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The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

4.5 20
by Eric Hoffer

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A stevedore on the San Francisco docks in the 1940s, Eric Hoffer wrote philosophical treatises in his spare time while living in the railroad yards. The True Believer -- the first and most famous of his books -- was made into a bestseller when President Eisenhower cited it during one of the earliest television press conferences.Completely relevant and


A stevedore on the San Francisco docks in the 1940s, Eric Hoffer wrote philosophical treatises in his spare time while living in the railroad yards. The True Believer -- the first and most famous of his books -- was made into a bestseller when President Eisenhower cited it during one of the earliest television press conferences.Completely relevant and essential for understanding the world today, The True Believer is a visionary, highly provocative look into the mind of the fanatic and a penetrating study of how an individual becomes one.

Editorial Reviews

Christian Science Monitor
One of the most provocative books of our immediate day.
New Yorker
Its theme is political fanaticism, with which it deals severely and brilliantly....It owes its distinction to the fact that Hoffer is a born generalizer, with a mind that inclines to the wry epigram and icy aphorism as naturally as did that of the Duc de La Rochefoucauld.

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The True Believer
Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

Chapter One

The Desire for Change

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.

Not so obvious is the fact that religious and nationalist movements too can be vehicles of change. Some kind of widespread enthusiasm or excitement is apparently needed for the realization of vast and rapid change, and it does not seem to matter whether the exhilaration is derived from an expectation of untold riches or is generated by an active mass movement. In this country the spectacular changes since the Civil War were enacted in an atmosphere charged with the enthusiasm born of fabulous opportunities for self-advancement. Where self-advancement cannot, or is not allowed to, serve as a driving force, other sources of enthusiasm have to be found if momentous changes, such as the awakening and renovation of a stagnant society or radical reforms in the character and pattern of life of a community, are to be realized and perpetuated. Religious, revolutionary and nationalist movements are such generating plants of general enthusiasm.

In the past, religious movements were the conspicuous vehicles of change. The conservatism of a religion -- its orthodoxy -- is the inert coagulum of a once highly reactive sap. A rising religious movement is all change and experiment -- open to new views and techniques from all quarters. 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.

In modern times, the mass movements involved in the realization of vast and rapid change are revolutionary and nationalist -- singly or in combination. Peter the Great was probably the equal, in dedication, power and ruthlessness, of many of the most successful revolutionary or nationalist leaders. Yet he failed in his chief purpose, which was to turn Russia into a Western nation. And the reason he failed was that he did not infuse the Russian masses with some soul-stirring enthusiasm. He either did not think it necessary or did not know how to make of his purpose a holy cause. It is not strange that the Bolshevik revolutionaries who wiped out the last of the Czars and Romanovs should have a sense of kinship with Peter -- a Czar and a Romanov. For his purpose is now theirs, and they hope to succeed where he failed. 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, and that nationalist fervor must be tapped if the drastic changes projected and initiated by revolutionary enthusiasm are to be consummated. One wonders whether the difficulties encountered by the present Labor government in Britain are not partly due to the fact that the attempt to change the economy of the country and the way of life of 49,000,000 people has been initiated in an atmosphere singularly free from fervor, exaltation and wild hope. The revulsion from the ugly patterns developed by most contemporary mass movements has kept the civilized and decent leaders of the Labor party shy of revolutionary enthusiasm. The possibility still remains that events might force them to make use of some mild form of chauvinism so that in Britain too "the socialization of the nation [might have] as its natural corollary the nationalization of socialism."

The phenomenal modernization of Japan would probably not have been possible without the revivalist spirit of Japanese nationalism. It is perhaps also true that the rapid modernization of some European countries (Germany in particular) was facilitated to some extent by the upsurge and thorough diffusion of nationalist fervor. Judged by present indications, the renascence of Asia will be brought about through the instrumentality of nationalist movements rather than by other mediums. It was the rise of a genuine nationalist movement which enabled Kemal Atatürk to modernize Turkey almost overnight. In Egypt, untouched by a mass movement, modernization is slow and faltering, though its rulers, from the day of Mehmed Ali, have welcomed Western ideas, and its contacts with the West have been many and intimate. Zionism is an instrument for the renovation of a backward country and the transformation of shopkeepers and brain workers into farmers, laborers and soldiers. Had Chiang Kai-shek known how to set in motion a genuine mass movement, or at least sustain the nationalist enthusiasm kindled by the Japanese invasion, he might have been acting now as the renovator of China. Since he did not know how, he was easily shoved aside by the masters of the art of "religiofication" -- the art of turning practical purposes into holy causes. It is not difficult to see why America and Britain (or any Western democracy) could not play a direct and leading role in rousing the Asiatic countries from their backwardness and stagnation: the democracies are neither inclined nor perhaps able to kindle a revivalist spirit in Asia's millions. The contribution of the Western democracies to the awakening of the East has been indirect and certainly unintended. They have kindled an enthusiasm of resentment against the West; and it is this anti-Western fervor which is at present rousing the Orient from its stagnation of centuries.

