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The True Believer: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Today’s Bizarre Social, Political and Crazy World – and it was published in 1951

January 14, 2019
bradspurgeon

My copy of The True Believer

My copy of The True Believer

PARIS – If you want to know what is happening in the world today, read this book first published in 1951. If you are shocked, confused, disgusted or even enamoured by Trump, Brexit, Bolsonaro, Orban, Gilets Jaunes, Salvini, Putin, Xi, and all this talk about making every country great again until there is no more world, then read this book published in 1951. If you haven’t got a clue about what I just wrote above, then read this book published in 1951. I have never been a person to seek to find all the answers in one place, but having just finished reading “The True Believer,” by Eric Hoffer, I have found just about all the answers to what is happening in our world – politically and socially – today. And I feel both a little better, and a little worse for it. But mostly better.

That the book was published in 1951 puts our world into perspective, of course. But at the same time, when putting human nature and its political systems into perspective, there should be no surprise for what is happening today. In a nutshell, “The True Believer,” puts it all into a nutshell: The psychology behind mass movements – looking at just about all of history up until 1951 – and sums up without favour to one side or the other exactly why mass movements find their adherents and their leaders. Here we see the common thread throughout human history between such things as communism, fascism, Nazism, as well as world religions like Catholicism and Protestantism and Judaism, and, yes, terrorism, and yes, populism.

Before the pro-Trumps or the anti-Trumps try to put a label on whose side Eric Hoffer is on, please, again, understand that he is not on any side: Hoffer was a longshoreman throughout his life and spent his free time reading, studying and examining both historical and contemporary movements. A longshoreman is a guy who works on the docks in shipyards, loading goods on ships, etc. A longshoreman is a worker. Hoffer was not part of any educational, social or political elite. He published “The True Believer” at nearly 50 years old – he was born in 1898 in The Bronx – and spent his life living his writing and his studies, and not seeking any particular status in society, beyond that of being a longshoreman – until his writing success gave him the possibility to leave the docks in 1964, and then become an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley until 1970, when he retired from public life.

The book, it turns out, became a bestseller, and was republished many times. “The True Believer” is still available if you go to Amazon, where you can even buy a Kindle edition. I came to this book last month as I was looking at my bookshelves and saw it once again (my 1966 Harper & Row, Perennial Library edition); I had picked it up decades ago from who knows where – I think in a pile of books that my fellow employees put in a pile at the office for sharing – and I had put it on my shelf and been attracted to read it many, many times, but never sat down to read more than the first page.

The book begins: “It is a truism that many who join a rising revolutionary movement are attracted by the prospect of sudden and spectacular change in their conditions of life. A revolutionary movement is a conspicuous instrument of change.”

That was it. This time, thanks to our crazy contemporary world, I was hooked from those words onward. I immediately began to think about the social movements the world is facing today, and the common thread that ties them all together: Desire for sudden and immediate change.

As I read the book, I found answers to most of the questions I have had about all the world’s biggest, most obvious social movements of today, but also and most importantly, answers to why people have elected liars, bigots, racists, dictator-leaning leaders, and how they can let such often ignorant, lying, leaders run their countries into the ground.

I cannot go through the whole book here, and prefer to give just enough of a taste that anyone who reads this will get the book and read it. It reads, by the way, like a treatise, or even a manifesto. But it is written in very simple English, and laid out in chapters, subheadings, and other bits and pieces that make it easy to pick up and read in short spurts – as I did – on the metro (were it not for the lack of good lighting these days in public transport built for backlit screens) or in down moments anytime during the day.

