At the request of a viewer of the presentation of Eric Hoffer's The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements on Samizdat Broadcasts, the written transcript of that video.
The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, hereafter referred to simply as The True Believer, was a book written in 1951 by a longshoreman and casual laborer named Eric Hoffer. Since then, it has been published in 23 editions and is regarded as a landmark in the study of the psychological and social causes and outcomes of fanaticism. What follows is an analysis of this book.
Born in late 19th century New York, Hoffer lost his eyesight at the age of seven, only to have it mysteriously return again at age 15. Fearing that he’d go blind again, Hoffer seized on every opportunity to read, acquiring a library card and spending his off work hours, in his own words, “between the books and the brothels.” Luckily, he did not lose his vision again, nor his love of reading, and he became an avid student of history and philosophy, among other subjects. He was unusual for a writer and thinker of political science given that he came from a working class rather than a classically academic background. He was thus an idol of mine when I first read The True Believer in 1996, when I was in trade school to become a cabinet maker, a trade I would abandon in favor of professional driving years later.
Like Hoffer, I absorbed a lot of books, and later YouTube videos when not at work or raising a family. In the twenty years that have passed since reading The True Believer, I cannot say that I’ve found a work that is so precise and succinct, that so clearly and laconically explains so much. This will be the first of a series of videos devoted to an analysis of The True Believer and the implications that Hoffer’s observations and overarching thesis have on present day politics and world events.
The preface opens with this passage, which sets the tone for the entire work: “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 singlehearted 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.”
Later on in the preface: “This book concerns itself chiefly with the active, revivalist phase of mass movements. This phase is dominated by the true believer—the man of fanatical faith who is ready to sacrifice his life for a holy cause—and an attempt is made to trace his genesis and outline his nature. As an aid in this effort, use is made of a working hypothesis. Starting out from the fact that the frustrated predominate among the early adherents of all mass movements and that they usually join of their own accord, 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.”
Though published in 1951, this paragraph from the conclusion of the preface is as fitting for today as it has ever been: “It is necessary for most of us these days to have some insight into the motives and responses of the true believer. For though ours is a godless age, it is the very opposite of irreligious. The true believer is everywhere on the march, and both by converting and antagonizing he is shaping the world in his own image. And whether we are to line up with him or against him, it is well that we should know all we can concerning his nature and potentialities.”
Truer words were never written.
The book is divided into four parts, each analysing particular aspects of mass movements and those who are attracted to them.
Part 1. The Appeal of Mass Movements.
Part 2. The Potential Converts
Part 3. United Action and Self Sacrifices
Part 4. Beginning and End
Part 1. The appeal of mass movements.
Central to Hoffer’s approach to mass movements emphasises that “When people are ripe for a mass movement, they are usually ripe for any effective movement, and not solely for one with a particular doctrine or program.” At the heart of Hoffer’s thesis is the observation that people have a tendency to project the causes of personal failure onto the world around them, even in instances where the failure is clearly rooted in personal shortcomings. This is the root of discontent that can, under the right circumstances, grow into a desire for change.
The desire for change depends a great deal on two things: a sense of power and cause for hope, and of these the second is more primary. Without either, but especially some kind of faith in a vision of the future, the result is a conservatism rooted in a fear of the future and desire to cling to the present. Those who have power are more likely to use it to “Ward off the new and cling to the status quo,” while “The abjectly poor also are without faith in the future. The future seems to them a booby trap buried on the road ahead. One must step gingerly. To change things is to ask for trouble.”
When a sense of power combines with faith and hope to produce soul stirring enthusiasm for drastic change, however, it doesn’t seem to matter where people are on the social hierarchy. Hoffer notes that “there can be revolutions of the privileged as well as of the underprivileged” and he cites the movement of enclosure in 16th century England and the industrial revolution of two hundred years later as examples that “set the minds of the manufacturers on fire.”
And in keeping with the pattern, the advent of information technology and the internet at the end of the 20th century had precisely the same effect on the currency trading classes, leading to an unquenchable enthusiasm for globalization and free trade that dominated the politics of the 1990s. All of these developments “began a revolution “as extreme and radical as ever enflamed the minds of sectarians” and changed the face of England, and eventually the world, beyond recognition.
The fusion of faith and a sense of power in the sort of individual who sees their own lives as being irredeemably spoiled and without value and justifiable only if devoted to a cause greater than, and more importantly outside of oneself is the recipe for the creation of the True Believer. What’s important to understand is that the source of this sense of power and boundless faith need not be grounded in a sober assessment of reality. In fact, practicality and level headedness in the character of a movement mitigates against its attraction to the True Believer, for what the true believer really seeks is escape from a self that is seen is spoiled or irredeemable, and a denial of one’s own life and happiness as an acceptable justification for one’s actions seems to be crucial to the character of the True Believer.
