Who is drawn to mass movements?

Book review of The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer.


Over the last few years, I have been compelled to curiosity about the nature of mass hysteria. I previously reviewed Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay.

The True Believer focuses on who gets involved in movements before they become established institutions – Bolsheviks in 1920, Nazis in 1925, Christians before Constantine and so on.

That’s a motley collection of mass movements, so I must add that Eric claims he does not see mass movements as necessarily bad. This book is mostly read as a warning about how extremist movements get started but it could equally be read as a how-to guide for getting a noble cause off the ground. Keep that in mind as we continue.

Eric’s main assertion is that true believers are, for the most part, unsuccessful and unhappy people:

. . . 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.

Discontent is not enough. There must also be a sense of power to change things. An extremely poor peasant with no rights is unlikely to join a mass movement unless something convinces him it may succeed, perhaps a charismatic leader who seems infallible or firm belief in a doctrine.

The true believer seeks to join a movement primarily as a way of escaping himself.

Eric often throws in unsubstantiated, thought-provoking assertions that I call ‘essay questions’: you could place the instruction ‘Discuss’ after them and you’d have a rich prompt for a thousand-word university entrance exam that allows students to demonstrate their reasoning and general knowledge. The assertions are not completely right and not completely wrong. Each is its own rabbit-hole. I’ve collected a list of them from throughout the book:

Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.

The ‘holy cause’ here may be secular.

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.

A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.

Where freedom is real, equality is the passion of the masses. Where equality is real, freedom is the passion of a small minority.

We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand. A doctrine that is understood is shorn of its strength.

If your response to each of these is black-and-white and able to be summed up in a sentence, I’m afraid you are unsuited to Vladivostok University. If you only want to memorize shibboleths and keep your brain switched off, try a madrassa or Harvard.

OMG Anon, didn’t you make the cut?

Eric points out that there is crossover between mass movements. Communists and Nazis incorporated quasi-religious features and stole symbols and practices from each other. The fash actively recruited from the ranks of the Commies as there were more potential candidates there than among moderates/normies. While he does not mention it, apparently modern-day cults poach members from each other.

As discussed in an earlier post, many people don’t really want freedom:

Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden. ( . . . ) It was not sheer hypocrisy when the rank-and-file Nazis declared themselves not guilty of all the enormities they had committed. They considered themselves cheated and maligned when made to shoulder responsibility for obeying orders. Had they not joined the Nazi movement in order to be free from responsibility?

The author lists some types that are particularly responsive to the spell of mass movements: struggling artists and writers (ahem), those alienated from the old bonds of family, tribe (ahem) or their traditional faith, social misfits (ahem), plus ethnic minorities and the selfish (ahem), ambitious and bored:

Boredom accounts for the almost invariable presence of spinsters and middle-aged women at the birth of mass movements. Even in the case of Islam and the Nazi movement, which frowned upon feminine activity outside the home, we find women of a certain type playing an important role in the early stage of their development.

Discuss.

I notice that Antifa members tick a lot of these boxes. Looking into their backgrounds, they often have criminal convictions, drug addictions, no skills or qualifications, unstable or absent families, mental health problems and so on. They are ripe for the picking as one type of mass movement follower and are probably targeted for recruitment because of these attributes.

As hinted, I also tick some boxes as a potential true believer. My nation has exiled me, I lack strong bonds to anything, I am an awkward hermit and I type away in obscurity. What keeps me from mass movements?

One inhibition is my native pessimism. Eric mentions that optimism is needed for a true believer to think a Utopian future is possible. I lack that. When I was younger and even more of a loser, I attended campus meetings of Communists but quickly decided that they were nitwits who thought their ideology would solve every single problem by magic. The war in East Timor? Socialism will fix it! The bombing of Serbia? They just need socialism!

The author mentions that a compelling doctrine has to be vague and all-encompassing. If simple and concrete, it must be obscured to seem complex and mystical.

