A stevedore on the San Francisco docks in the 1940s, Eric Hoffer wrote philosophical treatises in his spare time while living in the railroad yards. The True Believer -- the first and most famous of his books -- was made into a bestseller when President Eisenhower cited it during one of the earliest television press conferences. Completely relevant and essential for understanding the world today, The True Believer is a visionary, highly provocative look into the mind of the fanatic and a penetrating study of how an individual becomes one.
Topics: 1940s, San Francisco Bay Area, Politics, Social Change, Communism, Provocative, and Philosophical
Published: HarperCollins on Jul 1, 1942
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This is more like thinking out loud than a systematic book. The author divides the chapters into short bites, almost like distinct thoughts, and ponders the nature of people who are firmly committed to an idea, the sort of personality that joins a mass movement. Although there are some very interesting thoughts in here, this shouldn't be mistaken for a scholarly research work. This is less about data than about the author's musings. Some of the things he says are right on the mark with what we've learned in the past half century of sociological and psychological research, but other things sound very dated and didn't necessarily hold up under rigorous testing. There are also times when the author sort of sounds like someone nostalgic for a time when things didn't change, and other times when he sounds like he's egging on the revolutionaries. Overall, a decent read, but nothing earth shattering.more
It's rare that a book has the impact on me this one did, especially first read in mature adulthood; a book that often made me wish to underline paragraph after paragraph. It's a very short, simply written and accessible book--the main text is only 168 pages. The preface tells us it intends to examine "active, revivalist phase of mass movements." On the GoodReads review site it's on a "notable atheist books" list, which I consider absolutely bizarre. The ideas in the book definitely cut both ways, and is irreverent in looking at Christianity, Islam, as well as Communism and Nazism in examining the dynamics of mass movements, but it warns against fanatical, intolerant forms of atheistic movements just as much as against religiously inspired ones. I thought the book was scarily prescient, especially since I could see many of the conditions Hoffer notes as conducive to mass movements in the contemporary America scene, and Hoffer makes no bones that all revolutions and mass movements have their scary, violent phase that can fall into a dark age. It was interesting that this book published in 1951 observed that revolutions happen not so much at the most oppressive point of a regime, but just when it loosens its hold and begins reform--that immediately made me think of how the Iron Curtain was finally rent--after "glasnost." Revolutions gain their followers, Hoffer believes, from the frustrated. Those who have something to lose and fear losing it, while leaders of mass movement gin up hope for the future. And what Hoffer had to say about the relationship between individualism, fanaticism and mass movements I found fascinating and resonant:Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves... The less just 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... In running away from ourselves we either fall on our neighbor's shoulders or fly at their throat.It was not sheer hypocrisy when the rank-and-file of Nazis declared themselves not guilty of all those enormities they committed. They considered themselves cheated and maligned when made to shoulder responsibility for obeying orders. Had they not joined the Nazi movement in order to be free of responsibility?It's not the content of their beliefs that matter in how movements form and grow according to Hoffer. Whether you look at America's current Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street crowd, Hoffer seems to suggest, you're likely to see more similarities than differences in the group dynamics. I'm not sure I agree. I think there are huge differences between a Nazi mass rally addressed by Hitler and the Civil Rights March led by and addressed by Martin Luther King. I'm not old enough to remember first hand, but it seems to me that the American Civil Rights movement was conservative (in a small "c" sense), not radical in spirit. The main focus was non-violent resistance, even if it evoked violence from its opponents. It didn't seek to change so much as to include. The goal wasn't to burn the house of America down to rebuild from the foundations, but let more people in through the door--and I suspect that does make a difference. Just as there was a difference between the American Revolution that sought to regain traditional rights secured during a period of Imperial benign neglect and the much more radical French and Russian revolutions which aspired to radical change with their terrors and purges.Hoffer does end the book by stressing mass movements, for all their dangerous aspects, are not always a bad thing by any means. As agents of change, they're "instruments of resurrection" for societies that could otherwise remain moribund.more
