The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, by Eric Hoffer

On fourth of July weekend, one of the books I read was The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, by Eric Hoffer. This book is a collection of ideas and theories on the various whys and hows of “mass movements”, a term he uses to speak about religious fundamentalism, political revolutions, and social revolutions.

Among these “whys and hows” are the primary questions of why a person may want to join a mass-movement and how a mass-movement should be run if it is to be effective. But, before I write about the content of the book I’d like to comment on its character and form.

The book reminds me very much of an old European treatise or personal philosophy dissertation, it is very much like Democracy in America in this regard. The structure is largely uninterrupted and seems to flow, while being divided into four parts, then chapters with smaller sections. Often these sections are only a single sentence. All these sections have unique numbers that are often referred to by the text itself. In addition to this style of division, there are many quotes and references to the author’s ideals of great minds. These are often surprising and interesting.

General Comments

About half-way through the book I was very intrigued by the author’s lack of knowledge about Soviet Russia and focus on Hitler. I then realized that the book was first published in 1951. I found this to be a useful data point when thinking about the book’s commentary.

One of the other things about the book that I thought was particularly ingenious is how Hoffer divides the life of a mass-movement into an ‘active’ and ‘passive’ phase. The ‘active’ phase is when it is growing and has not “won” yet. This is where his investigation lies primarily. The ‘passive’ phase is when the mass-movement has become the norm and it begins to defend and stabilize itself–often leading to future movements. Thus, every institution is the stable form of some “mass-movement.” I will write more on this later on at the same place as Hoffer.

A note of caution, the book really is a book of “thoughts.” It does not offer more than verbal persuasion and appeal to the intellect. It does not offer rigorous or scientific study. It does not, however, make outrageous claims or contradict itself. The only sin I have seen is a slight bias in favour of America and against prying to much into the passive stage of mass-movements. But, this second problem is not within the stated scope any ways.

The reader is expected to quarrel with much that is said in this part of the book. He is likely to feel that much has been exaggerated and much ignored. But 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 to formulate new questions. “To illustrate a principle,” says Bagehot, “you must exaggerate much and you must omit much.” [p. 60]

Part 1. The Appeal of Mass Movements

I. The Desire for Change

The core personality problem that leads to the appeal of mass-movements is the lack of complete responsibility. The idea that a person is not responsible for the conditions of his or her own life:

There is in us a tendency to locate the shaping forces of our existence outside ourselves. Success and failure are unavoidable related in our minds with the state of things around us. Hence it is that 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. The tendency to look for all causes outside ourselves persists even when it is clear that our state of being is the product of personal qualities such as ability, character, appearance, health and so on. [p. 6]

It is for this reason that mysticism is often the partner of mass-movements, some sort of justification for why your problems are not your own must be engineered. And because this is false, it must venture into the land of make-believe.

II. The Desire for Substitutes

A mention of how to measure the passive stage and a comparison with “practical” organizations:

The fact remains that a practical concern cannot endure unless it can appeal to and satisfy self-interest, while the vigor and growth of a rising mass movement depend on its capacity to evoke and satisfy the passion for self-renunciation. When a mass movement begins to attract people who are interested in their individual careers, it is a sign that it has passed its vigorous stage; that it is no longer engaged in molding a new world but in possessing and preserving the present. It ceases then to be a movement and becomes an enterprise. [p. 13]

A brilliant description of the modern day bleeding heart liberal:

The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often holding on for dear life. Take way out holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless. [p. 14-15]

However, I think it needs a bit of tempering. What self is to be esteemed in the selfless individual? It shows that those who preach selfless do not want to practice it themselves, they only want the appearance of being the most selfless, and thus in the seat of greatest power over others.

III. The Interchangeability of Mass Movements

Part 2. The Potential Converts

IV. The Role of the Undesirables in Human Affairs

V. The Poor

The poor are often so intricately attached to mass-movements because of their strength in numbers, they are useful assets and thus strategy as evolved towards pleasing them. (Cite: The demagogues of Rome.) So, a movement will try to preach towards their desires, which is often equality. Any equality generally, even equality in poverty: (Read the last quote here.)

Where freedom is real, equality is the passion of the masses. Where equality is real, freedom is the passion of a small minority.

Equality without freedom creates a more stable social pattern than freedom without equality.

This last statement, about the stability of equality, is questionable. A response to it, which I will not write now, would include a questioning of what definition of stability, as well as a reference towards the history of societies with equality, or rather that tried to attain the ideal of equality.


Also in this section, the author makes a comment that I think is very important. He says that mass-movements need not be true to be successful. (See above about the requirement of pandering to mysticism.)

It is futile to judge the viability of a new movement by the truth of its doctrine and the feasibility of its promises. What has to be judged is its corporate organization for quick and total absorption of the frustrated. Where new creeds vie with each other for the allegiance of the populace, the one which comes with the most perfected collective framework wins. Of all the cults and philosophies which competed in the Graeco-Roman world, Christianity alone developed from its inception a compact organization. [p. 41]

VI. Misfits

VII. The Inordinately Selfish

VIII. The Ambitious Facing Unlimited Opportunities

IX. Minorities

X. The Bored

XI. The Sinners

The author makes this great comment concerning how both the oppressed and the oppressors are vulnerable to mass-movements:

The sardonic remark that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels has also a less derogatory meaning. Fervent patriotism as well as religious and revolutionary enthusiasm often serves as a refuge from a guilty conscience. It is a strange thing that both the injurer and the injured, the sinner and he who is sinned against, should find in the mass movement an escape from a blemished life. Remorse and a sense of grievance seem to drive people in the same direction. [p. 53]

And at the conclusion of the part, it becomes that everyone and anyone who is not attached to reality is vulnerable to a mass-movement. This makes me think that mass-movements will never cease as long as passive movements are still alive. Why? The passive movements retain their attachment to mysticism and thus cultivate this propensity in those under their grasp, thus they prepare their minds for the next rising mass-movement.

