42 pages 1 hour read

Eric Hoffer

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1951

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Summary and Study Guide


The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), by Eric Hoffer, is a philosophical treatise that explores the question of why ordinary people join mass movements and become fanatical devotees of what they perceive as a holy cause. Hoffer argues that prospective fanatics—the soon-to-be true believers—experience personal frustration so intense that their strongest desire is to lose their individuality altogether by surrendering to something greater than themselves. Mass movements exploit this frustration by offering true believers an escape from personal responsibility. Furthermore, the precise nature of the mass movement—its doctrines, objectives, and programs—means little compared to its ability to attract and mold fanatics by offering them refuge from an unwanted self. The True Believer was a critical success upon publication and has remained a famous work on the nature and psychology of mass movements ever since. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan conferred on Hoffer the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

This guide references the 2002 Modern Classics edition.


The True Believer features a Preface, four parts, and eighteen chapters. Four of these chapters are divided into sections. This guide summarizes and analyzes parts, chapters, and sections as they appear in The True Believer’s table of contents.

In the Preface, Hoffer explains that The True Believer “deals with some peculiarities common to all mass movements,” including their ability to “generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action,” as well as the fact that “they all appeal to the same types of mind” (xi). Thus, from the opening page, Hoffer identifies the book’s three major themes. First, by noting “peculiarities common to all mass movements,” he hints at The Irrelevance of Doctrine. Second, by highlighting the fanatic’s “readiness to die” and “proclivity for united action,” he establishes the most important of the book’s themes: The Appeal of United Action and Self-Sacrifice. Finally, by referring to the “same types of mind,” he introduces his argument that The Role of Frustration is always important in attracting individuals to a mass movement.

Part 1 explains why mass movements attract a certain type of individual. In short, mass movements offer the prospect of immediate and radical change. This appeals to frustrated individuals who long to escape their dreary, meaningless lives. Intense frustration leaves people susceptible to all kinds of mass movements regardless of their specific ideologies or promises.

In Part 2, Hoffer identifies the type of person likely to succumb to frustration. His most important argument here is that poverty alone does not predict the degree of frustration required to transform an ordinary person into a mass movement’s true believer. In fact, of the five types of “poor” covered in Chapter 5, only two project as likely converts to a mass movement. These are the “new poor” and the “free poor,” each of whom has tasted enough of something better to render their present conditions unbearable. By contrast, the “abjectly poor,” “creative poor,” and “unified poor” experience life circumstances that, for one reason or another, mitigate frustration. The real true believer is likely to come from the ranks of permanent misfits, criminals, and the unusually selfish, among others.

Part 3 focuses on the book’s major theme: The Appeal of United Action and Self-Sacrifice. Chapter 12 serves as a brief preface. Chapter 13 identifies seven different “Factors Promoting Self-Sacrifice.” These include make-believe, fanaticism, and doctrine, though it is important to note that Hoffer regards doctrine as instrumental only in a practical sense—for instance as a shield against doubt that might otherwise undermine the true believer’s faith. Of all the “Factors Promoting Self-Sacrifice,” Hoffer devotes the most space to “Deprecation of the Present.” Here he brings together all three of his major themes by arguing that frustrated individuals are ready to die for a mass movement because the present appears worthless to them, and that this eagerness to destroy a worthless present unites fanatics of all kinds regardless of ideologies.

Chapter 14 then describes seven different “Unifying Agents” such as hatred, leadership, and action. The strongest of these is hatred, though skillful leaders know how to exploit every negative emotion and inclination in their true believers. Hoffer’s major argument in this chapter is that each factor reinforces itself as it forges unity. Hatred unites fanatics and breeds more hatred. Action unifies and leads to more action. Even unification itself intensifies the desire for unity.

Finally, Part 4 examines a mass movement’s life cycle and then concludes with thoughts on how to mitigate a mass movement’s worst effects. Chapters 15-17 focus on the beginning, active, and end phases of a movement. Since the entire book deals with the active phase, Hoffer concentrates here on beginning and end. Disgruntled intellectuals, critical of an existing regime, often pave the way for mass movements by undermining the regime’s legitimacy, i.e., by making war on the present. These intellectuals feel frustration, but they are also too vain to seek self-renunciation, so they make poor fanatics. In the fanatic-led second phase of a mass movement, the intellectual gives way to the true believer. When the mass movement’s active phase has run its course, the practical man of action steps in to stabilize it. In many cases, the movement degenerates into a dictatorship dominated by the practical man of action. As Hoffer explains, however, mass movements can yield benefits, such as greater degrees of liberty and justice, provided the movement’s ugly and violent active phase is short. Hoffer cites the Protestant Reformation, the English Civil War, and the French and American Revolutions as examples of mass movements with short active phases that produced net benefits.