I had great difficulty to gain traction in Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer. I felt bombarded by wisdoms and common sense sayings that, so I thought, defy an approach to a pressing issue that could not be of less importance today than at the time of the book’s writing, 60 years ago. After reading through a bit, I had to revisit the cover: Thoughts on the nature of mass movements. The book delivers on its promise: Thoughts are exactly what you get, rather than a systematic analysis. The author himself points out that he does not aim at authority but rather at provoking questions. Hoffer penned his book under the impression of two world wars and the Great Depression, a time of upheaval that shaped modern society. He also represents a point of view of an American, living in a supreme societal system that seems beyond criticism. As such, the author writes under the ABSENCE of mass movements on his home turf. In his own sense, I feel that Hoffer is a true believer. His essential thesis goes something like this: Hey, I am a free American and superior to people of other nations. If you are a true believer, you have surrendered your individuality to the collective multitude. You are eternally incomplete and insecure.As much as I like and want to agree to what he says, I cannot trust neither his analysis nor his conclusions. Some of it, yes, but maybe only because I wish his wisdoms to be true. Here is an example of what I am trying to say: “The most dangerous moment for the regime of the Politburo will be when a considerable improvement in the economic conditions of the Russian masses has been achieved and the iron totalitarian rule somewhat relaxed. It is of interest that the assassination, in December 1934, of Stalin’s close friend Kirov happened not long after Stalin had announced the successful end of the first Five-Year Plan and the beginning of a new prosperous, joyous era.”The author operates with philosophical statements, which he backs up with unsubstantiated historic analogies. The coincidence does not necessarily confirm or refute the thesis. How that contributes to the knowledge of (religious or political) mass movements, is beyond me. However, I suppose that with this logic, I should be inclined to nod off on the concept that regimes are most volatile when the economy improves. Writing under such impressions as the fall of the Berlin Wall, of Desert Storm, of the Arab Spring that keeps on rocking the entire Middle East, and of my own research on the history of the three Judaic mass religions (see The Great Leap-Fraud – Social Economics of Religious Terrorism), it seems that the target itself is utterly volatile. I could probably make the opposite case that the most dangerous moments of regimes are when economic conditions deteriorate. This would prepare societies for CHANGE (read: Obama’s presidential race on undefined change) when longing for hope. Or, maybe I could create a thesis that mass movements are dependent on large economic disparities between regions. I would back it up with the argument that the poor man is not necessarily an unhappy man unless he is faced with the perception of a better alternative. Where I disagree with him most is that religion begins as mass movements. The Gospel itself explains that there remained very few believers after Jesus’s (fictional) death. History quite clearly backs up the case that religion is a very, very slow moving target that starts out by multiplying itself through the web of extended families in a process that takes generations. Hoffer borrows from the Gospel, when he proclaims that all mass movements must focus on the future and depreciate the present. Yet, by doing so, here merely states the obvious. What else would a mass movement focus on other than on the promise of a better future at the cost of rejecting (at least some of) the present? Anyone?If you approach The True Believer with a critical mind and are immune to indoctrination from any camp, this book might be a good starting point in grasping some concepts of how masses could be manipulated. But in itself, it is outdated, and for most readers, the theories of the book are probably beyond reach or practical value. Are you going to be the next fanatical leader of a mass movement, desperate to learn the mechanics of captivating a herd of awed believers? The book refutes itself, because the fanatical leader is beyond Hoffer’s guidance. The great news is that the book includes not only religions but also political parties, armies, or other mass beliefs. Indeed, religion is rather subordinate as he focuses in trying to understand the phenomena around Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. He divides the advent of mass movements into three stages: the creation of discontent through writers, the appearance of a fanatical leader who disregards any obstacle, and the transition into organized normality. While the Arab Spring remains undecided, no such leader has emerged but it rather seems that the leaderless uprisings were facilitated by technology and triggered by the global economic disaster that hit the Middle East particularly hard. Most of