“The True Believer” by Eric Hoffer (1951) – Part 1 – The Appeal of Mass Movements

Preface

  • The book deals with commonalities of mass movements, be they religious, social or national. They aren’t identical but have very similar traits.
    • Adherents have a readiness to die & proclivity for united action. They breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred & intolerance. They all depend on blind faith & single-hearted allegiance.
    • The movements, however different in doctrine, appeal to the same type of mind. The fanaticism is essentially the same, with a uniformity in dedication, faith, pursuit of power, unity & self-sacrifice. Those who die for holy causes basically all die for the same thing.
    • We’re focused on the revivalist phase populated by the “True Believer” – a fanatic ready to sacrifice himself for a holy cause. We assume:
      • 1 – Frustration with oneself, without outside proselytizing.
      • 2 – Effective conversion technique in inculcation & fixation of the mind.
    • We’ll need to see what afflicts the frustrated, how they react & how that leads to mass movements.

Ch. 1 – The Desire for Change (1-6)

  • 1 – Revolutionary movements are attracted by the prospect of sudden & spectacular change in the conditions of life. Revolution is a conspicuous instrument of change but so are religious & nationalist movements.
    • Some kind of enthusiasm is need & it doesn’t seem to matter where it comes from. In the past, religion was the most obvious source.
    • A religion’s conservative orthodoxy is the coagulum. A rising religious movement is change & experiment, open to new views & techniques.
    • Nationalist revolutions are mass movements when dealing with vast & rapid change. These are a most copious & durable source of enthusiasm which must be tapped into if changes are to be enacted & preserved. Nations that don’t see these movements have shy leaders or content populations.
      • Japan wouldn’t have grown so quickly without nationalism. That’s also true with Germany & Turkey. These movements were also reactions of resentment toward the West which they saw as the source of their stagnation for centuries.
  • 2 – Desire for change is often superficial but nonetheless a source of revolution. We tend to see shaping forces outside ourselves. We see success & failure. Those with fulfillment think the world is good & the frustrated favor radical change of the bad.
    • We look outside ourselves even when we know personal qualities like ability, character, appearance, heal, etc. play a role in the results.
    • It’s understandable those who fail blame the world. The successful may point to their own great qualities but most will admit that luck is a factor. But as long as things work out for them, they are reluctant to tinker with a good thing.
  • 3 – Discontent doesn’t always lead to desire for change. Those in awe of their surroundings don’t look for change, no matter how bad off they are.
    • When life is precarious & we can’t control our circumstances, we tend to stick to the known but making it routine. That way we delude ourselves into thinking we have control.
    • This makes the conservatism of the destitute akin to that of the privileged, both perpetuate social order.
    • Men who ruse to change feel they possess an irresistible power. The French Revolution came from a feeling of omnipotence in reason & intelligence. Lenin had the omnipotence of Marxist doctrine. Nazis had their own advanced military techniques & propaganda.
    • Desire for progress is sustained by faith, albeit defiant & blasphemous like the Tower of Babel.
  • 4 – You might expect that just having power would lead to arrogance toward the world & change . But the powerful can be as timid as the weak.
    • What matters more is faith in the future. When the power isn’t joined with the faith, it usually wards off the new & preserves the status quo. Hope without power tends to fruitless recklessness.
    • Those who want to transform the world must know how to kindle & fan extravagant hope – & it doesn’t matter what is promised, just stir things up.
  • 5 – The difference between a conservative & a radical is the view of the future. Fear makes us cling to the present & faith makes us receptive to change. Conservatism is also our of fear of the future & that change will make things worse.
    • The hopeful proceed recklessly with the present, wreck it if necessary & create a new world.
    • When hopes & dreams are loose in the streets, the timid will lock their doors until things have calmed down.
  • 6 – For men to jump into drastic change, they must be discontented but not destitute, & feel in possession of a potent doctrine, infallible leader,etc. They must also have high hopes for the future. But they must also be ignorant of the difficulties in their undertakings. Experience is a handicap.

