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Hoffer's The True Believer

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.

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Hoffer's The True Believer

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.

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Hoffer's The True Believer

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.

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Li-Young Lee

Lee’s After the Pyre

This is really my favorite poem in the second half of Behind My Eyes, but I also liked

AFTER THE PYRE

It turns out, what keeps you alive
as a child at mid-century
following your parents from burning
village to cities on fire to a country at war
with itself and anyone
who looks like you,

what allows you to pass through smoke,
through armed mobs singing the merits of a new regime, tooth for a tooth,
liberation by purification, and global
dissemination of the love of jealous gods,
coup d’etat, coup de grace, and the cooing of mothers
and doves and screaming men
and children caught in the pyre’s updraft,

what keeps you safe even among your own,
the numb, the haunted, the maimed, the barely alive,

tricks you learned to become invisible,
escapes you perfected, playing dead, playing
stupid, playing blind, deaf, weak, strong,
playing girl, playing boy, playing native, foreign,
in love, out of love, playing crazy, sane, holy, debauched,

playing scared, playing brave, happy, sad, asleep, awake,
playing interested, playing bored, playing broken,
playing “Fine, I’m just fine,” it turns out,

now that you’re older
at the beginning of a new century,
what kept you alive
all those years keeps you from living.

very much and think it gives more insight into the essence of this work.

As I read these poems, I was driven to seek out Lee’s biography, something I seldom do because I’m a firm believer that the best way to read poems is simply to read the poems. The poems should reveal their own meaning, not serve as some esoteric guide to help us divine the true nature of something else. That said, there were so many fascinating glimpses of the various stages of Lee’s life that I felt compelled to to some background reading.

Some of the appeal of Lee’s poems may well come from his unique background, one few of his readers will have shared, but the power comes from making us see that what he’s learned from his very different experiences is also applicable to our lives. This poem does that as well as any I’ve read.

I think most of us see ourselves as “a whole.” We are what we are. What I am got me this far in life. I don’t see any reason to change now But what if precisely those things that made us successful keep us from enjoying that success.

Scrooge is probably the most famous example of this truism, and some of us might wonder if we shouldn’t be more generous during Christmas season now that we’ve accumulated our fortune, but like most truisms this one soon becomes a stereotype. We need to look far more deeply than that if we are truly to discover those things that keep us from realizing our full potential or our greatest happiness.