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Without Belief in a God, But Never Without Belief in a Devil
The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements—A Review
Eric Hoffer was a longshoreman-turned-philosopher.
In 1941, he wrote “My writing is done in railroad yards while waiting for a freight, in the fields while waiting for a truck, and at noon after lunch. Towns are too distracting.”
Ten years later, Hoffer’s masterpiece The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements was published when he was in his late forties. Its unexpected success led him to later be appointed as an adjunct professor at University of California, Berkeley.
A slim volume, The True Believer was a favorite of President Dwight Eisenhower, who regularly gifted copies to friends. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell was also an enthusiast of Hoffer’s book. The author and conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. described The True Believer as “deeply provocative.”
It’s one of my favorite nonfiction books.
Hoffer’s unusual background as a manual laborer and member of the working class helped to fuel his unique psychological and sociological insights which people continue to mine to this day.
Today, political polarization is at its peak. Out-party hate is now more powerful than in-party love as a predictor of voting behavior in the United States.
Eric Hoffer's ideas are more relevant than ever.
Eric Hoffer made the case that if you peel back the layers of any mass movement, you will find that frustration is their driving force.
Frustration, though, doesn’t arise solely from bleak material conditions. The dockyard philosopher argued that “Our frustration is greater when we have much and want more than when we have nothing and want some. We are less dissatisfied when we lack many things than when we seem to lack but one thing.”
He points out in the years leading up to both the French and Russian Revolutions, life had in fact been gradually improving for the masses. He concludes, “It is not actual suffering but the taste of better things which excites people to revolt” and that “The intensity of discontent seems to be in inverse proportion to the distance from the object fervently desired.”
Personally, I saw this when I first arrived at Yale. I recall being stunned at how status anxiety pervaded elite college campuses. Internally, I thought, “You’ve already made it, what are you so stressed out about?” Hoffer, though, would say these students believed they had almost made it. That is why they were so aggravated. The closer they got to realizing their ambitions, the more frustrated they became about not already achieving them.
Hoffer’s conceptions of frustration highlight how if your conditions improve, but not as much or as quickly as you’d like, you will be vulnerable to recruitment by mass movements that promise to make your dreams come true.
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “When inequality is the general law of society, the most blatant inequalities escape notice. When everything is virtually on a level, the slightest variations cause distress. That is why the desire for equality becomes more insatiable as equality extends to all.” For Hoffer, this insatiability cultivates frustration—a nebulous, simmering emotional state that can be harnessed by any ideology.
He describes what has now become known as the “Tocqueville effect”: A revolution is most likely to occur after an improvement in social conditions. As circumstances improve, people raise their expectations. Societal reforms raise reference points to a level that is usually not matched, eliciting rage and frustration.
In addition to the fact that reality seldom matches expectations, frustration also originates in a deep sense of dissatisfaction within oneself. We see this in the rise of social movements across the U.S., where individuals across the political spectrum feel disillusioned by their current situation, leading to a strong desire for dramatic change.
Hoffer argued that mass movements consciously attempt to cultivate and exploit frustration among their members. This helps to fuel their existence. The promotion of frustration is not incidental but is in fact the result of competition: movements that effectively nurture frustration outperform others by attracting and retaining the most fervent members.
In a passage that is reminiscent of today’s idea of the “horseshoe theory” (political extremes have more in common with one another than with moderates), Hoffer wrote that, “When people are ripe for a mass movement, they are usually ripe for any movement...In pre-Hitlerian Germany, it was often a toss up whether a restless youth would join the Communists or the Nazis.” Indeed, the official figure from the original paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party was that fifty-five percent of their members were former communists. According to Rudolf Diels, head of the Gestapo in 1933-1934, the actual figure was seventy percent.
According to The True Believer, the shared factor among extreme mass movements is not ideology or practice but a shared hatred for the present and a yearning for a (subjectively defined) utopian future.
In the marketplace of ideologies, the dogma that is most effective at harvesting emotional discontent often prevails. The danger of mass movements lies in their ability to manipulate these frustrations. Hoffer argues that these movements purposely foster frustration and dissatisfaction, pushing their members further into their cause. This, in turn, deepens their commitment, keeping them in a state of perpetual discontent and thus, devotion to the movement that promises to liberate them.
The formula goes something like this. Mass movements that are good at what they do make previously content individuals frustrated and further frustrate their adherents while pretending to advance the movement. This means that the strongest mass movements are inevitably going to be the ones that are the best at not delivering the goods. Any movement that actually advances the interests of its frustrated supporters will make them less frustrated. Hence, they’ll stop being members.
A core aspect of Hoffer's argument is that the root of frustration lies not just in external circumstances or “the system,” but fundamentally in the burdens of being an individual. Outsourcing decisions about your life to the movement comes as a relief. While practical organizations (e.g., an employer) cater to self-interest and offer opportunities for self-advancement, a mass movement appeals to those who wish to escape or camouflage an unsatisfactory self. Mass movements hold the implicit promise of fulfilling the desire for self-renunciation.