Anyway, my curiosity about those movements itself helps support the author’s assertions. Cheerful and socially engaged students do not go to that sort of thing.

Probably not active members of the Socialist Alternative.

I also find this convincing:

Emigration offers some of the things the frustrated hope to find when they join a mass movement, namely, change and a chance for a new beginning.

Perhaps if I had nowhere to run I would be more inclined to join a radical movement.

Across place and time, emigration has been a pressure-release valve for nations with many dissatisfied people. If the rest of the world stopped accepting Africans, for example, many countries in that continent would explode. As it is they plod along unchanged.

Eric explains why mass movements can be so dangerous:

. . . when we renounce the self and become part of a compact whole, we not only renounce personal advantage but are also rid of personal responsibility. There is no telling to what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts and the vague stirrings of decency that go with individual judgment.

He sees mass movement propaganda as intended to enhance existing tendencies, not create them:

Propaganda thus serves more to justify ourselves than to convince others; and the more reason we have to feel guilty, the more fervent our propaganda.

Eric includes cases of positive mass movements, especially Christianity. He mentions his disappointment that Chiang Kai-shek never got a nationalist mass movement going that could have rivalled Communism in China. The world might be very different today if he had.

Eric could have said much more on this topic.

The overall vibe of the book is, ‘followers are losers.’ This is not always a bad thing. Some of the earliest Christians were social outcasts. Why wouldn’t they have joined a new movement that offered meaning and hope to their difficult lives? I’m also reminded of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, who describes those unfairly maligned in Igbo culture being drawn to the new Christian movement. I can think of no good reason for them not to have done this.

If a mass movement is benign, it really can save the spiritually desperate from their lot.

It would be beneficial for adherents to maintain self-awareness – to have insight into why they are joining the movement, to keep thinking, and to be wary that it does not descend into madness.

Pundits on this side of the Great Divide often bemoan how few people are aware of our decline into some new form of tyranny. ‘Conservative men who should be Our Guys are oblivious, they just want to Netflix and grill!’

On the other hand, the dissident right also focuses heavily on how to thrive as best you can in present circumstances: eat well, exercise, take cold showers, quit porn, go to church, have a side hustle, get practical skills, network locally, save and invest, bust a move, marry, have kids, homeschool, move to a rural area, expatriate if necessary.

And so on.

If The True Believer is broadly correct, you can either establish a transformational mass movement or offer practical advice for getting by within the prevailing order. These approaches push in opposite directions.

For those who prioritize the former, it would make more sense to bypass the grillers and instead recruit socially anxious, fat, porn-addicted, minimum-wage incels to the cause. If their lives get better, this ought to be as part of their role in the new movement, not because they’ve learned how to independently solve their own problems. Leaving the movement should threaten everything they have gained.

I’m trying to think like a cult leader here. I am not advocating this approach.

[Edit: You’d also recruit women who are dissatisfied with their lives. So far the other side is much more effective at doing this.]

Incidentally, the book also explains how the ruling class can dissuade someone from leading a mass movement: bring him into the fold. Co-opt him. Tea Party him. Bernie Sanders him. Jordan Peterson him. It rarely fails.

Let’s conclude with an interesting quote I couldn’t find a good spot for elsewhere:

The fanatic is also mentally cocky, and hence barren of new beginnings. At the root of his cockiness is the conviction that life and the universe conform to a simple formula – his formula.

Discuss.

23 comments

  1. luisman · August 19

    Reblogged this on Nicht-Linke Blogs.

    Like

  2. Some Guy · August 19

    “Instead recruit socially anxious, fat, porn-addicted, minimum-wage incels to the cause.”

    4chan says hi.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kentucky Gent · August 20

    This is the second post of yours that, at least tangentially, comments on Christianity and also to which I must take exception. (The first was about Saint Catherine of Sienna.)

