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The True Believer (a new appreciation of Eric Hoffer's classic book)

August, 2016
By John Huckans

Events of late have made me wonder if Darwin got it only half right.  I don't quarrel with his theory as proposed in On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), that modern man evolved from earlier primates and the earlier primates from mammals, that in all probability, evolved from even more primitive life forms.  Even though I don't pretend to be anything close to a biologist, it all seems to make a lot of sense.  Some of us agree with Darwin's theories, some not.  Some people argue the subject heatedly, while others simply agree to disagree. That is what civilized people (i.e. those who have evolved intellectually and morally) do.  What uncivilized people do is kill others who do not believe as they do.

Eric Hoffer's The True Believer, Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements was published in 1951 and I first became aware of it during the '60s. I read it then, re-read it about fifteen years ago, and for the third time last week.  It's an unusual book, aphoristic in style (Hoffer admitted he was influenced by Montaigne) – that and his unusual back story probably contributed to the book's success.  So much so that in the late '60s Hoffer was the subject of a two part interview with Eric Sevareid on CBS.  The interview has been archived on Youtube where it can be seen in five segments. 
In the years immediately following the Second World War and the defeat of the fascist powers, Europe and America were soon confronted with the problem of how to react to the expansionism of the Soviet Union and the spread of communism in Europe and the Far East.  Conventional wisdom, accepted by many at the time, suggested that since Germany and the USSR were enemies in that conflict that Nazism and Communism were, almost by definition, philosophically opposed.  Memories of Nazi atrocities during the war were so fresh that many people adopted that view and were more than willing to give the Soviets a pass – for a while at least.
Published in the early days of the Cold War and during the Korean conflict, Hoffer recognized similarities where others saw distinctions. From the Preface – “There are vast differences in the contents of holy causes and doctrines, but a certain uniformity in the factors which make them effective... However different the holy causes people die for, they perhaps die basically for the same thing...”  In other words, mass movements are interchangeable.  Hoffer points out that Hitler and Stalin recognized that by poaching from each others followers, they could gain more effective recruits.
From an organizational standpoint the book is confusing.  With unusual structure and little in the way of sustained argument, the book consists of 125 numbered topics or mini-essays of varying length divided and arranged within 18 chapters, the chapters grouped into four sections.  His aphoristic style was not only influenced by Montaigne, but developed from necessity because he had to do much of his writing during breaks while working as a laborer – first as a migrant worker following the crops in California and finally – until he retired in 1967 – as a longshoreman working the docks in San Francisco.  Not having the luxury of an office or study he depended on pocket notebooks to record his ideas and thoughts as they occurred and wherever he happened to be.  And according to Wikipedia, “Hoffer's papers, including 131 of the notebooks he carried in his pockets, were acquired in 2000 by the Hoover Institution Archives... (including) unpublished notebooks (dated from 1949 to 1977)”.
Hoffer learned to read and write English and German before he was five, at about the time that a childhood accident left him blind.  He recovered his sight during his mid-teens and became a voracious reader to make up for ten years of lost time.  Libraries became his university and books his constant companions – even while earning his living unloading ships in San Francisco, a notebook was always at hand.
According to Hoffer the ideal or quintessential true-believer is usually someone with a profound sense or feeling of “self-loathing”, a feeling which he or she would rather not recognize, confront or care to admit.  This and many of Hoffer's other observations and conclusions about extreme human behavior do not rely on any real clinical evidence but a large store of knowledge based on his vast reading habits and life as laboring man.  Writing in the late '40s and '50s, he was simply predicting a future world based on humanity as he saw it – or to use a more precise but archaic 17th century term, vaticination pure and simple.  In Hoffer's case he didn't predict specific events, but recognized patterns of human behavior (that would eventually lead to predictable outcomes) before others did.  Nothing was supported by the usual sort of scholarly trappings – Hoffer went out on a limb, which is what creative people often do.
Less than 180 pages, The True Believer contains insights which are now more widely understood than they were when first published more than 60 years ago, yet in his Preface he honors Montaigne by quoting him approvingly, “All I say is by way of discourse, and nothing by way of advice.  I should not speak so boldly if it were my due to be believed.”   A few of Hoffer's observations for your consideration:

“Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”

“A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business...”