Reality seems to be the antidote.

Part 3. United Action and Self-Sacrifice

XII. Preface

XIII. Factors Promoting Self-Sacrifice

The author wonders about why self-sacrifice is a desirable thing for some humans. His resolution is that when a human is in extreme peril, it needs something great than itself to hold on to:

The unavoidable conclusion seems to be that when the individual faces torture or annihilation, he cannot rely on the resources of his own individuality. His only source of strength is in not being himself but part of something mighty, glorious and indestructible. Faith here is primarily a process of identification; the process by which the individual ceases to be himself and becomes part of something eternal. Faith in humanity, in posterity, in the destiny of one’s religion, nation, race, party, or family–what is it but the visualization of that eternal something to which we attach the self that is about to be annihilated? [p. 64]

This idea melds well with the notion that governments do not create wars, but that they are created by wars. And George Orwell’s explanation in The Lion and The Unicorn that socialism and state control of industry can always beat the free-market in times of crisis and war. (He was referring to England being unprepared to battle Germany because its capitalists could not make a profit yet.)


In this chapter, one of my problems with the book first appears: The author’s refusal to admit that democracy is itself a mass-movement that seeks to annihilate the individual by making him a fly and commanding him by the “representatives of the mass.”

The spokesmen of democracy offer no holy cause to cling to and no corporate whole to lose oneself in. [p. 87]

XIV. Unifying Agents

One of the unifying agents described is hatred. Hoffer explains that the best subject of hate is “the devil” and preferably the foreign devil. An interesting comment on Americans:

It is easier to hate an enemy with much good in him than one who is all bad. We cannot hate those we despise. The Japanese had an advantage over us in that they admired us more than we admired them. They could hate us more fervently than we could hate them. The Americans are poor haters in international affairs because of their innate feeling of superiority over all foreigners. An American’s hatred for a fellow American (for Hoover or Roosevelt) is far more virulent than any antipathy he can work up against foreigners. It is of interest that the backward South shows more xenophobia than the rest of the country. Should Americans begin to hate foreigners wholeheartedly, it will be an indication that they have lost confidence in their own way of life. [p. 96]

Another agent may be persuasion, or propaganda, but Hoffer has doubts:

The truth seems to be that propaganda on its own cannot force its way into unwilling minds; neither can it inculcate something wholly new; nor can it keep people persuaded once they have ceased to believe. It penetrates only into minds already open, and rather than instill opinion it articulates and justifies opinions already present in the minds of its recipients. The gifted propagandist brings to a boil ideas and passions already simmering in the minds of his hearers. he echoes their innermost feelings. Where opinion is not coerced, people can be made to believe only in what they already “know.” [p. 105]

Completely unrelated question: Can advertising force people to buy something?

The last I think I will mention, suspicion:

Collective unity is not the result of the brotherly love of the faithful for each other. The loyalty of the true believer is to the whole–the church, party, nation–and not to his fellow true believer. True loyalty between individuals is possible only in a loose and relatively free society. [p. 125]

Part 4. Beginning and End

XV. Men of Words

XVI. The Fanatics

XVII. The Practical Men of Actions

XVIII. Good and Bad Mass Movements

It is here that Hoffer asserts that some mass-movements are generally seen as good, the American, French, and Protestant Revolutions, despite the bloodshed of their ‘active’ phase. This meshes well with Leo Strauss‘ conception of justice and government–that might (success) makes right and that “the foundation of every city [government] is in crime.”

Open Questions

After reading this book, some questions were left in my mind…

  • Are there “meta-mass-movements”, like the establishment of the philosophy of Kant that tries to destroy the individual in spirit, that are the building blocks of other mass-movements (socialism, Communism, totalitarianism, et cetera), and are they interesting?
  • If all mass-movements aim to destroy the individual mind, then what of groups resembling mass-movements (in that they are a group aiming for social change), such as the Objectivists and Libertarians, that explicitly champion the importance of the individual man in the present? (Possibly this just means that they are destined to be unsuccessful movements, because a movement requires the doctrine of self-sacrifice?)
  • Is it that some of these groups, i.e. the Libertarians, are actually hiding behind the veil of the individual when in fact they are nationalists (“Restore the original glory of the Constitution.”), millenarian saviors (“Socialism and Totalitarianism is destroying the globe and it is my legion of saviors and my doctrine that is the only cure!”), or just plain fakes? (After the restoration of anarchy, their goal is to be the strongest man and establish some new government.)

And perhaps the biggest questions of them all:

  • Is the study of these “mass-movements” truly the general study of the organization of humans? That is, are lasting organizations by their nature destructive of the individuality of man? This may have support particularly because of the passive phase of mass-movements when they become stable organizations. (I use the word “lasting” to reference Ayn Rand’s comment in Philosophy: Who Needs It about the only valuable organizations being ad-hoc temporary committees with a specific and defined purpose. N.B.: I also read this book over the weekend and will review it shortly.)