What is the nature of a true mass movement? In 1951, the American philosopher Eric Hoffer attempted to answer this, and published his first and most well-known work: The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.
The True Believer became a hit because it was released on the heels of World War II and at the outset of the US/Soviet Cold War, and hoped to explain the nature of the “mass movements” that created widespread devastation: Nazism, Fascism, and Stalinism among them. Most people were still hungry for answers. (Heck, many people all over the world were still hungry, period.)
Hoffer took the analysis a bit further. What did all mass movements seem to have in common? He didn’t stop with modern political movements, but thought also about religious movements, reformations, and nationalist movements throughout history, featuring heavy commentary on Christianity and Islam in particular.
The book is a series of loosely connected cogitations on the nature of fanatically organized mass movements, the kind that can lead to mass murder and starvation as in the cases above, but that have also led to movements we generally look fondly upon like the Catholic Reformation, the American Revolution, and the Indian Independence Movement.
Like any good book, it’s impossible to summarize without losing a tremendous amount of understanding. But Hoffer does offer a loose framework for how mass movements start and move into completion, and his insights here are worth studying, for they give us a great window into humanity and history. This will be a longer one, but it’s worth the ride.
The Intellectual Underpinning of Revolution
Hoffer makes it clear that the nature of a true mass movement is one of unified struggle. It comes at a time of disillusionment with the state of affairs. It’s not necessarily and not even usually desperation, though: People who can barely feed themselves do not tend to revolt, for they do not have the time, interest, or energy. Revolt tends to happen in a society of intellectual discourse and, counter-intuitively, a certain amount of freedom.
But when conditions are right and people are sufficiently whipped into a fervor, a mass movement can arise among a frustrated group. Hoffer outlines the basic definition of a mass movement by emphasizing the call for self-sacrifice as a central element:
The vigor of a mass movement stems from the propensity of its followers for united action and self-sacrifice. When we ascribe the success of a movement to its faith, doctrine, propaganda, leadership, ruthlessness and so on, we are but referring to instruments of unification and the means used to inculcate a readiness for self-sacrifice. It is perhaps impossible to understand the nature of mass movements unless it is recognized that their chief preoccupation is to foster, perfect and perpetuate a facility for united action and self-sacrifice. To know the processes by which such a facility is engendered is to grasp the inner logic of most of the characteristic attitudes and practices of an active mass movement.
With few exceptions, any group or organization which tries, for one reason or another, to create and maintain compact unity and a constant readiness for self-sacrifice usually manifests the peculiarities—both noble and base—of a mass movement. On the other hand, a mass movement is bound to lose much which distinguishes it from other types of organization when it relaxes its collective compactness and begins to countenance self-interest as a legitimate motive of activity. In times of peace and prosperity, a democratic nation is an institutionalized association of more or less free individuals. On the other hand, in time of crisis, when the nation’s existence is threatened, and it tries to reinforce its unity and generate in its people a readiness for self-sacrifice, it almost always assumes in some degree the character of a mass movement. The same is true of religious and revolutionary organizations: whether or not they develop into mass movements depends less on the doctrine they preach and the program they project than on the degree of their preoccupation with unity and the readiness for self- degree of their preoccupation with unity and the readiness for self-sacrifice.
The essential nature, then, of a fanatical mass movement is one where a group of loyal followers can be made to believe, or simply nudged into indulging a prior belief that their own life is less important than a greater cause. A willingness to lose their own identity for the “greater good,” however defined, seems a necessary element.
In order for this to happen, a population must obviously be given something to believe — a cause strong enough to subsume them. And in order to do that, the cause must be all-encompassing. The reason Hoffer titles the book True Believer is that a strong mass movement only works when it purports to provide a solution that can be turned to for all the essential answers: The Bible, the Qur’an, Liberty, Freedom, Communism, Equality, Lebensraum, the State, the Nation…all-encompassing narratives which would become the central dogma of a mass movement, to be enacted and upheld by force. (These narratives would become a central element of Yuval Harari’s wonderful book Sapiens about 50 years later. He called them the human myths.)
The process is kicked off by a radical intellectual, or what Hoffer calls a Man of Words.
The Man of Words
As Hoffer describes it, the process begins with a thinker or a group of thinkers with a strong set of ideas that offer a solution to a proposed societal problem. Karl Marx. Jesus Christ. Thomas Paine. Martin Luther. The German philosophers. The French philosophers.
These intellectuals “prepare the ground” for the movements to come, by providing the central dogmas of the revolution which begin to get the populace on board by giving them an alternative to the present. A new future. And without these forceful new ideas, the momentum will eventually die.