these countries will probably revert to the comfort of more Islam rather than a destruction of the old in favor of a new dream for tomorrow. Life on earth is inconsequential for true believers in Islam (or Christianity). Tomorrow is Paradise. Hoffer deserves highest credit just for trying to address such a difficult topic despite (or maybe because) of his lack of formal training. He has certainly succeeded in his goal to provoke lots of questions. I am not in unity with him over the questions of religious mass movements, and just because I tend to agree with many of his other thoughts, it does not validate them. However, by no means does that disqualify his important work. In fact it is a warning to modernity that the slogan of CHANGE might be a sign of a fundamental societal disruption right here in North America. All we need to look out for is a fanatical leader to emerge. Perry might lend himself to fill the shoes. A.J. Deusauthor of The Great Leap-FraudSocial Economics of Religious Terrorismajdeus.orgmore
A mix of insight and blindness, true observation and fallacy. Some of the latter can be explained by the rather dated nature of the work and some of the sources used to build its arguments. In other cases it seems less likely that the sources are the problem, and more likely that they derive from Hoffner himself.So, is it a revealing insight into the process of mass movements marred by a few minor flaws, or a mess of false suppositions with only minor moments of genuine revelation? In the end, I have no idea.more
Born in the Bronx, Hoffer's parents died while he was yet young, and he came to California to work as a migrant worker, eventually taking a position as a longshoreman. This is his first of ten notable works, a serious exposition of the social psychology of fanatics in mass movements. With aphoristic style -- he carried notebooks with him -- he deconstructs the movements, not all of which are "bad". I am very sobered by the fact that he writes with a gentle authority, a useful clarity, and well-read references we only hope could be taught. He is entirely self-taught.Hoffer shows that both the methods and the motivation of fanatics are the same--even though they claim to be opposed. Fanatics are the same people, with the same lack of self-esteem and frustrations.As a solution, Hoffer suggests the substitution of a benign movement to give those prone to join mass movements an outlet for their insecurities. He suggests a civilian conservation corp.more
Written in 1951, Hoffer's arguments and insights easily apply to life today. Hoffer tackles both religious and political movements. This book was written long before the horrors of Jonestown and a half century before "terrorism" became a household word. However, while reading this, I couldn't help but make comparisons to our presence in the Middle East or the religious wars we battle (whether we call them "religious wars" or not). Sadly, we have learned little in the 6 decades since Eric Hoffer wrote this book.more
A phenominal book, and one that has deeply influenced me. Written in a clear, articulate and original voice, Hoffer offers perceptive and prescient insight on the elements common to all mass movements, be they nationalist, religious or revolutionary in nature, focusing on the psychological appeal of mass movements (particularly in their revivalist or chileastic phase) and the personality types most prone to become doctrinaire converts. Hoffer's ideas are both pithy and profound. And given this book was first published in 1951, surprisingly durable, as they can be applied to a wide range of current issues and events. Whether your interest is in the continued colonizing powers of the West, the devastation caused by nationalistic fervor in the former Yugoslavia, the intransigence of totalitarian regimes the world over, the growth of Christian and Muslim fundamentalism, or the psychology of religious cultists, this book sheds new light on some contributing factors.more
This is the most enlightening book on the nature of man and society I've read.The ideas and concepts contained here haveshaped my examination and understanding of the world daily for 25 years. Hoffer's insights are profound. Some favorite quotes from this book are: "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." "Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for both.""Craving, not having, is the mother of a reckless giving of oneself.""The inert mass of a nation...is in its middle section. The decent, average people who do the nation's work in cities and on the land are worked upon and shaped by minorities at both ends--the best and the worst."more
Eric Hoffer is the self-taught "working man's" philosopher and this is his brilliant analysis of mass movements. It is prescient in its insight into the psychology of the follower, the 'True Believer' who makes these movements possible. Written at a time before the effects of these movements would grow to beome (in the sixties) a blight upon the culture of humanity. This book is worth reading and rereading as a reminder that one should think for oneself. An important work for the bookshelf of any individualist.more
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