The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951)
Eric Hoffer (1902-1983)
When considering the histories of mass movements such as the spread of Christianity, the French Revolution or the rise of Nazism, the proximate causes for these events can seem quite distinct. What commonality, after all, between conditions in the ancient Roman Empire, 18th century France and post-WWI Germany?
Quite a bit, argues Eric Hoffer in his engaging treatise The True Believer — among the three mass movements mentioned above as well as many others. In the opening lines of his Preface, Hoffer lays out his thesis:
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. (xi)
As the subtitle makes clear, in this slim but cogent work Hoffer provides his, “Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.” Constructed as a series of brief essays — some just a sentence long, others a few paragraphs — the book examines the “essential characteristics” of all mass movements, from the social conditions that set them in motion, to the personality types that swell their ranks and the overall arc of their development. Along the way, he makes clear that though there can be “Good and Bad Mass Movements,” to quote the title of one section, all share common traits, and succeed or fail for the same principal reasons.
The essays are grouped together into a handful of chapters, each covering a different aspect of the mass movement phenomenon. The first half or so of the book is perhaps the most compelling, particularly for today’s readers, given the rise over the past decade or so of nationalist, populist movements in so many Western countries.
Hoffer opens with an extended description of the fundamental characteristics of those who form the masses of such movements, already in the Preface laying out his fundamental truth: “the frustrated predominate among the early adherents of all mass movements.” (xii) To be moved to action, these frustrated must in part be, Hoffer notes, “intensely discontented yet not destitute … [and] wholly ignorant of the difficulties involved in their vast undertaking.” (11) Thus, not unexpectedly, the upper classes of society show little interest in mass movements because their success gives them a strong vested interest in the status quo. Perhaps more surprisingly Hoffer notes that, at the other end of the spectrum, the abject poor have no energy to spare for such activities; their days occupied with the struggle just to stay alive, they have no hopes and dreams, no time to feel unfulfilled.
The broad middle, on the other hand, offer a rich ground for converts to a mass movement, argues Hoffer, if their frustration with their lives leaves them without hope:
One of the most potent attractions of a mass movement is its offering of a substitute for individual hope. This attraction is particularly effective in a society imbued with the idea of progress. For in the conception of progress, “tomorrow” looms large, and the frustration resulting from having nothing to look forward to is the more poignant. (15)In a statement that now, almost seventy years later, feels ripped from the top stories of our day, Hoffer notes:
The present-day workingman in the Western world feels unemployment as a degradation. He sees himself disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things, and is willing to listen to those who call for a new deal. (27)(It’s easy to imagine that Bruce Springsteen and his producer Jon Landau could have read The True Believer on their way to writing songs such as Johnny 99, Born in the USA, The Ghost of Tom Joad, Youngstown and so many others with lyrics that capture the hopelessness of workers seeing their jobs and lifestyles disappear.)
Such feelings of frustration and failure produce, according to Hoffer, a powerful desire to subsume “the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence” (41) into a mass movement. This leads to two critical phenomena among the disaffected, “the desire for unity [with a larger cause] and readiness for self-sacrifice.” (59) Perhaps even more alarming, by submerging themselves into a unified mass of disenfranchised ready and willing to sacrifice their seemingly hopeless lives, people lose the critical discernment of individuals and develop such feelings and behaviors as “a deprecation of the present, a facility for make-believe, a proneness to hate, a readiness to imitate, credulity, [and] a readiness to attempt the impossible.” (59)
Hoffer finds, in particular, a “connection between dissatisfaction with oneself and a proneness to credulity.” (83) He argues that “the facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation but from holy writ. … To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason.” (79) Thus, critically — and dishearteningly for anyone who looks to sober discourse to counteract a slide into radical or revolutionary change — “the fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense.” (85)
Hatred too plays a fundamental role in the realization of a mass movement. The use of hatred of the other may seem a commonly accepted means of riling up a crowd, but Hoffer’s analysis provides perhaps a new and deeper insight into how such techniques work. He notes that “even in the case of a just grievance, our hatred comes less from a wrong done to us than from the consciousness of our helplessness, inadequacy and cowardice — in other worlds from self-contempt.” (94) Thus, again, the heart of the matter is to be found in frustration and disenfranchisement. In a statement with strong implications today, seven decades after it was written, Hoffer claims: “Should Americans begin to hate foreigners whole-heartedly, it will be an indication that they have lost confidence in their own way of life.” (96)
A particularly fascinating portion of Hoffer’s analysis relates to the importance of the breakdown in compact and cohesive social structures in creating a fertile environment for the rise of a mass movement. He argues that, as a result, “the cause of revolution in a totalitarian society is usually a weakening of the totalitarian framework rather than resentment against oppression and distress.” (35)
The primacy of such general cultural disruption relative to the more apparent misery of daily life has implications in other situations as well, Hoffer points out:
The policy of an exploiting colonial power should be to encourage communal cohesion among the natives. It should foster equality and a feeling of brotherhood among them. For by how much the ruled blend and lose themselves into a compact whole, by so much is softened the poignancy of their individual futility; and the process which transmutes misery into frustration and revolt is checked at the source. The device of “divide and rule” is ineffective when it aims at a weakening of all forms of cohesion among the ruled. (39)
Of course, the difficulty of pursuing such a policy in a colony could be related to the inability to switch from using the generally successful military tactic of divide and conquer when conquering a country, to implementing a more unifying behavior when attempting to hold onto the colony.
The latter part of the book focuses more on the structural dynamics of mass movements, describing why some succeed and others fail, and how those that do succeed evolve out of the active mass movement phase. Hoffer describes how leaders in successful mass movements attempt to consolidate their gains and so create a new status quo, with goals that no longer include trying to engage the disenfranchised, who may now threaten those newly in power.
Though Hoffer doesn’t offer a specific prescription for stopping or avoiding the rise of a mass movement, his arguments make clear that the important period is before such a movement begins building. Though perhaps not always possible, the strategy would seem to be to avoid the creation of masses of hopeless and disenfranchised, and to put in place policies that slow or eliminate the dissolution of family and social structures. Of course, this is all easier said than done, and crucial recognition of the development of such destabilizing conditions can often come too late. In the context of Hoffer’s thesis, comments from historian Vincent Harding in 2011 become even more sobering (details here):
I have a feeling that one of the deeper transformations that’s going on now is that for the white community of America, there is this uncertainty growing about its own role, its own control, its own capacity to name the realities that it has moved into a realm of uncertainty…. Up to now, uncertainty was the experience of the weak, the poor, the people of color.... But now, for all kinds of political, economic reasons, for all kinds of psychological reasons, that uncertainty, and unknowingness, is permeating what was the dominant, so-called, society. That breaking apart is for me more likely the source of the anxiety, the fear, the anger, the unwillingness to give in, the need to have something that they can hold on to and say, this is the way and it's got to be our way or we will all die.
Toward the end of this remarkable work, Hoffer turns his thoughts to western democracies, noting that a painful period of chaotic change may not be avoidable once the proper conditions for the development of a mass movement present themselves. He does, however, offer a somewhat hopeful long-term view for free societies:
One cannot maintain with certitude that it would be impossible for a Hitler or a Stalin to rise in a country with an established tradition of freedom. What can be asserted with some plausibility is that in a traditionally free country a Hitler or a Stalin might not find it too difficult to gain power but extremely hard to maintain himself indefinitely. Any marked improvement in economic conditions would almost certainly activate the tradition of freedom which is a tradition of revolt. … in a traditionally free country the individual who pits himself against coercion does not feel an isolated human atom but one of a mighty race — his rebellious ancestors. (160)
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