“The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” by Eric Hoffer
Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2010 , 192 pp.
Radical change is often instigated by mass movements. Be it religious, social or nationalist, there is a certain fascination with the proclivity of united action and the readiness to sacrifice oneself for the greater cause that make mass movements so effective and simultaneously somewhat frightening. We have seen many mass movements in modern history, from Nazism to Communism, from unionisation of work forces to massive protest movements.
In 1951, shortly after the Second World War, Eric Hoffer wrote The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, his first and most famous book. In it he inquires about who joins mass movements, how mass movements work and the different phases movements go through.
Who are the masses?
Hoffer starts by pointing out that those who join a mass movement have a desire for change. Discontent with one’s current circumstances, however, does not invariably create a desire for change. To believe in the possibility of change one has to have a sense of power. Those who are extremely poor feel like they cannot change their fate and so they have little motivation to join a mass movement. It is the “frustrated” but not the destitute that end up joining the movement.
The True Believer is full of lines that would be considered politically incorrect by many today. Explaining why mass movements satisfy a passion for self-renunciation, Hoffer claims that “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” (p. 14). For Hoffer, surrendering to the auspices of a mass movement can take place only if you as a person cannot claim excellence for yourself. If you could, you would be less willing to join an effort to radically transform the circumstances that enabled you to achieve this success in the first place. According to Hoffer, those who desire change and engage in activism are often fundamentally insecure about their own achievements. Activism then becomes a sort of overcompensation scheme.
A mass movement rejects the present in favour of a hopeful and grandiose future as depicted by the movements leaders. Without this envisioned future, there is no way you could mobilise people. In order to realise it one must be willing to sacrifice one’s self. Somewhat ironically: if you have something to fight for, you usually don not feel like fighting. According to Hoffer, these are people who (feel like they) have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
The identification with the collective body of the mass movement allows the individual to relieve itself of its individual identity. However, that alone will not be enough to get people to sacrifice their own lives for the cause: “there is a need”, Hoffer argues, “for some kind of make-believe in order to face death unflinchingly” (p. 66).
The true believer must have an absolutist belief in a doctrine for it to completely determine their worldview. He continues: “it is obvious, therefore, that in order to be effective a doctrine must not be understood, but has rather to be believed in” (p. 79). So there is a certain absence of fact in the doctrine of a mass movement: it has to be either vague or unintelligible, and if it is neither, the claims it makes must be unverifiable.
However, why would someone believe in something so irrational? Hoffer refers back to the kind of people who join a mass movement in the first place: “Salvation can come to them only from the miraculous, which seeps through a crack in the iron wall of inexorable reality” (p. 83). The power that the members of a mass movement feel is not based on reality, but on a promise for the future. There is a quality of prophecy and miracle in that promise. I wonder whether it is at all possible for a mass movement not to be a disappointing experience. The future you are in it for might very well be unachievable.
The life stages of the mass movement
Hoffer ends his book with describing the various stages of a mass movement. “Mass movements”, Hoffer starts, “do not usually rise until the prevailing order has been discredited” (p. 131). This does not happen automatically through the incompetence or abuses of those in power, “but by the deliberate work of men of words with a grievance”.
These “men of words” are usually intellectuals. Think of Marx, or the intellectuals who brought about the French Revolution. They write about why the current system does not work, and what needs to be improved.
It is the fanatic, however, who hatches the genuine movement. Although the fanatic will always pay homage to the intellectual father figure (the men of words) of the movement, he is more extreme. Often the men of words leave the movement after being disillusioned by the application of their work. The danger of the fanatic as the leader of the movement is that he cannot settle down: “with no more outside enemies to destroy, the fanatics make enemies of one another” (p. 146). Example: the paranoia found in amongst the leaders of Nazism and communist Russia and China.
Then, we arrive at the last stage of the mass movement. Here another leader emerges: “The man of action saves the movement from the suicidal dissensions and the recklessness of the fanatics. (…) The genuine man of action is intent not on renovating the world but on possessing it” (p. 149). In this stage, the fanaticism of the movement becomes more of a tradition and only its symbolic meaning is preserved.
From movement to social order
Not every mass movement makes it there. Hitler was too much of a fanatic to be a man of action. As was Stalin. Hoffer argues that is exactly the reason why Nazism and Stalinism (would have) ultimately brought themselves down. Embracing fanaticism until the end makes it impossible to change things in the present as you only believe in the future.
If a mass movement is successful in moving beyond fanaticism, it becomes a social order. If the movement has not empowered the frustrated by then, they shall invariably end up disappointed. “Thus at the end of its vigorous span the movement is an instrument of power for the successful and an opiate for the frustrated” (p. 152).
Hoffer’s work is ultimately an argument against fanaticism. The difference for him between a “good” mass movement and a “bad” one is that the first knows when to end its active phase, thereby replacing the fanatic with this practical man of action. I think his arguments on the irrational nature of fanaticism is something we can take away from The True Believer. Perhaps it would be interesting to consider the term “post-truth politics” as a facet of mass movement doctrine rather than a new political paradigm.
This book was in written in 1951 on the eve of modern individualism. The horrid memories of the war and of communism made people wary of collectivist ideologies. I wonder whether the fanaticism we see today in some Western democracies, in South-East Asia and in the Middle East at all resemble the nature of mass movements as Hoffer described it. Can the individual still be usurped by the masses? Or does that only happen when the fervour is high and the masses start rioting? If there is such a thing as the “good” mass movement, can we organise one to transform our current societies into more egalitarian and sustainable ones? Can we use fanaticism to achieve a better and more nuanced understanding of how we as species function within our own cultures?
I will leave you with one final thought about the irrationality of the fanatic. Hoffer writes: “if free enterprise becomes a proselytizing holy cause, it will be a sign that its workability and advantages have ceased to be self-evident” (p. 111). I would argue that the much used pro-business rhetoric of contemporary neo-liberalism is exactly that: a holy cause. For a politician to be branded as ‘anti-business’ is almost akin to political death.
Reviewed by Gideon Sinke