Generally, this only works in a society where the intellectuals are not already part of the establishment: There has to be a certain disaffected nature to their work. If they don’t hate the powers that be, why bother inciting Revolution — intentionally or not? Hoffer makes the point that in societies where the intellectuals are the ruling class, or participate heavily in the ruling class, there’s not much of a tendency towards a true mass movement.
In one passage, he describes the outline of this beginning period:
The men of letters of eighteenth-century France are the most familiar example of intellectuals pioneering a mass movement. A somewhat similar pattern may be detected in the periods preceding the rise of most movements. The ground for the Reformation was prepared by the men who satirized and denounced the clergy in popular pamphlets, and by men of letters like Johann Reuchlin, who fought and discredited the Roman curia. The rapid spread of Christianity in the Roman world was partly due to the fact that the pagan cults it sought to supplant were already thoroughly discredited. The discrediting was done, before and after the birth of Christianity, by the Greek philosophers who were bored with the puerility of the cults and denounced and ridiculed them in schools and city streets.
Christianity made little headway against Judaism because the Jewish religion had the ardent allegiance of the Jewish men of words. The rabbis and their disciples enjoyed an exalted status in Jewish life of that day, where the school and the book supplanted the temple and the fatherland. 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. The mass movements of modern time, whether socialist or nationalist, were invariably pioneered by poets, writers, historians, scholars, philosophers and the like. The connection between intellectual theoreticians and revolutionary movements needs no emphasis.
But it is equally true that all nationalist movements— from the cult of la patrie in revolutionary France to the latest nationalist rising in Indonesia—were conceived not by men of action but by fault-finding intellectuals. The generals, industrialists, landowners and businessmen who are considered pillars of patriotism are latecomers who join the movement after it has become a going concern. The most strenuous part of the early phase of every nationalist movement consists in convincing and winning over these future pillars of patriotism. The Czech historian Palacky said that if the ceiling of a room in which he and a handful of friends were dining one night had collapsed, there would have been no Czech nationalist movement.
Such handfuls of impractical men of words were at the beginning of all nationalist movements. German intellectuals were the originators of German nationalism, just as Jewish intellectuals were the originators of Zionism. It is the deep-seated craving of the man of words for an exalted status which makes him oversensitive to any humiliation imposed on the class or community (racial, lingual or religious) to which he belongs however loosely. It was Napoleon’s humiliation of the Germans, particularly the Prussians, which drove Fichte and the German intellectuals to call on the German masses to unite into a mighty nation which would dominate Europe. Theodore Herzl and the Jewish intellectuals were driven to Zionism by the humiliations heaped upon millions of Jews in Russia, and by the calumnies to which the Jews in the rest of continental Europe were subjected toward the end of the nineteenth century. To a degree the nationalist movement which forced the British rulers out of India had its inception in the humiliation of a scrawny and bespectacled Indian man of words in South Africa
Of course, the Man of Words is simply an intellectual forbear. Although it has happened, it’s rare that he or she is the actual leader of the movement. As Hoffer points out, Christ was not a Christian and Marx was not a Marxist. The movements came as a result of their anti-establishment thought-work, but there’s a crucial difference between the Man of Words and the Fanatic which will begin catalyzing the movement: the Man of Words may be a lot more intellectually flexible than the true believers who follow in their footsteps:
The genuine man of words himself can get along without faith in absolutes. He values the search for truth as much as truth itself. He delights in the clash of thought and in the give-and-take of controversy. If he formulates a philosophy and a doctrine, they are more an exhibition of brilliance and an exercise in dialectics than a program of action and the tenets of a faith. His vanity, it is true, often prompts him to defend his speculations with savagery and even venom; but his appeal is usually to reason and not to faith. The fanatics and the faith-hungry masses, however, are likely to invest such speculations with the certitude of holy writ, and make them the fountainhead of a new faith. Jesus was not a Christian, nor was Marx a Marxist.
The reason for the tragic fate which almost always overtakes the intellectual midwives of a mass movement is that, no matter how much they preach and glorify the united effort, they remain essentially individualists. They believe in the possibility of individual happiness and the validity of individual opinion and initiative. But once a movement gets rolling, power falls into the hands of those who have neither faith in, nor respect for, the individual. And the reason they prevail is not so much that their disregard of the individual gives them a capacity for ruthlessness, but that their attitude is in full accord with the ruling passion of the masses.
The next steps, the corralling of the people, is often carried out by a Fanatic.
