Hoffer discusses Unifying Agents in Mass Movements

In the section entitled “Unifying Agents” Hoffer discusses the elements he thinks hold all mass movements together. Historically, at least, it would be hard to deny that hatred is the most ubiquitous of those elements:

Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents. It pulls and whirls the individual away from his own self, makes him oblivious of his weal and future, frees him of jealousies and self-seeking. He becomes an anonymous particle quivering with a craving to fuse and coalesce with his like into one flaming mass. Heine suggests that what Christian love cannot do is effected by a common hatred.’

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. When Hitler was asked whether he thought the Jew must be destroyed, he answered: “No …. We should have then to invent him. It is essential to have a tangible enemy, not merely an abstract one.”

As I pointed out previously, the Army is the only personal experience I’ve had with a “mass movement” and it’s impossible to wage war without hatred. Killing another human being without hatred seems impossible because of there is an equally powerful taboo against killing another. I can’t imagine hunting down and killing someone without “hating” them, either personally or as the personification of “the enemy.”

However, I’m not entirely sure I agree with Hoffer when he argues:

Whence come these unreasonable hatreds, and why their unifying effect? They 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. Obviously, the most effective way of doing this is to find others, as many as possible, who hate as we do. Here more than anywhere else we need general consent, and much of our proselytizing consists perhaps in infecting others not with our brand of faith but with our particular brand of unreasonable hatred.

Though I’d have to admit that a sense of superiority, at least a sense of moral superiority, may have made it possible for me and others to fight in Vietnam, I never felt inadequate, worthless, or even guilty. And while it might be comforting to believe that everyone who takes part in a mass movement that I disapprove does so because of such feelings, I’d be hard pressed to prove it, even to myself, which is not to say that some people’s hatred doesn’t mask feelings of inferiority. Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird is certainly a convincing portrayal of such a person.

However, Hoffer seems to splitting hairs when he argues:

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 words from self-contempt. When we feel superior to our tormentors, we are likely to despise them, even pity them, but not hate them. That the relation between grievance and hatred is not simple and direct is also seen from the fact that the released hatred is not always directed against those who wronged us. Often, when we are wronged by one person, we turn our hatred on a wholly unrelated person or group. Russians, bullied by Stalin’s secret police, are easily inflamed against “capitalist warmongers”; Germans, aggrieved by the Versailles treaty, avenged themselves by exterminating Jews; Zulus, oppressed by Boers, butcher Hindus; white trash, exploited by Dixiecrats, lynch Blacks.

Isn’t despising a form of hating? Of course, the concept of scapegoating is common when people can’t take their frustration out on the real cause of their frustration. In such a case, people may well feel helpless and are certainly acting cowardly, but I still question whether most mass movements are merely a form of scapegoating. Perhaps Hoffer distinguishes between the two later when he discusses good and bad mass movements.

I’m a little surprised to find Hoffer arguing that:

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 gifted propagandist brings to a boil ideas and passions already simmering in the minds of his hearers. He echoes their innermost feelings. Where opinion is not coerced, people can be made to believe only in what they already “know.”

Those of us who have had to endure Fox News and talk radio perhaps could be excused from believing that propaganda can “force its way into unwilling minds.” Still, people do have to choose to listen to those forms of media, and it may well be that listeners already have a tendency to believe what they hear or they wouldn’t continue to watch or listen. I do know that watching and listening to those media has not convinced me to believe the way they do.

Anybody who has ever tried to argue with an advocate of a mass movement can certainly identify with Hoffer’s contention that:

Imitation is an essential unifying agent. The development of a close-knit group is inconceivable without a diffusion of uniformity. The one-mindedness and Gleichschaltung prized by every mass movement are achieved as much by imitation as by obedience. Obedience itself consists as much in the imitation of an example as in the following of a precept.

Invariably it seems that followers of a mass movement follow “the party line” when they argue. They parrot the “party line,” and seldom can present an original argument on their own, even one that is faulty.

