my name is phillip

This is my little corner of the internet

I like books, music, cooking, Gardening, mountaineering, and building embedded systems

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

Author: Eric Hoffer
Rating: 10/10
Last Read: August 2015

Quick Summary:  Wow.  This 1951 book on the psychology of mass movements is just stunning and terrifying.  Even reviewing the notes brings me a sense of awe and a tinge of fear as you make associations with the world we live in today.

Hoffer explains what kind of people and attitudes give rise to mass movements and analyses the life cycle from start to end.  His gaze shifts from the factors that motivate individuals to join mass movements to the societal forces that support and resist this force of change.  He also compares mass movements to each other, including religious, political, or radical movements that we are familiar with throughout our history.

This is an excellent book that I will revisit again and again.  

I recommend reading this book along with Why Don't We Learn From History?

J. B. S. Haldane counts fanaticism among the only four really important inventions made between 3000 B.C. and 1400 A.D. It was a Judaic-Christian invention. And it is strange to think that in receiving this malady of the soul the world also received a miraculous instrument for raising societies and nations from the dead—an instrument of resurrection.

My Highlights

All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and singlehearted allegiance. --loc 77

Though there are obvious differences between the fanatical Christian, the fanatical Mohammedan, the fanatical nationalist, the fanatical Communist and the fanatical Nazi, it is yet true that the fanaticism which animates them may be viewed and treated as one. --loc 82

Starting out from the fact that the frustrated predominate among the early adherents of all mass movements and that they usually join of their own accord, it is assumed: 1) that frustration of itself, without any proselytizing prompting from the outside, can generate most of the peculiar characteristics of the true believer; 2) that an effective technique of conversion consists basically in the inculcation and fixation of proclivities and responses indigenous to the frustrated mind. --loc 91

Montaigne: “All I say is by way of discourse, and nothing by way of advice. I should not speak so boldly if it were my due to be believed.” --loc 109

Some kind of widespread enthusiasm or excitement is apparently needed for the realization of vast and rapid change, and it does not seem to matter whether the exhilaration is derived from an expectation of untold riches or is generated by an active mass movement. --loc 117

Success and failure are unavoidably related in our minds with the state of things around us. --loc 160

Hence it is that people with a sense of fulfillment think it a good world and would like to conserve it as it is, while the frustrated favor radical change. --loc 161

that the successful, too, however much they pride themselves on their foresight, fortitude, thrift and other “sterling qualities,” are at bottom convinced that their success is the result of a fortuitous combination of circumstances. The self-confidence of even the consistently successful is never absolute. --loc 166

The powerful can be as timid as the weak. What seems to count more than possession of instruments of power is faith in the future. --loc 194

Where power is not joined with faith in the future, it is used mainly to ward off the new and preserve the status quo. On the other hand, extravagant hope, even when not backed by actual power, is likely to generate a most reckless daring. For the hopeful can draw strength from the most ridiculous sources of power—a slogan, a word, a button. --loc 195

Those who would transform a nation or the world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent or by demonstrating the reasonableness and desirability of the intended changes or by coercing people into a new way of life. They must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope. --loc 200

Hence men of outstanding achievement and those who live full, happy lives usually set their faces against drastic innovation. The conservatism of invalids and people past middle age stems, too, from fear of the future. --loc 208

When hopes and dreams are loose in the streets, it is well for the timid to lock doors, shutter windows and lie low until the wrath has passed. For there is often a monstrous incongruity between the hopes, however noble and tender, and the action which follows them. It is as if ivied maidens and garlanded youths were to herald the four horsemen of the apocalypse. --loc 224

For men to plunge headlong into an undertaking of vast change, they must be intensely discontented yet not destitute, and they must have the feeling that by the possession of some potent doctrine, infallible leader or some new technique they have access to a source of irresistible power. They must also have an extravagant conception of the prospects and potentialities of the future. Finally, they must be wholly ignorant of the difficulties involved in their vast undertaking. Experience is a handicap. --loc 227

When a mass movement begins to attract people who are interested in their individual careers, it is a sign that it has passed its vigorous stage; that it is no longer engaged in molding a new world but in possessing and preserving the present. --loc 253

Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves. --loc 261

The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready is he to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause. --loc 262

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. --loc 264

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. --loc 269

In a modern society people can live without hope only when kept dazed and out of breath by incessant hustling. --loc 277

Yet to the frustrated the present is irremediably spoiled. Comforts and pleasures cannot make it whole. No real content or comfort can ever arise in their minds but from hope. --loc 281

Every mass movement is in a sense a migration—a movement toward a promised land; and, when feasible and expedient, an actual migration takes place. --loc 351

Migration, in the mass, strengthens the spirit and unity of a movement; and whether in the form of foreign conquest, crusade, pilgrimage or settlement of new land it is practiced by most active mass movements. --loc 353

The game of history is usually played by the best and the worst over the heads of the majority in the middle. --loc 365

The reason that the inferior elements of a nation can exert a marked influence on its course is that they are wholly without reverence toward the present. They see their lives and the present as spoiled beyond remedy and they are ready to waste and wreck both: hence their recklessness and their will to chaos and anarchy. --loc 366

Though the disaffected are found in all walks of life, they are most frequent in the following categories: (a) the poor, (b) misfits, (c) outcasts, (d) minorities, (e) adolescent youth, (f) the ambitious (whether facing insurmountable obstacles or unlimited opportunities), (g) those in the grip of some vice or obsession, (h) the impotent (in body or mind), (i) the inordinately selfish, (j) the bored, (k) the sinners. --loc 376

The poor on the borderline of starvation live purposeful lives. To be engaged in a desperate struggle for food and shelter is to be wholly free from a sense of futility. The goals are concrete and immediate. --loc 404

Where people toil from sunrise to sunset for a bare living, they nurse no grievances and dream no dreams. --loc 412

One of the reasons for the unrebelliousness of the masses in China is the inordinate effort required there to scrape together the means of the scantiest subsistence. --loc 412

Discontent is likely to be highest when misery is bearable; when conditions have so improved that an ideal state seems almost within reach. --loc 417

A grievance is most poignant when almost redressed. --loc 418

It is not actual suffering but the taste of better things which excites people to revolt. --loc 424

The intensity of discontent seems to be in inverse proportion to the distance from the object fervently desired. --loc 429

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. --loc 433

We dare more when striving for superfluities than for necessities. Often when we renounce superfluities we end up lacking in necessities. --loc 435

Every established mass movement has its distant hope, its brand of dope to dull the impatience of the masses and reconcile them with their lot in life. Stalinism is as much an opium of the people as are the established religions. --loc 445

Where freedom is real, equality is the passion of the masses. Where equality is real, freedom is the passion of a small minority. --loc 487

Equality without freedom creates a more stable social pattern than freedom without equality. --loc 489

Unlimited opportunities can be as potent a cause of frustration as a paucity or lack of opportunities. --loc 700

The attitude is: “All that I am doing or possibly can do is chicken feed compared with what is left undone.” Such is the frustration which broods over gold camps and haunts taut minds in boom times. --loc 701

Patriotism, racial solidarity, and even the preaching of revolution find a more ready response among people who see limitless opportunities spread out before them than among those who move within the fixed limits of a familiar, orderly and predictable pattern of existence. --loc 704

When people are bored, it is primarily with their own selves that they are bored. --loc 729

The consciousness of a barren, meaningless existence is the main fountainhead of boredom. --loc 730

The differentiated individual is free of boredom only when he is engaged either in creative work or some absorbing occupation or when he is wholly engrossed in the struggle for existence. --loc 731

With few exceptions, any group or organization which tries, for one reason or another, to create and maintain compact unity and a constant readiness for self-sacrifice usually manifests the peculiarities—both noble and base—of a mass movement. --loc 778

“To illustrate a principle,” says Bagehot, “you must exaggerate much and you must omit much.” --loc 805

The fully assimilated individual does not see himself and others as human beings. --loc 826

Dying and killing seem easy when they are part of a ritual, ceremonial, dramatic performance or game. --loc 884

There is need for some kind of make-believe in order to face death unflinchingly. To our real, naked selves there is not a thing on earth or in heaven worth dying for. --loc 884

