Thursday, October 11, 2018

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

I first became aware of Eric Hoffer when I was a young teenager and stumbled upon a half-hour show he did for KQED that was broadcast on the local public TV station in NYC.  I fell in love with his enthusiasm, his joy in learning and thinking, and followed his work until he became an unofficial advisor to LBJ and began to inveigh against the 60s©™allrightsreserved without, to me, much understanding at all.  Still, his books like The True Believer and The Ordeal of Change helped me formulate some of my own thinking and may still be useful to others.

Here are the notes I made when I reread The True Believer in 2008.

The True Believer:  Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer
NY:  Harper & Row, 1951

(xii)  "Starting out from the fact that the frustrated predominate among the early adherents of all mass movements and that they usually join of their own accord, it is assumed:  1)  that frustration of itself, without any proselytizing prompting from the outside, can generate most of the peculiar characteristics of the true believer;  2)  that an effective technique of conversion consists basically in the inculcation and fixation of proclivities and responses indigenous to the frustrated mind."

(9)  "Those who would transform a nation of the world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent or by demonstrating the reasonableness and desirability of the intended changes or by coercing people into a new way of life.  They must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope.  It matters not whether it be hope of a heavenly kingdom, of heaven on earth, of plunder and untold riches, of fabulous achievement or world dominion.  If the Communists win Europe and a large part of the world, it will not be because they know how to stir up discontent or how to infect people with hatred, but because they know how to preach hope."

(10)  "There can be revolutions by the privileged as well as by the underprivileged.  The movement of enclosure in sixteenth and seventeenth century England was a revolution by the rich."
NB:  We are now undergoing a similar revolution of the rich, the enclosure of the intellectual commons and the complete corporate branding of life, down to your DNA.

"Another English revolution by the rich occurred at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century.  It was the Industrial Revolution."

(11)  "For men to plunge headlong into an undertaking of vast change, they must be intensely discontented yet not destitute, and they must have the feeling that by the possession of some potent doctrine, infallible leader or some new technique they have access to a source of irresistible power.  They must be wholly ignorant of the difficulties involved in their vast undertaking.  Experience is a handicap."

(15)  "The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless."

(16)  "When people are ripe for a mass movement, they are usually ripe for any effective movement, and not solely for one with a particular doctrine or program."

(17)  "Since all mass movements draw their adherents from the same types of humanity and appeal to the same types of mind, it follows:  a) all mass movements are competitive, and the gain of one in adherents is the loss of all the others;  b) all mass movements are interchangeable.  One mass movement readily transforms itself into another."

(28)  "Discontent is likely to be highest when misery is bearable;  when conditions have so improved that an ideal state seems almost within reach.  A grievance is most poignant when almost redressed."

(29)  "It is not actual suffering but the taste of better things which excites people to revolt."

(30)  "There is a hope that acts as an explosive, and a hope that disciplines and infuses patience.  The difference is between the immediate hope and the distant hope."

"Later, as the movement comes into possession of power, the emphasis is shifted to the distant hope - the dream and the vision.  For an 'arrived' mass movement is preoccupied with the preservation of the present, and it prizes obedience and patience above spontaneous action, and when we 'hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.'"

(31)  "Freedom aggravates at least as much as it alleviates frustration.  Freedom of choice places the whole blame of failure on the shoulders of the individual."

(41)  "It is futile to judge the viability of a new movement by the truth of its doctrine and the feasibility of its promises.  What has to be judged is its corporate organization for quick and total absorption of the frustrated."

(43)  "When people revolt in a totalitarian society, they rise not against the wickedness of the regime but its weakness."

(51)  "There is perhaps no more reliable indicator of a society's ripeness for a mass movement than the prevalence of unrelieved boredom."

(54)  "An effective mass movement cultivates the idea of sin.  It depicts the autonomous self not only as barren and helpless but also as vile."

(58)  "It is perhaps impossible to understand the nature fo mass movements unless it is recognized that their chief preoccupation is to foster, perfect and perpetuate a facility for untied action and self-sacrifice."

(59-60)  "Such diverse phenomena as a deprecation of the present, a facility for make-believe, a proneness to hate, a readiness to imitate, credulity, a readiness to attempt the impossible, and many others which crowd the minds fo the intensely frustrated are, as we shall see, unifying agents and prompters of recklessness."

