The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements
is a 1951 work in the field of social psychology by American moral and social philosopher Eric Hoffer. The book is a critique of ideological fanaticism, tracing it to its psychological roots. Hoffer breaks down various personality types that have been historically associated with fanaticism, suggesting possible reasons why they gravitate towards the formation of mass movements. He also theorizes about why mass movements form, how they differ, and whether their genres (for example, the reactionary movement versus the political movement) can be explained by the psychologies of their constituents. Hoffer’s primary thesis is that mass movements stem from discernable psychological patterns rather than as appeals based in rationality or belief. He examines different movements that have erupted through history, including communism, socialism, fascism, Christianity, Islam, and Protestantism. The novel is considered seminal in the domain of psychological literature related to group psychology and organization.
In the first section, Hoffer argues that endemic to all mass movements is a call, in the general sense, for “change.” He suggests that the object of this change need not be, nor is it even usually, specific or cogent. Rather, it is often necessarily vague, stemming from incensed individuals’ beliefs that their realities are outside their control. These people also tend to distrust the traditions and cultures that they observe. The psychological state of alienation is therefore also central to the social detachment that mass movements thrive on. Hoffer contends that people under these belief systems believe that the only way out is to renounce the self by subscribing to a mass movement in which the boundaries of the individual identity blur or become arbitrary. Hoffer further argues that all mass movements share two primary identifying traits. The first is the principle of competition: as they grow, they fear that the size of their opposition is scaling proportionally, and are, therefore, never content that they have achieved “victory.” The second is the fact of being interchangeable; if one mass movement is squelched, or somehow dissolves of its own accord, its constituents will quickly find another cause to rally over. Hoffer lists as examples of mass movement leaders the Nazi Party’s Hitler and Rohm, as well as Karl Radek, a prominent communist.
Next, Hoffer outlines several demographics that are vulnerable to conversion into mass movement psychology. One of these he terms the “New Poor”: those who resent the loss of a former wealth or identity, real or imagined. The second category is the “abjectly poor,” or those who are rendered so destitute by unfair socioeconomic conditions that they are actively seeking a cause to rally over, barely scrutinizing it for legitimacy. He believes that minority groups in the categories of race and religion are also especially convertible, since they often yearn for a larger national identity to belong to. Antithetical to the conditions that seed mass movements, Hoffer believes, are conditions that extol the virtues and potentials of the individual.
The third section of The True Believer
focuses on organized action and self-sacrifice. Hoffer analyzes what he believes is the loss of the intentions or beliefs of the individual in any mass movement. He argues that these movements necessitate the surrender of the self. He also characterizes as ludicrous the instruments by which movements achieve cohesion and organization, emphasizing that they rely on fiction, diversion, and spectacle. He cites, for example, the speeches and parades utilized by Hitler during the rise of the Nazis. Hoffer refutes the frequent claim that these groups are akin to religions, since they require no god. Rather, they require only an opponent to consolidate their identity politics. He casts the fanatic as fundamentally unstable and insecure, lacking any intrinsic meaning in life.
Hoffer’s concluding section outlines the three personality types he believes are core to the production of mass movements. One is the “fault-finding intellectual,” who uses his rationalism to rebuke established social arrangements. These men are usually social pariahs in the mainstream intellectual community and, therefore, resent normative orders and claims. The second personality is the fanatical one. Fanatics, Hoffer argues, usually end up seizing the actual power after the fault-finding intellectuals erode the norms and spread the propaganda necessary to recruit a critical mass of membership. The fanatic, lacking any intellectual language for describing or rationalizing his alienation, resorts to hostility and violence. Hitler is a prime example of the fanatic, as well as Benito Mussolini and Maximilien de Robespierre. In the final stage of the mass movement, power is seized by “practical men of action.” These people try to limit the destruction of the fanatics and, instead, formulate new means for the constructive oppression of their opponents through the instantiation of brand new norms tailored to their ideology.
Hoffer ends by exhorting his audience to recognize elements of fanaticism wherever, and whenever, they may be. He states that mass movements, even when they oppose brutal regimes, generally accomplish their ends by committing atrocities far more brutal than the powers they initially grieved about. The True Believer
is a comprehensive rebuke of the fallacy of identity politics, and a validation of the responsibility of the modern citizen to reclaim his individual thought, rejecting a louder and baser nature.