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1-Page Summary: The True Believer by Eric Hoffer

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True Believer by Eric Hoffer

I discovered The True Believer through Mark Manson’s article and true to Mark’s title, it did change how I see the world.

Hoffer eloquently mixes psychology, history, and sociology to explain how mass movements arise, endure, and succeed (or fail). His examples are mostly limited to mass movements of the 20th century, and his arguments rely on the sweeping generalizations that are juicy targets for the experts, but it makes for fast, entertaining reading.

I wanted to share the notes here because this site’s goal is to understand how businesses can improve by learning from organized religions. All mass movements are, to an extent, religious movements because they promote powerful, sometimes illogical doctrines that require a degree of faith, and they inspire almost blind devotion from believers.

Thanks and let me know what you think!

1-Page Summary: The True Believer by Eric Hoffer

Big takeaways (serve as section headings below):

  1. All Mass Movements — religious, nationalist, revolutionary, or otherwise — are remarkably similar; this is also true of True Believers
  2. At the heart of every True Believer is frustration, self-hate, and jealousy
  3. An effective doctrine loathes the present, worships the future, and (sometimes) glorifies the past
  4. True Believers desperately need to belong; when they join, they must then be isolated from the outside world
  5. Mass Movements are about selflessness and self-sacrifice
  6. Ritual and ceremony are important elements
  7. An alliance with intellectuals is important for any successful regime or Mass Movement
  8. Mass Movements always have an enemy, the more wicked the better
  9. Force is essential but it should be masked by doctrine and applied with persistence
  10. Mass Movements are usually brought down from within
  11. Blind obedience is a necessary quality of every True Believer
  12. A healthy amount of suspicion promotes uniformity and obedience
  13. In the final analysis, Mass Movements are about change, which can be healthy

Save the bolded headers, everything is quotes lifted directly from the Kindle version. A few quotes are lightly edited, and highlighted quotes are, in my opinion, the ones that best capture the book’s arguments.

If you read nothing else, read this:

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 also have an extravagant conception of the prospects and potentialities of the future. Finally, they must be wholly ignorant of the difficulties involved in their vast undertaking. Experience is a handicap.

All Mass Movements — religious, nationalist, revolutionary, or otherwise — are remarkably similar; this is also true of True Believers

However different the holy causes people die for, they perhaps die basically for the same thing
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. In pre-Hitlerian Germany it was often a toss up whether a restless youth would join the Communists or the Nazis.

Sometimes it is two or three movements in one. […] The militant nationalism of the Japanese is essentially religious.

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. The atheist is a religious person. […] According to Renan, “The day after that on which the world should no longer believe in God, atheists would be the wretchedest of all men.”

The similarities are many: both mass movements and armies are collective bodies; both strip the individual of his separateness and distinctness; both demand self-sacrifice, unquestioning obedience and singlehearted allegiance; both make extensive use of make-belief to promote daring and united action; and both can serve as a refuge for the frustrated who cannot endure an autonomous existence.

…the true believers of various hues, though they view each other with mortal hatred and are ready to fly at each other’s throats, recognize and respect each other’s strength. Hitler looked on the Bolsheviks as his equals and gave orders that former Communists should be admitted to the Nazi party at once. Stalin in his turn saw in the Nazis and the Japanese the only nations worthy of respect.

At the heart of every True Believer is frustration, self-hate, and jealousy

…frustration of itself, without any proselytizing prompting from the outside, can generate most of the peculiar characteristics of the true believer

a mass movement, particularly in its active, revivalist phase, appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self.

There are first the temporary misfits: people who have not found their place in life but still hope to find it. Adolescent youth, unemployed college graduates, veterans, new immigrants and the like are of this category.

Unlimited opportunities can be as potent a cause of frustration as a paucity or lack of opportunities. When opportunities are apparently unlimited, there is an inevitable deprecation of the present. The attitude is: “All that I am doing or possibly can do is chicken feed compared with what is left undone.”

The least and most successful among the Italian Americans were the most ardent admirers of Mussolini’s revolution; the least and most successful among the Irish Americans were the most responsive to De Valera’s call; the least and most successful among the Jews are the most responsive to Zionism; the least and most successful among the Blacks are the most race conscious.

Hitler made full use of “the society ladies thirsting for adventure, sick of their empty lives, no longer getting a ‘kick’ out of love affairs.” He was financed by the wives of some of the great industrialists long before their husbands had heard of him.

The delight of the frustrated in chaos and in the downfall of the fortunate and prosperous does not spring from an ecstatic awareness that they are clearing the ground for the heavenly city. In their fanatical cry of “all or nothing at all” the second alternative echoes perhaps a more ardent wish than the first.

There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.

It is not actual suffering but the taste of better things which excites people to revolt. A popular upheaval in Soviet Russia is hardly likely before the people get a real taste of the good life.

