Eric Hoffer and The True Believer

This is the first part of a two-part discussion at Wascana Fellowship that took place in early December 2010. The first is an overview of ideas from Eric Hoffer’s book. The second part is a discussion about some of the implications for a Christian.

Penetrating insight into human nature can be found at any level of class or culture. Unfortunately, it is not usually recognized by the elite world of scholarship and media. On rare occasions there are exceptions to this general rule. Eric Hoffer was an American dock worker who happened to be an avid reader. After watching the world change due to the fanaticism of regimes like German Nazism and Russian Communism (Socialism) he pondered the origins, attractiveness and progression of fanaticism in a series of thought-experiments. Encouraged by a publisher, he put his theories together in book form. The True Believer, first published in 1951, immediately launched him to center stage as a recognized American philosopher and wise man. This book is still consulted by American military and intelligence analysts to develop strategies and tactics to deal with ideologically-motivated regimes or terrorism.

Nobody who researches either mass movements or cults should miss reading this book. It is a gold mine of ideas and insight into the workings of leaders and followers of mass movements that attempt to shape the world into their own idealized image.

According to Hoffer, a mass movement appeals mainly to people who are dissatisfied with themselves and their accomplishments. They blame conditions outside themselves (rightly or wrongly) for their lack ability to acheive. They think that if they can change the world their personal problems will be solved.

Many reviewers and fans of Hoffer oversimplify Hoffer’s idea of the sense of dissatisfaction with themselves to imply that the people themselves are actually flawed. The problem is the perception that they are not achieving what they think they should be able to.

It may well be unrealistic expectations of the person’s own competence in their chosen field, such as was the case for Adolf Hitler (who lacked the talent to be a competent painter).

On the other hand, most modern societies create underprivileged minorities by increasing the monetary requirements for training or purchase of tools. Economic collapses also generate dissatisfaction as once-employed people fall behind their peers economically.

Rapid, unrelenting change also produces dissatisfaction as people feel like they are falling behind. An example is the Luddite movement in the early days of the Industrial Revolution in England, who smashed powered looms to protest the pace of technological change that was undermining their ability to earn a living. Social change generates psychological pressures in addition to economic ones, as people are asked to set aside longstanding cultural values in favour of new, untried ways. Change increases the likelihood of people no longer fitting in, yet having memories of once being adequate.

If you are wanting to lead a mass movement, times like ours are becoming almost perfect. We are experiencing rapid change both socially and technologically, while the average North American is being bombarded with media describing the world as an increasingly frightening place. In addition to this, the North American economy is in very shaky condition, especially in the United States. It strikes me that the time is entirely too ripe in Canada and the United States for people with simplistic answers to complex problems to make their views known. Should governments prove unable to mitigate increasing unease, we could be in for all the turmoil that mass movements inevitably generate. We are probably in for, according to the ancient Chinese curse, interesting times.

In order to create fanatics, you must get them to hate. First, they must hate themselves enough to be willing change by adopting a new identity provided by the mass movement. This self-hate must be channelled into hatred of the present. Only people who hate the status quo enough can overlook the damage they will do to themselves and others in trying to wipe out the status quo. You must tell them over and over again how evil the present is and allow no positive thoughts or memories about the present to enter their heads.

To inspire people to hate the present, a leader must usually be able to both embellish the truth and lie convincingly. They need to spin stories that engage the listener with the promises of the age to come. Stories of how much better that will be than the ugly present. Stories that reframe their lives into a heroic struggle of good (us) versus evil (them). These are the stories that help the follower pretend that his life has meaning, and that his or her heroic death will allow him or her to live on in the minds and hearts of others who will follow in the future one has helped to create. This is how the follower will be able to pretend that they will not lose everything dear to them by dying.

One might get the impression that Hoffer is against fanatics and the mass movements that create and use them. Yes, they do cause incalculable damage to people who are perceived to be in the way of revolution. Yes, they waste all the resources of a society in what is usually a quixotic quest that rarely makes life better for the fanatics in the long run. On the other hand, there have actually been some mass movements that have led to changes arguably beneficial to society.

Socialized medical care in Canada, for instance, was engineered by a bunch of radical politicians led by a Baptist preacher who led the Canadian province of Saskatchewan into a far more socialist mindset than any other Canadian province. Hoffer also notes a positive example of a Scandanavian country that used fanaticism to rapidly expand its social programs to the general benefit of the nation’s poor and vulnerable.

The shorter the time of transformation before normalizing and more specific the goals, the less permanent damage will be done to a nation or people. Fanaticism is dangerous, and not to be toyed with except under the most dire circumstances.

On the other hand, Hoffer also points out that only fanatics can resist other brands of fanaticism. Reasonable people who actually have something worth dying for do not have the motivation to put their lives on the line. Russia’s Communist soldiers were willing to fight to the death against Hitler’s fanatical Nazis, while moderate regimes melted like butter before them. Not until Britain acquired a fanatical leader in Churchill did the British actually stand a chance of fending off the mighty Wehrmacht. His speeches energized the British with a passion for total, unrelenting warfare such as had never happened before.

It turns out that non-fanatics are far easier to coerce into doing things they believe are wrong. Fanatics can resist almost all forms of coercion because they believe they are still important members of a greater and better whole. They can only be stamped out by the most brutal and persistent suppression. The Roman Empire found this out the hard way in dealing with Judean rebellion in the late 60’s AD. They only had peace when they burned down the Temple and scattered every stone in Jerusalem. (In order to get a fanatic to do your will, you must first convert them to your cause. This is a risky and time-consuming task.)

A government that forgets (or does not know) how to generate fanaticism risks being destroyed from without and from within by others who can harness the will and undying devotion of regular people who believe they have nothing to lose by destroying the status quo. Because of this, Hoffer concludes his book by stating that the ability to generate mass movements and guide them to practical goals on short notice needs to remain a part of even the most democratic leaders’ arsenal of leadership tools.

This is probably a radical oversimplification of the book, so I highly recommend reading it for yourself. In Regina, copies are available at the Campion College and Luther College branches of the University of Regina Library and at the main branch of the Regina Public Library.

For further information about the man and his other work, you can check out The Eric Hoffer Resource.


About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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