Pathological Nationalism? The Legacy of Crowd Psychology in International Theory

Adam B. Lerner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article investigates the intellectual history of nationalism in IR theory, asking how early generations of scholars understood the phenomenon and its relationship to chauvinism and violence. Despite substantial disagreements and varied intellectual influences, I argue that both interwar liberals and post-war realists shared several problematic assumptions about nationalism’s pathological character that limited their imagination of its varied potential impacts. I trace these common assumptions back to the bigoted interdisciplinary field of crowd psychology, most prominently evangelised by Gustave Le Bon. Le Bon’s 1895 The Crowd became a touchstone for subsequent generations of social and political theorists and spread ideas about nationalism that infused incipient international theory. Even as his popularity faded, his uniquely pessimistic, racist, and sexist ideas about mass politics lingered in mainstream IR’s narrow engagement with the phenomenon. By excavating this history, this article exposes a problematic thread that has been woven into the IR discipline, as well as a potential path to excising this bigoted thinking and nuancing discussions of the rise of nationalism in the 21st century.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)995–1012
Number of pages18
JournalInternational Affairs
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 9 May 2022

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