The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951) Eric Hoffer

Underconsumed Knowledge
8 min readMar 25, 2022

Describes the process of a mass movement, which consists of the same/similar tactics and life-stages, irrespective of ideology. They start with an idea, usually coming from an intellectual, which is then picked up by a despot/fanatic/leader (preaching instant-gratification hope), and in a healthy state of events, eventually gets put into place by a practical man of action (distant hope/stability). These three roles could be fulfilled by the same person or by three people — or the mass movement could get stuck in the fanaticism stage (I.e. Nazi Germany). People cling to mass movements and ideology so that they can lose themselves, which author argues they hate (similar arguments from Fromm), which I think mostly applies, though maybe not in cases like being a black person protesting segregation. Mass movements can help people absolve themselves of guilt with regards to why their own lives are so unfulfilled/crappy/insert grievance here, giving them a sense of purposes and worth with faith in the holy cause (and a lack of faith in themselves). This embrace of a holy cause is extreme of necessity, to reassure ourselves it is something worth living for — they fulfill a psychological need similar to religion; people need something to cling to. Those who do not require anything to cling to, typically an educated minority, are often the source of ideas that can lead to mass movements; the ideas are often usurped by the fanatic, however, and turned into dogma. The fanatic is someone who has unfilled creative desires, but they do not know how to fulfill them; thus, they are filled with hatred for the world, and want to destroy it. All they can talk about is the future. Radicals and reactionaries are two sides of the same coin; radicals live in a future nothing like the present, reactionaries yearn for a nostalgia of the forgotten past, a better time. Talks about how fanatics of many kinds are all the same psychologically; just swap out the ideology. The person who is nothing like a fanatic is the moderate; for example, someone who doesn’t “believe” or “not believe” in religion, but is just ambivalent. The fanatic does not allow room for argument; their ideology is the ideology. Quoting Thoreau, “If anything ail a man, so that he does not perform his functions, if he have a pain in his bowels even… he forthwith sets about reforming — the world.” Says that fulfilled people will tend to be conservative, the frustrated will favor radical change. Those also living hand-to-mouth will be conservative, because when life is so out of one’s control, routine is a way to deal with taming such a beast. Fanatics thrive on hope for the future; in a mass movement, there can be a large disconnect between the hope of the movement, and what is put into action. “People can live without hope only when kept dazed and out of breath by incessant hustling. The despair brought by unemployment comes not only from the threat of destitution, but from the sudden view of a vast nothingness ahead.” Hustling produces conformity from imitation, because it is easier. The most important ingredient of a mass movement is inexperience on the part of the leaders, thus allowing their enormous hope, which is not grounded in reality. “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.” Of charity and holy cause, he says “Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless.” Frustration and the desire for change and a chance for a new beginning can manifest in emigration or a mass movement, to name a couple of options; the most frustrated are those who have lost recently, the “new poor.” Makes a point about Eastern culture having the family at the basis of their society making them more resistant to mass movements. He/she who has lost work, “[F]eels unemployment as a degradation. He sees himself disinherited and injured by an unjust order.” The better life circumstances become, the more intolerable people find their state of being, with an ideal within grasp. “It is not actual suffering but the taste of better things which excites people to revolt.” “Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden.” Mass movements require 1. unity and 2. self-sacrifice, which means no free will and no individual liberty (which alleviates the hated selves of the true believers). “The passion for equality is party a passion for anonymity.” “All the advantages brought by the West are ineffectual substitutes for the sheltering and soothing anonymity of a communal existence”. “[Hitler] knew that the chief passion of the frustrated is ‘to belong’.” Revolt in a totalitarian system stems from a desire for more control, not less. People can be driven to fanaticism by internal shortcomings, external circumstances, or both, and then lose faith in their own selves. Symbols help to separate people from the self, masking the role of death in something like war; glory is a concept born in vanity. “A pleasant existence blinds us to the possibilities of drastic change.” “Those who fail in everyday affairs show a tendency to reach out for the impossible” — and thus is born pride in ascriptive characteristics, “[T]he frustrated derive as much satisfaction-if not more-from the means a mass movement uses as from the ends it advocates.” The frustrated satisfy their feeling of failure and isolation by blasting the present as terrible and vile. “People who live full, worthwhile