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The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (Perennial Classics) Paperback – 1 Sep 2002
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From the Back Cover
A stevedore on the San Francisco docks in the 1940s, Eric Hoffer wrote philosophical treatises in his spare time while living in the railroad yards. The True Believer -- the first and most famous of his books -- was made into a bestseller when President Eisenhower cited it during one of the earliest television press conferences.Completely relevant and essential for understanding the world today, The True Believer is a visionary, highly provocative look into the mind of the fanatic and a penetrating study of how an individual becomes one.
About the Author
Eric Hoffer (1902 -- 1983) was self-educated. He worked in restaurants, as a migrant fieldworker, and as a gold prospector. After Pearl Harbor, he worked as a longshoreman in San Francisco for twenty-five years. The author of more than ten books, including The Passionate State of Mind, The Ordeal of Change, and The Temper of Our Time, Eric Hoffer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.
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“This is not an authoritative textbook. It is a book of thoughts, and it does not shy away from half-truths, so long as they seem to hint at a new approach and help formulate new questions.”
With that caveat out of the way, it has to be said that this is a tremendous exploration of the motivations of mass movements and the fanatic in particular. The thoughts described in this book clearly derive from the experiences leading up to the horrors of the first and second world war, as well the wars themselves. They pertain to the conditions that lead to the creation of populist mass movements, the leaders these movements require and the state of mind of the fanatic.
I guess that’s why I picked it up in 2017. It’s been in print for a good 60 years, but had not seemed relevant for some time…
Fanaticism is built on humiliation. It is himself (most often his humiliated, debased, self, relative to some yardstick set by his own recent or ancient history or the rest of society) that the fanatic is escaping. Indeed, he is renouncing his current self and the present world and is dedicating his existence (including the possibility that it may come to an end) to a cause that will help create a better, utopian, future. Reason and observation do not come into it; the fanatic is a man of faith in the cause to which he has dedicated himself. Faith replaces reason, to the point of overruling empirical observation. The cause becomes the center of the fanatic’s existence. He willingly, gleefully, hands over his free will and (crucially) his responsibility and becomes an instrument of the cause. He experiences relief in doing so and, once inducted in one faith, finds it very difficult to get back his free will. Should his faith disappoint him, he’d sooner join another faith!
The hatred that the fanatic sometimes harbors is a hatred of himself. Others having a just grievance against a fanatic therefore fills him with more hate and their elimination actually helps assuage this self-hatred: “The most effective way to silence our guilty conscience is to convince ourselves and others that those we have sinned against are indeed depraved creatures, deserving every punishment, even extermination.” (p. 95)
The leader is a more complex person than the fanatic. At the first stage of the movement he needs to be a man of ideas. The Rousseau or the Voltaire or the Karl Marx. In the revolutionary stage he needs to be true believer himself, a fanatic. The lucky fanatic who happens to be in charge of the movement when the moment is ripe. The Robespierre, the Lenin or the Mussolini. Finally, when the movement wins out something funky happens: the mass movement becomes the status quo, the “today” that all misfits and downtrodden will hate from now onward and the leader needs to become a consolidator, a “practical man of action,” who will carry on with ritual “permanent revolution,” whose actual cause will be to maintain the status quo. Stalin and Mao spring to mind here, but not Trotsky, for example.
Another important point made in the book is that if the source of fanaticism is humiliation, the raw material for the creation of populist mass movements can be channeled in a number of ways, but it will be channeled: “When we debunk a fanatical faith or prejudice, we do not strike at the root of fanaticism. We merely prevent its leaking out at a certain point, with the likely result that it will leak out at some other point.” (p. 139)
That really floored me. Moving on to our current times, when, mid-financial crisis, the dispossessed and foreclosed-on American people voted in a President of African descent called Barack Hussain Obama, a man casting himself as an outsider, with a mandate to bring about change, very little was achieved when he turned out to be a level-headed member of the establishment. In due course, the humiliation of the dispossessed would merely be channeled into somebody else.
Erm, worth the price of purchase, then.
In some respects, however, the book is starting to show its years. Sixty years is a long time and I, for one, am observing around me a different world from the one in evidence in 1951:
The author claims that the people never clamors for its freedom, that the masses never rebel against authority to reclaim their freedom of conscience and free choice: “They sweep away the old order not to create a society of free and independent men, but to establish uniformity. It is not the wickedness of the old regime they rise against, but its weakness; not its oppression, but its failure to hammer them together into one solid, mighty whole. The persuasiveness of the intellectual demagogue consists not so much in convincing the people of the vileness of the established order as in demonstrating its helpless incompetence. The immediate result of mass movement usually corresponds to what people want. They are not cheated in the process.”
This, while perhaps accurate in 1951, is exactly half-right in year 2017.
When in 1930 a demagogue would be promising a new world order to the dispossessed, today the demagogue’s audience is very much the bourgeoisie. The depression era utopias were not materialistic. They were idealistic and were offered to the dispossessed: communism, nationalism etc.
The utopia our politicians peddle today is that we can maintain in permanence the once-in-many centuries post-WWII growth that the West has recently stopped enjoying. The final salary schemes, healthcare benefits and rising stock markets that came together with a demographic phenomenon called the baby boom, which we know for certain cannot be repeated for a good 25 years, even if we start multiplying like bunnies tonight.