Among the fabulous, burning questions it answered for me were such things as why the “true believers” do accept a leader who is a patent liar who denies the truth on subjects that are clearly able to have their facts checked: The reason is because the believers are far more interested in having a person to believe “in” than having a person whose facts are true. The truth, in fact, means nothing to the true believer, only the fact of having a leader they believe will lead them to the change they desire. Ergo Trump, of course, and the fact that he creates his own “facts.” His followers do not care about his lying, only the change they believe he can bring.*

But there is much in the book to give me hope, as well. One of the things that Hoffer says a great leader must have to succeed in a social movement is the ability to develop a core group of close advisers and schemers and lieutenants around him (or her). This group not only sees the mission the way the leader does, but remains loyal – and he to them – and together they work to break down the system and create their new movement. Of course, while we know lots of stories about Trump looking for loyalty above all from government leaders around him, the bigger story of the Trump administration is his complete inability to keep for any length of time any loyal group of advisers around him. Mostly he is himself incapable of being loyal to any other individual, from what I have read in the news.

Of course, some things in history have changed. While Hoffer speaks about the leader’s need to control the media, and in the past this meant state control of the media, today, the new fascist dictators of the world no longer have to control newspapers and television stations when they simply discredit them through their own use of the social media – see Trump and Salvini as among the best examples of this. (Of course, Putin’s apparent setting up of a group of people to manipulate foreign social media could be seen as another kind of example.)

The True Believer in its own words

I have done far more talking here than I planned, and I have given far too few examples of the kind of writing this book presents us on every page. So I will here open the book randomly three times in three different places – I took no notes while reading it – and write down below the paragraphs that jump out at me on the random pages in order to give examples:

1) “It is rare for a mass movement to be wholly of one character. Usually it displays some facets of other types of movement, and sometimes it is two or three movements in one. The exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt was a slave revolt, a religious movement and a nationalist movement. The militant nationalism of the Japanese is essentially religious. The French Revolution was a new religion. It had “its dogma, the sacred principles of the Revolution – Liberté at sainte égalité. It had its form of worship, an adaptation of Catholic ceremonial, which was elaborated in connection with civic fêtes.”

2) Imitation is an essential unifying agent. The development of a close-knit group is inconceivable without a diffusion of uniformity. The one-mindedness and Gleichschaltung prized by every mass movement are achieved as much by imitation as by obedience. Obedience itself consists as much in the imitation of an example as in the following of a precept.
Though the imitative capacity is present in all people, it can be stronger in some than in others. The question is whether the frustrated, who, as suggested in Section 43, not only have a propensity for united action but are also equipped with a mechanism for its realization, are particularly imitative. Is there a connection between frustration and the readiness to imitate? Is imitation in some manner a means of escape from the ills that beset the frustrated?

3) The man of action saves the movement from the suicidal dissensions and the recklessness of the fanatics. But his appearance usually marks the end of the dynamic phase of the movement. The war with the present is over. The genuine man of action is intent not on renovating the world but on possessing it. Whereas the life breath of the dynamic phase was protest and a desire for drastic change, the final phase is chiefly preoccupied with administering and perpetuating the power won.

The book is almost cover-to-cover such pithy analysis. Unfortunately, it happens to be so apolitical that it ends by actually saying that mass movements are a good thing for the world, despite the usual death and destruction that accompany them. They are bringing necessary change to a system that has become ineffectual, that has calcified.

But here, again, Hoffer does not make judgments. I know that in today’s climate Hoffer will likely be considered by many to be “on the side” of the establishment. Hillary Clinton has read this book and mentioned it in association with Trump. This will lead some anti-Clinton people to say the book must therefore be a plot by Hillary. But they would overlooked the fact that Ronald Reagan bestowed upon Hoffer the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 1983, a few months before the longshoreman died at the age of 84.

So, again, I say, read this book first published in 1951, even, in fact, if you have already read it. It will resound with more meaning today in our world gone mad.

* Note: One of the fundamental theses of the book is that the believer is a frustrated person who longs for a movement to actually remove them from the constraints that a free society condemns them with. What constraints? The need to make decisions, to make choices, to face their own responsibility for their frustrated state within a free system. In other words, a mass movement, a dictatorship, a religion, tells the believer what to believe, how to act, no decisions need to be made. Life is “simpler.” So the believers are actually getting the repressive system they want.

