mao and the Communist Party, Qaddafi and his Green Book, Mugabe and the ZANU Party, or Mujib and the Awami League as the pseudo charismatic leaders and parties, respectively, for understanding as to how mass societies evolve out of false promises, false hope, and in the name of pseudo- democracy, pseudo-liberation, and pseudo-revolution.

In short, mass societies change and destroy old orders without creating any better alternatives. Interestingly, post-revolutionary/post-liberation elites remain divided on having mass societies. French aristocratic elites who abhorred the post-Revolutionary anarchy and the Reign of Terror welcomed Napoleon as the alternative for order.[6] In Bangladesh, we witnessed old elites – many of whom had soft corner for Pakistan even during the Liberation War – supporting the coup leaders who killed Mujib and toppled his one-party dictatorship in 1975. We also witnessed that the changes of guards in Bangladesh after 1975 did not restore democracy and equal opportunities either. Unless true democracy and libertarian philosophy of governance are well-entrenched, mass societies go on producing one monster after another. Ironically, without adhering to the philosophy or culture of democracy and justice, societies remain vulnerable to the mass society syndrome, which establishes the “sovereignty of the unqualified”. At the very beginning, mass opinion dominates the government, which symbolizes the “incompetence of the many”. The government loves to use popular but hollow rhetoric, promising democracy, freedom, socialism, and whatever the masses want to hear.[7] This is what we witnessed for few months following the ascendancy of Mujib as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, up to 1974. However, his switching over to one-party dictatorship in early 1975 did not resonate well with the masses. No wonder, they were in a state of euphoria at the killing of Mujib and the overthrow of the regime. Thus, following the August 1975 coup that overthrew Mujib, disorganized masses wanted to dictate terms to the government. And, we know “crowds are only powerful for destruction” and possibly, only “a small intellectual aristocracy” can protect civilizations, as Le Bon has suggested.[8]

It is very pertinent to understand the inherent contradictions in a mass society. Mass societies start functioning with “accessible elites”, whom they consider as their “own people”, but totalitarian societies require “inaccessible” elites and “available” non-elites. Although initially the unruly masses call the shots, dominate almost every sphere of society and government machinery, but eventually as the tables turn, “the threat posed by mass society is less how elites may be protected from the masses and more how non-elites may be shielded from domination by elites”. In mass societies, “there is high availability of a population for mobilization by elites [italics in original].[9] This is what exactly happened in Bangladesh during and in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Mujib regime. The faction-ridden fractured peasant community, which cannot live without non-peasant patrons, eventually surrendered to their patrons. And, the latter is running the show in the name of ideologies their clients hear to listen most. Then again, there are multiple ideologies and symbols of justice and order for the people, Mujib’s Bengali Nationalism, Zia’s Bangladeshi Nationalism, and various brands of Islam! So far, the masses have hovered between the first two ideologies – which are nothing but red herrings, absolutely hollow and meaningless – while the proponents of political Islam have remained divided, and some bear the stigma of collaborating with the Pakistan occupation army in 1971. In sum, the tragedy of all mass society is that both aristocratic and democratic elites dislike democracy, egalitarianism, and individual freedom; and they draw a synonymy between “popular democracy” and “popular dictatorship”. The upshot being mass societies’ “vulnerability to totalitarianism, rather than traditional forms of dictatorship”, as Kornhauser argues, democracy and the rule of law remain elusive. He also attributes the rise of mass societies to rapid rural to urban migration; sudden rise in poverty or prosperity among sections of the population, and growing unemployment. The overall socio-political and economic crises also draw large numbers of unemployed youths in the 18-40-yaer-old age group, unattached intellectuals, anarchists, fascists, and even religious extremists to millennial revolutionary movements or liberation wars. And, they all provide the building blocks of mass societies, while the middle class and middle-class values, and working-class people remain marginalized, isolated, and irrelevant.[10]

In view of the above, mass society and the inherent existential threat it poses to Bangladesh entails the following:

a) Discarding elitism as a step toward democratization is one thing, and promoting the masses and their culture is something very different! Bangladesh cannot afford to see the continuation of the rule by “peasants in business suit”. Le Bon’s glorification of a small number of intellectual aristocrats as the creator and director of civilization, and his rejection of the crowds as powerful agents of destruction of civilization are very pertinent to this study. Bangladeshi policymakers must pay heed to what Le Bon thought of intellectual elites and the unruly crowds. They must understand civilization has always been urban, which is a refined upward-mobility of the people by discarding rural/peasant rusticity.