Hoffer repeatedly refers to this state as “frustration” and is the state of mind which drives what he calls the desire for substitutes. He writes: “To the frustrated a mass movement offers substitutes either for the whole self or for the elements which make life bearable which they cannot evoke out of their individual resources.”
Hoffer goes on to say that “There is a fundamental difference between the appeal of a mass movement and the appeal of a practical organization. The practical organization offers opportunities for self-advancement, and its appeal is mainly to self-interest. On the other hand, a mass movement, particularly in its active, revivalist phase, appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self. A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self renunciation. People who see their lives as irremediably spoiled cannot find a worth-while purpose in self-advancement.”
This is the principle behind some of the most memorable and poignant quotes in The True Believer:
“Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”
“The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready is he to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.”
“When our individual interests and prospects do not seem worth living for, we are in desperate need of something apart from us to live for. All forms of dedication, devotion, loyalty and self-surrender are in essence a desperate clinging to something which might give worth and meaning to our futile, spoiled lives. Hence the embracing of a substitute will necessarily be passionate and extreme. We can have qualified confidence in ourselves, but the faith we have in our nation, religion, race or holy cause has to be extravagant and uncompromising. A substitute embraced in moderation cannot supplant and efface the self we want to forget.”
The crucial thing to understand about the True Believer as a person is that the thing in which they believe is of lesser importance than the place that faith itself has in the psychological makeup of the true believer. This is what truly armors the true believer against argument and persuasion from other belief systems. Even the most thorough refutation of their world view does little to convince them, for the true believer is not coming at their beliefs from a position of rationalism or empiricism. The faith of the true believer is what gives them identity and purpose.
Hoffer writes: “The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.”
This accounts for perplexing blend of selflessness and vanity so often seen in religious, political or identitarian fanatics. The entirety of their moral center is the extent of their devotion to that in which they’ve placed their faith, rather than in any genuinely rational or empathy based moral system that seems intuitive to those not in a state of frustration and thus reconciled to the present.
Hoffer observes “However different the holy causes people die for; they perhaps die basically for the same thing” for the different sub-categories of mass movements become more alike as they become more prominent.
Part II – The Potential Converts.
Hoffer lists a number of kinds of people that seem especially prone, depending on the circumstances, to become true believers. Remember that frustration, as Hoffer calls it, is the essential characteristic of the true believer, and they are drawn to anything that can offer hope and a sense of power. This very rarely involves the abjectly poor or the truly downtrodden and oppressed, for in Hoffer’s words, “awed by the immutability of the order of things.” “The poor on the borderline of starvation live purposeful lives” and that “where people toil from sunrise to sunset for a bare living, they nurse no grievances and dream no dreams.”
People most likely to become true believers are those who have recently seen a shift in their life prospects. “those whose poverty is relatively recent, the “new poor,” who throb with the ferment of frustration. The memory of better things is as a fire in their veins. They are the disinherited and dispossessed who respond to every rising mass movement,” and observes that the Puritan revolution in 17th century England and European fascism were both supported by recently impoverished segments of the population. Much has been said of the vulnerability of working class white males in our time to reactionary mass movements, displaced as they are by deindustrialization and the recent rise in status of women and ethnic minorities. They are naturally receptive to those who promise to make America great again.
Speaking of which, Hoffer points out that “discontent is likely to be highest when misery is bearable; when conditions have so improved that an ideal state seems almost within reach. A grievance is most poignant when almost redressed.” This is a potent observation. More fascinating still is the observation that “In both France and Russia the land-hungry peasants owned almost exactly one-third of the agricultural land at the outbreak of revolution, and most of that land was acquired during the generation or two preceding the revolution. It is not actual suffering but the taste of better things which excites people to revolt.”
A similar dynamic may explain why fanatical and militant strains of feminism have infected social media in the 21st century, precisely that time in history when the prospects for women, at least in the first world, never looked so good. It’s also worth noting that the recently liberated are sitting ducks for proselytizing holy causes because “Freedom aggravates at least as much as it alleviates frustration. Freedom of choice places the whole blame of failure on the shoulders of the individual. And as freedom encourages a multiplicity of attempts, it unavoidably multiplies failure and frustration.”
What the recently dispossessed and the recently elevated have in common is an perceptual gap between the realities of their lives and what they believe to be possible in their lives. This gap is called frustration, and what can fill it is a proselytizing holy cause.
“It is obvious that a proselytizing mass movement must break down all existing group ties if it is to win a considerable following. The ideal potential convert is the individual who stands alone, who has no collective body he can blend with and lose himself in and so mask the pettiness, meaninglessness and shabbiness of his individual existence. Where a mass movement finds the corporate pattern of family, tribe, country, etcetera, in a state of disruption and decay, it moves in and gathers the harvest. Where it finds the corporate pattern in good repair, it must attack and disrupt.”
