Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer

The True BelieverFirst, some words on Eric Hoffer. He was born in 1902 in the Bronx, the child of poor German immigrants. By the age of five, he learned to read in both English and German, but one day, while carrying him down a flight of stairs, his mother took a severe fall; the accident left his mother grievously wounded (she died shortly after) and damaged young Eric’s sight, blinding him for the next ten years of his life, before, at age 15, his vision miraculously returned to him. Fearing this was only a temporary reprieve from darkness, he began a self-directed course of study consisting largely of systematically reading every book he could get his hands on. Tragically, his father died soon after his mother, and the orphaned Eric, not even twenty years old, took what little money his father’s union provided for him and set out West, spending the next decade on skid row, reading, writing and taking odd jobs. After working as a migrant worker, acquiring library cards all over the United States, and trying and failing, at 40 years old, to enlist during World War II, he settled down in San Francisco as a stevedore (dockworker), dividing his time between his job and his writing. His first book, The True Believer, garnered him wealth and acclaim when Dwight Eisenhower publicly praised it. Hoffer did what I most admire: sacrificed comfort and security for the sake of his passion, and his biography only makes the erudition his work displays all the more stunning.

I also must confess to a personal attraction. In the past year, there have been a series of protests staged by feminists against speakers whom any objective third party would have to rate as reasonable and inoffensive. The nature of the protests, the acerbic rhetoric and aggressive posturing, disturbed me to an incredible degree. I could not understand such naked hatred directed at total strangers (you can view excerpts from the protests here, here and here) until I discovered Eric Hoffer, who in a few short sentences offered what still strikes me as the best diagnosis:

When we renounce the self and become part of a compact whole [a mass movement], we do not only renounce personal advantage but are also rid of personal responsibility. There is no telling to what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts and the vague stirrings of decency that go with individual judgment. When we lose our individual independence in the corporateness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom – freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse.

So, without further rambling…

The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements is Hoffer’s attempt to form a coherent understanding of the motivations behind the fanatical mindset. Contrary to popular opinion, Hoffer argues that the communist and the fascist have more in common with each other than they do with their separate political ideologies, to the point that they are interchangeable. The commonality is not in the political aim, which Hoffer argues is incidental, but in the desire to escape from the self by any means necessary, and the particular attraction of mass movements is that they offer precisely this. Far from being paragons of selflessness, the fascist who proudly dons a brown shirt to bully dissenters, the communist eager to “overthrow the bourgeoisie” and the feminist protester hurling invective at total strangers in the name of a fight against “the patriarchy” are, in fact, of one mind; though they believe themselves to be devoted to a higher cause, though they draw esteem from the belief that they are playing their part in a worthwhile fight, they have in fact merely sacrificed reason and individuality on a pyre. Hoffer explains:

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 a giving 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.

This is a beautiful explanation for a phenomena widely known yet rarely understood: the propensity for mass movements to first attract a coterie of disaffected. Nazi Germany was recovering from the devastating loss of life of the First World War and the ruinous economic sanctions of the Versailles Treaty and subsequent inflation and economic depression. Russia had abolished serfdom not even a century before the Russian Revolution and the First World War, and the 20th century saw women’s suffrage and their entrance into the labor force after decades of confinement to the domestic sphere. That fascism took hold in a disgraced Germany, communism in a depressed and divided Russia, and feminism amongst a group of relatively well-off women most attuned to their particular bondage should surprise no one.

Of course, here we run the risk of stating a banality and presenting it as a unique insight. Should it surprise us that the disaffected are the first to join a mass movement given that, presumably, they have the most cause for mobilization? Hoffer distinguishes between those mass movements that indoctrinate, that present themselves as the sole arbiters of truth and morality, and those that seek a practical aim, demand no sacrifice of reason or individuality, and abrogate power when that goal is accomplished. Contrast, for example, the humanistic rationalism of Dr. King with the subsequent irrationalism of postmodern feminism, or the nationalism championed by Winston Churchill during the Blitz against that of Adolph Hitler – the former poetic and grandiose, even hyperbolical, to be sure, but lacking in the xenophobia, theories of racial superiority and dependence on myth of the latter – and you’ll begin to appreciate the distinction.

