Mass Movements

I have been re-reading Eric Hoffer’s excellent book The True Believer. Hoffer was the self-educated longshoreman who wrote notes to himself while at work and later turned them into a best-seller. Eventually he wrote and sold ten books and was quite a sensation for a while. I have always thought him a deep and careful thinker with remarkable scope of mind.

Hoffer wrote about the causes of mass movements and in particular about the mentality of those who follow those movements, the true believers. Joseph Conrad, that extraordinary wordsmith, also wrote about the type in his novel The Secret Agent where he provides the following sketch of these true believers:

“. . .[they exhibit] sinister impulses which lurk in the blind envy and exasperated vanity of ignorance, in the suffering and misery of poverty, in all the hopeful and noble illusions of righteous anger, pity, and revolt.”

For Eric Hoffer they are “frustrated,” they feel a sense of hopelessness and despair, they have low self-esteem and long to have their sense of self raised by the strong, charismatic leader of a movement, any movement, who promises them escape from their despair. He was thinking of such people as Hitler and Stalin, but his thoughts have a direct bearing on what is happening in America today where we find the beginnings of a nationalist mass movement (“Make America Great Again”) led by a charismatic leader whom the true believers follow blindly. Several passages are of special interest and I find them worth quoting at length:

“. . . the acrid secretion of the frustrated mind, though composed chiefly of fear and ill will, acts yet as a marvelous slime to cement the embittered and disaffected into one compact whole. Suspicion too is an ingredient of this acrid slime, and it too can act as a unifying agent. . . .

“Mass movements make extensive use of suspicion in their machinery and domination. . . .  Suspicion is given a sharp edge by associating all opposition with the enemy threatening the movement from without. This enemy — the indispensable devil of every mass movement — is omnipresent. . . .

“By elevating dogma above reason, the individual’s intelligence is prevented from becoming self-reliant. . . . Thus people raised in the atmosphere of a mass movement are fashioned into incomplete and dependent human beings even though they have within themselves the making of self-sufficient entities. . . . they will exhibit the peculiarities of people who crave to lose themselves and be rid of an existence that is irrevocably spoiled. . . .

“All active mass movements strive 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 or certitude outside it. . . . To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason.”

The allegiance of the true believer is to the cause and its leader not to other members of the movement. It is part of the glue that holds the movement together and makes it possible for the leader to demand sacrifices of the members whenever he or she deems it necessary. According to Hoffer the leader himself exhibits:

“. . .audacity and joy in defiance; an iron will; a fanatical conviction that he is in possession of the one and only truth; faith in his destiny and luck; a capacity for passionate hatred; contempt for the present; a cunning estimate of human nature . . . unbounded brazenness which finds expression in a disregard of consistency and fairness . . . a boundless self-confidence. . .  [ and a determination to engage in] charlatanism [since] there can be no mass movement without some deliberate misrepresentation of the facts.”

Of major interest in this regard is hatred, which is one of the primary “unifying agents” that holds the mass movement together. Hatred is readily vented by the true believer who loses his individuality in the mass movement, thereby guaranteeing him anonymity. It frees the hater to “bully, lie, torture, murder, and betray without shame and remorse.” Hatred, frequently, is of foreigners who make the “ideal devil,” though it can be anyone who happens to be more successful than the true believer himself.  Mass movements must have a devil to hate; it is more important than having a strong, charismatic leader and a lofty ideal.

What we are seeing in America today has the earmarks of a mass movement aborning.  Signs are already noticeable, especially during the rallies organized to make the group cohesive, where allegiance is sworn to the leader and to his cause and the devil is named and targeted. If the present leader of the movement remains in control, and indeed gains greater control, the movement will begin to show even more fully the signs of a mass movement that Hoffer describes here. Time will tell.



11 thoughts on “Mass Movements

  1. An apt and frightening analysis. Does Hoffer by chance suggest how such a mass movement might be dismantled? And I wonder what happens when the ‘charismatic leader’ shows his true colours and proves that he was not at all what the people believed him to be? Good, thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Hugh!

    • His book is worth a read, though he isn’t much on providing solutions. He thinks there are various sizes and types of movement that seem to attract the same sorts of people — those who feel frustrated by the status quo and are willing to do just about anything to alter it! And his analysis suggests that the leader’s minions tend to ignore his defects and follow him blindly.

      • I will definitely check out his book! And it all sounds so hauntingly familiar. If it be the case that his minions will continue to ignore his defects, then we are in for a long struggle. As it is, even under the best of circumstances (his impeachment in a year), it will take decades to undo the damage to our society that he has wrought in just over a year. Sigh.

  2. Hugh, what will be interesting is when things fall apart. The leader of this movement will be at odds with the leaders of his party and factions in the movement. Even the conservatively biased networks will have to report on this infighting in addition to the mainstream media. When you have promised everything to too many, promises will go unmet, especially if that is one’s history.

    Several economists predicted from their models that the leader of this movement economic plans will cause from a malaise to a recession. The stock market is only reflecting the fluff, not the substance and results at this point. So, it is likely that the stock market and growth will fall as unemployment rises.

    Then there are the foreign relationships which may be the most scary thing. Governing by tweet when you don’t know the details or context or have experience is a dangerous cocktail.

    So, things have already started to fray and it will have to be reported on no matter how much perfume his communicators put on the pig.


    • The things you point out may thwart the movement — it will be hard for this man to get more of the people to follow him and he will alienate many of those who follow him timidly at this point — and, as you say, he will have a tough time dragging the Congress along with him (depending on whether they are scared of the man).

  3. You: “For Eric Hoffer they are “frustrated,” they feel a sense of hopelessness and despair,”

    I find that in your later comments you associate “Nationalists” with “they” of this characterization. You and he may well be right. These are the kind of Conditions that are truly and deeply Reactionary. But whose Fault is this, Professor? These kinds of reactions to perceived Oppression are long observed in our History; and so likewise should be the Cause of the Reactionary movements. It’s NOT enough to condemn the latter without critiquing the former, I must say. The One is bad…yes. And the former is the Cause.

    These issues are like Hegel’s dichotomy, methinks. Action/Reaction. It’s a matter of Extremity which the sensible Middle has a purpose to Correct. But when dealing with Extremes, it’s often true that Only another Extreme has the requisite Force to Counter the first. It’s as if the Universe has set-up a Pendulum of Human Propensity that must ever clash against itself in order to find Equilibrium. We live, yet, in such a universe. That the Left or the Right continue to rail against each other is only testament to the Fact that mankind has not yet grasped that they are ALL fanatics, bent mostly by delusion and fantasy and egotism. It’s only the Little Flock that suffers the wrong, in the end. The rest of humanity pretty much deserves what it has coming to them, methinks.

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