    The reasons people join the Communists or Antifa or BLM or whatever are not the reasons that people become Christians. People become Christians because God is real and Jesus Christ is His Son and John 3:16 is truth and Jesus Christ draws people unto Himself through love.

    Non-believers operate from the assumption that these things are NOT true, and thus they begin their reasoning from a faulty assumption. Having excluded the only correct explanation, the remainder of the argument is not useful in regards to explaining why anyone becomes a believer. It is only useful in helping non-believers perpetuate a lack of faith.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nikolai Vladivostok · August 20

      You are making assumptions about my beliefs.

      Liked by 1 person

    • overgrownhobbit · August 20

      Consider that Christian mass movements are not the same thing as Christ, and you can square this circle.

      I do find your claim, Kentucky Gentleman, accurate in describing TENS. Its adheranrt started with the (usually unexamined) postulate that the material universe apprehended by our physical senses is the sin qua non of all existence and being, and that the world necessarily cannot be a created thing. So they are stuck with these mathematically improbable Just So Stories.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Nikolai Vladivostok · August 20

        What does TENS mean?
        Eric would not include mainstream Chistianity as a mass movement because it is institutionalized, not revolutionary. He means things like the early days when followers were persecuted in the Roman Empire, the Reformation and the Great Awakening.
        Modern, dissident forms of Christianity may count.

        Liked by 1 person

        • overgrownhobbit · August 20

          Sorry. Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection

          Liked by 1 person

          • Kentucky Gent · August 26

            I consider TENS to be so preposterous that it’s risible.

            Like

    • dickycone · August 20

      For what it’s worth, I didn’t have a problem with what Nik said about Christianity here, even though he clarifies in a comment below that he was specifically talking about non-mainstream forms of Christianity. Nevertheless, he rightly points out that communists think their ideology will solve all problems through what’s essentially magic when that’s objectively not true and can be easily observed. Christianity also claims to ultimately solve all problems, a claim I happen to believe, but the kicker is that it doesn’t claim to do that in this world, only in the world to come. Although, there is also a general trend in all churches I’ve attended toward believing that leading a Christlike life will also make your life better in this world. Except when it doesn’t, which I guess means the Lord is testing you, or something like that.

      So to someone operating without the Holy Spirit it’s vague and hard to prove either way, just as the author Nik’s reviewing says a good mass movement must be. Vague, complex, and mystical.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Baltic Bro · August 26

      Actually you are both wrong, but Kentucky Gent is closer to the truth in a contrary kind of way.
      Mass movements resemble each other but the reasons people join are different. People join religions out of an instinctive need to believe and join which goes back very far in our history, and for the personal reasons that Hoffer says.
      Howver, People become Socialists because they logically deduce that it is the best way for humanity to move forward into the future & leave conflict and poverty behind.
      Before you jump down my throat and point to the failures of the USSR, Cuba and all those, what about the success of the Nordic Countries? On most measure they are doing better than everyone else. It is not perfect Socialism but it’s getting closer.
      For someone in a more capitalist country i.e. the USA, Britain to belive in this form of Socialism as a better path and campaign for it is not a wild fervor caused by personal failings, it is logic demonstrated by the real world success of better societies.
      The part where I agree with KG is that these movements are not equal, but the one that is true is a different one.

      Like

  4. Dutch · August 20

    Perhaps a “good” social/political/economic/religious system acknowledges all of what Hoffer discusses, and offers opportunities for people to instead steer themselves into productive and fulfilling roles in their lives, even while they “join” or “follow”. The joining and following is a natural thing for people to do, after all.

    It is the exploitive and manipulative systems that take that propensity to “join” and use it for the foul and selfish ends of their own leadership and behind-the-scenes leadership. A “good” system threads the needle of acknowledging and accommodating the “joining” and “following”, while staying on the straight and narrow of actually doing good for the followers, and also hopefully even for people entirely outside the fold.

    Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, mendacious people strive to appoint themselves as leaders, who can then use their powers to exploit everyone else, and the “good” system goes off the rails. Hence the “thread the needle” aspect of a “good” system. Case in point, the current Vatican leadership, and also the recent history of widespread child exploitation at the level of the individual Catholic priests and parishes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nikolai Vladivostok · August 20

      It took me some time to think this one through.
      The ‘true believer’ as described in the book is specifically an early, fanatical adherent who is capable of great self-sacrifice, i.e. being fed to the lions or arrested by the Czar’s secret police. The benefits of a benign mass movement mostly accrue to later, moderate followers once it becomes established. Material benefits, that is. If you believe in the cause, I suppose you would think a movement’s martyrs achieve great spiritual benefits.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Stefan · August 21

      About joining/following: Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending contemplated that it is a result of human evolution. During the past several hundred thousand years most humans lived in small groups and the average size of a hunting party was about 12 men. Groups that were able to cooperate increased their survival rates and passed their genes, and those are the ones who can follow a leader, i.e. if 1 in 12 must lead, that means the rest must have the mental predisposition to follow. And about 8% (1/12 plus minus a few percent – depending on geography/climate/other local conditions) of the male population possess the genes that help them lead /have the ability for independent thinking. Google Scholar shows similar results – from 3% to 16% (or at least what I’ve read for 10 min in article abstracts). Just a theory…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nikolai Vladivostok · August 22

        Those who follow fanatically are a smaller %. I’ve heard studies of cults that show joiners usually have severe personal problems at the time, a loss or something, and are looking for a new framework for support. Not sure if that transfers to mass movement followers.

        Like

  5. lemmiwinks · August 20

    “Propaganda thus serves more to justify ourselves than to convince others; and the more reason we have to feel guilty, the more fervent our propaganda.”

    See the cult of corona and virtually every post about anything on Twitter.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. dickycone · August 20

    “The fash actively recruited from the ranks of the Commies as there were more potential candidates there than among moderates/normies.”

    Hitler supposedly launched the beer hall putsch largely out of desperation, feeling that he had to try something big or otherwise his followers would go over to the communists.

    “I also tick some boxes as a potential true believer. My nation has exiled me, I lack strong bonds to anything, I am an awkward hermit and I type away in obscurity. What keeps me from mass movements?”

    You seem to have a girlfriend more often than not. That probably helps.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. toastedposts · August 20

    You know, something that has bothered me about human nature reared its head again last night. I was reading some book by Sigmund Freud (just to see what it was about, and what his thinking was about, not because I necessarily adopt his views. He seems to get most of his information by introspection, which can’t really carry you to objective conclusions: the scientific side of psychology was right to try to warn people! Still, thinking about things we may have no means of testing isn’t valueless, though holding forth as if you know what you’re doing in any objective way is false.)

    The thing that bugs me about the book is that Freud wrote something like 20% of it. The other 80% of the book were people talking about Freud’s ideas, elaborating, explaining, interpreting, explicating. The worlds most tedious forwards and afterwards! But doesn’t it strike anyone as extremely strange and possibly significant that there are “Freud scholars” or “Neitzsche scholars” (of whom Neitzsche would have some very pointy things to say!) who spend years and years of their life on *someone else’s ideas*, and yet the genesis of their “movements”, Freud, Neitzsche, (doesn’t have to be a charismatic cult figure either, just someone with their own thoughts) spent a good portion of their output on their *own* ideas?

    This is another data point on something I’ve been thinking about: Most people do not seem to believe they have the *right to originate*. Not them, not any “mere mortal”, who they will browbeat if they get “above their station” and try inventing something of their own. The guru figures that these “parrots” coalesce around never have that problem. They’ll tell you their own original ideas all day long, sometimes with proper humility, sometimes with unjustified supreme confidence. They get to make shit up as they go along, no one else has the right!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. toastedposts · August 20

    You see this a lot in programming/software development. You’ll see constant entreaties “not to reinvent the wheel”! If you start writing something of your own: your own algorithm, your own library to do something that you want, a bunch of angry stackoverflow furies will boil out of the woodwork to tell you how you are wrong. “Whatever it is you are doing, someone else did it before you and better! Go find a library.” (Nevermind the origin of the magic libraries?)