The western world of the 21st century has witnessed over previous generations the breakdown of community, family and economy in a way that’s left many people isolated. Climbing divorce rates, increased degrees of abstinence, celibacy and childlessness, decline in organized religion and organized labor and declining living standards for the middle and working classes all contribute to a sense of futility and frustration. The recent growth of causes such as Black Lives Matter, libertarianism, tumblr feminism, the alt-right and the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders make clear that we have thus been made sitting ducks for proselytizing holy causes.
“It is futile to judge the viability of a new movement by the truth of its doctrine and the feasibility of its promises. What has to be judged is its corporate organization for quick and total absorption of the frustrated. Where new creeds vie with each other for the allegiance of the populace, the one which comes with the most perfected collective framework wins,” and he cites the historical triumphs of Christianity in the ancient world, Communism in Russia and Nazism in prewar Germany as evidence of this. It may well be today that the progressives, with their identity politics and at least partial social and economic collectivism are edging out the more individualistic conservatives for much the same reasons.
“The general rule seems to be that as one pattern of corporate cohesion weakens, conditions become ripe for the rise of a mass movement and the eventual establishment of a new and more vigorous form of compact unity. When a church which was all embracing relaxes its hold, new religious movements are likely to crystallize. H. G. Wells remarks that at the time of the Reformation people “objected not to the church’s power, but to its weaknesses ... Their movements against the church, within it and without, were movements not for release from a religious control, but for a fuller and more abundant religious control.” If the religious mood is undermined by enlightenment, the rising movements will be socialist, nationalist or racist. The French Revolution, which was also a nationalist movement, came as a reaction not against the vigorous tyranny of the Catholic Church and the ancient regime but against their weakness and ineffectuality. When people revolt in a totalitarian society, they rise not against the wickedness of the regime but its weakness.”
Liberalism in both Catholicism and mainline Protestantism thus directly paved the way for militant socialism, and later the militant identity politics of the new left. So called “regressive leftism” has made the least headway in regions such as the US south, where the Southern Baptist Convention did not liberalize to nearly the same degree, and so gave its congregations the corporate cohesion they sought, especially as their way of life was challenged by the demise or racial segregation. It is most prevalent in those regions where the once dominant Lutheran or Anglican denominations became lukewarm, such as northern Europe, Great Britain and her former English speaking colonies, and the North-East United States.
The new left counterculture who promised liberation from stringent social norms through the “deconstruction” of western culture and the Christian religion could not have miscalculated the true yearnings of their target audiences more grievously than they did. Congregations who were once given purpose, moralized on the virtues of self sacrifice and a corporate body to belong to by fire and brimstone preachers now get the same from women’s studies professors and feminist bloggers. It is a myth that the institution of the confessional has fallen into disuse – “checking your privilege” now plays the same role.
Other kinds of people that Hoffer identifies as being susceptible to a rising mass movement include misfits, the inordinately selfish, the ambitious feeling unlimited opportunities, minorities, the bored and sinners. All of these categories of people naturally face greater struggles to fit in with the societies they find themselves in. They cannot find identity and anonymity in the corporate bodies of the society they find themselves in, and so are more vulnerable to the frustration that underlies the character of the True Believer. Mass movements themselves, or at least their leadership, seem to understand this. At least instinctually if not intellectually. The successful movements of history go out of their way to appeal to the outcast and the marginalized, though not necessarily the powerless. Christianity was very blatant in this regard, as any reading of the bible makes clear – “whatever you do unto the least of my brethren, so also shall you do unto me.”
At the other end of the historical spectrum, the true appeal of intersectional feminism is not to those demographics it deems marginalized identities, but to marginalized psyches looking for a sense of purpose in a historical mission bigger than themselves. It is not as unusual as it may first seem that most social justice warriors come from the upper echelons of society, and many are themselves rich white cishet able bodied males. For what it truly offers is not liberation from racism, misogyny and homophobia, but rather liberation from the self, from the present and above all, from personal freedom and liberty, which really boil down to incarceration with the first two. This is the liberation that is and has always been at the heart of the True Believer.
Part 3 – United Action and Self Sacrifice. This section is further broken down into “Factors promoting self sacrifice”, which looks more deeply at the psychological appeal that the mass movement has to the true believer, and “Unifying Agents”, which looks at the ways in which a mass movement generates and preserves the kinds of psychological and social conditions that attract and retain true believers. Those two subsections taken together, part three explores the sociology of the mass movement while it is in what Hoffer calls its active and revivalist stage.
Factors Promoting Self Sacrifice – Hoffer opens this section up with identification with a collective whole as the first factor. He says, “To ripen a person for self-sacrifice he must be stripped of his individual identity and distinctness. He must cease to be George, Hans, Ivan, or Tadao—a human atom with an existence bounded by birth and death. The most drastic way to achieve this end is by the complete assimilation of the individual into a collective body.