When people feel their lives are meaningless, they seek meaning by telling others what to do with their lives, a key feature of many mass movements. One sentence in the book summarizes the idea: “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”
The book goes on, “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.”
Hoffer's concept of “substitution” elaborates on this theme. He suggests that individuals dissatisfied with their own self-image often substitute their identity for that of a larger group. Those who join mass movements often feel that their lives lack meaning because they cannot derive satisfaction from their current actions or circumstances. They seek fulfillment in something that extends beyond practical acts in the present, leading them to mass movements.
In one of the book’s most famous passages, Hoffer wrote “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents...Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without a belief in a devil.”
For mass movements, hatred serves a useful purpose. It’s the glue that binds the disgruntled members together, turning them into a focused, potent force. The collective enemy helps maintain an atmosphere of constant alertness. It does not only keep the followers united, but it also attracts new members who share similar fears. Hatred fosters an atmosphere of persistent threat that can never be entirely overcome.
Hoffer writes that “in a mass movement, the air is heavy-laden with suspicion…the faithful strive to escape suspicion by adhering zealously to prescribed behavior and opinion…strict orthodoxy is as much the result of mutual suspicion as of ardent faith.”
This is consistent with modern notions of the enforcement of popular social norms. A widely-cited paper from 2009 proposed that people coerce one another into adhering to disliked norms to show that they themselves have complied out of genuine conviction and not because of social pressure. Indeed, some individuals might be especially prone to enforcing unpopular norms because they are worried that others will regard them as insufficiently sincere.
In a notable historical illustration of a mass movement using a “belief in a devil” as a limitless source of ideological fuel, consider the case of the “Recalling Bitterness” campaign in Maoist China. In the 1960s, the communist dictator Mao Zedong grew worried that ordinary Chinese citizens were developing lukewarm attitudes about the socialist revolution. In response, the regime forced people into rituals in which they publicly announced how bad life was before they had been liberated. Mao ordered writers and artists to rewrite history through the lens of class struggle to suit the needs of his political agenda. Regime officials held meetings encouraging peasants to describe how much better life was now compared to pre-liberation, hoping to convince them that the revolution’s successes outnumbered its failures. The “devils” here were reactionaries, landlords, rich farmers, and counterrevolutionaries. Documenting the rituals of the Recalling Bitterness campaign, the historian Guo Wu has written, “Only poor peasants were allowed to speak; former landlords and rich peasants were silenced.”
Rewriting history to demonize selected groups is an effective way to promote unity within a mass movement.
For Hoffer, the deliberate cultivation of fear and hatred serves to justify increasingly terrifying levels of cruelty and violence. The individual, convinced of his or her guiltlessness, relinquishes agency to the movement. This is yet another example of escaping the burden of the self.
These activities, Hoffer proposes, often manifest as futile tasks that seem to address problems but in fact accomplish little of substance. Rather than confronting the system they oppose, mass movements often end up targeting irrelevant figures or groups, engaging in meaningless protests, or turning on each other. Ironically, because the movement accomplishes so little, they ultimately give rise to increased fanaticism. This leads to further persecution in the quest to find a scapegoat to hold accountable for the failures of the movement.
A strong community can counter the attraction of mass movements. When people feel a sense of belonging, this can guide them away from falling into the trap of large collectives that dissolve individual identities. In our modern world, where traditional forms of community are fraying, and many feel unfulfilled by their work, the appeal of mass movements is amplified. Such movements thrive on shared frustrations.
Mass movements are not exclusive to the modern age. The True Believer, written in the mid-twentieth century, suggests that modernizing forces provide a fertile ground for their proliferation due to the lack of meaningful work, a sense of community, and an overarching sense of meaning in life.
Community is a safeguard against frustration. Hoffer suggests that those who see themselves as part of a close-knit group are less likely to be attracted to mass movements. The sense of accountability that comes from being part of a community and the reciprocal actions required to sustain membership counters the urge to lose oneself in a larger collective identity. The book points out that although mass movements can be seen as a kind of community, they differ in that they require only belief and identity, rather than reciprocal obligations and accountability.
In addition to membership in a cohesive community, engaging in meaningful work provides a buffer against radicalization. This is one reason why mass movements attempt to undermine the value of work, or claim that anyone who earnestly and unironically participates in the system is a victim of false consciousness or propaganda or has somehow been duped. The aim is to position the members of the mass movement as those who are truly “in the know,” and to undermine their targets’ confidence and turn them into potential recruits.
The True Believer advises against supporting organizations without clear, attainable objectives. The dockyard philosopher reminds us that we should be skeptical of mass movements without clearly defined goals. Often, the ostensible aim of large movements is some nebulous idea of improvement. But the practical, concrete outcome is frequently more frustration, more anger, and more agitation, which benefits the organization rather than those they purport to help.
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