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.