The fully assimilated individual does not see himself and others as human beings. When asked who he is, his automatic response is that he is a German, a Russian, a Japanese, a Christian, a Moslem, a member of a certain tribe or family. He has no purpose, worth and destiny apart from his collective body; and as long as that body lives he cannot really die.” It is interesting that Hoffer observes that identification with a collective whole becomes a sort of “immortality project”, along the same lines as the thesis developed by Ernest Becker in his 1973 study The Denial of Death. Here, Becker describes civilization as ultimately being an elaborate defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality.
Hoffer claims that to individuated people without a sense of belonging, “mere life is all that matters” and personal happiness and success in life become of paramount importance. This is the polar opposite of the psyche of the true believer, which cannot find in themselves happiness or purpose in existence and operate under the assumption that a higher purpose, goal or identity is necessary to justify themselves.
To attract true believers, a mass movement must provide this external justification and must undermine the importance and significance of personal and individual justifications for life and happiness. This is done fore mostly by the construction of an alternate identity for its members.
A powerful means of creating this sense of identity with a collective whole is through the tropes of mythology and ritual, which Hoffer refers to as “Make Believe.”
The use of uniforms, of processions and public rituals, reiteration of mythological narratives that revolve around the group’s historical achievements and destined future triumphs, invocations such as prayers, slogans and chants, rituals designed to initiate newcomers into the group and cast the group as heroes in some larger drama that spans history all seem to be essential to the success of any mass movement.
These are all done in a collective group context, usually in a repetitive manner and succeed in breaking down and bypassing the conscious mind’s more rational qualities and appealing to people on a more instinctive level.
Central to this mythological projection is the idea of that members of the group have undergone some kind of personal and spiritual evolution by joining the group, and have been or are in the process of transitioning from prey to predator status as a result. Hoffer observes that “In the practice of mass movements, make-believe plays perhaps a more enduring role than any other factor. When faith and the power to persuade or coerce are gone, make-believe lingers on.”
This meta-mythological narrative of prey to predator evolution has at least the potential to strike a very deep chord in people, and may well be a, if not THE central experience of the human condition. A mass movement leader able to tap into this instinct will make of himself and his followers a potent force indeed.
An important aspect of this Hoffer identifies as the depreciation of the present. Once people start to become satisfied with their conditions of life, the psychic fire that animates the true believer begins to wane. The present must be seen, at best, as a bridge between a once glorious past and a destined to be glorious future. The bridge between the two is the true believer’s willingness to sacrifice contentedness in the present.
The true believer cannot take solace in the present, and this is what insulates them from recognizing the validity of any actual real world successes the movement has enjoyed. They can only truly be motivated by what Hoffer describes as “Things which are not.”
People are, Hoffer claims, less likely to fight to the end for the things they have and value in the present real world, because their practical value is ultimately subordinate to the ultimate value that the person reconciled to the present places on their lives, or those things that make their lives possible. This is in stark contrast to the true believer, who so recklessly dispenses with the present and this has, they feel nothing to lose.
As an example, Hoffer cites “It was not the least of Hitler’s formidable powers that he knew how to drain his opponents (at least in continental Europe) of all hope. His fanatical conviction that he was building a new order that would last a thousand years communicated itself both to followers and antagonists. To the former it gave the feeling that in ‑ fighting for the Third Reich they were in league with eternity, while the latter felt that to struggle against Hitler’s new order was to defy inexorable fate.”
This sheds some light on why it is that academic, media, business and government leadership in the very late 20th and early 21st centuries have cowed so quickly and readily before even the most absurd demands of the politically correct social justice warriors, and why serious backlash came, when it finally did, from online videogamers. For professionals and administrators in governing organizations are examples of the irony that Hoffer observes “that those who hug the present and hang on to it with all their might should be the least capable of defending it.” Militant social justice activists and the online trolls who oppose them, on the other hand, are truly fighting for “cities yet to be built and gardens yet to be planted.”
When discussing the importance of doctrine to the psyche of the true believer and the character of active revivalist mass movements, Hoffer makes clear that “The effectiveness of a doctrine does not come from its meaning but from its certitude. No doctrine however profound and sublime will be effective unless it is presented as the embodiment of the one and only truth. It must be the one word from which all things are and all things speak. Crude absurdities, trivial nonsense and sublime truths are equally potent in readying people for self-sacrifice if they are accepted as the sole, eternal truth.”
Mass movements strive, in Hoffer’s words, to “interpose a fact proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside it. The facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation but from holy writ.”
“It is obvious, therefore that in order to be effective a doctrine must not be understood, but has rather to be believed in. We can be We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand. A doctrine that is understood is shorn of its strength. Once we understand a thing, it is as if it had originated in us. And, clearly, those who are asked to renounce the self and sacrifice it cannot see eternal certitude in anything which originates in that self. The fact that they understand a thing fully impairs its validity and certitude in their eyes.”
“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. When some part of a doctrine is relatively simple, there is a tendency among the faithful to complicate and obscure it. 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. He seems to use words as if he were ignorant of their true meaning. Hence, too, his taste for quibbling, hair-splitting and scholastic tortuousness."
