Recently, on the day of his death (November 16, 2014), Le Monde published a tribute article about Serge Moscovici, considered by many to be “the father of social psychology”. (see Julie Clarini’s article, http://www.lemonde.fr/disparitions/article/2014/11/16/serge-moscovici-figure-de-la-psychologie-sociale-est-mort_4524344_3382.html) I first encountered his name during my first years of graduate school, in 1994-95, when I studied with the historians Genevieve Fraisse and Michelle Perrot at the Collège international de philosophie and the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris. Some of my colleagues inquired if I was related to Serge Moscovici, the well-known social psychologist of Romanian origins whose last name I shared. I didn’t know what to answer them, since I had never researched our genealogy. But the question itself aroused my curiosity. Once I began reading his books and learning more about his background, I found Serge Moscovici to be a remarkable person and intellectual.
Born in Braila, Romania on June 14, 1925 under the name of Srul Hers Moscovici, he overcame incredible hardship and rose to intellectual fame against all odds. Being Jewish, his youth was marred by the anti-Semitic legislation passed by Romania’s Fascist regimes, which reflected the tone set by Nazi Germany throughout most of Europe. He was expelled from high school. Since some vocational schools remained open to Jews, he trained as a mechanic at Ciocanul, in Bucharest. While living in the capital, he observed with dismay some of Romania’s leading intellectual figures—particularly Mircea Eliade and Emil Cioran—express pro-Fascist and anti-Semitic points of view. He took refuge in what he felt would be the opposite route by joining the Romanian Communist Party, which was one of the few political parties that remained open to Jews. Moscovici witnessed the Bucharest Pogrom (in January 1941) and was sent to a forced labor camp, where he worked in construction. He was fortunate enough to be freed by the Red Army in 1944. Thereafter he made up for lost time and became the worldly intellectual he wanted to be, an ambition that couldn’t be realized in a Romania ruled by a Fascist regime. He taught himself French and philosophy.
Growing disenchanted with the Communist party, Moscovici moved to Paris, where he began studying psychology at the Sorbonne. His 1961 thesis, which would be published as a book in 1976, La psychanalyse, son image, son public, covered the relatively new field—group or social psychology–that would eventually gain him world renown. Having lived through both Nazi and Communist regimes—oppressed by one for being Jewish, disillusioned with the other—his research covered the psychological factors behind conformity (and mass movements) and the role of minorities in influencing larger group dynamics. Through a series of psychological experiments, he arrived at the scientific conclusion, which he had already witnessed in his life, that minorities can, indeed, influence the actions of the majority, even when what they say is counterintuitive or just plain false. These psychological experiments can be used to explain, in part, the manner in which totalitarian movements—Fascism and Communism alike—began as minority views and ended up ruling the majority throughout European and Eastern Block countries.
Later in life, in 1997, Serge Moscovici published an autobiographical book, Chronique des années égarées (Editions Stock), where he expresses some disappointment with the fact that his son, Pierre Moscovici–who would become famous in his own right as French Minister of the Economy, Finance and Industry–had to experiment in his youth with Communism and find out the hard way the lessons about totalitarianism learned years earlier by his father. Wisdom may be passed on from generation to generation, but rarely only through books or anecdotes. It also requires some personal experience: an experience of lived history that Serge Moscovici translated, in his research and books, into an elegant psychological theory. For those interested in social psychology, the role of the masses and the dynamics of totalitarian movements, Serge Moscovici’s death represents a great loss.