A New Edition of Philosopher of Optimism, and a First Look at a Never-Before-Released Video Interview with the Not So “Angry Old Man,” Colin Wilson

November 26, 2017
bradspurgeon

Philosopher of Optimism

Philosopher of Optimism

PARIS – It has soon been four years since Colin Wilson, one of Britain’s angry young men of literature in the 1950s, died as a not-so-angry old man – at age 82 on 5 December 2013. The anniversary has provided an impetus for a couple of unfinished projects to finally come to life: A new edition of my interview book with Wilson, called, Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism, and the release of some excerpts from another interview I did with Wilson in the same year of the book publication, in 2006. For the book, it was time to update the story and write about the rest of Wilson’s life after the interview, as well as to write a new preface in which I talk about the strange way this book about optimism came at the time of my life when I needed that sense more than ever before.

For the film, it made sense for this project that has been hibernating for 11 years, to finally see some daylight. So it is that Excalibur Productions of Yorkshire, in the UK, and Michael Butterworth Books of Manchester, all agreed to release some excerpts from that never-before-seen video interview between Wilson and me. For me personally, it was very strange to see myself 11 years later, in another lifetime, and having survived that dark period. For fans of Wilson’s writing and philosophy of life, it is a great moment to see this extraordinary British writer as if coming back to life.

Wilson, for those of you who do not know him, shot to world fame at the age of 25 in 1956 with the publication of his first book, called “The Outsider.” It was a kind of popular introduction to existentialism in the UK, a study of such outsiders as Nijinsky, T.E. Lawrence, Hermann Hesse, William Blake, and many others. It came out at the same time and was reviewed at the same time as the playwright John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger,” and the British press decided to label these writers “Angry Young Men.”

Colin Wilson Philosopher of Optimism New Edition and New Interview

The label would be passed on to many other writers of the time, such as Alan Sillitoe, Arnold Wesker, Kingsley Amis and others. Wilson would be no doubt the most prolific of them all, and he was also the one that was ultimately the most difficult to pin down and label as a writer beyond that initial effort. He would write books covering such a diversity of subjects – crime, the occult, philosophy, psychology, biography, fiction and many other things in over a hundred books through his life – that his reception by the critics and the British literary world in general, went through a permanent roller coaster of a ride between respect and reviling him throughout his life.

Few readers of influence ever managed to, if not categorize, then at least understand what he was trying to say through this wide cross-section of works. My interview book with him, based on an interview at his home in 2005 – for a story I wrote about Wilson in the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times – managed somehow to tie together all the disparate parts and make a consistent whole out of Wilson’s oeuvre.

“Wilson’s philosophy of optimism runs like a clear thread through all of his varied works,” is how my book’s publisher, Michael Butterworth Books, puts it. “It is at the very battlefront of the fight against the pessimistic world-view. At its core lie the twin concepts of ‘intentionality’ and the ‘peak experience’, which show us that if we open our eyes and direct perception properly we can use our minds in the most positive sense to bring change to ourselves and to the world about us.”

Not long after the book was published, I was invited by the Excalibur people to interview Wilson on camera. This interview too was a long, wide-ranging one that lasted some two hours in total and touched on just about all aspects of his life and writings. Somehow, for many and varied reasons, the film never got released…until now with these excerpts.

Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson

So I hope you enjoy this “blast from the past” because it is just as pertinent, or even more so, to our chaotic and difficult present….

By the way, although the official publication date of the book is in early December, the book is now available to be ordered either from Amazon (and other such sites) or directly from the web site of Michael Butterworth Books.

And the excerpts from the 2006 interview are in the video linked above. Check it out!

Oh, and before I forget. I think that we are in perhaps the beginning of a new wave of appreciation for Wilson, as I say in my new preface, with most notably the publication last year of the first full-length biography of the writer, called, “Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson,” by Gary Lachman.

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