The work tries to understand and explain, not pass judgment, on mass movements and their followers. Hoffer concentrates on the active phase of mass movements where the true believer has real influence. He cautions that although mass movements share many traits this does not imply that they're equally destructive or beneficent. Their appeal derives from the promise in their materialistic, religious, nationalist or blended natures. Intense, infectious emotion is the fuel. He analyses the various causes of the desire for change. Discontent alone is not enough; other factors are needed to activate it, like a sense of power and the ability to spread a vision of hope.
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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