Thursday, December 10, 2009

The True Believer

Eric Hoffer was a longshoreman (waterside worker in Australian parlance) who became a successful writer. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements is his first and most famous work. With the rise of the jihadis, there has been a revival of interest in his analysis. Though many of the elements of environmentalism also fit his analysis—such as this piece of evil moral viciousness from Clive Hamilton or the groupthink that the CRUtape letters reveal.

The The True Believer is epigrammatic, consisting of a series of numbered propositions, expounded and implications explained in very lucid language. Some are short:
8: Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves
9: The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his race or his holy cause (p.14)
others much longer. I am not entirely comfortable with his argument-by-assertion style, but his thought is so fresh and striking that it makes one think.

Hoffer is interested in who become a true believer, what attracts them, what sustains them, what makes a mass movement gel or not. His fundamental argument is that true believers are folk who are profoundly dissatisfied with the way they (don't) fit into their existing society. The power of their belief both flows from, and covers over, their dissatisfaction. A mixture of social circumstances and happenstance determine how many such folk there are and whether the right person or persons comes along to mould them into an effective force.

But he has much more than that to say about the dynamics of true belief and mass movements—the importance of belief in a vivid future (p.9); in some potent doctrine, infallible leader or new technique that makes the future achievable, even irresistible (p.11); he notes willingness of true believers to change causes (p.17); the importance of the "new poor" in mass movements (p.26); misery is most potent when it is nearly redressed (p.28); the generally (and rationally) hostile attitude of mass movements to the family (pp35ff); the isolating and frustrating effect of colonialism (pp36ff); mass movements need to integrate newcomers for:
A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrines and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence
(p.41); it is the weakness not the strength of existing structures which encourage revolt (pp42ff); the importance of isolation and boredom (such as failed creativity p.34) in encouraging true belief (pp52ff); the vast difference between feeling isolated and alone and being part of an organised group (p.64ff); the complex overlaps and differences between radicals and reactionaries, united in their hatred of the present (pp74ff); that things which are not can be mightier motivators than things which already are (pp77ff); the effectiveness of doctrine comes not from its meaning but its certitude (p.80)
To be in possession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity
(p.82); inner balance is antithetical to participation in a mass movement (p.84); the strange dynamics of hatred (pp.96ff); the importance of imitation as a binding force (and how that helped America integrate migrants) (pp101ff); the power of propaganda combined with coercion (pp106ff); proselytising as dissatisfaction (pp110ff); suspicion as a binding force (pp124ff); the intellectual barrenness of fanaticism flowing from certitude (pp156ff); the power of an unlimited goal (p.164).

A short, easy to read and thought-provoking book


  1. Eric Hoffer was much lionized among non-radical circles in the USA during the 1960s and 1970s as a good example of the fundamental difference between American and European society. That was in the context of such contemporary trends as the fashion for marcusian and maoist slogans. Very interesting indeed that Hoffer's relevance is confirmed again in the new context of jihadism.