What Eric Hoffer tells us about “true believers”

September 1, 2008 | By | 3 Replies More

This weekend, a good friend (Thanks, Eddie!) reminded me to read a “classic” on mass movements, The True Believer (1951), by Eric Hoffer, an American social writer.  Hoffer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 1983 by President of the United States Ronald Reagan.

Hoffer begins his book by recognizing that all mass movements have much in common:

This book deals with some peculiarities common to all mass movements, be they religious movements, social revolutions or nationalist movements. It does not maintain that all movements are data call, but that they share certain essential care to restrict which give them a family likeness.

There is more to the similarities, according to Hoffer. All mass movements “demand blind faith and single hearted allegiance.” Although they differ in their doctrines, they all “draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind.”  Hoffer speaks of the art of “religiofication, the art of turning practical purposes into holy causes.” (15)

Last night, I took a couple hours to read through The True Believer. I want to take this time to share a few quotes from Hoffer’s book:

There is in us a tendency to locate the shaping forces of our existence outside ourselves. (16)

Discontent by itself does not invariably create a desire for change. Other factors have to be present before discontent turns into disaffection. One of these is a sense of power. (17)

The differences between the conservatives and the radicals seem to spring mainly from their attitude toward the future. Fear of the future causes us to lean against and cling to the present, while faith in the future renders us receptive to change. (19)

The vigor and growth of a rising mass movement depend on its capacity to evoke and satisfy the passion for self-renunciation. (22)

Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves. (22)

A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business. . . 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 a holding on for dear life. Take away our 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.” (23)

All mass movements are competitive, and the gain of one in adherents is the loss of all the others. All mass movements are interchangeable. (26)

Our frustration is greater when we have much and want more than what we have nothing and want some. (34)

Equality without freedom creates a more stable social pattern and freedom without equality. . . Poverty when coupled with creativeness is usually free of frustration. (37-38)

A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge in offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence. … It is futile to judge the viability of a new movement by the truth of its doctrine and the feasibility of his promises. (44)

Hitler knew that “the chief passion of the frustrated is to belong.” (45)

The man just out of the Army is an ideal potential convert. (48).

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.” (55).

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 frightful mess and finality and becomes an act of make-believe in a theatrical gesture. It is one of the main tasks of a real leader to mask the grim reality of dying and killing by evoking in his followers the illusion that they are participating in a grandiose spectacle, a solemn or lighthearted dramatic performance. (64)

The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual resources-out of his project itself-but finds it only by clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace. (80)

Though they seem at opposite poles, fanatics of all kinds are actually crowded together at one end. It is the fanatic and the moderate who are poles apart and never meet. The fanatics of various hues eye each other with suspicion and are ready to fly at each other’s throats. But they are neighbors and almost of one family. (81)

Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents. (85)

Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil. (86)

That hatred springs more from self-contempt than from a legitimate grievance is seen in the intimate connection between hatred and a guilty conscience. (89)

It is easier to hate an enemy with much good in him than one who is all bad. . . . it is startling to see how the oppressed almost in every hue shape themselves in the image of their hated oppressors . . . passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. (90-92)

Faith organizes and equips man’s soul for action. (113)

In the eyes of the true believer, people who have no holy cause are without backbone and character–a pushover for men of faith. On the other hand, the true believers of various hues, though they view each other with mortal hatred and are ready to fly at each other’s throat, recognize and respect each other’s strength. (147)

Hoffer offers a well-considered set of ideas presented in clear fashion.  As I read his description of the insecure member of powerful mass movements, I was repeatedly reminded of Nietzsche’s idea of ressentiment:

Ressentiment is a reassignment of the pain that accompanies a sense of one’s own inferiority/failure onto an external scapegoat. The ego creates the illusion of an enemy, a cause that can be “blamed” for one’s own inferiority/failure. Thus, one was thwarted not by a failure in oneself, but rather by an external “evil”. This issuing of “blame” leads one to desire revenge, or at least believe in the possibility of revenge; this lust for revenge may take many forms, as in the Christian conception of the Last Judgment, or the socialist conception of revolution. In each case, a sense of powerlessness creates the illusion of an enemy; one suddenly conceives oneself to be oppressed rather than merely weak, a phenomenon that spawns externally-directed bitterness (lust for a perceived “revenge”).


Category: Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Very powerful, sobering and enlightening!

  2. Mentat says:

    Many of these are quite insightful, and a few seem somewhat dubious (at least, perhaps, isolated from their context). I've not read Hoffer in depth but I think I shall have to. I've always liked this other quote of his:

    "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 religion, his race or his holy cause."

    Hoffer should have appended "sports team" to that list!

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”


Leave a Reply