“To be in possession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity. There are no surprises and no unknowns. All questions have already been answered, all decisions made, all eventualities foreseen. The true believer is without wonder and hesitation.
“Who knows Jesus knows the reason of all things.” The true doctrine is a master key to all the world’s problems. With it the world can be taken apart and put together. The official history of the Communist party states: “The power of Marxist-Leninist theory lies in the fact that it enables the Party to find the right orientation in any situation, to understand the inner connection of current events, to foresee their course, and to perceive not only how and in what direction they are developing in the present but how and in what direction they are bound to develop in the future.”
The appeal of the critical theory department and blogs such as Everyday Feminism, should now be apparent. Implicit in what Hoffer has outlined above is the relative futility in using what would at first seem like sound argumentative tactics to deconstruct the doctrine of the true believer in order to persuade them to believe otherwise. The most solid edifice of facts, data, relative examples, peer review, evidence and the strictest adherence to the rules of logic to support a thesis that refutes the doctrine of the true believer will not budge them, because the strict rationalist does not correctly grasp what truly motivates the true believer. Hoffer suggests replacing one holy dogma with another as the best chance. This was successful when former Nazis converted to communism in east Germany after the war, and has been seen much more recently in the rise of the SJWs in populations once given over to conservative Christianity.
This is because, according to Hoffer, “It goes without saying that the fanatic is convinced that the cause he holds on to is monolithic and eternal—a rock of ages. Still, his sense of security is derived from his passionate attachment and not from the excellence of his cause. The fanatic is not really a stickler to principle. He embraces a cause not primarily because of its justness and holiness but because of his desperate need for something to hold on to. Often, indeed, it is his need for passionate attachment which turns every cause he embraces into a holy cause.”
Hoffer notes that there is more likeness among fanatics of different causes than there is between the fanatics and the moderates of any given cause. Had Hoffer been alive in the days of the internet, he would no doubt have been flamed and accused of being a troll for pointing out that, “The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a God or not. The atheist is a religious person. He believes in atheism as though it were a new religion. He is an atheist with devoutness and unction. According to Renan, “The day after that on which the world should no longer believe in God, atheists would be the wretchedest of all men.” I’ve often thought this true of social justice warriors of all kinds, who would quite suddenly find themselves bereft of purpose were white supremacy, patriarchy or rape culture to be fully and completely defeated.
“So, too, the opposite of the chauvinist is not the traitor but the reasonable citizen who is in love with the present and has no taste for martyrdom and the heroic gesture. The traitor is usually a fanatic—radical or reactionary—who goes over to the enemy in order to hasten the downfall of a world he loathes. Most of the traitors in the Second World War came from the extreme right. “There seems to be a thin line between violent, extreme nationalism and treason.” Anti-government militia groups in the US are the perfect case in point today.
Hoffer views several unifying agents as being important in the creation and maintenance of a fanatical state of mind. These are: hatred, imitation, persuasion and coercion, leadership, action and suspicion.
Hatred is so essential in Hoffer’s view that he claims that “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil. Usually the strength of a mass movement is proportionate to the vividness and tangibility of its devil.” As with many elements of the true believer and the causes they support, the movement’s adversary is to be judged not in terms of the real or tangible threat it objectively poses, but by whether group cohesion is maintained by belief and fear of it. An ideal devil must be powerful and evil enough to require single minded devotion to the cause.
To Hoffer, such unreasonable hatreds and fears “are an expression of a desperate effort to suppress an awareness of our inadequacy, worthlessness, guilt and other shortcomings of the self. Self-contempt is here transmuted into hatred of others—and there is a most determined and persistent effort to mask this switch.” This is much more important in Hoffer’s view than whether the movement has a just grievance with its hated foe. While a just grievance may buoy the movement’s hatred of its devil, just grievances are not what hatred is really all about. The kind of hatred we see of mass movements – the Christian or the Muslim towards the infidel, the Nazi towards the Jew, the Communist towards America, the neo-conservative towards the US democratic party or the feminist towards the patriarchy, are about projecting one’s own frustration onto an evil that has been blown up in magnitude to a degree that no venomous sentiment is unwarranted.
This element of projection in mass hate drives a tendency – remarked upon not just in Hoffer’s work but in numerous sources, for people and movements to project their hatred upon people much like themselves, and to imitate the people they hate: “Thus every mass movement shapes itself after its specific devil. Christianity at its height realized the image of the antichrist. The Jacobins practiced all the evils of the tyranny they had risen against. Soviet Russia is realizing the purest and most colossal example of monopolistic capitalism. Hitler took the Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion for his guide and textbook; he followed them “down to the veriest detail.”
