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.
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.
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.
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.