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.