Book Reviews, Charles, Communism, Political Discussion & Analysis, Radical Right Authoritarianism, Social Behavior
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The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (Eric Hoffer)

Eric Hoffer was, Dwight Eisenhower said in 1952, his favorite philosopher. This endorsement made Hoffer, a self-educated San Francisco stevedore, famous. The True Believer is the book that Eisenhower gave all his friends. Read today, however, this book is mediocre, at best. It is the type of book that congratulates the reader while pretending to challenge him; it is a mirror that reflects to the reader what he wants to hear—especially for self-proclaimed “moderates” of flexible principle like Eisenhower. The True Believer is the Cream of Wheat of political books—you can taste anything you want in it, and if you add the right toppings yourself, you can be sure that you will be pleased.

Hoffer was not only self-educated, he also manufactured his own life story. He claimed to be born in 1898 in the Bronx to Alsatian German immigrants, grown up there, and to have later lived on Skid Row in Los Angeles. The first records of him show up in the 1940s, when he started working on the Los Angeles docks, which he did for decades. Most of his backstory is probably false; he spoke with a Bavarian accent, and no New York accent, and the rest of his life story has zero confirmation, but it doesn’t really matter, since the essential facts about him are his auto-didacticism and his close actual connection with the working man.

The True Believer attempts to construct a theory of irrational fanaticism as the basis for all mass movements, which for Hoffer means basically Christianity, Islam, Communism, and Nazism. It is written primarily in the form of aphorisms, which Hoffer delivers to us like Moses delivering the tablets of the law. Aphorism, though, is not argument. For the first few pages, the book seems insightful, but soon enough the reader starts to wonder where the meat is. And to the extent there is any attempt to tie the aphorisms together, it is through the frame of psychobabble, where we are told that supporters of mass movements are all merely and purely frustrated individuals seeking an outlet and a purpose, rather than rational actors. This gives the reader a feeling of superiority, since of course he is not frustrated, he is highly rational, and he can see clearly where the rubes went wrong. He would never go Nazi, or Communist. He would #Resist! I’m pretty sure this warm feeling that Hoffer blesses the reader with is the real cause for the popularity of this book.

The book itself can be parsed pretty quickly. Hoffer first tries to explain the appeal of mass movements. He tells us that they arise because people want change, and an effective mass movement claims “the key to the future.” Also, we are told that there is a big difference between the hopes that people put in mass movements and what usually results. That’s not insightful; it’s obvious to a child. Only mildly more insightful is Hoffer’s point that people who join mass movements aren’t interested in advancement, but in renunciation of themselves, by which they “gain enormously in self-esteem.” From this, though, Hoffer jumps to the explicit conclusion that “all mass movements are interchangeable”; their “particular program or doctrine” is completely irrelevant.

This is silly and simplistic. While it is true that as a historical matter the foot soldiers of Communism often rapidly became Nazis, as both Patrick Leigh Fermor and Sebastian Haffner observed contemporaneously, the reverse was not true (why, I am not sure, and certainly Hoffer has no insights). Moreover, in his attempt to design a one-size-fits-all theory of mass movements, Hoffer cannot distinguish between religious belief and political belief that functions as a religion. While there are similarities in some instances, and the recognition of Communism as a type of religion was not universal in 1951, when this book was published, he overstates the similarities, and thereby undermines his whole book. In particular, religious belief tends to have a very different impact on beliefs regarding temporal actions than do non-religious mass movements. And if it were true that “one mass movement readily transforms itself to another,” there would be mass conversions at times in history between Islam and Christianity, or vice versa, and that has never happened. Nor has any other mass movement transformed itself into another. Communism and Nazism were defeated and died (though zombie Communism, in the form of the modern Left, is still with us); they did not transform. This suggests that the actual ideological content of mass movements is far more important than Hoffer thinks. In fact, Hoffer thinks it is completely irrelevant, which is demonstrably false.

Hoffer, as can be seen, has an extremely limited grasp of history. You would think an auto-didact would know more, but Hoffer’s own reading seems to have run mostly to philosophy (he cannot stop citing Pascal, for example) and the Bible (though he was an atheist). He can perhaps be excused for buying into the popular mid-century myth that the Middle Ages were a time of stagnation in Europe, but it’s just ignorant to say that the Industrial Revolution was “a revolution by the rich.” It’s equally ignorant to say that “the men who started the French Revolution were wholly without political experience [and] the same is true of the Bolsheviks [and the] Nazis.” And that’s just in the first few pages; there is much more of the same. Hoffer attempts to show erudition by fairly frequent footnotes, but it’s a very limited selection, heavy on the Bible, and also heavy on dubious sources, including Hermann Rauschning, whose book Hitler Speaks, which Hoffer often cites, turned out to be a fiction, and Ernest Renan, an anti-Semite who liked some Jews, the Ashkenazi, because, he said, they were really Khazars, not Jews.