b) Bangladeshi policymakers need to address the problem of the well-entrenched mass society in the country. What Kornhauser has argued against the rise of mass society and politics is very relevant today: “Mass politics occurs when large numbers of people engage in political activity outside of the procedures and rules instituted by a society to govern political action. Mass politics in democratic society therefore is anti-democratic, since it contravenes the constitutional order.”[11]

c) However, the process is reversible with concerted efforts by a small number of selfless intellectual elites can weed out the roots of mass society and sow the seeds of liberal democracy in Bangladesh. People must be told that the ongoing mass politics in the country could lead to totalitarianism. Sheikh Hasina and her associates are already praising the virtue of one-party rule that her father introduced under the Bangladesh Peasants’ and Workers’ Party (BAKSAL) in 1975, which was a re-enactment of the Soviet-style one-party socialist dictatorship, where bureaucrats, generals, police, and even teachers, journalists, professionals, and intellectuals swell the ranks of the party.

d) In the backdrop of Bangladesh’s transformation into a one-party dictatorship since the first round of rigged/doctored parliamentary elections in December 2008 that installed Sheikh Hasina to power as the Prime Minister for the second time – the subsequent two rounds of elections in January 2014 and December 2018 were far more massively rigged and farcical than the ones held in 2008 – the country has also literally turned into a police state. While the police, which is absolutely corrupt, cruel, and unaccountable to the people, not only makes arbitrary arrests of political dissidents and outspoken critics of the Hasina regime (and in the process many victims get killed in trumped up “encounters” or “cross-fire” with law-enforcers, and many just “disappear” forever), it also publicly beat up people with the help of armed ruling-party goons in broad daylight, and enthusiastically helps the ruling Awami League party to rig the elections. Since 2014, the Deep Sate is so well-entrenched that one is not sure who calls the shot, Sheikh Hasina or the bureaucrat-police-military network! Bangladeshi policymakers must address the problem of bureaucratization of administration. Although Max Weber believes bureaucratization, not the class struggle, provides the central dynamic of the modernworld, it is time to point out bureaucracy poses the “strongest threat to social pluralism and liberal democracy”.[12] Thanks to colonial hangover, very similar to most post-colonial societies in the Third World, Bangladeshis in general consider the public servants or bureaucrats as their overlords. And, in most cases, people’s elected representatives – local and national – being less educated (some being practically illiterate) than upper echelons of the bureaucracy allow the latter more power, and influence in running the administration.

e) While Bangladesh having a corrupt, unaccountable and powerful bureaucracy – seemingly more powerful than the ruling party, which is integral to mass society, a precursor to totalitarianism – the poor, backward, and overpopulated country has no easy way out of the grip of “mass politics”. Peasant culture is not only pre-modern – hence unamenable to liberal democracy, secularism, and the concept of human rights and dignity – it also promotes factionalism, patron-client-relationship, lack of mutual trust and respect that perpetuate elite hegemony, intolerance, and everything that could divide and fracture a country. In sum, the combination of mass and peasant cultures is a deadly combination. Policymakers and development practitioners in Bangladesh (and those abroad having interests in the development of the country) must pay heed to the dynamics of mass-peasant culture and their likely disastrous outcome for the country. The above hypotheses drawn mainly in the light of historical sociology and cultural anthropology of Bangladesh since the Battle of Plassey need a brief historical narrative to understand the what-went-wrong syndrome of the country.

[1]William Kornhauser, The Politics of Mass Society, The Free Press, Third Edition, New York 1963, pp.227-237

[2] Ahmed Kamal, “‘A Land of Eternal Eid’ – Independence, People and Politics in East Bengal”, Dhaka University Studies, Part A, Vol 46, No. 1, June 1989

[3]Denis McQuail, Mass Communication Theory (fifth edition), Sage, London 2005, p.449; William Kornhauser, The Politics of Mass Society, The Free Press, Third Edition, New York 1963, p.5

[4]https://www.britannica.com/topic/mass-society

[5]William Kornhauser, The Politics of Mass Society, The Free Press, Third Edition, New York 1963, p.16

[6] Ibid, pp 22-23

[7] Ibid, pp.26-27

[8] Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd, Ernest Bonn Ltd., London 1947, p.18

[9]William Kornhauser, The Politics of Mass Society, The Free Press, Third Edition, New York 1963, pp.30-33,41

[10] Ibid, pp. 119-121; 145-165; 174-222

[11]Ibid, p. 227

[12]Ibid, p. 232

Dr Taj Hashmi is an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Austin Peay State University, in Tennessee, US. He is an author, historian, and security analyst. He regularly writes on Islam, terrorism, the Middle East, and South Asian history, politics and current affairs. His publications include Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (translated into several languages). Email: tajhashmi@gmail.com

7 Comments

  1. Farooque Chowdhury says:

    The article says: “Kim Il Sung, Mugabe, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, and Sheikh Mujib – among others –were leaders of failed revolutions.”

