Hoffer’s Conclusions

Part IV of The True Believer is entitled Beginning and End, but mainly discusses the role of men of words in starting mass movements:

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.

Thus when the irreverent intellectual has done his work:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand,
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The stage is now set for the fanatics.

I certainly couldn’t resist this quote from Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” but, more importantly, this makes me wonder what will be the long-term effect of Fox News and Right-Wing talk-show hosts. Many of them would certainly seem to fit all four criteria or, at least, seem to be trying desperately to do so.

I doubt that “writers” have nearly the influence today that they did when Hoffer wrote his book in 1951, but television commentators and radio show hosts have seemed more than reading to fill the vacuum left when newspapers and magazines seemed to lose their influence:

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.

Hoffer’s assertion seems to be supported by popular writers who try to run for office based on their popularity but fail abysmally, as illustrated by Pat Buchanan whose campaign for President quickly collapsed despite his popularity as a conservative writer and news commentator.

Considering his own status as a “man of words” Hoffer seems surprisingly harsh in his judgement of them:

However much the protesting man of words sees himself as the champion of the downtrodden and injured, the grievance which animates him is, with very few exceptions, private and personal. His pity is usually hatched out of his hatred for the powers that be. “It is only a few rare and exceptional men who have that kind of love toward mankind at large that makes them unable to endure patiently the general mass of evil and suffering, regardless of any relation it may have to their own lives.” Thoreau states the fact with fierce extravagance: “I believe that what so saddens the reformer is not his sympathy with his fellows in distress, but, though he be the holiest son of God, is his private ail. Let this be righted… and he will forsake his generous companions without apology.” When his superior status is suitably acknowledged by those in power, the man of words usually finds all kinds of lofty reasons for siding with the strong against the weak.

No wonder Hoffer “did not consider himself an “intellectual”, and scorned the term as descriptive of the allegedly anti-American academics of the West. He believed academics craved power but were denied it in the democratic countries of the West (though not in totalitarian countries, which Hoffer understood to be an intellectual’s dream). Instead, Hoffer believed academics chose to bite the hand that fed them in their quest for power and influence”

Hoffer suggests that even when they’re “right,” these men of words cannot cure the problem they define:

When we debunk a fanatical faith or prejudice, we do not strike at the root of fanaticism. We merely prevent its leaking out at a certain point, with the likely result that it will leak out at some other point. Thus by denigrating prevailing beliefs and loyalties, the militant man of words unwittingly creates in the disillusioned masses a hunger for faith. For the majority of people cannot endure the barrenness and futility of their lives unless they have some ardent dedication, or some passionate pursuit in which they can lose themselves. Thus, in spite of himself, the scoffing man-of words becomes the precursor of a new faith.

The genuine man of words himself can get along without faith in absolutes. He values the search for truth as much as truth itself. He delights in the clash of thought and in the give-and-take of controversy. If he formulates a philosophy and a doctrine, they are more an exhibition of brilliance and an exercise in dialectics than a program of action and the tenets of a faith. His vanity, it is true, often prompts him to defend his speculations with savagery and even venom; but his appeal is usually to reason and not to faith. The fanatics and the faith-hungry masses, however, are likely to invest such speculations with the certitude of holy writ, and make them the fountainhead of a new faith. Jesus was not a Christian, nor was Marx a Marxist.

Men of words can undermine the current power structure but cannot provide the kind of leadership needed to actually carry out a mass movement. Of course, it’s not clear how much faith Hoffer has in the “faith-hungry masses,” who are unmoved by the intellectual’s appeal to reason and “invest such speculations with the certitude of holy writ.”

I must admit, though, that I’m not quite sure how to react to the ending of the work when Hoffer says:

It is probably better for a country that when its government begins to show signs of chronic incompetence it should be overthrown by a mighty mass upheaval-even though such overthrow involves a considerable waste of life and wealth-than that it should be allowed to fall and crumble of itself. A genuine popular upheaval is often an invigorating, renovating and integrating process. Where governments are allowed to die a lingering death, the result is often stagnation and decay-perhaps irremediable decay. And since men of words usually play a crucial role in the rise of mass movements, it is obvious that the presence of an educated and articulate minority is probably indispensable for the continued vigor of a social body. It is necessary, of course, that the men of words should not be in intimate alliance with the established government.

Considering that most of the book has shown the dangers of mass movements and true believers, this seems like a strange way to end it. The reader might be forgiven if he wonders if the Hoffer’s work isn’t “more an exhibition of brilliance and an exercise in dialectics than a program of action and the tenets of a faith” and if Hoffer “can get along without faith in absolutes. He values the search for truth as much as truth itself.”