“...the technique of a mass movement... is to infect people with a malady and then offer the movement as a cure.”

“The true believer is apt to see himself as one of the chosen...  He who is not of his faith is evil; he who will not listen shall perish.”

“Proselytizing is more a passionate search for something not yet found than a desire to bestow upon the world something we already have.”

“If a doctrine is not unintelligible, it has to be vague; and if neither unintelligible nor vague, it has to be unverifiable.”

“Self-contempt, however vague, sharpens our eyes for the imperfections of others.”

“Misery does not automatically generate discontent, nor is the intensity of discontent directly proportionate to the degree of misery... a grievance is most poignant when almost redressed.” ¹   (In other words, people don't become fanatics or terrorists because of lack of economic opportunity, jobs programs, good schools, and other social benefits.  In an opinion piece , syndicated columnist David Brooks noted ‘On Thursday, Mona El-Naggar of The Times profiled a young Egyptian man, named Islam Yaken, who grew up in a private school but ended up fighting for the Islamic State and kneeling proudly by a beheaded corpse in Syria.’)

  “Propaganda by itself succeeds mainly with the frustrated...they cannot see but what they have already imagined, and it is the music of their own souls that they hear in the impassioned words of the propagandist.”

“It was the temporal sword that made Christianity a world religion. Conquest and conversion went hand in hand... In the phenomenal spread of Islam, conquest was a primary factor and conversion a by-product... the threat of communism at present does not come from the forcefulness of its preaching but from the fact that it is backed by one of the mightiest armies on earth.”

“The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a God or not. The atheist is a religious person.”

“It is doubtful whether the fanatic who deserts his holy cause or is suddenly left without one can ever adjust himself to an autonomous individual existence. He remains a homeless hitch-hiker … thumbing a ride on any eternal cause that rolls by.”

“We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand”.  

So that might explain why, according to a report in January 2015,  someone bought a copy of Malcolm Clark's Islam for Dummies on Amazon before leaving for Syria to fight for Islamic State.

One of the interesting and potentially unpleasant consequences for Islamic terrorists who seem to enjoy group be-headings, burning people alive, and the occasional crucifixion, is that the part of classical Newtonian physics that states for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, might eventually come to apply – in Europe there is already a rising tide of anti-Islamic feeling and eventually it could erupt violently at the expense of Muslims living there and elsewhere. 

Self-identified Christian volunteers are now showing up in Iraq and are apparently organizing themselves to fight Islamic State on terms of their choosing.  Not being under the direction of a governmental command structure, it remains to be seen what methods and tactics will be used.  Even though these groups (Islamic and Christian fanatics) may be in doctrinal opposition, according to Hoffer they are well on their way to becoming kindred spirits psychologically and emotionally.  And not that long ago an unverified European source reported on a supposed plot to establish a place where terrorists, or those thought to be terrorists, would be sent to begin their journey to Paradise.  The specifics are too gruesome to describe.

Eric Hoffer died in 1983, and while he considered himself an atheist, he was also reputed to entertain a friendly or sympathetic view of religion in general.  In other words, he wasn't a fire-breathing, born-again atheist in the modern sense, but more of a gentle sceptic, perhaps an agnostic.  Now you might think Hoffer would have a lot to say about the activities of present day savages and barbarians (both foreign and domestic), until you recall that he already did – more than 60 years ago.

1.  In D. H. Lawrence's posthumously published Last Poems (Florence, Orioli, 1932), there is a poem entitled "We Can't Be Too Careful" in which he anticipates Hofer's thoughts on the relationship between misery and discontent:

We can't be too careful
about the British Public
It gets bigger and bigger
and its perambulator has to get bigger and bigger
and its dummy-teat has to be made bigger and bigger and bigger
and the job of changing its diapers gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger
and the sound of its howling gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and  bigger
and the feed of pap that we nurses and guardian angels of the press have to deal out to it
gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger
yet its belly ache seems to get bigger too
and soon even god won't be big enough to handle that infant