    Kim and Idi, the same?
    Mugabe and Idi, the same?
    Idi was leader of a “revolution” that failed?
    What that “revolution” was that Idi led?

    Why the masses lead, as the article analyzes, a certain person not another person? How they select the person they lead? Why they select the person they lead?

    Anyone can form more questions from the questions above. So, no elaboration here.

    The article says: “The Soviet Union, China since Mao, North Korea, Cambodia, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Uganda, Egypt, Libya, Zimbabwe, and last but not least, Bangladesh are examples in this regard.”

    Soviet Union, China since Mao, North Korea, Cambodia, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Uganda, Egypt, Libya, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, the same? Great “analysis”!

  2. Taj Hashmi says:

    I know admirers of icons would hate this piece by me. Can’t help, as to me every icon — from Lenin to Mao, and Nasser to Mugabe — were mere mortals, subject to human frailty and limitations. They did not have the last word on everything, and they did not create paradise on earth, either.

    • Farooque Chowdhury says:

      Thanks for the comment. You are, I understand, I do not know what others feel, correct as you write “every icon … were mere mortals, subject to human frailty and limitations. I do not know about Nasser and Mugabe, but Lenin, in one of his important writings, said that they committed many errors, and he identified causes leading to the errors. Mao said that they learn from errors, which means they commit errors. What others said I do not know, but Lenin and Mao never claimed that they were trying to create or have created paradise on the earth.

      I feel none will hate the article. It is an interesting article. It provokes thought and it helps understand the issues. To me, the article carries an analysis, which may help understand many developments. That is the reason I raised the questions as I tried to understand its analysis fully, and look at areas discussed in the article.

      The questions I raised are, actually to me, not to the article, as I began searching answers to these questions after reading the article. I sought help from the article. I hoped that either the writer or some other reader will come forward with the answers. It is like a student asking a few questions to a teacher to understand the teacher’s analysis.

      Moreover, I was trying to find answers to the questions so that I can answer if someone asks me the same questions after I present the analysis the article has made, obviously with reference to this article. That is the reason that I have some more questions. For example, I was asking me (1) Why and when a leader do not follow the masses that have led the leader for a number of years or through a crucial period of time? and (2) why masses lead a leader in society “x” and do not lead a leader in society “y”?

      I feel answers to the questions raised in my earlier comment and in this present reply will enrich the article/embolden the article’s analysis.

      So, looking forward to answers to the questions with a hope that my questions will not be misunderstood.

  3. David Kennedy says:

    Humans are unequal in so many different ways: sex, height, weight, sundry abilities (mathematical, musical, athletic, imaginative, the list is virtually endless). The development and fulfilment of whatever potential a human possesses at birth will similarly depend on a virtually-endless list of possibilities thereafter.
    Gustave le Bon, Edward Bernays, and Joseph Goebbels studied mass psychology and crowd control, the latter two with profound effects which are yet continuing. They understood some of the weaknesses of the human brain. With the development of ever-larger groups of people (societies), particularly over the last century or so, coinciding with ever-greater means of mass communication virtually worldwide, mass psychology has taken on an ever-greater role in modern societies.
    Taj Hashmi seems to despise ‘the masses’. He selects ‘icons’ of the masses to further his argument while ignoring similar icons (figures given historical importance such as emperors, kings, warriors, statesmen, writers, etc.) of ‘the elite’ – all mere mortals. Of course!
    Farooque Chowdhury poses various questions related to Hashmi’s selection, as part of a self-quesioning response.
    My own thesis is concerned with the defects of the human brain. Countercurrents posts lot of articles concerning climate-change and its potentially fatal effect on the many life-systems presently on earth. There are many other similarly hazardous human activities that threaten life on earth – genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, nuclear radiation being but some. All are examples of a) human conceit and b) brain defects (that is, the drive to ‘progress’ while failing to either realise, or acknowledge, its weaknesses and their consequences. These, in my view, transcend both the questions Chowdhury poses AND the thesis propounded by Hashmi. We have long left Eden behind.

