The True Believer and The Ordeal of Change by Eric Hoffer

EricHofferby Steve Lancaster    3/26/14
As a group, Americans are not the type to join mass movements, at least not for long. We are an opinionated people and do not take well to conformity. However, in the last fifteen years or so, there are significant changes to the psyche on both sides of the political spectrum. We have only to return to the past, when San Francisco was not a Pelosi paradise and UC Berkley was not the home of radical extremist progressivism.

If there was ever a most unlikely child of the great depression to achieve success, it is Eric Hoffer. Born of immigrant parents, and losing his sight for several years as a child, he became an avid reader on the return of his sight. During the depression he was a fruit tramp in California. With the beginning of WWII he tried to enlist and did not qualify. He then went to work on the waterfront of San Francisco.[pullquote]Hoffer explores who joins mass movements: “We join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility, or, in the words of the ardent young Nazi, “to be free from freedom.”[/pullquote]

It was from this background that in 1951 he published his first book, The True Believer, and 10 years later published, The Ordeal of Change. Hoffer was a believer in brevity, thus his books are full of ideas and epigrams. The two books together do not total 300 pages.

Do not fail to read the preface of The True Believer. It is fairly short but packed with reasons why the book is important. Hoffer begins with the desire for change. He sets the premise that the vast majority of people are in fact resistant to change and, “Those who would transform a nation or the world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent or by demonstrating the reasonableness and desirability of the intended changes or by coercing people into a new way of life. They must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope.” The 2008 Obama campaign drew directly on the concepts of hope and change.

“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.”

True Believer was written in 1951. The Second World War was over only six years. The horrors of the holocaust were still in the news. The state of Israel was less than 3 years old and the Cold War had every indication of turning hot with the Communist North Koreans invading South Korea.

Hoffer, in a sort of precursor to Ayn Rand’s ideas in Atlas Shrugged, says,

“The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. 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.”

Hoffer explores who joins mass movements: “We join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility, or, in the words of the ardent young Nazi, “to be free from freedom.” Nazi and Stalinist philosophy is much on Hoffer’s mind throughout both books. Both books are full of how those who are the staunchest speakers of freedom are often in practice the most ardent supports of repression:

“Those who see their lives as spoiled and wasted crave equality and fraternity more than they do freedom. If they clamor for freedom, it is but freedom to establish equality and uniformity. The passion for equality is partly a passion for anonymity: to be one thread of the many which make up a tunic; one thread not distinguishable from the others. No one can then point us out, measure us against others and expose our inferiority.”

The zealous feminist, gay rights and social democrats on the left fit the model very well.

The opportunity to immerse the self in the movement is a recurring theme, “A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence.” Hoffer continues with apt analysis of the poor, inordinately selfish, misfits, minorities, bored, and sinners and their attraction to a mass movement.

Hoffer sums up, “There can be no genuine deprecation of the present without the assured hope of a better future. . . All mass movements deprecate the present by depicting it as a mean preliminary to a glorious future; a mere doormat on the threshold of the millennium.” The most common feature of an active mass movement is always utopian and a future that will never be achieved.

Lastly, the leadership of a mass movement,

“He articulates and justifies the resentment dammed up in the souls of the frustrated. He kindles the vision of a breathtaking future so as to justify the sacrifice of a transitory present. He stages the world of make-believe so indispensable for the realization of self-sacrifice and united action. He evokes the enthusiasm of communion—the sense of liberation from a petty and meaningless individual existence . . . However, it was not the intellectual crudity of an Aimee McPherson or a Hitler which won and held their following but the boundless self-confidence which prompted these leaders to give full rein to their preposterous ideas.”

Stalin in 1951, Obama in 2008 — do we really see a difference?[pullquote]“A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence.”[/pullquote]

You may not always agree with Hoffer, in fact he asserts that a good reader will have many questions, but once you understand the mentality of the true believer, there is little chance you will be swayed by their rhetoric.

The Ordeal of Change is a coda for the True Believer and deals with how populations are led, molded and energized by change. “To sum up: When a population undergoing drastic change is without abundant opportunities for individual action and self-advancement, it develops a hunger for faith, pride, and unity. It becomes receptive to all manner of proselytizing, and is eager to throw itself into collective undertakings which aim at “showing the world.” An accurate description of Iran after the fall of the Shah and Russia today with the annexation of Crimea.