Fanatics of a Revolution
When the moment is ripe, only the fanatic can hatch a genuine mass movement. Without him the disaffection engendered by militant men of words remains undirected and can vent itself only in pointless and easily suppressed disorders. Without him the initiated reforms, even when drastic, leave the old way of life unchanged, and any change in government usually amounts to no more than a transfer of power from one set of men of action to another. Without him there can perhaps be no new beginning.
This may be a bit of historical curve-fitting, but Hoffer thinks that a frustrated creative intellectual makes a pretty good Fanatic, and points to specific examples of where that held — Hitler, Robespierre and Lenin among them. Whether or not that is true matters less than the fact that the Fanatic is responsible for galvanizing the movement and pushing it to a point of no return.
But the Fanatic is not really a good leader or manager in a long-term sense, simply because of the nature of their fanaticism: They believe too strongly in their dogmas, and their intellectual blindness pushes them to blunder. Hitler and Mussolini would be excellent examples. Their fanaticism got them a long way, but ultimately it sowed the seeds of its own destruction.
If it is to be a sustainable movement, then the Men of Action, as Hoffer names them, will have to do the hard work.
Men of Action: Holding Down the Fort
Hoffer continues by describing the final phase of the beginning of a Movement: Leadership by a practical actor with less devotion to pure fanaticism and a healthier dose of order (ideally):
The chief preoccupation of a man of action when he takes over an “arrived” movement is to fix and perpetuate its unity and readiness for self-sacrifice. His ideal is a compact, invincible whole that functions automatically. To achieve this he cannot rely on enthusiasm, for enthusiasm is ephemeral. Persuasion, too, is unpredictable. He inclines, therefore, to rely mainly on drill and coercion. He finds the assertion that all men are cowards less debatable than that all men are fools, and, in the words of Sir John Maynard, inclines to found the new order on the “necks of the people rather than in their hearts.” The genuine man of action is not a man of faith but a man of law.
Still, he cannot help being awed by the tremendous achievements of faith and spontaneity in the early days of the movement when a mighty instrument of power was conjured out of the void. The memory of it is still extremely vivid. He takes, therefore, great care to preserve in the new institutions an impressive façade of faith, and maintains an incessant vow of fervent propaganda, though he relies mainly on the persuasiveness of force. His orders are worded in pious vocabulary, and the old formulas and slogans are continually on his lips. The symbols of faith are carried high and given reverence. The men of words and the fanatics of the early period are canonized.
Though the steel fingers of coercion make themselves felt everywhere and great emphasis is placed on mechanical drill, the pious phrases and the fervent propaganda give to coercion a semblance of persuasion, and to habit a semblance of spontaneity. No effort is spared to present the new order as the glorious consummation of the hopes and struggles of the early days.
It is, of course, true that the categories often overlap. Joseph Stalin was both a practical leader and a man of deep fanaticism, as was Hitler. The leaders of the American Revolution certainly carried both traits, as did Gandhi in leading the Indian Independence. The balance between the fanaticism necessary to catalyze real change and the practical sense needed to sustain a cohesive movement probably affords some measure of success or failure as time goes on. (Nazism collapsed, at least partially, due to fanaticism outstripping reality.)
From there, the new movement, no longer a minority but the dominant power, must find a way to stabilize, and it often does this by patching together a structure from many other institutions:
Stalin’s Russia was a patchwork of bolshevism, czarism, nationalism, pan-Slavism, dictatorship and borrowings from Hitler, and monopolistic capitalism. Hitler’s Third Reich was a conglomerate of nationalism, racialism, Prussianism, dictatorship and borrowings from fascism, bolshevism, Shintoism, Catholicism and the ancient Hebrews. Christianity, too, when after the conflicts and dissensions of the first few centuries it crystallized into an authoritarian church, was a patchwork of old and new and of borrowings from friend and foe. It patterned its hierarchy after the bureaucracy of the Roman Empire, adopted portions of the antique ritual, developed the institution of an absolute leader and used every means to absorb all existent elements of life and power.
Thus we have an outline for the True Believer style mass social movement: It starts by creating an ideology, a set of dogmas around which a fanatical leader or group can create a following. From there, it must find a way to sustain itself as reality creeps in on ideology — structure is introduced or the whole thing will collapse. In almost all cases, there is tremendous violence, although in certain (rare) circumstances, it can be bloodless. Even the rise of religions or nations that promote peace came with tremendous bloodshed.
In the end, mass movements likely take many forms, but Hoffer gives us as good a framework as any to start thinking about the way they are constructed.
Still Interested? Check out the whole book, it’s a very interesting read.