    • Farooque Chowdhury says:

      Thanks, Mr. David Kennedy, for your comment. The comment is nice as it considers positions by earlier comments, and presents self-position in an analytical way. Your comment has neither an angry tone nor it avoids counter-arguments. Rather it evaluates the arguments presented, and make responses to the questions raised.

      Thanks for identifying my effort, as you write: “Farooque … poses various questions … as part of a self-questioning response.”

      That is the reason — self-questioning — I am looking and waiting for, and searching answers to the questions I have raised. Even, I am arguing and counter-arguing with myself with the questions. The statements and the analysis will turn meaningless if I fail to find the answers either from me or from others. Then, I can not present the analysis.

      I have further questions. For example, why masses declined or failed to lead Bhasani, a left-leaning and anti-imperialist leader in Bangladesh? How the Mass Upsurge in 1969 in Bangladesh (at that time, it was E. Pak,, the eastern wing of Pakistan) sparked? What was the role of Bhasani and the masses in initiating and carrying forward the Mass Upsurge in 1969? During that time, Mujib was behind bar facing a trial on charges of planning to make E. Pak independent. Answers to the questions will, I may be wrong, I hope, will help understand the analysis in the article.

      Similar questions are in case of other countries including the countries mentioned in the article — Egypt, Uganda, China, etc. — and in cases of the US, the UK, France, etc. in different phases of history of these countries.

      I agree with you that many icons have not been considered in the article that included icons from different ages/periods and different fields (middle age, although it is difficult to identify in this term, early-modern age, or during and after of the First and the Second World Wars, and philosophers, writers, poets, scientists, educationists, social and religious reformers and others)

      Thanks again for your helpful and nice comment.

      • David Kennedy says:

        Farooque, you and I agree on many things. This I know because I have read various of your articles concerning Bangladesh. We are both ‘of the Left’, if that term retains any meaning in the present age. Our sympathies lie with the poor, with the ‘underdogs’, with the oppressed. We want to see a better world, a fairer world, for all and not just a favoured few, an elite.

        Now to your questions, questions about leadership, how chosen; about ‘revolutions’ (the word means different things to different people); about political events in different countries and whether they can be fairly classified as similar.

        Humans differ. Some, by their nature, are tidy and organised. Others are quite the opposite. Some are extrovert, wanting to be noticed, anxious to express their opinions on anything and everything. Others are introverted, reserved, retiring, maybe with strong views which they keep to themselves. Some are highly motivated; others are indifferent. In other words, “humans come in all shapes and sizes.”
        I have no idea of the proportions of the varous types in any given community of humans other than to say a relatively few like to take on the responsibility of ‘leading’, while the vast majority prefer to just ‘go with the flow’, get on with their own lives, and are quite happy ‘to be led’.

        Some leaders are motivated by power and money, others by ideas, but ALL leaders have purpose. Further, all people including leaders are changeable, some more than others. Ideas and events change people. Thus an initially successful leader such as Margaret Thatcher, later loses her/his ‘magic’ and is overthrown. This is common in the animal kingdom: the strong prevail until they are succeeded.

        The motivation of Idi Amin, of Winston Churchill, or of Bill Clinton, is quite different from that of MK Ghandi, or Che Guevara, or Josef Stalin. What power did each exert over their masses of followers? And they were all fallible humans, liable to addictions, and subject to fleshly frailties.

        Each country, like humans, has its own history, its own formative experiences. Egypt is NOT Nicaragua, nor China the Soviet Union. Like humans, countries change with time.

        What binds everything together is the nature of humans, their primary driving force (short-term survival), their resistance to radical or sudden change, their willingness ‘to believe’, and their failure to either understand, or care, about the long-term consequences of their actions for the well-being of the planet.

        • Farooque Chowdhury says:

          Thanks, Mr. David, for your kind response.

          Thanks to you that you go through my ordinary articles.

          I agree with the issues you have discussed. I find no point to disagree.

          These are the points I raised in my first comment on the article. For example, the article identifies a number of countries in the same manner. The article claims masses led a leader and then the leader who was led the masses began denying the masses. Probably the article has some explanation to the strange analysis. But there was no response on the questions I raised till writing this response.

          I do not know whether this practice gives any moral standing to question some system or some person.

          And, I do not know how students learn.

          I understand, I may be wrong, students/readers/people are to be answered when they raise any question regarding the issue raised/presented/discussed. The presented issue turns void if it fails to answer the questions. Thus the issue or analysis turns a reference to a laughingstock.

          Again thanks to you for your helpful comments/responses.