Next Hoffer spends a lot of time on “potential converts,” but he really only has one point, which is that those who are psychically frustrated are likely to be converts. We are subjected to interminable aphorisms about such “disaffected” people, whom Hoffer divides into eleven groups, such as “the poor,” “misfits,” “outcasts,” “minorities,” “the ambitious,” “the impotent,” “the bored,” and so on. The three people left in any given society who cannot be said to fit into any of these categories are apparently the only people immune to the lure of fanaticism. To all these people, Hoffer says, a mass movement offers them the chance to escape themselves; to have not freedom, but release from irrelevancy and a dead-end life. They want “freedom from the intolerable burden of an autonomous existence.” Which is, broadly, true enough for all people, since people seek transcendence, not autonomy, but is so broad as to be meaningless.

In his third section, Hoffer talks about “united action and self-sacrifice.” This is, Hoffer says, the mechanism by which the frustrated are lifted outside of themselves. They can do this more effectively if they see themselves as part of a whole; when isolated, men break under attack. United action is easier if a luminous future is looked for, and if the present is deprecated. By the same token, those who subscribe to mass movements are not susceptible to rational argument; they are ideologues. What else unifies mass movements? Again, we are given a shotgun list: hatred, imitation, persuasion, coercion, leadership, etc. All this is like saying that the mechanism of all life on Earth is the Sun: true enough, but a bit far upstream to prove anything.

Finally, Hoffer attempts to outline the life cycle of mass movements. He claims that mass movements are started by “men of words” who crave recognition. They themselves are not fanatic in the sense that Hoffer uses for those who actually drive mass movements, and are often swept aside by those more comfortable with chaos. Those, in their turn, are replaced by the “practical men of action,” who solidify, channel, and control the mass movement. At this point, not the earlier “active phase,” new creative energies are unleashed, or can be. And eventually the cycle begins again. Maybe, but this again ignores both the differences between religion as mass movement and modern political ideologies, and that over two thousand years a lot happens, so you can always find some apparently relevant examples to shoehorn into your framework, while ignoring the rest of history.

So that’s the book. I, and other readers, would quickly forget it, except for two things. The first is as a historical footnote of the 1950s. Hoffer maintained some prominence for thirty years, much loved on the Right for bringing to popular recognition that Communism was (and is) a religion as much as a political movement. Ronald Reagan gave Hoffer the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983 (he died in 1984). The second, and more interesting, is that The True Believer has achieved an afterlife as a text of the modern American Left.

From the time of Eisenhower until 2007, the American Right, embodied for all relevant purposes in the Republican party, was the party of contented losers. Other than fighting Communism, the Right was happy, or happy enough, to cede all control of policy to the Left, and not to fight the destruction of America by the cultural Marxists. And on economic policy, the Republican party was eager to cooperate with the globalists, the Koch brothers and George Soros joining hands and tap-dancing on the graves of jobless men who killed themselves with Oxycontin and Mexican black tar.

But in 2007, the Tea Party arose, in retrospect an existential threat to the Left and to Republicans cast in the mold of the pusillanimous Bush family. This was fanaticism reborn! Who might offer us insight, said Jeb Bush over Thanksgiving dinner, having called his good friend Hillary Clinton to discuss? Perhaps Eric Hoffer, whom Poppy knew? And so it was that the establishment Republocrats began citing Hoffer again, warning against the chthonic fanaticism that the Tea Party embodied, driven by fear and frustration, as against the rational, calm leadership that they offered, if only people would ignore all their massive failures, like that inconvenient Iraq thing, and accept increases in average GDP per capita as the sole measure of American success, while ignoring to whom the gains were actually accruing.

This soothing bedtime story was put back on the shelf when the Tea Party was successfully destroyed, but like all bedtime stories, it became useful again soon enough, this time when Trump won. Hillary, between bouts of drunken crying, began suggesting to her red-eyed minions that The True Believer was a book they should read, if they wanted to understand how the dumb people who voted for Trump were really Nazis. In other words, Hoffer has been weaponized today as an argument against all social change—or rather, against social change in the wrong direction, since social change in the Left direction is mere rational acceptance of inevitable Progress. The beauty of Hoffer in this endeavor is that in a book of aphorisms, one can always easily find an aphorism that appears to fit any circumstance, and use the authority of the author to polish up what is, if examined closely, almost always a banal thought of dubious general applicability.