Since the publication of Hoffer’s work, that the State of Israel should devote itself to ethnic purity and living space for its people, for feminists to devote themselves to policing culture and sexuality and for anti feminist men’s groups to emphasise their historical victimhood and marginalization, and for some of these groups to advocate sexual and romantic rejection of women in favor of gender separatism should thus come as no surprise to us. Envy and a desire for something the hated people have is a critical component of frustration.
The frustrated seek escape from themselves, and find it in imitation. Uniforms – from the black and brown shirts of the historical fascists to the plaid shirts of today’s social justice warriors are one device whereby an individual can lose their individuality in a corporate whole. Slogans, jargon, buzzwords and other language that originate not in the self work to similar effect. “The less satisfaction we derive from being ourselves, the greater is our desire to be like others. We are therefore more ready to imitate those who are different from us than those nearly like us, and those we admire than those we despise.” Given the frustrated’s propensity to imitation, movements must guard against member imitation of those outside the movement. Thus cults, from the smallest pseudo religious new-wave gurus to the nation of North Korea, continually warn their members against exposure to foreign influences.
Between persuasion and coercion, Hoffer attaches greater importance to the later. He notes that propaganda is generally ineffective unless it tells its audience what they are already predisposed towards wanting to hear.
Quote Hoffer, “The truth seems to be that propaganda on its own cannot force its way into unwilling minds; neither can it inculcate something wholly new; nor can it keep people persuaded once they have ceased to believe. It penetrates only into minds already open, and rather than instill opinion it articulates and justifies opinions already present in the minds of its recipients.” The value of propaganda lies in the rationalizations that it lends to coercive actions and tactics.
“Contrary to what one would expect, propaganda becomes more fervent and importunate when it operates in conjunction with coercion than when it has to rely solely on its own effectiveness. Both they who convert and they who are converted by coercion need the fervent conviction that the faith they impose or are forced to adopt is the only true one. Without this conviction, the proselytizing terrorist, if he is not vicious to begin with, is likely to feel a criminal, and the coerced convert see himself as a coward who prostituted his soul to live. Propaganda thus serves more to justify ourselves than to convince others; and the more reason we have to feel guilty, the more fervent our propaganda.”
Leadership is indispensable to a mass movement, but the conditions and circumstances must be right for a movement to arise, or the leadership will not matter. But “Once the stage is set, the presence of an outstanding leader is indispensable.” Communism would have faltered without Lenin and without Mao to reinvigorate it in the postwar years. Fascism and Nazism were explicit in their worship of a leader who embodied the chosen people. Most of the mass movements of our time – the religious right and feminism, have no single figure to embody their principles and have thereby been hampered. The alt-right’s fervent support for Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential elections is rooted in the knowledge that a leader to embody the movement is what will make or break them long term.
Quote Hoffer: “It needs the iron will, daring and vision of an exceptional leader to concert and mobilize existing attitudes and impulses into the collective drive of a mass movement. The leader personifies the certitude of the creed and the defiance and grandeur of power. He articulates and justifies the resentment damned up in the souls of the frustrated.” As with all other aspects of a mass movement, what makes or breaks a good leader is whether the frustrated can project onto him all the hopes and aspirations they cannot have for themselves.
Persons not inclined to support mass movements – people lacking in frustration and being reconciled to the present, cannot comprehend the blind faith and obedience that the true believer places in leader and doctrine. How could even scientists and artists abase themselves as they did before the medieval inquisition, Stalinist show trials or the demands of social justice groups today? But abasement before a doctrine and leader greater than themselves is the deepest yearning of the true believer and therefore the more self flagellating and submissive the act of obedience before the movement, the purer and better the display of loyalty to the one true faith. As with many elements of the behavior of the true believer, this kind of conduct is driven by a desire to escape the burdens of individualism and responsibility.
Hoffer concludes his discussion of leadership with a discussion of the difference between leaders of a mass movement and leaders in a free society. “In a more or less free society, the leader can retain his hold on the people only when he has blind faith in their wisdom and goodness. A second-rate leader possessed of this faith will outlast a first-rate leader who is without it. This means that in a free society the leader follows the people even as he leads them.” This is in stark contrast to what makes a good leader in a mass movement. Hoffer noted that “One of the reasons that communist leaders are losing out in our unions is that by following the line and adopting the tactics of the party, they are assuming the attitude and using the tactics of a mass movement leader in an organization made up of free men.”
Whether the flamboyant leaders of today’s “cultural libertarian” movement will succeed in breaking the social justice stranglehold on college campuses will end up depending a great deal on whether the temperament of the free man exists in greater abundance than the frustrated temperament of the true believer in our post secondary institutions.
“The awareness of their individual blemishes and shortcomings inclines the frustrated to detect ill will and meanness in their fellow men. Self-contempt, however vague, sharpens our eyes for the imperfections of others. We usually strive to reveal in others the blemishes we hide in ourselves. Thus when the frustrated congregate in a mass movement, the air is heavy-laden with suspicion. There is prying and spying, tense watching and a tense awareness of being watched. The surprising thing is that this pathological mistrust within the ranks leads not to dissension but to strict conformity.”
