Review and summary of “The True Believer: thoughts on the nature of mass movements” by Eric Hoffer

It is an easy book to read, with generally simple language, good organization, short chapters, concise insights, clear ideas, thought-provoking insights, good end notes, and it weighs in at only 168 pages. I found that it ties in well with a number of other books I’ve ready that talk history and psychology, including but not limited to Corporate Cancer by Vox Day, The Evolutionary Psychology Behind Politics by Anonymous Conservative, Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, M. Stanton Evan’s Blacklisted by History, and Equality: The Impossible Quest by van Creveld.

The basic parts of a mass movement Hoffer addresses are 1) The Appeal of Mass Movements, 2) The Potential Converts, 3) United Action and Self Sacrifice, 4) Beginning and End. Within each of these sections he has several sub-sections, and within those there are almost paragraph-level sub-sub-sections. It is, as I said, well organized, with occasional cross-references between numbered sections and little repetition. I could make a fairly long list of great quotes, but some of them would be rather long. So I’ll summarize the major take-aways from each part.

Mass movements happens when there is a widespread dissatisfaction with the current situation, and leaders can arise who can put that into words. There needs to be both a desire for change, and a solution in the offering. All mass movements have some degree of interchangeability about them, patterns they follow. The leaders of the movement don’t so much get caused by the leaders, as men with the right talents see the mood of the time and get out in front of the parade, as it were.

The sorts of people who are ripe for being the “mass” in mass movements are those who are not doing well by the status-quo. They include teh poor (and not all the poor are the same; the recently poor are much more uppity than the chronically bottom-dwelling, and the creative poor are not the same as the free poor); the misfits; the inordinately selfish; minorities; the bored; the sinners; and the ambitious facing unlimited opportunities. Each of these types brings something different to the mass movement, and many of the oppressions and abuses that Solzhenitsyn wrote of can be explained by the personality types that rise up in these mass movements; the SJW demanding “repentance” for your racism or carbon footprint after denouncing you is psychologically the same as the 17th century sinner accusing others of witchcraft or the medieval heretics denouncing that odd widower to prove their own commitment to the cause. As one of my recent QotDs said, “Grok the core: You can only play by identifying other people to hurt.” The ambitious sort of surprised me; I wasn’t expecting to see “facing unlimited opportunities” there. The problem is that the bewildering number of choices leads to frustration because the paralysis of analysis. They see so many things they could do, and they are not succeeding in any one of them to the level they’d like to have, so they are disappointed in their achievement and want to be a part of something really big and spectacularly successful, something that will allow them to channel their energies in just one direction that everyone can see; they don’t want mere ordinary success, they want to win BIG. Being a part of a BIG change offers them a way to be a part of something bigger than they are.

The biggest part of the book, the middle, is “United Action and Self-Sacrifice.” It explains the seeming suicidal behavior of many involved in mass movements, from communisims to Christianity. The core of it is that by seeing yourself as a part of a much larger collective with a horrible “now” and a bright “future forever,” throwing your own life away in the here and now to assure the bright future is a perfectly reasonable trade-off. The act of “make believe” to see things as they are not, but as you wish them to be, is common. The whole section on “unifying agents” includes hatred, imitation, persuasion and coercion, leadership, action, and suspicion, and many parts of thing rang very true of themes oft repeated in Gulag Archipelago. The aspect of doctrine being much less important than belief, and going through the motions of belief leading to belief was both enlightening and a little scary…. I see a great deal of it all around us now. In fact, one of the things that drives me, and many conservatives, nuts, is that we keep asking ourselves “are they insane, facts matter, dammit! Facts exist!” Well, no. In a mass movement, doctrinal purity and beliefs, even if provably not true, in fact especially if part of a big lie, are more important to the true believer than facts. It seems absurd on the face of it, but he lays out the underlying logic quite well. It also explains why they view heretics with such a burning passion.

The last section is about how mass movements begin and end. It’s often said that “revolutions eat their own,” and this explains why. Different parts of a mass movement need different kinds of men. Men of words, like Trotsky, are not the sort that are needed to make things move, like Lenin. And Lenin wasn’t the sort with brutal, practical ruthlessness to consolidate things once the movement has come to power and is operationally complete. It’s not so much that they eat all their own, it’s that different phases of events need different sorts of leaders, much like an entrepreneur who might be great at having ideas and starting a business, but then sucks at running it once it is established and been around for a while. Similarly, the sorts who can run a large business are not creative enough to ever start one. Well, mass movements are much the same. Men of words and men of actions and fanatics each have a different part to play in the “dance.” Interestingly, a surprisingly large percentage of leaders of mass movements were frustrated artists of some sort – think of Hitler as a painter, which many people know, but he lists a number of others, in a variety of creative fields.

This is a very short overview, and doesn’t do his book justice. It’s well worth your time if you are interested in history, psychology, mass movements, gaslighting, propaganda and public manipulation, and if you ever wonder “how on earth did THAT happen?”

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