The True Believer
The Psychology of Mass Movements
Tyranny cannot rise by force alone. A tyrant needs the consent of the majority made compliant and enthusiastic by circumstance, attitude, and indoctrination. But understanding these mechanisms can help us avoid such manipulation.
In The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Eric Hoffer describes how tyrants gain consent. Published in 1951, Hoffer’s book looks not just at ideological movements of that time, such as Nazism and Communism, but also at the French revolution, the rise of Protestantism and of the ancient Catholic church. It’s important to note that some mass movements may well represent a desperate cry for change that we might feel is completely justified. But Hoffer’s insight is that all mass movements depend on appeals to the same human tendencies. Had Hoffer written his book today, he might have included a wide mix of contemporary examples such as militant Islam and all the other fervent religious revivalist movements all around the world; political movements such as Black Lives Matter, “Stop the Steal,” and #MeToo; and the recent global wave of anti-immigration sentiment.
Mass movements can spring from a purely emotional response or from the necessity and ability to work together for positive change. But positive or negative, Hoffer argues, they ultimately take advantage of a single psychological response: the feeling that “Man on his own is a helpless, miserable and sinful creature. His only salvation is in rejecting his self and in finding a new life in the bosom of a holy corporate body – be it a church, a nation or a party.” Hoffer’s book, like Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, is an important contribution to our understanding of the mechanisms that produce mass movements—and therefore to our ability to avoid unconsciously falling victim to manipulation, polarization, and tyranny.
Hoffer begins by looking at the appeal of mass movements. Quoting Thoreau, he writes, “If anything ail a man, so that he does not perform his functions, if he have a pain in his bowels even … he forthwith sets about reforming – the world.” He points out that “The less justified 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.”
The discontented display a desire for substitutes, a need to look outside themselves for the cause of their frustration—whether the cause is actually outside themselves or not. He writes: “The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless… The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.”
“Vanity,” said Napoleon, “made the Revolution; liberty was only a pretext.” Hoffer muses, a little mischievously, that perhaps a “bishopric conferred on Luther at the right moment might have cooled his ardor for a Reformation. The young Karl Marx could perhaps have been won over to Prussiandom by the bestowal of a title and an important government job.” Today, one might wonder what the right, early, plum appointment might have done to change the trajectory of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rise and all its ensuing conflagration.
It is the fault-finding intellectuals, not the men of action, who are most prone to vanity. It is they who initiate nationalist movements and insurrections. “A movement is pioneered by men of words, materialized by fanatics and consolidated by men of action.” When a man of action, like Napoleon, takes over a mass movement it then becomes a vehicle for his ambition.
Hoffer holds that at some level, all participants in mass movements share this same psychological response. They can easily interchange their allegiance to ideologies. It is their neediness and fervour that counts, not the content of the idea. Hitler looked on the German Communists as potential National Socialists while the Polish Communist Karl Radek saw the Nazi Brown Shirts as a source of future Communist recruits.
United Action and Self-Sacrifice
It takes a cataclysm – an invasion, a plague, or some other communal disaster – to open people’s eyes to the transient nature of what normally seems permanent. Yet many will not act on this insight. Those who see their lives as spoiled and wasted will crave equality and fraternity more than they do freedom. This fraternity absolves them of the responsibility for their actions. These are the people most vulnerable to indoctrination.
“A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence.” The chief passion of the frustrated is to belong.
Fervent patriotism, or religious and revolutionary enthusiasm often serves as a refuge from a guilty conscience. So effective mass movements cultivate the concept of sin. Autonomous action is discouraged, and the True Believer is expected to confess and repent. The sinner is then saved by joining in the holy oneness of the congregation – in losing himself – like the ecstatic participant at one of Trump’s rallies. But an outstanding leader who can rouse the crowds is indispensable, regardless of whether the belief system he is promoting makes sense or not.
In a section that is relevant to the events at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, Hoffer points out: “To our real, naked selves there is not a thing on earth or in heaven worth dying for. It is only when we see ourselves as actors in a staged (and therefore unreal) performance that death loses its frightfulness and finality and becomes an act of make-believe and a theatrical gesture.”
The Time, The Place, The People
For any event to occur, at whatever level, circumstances must be in alignment. In other words, the time must be ripe, things need to happen in a particular place, and finally, the nature of the participants need to mesh together. If one of these conditions is out of alignment, the time of opportunity will pass, and action will inevitably fail.
The First World War and its aftermath was a time when conditions for the rise of totalitarianism to take hold were ripe. It “readied the ground for the rise of the Bolshevik, Fascist and Nazi movements. Had the war been averted or postponed a decade or two, the fate of Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler would not have been different from that of the brilliant plotters and agitators of the nineteenth century…” One should add that the post-WWI populations of Russia, Germany, and Italy were exhausted and disoriented by years of war and also were all traditionally used to the despotism of the state or of the church.
Today, we face a similar situation. We had become used to the idea that living standards would continue to improve without end. When this growth slowed, and even reversed, people became disoriented and frustrated. The optimistic view of the future collapsed, and distrust of authority mounted. To “Make America Great Again” scapegoats had to be found, foreigners who could be blamed. This pessimistic pattern of response to existential problems is common around the world today, accelerated and amplified by the influence of social media. Jonathan Haidt analyzes this process in The Atlantic and notes its potential impact on Gen Z (born after 1997) and later generations—who, he points out, “bear none of the blame for the mess we are in, but . . . are going to inherit it.”
These two books, On Tyranny, and The True Believer, written almost seventy years apart, both focus on the same psychological problem: humans naturally evolved to be driven by fear and greed, motivations that enabled our very survival 30,000 years ago. But we have not evolved biologically since then, and today these same motivations drive us to political paranoia and self-interest. We must learn to consciously master such essential, but primitive propensities, which is more possible than ever now, thanks to our current understanding of human psychology and motivation.
When times are bad, it is too easy for people to be misled and for totalitarian politics to take hold. The population of every country is vulnerable to this tendency. As soon as unexpected difficulties occur, populist leaders rise up and demonize some imagined culprit in order to take power. And then, as Oliver Cromwell said: “A man never goes so far as when he does not know whither he is going.” But today we have a unique opportunity to avoid being unknowingly led in dangerous directions. Books like these, along with further insights from contemporary science, provide the knowledge of human nature and psychology that enables us to consciously change our behavior.