“Mass movements make extensive use of suspicion in their machinery of domination. The rank-and file within the Nazi party were made to feel that they were continually under observation and were kept in a permanent state of uneasy conscience and fear. Fear of one’s neighbors, one’s friends and even one’s relatives seems to be the rule within all mass movements. Now and then innocent people are deliberately accused and sacrificed in order to keep suspicion alive.
Suspicion is given a sharp edge by associating all opposition within the ranks with the enemy threatening the movement from without. This enemy—the indispensable devil of every mass movement—is omnipresent. He plots both outside and inside the ranks of the faithful. It is his voice that speaks through the mouth of the dissenter, and the deviationists are his stooges. If anything goes wrong within the movement, it is his doing. It is the sacred duty of the true believer to be suspicious. He must be constantly on the lookout for saboteurs, spies and traitors.”
Those moderate liberals and libertarians who await the decline of the online and academic social justice movements beneath the weight of their own ceaseless self renunciations and internal accusations of racism, misogyny and homophobia will be waiting a long time. This is only happening with intersectional feminists today because its predecessors – conservative religion and social purity have grown lukewarm. Social justice will not implode as a result of its internally repressive culture, for this is precisely the kind of environment that the frustrated seek and the scoldings they receive for their privilege and ideological shortcomings are what they feel their failed, ineffectual selves truly deserve. Only through a redoubled effort to check one’s privilege and struggle against internalized misogyny and racism does the admonished social justice warrior finds purpose. It is when intersectional feminism begins to moderate just as some other puritanical ideology begins its rise to replace it that the SJWs will begin to decline.
Part 4 – Beginning and End.
This portion is a discussion of the three kinds of people who make a mass movement – the men of words, the fanatics and the practical men of action. Hoffer also discusses good and bad mass movements. While his assessment of the character if the true believer is generally negative, Hoffer also emphasises that they ultimately play a socially necessary role in brining about necessary change in stagnant societies.
Hoffer notes the importance of the ruling regime keeping at least most of its learned classes loyal to it. Contrast the long hegemony of the Catholic church of the middle ages – when only the ordained could read or write – with the secularism arising from the anti-intellectual culture of neo-conservatism and the religious right. The right wing signed its own death warrant when it abandoned academia, while those progressives who lamented that fact that “they were taking over congress while we were taking over the English department” might have been onto something after all.
The secret, in Hoffer’s view, to maintaining the loyalty of the men of words, is recognition: “there is a deep-seated craving common to almost all men of words which determines their attitude to the prevailing order. It is a craving for recognition; a craving for a clearly marked status above the common run of humanity.”
Any regime alienates its literate class at its peril. “To sum up, the militant man of words prepares the ground for the rise of a mass movement: 1) by discrediting prevailing creeds and institutions and detaching from them the allegiance of the people; 2) by indirectly creating a hunger for faith in the hearts of those who cannot live without it, so that when the new faith is preached it finds an eager response among the disillusioned masses; 3) by furnishing the doctrine and the slogans of the new faith; 4) by undermining the convictions of the “better people"— those who can get along without faith—so that when the new fanaticism makes its appearance they are without the capacity to resist it.
They see no sense in dying for conventions and principles, and yield to the new order without a fight.
The difference between the men of words and the fanatics, in Hoffer’s view, is that the former are creative while the later are not. Ideas are a form of self expression to the man of words, and where these have an outlet, his life has purpose. This, at least in part, reconciles the man of words with the present and thus mitigates against the frustration that produces a true believer.
The difference between how the man of words and how the fanatic approach a belief system is a key means of distinguishing a true believer. To the man of words, a belief system is something to be understood on a rational level. The fanatic cannot do this. As Hoffer says, “Once we understand a thing, it is as if it had originated in us. And, clearly, those who are asked to renounce the self and sacrifice it cannot see eternal certitude in anything which originates in that self. The fact that they understand a thing fully impairs its validity and certitude in their eyes.” To the fanatic, the movement is not merely a good idea worth trying out, but the only hope for salvation.
Rational men of words therefore argue in vain when they try to use reason and persuasion on the fanatic. For what the rationalist is up against is not the fanatic’s misguided logic, incorrect facts or mistaken conclusions, but rather the fanatic’s deep seated angst and frustration, for which their extreme beliefs are a kind of psychological defense mechanism. Indeed, the flustered man of words cannot comprehend how the fanatic takes pride in precisely how preposterous are the things they believe. This is because the rationalist does not understand that the fanatic does not seek truth in any objective sense, but escape from their hated selves and the hated present, of which sound logic and reason are too much a part for the fanatic’s taste.
It is for this reason that the fanatics are useful for giving a mass movement thrust and vitality, but also dangerous to its long term success unless the movement can be commandeered by the third kind of movement activist – the practical man of action. The appearance of this man tends to mark the end of the revivalist phase of the movement, and their focus is more on consolidating institutional power than perpetuating a climate of fevered ideological passion.
