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.

6 thoughts on “Mass Movements and Self-Sacrifice”

  1. I would say that the career soldier today is vastly different in certain key respects than the ones you knew. Check out the review of the new Vietnam War novel The Matterhorn in the NY Times for an example.

    There is certainly a component of individual autonomy in the conscious choice to pursue a career of service and sacrifice. And while there are also those who prefer a regimented existence, and well-defined career paths to the apparent chaos of civilian life, I would say most U.S. military personnel serving today more closely approach Hoffer’s idea of the individual as an ideal than their “consumer” civilian contemporaries.

    Irony being the fifth fundamental force of the universe, of course.

  2. “…much of the world today doesn’t seem very different from the world Jesus was born in.”

    Thanks for writing at length on this book. My new/old job is limiting my reading time, but I will have time to read more of what you have written when my day off comes.

  3. Last night, just before I fell asleep, I was reading an article in the Spring Issue of Parabola Magazine and was surprised when Eric Hoffer and The True Believer were mentioned in the context of the writer, James Opie, having been loaned a copy of the book by his English professor in 1961. It was a good accompaniment to what I’ve read so far of your thoughts on The True Believer, a book I had heard about in the 1960s but hadn’t read and hadn’t thought about for years.

    Interesting to me is that Bob Dylan said in an interview a few months ago:

    “Well, I am a true believer.”

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