It is only when we see ourselves as actors in a staged (and therefore unreal) performance that death loses its frightfulness and finality and becomes an act of make-believe and a theatrical gesture. --loc 886

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 light-hearted dramatic performance. --loc 887

The indispensability of play-acting in the grim business of dying and killing is particularly evident in the case of armies. Their uniforms, flags, emblems, parades, music, and elaborate etiquette and ritual are designed to separate the soldier from his flesh-and-blood self and mask the overwhelming reality of life and death. --loc 898

Glory is largely a theatrical concept. There is no striving for glory without a vivid awareness of an audience—the knowledge that our mighty deeds will come to the ears of our contemporaries or “of those who are to be.” We are ready to sacrifice our true, transitory self for the imaginary eternal self we are building up, by our heroic deeds, in the opinion and imagination of others. --loc 903

To lose one’s life is but to lose the present; and, clearly, to lose a defiled, worthless present is not to lose much. --loc 921

When today is all there is, we grab all we can and hold on. We are afloat in an ocean of nothingness and we hang on to any miserable piece of wreckage as if it were the tree of life. On the other hand, when everything is ahead and yet to come, we find it easy to share all we have and to forego advantages within our grasp. --loc 944

Common suffering by itself, when not joined with hope, does not unite nor does it evoke mutual generosity. --loc 948

We cling to what we call our common sense, our practical point of view. Actually, these are but names for an all-absorbing familiarity with things as they are. The tangibility of a pleasant and secure existence is such that it makes other realities, however imminent, seem vague and visionary. Thus it happens that when the times become unhinged, it is the practical people who are caught unaware and are made to look like visionaries who cling to things that do not exist. --loc 972

“for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing … neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.” --loc 992

Craving, not having, is the mother of a reckless giving of oneself. --loc 1030

All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside --loc 1063

It is the true believer’s ability to “shut his eyes and stop his ears” to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be frightened by danger nor disheartened by obstacles nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence. Strength of faith, as Bergson pointed out, manifests itself not in moving mountains but in not seeing mountains to move. And it is the certitude of his infallible doctrine that renders the true believer impervious to the uncertainties, surprises and the unpleasant realities of the world around him. --loc 1072

The devout are always urged to seek the absolute truth with their hearts and not their minds. “It is the heart which is conscious of God, not the reason.” --loc 1090

Being an instrument of the present, an army deals mainly with the possible. Its leaders do not rely on miracles. Even when animated by fervent faith, they are open to compromise. They reckon with the possibility of defeat and know how to surrender. On the other hand, the leader of a mass movement has an overwhelming contempt for the present—for all its stubborn facts and perplexities, even those of geography and the weather. He relies on miracles. His hatred of the present (his nihilism) comes to the fore when the situation becomes desperate. He destroys his country and his people rather than surrender. --loc 1205

Sarpedon spoke to Glaucus as they stormed the Grecian wall: “O my friend, if we, leaving this war, could escape from age and death, I should not here be fighting in the van; but now, since many are the modes of death impending over us which no man can hope to shun, let us press on and give renown to other men, or win it for ourselves.” --loc 1213

The face of the mass is as “the face of the deep” out of which, like God on the day of creation, he will bring forth a new world. --loc 1224

Heine suggests that what Christian love cannot do is effected by a common hatred. --loc 1230

F. A. Voigt tells of a Japanese mission that arrived in Berlin in 1932 to study the National Socialist movement. Voigt asked a member of the mission what he thought of the movement. He replied: “It is magnificent. I wish we could have something like it in Japan, only we can’t, because we haven’t got any Jews.” --loc 1235

We do not usually look for allies when we love. Indeed, we often look on those who love with us as rivals and trespassers. But we always look for allies when we hate. --loc 1267

There is a guilty conscience behind every brazen word and act and behind every manifestation of self-righteousness. --loc 1292

It is of interest that the backward South shows more xenophobia than the rest of the country. Should Americans begin to hate foreigners wholeheartedly, it will be an indication that they have lost confidence in their own way of life. --loc 1306