Pause, too, to reflect on the scope of the deception. How did Hitler manage to convince an entire nation of claims (German victory in World War I, the racial superiority of the Aryan race, the racial inferiority of the Jews – take your pick) that were manifestly untrue? How did Stalin uphold the pretense of righteous reform even as he established and expanded the Gulags? Here, too, Hoffer is instructive:

The readiness for self-sacrifice is contingent on an imperviousness to the realities of life. He who is free to draw conclusions from his individual experience and observation is not usually hospitable to the idea of martyrdom. For self-sacrifice is an unreasonable act. It cannot be the end-product of a process of probing and deliberating. All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside it.

Ah, the tyranny of benevolence. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head. Just put your trust in us and we’ll do all your thinking for you.” It is perhaps history’s most important lesson: you have most to fear from those who claim for themselves a monopoly on truth, who insist on their own interpretations and theories and, rather than submit them to a tournament of ideas where reasoned debate determines the victors, indiscriminately punish and censor dissenters. Fascism, communism, Catholicism, Islam (in truth, all of the major monotheistic religions), feminism, jingoistic nationalism and militarism – all these movements or sub-movements have a well-documented history of arrogating truth, distorting facts to suit their ends and gleefully censoring those who dissent. Indeed, the astonishing self-confidence, the absolute faith in the rectitude of their own worldview, contrasts sharply with their unwillingness to have that worldview challenged or disagreed with (see, for example, the above videos).

It is here that Hoffer arrives at the importance of doctrine, the failsafe blueprint that demands adherence and should be deferred to in all matters of debate. He writes,

…the effectiveness of a doctrine should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity or the validity of the truths it embodies, but by how thoroughly it insulates the individual from his self and the world as it is… The effectiveness of a doctrine does not come from its meaning but from its certitude. No doctrine however profound and sublime will be effective unless it is presented as the embodiment of the one and only truth. It must be the word from which all things are and all things speak… It is obvious, therefore, that in order to be effective a doctrine must not be understood, but has rather to be believed in. We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand. A doctrine that is understood is shorn of its strength.

What at first seems counterintuitive – that a doctrine is effective in proportion to how little it is understood, without regard to how truthful its claims are or how profound its insights – is in fact commonsensical. The obvious example is provided by the major religions, whose litany of false claims would require years to adequately catalogue. The world, it turns out, is not flat, nor is it merely a few thousand years old, nor were we created but evolved… and yet, what matters it to the faithful? These are simply facts to be ignored or conveniently sidestepped in the mind of the true believer, just as they choose their faith à la carte, adhering to this scripture and that preaching. The fascists, particularly in Nazi Germany, relied on relentless propaganda and brute force. Stalin, too, coerced and threatened, but communism and its baby sister, feminism, have adapted their approach, preferring to spread their ideologies through obscurantist prose tracts and a shamefully credulous academia. Orwell, in his “Politics and the English Language,” shone a light on how the English language is abused and distorted to mask the truth and propagate false claims, but even he could not have foreseen the likes of Judith Butler:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power. (Butler, Diacritics, 1997)

Unfortunately, Butler and her ilk (“intellectual terrorists,” in the words of a prominent physicist) are representative of a larger paradigm shift that has privileged (to appropriate one of their preferred terms) blind faith and uncritical belief over reasoned debate and unbiased inquiry, the jargon-laden excuse for prose merely a verbal sleight of hand to mask the transition.

If I have gone far afield, I hope it demonstrates the scope of Hoffer’s thought. The True Believer will likely never lose its relevance, our human propensity for stupidity being what it is, but his insights, too, will endure, igniting criticism and creating lingering doubts even amongst the credulous. I am reminded of Samuel Johnson’s beautiful insight about learning: “Knowledge always desires increase; it is like a fire, which first must be kindled by some external agent, but which will afterwards propagate itself.” Hoffer’s thoughts force you, in turn, to think, and what better compliment could I pay him?