Though the desire for change is not infrequently a superficial motive, it is yet worth finding out whether a probing of this desire might not shed some light on the inner working of mass movements. We shall inquire therefore into the nature of the desire for change.

The True Believer
Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements
. Copyright © by Eric Hoffer. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Eric Hoffer (1902 -- 1983) was self-educated. He worked in restaurants, as a migrant fieldworker, and as a gold prospector. After Pearl Harbor, he worked as a longshoreman in San Francisco for twenty-five years. The author of more than ten books, including The Passionate State of Mind, The Ordeal of Change, and The Temper of Our Time, Eric Hoffer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.

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The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The events of September 11 caused me to ask why it is not enough for some people simply to believe what they believe; why they insist everyone must believe as they do or be destroyed. Thanks to Hoffer, I now understand. He paints a chilling portrait of the true believer, who cares less about his cause than the sense of belonging it gives him. Hoffer tells us the true believer wants only to cast off his 'unwanted self,' that he considers himself spoiled, and that he 'seeks a new life--a rebirth' through a holy cause. This is the kind of person who would crash an airplane into the World Trade Center. What I didn't expect from this book was a subtle warning about the implications of this profile on the freedoms so many of us cling to. Think about free speech when you read the part about the intellectual, the 'man of words' who challenges the old order, but whose real call is for freedom. See how he unwittingly sets the stage for his position to be usurped by the 'fanatic' who knows the masses crave not freedom but a new and better regime that will 'hammer them together into one solid, mighty whole' and, once and for all, relieve them of the need to think for themselves. A fascinating book, with ideas I'm still digesting as I reconsider what it means to be free.
jpersall More than 1 year ago
Originally written decades ago, this is the most useful, insight-laden, helpful background reading for any sort of rudimentary understanding on the nature of evil that was 9/11 as well as many other examples of groupthink. Highly recommended even now for contemporary readers.
luvmybooksMA More than 1 year ago
The book consists of the musings of a brilliant thinker, sometimes outlandish, but incisive truth shines from every page. He wrote over fifty years ago, but the ideas and insights apply more than ever to 21st century America.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a work of great human understanding that analyzes the totalitarian mind in an accurate and deep way. It is written with aphoristic brilliance in an economy of language that is always moving and thought- provoking. Hoffer was a very decent human being a man of great integrity and this is felt in his writing and understanding of the world. This is a favorite book of mind and I could not recommend it more highly.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I first read this book over 30 years ago and still remember much of it. It is a book to read NOW ( 2004) - with the irrational war in Iraq. I am buying a copy for all my true friends.
BookAddictFL More than 1 year ago
Written in 1951, Hoffer's arguments and insights easily apply to life today. Hoffer tackles both religious and political movements. This book was written long before the horrors of Jonestown and a half century before "terrorism" became a household word. However, while reading this, I couldn't help but make comparisons to our presence in the Middle East or the religious wars we battle (whether we call them "religious wars" or not). Sadly, we have learned little in the 6 decades since Eric Hoffer wrote this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It is refreshing to know that not every academic during or after the radical sixties, was a sympathizer with the left. Eric Hoffer defines, compares, and contrasts the mass movements that are associated with any side of the political bell curve. He also, according to some of the reviews on B&N's page, has the Hegelian ability to write in such a manner that causes the left(see Kimberly review,20Dec99) and the right to assume that he is defining the opposing ideology in a negative light. However, if one considers that his study was concerned with the student radicals at his beloved Berkley, then one case study is obvious. When one considers that all extreme ideologies, and yes, theologies are dangerous, then the book can serve as a guide for the observant and a wake-up call for those that are not.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pretty good.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
It is hard to believe Eric Hoffer¿s 'The True Believer' was published 50 years ago this year. It is a penetrating study of fanatics and mass movements. I pulled it out after September 11th and am rereading it. Hoffer said, ¿In times of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.¿ He could as well have said: it is the learners who lead in times of drastic change ¿ times like these. An excellent books for students and former students alike!