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.

Mass Movements and Self-Sacrifice

In Part 3 Entitled United Action and Self-Sacrifice, Hoffer argues that:

The vigor of a mass movement stems from the propensity of its followers for united action and self-sacrifice. When we ascribe the success of a movement to its faith, doctrine, propaganda, leadership, ruthlessness and so on, we are but referring to instruments of unification and to means used to inculcate a readiness for self-sacrifice. It is perhaps impossible to understand the nature of mass movements unless it is recognized that their chief preoccupation is to foster, perfect and perpetuate a facility for united action and self-sacrifice. To know the processes by which such a facility is engendered is to grasp the inner logic of most of the characteristic attitudes and practices of an active mass movement. With few exceptions, any group or organization which tries, for one reason or another, to create and maintain compact unity and a constant readiness for self-sacrifice usually manifests the peculiarities-both noble and base-of a mass movement. On the other hand, a mass movement is bound to lose much which distinguishes it from other types of organization when it relaxes its collective compactness and begins to countenance self-interest as a legitimate motive of activity. In times of peace and prosperity, a democratic nation is an institutionalized association of more or less free individuals. On the other hand, in time of crisis, when the nation’s existence is threatened, and it tries to reinforce its unity and generate in its people a readiness for selfsacrifice, it almost always assumes in some degree the character of a mass movement. The same is true of religious and revolutionary organizations: whether or not they develop into mass movements depends less on the doctrine they preach and the program they project than on the degree of their preoccupation with unity and the readiness for self-sacrifice.

While I’m not sure that these are the most important elements of a mass movement, they are certainly important characteristics. Seen from the outside, one of the most frightening aspects of mass movements is members’ blind, unthinking allegiance to their cause, the least comprehensible aspect, their willingness to die for their cause.

Considering that most of my life I’ve chosen to be an outsider, at times even a “loner,” I was surprised to discover as I read this chapter that I, too, have been a member of a mass movement:

To ripen a person for self-sacrifice he must be stripped of his individual identity and distinctness. He must cease to be George, Hans, Ivan, or Tadao-a human atom with an existence bounded by birth and death. The most drastic way to achieve this end is by the complete assimilation of the individual into a collective body. The fully assimilated individual does not see himself and others as human beings. When asked who he is, his automatic response is that he is a German, a Russian, a Japanese, a Christian, a Moslem, a member of a certain tribe or family. He has no purpose, worth and destiny apart from his collective body; and as long as that body lives he cannot really die.

It would be hard to come up with a better description of Basic Training than this, including the emphasis on knowing your serial numer rather your name. The whole point of basic training seems to be to break down the individual so that the service can rebuild the recruit as a new person, one that totally identifies with their unit.

Hoffer ends up using the Army as a tool to explain how mass movements convince individuals to sacrifice themselves to a greater cause:

The indispensability of play-acting in the grim business of dying and killing is particularly evident in the case of armies. Their uniforms, flags, emblems, parades, music, and elaborate etiquette and ritual are designed to separate the soldier from his flesh-and-blood self and mask the overwhelming reality of life and death. We speak of the theater of war and of battle scenes. In their battle orders army leaders invariably remind their soldiers that the eyes of the world are on them, that their ancestors are watching them and that posterity shall hear of them. The great general knows how to conjure an audience out of the sands of the desert and the waves of the ocean.

Glory is largely a theatrical concept. There is no striving for glory without a vivid awareness of an audience-the knowledge that our mighty deeds will come to the ears of our contemporaries or “of those who are to be.” We are ready to sacrifice our true, transitory self for the imaginary eternal self we are building up, by our heroic deeds, in the opinion and imagination of others.

That may explain why I haven’t attended or watched an entire parade since returning from Vietnam. Looking back, it would seem that society as a whole conspired to create soldiers willing to die to preserve democracy. I’m sure my fondness of John Wayne movies like “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” pushed me to choose the Armor branch when I joined the Army. No wonder movies like “Soldier Blue” caused such an uproar when they were produced.

Seen in this light, it’s probably important to note that the best medals are often given posthumously, that soldiers needed to sacrifice their life for their comrades in order to earn them.