lives are not usually ready to die for their own interests nor for their country nor for a holy cause. Craving, not having, is the mother of a reckless giving of oneself.” Self-sacrifice is not born out of careful reasoning. “Failure in the management of practical affairs seems to be a qualification for success in the management of public affairs. And it is perhaps fortunate that some proud natures when suffering defeat in the practical world do not feel crushed but are suddenly fired with the apparently absurd conviction that they are eminently competent to direct the fortunes of the community and the nation.” Insofar as dogma, “[T]he ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine… there is no truth nor certitude outside it” — people refuse to believe facts that clearly violate the doctrine (effective doctrines have utmost certitude). Doctrines must be, “[C]ontrary to nature, to common sense, and to pleasure” -Pascal. To be an effective doctrine, it must be believed, not understood — we can only be absolutely certain if we do not understand. “The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense… but he finds no difficulty in swinging suddenly and wildly from one holy cause to another.” Mass movements require a “believe in a devil”, an omnipotent and omnipresent danger, ideally foreign. “To wrong those we hate is to add fuel to our hatred. Conversely, to treat an enemy with magnanimity is to blunt our hatred for him.” A religion or ideology that preaches high standards or values will generate a lot of guilt in its followers for violating the rules; thus, the holier an ideology, the more hatred can be bred from it, as guilt breeds hate. Self righteousness arises to drown inner voices of guilt. Hatred causes us to “[lose] all or many of the values we have set out to defend.” “Even when men league themselves mightily together to promote tolerance and peace on earth, they are likely to be violently intolerant toward those not of a like mind”. “It is startling to see how the oppressed almost invariably shape themselves in the image of their hated oppressors.” Surrendering the self to a movement breeds pride and arrogance; he who does not believe or listen is evil and will perish. “The less satisfaction we derive from being ourselves, the greater is our desire to be like others.” “The gifted propagandist brings to a boil ideas and passions already simmering in the minds of his hearers.” “The uncanny powers of a leader manifest themselves not so much in the hold he has on the masses as in his ability to dominate and almost bewitch a small group of able men… [who] submit wholly to the will of the leader…” “To the frustrated, freedom from responsibility is more attractive than freedom from restraint.” “By elevating dogma above reason, the individual’s intelligence is prevented from becoming self-reliant.” “When the articulate are absent or without a grievance, the prevailing dispensation, though incompetent and corrupt, may continue in power until it falls and crumbles on itself… [though] a dispensation of undoubted merit and vigor may be swept away if it fails to win the allegiance of the articulate minority.” The power of the “man of words” is thus that he can help keep a good regime, and also, help to get rid of a bad one. Of intellectuals, “There is… an irremediable insecurity at the core of every intellectual… [living] a life of eternal self-doubting and [having] to prove their worth anew each day.” “When his superior status is suitably acknowledged by those in power, the man of words usually finds all kinds of lofty reasons for siding with the strong against the weak.” Thus, intellectuals crave attention and deference as much as the next guy. When power “[Endures] beyond its span of competence, there is either an entire absence of an educated class or an intimate alliance between those in power and the men of words.” “When we debunk a fanatical faith or prejudice, we do not strike at the root of fanaticism… [this] unwittingly creates in the disillusioned masses a hunger for faith. For the majority of people cannot endure the barrenness and futility of their lives unless they have some ardent dedication or some passionate pursuit in which they can lose themselves. Thus… the scoffing man of words becomes the precursor of a new faith.” “Jesus was not a Christian, nor was Marx a Marxist.” Author praises the self-confidence of rare leaders like Gandhi and Lincoln, who had faith in humanity, harnessing the holy cause for mankind, and not letting it become the downfall of a movement (I.e. Hitler and killing the Jews). At its end, “the movement is an instrument of power for the successful [leaders of the movement] and an opiate for the frustrated.” “The mass movement leader who benefits his people and humanity knows not only how to start a movement, but, like Gandhi, when to end its active phase.” “At the root of [the fanatic’s] cockiness is the conviction that life and the universe conform to a simple formula.” THIS IS HOW IT IS. When the objective of a mass movement is utopia, perfect unity and selflessness, the active phase of the movement never ends. Foreign influences challenge the beliefs held by a society, and present themselves particularly visibly in the form of minorities.

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Underconsumed Knowledge

"For the time being I gave up writing -- there is already too much truth in the world -- an overproduction which apparently cannot be consumed!" Otto Rank, 1933