“With the appearance of the man of action the explosive vigor of the movement is embalmed and sealed in sanctified institutions. A religious movement crystallizes in a hierarchy and a ritual; a revolutionary movement, in organs of vigilance and administration; a nationalist movement, in governmental and patriotic institutions. a nationalist movement, in governmental and patriotic institutions.”
The contrast between the men of words, the fanatics and the men of action is that the man of action is neither a man of reason nor a man of faith, but a man of law. Loyalty to the new order is kept by drill and ritual, with the early men of words and fanatics being canonized and their ideas and struggles made into scripture and heroic narrative. But a pragmatic streak runs through the man of action – he is more like Brezhnev than Lenin, more like the medieval popes than like Christ or St. Paul, more like today’s postmodernist professors and bloggers than like the radicals of the new left of the 1960s. The success and survival of the institutions created by the movement is paramount, its founding ideals more something to pay lip service to and venerate for the purposes of maintaining public support than something essential to the present day.
Hoffer warns that “Where a mass movement preserves for generations the pattern shaped by its active phase (as in the case of the militant church through the Middle Ages), or where by a successive accession of fanatical proselytes its orthodoxy is continually strengthened (as in the case of Islam), the result is an era of stagnation—a dark age.” North Korea and jihadist Islam are the most glaring and extreme examples of this in the world today. To much lesser extent, radical feminism on college campuses perpetuates its existence in much the same way – the practical women of action who teach critical theory, serve as executive directors for women’s rights organizations and lobby for government funds display an understanding that a loyal cadre of devoted activists locked in a life-or-death struggle against “the patriarchy” is essential for the ongoing justification for the jobs they do and – more importantly – their sense of identity and purpose.
Hoffer observes that when a mass movement has concrete and measurable goals and objectives, and occurs within a smaller and more homogenous population, the active phase of the movement is shorter and less intense. While Hoffer claims that it is unusual for a mass movement leader to embody the traits of any two, let alone all three subtypes of movement activists – men of words, fanatics and men of action – leaders who do know when and how to transition into and out of the active revivalist phase also keep the bloodshed and upheaval minimal. Likewise, for when a fanatical leader dies and a practical man of action can take his place, such as when Deng Xiaoping succeeded Mao in China.
Though Hoffer oftentimes seems judgmental towards mass movements and their followers, he also concedes that they are useful, necessary even, at rousing stagnant societies and bringing about needed reform. Without the art of religiofication, as Hoffer calls it, Churchill would not have been able to rouse the people of Great Britain to resist Nazi Europe, and Martin Luther King Jr. would not have stirred the conscience of a generation against the evils of racial prejudice. It is, perhaps, for want of a stirring national mythology that the populations of postmodern Europe drift into existential malaise in the face of drastic demographic changes occurring within their borders.
Hoffer does not rule out the rise of a Hitler or a Stalin in a country with an established tradition of freedom, but doubts whether they could keep power indefinitely. The western world has seen mass movements rise and, in some cases, fall since the second world war: the new left, the religious right, the social justice warriors and the populist right in Europe and its American counterpart in Donald Trump’s presidential bid. None of these come anywhere near what the mass movements Hoffer covers were. The factors that have thus far been mitigating against the rise of a truly transformative mass movement in the western world remain elusive.
But we cannot be sure that none will arise.
Eric Hoffer himself misspoke gravely when he noted that “It has probably been one of China’s great misfortunes during the past hundred years that its mass movements (the Taiping rebellion and the Sun Yat-sen revolution) deteriorated or were stifled too soon. China was unable to produce a Stalin, a Gandhi or even an Atatürk, who could keep a genuine mass movement going long enough for drastic reforms to take root.” Ironic it was that Mr. Hoffer penned these words precisely as Chairman Mao Zedong was in the final stages of consolidating his hold over the world’s most populous nation.
Be careful what you wish for, Eric!
It has been widely acknowledged that the tone of political discourse in the western world has gotten more caustic in recent years. Electorates grow frustrated with governments and elites that show themselves to be out of touch, or even contemptful of their concerns. Progressive and conservative groups and people have less and less to say to one another. Blogs, YouTube channels, cable television networks and print media appeal more and more to ideological niches, wherein people are exposed less and less to differing view points, and increasing extremism becomes a tool to display loyalty towards one’s own identity group and contempt for others. Racial and religious tensions rise amid concerns over immigration and terrorism, and black power and white supremacy groups alike grow more militant and daring.
While the future cannot be foretold precisely, all of the indicators bear out Eric Hoffer’s 1951 words,
“The true believer is everywhere on the march, and both by converting and antagonizing he is shaping the world in his own image. And whether we are to line up with him or against him, it is well that we should know all we can concerning his nature and potentialities.”