Although it’s clear that Hoffer generally hates mass movements, he’s also honest enough to admit that, at times, at least, they seem to be a necessary evil:

It seems strange that even practical and desirable changes, such as the renovation of stagnant societies, should require for their realization an atmosphere of intense passion and should have to be accompanied by all the faults and follies of an active mass movement. The surprise lessens when we realize that the chief preoccupation of an active mass movement is to instill in its followers a facility for united action and self-sacrifice, and that it achieves this facility by stripping each human entity of its distinctness and autonomy and turning it into an anonymous particle with no will and no judgment of its own. The result is not only a compact and fearless following but also a homogeneous plastic mass that can be kneaded at will. The human plasticity necessary for the realization of drastic and abrupt changes seems, therefore, to be a byproduct of the process of unification and of the inculcation of a readiness for self-sacrifice.

Most people prefer what they’re accustomed to, fearing and resisting change. I’ve noted more than a few times that much of the world today doesn’t seem very different from the world Jesus was born into. No wonder it takes such energy to change the status quo.

It’s clear, though, that in general Hoffer sees mass movements as the enemy of the kind of individualism that he holds as an ideal:

By kindling and fanning violent passions in the hearts of their followers, mass movements prevent the settling of an inner balance. They also employ direct means to effect an enduring estrangement from the self. They depict an autonomous, self-sufficient existence not only as barren and meaningless but also as depraved and evil. Man on his own is a helpless, miserable and sinful creature. His only salvation is in rejecting his self and in finding a new life in the bosom of a holy corporate body-be it a church, a nation or a party. In its turn, this vilification of the self keeps passion at a white heat.

This passage reminded me of Thoreau and Emerson, who said, “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.” In many ways, The True Believer seems like a study in the way society is in conspiracy against its members. Ironic, then, that so many Right-Wing groups which are opposed to Big Government use tactics that cripple their members individualism.

I found it interesting how Hoffer closed this section by trying to explain how armies, despite their similarities to mass movements, are really different:

The similarities are many: both mass movements and armies are collective bodies; both strip the individual of his separateness and distinctness; both demand selfsacrifice, unquestioning obedience and singlehearted allegiance; both make extensive use of make-belief to promote daring and united action (see Section 47); and both can serve as a refuge for the frustrated who cannot endure an autonomous existence. A military body like the Foreign Legion attracts many of the types who usually rush to join a new movement. It is also true that the recruiting officer, the Communist agitator and the missionary often fish simultaneously in the cesspools of Skid Row.

But the differences are fundamental: an army does not come to fulfill a need for a new way of life; it is not a road to salvation. It can be used as a stick in the hand of a coercer to impose a new way of life and force it down unwilling throats. But the army is mainly an instrument devised for the preservation or expansion of an established order-old or new. It is a temporary instrument that can be assembled and taken apart at will. The mass movement, on the other hand, seems an instrument of eternity, and those who join it do so for life. The ex-soldier is a veteran, even a hero; the ex-true believer is a renegade. The army is an instrument for bolstering, protecting and expanding the present. The mass movement comes to destroy the present. Its preoccupation is with the future, and it derives its vigor and drive from this preoccupation.

Considering the number of career soldiers, I wonder if it can accurately be described as “a temporary instrument,” even more so today than when Hoffer wrote this book. Still, for citizen soldiers like myself army life was a temporary state, which was precisely made it endurable. For myself, the very experience of being in the army made me value my independence even more, though I can’t say whether that would be the case for most veterans, particularly for those who didn’t experience combat while serving.

Potential Converts

I’ll have to admit that I found a certain arrogance in Hoffer’s work I’d forgotten over the years. For instance, the opening section in the second section of his book called The Potential Converts is called “The Roles of the Undesirables in Human Affairs.” I can’t imagine ever using the term “Undesireables” to describe anyone, no matter how strongly I might disagree with them. Now, “Dumb Ass,” I like that term, wish I could have used it as a teacher.

Though I adamantly reject the term “inferior elements” I certainly agree with Hoffer’s main point here:

The reason that the inferior elements of a nation can exert a marked influence on its course is that they are wholly without reverence toward the present. They see their lives and the present as spoiled beyond remedy and they are ready to waste and wreck both: hence their recklessness and their will to chaos and anarchy. They also crave to dissolve their spoiled, meaningless selves in some soul-stirring spectacular communal undertaking — hence their proclivity for united action. Thus they are among the early recruits of revolutions, mass migrations and of religious, racial and chauvinist movements, and they imprint their mark upon these upheavals and movements which shape a nation’s character and history.

In retrospect it seems obvious that people who have nothing to live for personally are more apt to join a cause that does give their life meaning. I just wish more would examine their causes more carefully before joining.

