Book review: “True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” by Eric Hoffer

I believe I picked up Eric Hoffer’s True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements in the footnotes of a Jonathan Haidt book. In the events in D.C. this past week, including the Trump rally and the following storming of the Capitol, I thought it would definitely be an appropriate read. Originally published in 1951, it has continues to capture the mind of political leaders, as they use it to explain the latest mass movement. It was a favorite of Dwight D. Eisenhower in the midst of the Cold War. And Hilary Clinton recommended it to her staff when campaigning against Donald Trump (I’m assuming to explain the fanatical behavior of Trumps following? Or perhaps her inability to spark a similar mass movement).

The basic premise of the book is that mass movements, regardless of origin– religious, nationalist, political– share common characteristics. Hoffer outlines them in his preface:

  1. All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action;
  2. all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance;
  3. all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life;
  4. all of them demand blind faith and singlehearted allegiance.

Hoffer is quick to try to establish his objectivity:

The assumption that mass movements have many traits in common does not imply that all movements are equally beneficent or poisonous. The book passes no judgments, and expresses no preferences. It merely tries to explain; and the explanations– all of them theories– are in the nature of suggestions and arguments even when they are stated in what seems a categorical tone. I can do no better than quote Montaigne: “All I say is by way of discourse, and nothing by way of advice. I should not speak so boldly if it were my due to be believed.”

But his book doesn’t feel that way to me. His favorite examples to pull from mostly frame mass movements as negative. His most common examples are pulled from Nazi Germany, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the founding of Christianity as Islam. Even Mormons make a brief appearance when discussing migrations:

Even mass movement is in a sense a migration– a movement toward a promised land; and, when feasible and expedient, an actual migration takes place. This happened in the case of the Puritans, Anabaptists, Mormons, Dukhobors and Zionists.

I am assuming from the context that Hoffer is a dedicated individualist, and mass movements are meant to suppress the individual, or to provide him with an escape from personal responsibility. There appears to be nothing noble in them, and any apparent nobility of motive the follower (or what he refers to consistently as the frustrated) is ephemeral. In one passage, he even lets slip is belief that mass movements have an inherently evil streak to them. In this section, he describes how some leaders of mass movements try to attenuate this evil edge:

The personality of the leader is probably a crucial factor in determining the nature and duration of a mass movement. Such rare leaders as Lincoln and Gandhi not only try to curb the evil inherent in a mass movement but are willing to put an end to the movement when its objective is more or less realized.

The book left me feeling decidedly unsettled. As if mass movements could strip you of individual autonomy. And not in the sense of being forced against your own will, but rather losing your will altogether. It reminded me of a passage from Haidt’s The Righteous Mind when discussing the evolutionary benefits of group action, eventually trending from single cells to multi-celled organisms to superorganisms:

Whenever a way is found to suppress free riding so that individual units can cooperate, work as a team, and divide labor, selection at the lower level becomes less important, selection at the higher level becomes more powerful, and that higher-level selection favors the most cohesive superorgnaisms.

The idea of being one cell in a body like that, or a bee in a hive, is again, unsettling. Perhaps because I am from a society that values individuality so highly. But Haidt views the role of religion in encouraging cooperation positively, even if he is himself a skeptic. One of my favorite passages in his book outlines this:

Communities can survive only to the extent that they can bind a group together, suppress self-interest, and solve the free rider problem. Communes are usually founded by a group of committed believers who reject the moral matrix of the broader society and want to organize themselves along different principles. For many nineteenth-century communes, the principles were religious; for others they were secular, mostly socialist. Which kind of communes survived longer? Sosis found that the difference was stark: just 6 percent of the secular communes were still functioning twenty years after their founding, compared to 39 percent of the religious communes.

What was the secret ingredient that gave the religious communes a longer shelf life? Sosis quantified everything he could find about life in each commune. He then used those numbers to see if any of them could explain why some stood the test of time while others crumbled. He found one master variable: the number of costly sacrifices that each commune demanded from its members. IT was things like giving up alcohol and tobacco, fasting for days at a time, conforming to a communal dress code or hairstyle, or cutting ties with outsiders. For religious communes, the effect was perfectly linear: the more sacrifice a commune demanded, teh longer it lasted. But Sosis was surprised to discover that demands for sacrifice did not help secular communes. Most of them failed within eight years, and there was no correlation between sacrifice and longevity.Why doesn’t sacrifice strengthen secular communes? Sosis argues that rituals, laws, and other constraints work best when they are sacralized…*

Compare this to Hoffer’s framing of sacrifice and ritual:

The effacement of individual separateness must be thorough. In every act, however trivial, the individual must by some ritual associate himself with the congregation, the tribe, the party, etcetera. His joys and sorrows, his pride and confidence must spring from teh fortunes and capacities of the group rather than from his individual prospects and abilities. Above all, he must never feel alone. Though stranded on a desert island, he must still feel that he is under the eyes of the group. To be cast out from the group should be equivalent to being cut off from life…

Dying and killing seem easy when they are part of a ritual, ceremonial, dramatic performance or game. There is need for some kind of make-believe in order to face death unflinchingly. To our real, naked selves there is not a thing on earth or in heaven worth dying for. It is only when we see ourselves as actors in a staged (and therefore unreal) performance that death loses its frightfulness and finality and becomes an act of make-believe and a theatrical gesture.

I never felt a redeeming moment of mass movements in Hoffer’s book. There were moments that resonated with me. For instance, the explanatory power of the changing tenor from a dynamic and creative faith to one that is mainly conservative in nature:

In the past, religious movements were the conspicuous vehicles of change. The conservatism of a religion– its orthodoxy– is the inert coagulum of a once highly reactive sap.

I also think it has something to say about current events in the political sphere:

A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence. It cures the poignantly frustrated by conferring on them an absolute truth or by remedying the difficulties and abuses which make their lives miserable, but by freeing them from their ineffectual selves– and it does this by enfolding and absorbing them into a closely knit and exultant corporate whole.

But I also see danger in this being used condescendingly. In fact, the whole thing feels condescending, like Hilary’s Basket of Deplorables. It doesn’t provide solutions or alternatives to mass movements that provide cohesiveness, build community, and give life meaning. I found the book extremely compelling, but simultaneously cold. Perhaps understandingly so, as Hoffer appears to be trying to explain the ideological battlefields of the 20th century.

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