by 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.”
Say howdy to Gorbachev and Putin.