I also agree with Hoffer’s explanation of why some poor people are more apt to join a mass movement than others:

So long as those who did the world’s work lived on a level of bare subsistence, they were looked upon and felt themselves as the traditionally poor. They felt poor in good times and bad. Depressions, however severe, were not seen as aberrations and enormities. But with the wide diffusion of a high standard of living, depressions and the unemployment they bring assumed a new aspect. 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.

With television constantly showing people how extravagantly some people live while telling them they will be judged by what they consume, is it any wonder that a significant number of poor people feel that “their lives and the present as spoiled beyond remedy” when they see no possibility of moving up in the world? Why wouldn’t they be ready to take any action that provides meaning to their lives?

I don’t think I’ve encountered “ennui” since I missed the word on my SAT’s many, many years ago and wrote a college sociology paper on it. Personally I’ve never suffered from it, my personal ailment being exhaustion as the result of pursuing too many interests. I’m still not sure I know exactly what the term means, though I think it tends to refer to intellectuals who can’t find meaning in their life:

There is perhaps no more reliable indicator of a society’s ripeness for a mass movement than the prevalence of unrelieved boredom. In almost all the descriptions of the periods preceding the rise of mass movements there is reference to vast ennui; and in their earliest stages mass movements are more likely to find sympathizers and support among the bored than among the exploited and oppressed. To a deliberate fomenter of mass upheavals, the report that people are bored stiff should be at least as encouraging as that they are suffering from intolerable economic or political abuses.

When people are bored, it is primarily with their own selves that they are bored. The consciousness of a barren, meaningless existence is the main fountainhead of boredom. People who are not conscious of their individual separateness, as is the case with those who are members of a compact tribe, church, party, etcetera, are not accessible to boredom. The differentiated individual is free of boredom only when he is engaged either in creative work or some absorbing occupation or when he is wholly engrossed in the struggle for existence. Pleasure-chasing and dissipation are ineffective palliatives. Where people live autonomous lives and are not badly off, yet are without abilities or opportunities for creative work or useful action, there is no telling to what desperate and fantastic shifts they might resort in order to give meaning and purpose to their lives.

I’m not ready to endorse Hoffer when he argues that “The boredom of spinsters and of women who can no longer find joy and fulfillment in marriage stems from an awareness of a barren, spoiled life. By embracing a holy cause and dedicating their energies and substance to its advancement, they find a new life full of purpose and meaning.” Recent history would seem to suggest that more likely recruits are college students who find academic life boring and turn to more active forms of protest.

Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer

Although I tend to avoid political commentary on my blog except right before elections, that doesn’t mean I don’t spend considerable time following what is happening. Though not particularly interested in history, per se, I’ve always been interested in politics and government. The only television news I follow regularly, or semi-regularly, for that matter, is The Daily Show, but I consistently test in the top 6% in news awareness when I take tests like those offered through the Pew Research Center.

Thus, in recent years I’ve watched the rise of right-wing politics with considerable interest — and often dismay. As a result, I’ve recently started donating to the ACLU and to liberal Democratic organizations like Move-On. More importantly, though, I’ve struggled to understand why these particular movements are gaining power. What I’ve read about these groups reminded me of a book I read long ago, Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Someone at one of our book clubs introduced the book, and it made an immediate impression on me, an impression that has stayed with me for the rest of my life.

Of course, I know that over time I tend to condense and oversimplify what I’ve read. So, I thought it was time to take another look at the book and see if it really is as relevant to today’s politics as it seemed when I first read it. As usual, this will be an ongoing analysis where I comment as I read the book, subject to all the pitfalls of this kind of writing. As I looked around the web, I was shocked to see that some members of the Tea Party have claimed Hoffer as their own champion. That, of course, is diametrically opposed to my own viewpoint.

The first section of the book, called The Appeal of Mass Movements, is broken down into three sections: (1) The Desire for Change, (2) The Desire for Substitutes, and (3) The Interchangeability of Mass Movements.

The most interesting of the three to me is the first chapter. Hoffer begins with those most apt to join mass movements:

There is in us a tendency to locate the shaping forces of our existence outside ourselves. Success and failure are unavoidably related in our minds with the state of things around us. Hence it is that people with a sense of fulfillment think it a good world and would like to conserve it as it is, while the frustrated favor radical change. The tendency to look for all causes outside ourselves persists even when it is clear that our state of being is the product of personal qualities such as ability, character, appearance, health and so on. “If anything ail a man,” says Thoreau, “so that he does not perform his functions, if he have a pain in his bowels even . . . he forthwith sets about reforming-the world.”

