The True Believer

Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

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At some point in my life, I acquired this slim, dog-eared, heavily underlined and student-annotated, spine-cracked paperback for (the sticker on the front cover says) 75¢—list price $1.95. (The Amazon link is to the in-print version: $10.99.) After decades of neglect, it's about time I read it.

I seem to remember that a number of courses I avoided taking in high school and college used it as a text. Well, I bet those courses would be pretty hard to find now. One of the first things I noticed was that the author, Eric Hoffer, was given to broad generalizations about entire classes of people, most of which (um) could be perceived as negative. You can't get away with that sort of thing these days.

Anyway, it was considered important back then, I kept seeing complimentary references to it, and I finally got around to reading it. As the subtitle indicates, Hoffer's book is a finely detailed analysis of the "nature of mass movements". Some of Hoffer's prime examples are Nazism in Germany; the Bolsheviks in Russia; the French Revolution; the rise of Christianity. There are a lot of moving parts, but the biggie for a "mass movement" are the masses, the foot soldiers, the true believers. Hoffer is not complimentary: they are motivated by resentment and a perception of their own inadequacies. They long for belonging, action, even self-sacrifice for a Cause, and they're not particular about the details. (Hoffer mentions that, historically, it's been pretty easy to turn (say) Nazi sympathizers into Communist sympathizers, and vice versa.)

Other components: leaders, "men of action", and "men of words". (Another reason this book might not be as popular in colleges now: as near as I can remember, there are no women present on Planet Hoffer. That wasn't a problem in my academic days, but now…) They all have important parts to play. Come to think of it, this might make a pretty good how-to book for aspiring revolutionary leaders.

(The book came out in 1951. Although there are a couple (negative) mentions of Chiang Kai-Shek, I didn't notice anything about Mao. That would have made a pretty interesting addition.)

One problem with the book: I don't think anyone—even an actual True Believer-is likely to recognize themselves here. But it's pretty easy to pick out descriptive passages and apply them to people we don't like. Section 90 rattles off some characteristics of a leader: "fanatical conviction that he is in posession of the one and only truth"; "faith in his destiny and luck"; "a capacity for passionate hatred"… are you thinking of any particular politician you know?

And it's full of fascinating trivia. Here's something I didn't know: the rise of Christianity happened primarily in large cities of the day. The words pagan and heathen derive from old words for "villagers" (pagani) and those inhabitants of the countryside (the heath).

Last Modified 2024-01-13 10:55 AM EDT