When three governments in a row have been elected in Greece with a mandate to fight back the “austerity” allegedly imposed by foreigners, when Monti was shoved out of running Italy within months of announcing entirely sensible measures, when Donald Trump promises to bring back jobs that have either gone to robots or to the cloud and gets elected, you know we’re not in 1951 anymore.
The fanatic is no longer the villain in our world. The mass movement that all demagogues have in their sights is that of the entitled. Their promised land is not a utopia that lies in the future. It is a circumstantially contrived abundance that occurred in the past and is not coming back. The redemption the entitled seek is not ideological. It is material.
I guess that is a vast improvement. But it means the book, while fun to read, is only relevant from a historical perspective.
Faith in a cause is to a large extent a replacement for the individual's lost self-confidence. The movement offers a substitute for individual hope. Furthermore, movements are interchangeable to a surprising extent. As he puts it; "A Saul turning into a Paul is neither a rarity nor a miracle." The reason is that they attract the same mentality. Antidotes include arrangements that discourage atomistic individualism or offers opportunities for action or new beginnings, like emigration. Creative expression is a potent protector: even the poor that are creatively involved are immune, as are the abjectly poor and members of close-knit family, tribal or religious groups.
Potential converts are the disaffected, identified as misfits, outcasts, minorities, adolescents, the ambitious, the obsessed, the impotent in mind or body, certain categories of the poor, the extremely selfish, the bored and the sinners. Hoffer explains that the burden of freedom aggravates frustration in certain individuals. The followers exchange their individual responsibility for the sense of redemption that the movement offers. Those who feel like failures value equality and fraternity much more than freedom. This illuminates Russia's regression into totalitarianism and the passivity of Europeans.
Another striking insight is that that visions, dreams and utopian hopes are powerful weapons; people will die for delusions. Craving/desire is what causes the reckless self-sacrifice. Movements always target the family; Hoffer provides proof by quoting from inter alia the New Testament. Disruption of the family makes the person more dependent on the movement. Movements attract and retain followers due to the refuge they offer from the boredom, barrenness, anxiety and lack of meaning in the individual's life.
There are various species of misfit - the permanent misfit finds peace only in a total separation from the self. The extraordinarily selfish are likely to be the most fanatical champions of selflessness. Oddly, spinsters & middle aged women have played a crucial role in the birth of mass movements. Emotions like remorse and grievance appear to lead people in the same direction. Fervent enthusiasm helps to suppress a guilty conscience. United action and self-sacrifice are the elements that determine the vigor of a movement. Both sublimate the blemished self. Ways of persuading people to fight and die for the cause include:
(a) separating them from the real self by means of assimilation into the collective
(b) creating a make-believe self or a collective show
(c) making them hate the present and worship the future; the present is not only portrayed as miserable but is deliberately made so
(d) separating them from reality with the wall of dogma. Observation & experience are rejected in favor of doctrine which provides certitude.
(e) Keeping them in a state of fanaticism by inflaming passions & breaking down the will, thus transforming them into automatons. Reason is ineffective in trying to free a fanatic from these mental chains.
Hoffer's view of how different political persuasions view past, present and future is an interesting aside: The conservative is like the skeptic, echoing the thoughts of Ecclesiastes about nothing new under the sun whilst the liberal (Hoffer means the Classical Liberal, not today's leftist types) considers the present the legitimate offspring of the past, a springboard towards a better future.
On the other hand, both the reactionary and the radical hate the present. They differ only in their opinion on human nature's potential for change. The radical is convinced that human nature is perfectible whilst the reactionary believes the opposite. Fanatics occupy the same space on the political spectrum which is circular, not linear. The real difference is between the fanatics and the moderates of all ideologies. It is the temperament, not the ideological content that is crucial: fanatics often move from one form of extremism to another: communism, fascism, xenophobic nationalism, religious intolerance. Sinisterism by Bruce Walker offers more insight into this phenomenon.
The unifying agents are hatred, imitation, brainwashing (although Hoffer believes that the power of Propaganda is overrated and that it merely justifies & articulates opinions already present in the minds of recipients), leadership, action and suspicion. His observations on the impulse to convert are most arresting. The missionary zeal emanates from a profound uncertainty, an aching inner void. Proselytizing is a search for something; a quest to confirm that the fanatic's faith is indeed the absolute truth.
Three personality types are influential in mass movements: (a) men of words (b) fanatics (c) men of action. The first prepares the ground, the second initiates/dominates the active phase and the 3rd consolidates. Hoffer remarks that the first, whether they be journalists, academics or priests, thirst for recognition & a status above the rest of mankind. They are often the first victims of what they have unleashed. The fanatic thrives on chaos & destruction. The man of action rescues the movement from the recklessness of the fanatic; when he assumes control the active phase comes to an end.
In conclusion, Hoffer discusses good & bad movements, the sterility of the active phase and some factors that determine its length, plus examples of benevolent mass movements. The book concludes with notes arranged by chapter. It remains a masterpiece and a valuable contribution to the disciplines of politics, psychology, sociology and theology.
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