It’s easy to see why those who feel oppressed or deprived would join a mass movement. In fact, I think it could easily be argued that democracy itself and much of what we value in America has been the result of such dissatisfaction.

A more interesting idea seems the very opposite of this one, though:

It is understandable that those who fail should incline to blame the world for their failure. The remarkable thing is that the successful, too, however much they pride themselves on their foresight, fortitude, thrift and other “sterling qualities,” are at bottom convinced that their success is the result of a fortuitous combination of circumstances. The self-confidence of even the consistently successful is never absolute. They are never sure that they know all the ingredients which go into the making of their success. The outside world seems to them a precariously balanced mechanism, and so long as it ticks in their favor they are afraid to tinker with it. Thus the resistance to change and the ardent desire for it spring from the same conviction, and the one can be as vehement as the other.

If I were to guess, I would guess that this is a possible reason for today’s Conservative movement. Marginally successful people are terrified that any major change to the system, like universal health care, will come at their expense. I was shocked that so many people on Medicare opposed any kind of universal health care, yet they based their opposition precisely on the argument that there would have to be cuts in Medicare to cover increased costs in providing universal coverage.

In the second section, Hoffer argues that mass movements require the individual to sacrifice himself for The Cause:

There is a fundamental difference between the appeal of a mass movement and the appeal of a practical organization. The practical organization offers opportunities for self-advancement, and its appeal is mainly to self-interest. On the other hand, a mass movement, particularly in its active, revivalist phase, appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self. A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.

This theory seems to go counter to everything we think we know about human nature, but considering the sacrifices made by Muslims in recent attacks this might well be true. Martyrdom has an appeal I’ve never quite understood, but it’s clear that people who blow themselves up or give up everything they own for a cause are not doing it out of any kind of “self-interest” that I can understand.

Although I suspect that there are some important exceptions to Hoffer’s generalization 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.

I’m ready to concede its general validity, though perhaps that’s due to my own bias toward the importance of the individual rather than the group.

Hoffer argues that mass movements rely on a substitute for individual 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.

Having endured seven years of college for the sake of a “better future,” I can certainly identify with this attraction. If I’m willing to sacrifice my own immediate happiness for the children and grandshildren, I’m certainly not immune to this kind of appeal. I can imagine that under worse conditions that people would be willing to sacrifice much more than I’ve ever sacrificed:

Mass movements are usually accused of doping their followers with hope of the future while cheating them of the enjoyment of the present. Yet to the frustrated the present is irremediably spoiled. Comforts and pleasures cannot make it whole. No real content or comfort can ever arise in their minds but from hope.

I think we as a society ignore this reality at our own peril. Whenever we create societal conditions where “the present is irremediably spoiled” for a significant percentage of the population we can only expect the worst.

Psychologically, though, the most interesting idea that Hoffer proposes is that true believers often switch from movement to movement rather than being devoted to a particular cause:

When people are ripe for a mass movement, they are usually ripe for any effective movement, and not solely for one with a particular doctrine or program. In pre-Hitlerian Germany it was often a toss up whether a restless youth would join the Communists or the Nazis. In the overcrowded pale of Czarist Russia the simmering Jewish population was ripe both for revolution and Zionism. In the same family, one member would join the revolutionaries and the other the Zionists. Dr. Chaim Weizmann quotes a saying of his mother in those days: “Whatever happens, I shall be well off. If Shemuel [the revolutionary son] is right, we shall all be happy in Russia; and if Chaim [the Zionist] is right, then I shall go to live in Palestine.”

This receptivity to all movements does not always cease even after the potential true believer has become the ardent convert of a specific movement. Where mass movements are in violent competition with each other, there are not infrequent instances of converts-even the most zealous-shifting their allegiance from one to the other. A Saul turning into Paul is neither a rarity nor a miracle. In our day, each proselytizing mass movement seems to regard the zealous adherents of its antagonist as its own potential converts. Hitler looked on the German Communists as potential National Socialists: “The petit bourgeois Social-Democrat and the tradeunion boss will never make a National Socialist, but the Communist always will.” Captain Röhm boasted that he could turn the reddest Communist into a glowing nationalist in four weeks. On the other hand, Karl Radek looked on the Nazi Brown Shirts (S.A.) as a reserve for future Communist recruits.’

It’s still hard for me to believe this, but watching the way people move from movement to movement based on the current popularity of that movement suggests that there might well be a particular personality type that these mass movements have to draw from.