    The original programmers weren’t like this. They couldn’t be, or none of the magic libraries would exist. It wasn’t just necessity though – they were different kinds of thinkers approaching the subject differently. The computer was their servant to explore an abstract realm, not their master.

    Why are programmers like this? Where did all the cultists come from? And their behavior is very much like cult behavior.

    The people who ignore these assholes and write something of their own anyway – something that solves their problem, built under their own power: These people are the actual source of all the standalone bits of software out there that are any good. Most famous open-source application projects have no more than a few people, often just one, working on them. I don’t know what the rest of the “parrots” are doing? Maybe business logic buried deep in some backend or something.

    “Who are you to think for yourself? Who are you to write something that is fully yours? Who are you to originate?”

    Liked by 1 person

  9. toastedposts · August 20

    I’m trying to think like a cult leader here. I am not advocating this approach.

    I advocate against it. Full on cults are evil – evil to the point where I can’t see how they accomplish any end that anyone with humanity would want. Was reading something about scientology the other day, and the full on mind-control soul-screwing that those people do to the vulnerable types Hofer describes. The crazy thing is that it was started in cold, deliberate pre-meditation by this cartoonishly evil SOB who is probably one of the history’s most cunning and terrible “natural psychologists”.

    The US revolution doesn’t really fit the pattern of one of these “mass movements of the desperate.” It was waged by people who had something to lose, because they were about to lose it. It turned out well. The French revolution was hijacked by the Jacobin movement and plunged Europe into 50 years of war and darkness.

    Fanatics may be hard to beat, but we need a better way if we want to be able to live in the world afterwards. A “win” isn’t a win if there is no room for human liberty for those who want it afterwards.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. anonymous · August 20

    PPPS (sorry about filling up your comment section, just like to talk about ideas with someone sometimes.)

    Hofer is a very interesting guy. Also an extreme individualist. It’s hard to get ahold of his stuff *other* than “The True Believer”, but he has an autobiography that describes his life that is fascinating. Always extremely poor, went blind at a young age and was more or less abandoned. When he regained his sight, he started reading voraciously to make up for the gaps in his education, spending more or less all his free time inhaling books in a library. Seemed to have some kind of allergy to professional white-collar work even when it was offered to him, preferring always to do blue-collar jobs, probably because they were ‘portable’ and didn’t tie him down as much. Multi-lingual.

    I don’t get the impression that he was ever trending towards being a follower-type, even when he was driven to near-suicide in young-adulthood, though he certainly encountered them among the people he worked among.

    (In partial reply to a comment above): Hofer was Jewish (-ish, not sure, as he was abandoned fairly young): Of course he doesn’t believe in Christianity’s claims and would try to understand it as an outsider!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nikolai Vladivostok · August 21

      Most aspects of Hoffer’s background are contested. Back then there were fewer records so we don’t really know.

      Like

  11. Kentucky Gent · August 26

    NV wrote “You are making assumptions about my beliefs.”

    With all respect, I did NOT make an assumption. I was thinking of your own comment about St. Catherine of Sienna (that she probably had an eating disorder), apparently not even considering the possibility of a supernatural explanation. This memory colored my thinking as I read the current post.

    And I didn’t name you specifically in the above comment, because I wasn’t trying to single you out. The author of the article about St. Catherine certainly was more egregious than you in excluding anything supernatural as a possible explanation. Which is why I didn’t finish reading his article. Do you remember that I called it “saint bashing”?

    Like

  12. Eric · 28 Days Ago

    Reblogged this on Calculus of Decay .

    Like

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