Ch. 2 – The Desire for Substitutes (7-13)

  • 7 – There’s a difference between the appeal of a mass movement & a practical organization.
    • The practical organization offers opportunities for self-advancement & appeals to self-interest.
    • The mass movement doesn’t appeal to those looking to advance themselves but to those looking to be rid of themselves, & self-renunciation. These people see their lives without purpose & see self-interest as tainted & evil. The movement offer them a new life with other converts to give them pride, purpose & confidence.
      • There is some degree of selfless dedication of those who join corporations, orthodox political parties, etc. but only to satisfy self-interest.
      • The rigor & growth of a mass movement relies on self-renunciation especially in the early stages. Once it attracts self-interested people, it’s no longer an organization bent on molding the world but preserving it. The mission then is over.
  • 8 – Faith in a holy cause is a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.
  • 9 – The less justified a man is claiming himself excellent, the more likely is to claim his country, religion, race or holy cause is.
  • 10 – A man is likely to mind his own business as long as it’s worth minding. When it isn’t, he ignores his meaningless affairs by minding other people’s.
    • Minding other people’s business is gossiping, snooping, meddling, & engaging in communal, national & racial affairs.
  • 11 – The conviction that we have a holy duty towards others is merely to save ourselves. If this conviction disappears, our lives are puny & meaningless. Exchanging self-centeredness for selflessness, we gain self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless is boundless.
  • 12 – Mass movements offer a substitute for individual hope. This is particularly effective in a society imbued with having nothing to look forward to. In society, people can live without only when kept in a daze.
    • Despair from unemployment comes from the threat of destitution & a view of nothingness on the horizon. The unemployed are at risk.
    • Mass movements are accused of duping followers with future hope & cheating them of the present. But to the frustrated, the present is already spoiled. Comfort & pleasure can’t fix that. Only hope can.
  • 13 – When individual interests & prospects don’t seem worth living for, we need something outside of ourselves to live for. Dedication, devotion, loyalty & self-surrender are desperate clinging that might give worth to our meaningless lives.
    • Embracing of substitutes will be passionate & extreme. We can have qualified in ourselves but faith in the collective must be extravagant & uncompromising.
    • A substitute embraced in moderation can’t replace or efface the self we want to forget. We can’t be sure we’ve got something worth living for unless we’re willing to die for it. Readiness to die is proof that we had to take a substitute for a missed or spoiled first choice.

Ch. 3 – The Interchangeability of Mass Movements (14-17)

  • 14 – When people are ripe for a mass movement, they want an effective moment & not solely for one with a particular doctrine or program. Before Hitler got into power, the German youth were just as likely to become a Nazi or a Communist. In Czarist Russia, Jews are as likely for revolution as for Zionism.
    • Receptivity to all movements doesn’t end even after joining a specific mass movement. When mass movements are in violent competition, there are common instances of converts from one mass movement to another.
    • A Sail becoming Paul is quite common. Hitler often recruited Socialists to join the Nazis.
    • Mass movements are competitive & interchangeable with each other. They can change their focus & appearances.
  • 15 – It’s rare for a mass movement to be of just one character. It usually resembles other movements & sometimes many.
    • The Exodus of Jews from Egypt was a slave revolt, religious movement & nationalist movement.
    • The Japanese nationalist movement was religious.
    • The French Revolution was the establishment of a new religion, very similar to Catholicism.
    • The religious movements of the Reformation were coincidentally nationalistic revolts against Rome.
    • The Bolshevik & Nazi revolutions are generally of religious character. Their ceremonial marches resemble religious parades, & the Swastika & Hammer & Sickle compare to the Cross.
    • Zionism & Irish Independence are both religious & nationalistic movements.
  • 16 – The problem in stopping a mass movement is that it’ll be replaced by another. Social revolution can be stopped by the promotion of a religion & nationalist one.
    • Catholic countries stopped the spread of Communism by renewing their spirit.
    • Japanese nationalism stopped social protests.
    • The method of stopping one mass movement with is dangerous & not cheap. Those who want to keep the present as it is, should steer clear of mass movements. When a mass movement is on the march it does not bode well for the present.
    • There are safer substitutes. Any arrangement that discourages atomistic individualism or offers chances for action & new beginnings counteracts mass movements.
  • 17 – Emigration offers a similar new beginning & change that mass movements offer. Those who are likely emigrate are similar to those in mass movements. Emigration is a substitute.
    • Free & easy migration over a land contributes to social stability.
    • Mass migrations are fertile ground for mass movements – Jews in Egypt, Barbarians in the Roman Empire, etc. These physical movements led to social ones. They are movements toward a promised land.

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