(61)  "The technique of fostering a readiness to fight and to die consists in separating the individual from his flesh-and-blood self - in not allowing him to be his real self.  This can be achieved by the thorough assimilation of the individual into a compact collective body;  by endowing him with an imaginary self (make-believe);  by implanting in him a deprecating attitude toward the present and riveting his interest on things that are not yet;  by interposing a fact-proof screen between him and reality (doctrine);  by preventing, through the injection of passions, the establishment of a stable equilibrium between the individual and his self (fanaticism)."

(63)  "The effacement of individual separateness must be thorough.  In every act, however, trivial, the individual must by some ritual associate himself with the congregation, the tribe, the party, etcetera.  His joys and sorrows, his pride and confidence must spring from the fortunes and capacities of the group rather than from his individual prospects and abilities.  Above all, he must never feel alone.  Though stranded on a desert island, he must still feel that he is under the eyes of the group.  To be cast out from the group should be equivalent to being cut off from life."

(68)  "Glory is largely a theatrical concept.  There is no striving for glory without a vivid awareness of an audience - the knowledge that our mighty deeds will come to the ears of our contemporaries or 'of those who are to be.'"

(71)  "The self-sacrifice involved in mutual sharing and co-operative action is impossible without hope."

(73)  "It is often the fanatics, and not always the delicate spirits, that are found grasping the right thread of the solutions required by the future." 
Alexis de Tocqueville, On the State of Society in France Before the Revolution of 1789 (John Murray, 1888)

(74-75)  "The radical and the reactionary loathe the present.  They see it as an aberration and a deformity.  Both are ready to proceed ruthlessly and recklessly with the present, and both are hospitable to the idea of self-sacrifice.  Wherein do they differ?  Primarily in their view of the malleability of man's nature.  The radical has a passionate faith in the infinite perfectibility of human nature.  He believes that by changing man's environment and by perfecting a technique of soul forming, a society can be wrought that is wholly new and unprecedented.  The reactionary does not believe that man has unfathomed potentialities for good in him.  If a stable and healthy society is to be established, it must be patterned after the proven models of the past.  He sees the future as a glorious restoration rather than an unprecedented innovation.

"In reality the boundary line between radical and reactionary is not always distinct.  The reactionary manifests radicalism when he comes to recreate his ideal past.  His image of the past is based less on what it actually was than on what he wants the future to be.  He innovates more than he reconstructs.  A somewhat similar shift occurs in the case of the radical when he goes about building his new world.  He feels the need for practical guidance, and since he has rejected and destroyed the present he is compelled to link the new world with some point in the past.  If he has to employ violence in shaping the new, his view of man's nature darkens and approaches closer to that of the reactionary.

(75)  "What surprises one, when listening to the frustrated as they decry the present and all its works, is the enormous joy they derive from doing so.  Such delight cannot come from the mere venting of a grievance.  There must be something more - and there is.  By expiating upon the incurable baseness and vileness of the times, the frustrated soften their feeling of failure and isolation.  It is as if they said:  'Not only our blemished selves, but the lives of all our contemporaries, even the most happy and successful, are worthless and wasted.'  Thus be deprecating the present they acquire a vague sense of equality."

(76)  "One of the rules that emerges from a consideration of the factors that promote self-sacrifice is that we are less ready to die for what we have or are than for what we wish to have and to be."

(77)  "Craving, not having, is the mother of a reckless giving of oneself."

(78)  "All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world.  They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside it.  The facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation but from holy writ."

"To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason."

(79)  "The effectiveness of the doctrine does not come from its meaning but from its certitude."

"Crude absurdities, trivial nonsense and sublime truths are equally potent in readying people for self-sacrifice if they are accepted as the sole, eternal truth."

"We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand."

"If a doctrine is not unintelligible, it has to be vague;  and if neither unintelligible nor vague, it has to be unverifiable."

"There is thus an illiterate air about the most literate true believer.  He seems to use words as if he were ignorant of their true meaning.  Hence, too, his taste for quibbling, hair-splitting and scholastic tortuousness."

(82)  "The true believer is without wonder and hesitation."
NB:  No curiosity

"The true believer is emboldened to attempt the unprecedented and the impossible not only because his doctrine gives him a  sense of omnipotence but also because it gives him unqualified confidence in the future."

