The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements; A Book Review

Since about 2008, politics in America have gotten more and more divisive. So much so, I have often mused to myself the idea of bringing back dueling. Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers, was killed in a duel. 

Political movements seem to be ramping up from both the far-right and far-left. Y’all

 need to get your crackpots, they’re making you look bad.


Eric Hoffer wrote a book on Mass Movements in 1951. It’s very insightful. Look at the quotes and try to see if it helps you understand what’s going on today. 

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer

“A stevedore on the San Francisco docks in the 1940s, Eric Hoffer wrote philosophical treatises in his spare time while living in the railroad yards. The True Believer—the first and most famous of his books—was made into a bestseller when President Eisenhower cited it during one of the earliest television press conferences.

Called a “brilliant and original inquiry” and “a genuine contribution to our social thought” by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., this landmark in the field of social psychology is completely relevant and essential for understanding the world today as it delivers a visionary, highly provocative look into the mind of the fanatic and a penetrating study of how an individual becomes one.”

He starts off describing what all mass movements have in common.

“Since all mass movements draw their adherents from the same types of humanity and appeal to the same types of mind, it follows: 

(a) all mass movements are competitive, and the gain of one in adherents is the loss of all the others; 

(b) all mass movements are interchangeable. 

One mass movement readily transforms itself into another. A religious movement may develop into a social revolution or a nationalist movement; a social revolution, into militant nationalism or a religious movement; a nationalist movement into a social revolution or a religious movement.”

How to keep from getting sucked into a mass movement, becoming a true believer. Not lone wolfing it. 

“The capacity to resist coercion stems partly from the individual’s identification with a group. The people who stood up best in the Nazi concentration camps were those who felt themselves members of a compact party (the Communists), of a church (priests and ministers), or of a close-knit national group. The individualists, whatever their nationality, caved.”

This quote is rather interesting, too, about avoiding reality or grunting through the struggle by imagining yourself in a drama.

“It is one of the main tasks of a real leader to mask the grim reality of dying and killing by evoking in his followers the illusion that they are participating in a grandiose spectacle, a solemn or light-hearted dramatic performance. Hitler dressed eighty million Germans in costumes and made them perform in a grandiose, heroic and bloody opera. In Russia, where even the building of a latrine involves some self-sacrifice, life has been an uninterrupted soul-stirring drama going on for thirty years, and its end is not yet. The people of London acted heroically under a hail of bombs because Churchill cast them in the role of heroes. They played their heroic role before a vast audience—ancestors, contemporaries and posterity—and on a stage lighted by a burning world city and to the music of barking guns and screaming bombs. It is doubtful whether in our contemporary world, with its widespread individual differentiation, any measure of general self-sacrifice can be realized without theatrical hocus-pocus and fireworks.”

Here is where he describes fanatics. Read it, then think about your own sacred cows and others’. On a light-hearted note, rabid fans of losing football teams come to mind.

“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.”

51bnox7c0jl._us230_Marc MacYoung has pointed out that secular groups are becoming their own religions. Willing to fight, kill, and die for a cause that has nothing to do with any diety. Woe to you if you should sin against their rules.

“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.”

This next quote had me thinking the Pharisees were an excellent example of this, along with the church at different times throughout history.

“The impression somehow prevails that the true believer, particularly the religious individual, is a humble person. The truth is that the surrendering and humbling of the self breed pride and arrogance. The true believer is apt to see himself as one of the chosen, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a prince disguised in meekness, who is destined to inherit this earth and the kingdom of heaven, too. He who is not of his faith is evil; he who will not listen shall perish.”

Where do these movements arise from? Hoffer has some ideas.

“The preliminary work of undermining existing institutions, of familiarizing the masses with the idea of change, and of creating a receptivity to a new faith, can be done only by men who are, first and foremost, talkers or writers and are recognized as such by all. As long as the existing order functions in a more or less orderly fashion, the masses remain basically conservative. They can think of reform but not of total innovation. The fanatical extremist, no matter how eloquent, strikes them as dangerous, traitorous, impractical or even insane.”

“Things are different in the case of the typical man of words. The masses listen to him because they know that his words, however urgent, cannot have immediate results. The authorities either ignore him or use mild methods to muzzle him. Thus imperceptibly the man of words undermines established institutions, discredits those in power, weakens prevailing beliefs and loyalties, and sets the stage for the rise of a mass movement. The division between men of words, fanatics and practical men of action, as outlined in the following sections, is not meant to be categorical. Men like Gandhi and Trotsky start out as apparently ineffectual men of words and later display exceptional talents as administrators or generals. A man like Mohammed starts out as a man of words, develops into an implacable fanatic and finally reveals a superb practical sense. A fanatic like Lenin is a master of the spoken word and unequaled as a man of action. What the classification attempts to suggest is that the readying of the ground for a mass movement is done best by men whose chief claim to excellence is their skill in the use of the spoken or written word; that the hatching of an actual movement requires the temperament and the talents of the fanatic; and that the final consolidation of the movement is largely the work of practical men of action.”

“The mass movements of modern time, whether socialist or nationalist, were invariably pioneered by poets, writers, historians, scholars, philosophers and the like. The connection between intellectual theoreticians and revolutionary movements needs no emphasis. But it is equally true that all nationalist movements—from the cult of la patrie in revolutionary France to the latest nationalist rising in Indonesia—were conceived not by men of action but by faultfinding intellectuals. The generals, industrialists, landowners and businessmen who are considered pillars of patriotism are latecomers who join the movement after it has become a going concern. The most strenuous effort of the early phase of every nationalist movement consists in convincing and winning over these future pillars of patriotism.”

So what is the process of a mass movement of true believers?

“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 convictions and principles, and yield to the new order without a fight.”

Seeing how this was written with an eye towards Hitler and Stalin, the question he answers in closing is, could that happen here?

“One cannot maintain with certitude that it would be impossible for a Hitler or a4nuktkqturbxy9jythmnzyymwnkndi4mzhmzdrimzdjotg3nmi1mtzkos5qcgvnkpudacznbldnaqotbc0djs0cxw 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 Russia, as pointed out in Section 45, the individual who pitted himself against Stalin had nothing to identify himself with, and his capacity to resist coercion was nil. But 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.”

It’ll be hard, but not impossible. As we have seen already. 

I gave the book 5 stars. It’s a dense read that will take time to get through since it causes a lot of reflection. It’s currently $7.49 on Kindle. Give it a go.

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