Invariably people who belong to a mass movement seem to feel obliged to spread the gospel. In fact, their insistence on convincing you to join has always struck me the same way it does Hoffer:

Proselytizing is more a passionate search for something not yet found than a desire to bestow upon the world something we already have. It is a search for a final and irrefutable demonstration that our absolute truth is indeed the one and only truth. The proselytizing fanatic strengthens his own faith by converting others. The creed whose legitimacy is most easily challenged is likely to develop the strongest proselytizing impulse. It is doubtful whether a movement which does not profess some preposterous and patently irrational dogma can be possessed of that zealous drive which “must either win men or destroy the world.” It is also plausible that those movements with the greatest inner contradiction between profession and practice-that is to say with a strong feeling of guilt are likely to be the most fervent in imposing their faith on others.

It has always struck me that if these people were truly convinced that they’d found Truth that they wouldn’t feel such a need to convince everyone everyone disagrees with them that they are right. People seldom argue over facts; they are simply accepted for what they are and people learn to deal with them without any persuasion at all.

I guess it goes without saying that mass movements require a powerful leader to unify followers:

Once the stage is set, the presence of an outstanding leader is indispensable. Without him there will be no movement. The ripeness of the times does not automatically produce a mass movement, or can elections, laws, and administrative bureaus hatch one.

Perhaps what is more surprising is Hoffer’s contention that :

No matter how vital we think the role of leadership in the rise of a mass movement, there is no doubt that the leader cannot create the conditions which make the rise of a movement possible. He cannot conjure a movement out of the void. There has to be an eagerness to follow and obey, and an intense dissatisfaction with things as they are, before movement and leader can make their appearance. When conditions are not ripe, the potential leader, no matter how gifted, and his holy cause, no matter how potent, remain without a following.

Invariably when studying past mass movements, political or religious, we see them in terms of their leaders. Since we examine movements by examining the leader’s ideas, it’s natural to assume that the leaders created the movements. When we examine our own past, though, we usually discover that we’ve been most influenced by writers who were able to articulate our own deepest thoughts, thought we were unable to express until we heard them through another. There doesn’t seem to be any reason not to assume that the same is true for others.

No one who has ever tried to argue with someone who believes they adhere to the “the one and only truth” will disagree with Hoffer when he argues that:

Faith organizes and equips man’s soul for action. To be in possession of the one and only truth and never doubt one’s righteousness; to feel that one is backed by a mysterious power whether it be God, destiny or the law of history; to be convinced that one’s opponents are the incarnation of evil and must be crushed; to exult in self-denial and devotion to duty-these are admirable qualifications for resolute and ruthless action in any field. Psalm-singing soldiers, pioneers, businessmen and even sportsmen have proved themselves formidable. Revolutionary and nationalist enthusiasms have a similar effect: they, too, can turn spiritless and inert people into fighters and builders. Here then is another reason for the apparent indispensability of a mass movement in the modernization of backward and stagnant countries.

For better or worse, I’ve never had that kind of faith. I’ve spent my life as a seeker, and this kind of faith is antithetical to my goals in life. I learned in high school not to bother debating with those who interpreted the Bible literally and took each and every passage as God’s words. No wonder I distrust those who blindly follow someone else, never questioning their own beliefs.

3 thoughts on “Hoffer discusses Unifying Agents in Mass Movements

  1. No comment on other comments,just a suggestion that ERICH FROMM sheds light on the questions you raise and does not seem as absolute as Hoffer. Reading them together helps to explain the issue of the bond of hatred. You did not “hate” the people of Vietnam. You were part of an organized politically motivated action and did your duty. As
    Yeats put it, “Those that I fight I do not hate//those that I guard I do not love.”

  2. Hatred of a common enemy will cause the most divergent forces to unite in opposition to that common enemy when they would otherwise be at each other’s throats. Up to this point in time in the development of mankind, nothing unifies faster and more completely than HATRED OF A COMMON ENEMY.–Stephen Boyd Cates

What do you think?