Why would you want to read a 60-year-old book about fanatics and their followers, written by a self-educated itinerant farm-worker and longshoreman? Because, in a mere 168 pages, The True Believer by Eric Hoffer clarifies —more than any other book or social theory that I know of— the nature of today’s religious and political mass movements, including the Catholic Church, Christian fundamentalists, China’s cultural revolution, Iran, Al Quaeda, the Arab Spring, Birchers, Birthers, and Tea Party loyalists. It is a mental searchlight and a unique pair of glasses, which illuminate and clarify today’s political and religious movements. It is an easily understood yet scholarly work which you will read, re-read, savor, contemplate, and treasure. In the 1950’s Dwight Eisenhower brought The True Believer and its author Eric Hoffer to the nation’s attention. In 1983, Ronald Reagan awarded Eric Hoffer the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Eric Hoffer is is so succinct, simple, and profound that writing about him must fail to do him justice. So, I’ll let him speak for himself. Here are a few thought provoking quotes, from among the hundreds of gems in his book.
“Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.” (p14) Hoffer makes the case that followers in mass movements are fleeing their frustrated lives.
“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.” (p14)
“When people are ripe for a mass movement, they are usually ripe for any effective movement, and not solely for one with a particular doctrine or program.” (p16) “all mass movements are interchangeable”… they compete for the same followers. (p17) Hoffer’s examples include how readily Communists converted to Fascists and vice-versa. My conclusion is that all extremists are blood brothers. Hoffer points out that the opposite of any extremist is a moderate; extremists frequently change causes, but seldom do they become moderates.
“In pre-war Italy and Germany practical businessmen acted in an entirely “logical” manner when they encouraged a Fascist and a Nazi movement in order to stop communism. But in doing so, these practical and logical people promoted their own liquidation.” (p19) Would someone kindly send copies of this book to the Koch brothers and Mitt Romney?
“The milieu most favorable for the rise and propagation of mass movements is one in which a once compact corporate structure is, for one reason or another, in a state of disintegration.” (p42)
“The vigor of a mass movement stems from the propensity of its followers for united action and self-sacrifice.” (p 59)
“Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents.” “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without a belief in a devil. Usually the strength of a mass movement is proportionate to the vividness and tangibility of its devil. When Hitler was asked whether he thought the Jew must be destroyed, he answered: “No…We should have then to invent him. It is essential to have a tangible enemy, not merely an abstract one. ” (p91)
“Finally, it seems, the ideal devil is a foreigner. To qualify as a devil, a domestic enemy must be given a foreign ancestry.” (p93) Sound familiar? Anyone we know who is intensely hated by people who deny his citizenship and charge that he is a Muslim?
“That hatred springs more from self-contempt than from a legitimate grievance is seen in the intimate connection between hatred and a guilty conscience. There is perhaps no surer way of infecting ourselves with virulent hatred toward a person than by doing him a grave injustice. That others have a just grievance against us is a more potent reason for hating them than that we have a just grievance against them. ……Self-righteousness is a loud din raised to drown the voice of guilt within us.”
In his later writings, Eric Hoffer reviewed the only three choices you have if you are the devil to a mass movement: threaten and attack, turn the other cheek, stand your ground. Threats and coercion make things worse because you act like a devil, to the delight of the fanatics. Turning the other cheek doesn’t work because it inflames hatred, which springs from guilt and a sense of inferiority. The only historically successful protection for a devil is to take a clear, firm, non-threatening stand, which he defends with everything he’s got.
“A sublime religion inevitably generates a strong feeling of guilt. There is an unavoidable contrast between the loftiness of profession and imperfection of practice. And, as one would expect, the feeling of guilt promotes hate and brazenness. Thus it seems that the more sublime the faith the more virulent the hatred it breeds.” (p96)
“The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.” (p116) As the Romney campaign has said: we’re going to ignore fact checkers!
“All mass movements rank obedience with the highest virtues and put it on the level with faith: “union of minds requires not only a perfect accord in the one Faith, but complete submission and obedience of the will to the Church and the Roman Pontiff as to God Himself.”(Pope Leo XIII) (P117) Catholic nuns taught me that original sin was a sin of disobedience. Hoffer’s book helped me to realize that this Catechism teaching was self-serving to the institution and unrelated to Faith. The “idol” of blind obedience to higher (human) infallible authority is a primary reason the Catholic Church has not, and cannot, deal forthrightly with its sex-abuse scandal or its archaic chauvinistic theology.
Hoffer concludes his masterpiece with an overview of the birth, active phase, and eventual transformation of a mass movement into a stable institution. Its birth is promoted by Men of Words, generally idealists like Marx, Lenin, Gandhi, or Christ, who create contempt for the present and an attractive vision of an ideal future. They attract disciples who help to undermine an existing order. As the old order collapses, the mass movement is often hijacked by an uncreative and brutal fanatic like Hitler, Stalin, or Mao. This thug seizes the moment, parrots the ideals, and thrives on coercing servitude while he perpetuates chaos. Eventually, movements are taken over by practical men of action, like Deng Zhou Ping in China, who use the old slogans but transform the dynamic movement with its suicidal dissensions and recklessness into a stable system; a new order.
Hoffer points out that there are useful mass movements which awaken stagnant societies and destructive ones which undermine other societies. Whether they turn out to be good or bad depends largely on who leads the active phase and how long it lasts after the old order crumbles.
There is far more wisdom in The True Believer than I can convey here. I consider it to be one of the 10 most important books written in the 20th century. There is no substitute for reading it.