Issue #264 – The True Believer by Eric Hoffer

I don’t often do non-fiction because I’m a storyteller at heart. Of course, I’m referring the academic style of non-fiction. A true story is still a story, after all. Once in a while I come across something that really grabs me because of how it explores a subject, such as Malcolm Gladwell’s books of essays I covered in an earlier issue, but even those felt like stories in their own way.

Eric Hoffer’s book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, feels a bit more academic in its format. For some, calling a book academic is like calling it NyQuil, but this is not the case here. It is more like listening to the most interesting history teacher you’ve ever had giving a great lecture. And I think this book is more important now than when it was written in 1951.

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

That opening paragraph from the Preface lays out what this book is about. It is not about looking at any one specific mass movement in history, nor is it trying to paint them all with the same brush. But there are traits that mass movements share, and he provides historical examples of each.

The book is divided into four parts, and rather than having chapters with a specific thesis or structured argument, chapters are broken up into a number of thoughts, some just a sentence in length, and others several pages long.

Part 1 deals with the Appeal of Mass Movements. Hoffer’s position is that all mass movements are born from a desire for change from a large number of discontented people who feel powerless within the existing environment (cultural, political, religious). They feel there is no hope for getting ahead as an individual, and so are willing to join a movement to become part of a greater collective they perceive to be getting ahead.

Part 2 looks at the Potential Converts. The “New Poor” are one of the most likely sources of converts, because they still remember better times and blame others for their current misfortune. This is different than the truly poor, who tend to be more concerned with day to day survival. Racial and religious minorities (or perceived minorities) are also found in mass movements, particularly those who are only partially assimilated into mainstream culture. Those living traditional lifestyles actually tend to be more content.

Part 3 covers United Action and Self-Sacrifice. Here the focus is on how the opinions and goals of an individual within a mass movement are unimportant, and instead the focus is on unity and self-sacrifice. The individual surrenders their unique self in order to become part of the group, until every part of their persona comes from how they identify with the larger community. They look to the future, but loathe the present, seeing it as irreparably flawed. Faith is held over reason to act as a fact-proof screen against reality.

And lastly, Part 4 examines the Beginning and End of such movements. They tend to start with “men of words” who condemn the established social order, feeling excluded or oppressed by the existing powers and speaking out in the name of the disadvantaged. But eventually their position is taken over by the “fanatic” who is focused on forcing change, violently. However, in order for the movement to become established as a social intuition and have longevity, the fanatic has to eventually be replaced by the “practical men of action.” Without them, the movement tends to die with the fanatic.

It should be noted that Hoffer does not hold a purely negative view of “true believers” or the mass movements they are found in. As he states in Part 4: “There are, of course, rare leaders such as Lincoln, Gandhi, even F.D.R., Churchill, and Nehru. They do not hesitate to harness man’s hungers and fears to weld a following and make it zealous unto death in service of a holy cause; but unlike a Hitler, a Stalin, or even a Luther and a Calvin, they are not tempted to use the slime of frustrated souls as mortar in the building of a new world…. They know that no one can be honorable unless he honors mankind”.

I first read this book in the early 2000s, and it is a book that helped shape the way I look at the world, which in turn helped shape me as an author. President Eisenhower gave copies of it to friends and often recommended it to others. After the terrorist attack on 9/11 the book received new attention, as well as during the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street protests a decade later. Hillary Clinton recommended it to her staff during the 2016 Presidential race.

Note the wide range of events those examples cover. So if you’re wondering why I reviewed this book today, my reason is the same as Hoffer’s, almost 70 years ago:

“It is necessary for most of us these days to have some insight into the motives and responses of the true believer… 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.”

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