Book Review: The True Believer – Eric Hoffer

Finished re-reading.

I guess this must be the fifth time I would have read this book. Since its publication in 1951, it remains a classic, a seminal work to understand the nature of mass movements. Apart from his writing which is unlike any other I have read, with its simplicity and aphorisms, I also admire Eric Hoffer as a person. Here was a man who was orphaned at the age of five, lost his eyesight at seven, gained it back miraculously by 15, and did odd jobs to survive, finally becoming a longshoreman.  He continues in that profession till he retired. Totally self-taught and an autodidact, he was hailed as one of the leading intellectuals of America, taking lectures in prestigious Ivy League colleges. However, when asked if he considered himself an intellectual, he said “No, I am a longshoreman.” It is stories of people like Eric Hoffer that has convinced me that formal degrees from so called prestigious universities, are at times grossly over-rated.

The main theme of the book is to understand the nature of mass movements, how they start and how they end. Eric seeks to discover common strands in all mass movements so that certain truisms or general principals can be deduced from their study. His study encompasses not only modern political movements but also religious, social and nationalistic movements.  Hoffer argues that mass movements start with a disillusionment with the prevailing state of affairs which is whipped up by a ‘frustrated group’. He however has an interesting take on the characteristic of this ‘frustrated group’. This group is not a group of destitutes’ (they are too caught up in their own survival) to align with or seek to lead a mass movement. Hoffer instead argues that it is, what he calls, ‘new poor’ (people who previously had wealth and power, but who now believe that they have lost it) are likely to become converts seeking ‘change’. Movements also attracts the partially assimilated – those alienated from the mainstream culture, outcastes, sinners, ambitious selfish people as well as those suffering from boredom. (basically, people who fail to derive meaning from their lives and find their life worthless). Hoffer argues that the nature of mass movement is such that it calls for ‘unified struggle’ completely subsuming individual identities, emphasizes ‘self-sacrifice’ for the cause all of which finally lead to the ‘greater good’ (in the view of the converts). There is no gainsaying then that no mass movements can afford the luxury of countenancing self interest as legitimate, for if the adherents start acting in their self-interest, unified action would surely get compromised. Interestingly, Hoffer argues that mass movements can only succeed in those societies where some amount of intellectual freedom is allowed.  He further argues that for any mass movement to succeed, it should provide all essential answers to the ‘True Believer’. So, the central dogma of the movement has to be utopian answers like Freedom, Communism, Liberty, Quran, Bible etc etc

Hoffer argues that the genesis of mass movement lies with a thinker/group of thinkers proposing a solution to society’s problems like Karl Marx, Prophet Mohammad, Jesus Christ, Thomas Paine, other philosophers etc etc. These anti-establishment thinkers (whom he categorizes as ‘Man of Words’ ) prepare the ground for the movement providing the themes, ideas and the dogmas for ‘changing’ the ‘present’, though they themselves do not lead these movements. They are the ones sowing the seeds for the movements that will happen in the future. However these intellectuals are more flexible than their  ‘true believers’ and followers. Hoffer writes, “The genuine man of words can get along without faith in absolutes. He values the search for truth as much as the truth itself. He delights in the clash of thought and in the give and take of controversy…His vanity, it is true, often prompts him to defend his speculations with savagery and even venom; but his appeal is usually to reason and not to faith. The fanatics and the faith hungry masses, however, are likely to invest such speculations with a certitude of holy writ, and make them the fountainhead of a new faith. Jesus was not a Christian, nor was Marx a Marxist.”

He argues that even though these ‘men of words’ are the intellectual forbearers of the movement, the power of leadership finally passes out of their hands to a fanatic leader. When the situation becomes ripe it is only a ‘fanatic’ who can give direction to and lead a genuine mass movement. According to Hoffer, a frustrated creative intellectual (he gives the example of Lenin, Hitler and Robespierre) is the best suited ‘fanatic’ to lead a movement. However, this ‘fanatic’ is not really a great leader for the long term, for they are too self-absorbed in their own dogmas and fanaticism. They thus become intellectually blind which leads to their destruction (Hitler and Mussolini are examples according to Hoffer).

Finally, Hoffer argues that in the final phase of the movement, (if it becomes successful like in Russia and does not self-destruct like Nazism and Fascism), the fanatical leader is replaced by a ‘practical’ leader. This leader is less driven by ideology and fanaticism but more by the desire to consolidate and enforce ‘order’. So, he relies most on ‘drills’ and ‘coercion’. He is not so much a man of ‘faith’ but a man of ‘law’. He however continues to maintain a revolutionary façade, through propaganda and sloganeering, but in the final analysis mostly depends on it is ‘force’. Since the movement has succeeded in acquiring power, it now needs to stabilize. So, the ‘practical leader’ now pieces a structure that is a mishmash of many other institutions. Hoffer gives the example of Stalin’s Russia which according to him was a patchwork of czarism, nationalism, Bolshevism, dictatorship, Prussianism, fascism, pan-Slavism etc.

While critics have rightly criticized Hoffer for being a pessimist and not finding anything good/or worthwhile in a revolution/movement, and I agree that does qualify as a limitation, but many movements, even in India do show a resemblance (if not full then partial) to Hoffer’s characterization. Hoffer had been a witness to the rise of Nazism, Fascism and Bolshevism and so his disillusionment with so called revolutionary changes is understandable. At a personal level why I find his writing important is that, it highlights how easy it is to fall into the trap of ‘group think’ and how important it is to keep seeking to understand a phenomenon ‘objectively’ without seeing it through any ‘prism’ (even moral).  The fundamental question which any thinking person needs to confront regularly is “Why do I believe what I believe?”. However, it is rare that most people ever ask this question. Belief is mostly a social function, a factor more of conditioning than critical intelligence. Mostly what we believe is a product of ‘social conditioning’, generally people having similar belief systems hang around together or many a times we imbibe those beliefs from our families, friends or peer groups. And since they have rarely had any other belief, becomes difficult to even accept that one might be wrong or be a victim of group-think!

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