ishelton More than 1 year ago
I would give this book 5 stars if not for the wordiness of the entire book. The author makes it hard for me to really get into the book because every other paragraph I have to look up a word to find out what he's talking about. More than once the author uses three different words to express the same meaning. It's like he deliberately used as many uncommon words as possible. I expect to read books and not know all the words but using 3 different words with the same meaning is a littel excessive to me. The goal is to make the book easy to read and enjoyable for as many people as possible I don't think the author had this in mind when he wrote it.
RENAISSANCEAD More than 1 year ago
I had difficulty to gain traction in Eric Hoffer's The True Believer. I felt bombarded by wisdoms and common sense sayings that, so I thought, defy an approach to a pressing issue that could not be of less importance today than at the time of the book's writing, 60 years ago. After reading through a bit, I had to revisit the cover: Thoughts on the nature of mass movements. The book delivers on its promise: Thoughts are exactly what you get, rather than a systematic analysis. The author himself points out that he does not aim at authority but rather at provoking questions. Hoffer penned his book under the impression of two world wars and the Great Depression, a time of upheaval that shaped modern society. He also represents a point of view of an American, living in a supreme societal system that seems beyond criticism. As such, the author writes under the ABSENCE of mass movements on his home turf. In his own sense, I feel that Hoffer is a true believer. His essential thesis goes something like this: Hey, I am a free American and superior to people of other nations. If you are a true believer, you have surrendered your individuality to the collective multitude. You are eternally incomplete and insecure. As much as I like and want to agree to what he says, I cannot trust neither his analysis nor his conclusions. Some of it, yes, but maybe only because I wish his wisdoms to be true. Here is an example of what I am trying to say: "The most dangerous moment for the regime of the Politburo will be when a considerable improvement in the economic conditions of the Russian masses has been achieved and the iron totalitarian rule somewhat relaxed. It is of interest that the assassination, in December 1934, of Stalin's close friend Kirov happened not long after Stalin had announced the successful end of the first Five-Year Plan and the beginning of a new prosperous, joyous era." The author operates with philosophical statements, which he backs up with unsubstantiated historic analogies. The coincidence does not necessarily confirm or refute the thesis. How that contributes to the knowledge of (religious or political) mass movements, is beyond me. However, I suppose that with this logic, I should be inclined to nod off on the concept that regimes are most volatile when the economy improves. Writing under such impressions as the fall of the Berlin Wall, of Desert Storm, of the Arab Spring that keeps on rocking the entire Middle East, and of my own research on the history of the three Judaic mass religions (see The Great Leap-Fraud - Social Economics of Religious Terrorism), it seems that the target itself is utterly volatile. I could probably make the opposite case that the most dangerous moments of regimes are when economic conditions deteriorate. This would prepare societies for CHANGE (read: Obama's presidential race on undefined change) when longing for hope. Or, maybe I could create a thesis that mass movements are dependent on large economic disparities between regions. I would back it up with the argument that the poor man is not necessarily an unhappy man unless he is faced with the perception of a better alternative. Where I disagree with him most is that religion begins as mass movements. The Gospel itself explains that there remained very few believers after Jesus's (fictional) death. History quite clearly backs up the case that religion is a very, very slow moving target. AJ Deus, author of the Great Leap-Fraud
Guest More than 1 year ago
The True Believer will definitely put the political manuevering of the Right wing into perspective, especially the rise of the Religious Right, anti-government groups, Christian Patriots, and other groups that want to see America become a country ruled by religion rather than the Constitution. Hoffer describes the means groups use to spread their message, the appeals to brotherhood, to the nation, to patriotism, to traditional family values, and the use of force or violence if necessary. The True Believer is a very insightful book into the nature of mass movements. This book is for anyone with an interest in politics, psychology, sociology, history, to name a few. Anyone reading it is highly encouraged to think about the book's application to real-life events: The rise of Nazism, Communism, religions, or any other political movement.