Not only the strong make policy and have impact on lives but also the weak:

“It has been often said that power corrupts. But it is perhaps equally important to realize that weakness, too, corrupts. Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many. Hatred, malice, rudeness, intolerance, and suspicion are the fruits of weakness. The resentment of the weak does not spring from any injustice done to them but from the sense of their inadequacy and impotence. We cannot win the weak by sharing our wealth with them. They feel our generosity as oppression.”

I leave to readers to delve into the all of the ideas in these two works. However, one last quote which I think sums up the end of the Cold War:

“Finally, Communism is repeating a pattern followed by other heresies when it strives to separate Capitalism from the Capitalists. The Christian heresy detached Judaism from the Jews, and the Protestant heresy separated Catholicism from the Catholic hierarchy. And remembering the battle cry of the Kronstadt uprising, it is permissible to predict that the slogan of an eventual Communist heresy will be: “Communism without Communists.”

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8 Responses to The True Believer and The Ordeal of Change by Eric Hoffer

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    One minor correction to Hoffer’s thesis: mass movements organized on the basis of seeking equality (or the reverse, as in the case of the Ku Klux Klan) may indeed live up to his description, but mass movements seeking freedom are another matter. In his era, there may not have been any such movements.

  2. Rosalys says:

    Another couple of books to add to my reading list.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I once read a book “Escape From Freedom” by Erich Fromm. It’s an odd book to be written by a socialist. It was odd because he was describing many of the themes of these books by Eric Hoffer. And yet he did not see that socialism would inherently be driven by these things. A very odd act of astute analysis without much self-awareness. But there were many of the same good points to be found about the danger of mass movements and the desire of people to find transcendent meaning through their quite secular causes.

    This might be a good starter book for those on the Left (the low-information voters, basically) who have been made bigoted and are paranoid and distrustful regarding any information sources outside of their worldview. When I read this book, I didn’t intend it to be an “opposition research” type of book. I don’t remember how I picked this up. But it somewhat was like reading David Horowitz with the difference being that David Horowitz is speaking from the point of view that he has left the worldview and politics that fed on these dire things. Fromm describes them and yet remained a socialist throughout his life, as far as I know.

    But then Christopher Hitchens had this blind spot as well. It’s a remarkable thing to see smart people be so blind regarding what I view as a very obvious elephant walking around in the living room. I think much of this blindness has to do with the thoroughly engrained prejudices of “danger on the right,” a subject about which Dennis Prager is the reigning expert.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I’ve never read Fromm’s book, though I recall reading Rand’s evisceration of it (though not the details of her evisceration). Fromm wrote the afterword to the edition of 1984 that we read in high school (which is the copy I still have). Remembering that Orwell always considered himself a socialist even as he rejected so much of socialism (many may find the introductory section of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier by his publisher, Victor Gollancz of the Left Book Club, very instructive and a useful explanation of why they dropped him in the end). Perhaps Fromm was the same sort of socialist.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Remembering that Orwell always considered himself a socialist even as he rejected so much of socialism

        Do you suppose it was truly a case of binary thinking? What was “capitalist” in Britain was certainly a system infused with a class-based system. Many, if not most, who came to America from Europe were looking to escape the dead-end social structures of Europe.

        Had Orwell grown up in America, would he have thought the natural alternative to (or opposite of) an opportunity-based society was a socialist one?

        One can forgive people for not being omniscient, but not for being blinkered. One can understand MLK’s penchant for socialism since, from his point of view, the “free-market” system produced slavery. But I think it takes at least a small infusion of willful blindness to posit socialism as the answer. Granted, demagogues of all stripes do so because it appeals to people’s desire to get something for nothing.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Class hostility probably has a lot to do with it. Orwell came from some sort of upper- or upper-middle-class background and was educated at Eton. He was a colonial officer of some sort in Burma, and at some point he became hostile to the upper classes in general. This dislike not only of aristocrats but of the bourgeoisie is clear in in Homage to Catalonia. I suspect his ideal may have been a society of independent craftsmen and shopkeepers.

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            “He was a colonial officer of some sort in Burma”

            As I recall, he was in the Police Service. Take a look at his book, “Burmese Days”. Not a bad book on colonialism.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              I started it once, but never got around to finishing it. Of course, it wasn’t intended to be specifically autobiographical, though he also wrote a few essays (such as “Shooting an Elephant”) that deal with that period in his life.

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