The missionary zeal seems rather an expression of some deep misgiving, some pressing feeling of insufficiency at the center. Proselytizing is more a passionate search for something not yet found than a desire to bestow upon the world something we already have.

An effective doctrine loathes the present, worships the future, and (sometimes) glorifies the past

Mass movements are usually accused of doping their followers with hope of the future while cheating them of the enjoyment of the present. Yet to the frustrated the present is irremediably spoiled.

A rising mass movement preaches the immediate hope. It is intent on stirring its followers to action, and it is the around-the-corner brand of hope that prompts people to act. Rising Christianity preached the immediate end of the world and the kingdom of heaven around the corner; Mohammed dangled loot before the faithful; the early Bolsheviki promised bread and land. Later, as the movement comes into possession of power, the emphasis is shifted to the distant hope—the dream and the vision.

To a religious movement the present is a place of exile, a vale of tears leading to the heavenly kingdom; to a social revolution it is a mean way station on the road to Utopia; to a nationalist movement it is an ignoble episode preceding the final triumph.

A glorification of the past can serve as a means to belittle the present. But unless joined with sanguine expectations of the future, an exaggerated view of the past results in an attitude of caution and not in the reckless strivings of a mass movement.

True Believers desperately need to belong; when they join, they must then be isolated from the outside world

All the advantages brought by the West are ineffectual substitutes for the sheltering and soothing anonymity of a communal existence. Even when the Westernized native attains personal success—becomes rich, or masters a respected profession—he is not happy. He feels naked and orphaned.

The National Socialist movement, too, won out over all the other folkish movements which pullulated in the 1920’s, because of Hitler’s early recognition that a rising mass movement can never go too far in advocating and promoting collective cohesion. He knew that the chief passion of the frustrated is “to belong,” and that there cannot be too much cementing and binding to satisfy this passion.

Mass Movements are about selflessness and self-sacrifice

Social self-sufficiency is discouraged by crowded housing or communal quarters, and by enforced daily participation in public functions. Ruthless censorship of literature, art, music and science prevents even the creative few from living self-sufficient lives.

In order to become part of a compact whole, the individual has to forego much. He has to give up privacy, individual judgment and often individual possessions.

This is undoubtedly a primitive state of being, and its most perfect examples are found among primitive tribes.

When we renounce the self and become part of a compact whole, we not only renounce personal advantage but are also rid of personal responsibility.

What Pascal said of an effective religion is true of any effective doctrine: it must be “contrary to nature, to common sense and to pleasure.”

Ritual and ceremony are important elements

Dying and killing seem easy when they are part of a ritual, ceremonial, dramatic performance or game. There is need for some kind of make-believe in order to face death unflinchingly.

Hitler dressed eighty million Germans in costumes and made them perform in a grandiose, heroic and bloody opera.

The people of London acted heroically under a hail of bombs because Churchill cast them in the role of heroes.

Their uniforms, flags, emblems, parades, music, and elaborate etiquette and ritual are designed to separate the soldier from his flesh-and-blood self and mask the overwhelming reality of life and death.

An alliance with intellectuals is important for any successful regime or Mass Movement

The stability of a regime requires the allegiance of the intellectuals, and it is to win them rather than to foster self-sacrifice in the masses that a doctrine is made intelligible.

There is a deep-seated craving common to almost all men of words which determines their attitude to the prevailing order. It is a craving for recognition; a craving for a clearly marked status above the common run of humanity. “Vanity,” said Napoleon, “made the Revolution; liberty was only a pretext.”

There is a moment in the career of almost every faultfinding man of words when a deferential or conciliatory gesture from those in power may win him over to their side.

Jesus Himself might not have preached a new Gospel had the dominant Pharisees taken Him into the fold, called Him Rabbi, and listened to Him with deference. 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;

However much the protesting man of words sees himself as the champion of the downtrodden and injured, the grievance which animates him is, with very few exceptions, private and personal.

In any social order where the reign of men of words is so supreme, no opposition can develop within and no foreign mass movement can gain a foothold.

Mass Movements always have an enemy, the more wicked the better

Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil. Usually the strength of a mass movement is proportionate to the vividness and tangibility of its devil.

F. A. Voigt tells of a Japanese mission that arrived in Berlin in 1932 to study the National Socialist movement. Voigt asked a member of the mission what he thought of the movement. He replied: “It is magnificent. I wish we could have something like it in Japan, only we can’t, because we haven’t got any Jews.”

…like an ideal deity, the ideal devil is omnipotent and omnipresent.

We do not usually look for allies when we love. Indeed, we often look on those who love with us as rivals and trespassers. But we always look for allies when we hate.

Even in the case of a just grievance, our hatred comes less from a wrong done to us than from the consciousness of our helplessness, inadequacy and cowardice—in other words from self-contempt. When we feel superior to our tormentors, we are likely to despise them, even pity them, but not hate them.

