Summary of Eric Hoffer’s, The True Believer

 

Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents … Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” ~ Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.

Eric Hoffer (1898 – 1983) was an American moral and social philosopher who worked for more than twenty years as a longshoremen in San Francisco. The author of ten books, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983. His first book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), is a work in social psychology which discusses the psychological causes of fanaticism. It is widely considered a classic.

Overview

The first lines of Hoffer’s book clearly state its purpose:

This book deals with some peculiarities common to all mass movements, be they religious movements, social revolutions or nationalist movements. It does not maintain that all movements are identical, but that they share certain essential characteristics which give them a family likeness.

All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single-hearted allegiance.

All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind.

Though there are obvious differences between the fanatical Christian, the fanatical Mohammedan, the fanatical nationalist, the fanatical Communist and the fanatical Nazi, it is yet true that the fanaticism which animates them may be viewed and treated as one …

This book concerns itself chiefly with … the true believer—the man of fanatical faith who is ready to sacrifice his life for a holy cause …

The assumption that mass movements have many traits in common does not imply that all movements are equally beneficent or poisonous. The book passes no judgments, and expresses no preferences. It merely tries to explain… (pp. xi-xiii)

Part 1 – The Appeal of Mass Movements

Hoffer says that mass movements begin when discontented, powerless people lose faith in existing institutions and demand change.

Starting out from the fact that the frustrated predominate among the early adherents of all mass movements … it is assumed: 1) that frustration of itself, without any proselytizing prompting from the outside, can generate most of the peculiar characteristics of the true believer; 2) that an effective technique of conversion consists basically in the inculcation and fixation of proclivities and responses indigenous to the frustrated mind. (p. xii)

Feeling hopeless, such people participate in movements that allow them to become part of a larger collective. “ . . . a mass movement … appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.” (p. 12)

Put another way, Hoffer says: ““Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the loss of faith in ourselves.” (p. 14) Leaders inspire these movements, but the seeds of mass movements must already exist for the leaders to be successful. And while mass movements typically blend nationalist, political and religious ideas, they all compete for angry and/or marginalized people.

Part 2 – The Potential Converts

The destitute are not usually converts to mass movements; they are too busy trying to survive to become engaged. But what Hoffer calls the “new poor,” those who previously had wealth or status but who believe they have now lost it, are potential converts. Such people are resentful and blame others for their problems.

Mass movements also attract the partially assimilated—those who feel alienated from mainstream culture. Others include misfits, outcasts, adolescents, and sinners, as well as the ambitious, selfish, impotent and bored. What all converts all share is the feeling that their lives are meaningless and worthless.

A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness, and meaninglessness of an individual existence. It cures the poignantly frustrated not by conferring on them an absolute truth or remedying the difficulties and abuses which made their lives miserable, but by freeing them from their ineffectual selves—and it does this by enfolding and absorbing them into a closely knit and exultant corporate whole. (p. 41)

Hoffer emphasizes that creative people—those who experience creative flow—aren’t usually attracted to mass movements. Creativity provides inner joy which both acts as an antidote to the frustrations with external hardships. Creativity also relieves boredom, one of the main causes of mass movements:

There is perhaps no more reliable indicator of a society’s ripeness for a mass movement than the prevalence of unrelieved boredom. In almost all the descriptions of the periods preceding the rise of mass movements there is reference to vast ennui; and in their earliest stages mass movements are more likely to find sympathizers and
support among the bored than among the exploited and oppressed. To a deliberate fomenter of mass upheavals, the report that people are bored still should be at least as encouraging as that they are suffering from intolerable economic or political abuses. (p. 51-52)

Part 3 – United Action and Self-Sacrifice

Mass movements demand of their followers a “total surrender of a distinct self.” (p. 117) Thus a follower identifies as “a member of a certain tribe or family.” (p. 62) Furthermore, mass movements denigrate and “loath the present.” (p. 74) By regarding the modern world as worthless, the movement inspires a battle against it.

What surprises one, when listening to the frustrated as the decry the present and all its works, is the enormous joy they derive from doing so. Such delight cannot come from the mere venting of a grievance. There must be something more—and there is. By expiating upon the incurable baseness and vileness of the times, the frustrated soften their feeling of failure and isolation … (p. 75)

Mass movements also “promote the use of doctrines that elevate faith over reason and serve as “fact-proof screens between the faithful and the realities of the world. (p. 79)

The effectiveness of a doctrine does not come from its meaning but from its certitude…presented as the embodiment of the one and only truth. If a doctrine is not unintelligible, it has to be vague; and if neither unintelligible nor vague, it has to be unverifiable. One has to get to heaven or the distant future to determine the truth of an effective doctrine….simple words are made pregnant with meaning and made to look like symbols in a secret message. There is thus an illiterate air about the most literate true believer. (pp. 80-81).

So believers ignore truths that contradict their fervent beliefs, but this hides the fact that,

The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual sources … but finds it only by clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace. The passionate attachment is the essence of his blind devotion and religiosity, and he sees in it the sources of all virtue and strength … He sacrifices his life to prove his worth … The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to reason or his moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause.” (p. 85).

Thus the doctrines of the mass movement must not be questioned—they are regarded with certitude—and they are spread through “persuasion, coercion, and proselytization.” Persuasion works best on those already sympathetic to the doctrines, but it must be vague enough to allow “the frustrated to… hear the echo of their own musings in … impassioned double talk.” (p. 106)  Hoffer quotes Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels: “a sharp sword must always stand behind propaganda if it is to be really effective.” (p. 106) The urge to proselytize comes not from a deeply held belief in the truth of doctrine but from an urge of the fanatic to “strengthen his own faith by converting others.” (p. 110)

Moreover, mass movements need an object of hate which unifies believers, and “the ideal devil is a foreigner.” (p. 93) Mass movements need a devil. But in reality the “hatred of a true believer is actually a disguised self-loathing …” and “the fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure.” (p. 85) Through their fanatical action and personal sacrifice, the fanatic tries to give their life meaning.

Part 4 – Beginning and End

Hoffer states that three personality types typically lead mass movements: “men of words”, “fanatics”, and “practical men of action.” In the beginning: “men of words” lead the movements. (Regarding the radical positions of the Republicans and Trumpism in the USA think of the late William F. Buckley.) Men of words try to “discredit the prevailing creeds” and creates a “hunger for faith” which is then fed by “doctrines and slogans of the new faith.” (p. 140) Slowly followers emerge.

Then fanatics take over. (In the USA think the Koch brothers, Murdoch, Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Hannity, etc.) Fanatics don’t find solace in literature, philosophy or art. Instead they are characterized by viciousness, the urge to destroy, and the perpetual struggle for power. But after mass movements transform the social order, the insecurity of their followers is not ameliorated. At this point the “practical men of action” take over and try to lead the new order. Now the leaders try to control their former followers.

In the end mass movements that succeed often bring about a social order worse than the previous one. (This was one of Will Durant’s findings in The Lessons of History.) As Hoffer puts it near the end of his work: “All mass movements … irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred, and intolerance.” (p. 141)

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6 thoughts on “Summary of Eric Hoffer’s, The True Believer

  1. True believes aren’t necessarily bad, but the participants of most wars in history usually share the belief that they are right—and absolutely certainly right.

  2. Is this what Trump meant when he said he could shoot someone in public and his supporters would stay loyal?

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