(83)  "The rule seems to be that those who find no difficulty in deceiving themselves are easily deceived by others.  They are easily persuaded and led.

"A peculiar side of credulity is that it is often joined with a proneness to imposture.  The association of believing and lying is not characteristic solely of children.  The inability or unwillingness to see things as they are promotes both gullibility and charlatanism."

(85)  "The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure.  He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual resources - out of his rejected self - but finds it only by clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace.  This passionate attachment is the essence of his blind devotion and religiosity, and he sees in it the source of all virtue and strength."

"The fanatic is not really a stickler to principle.  He embraces a cause not primarily because of its justness and holiness but because of his desperate need for something to hold on to."

(86)  "He cannot be convinced but only converted."

"Though they seem to be at opposite poles, fanatics of all kinds are actually crowded together at one end.  It is the fanatic and the moderate who are poles apart and never meet."

"The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a God or not."

(87)  "He hungers for the deep assurance which comes with total surrender - with the wholehearted clinging to a creed and a cause.   What matters is not the contents of the cause but the total dedication and the communion with a congregation."

(89)  "On the other hand, the leader of a mass movement has an overwhelming contempt for the present - for all its stubborn facts and perplexities, even those of geography and the weather.  He relies on miracles.  His hatred of the present (his nihilism) comes to the fore when the situation becomes desperate.  He destroys his country and his people rather than surrender."
NB:  Now suicide is a tactic

(92)  "Common hatred unites the most heterogeneous elements.  To share a common hatred, with an enemy even, is to infect him with a feeling of kinship, and thus sap his powers of resistance."

""It seem that, like the ideal deity, the ideal devil is one.  We have it from Hitler - the foremost authority on devils - that the genius of a great leader consists in concentrating all hatred on a single foe, making 'even adversaries far removed from one another seem to belong to a single category.'"

(93)  "Finally,it seems, the ideal devil is a foreigner."

"But we always look for allies when we hate."

(95)  "There is perhaps no surer way of infecting ourselves with virulent hatred toward a person than be doing him a grave injustice.  That others have a just grievance against us is a more potent reason for hating them than that we have a just grievance against them.  We do not make people humble and meek when we show them their guilt and cause them to be ashamed of themselves.  We are more likely to stir their arrogance and rouse in them a reckless aggressiveness.  Self-righteousness is a loud din raised to drown the voice of guilt within us."

(97)  "It is startling to see how the oppressed almost invariably shape themselves in the image of their hated oppressors.  That the evil men do lives after them is partly due to the fact that those who have reason to hate the evil most shape themselves after it and thus perpetuate it.  It is obvious, therefore, that the influence of the fanatic is bound to be out of all proportion to his abilities.  Both by converting and antagonizing, he shapes the world in his own image."

"Hitler, who sensed the undercurrent of admiration in hatred, drew a remarkable conclusion.  It is of the utmost importance, he said, that the National Socialist should seek and deserve the violent hatred of his enemies.  Such hatred would be proof of the superiority of the National Socialist faith.  'The best yardstick for the value of his [the National Socialist's] attitude, for the sincerity of his conviction, and the force of his will is the hostility he receives from the .. enemy.'"
NB:  The propagation of "Bush-hating" by Republicans?

(107)  "Ferrero says of the terrorists of the French Revolution that the more blood they 'shed the more they needed to believe in their principles as absolutes.  only the absolute might still absolve them in their own eyes and sustain their desperate energy.  [They] did not spill all that blood because they believe in popular sovereignty as a religious truth;  they tried to believe in popular sovereignty as a religious truth because their fear made them spill so much blood.'"
Guglielmo Ferrero, Principles of Power (GP Putnam, 1942)

(116)  "The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership.  What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world."

(121-122)  "A mass movement's call for action evokes an eager response for the frustrated.  For the frustrated see in action a cure for all that ails them."

(132)  "'Vanity,' said Napoleon, 'made the Revolution;  liberty was only a pretext.'"

(154)  "The mass movement leader who benefits his people and humanity knows not only how to start a movement, but, like Gandhi, when to end its active phase."

(162)  "In the eyes of the true believer, people who have no holy cause are without backbone and character - a pushover for men of faith."

(1680  "JBS Haldane counts fanaticism among the only four really important inventions made between 3000 BC and 1400 AD."
JBS Haldane, The Inequality of Man (Famous Books, 1938)

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