The Japanese had an advantage over us in that they admired us more than we admired them. They could hate us more fervently than we could hate them. The Americans are poor haters in international affairs because of their innate feeling of superiority over all foreigners. An American’s hatred for a fellow American (for Hoover or Roosevelt) is far more virulent than any antipathy he can work up against foreigners. It is of interest that the backward South shows more xenophobia than the rest of the country. Should Americans begin to hate foreigners wholeheartedly, it will be an indication that they have lost confidence in their own way of life.

Force is essential but it should be masked by doctrine and applied with persistence

To maintain itself, a mass movement has to order things so that when the people no longer believe, they can be made to believe by force.

Propaganda becomes more fervent and importunate when it operates in conjunction with coercion

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.

Islam imposed its faith by force, yet the coerced Muslims displayed a devotion to the new faith more ardent than that of the first Arabs

“However incompatible the spirit of Jesus and armed force may be, and however unpleasant it may be to acknowledge the fact, as a matter of plain history the latter has often made it possible for the former to survive.” It was the temporal sword that made Christianity a world religion.

The threat of communism at present does not come from the forcefulness of its preaching but from the fact that it is backed by one of the mightiest armies on earth.

Mass movements are usually brought down from within

When a mass movement begins to attract people who are interested in their individual careers, it is a sign that it has passed its vigorous stage; that it is no longer engaged in molding a new world but in possessing and preserving the present. It ceases then to be a movement and becomes an enterprise. According to Hitler, the more “posts and offices a movement has to hand out, the more inferior stuff it will attract…”

Later, when the Christian church had the power to segregate the Jews in ghettos, it gave their communal compactness an additional reinforcement, and thus, unintentionally, ensured the survival of Judaism intact through the ages.

What de Tocqueville says of a tyrannical government is true of all totalitarian orders—their moment of greatest danger is when they begin to reform, that is to say, when they begin to show liberal tendencies.

The purpose of the Iron Curtain is perhaps more to prevent the Russian people from reaching out—even in thought—toward an outside world, than to prevent the infiltration of spies and saboteurs.

Blind obedience is a necessary quality of every True Believer

Obedience is not only the first law of God, but also the first tenet of a revolutionary party and of fervent nationalism.

When Stalin forces scientists, writers and artists to crawl on their bellies and deny their individual intelligence, sense of beauty and moral sense, he is not indulging a sadistic impulse but is solemnizing, in a most impressive way, the supreme virtue of blind obedience.

Both the Japanese and Nazi rowdies were the most disciplined people the world has seen. In this country, the American employer often finds in the racial fanatic of our South—so given to mass violence—a respectful and docile factory hand.

Hermann Rauschning, who at first thought this eternal marching a senseless waste of time and energy, recognized later its subtle effect. “Marching diverts men’s thoughts. Marching kills thought. Marching makes an end of individuality.”

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

A healthy amount of suspicion promotes uniformity and obedience

We usually strive to reveal in others the blemishes we hide in ourselves. Thus when the frustrated congregate in a mass movement, the air is heavy-laden with suspicion. There is prying and spying, tense watching and a tense awareness of being watched. The surprising thing is that this pathological mistrust within the ranks leads not to dissension but to strict conformity.

Mass movements make extensive use of suspicion in their machinery of domination. The rank-and-file within the Nazi party were made to feel that they were continually under observation and were kept in a permanent state of uneasy conscience and fear.

Now and then innocent people are deliberately accused and sacrificed in order to keep suspicion alive. Suspicion is given a sharp edge by associating all opposition within the ranks with the enemy threatening the movement from without.

The loyalty of the true believer is to the whole—the church, party, nation—and not to his fellow true believer. True loyalty between individuals is possible only in a loose and relatively free society.

In the final analysis, Mass Movements are about change

Even the sober desire for progress is sustained by faith—faith in the intrinsic goodness of human nature and in the omnipotence of science.

Islam when it emerged was an organizing and modernizing medium. Christianity was a civilizing and modernizing influence among the savage tribes of Europe. The Crusades and the Reformation both were crucial factors in shaking the Western world from the stagnation of the Middle Ages.

The Bolshevik revolution may figure in history as much an attempt to modernize a sixth of the world’s surface as an attempt to build a Communist economy. The fact that both the French and the Russian revolutions turned into nationalist movements seems to indicate that in modern times nationalism is the most copious and durable source of mass enthusiasm,

All the true believers of our time—whether Communist, Nazi, Fascist, Japanese or Catholic—declaimed volubly (and the Communists still do) on the decadence of the Western democracies.

It is probably better for a country that when its government begins to show signs of chronic incompetence it should be overthrown by a mighty mass upheaval

The inability to produce a full-fledged mass movement can be, therefore, a grave handicap to a social body.

Here’s another essay explaining Hoffer’s idea that every mass movement has three different stages and thus needs three different types of leaders.


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