The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

On The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951)

Due to an accident, author Eric Hoffer lost his eyesight at age 7, but it returned inexplicably at age 15. Not knowing if he would lose his eyesight again, he read voraciously for the rest of his life. Though he never attended college and led — by his own unverified accounts — a very eclectic life, all that reading prepared him to publish this — his first book — in his early 50s.

If you want to understand how mass movements like Russian Communism, Chinese Communism, Nazi Germany, Christianity, and etc. get started and manage to engulf entire countries, this is the book for you.

With the rise of radical Islam — and terrorism — on the one hand, and Wokeism and Climate Alarmism on the other hand, Hoffer’s book is incredibly relevant today.

Hoffer’s preface is so succinct that I include it in full here below, rather than attempting what would surely be my own subpar summary.


This book deals with some peculiarities common to all mass movements, be they religious movements, social revolutions or nationalist movements. It does not maintain that all movements are identical, but that they share certain essential characteristics which give them a family likeness.

All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and singlehearted allegiance.

All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind.

Though there are obvious differences between the fanatical Christian, the fanatical Mohammedan, the fanatical nationalist, the fanatical Communist and the fanatical Nazi, it is yet true that the fanaticism which animates them may be viewed and treated as one. The same is true of the force which drives them on to expansion and world dominion. There is a certain uniformity in all types of dedication, of faith, of pursuit of power, of unity and of self-sacrifice. There are vast differences in the contents of holy causes and doctrines, but a certain uniformity in the factors which make them effective. He who, like Pascal, finds precise reasons for the effectiveness of Christian doctrine has also found the reasons for the effectiveness of Communist, Nazi and nationalist doctrine. However different the holy causes people die for, they perhaps die basically for the same thing.

This book concerns itself chiefly with the active, revivalist phase of mass movements. This phase is dominated by the true believer—the man of fanatical faith who is ready to sacrifice his life for a holy cause—and an attempt is made to trace his genesis and outline his nature. As an aid in this effort, use is made of a working hypothesis. Starting out from the fact that the frustrated [Author’s Note: The word “frustrated” is not used in this book as a clinical term. It denotes here people who, for one reason or another, feel that their lives are spoiled or wasted.] 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.

To test the validity of these assumptions, it was necessary to inquire into the ills that afflict the frustrated, how they react against them, the degree to which these reactions correspond to the responses of the true believer, and, finally, the manner in which these reactions can facilitate the rise and spread of a mass movement. It was also necessary to examine the practices of contemporary movements, where successful techniques of conversion had been perfected and applied, in order to discover whether they corroborate the view that a proselytizing mass movement deliberately fosters in its adherents a frustrated state of mind, and that it automatically advances its interest when it seconds the propensities of the frustrated.

It is necessary for most of us these days to have some insight into the motives and responses of the true believer. For though ours is a godless age, it is the very opposite of irreligious. The true believer is everywhere on the march, and both by converting and antagonizing he is shaping the world in his own image. And whether we are to line up with him or against him, it is well that we should know all we can concerning his nature and potentialities.

It is perhaps not superfluous to add a word of caution. When we speak of the family likeness of mass movements, we use the word “family” in a taxonomical sense. The tomato and the nightshade are of the same family, the Solanaceae. Though the one is nutritious and the other poisonous, they have many morphological, anatomical and physiological traits in common so that even the non-botanist senses a family likeness. The assumption that mass movements have many traits in common does not imply that all movements are equally beneficent or poisonous. The book passes no judgments, and expresses no preferences. It merely tries to explain; and the explanations—all of them theories—are in the nature of suggestions and arguments even when they are stated in what seems a categorical tone. I can do no better than quote Montaigne: “All I say is by way of discourse, and nothing by way of advice. I should not speak so boldly if it were my due to be believed.”

Author: benslivka

19 start-ups, software, hardware, biotech, space launch, neurodiversity, learning, free markets, food, wine, cycling, walking, Seattle, Microsoft, Northwestern University, Garfield HS, DreamBox Learning, IBM, Amazon.

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