Bonus Book Review: Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

Welcome back for round two of my “bonus book reviews” extra content here at the blog! Last month, I offered a few comments on Camilla Townsend’s excellent Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, which I read as part of an academic nonfiction book discussion group (AKA, an online book club). This time around, the book of the month was the quite different–in many ways–The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer.

Before getting into the book, I should provide some context on Hoffer himself, as any evaluation of his work needs to take into consideration his unusual life story and path to authorship and fame. Some of the details of Hoffer’s early life have been the subject of considerable debate, but the gist of the story is that Hoffer had a hardscrabble upbringing full of family tragedy (the death of both parents) and health concerns (his vision disappeared for a number of years before mysteriously returning). Hoffer made ends meet for a while by working odd jobs, including finding employment as a migrant farm laborer, and spent much of his free time reading.

Eventually, Hoffer settled into a position as a longshoreman in San Francisco, a job which he held down for roughly two decades. It was during this period of his life that he started writing in earnest, including the book under consideration here, which brought him a significant measure of renown and led to numerous other works. He also taught as an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley for a time. The crowning achievement of his writing career was his reception of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 1983, roughly three months before his death at the age of eighty.

Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1951)

The True Believer is an unusual book, by turns quite perceptive and quite reductive. Hoffer sets out for himself no smaller a task than the identification of “peculiarities common to all mass movements, be they religious movements, social revolutions or nationalist movements. It does not maintain that all movements are identical, but that they share certain essential characteristics which give them a family likeness.” (1) He narrows this scope slightly to the “active, revivalist phase of mass movements” (2) which, he contends, is the dynamic phase of all mass movements in which the titular “true believers” reign supreme. The composition and life cycle of mass movements prove to be two of Hoffer’s greatest concerns in The True Believer.

Hoffer lays out a handful of underlying assumptions in the preface of the book–that the “frustrated” constitute the bulk of a mass movement’s early membership; that they normally join voluntarily; that their frustrations, variously defined, motivate them to join; and that mass movements convert new believers by keeping the focus on those frustrations. From there, he offers readers 125 short observations (ranging from just a few sentences to a few pages), separated into eighteen discrete chapters, exploring various aspects of the thoughts and actions of the “true believer.” I found this highly fragmentary system somewhat off-putting, as the core ideas of Hoffer’s book, whatever one thinks of them, are much more cohesive than the disjointed organizational structure would imply.

At any rate, Hoffer’s eighteen chapters are themselves organized into four main sections, which we’ll now overview in turn. In the first part, Hoffer explores the “appeal of mass movements,” or the reasons why the frustrated join up. Key among these reasons, he argues, are a desire for “sudden and spectacular change in their conditions of life” (3) and a “crav[ing] to be rid of an unwanted self.” (4) In other words, those dissatisfied with their lot in life throw in with mass movements of one sort or another because they seek to transform their lives while also hoping to lose themselves, so to speak, in service of something much larger than the individual.

Part 2 of The True Believer finds Hoffer analyzing those “potential converts” in greater detail, identifying categories of the frustrated who have a greater proclivity for joining mass movements. He contends that the “inferior elements” (an unfortunate choice of words) of a society play an outsized role in its mass movements, not necessarily in positions of power but in the rank-and-file. They, along with “the superior individual” who provides leadership to them, are the real drivers of change, with the “decent, average people who do the nation’s work in cities and on the land… worked upon and shaped by minorities at both ends–the best and the worst.” (5)

The longest section of the book, its third, focuses on “united action and self-sacrifice.” Without channeling those qualities (already present within its members) to specific ends, a mass movement will almost inevitably fail to hold itself together–the underlying idea or goal of the movement alone will not suffice to do so. Hoffer notes that “the reader is expected to quarrel with much that is said in this part of the book. He is likely to feel that much has been exaggerated and much ignored.” (6) At the same time, there is a certain logic in Hoffer’s contention that members of mass movements possess these characteristics (otherwise, they would not have joined) and that they are necessary to the survival of a movement (otherwise, individual members would prioritize their own self-interests over those of the group, no matter how much they might intellectually agree with its cause).

Finally, in part 4, “Beginning and End,” Hoffer describes the life cycle of mass movements, finding some common patterns across a number of examples. He argues that such movements are often instigated by “men of words,” whose critiques of contemporary society serve as rallying cries to the frustrated. Those “thought leaders,” to borrow a more modern appellation, are then pushed aside by the “fanatics,” who view the intellectuals suspiciously because of their tendency toward critical thought. Eventually, movements fall under the control of the “practical men of action,” under whose careful watch “the explosive vigor of the movement is embalmed and sealed in sanctified institutions.” (7)

The True Believer has been reprinted and reissued many times in the seventy years since its initial release, and a number of high profile figures, including Dwight Eisenhower and Hillary Clinton, have read and recommended the book. It is certainly a fascinating tome, and readers will likely find themselves nodding in agreement in many places, as examples post-dating Hoffer’s analysis show remarkable parallels to those he relied upon three-fourths of a century ago.

At the same time, one’s views on The True Believer will likely correspond closely to one’s willingness to overlook an abundance of generalizations and a dearth of citations or references to other works. Hoffer was clearly well read, and his writing moves effortlessly across time and space in search of universal truths underlying mass movements; too, he was not a historian by training or trade, and it is perhaps unfair to criticize him too much for not writing a book he didn’t intend to write. Yet the devil is often in the details, and I found myself getting frustrated with some of Hoffer’s incorrect assertions regarding the history of various religious movements (my area of specialty). Those individual errors, while not enough to compromise the project as a whole, do start to chip away at the author’s credibility, as the generalizations across movements can only be as accurate as the individual understandings of the respective movements allow them to be. Too, finding errors of fact in material related to one’s area of expertise makes one wonder about the accuracy of material related to other topics.

In the end, I see Hoffer’s work as a spiritual predecessor to more recent works of “big history,” such as those of Jared Diamond or Yuval Noah Harari, which offer sweeping, often thought-provoking takes on history writ large, yet which are also vulnerable to criticisms for a lack of precision in minor details and a willingness to draw morally- (or at least practically-) minded conclusions for the present day from the stories of the past. The True Believer is, ultimately, a worthy read and likely to generate thoughtful conversation, but it’s not a work I would feel confident citing in support of some sort of historical (as opposed to theoretical or philosophical) claim.

NOTES (Page numbers are from the 2010 reissue pictured above.)

(1) xi

(2) xii

(3) 3

(4) 12

(5) 24

(6) 60

(7) 149

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