Oh, I suppose this book isn’t totally worthless. The reader doesn’t gain much confidence from Hoffer’s own slippery attempt to deflect criticism, though. “But this is not an authoritative textbook. It is a book of thoughts, and it does not shy away from half-truths so long as they seem to hint as a new approach and help to formulate new questions.” Sonorous words to admit that the book is merely a lazy form of stone soup—as long as the reader brings all the knowledge and content, he will be satisfied, just as in the old bedtime story of the itinerant fraudster. And beyond that, most of this book is just plain boring. I had to force myself to finish. You should not bother starting.

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  1. Bartolo says

    You saved me from reading this book at some point, thank you. A big part of the value of this blog (but by no means the only value) is that it helps one to choose good books and to discard bad ones.

  2. Winston Lee says

    What a bunch of horse excrement.

    You throw phrases such as “religious belief tends to have a very different impact on beliefs regarding temporal actions than do non-religious mass movements” and “…the actual ideological content of mass movements is far more important than Hoffer thinks” with nothing to back up your drivel. You manage to – like so many in your self-appointed intellectual elite fraternity – keep your contempt for the great unwashed just below the surface enough to fool the casual reader.

    Here’s more of your nonsense: “From the time of Eisenhower until 2007, the American Right, embodied for all relevant purposes in the Republican party, was the party of contented losers”. News to those of us who lived through Ronald Reagan and W.

    I will allow that you got “the destruction of America by the cultural Marxists” right.

    • Charles says

      Boring. I actually give examples to back up my points, and I could give a lot more, but my reviews are long enough as it is.

      As to losers, your examples of Reagan and George W., both of whom I also lived through, prove my point. What did either accomplish? Nothing. Compare the world of today to that of 1988, and weep.

  3. Richard says

    Here are my notes from reading this book some years ago:
    • It is not actual suffering but the taste of better things which excites people to revolt
    • Emigration is a substitute for mass movements – had mass emigration to America been possible after WW1 there would have been no fascist revolutions
    • Easier for a Communist to be converted to fascism than become a sober liberal – Soviet propaganda can turn Japanese POWs into fanatical Communists, while no American propaganda can turn them into freedom-loving democrats
    • Freedom of choice places the blame of failure on shoulders of the individual; consequently people join mass movements to be free from responsibility
    • Equality without freedom creates a more stable society than freedom without equality – when freedom is real, equality is the passion of the masses. Where equality is real, freedom is the passion of a small minority
    • Members of compact groups are immune to the appeal of mass movements; consequently all mass movements in early stages are hostile to the family
    • Early Christianity made greatest headway in cities with deracinated individuals
    • Modern Jew the most autonomous of individuals and therefore an early convert to mass movements
    • The least and most successful among the Jews are the most responsive to Zionism; the least and most successful among the Blacks are the most race conscious
    • The technique of mass movements is to infect people with a malady and then offer the movement as a cure
    • To a man without a sense of belonging, mere life is all that matters
    • Glorification of past serves as a means to belittle the present and position mass movement as a link to glorious future
    • When we fail in attempting the possible, the blame is solely ours; but when we fail in attempting the impossible, we are justified in attributing it to the magnitude of the task
    • When a movement begins to rationalize its doctrine and make it intelligible, it is a sign that its dynamic span is over
    • Mass movements can rise without belief in God, but never without belief in a Devil
    • Easier to hate an enemy with much good in him than one who is all bad. The Japanese had an advantage over us in that they admired us more than we admired them.
    • Americans are poor haters internationally because of their feeling of superiority over all foreigners. Far easier to hate a fellow American.
    • Should Americans begin to hate foreigners wholeheartedly, it will be an indication that they have lost confidence in their own way of life
    • To maintain itself, a mass movement has to order things so that when the people no longer believe, they can be made to believe by force
    • Persecution can crush the most vigorous mass movement, but a persecution so persistent and ruthless can only come from fanatical conviction
    • Men of thought seldom work well together, whereas between men of action there is usually an easy camaraderie
    • Where all learned men are clergymen, the church is unassailable
    • A mass movement is pioneered by men of words, materialized by fanatics and consolidated by men of action
    • When the same person leads a movement from inception to maturity, it usually ends in disaster. Had Hitler died in mid 1930’s a man of action such as Goering would have taken over and the movement would have survived.
    • It is necessary that men of words not be in intimate alliance with the state or will lead to stagnation
    • The atmosphere of a mass movement cripples the creative spirit
    • England’s ideal of the country gentleman is concrete and limited. In America & Russia the ideal is indefinite and unlimited.
    • Fanaticism, a Judaic-Christian invention, one of the most important developments of the ancient world

    I agree the book is largely a set of aphorisms without argument (as the author admitted), but what excellent aphorisms! The only parallels I know of are in The Bible and Nietzsche.

  4. David Ashton says

    Agree: excellent aphorisms, paralleled only by Nitetzsche & the Bible.

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