It seems that when we are oppressed by the knowledge of our worthlessness we do not see ourselves as lower than some and higher than others, but as lower than the lowest of mankind. We hate then the whole world, and we would pour our wrath upon the whole of creation. --loc 1325

The act of self-denial seems to confer on us the right to be harsh and merciless toward others. The impression somehow prevails that the true believer, particularly the religious individual, is a humble person. The truth is that the surrendering and humbling of the self breed pride and arrogance. The true believer is apt to see himself as one of the chosen, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a prince disguised in meekness, who is destined to inherit this earth and the kingdom of heaven, too.18 He who is not of his faith is evil; he who will not listen shall perish. --loc 1349

The deindividualization which is a prerequisite for thorough integration and selfless dedication is also, to a considerable extent, a process of dehumanization. The torture chamber is a corporate institution. --loc 1369

Imitation is often a shortcut to a solution. We copy when we lack the inclination, the ability or the time to work out an independent solution. People in a hurry will imitate more readily than people at leisure. Hustling thus tends to produce uniformity. And in the deliberate fusing of individuals into a compact group, incessant action will play a considerable role.22 --loc 1399

Proselytizing is more a passionate search for something not yet found than a desire to bestow upon the world something we already have. It is a search for a final and irrefutable demonstration that our absolute truth is indeed the one and only truth. --loc 1512

There is a period of waiting in the wings—often a very long period—for all the great leaders whose entrance on the scene seems to us a most crucial point in the course of a mass movement. Accidents and the activities of other men have to set the stage for them before they can enter and start their performance. “The commanding man in a momentous day seems only to be the last accident in a series.” --loc 1539

People whose lives are barren and insecure seem to show a greater willingness to obey than people who are self-sufficient and self-confident. --loc 1616

To the frustrated, freedom from responsibility is more attractive than freedom from restraint. They are eager to barter their independence for relief from the burdens of willing, deciding and being responsible for inevitable failure. --loc 1618

Action is a unifier. There is less individual distinctness in the genuine man of action—the builder, soldier, sportsman and even the scientist—than in the thinker or in one whose creativeness flows from communion with the self. --loc 1641

The true believer is eternally incomplete, eternally insecure. --loc 1748

What de Rémusat said of Thiers is perhaps true of most men of words: “he has much more vanity than ambition; and he prefers consideration to obedience, and the appearance of power to power itself. Consult him constantly, and then do just as you please. He will take more notice of your deference to him than of your actions.” --loc 1799

Luther, who, when first defying the established church, spoke feelingly of “the poor, simple, common folk,”7 proclaimed later, when allied with the German princelings, that “God would prefer to suffer the government to exist no matter how evil, rather than to allow the rabble to riot, no matter how justified they are in doing so.”8 A --loc 1817

Jesus was not a Christian, nor was Marx a Marxist. --loc 1909

However, the freedom the masses crave is not freedom of self-expression and self-realization, but freedom from the intolerable burden of an autonomous existence. They want freedom from “the fearful burden of free choice,”19 freedom from the arduous responsibility of realizing their ineffectual selves and shouldering the blame for the blemished product. --loc 1930

They believe in the possibility of individual happiness and the validity of individual opinion and initiative. But once a movement gets rolling, power falls into the hands of those who have neither faith in, nor respect for, the individual. And the reason they prevail is not so much that their disregard of the individual gives them a capacity for ruthlessness, but that their attitude is in full accord with the ruling passion of the masses. --loc 1940

The most significant division between men of words is between those who can find fulfillment in creative work and those who cannot. --loc 1960

Said Oliver Cromwell: “A man never goes so far as when he does not know whither he is going.” --loc 2138

But in a traditionally free country the individual who pits himself against coercion does not feel an isolated human atom but one of a mighty race—his rebellious ancestors. --loc 2180

J. B. S. Haldane counts fanaticism among the only four really important inventions made between 3000 B.C. and 1400 A.D. It was a Judaic-Christian invention. And it is strange to think that in receiving this malady of the soul the world also received a miraculous instrument for raising societies and nations from the dead—an instrument of resurrection. --loc 2284

won’t you celebrate with me

won’t you celebrate with me

First Grade

First Grade