The True Believer by Eric Hoffer Book Summary & Commentary
— Eric Hoffer
Why do people join mass movements like Communism, Nationalism or Fascism? Why do people march in the streets for social, political and religious movements? Why do millions of people sometimes decide to follow a single leader fanatically?
Eric Hoffer tries to answer all these questions in The True Believer. This book was first published in 1951, when the memories of people like Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini were still fresh in everyone’s mind. People wanted us understand:
- Where these movements came from,
- Why they gripped millions of people and
- How they were able to cause horrific events like the Holocaust.
Why should you care about this book? As best-selling author Simon Sinek says, “If you don’t understand people, then you don’t understand business.” When you understand the psychology of mass movements, then you will know what inspires people and motivates them to action. This will help you become a better leader, communicator and citizen.
Who was Eric Hoffer?
Born in 1902, Eric Hoffer is not someone we would typically expect to write an insightful book about human nature and social issues. For most of his life, Hoffer worked a variety of working-class jobs, including being a longshoreman in San Francisco for 25 years. Along the way, he wrote 10 books which have been praised by professors, diplomats and regular readers. In 1983 he received the US Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work.
So let’s get started with the first lesson in this summary of The True Believer…
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1. All mass movements appeal to the same personal frustrations
A mass movement is what Eric Hoffer calls all social, political and religious movements. A “true believer” is what he calls the enthusiastic members of these movements. For example, a Christian Crusader, Russian Communist and Japanese Nationalist are all “true believers” in their mass movement.
Hoffer says that while mass movements may look very different at first, they are all driven by the same aspects of human psychology. To put it simply, all mass movements gain followers through appealing to a common set of personal emotions, frustrations and motivations. This is true whether the movement results in good or evil.
To illustrate this point, consider Communists and National Socialists. Most people see them as two political extremes which are totally opposite to one another. Yet when we look back in history to Germany during the 1920s and 1930s, it was common to see the “true believers” of Communism becoming National Socialists and vice versa. How was this possible? Because they were both mass movements which appealed to similar human motivations.
Hitler looked on the German Communists as potential National Socialists: “The petit bourgeois Social-Democrat and the trade-union boss will never make a National Socialist, but the Communist always will.” Captain Röhm boasted that he could turn the reddest Communist into a glowing nationalist in four weeks. On the other hand, Karl Radek looked on the Nazi Brown Shirts (S.A.) as a reserve for future Communist recruits.
Hundreds and thousands of years ago, the most powerful mass movements were religious. That is how Christianity, Islam and Buddhism grew from small communities to worldwide forces. A thousand years ago, the Pope was considered the most powerful man in Europe and probably the world.
Yet in recent history, the powerful movements have become more nationalist and social. For example, Gandhi’s nationalist movement in India freed over one billion people from British rule, so today many people call him “Father of the Nation.” Nationalism also drove the American Revolution of Independence, the French Revolution for democracy, the destruction of World War 2 and the rapid modernization of Japan.
All mass movements appeal to similar human frustrations, whether they are political, social or religious. This is why in 1930s Germany, Communists and National Socialists would sometimes “switch sides.”
2. People join mass movements when they feel frustrated and powerless
People who feel appreciated by others and in control of their life don’t want to join a mass movement. If someone feels fulfilled and effective, they want the world to mostly stay the same or slowly improve. They don’t want radical change because they’re happy to pursue their goals and dreams within the existing system. Most importantly, they believe they have the power to improve their life through individual effort.
On the other hand, a “true believer” who becomes part of a mass movement feels frustrated, forgotten and individually powerless. Alone, they feel vulnerable and undefended against the dangers of life. They don’t believe their life can improve through individual action, so they join a holy cause to regain a sense of power in the world and hope for their future.
People usually blame their failures on things outside themselves. Perhaps this is one way we can preserve our self-respect when we are not doing well in life. So people who are failing will always say it is the fault of: the economy, “the system,” the government, capitalism, high taxes… anything outside themselves. When a mass movement comes along preaching systemic change as the answer, it greatly appeals to this part of human nature.
Joining a movement gives a frustrated and hopeless person a sense of power again. They are encouraged to blame their inadequacies on things outside themselves. People who feel fulfilled and in control of their life don’t care to change the existing system.
3. People join mass movements to become free of their individual self
In the modern developed world, most of us would say more freedom is good. Freedom of expression, freedom from those in power and freedom to do what we want. So how can we make sense of history when millions of people appeared to want the opposite? Electing strongmen leaders, tyrannical governments and promoting strict social control.
When people feel powerless and frustrated, the freedom they deeply ache for is a freedom FROM individual responsibility. If someone doesn’t have the ability to create fulfillment in their life, then freedom becomes a problem. It’s a constant reminder they don’t measure up. In this situation, it feels like a relief to surrender responsibility to a powerful leader. More than anything, they want to lose awareness of their inadequate individual self and become an anonymous member of a unified group.
To the frustrated, freedom from responsibility is more attractive than freedom from restraint. They are eager to barter their independence for relief from the burdens of willing, deciding and being responsible for inevitable failure.
When World War 2 ended, almost every Nazi member believed they were not guilty of the horrific crimes that had been committed. This only makes sense when we understand they had joined the movement to be free from individual accountability. Now they felt cheated when they were told to accept responsibility for what they’d done while obeying orders. That wasn’t part of the deal!
Joining a larger movement lets someone drop individual responsibility and accountability. They can be free of individual scrutiny and feelings of inadequacy. Most Nazis didn’t feel responsible for atrocities committed by the movement as a whole.
4. The “New Poor” are most likely to join mass movements
When we hear that someone is very powerless and discontent, we probably imagine a very poor person—someone who is stressed about having enough money to feed their kids each day. But Eric Hoffer says very poor people usually don’t join mass movements for the simple reason their life is already energized with purpose.
When someone is struggling to survive, then every small action they take feels incredibly full of meaning. Every day, they are engaged in keeping their family sheltered and fed. A small success like a full stomach feels deeply rewarding. Their life is hard and difficult, but certainly meaningful.
The psychologist Viktor Frankl wrote the amazing book Man’s Search For Meaning which talks about the lessons he learned surviving a concentration camp during WW2. In those camps, he discovered the importance of finding a meaningful purpose to our lives beyond pleasure or consumption. Frankl wrote, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.” Learn more in our summary of Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
The “New Poor” are a different group of people than the extremely poor. They are anyone in society that used to be doing well, but now are relatively worse off. The New Poor are the most likely group to join mass movements.
The New Poor used to have more income, security or social status, but now have less. Feeling our life is declining outside of our control is very stressful and frustrating—that’s why some homeless people can live with nothing for years, but a stock trader may commit suicide when the market crashes.
For example, most experts were surprised by the 2016 election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Looking at the states he flipped in that election, it was clear he managed to persuade a large group of blue-collar working class people to vote for him. Specifically, these were the “Rust Belt” states (Wikipedia) like Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and Pennsylvania. In America, this was a group of “New Poor” people.
Decades ago, working in manufacturing was one of the best jobs in the country. Yet slowly all those jobs were transferred to overseas factories where labour costs were cheaper. Worst of all, no politicians seemed to care. Instead, they were all promoting more free trade agreements. Those blue-collar workers felt their status in society was slipping and their future was uncertain.
Donald Trump recognized this group of highly frustrated people and spoke to them with promises of stricter borders, fairer trade deals and higher taxes on imports. Like him or hate him, it was because of Trump that the controversial TPP Free Trade Deal wasn’t signed. And during his presidency, he waged trade wars to totally renegotiate major trade agreements like NAFTA.
Finally, the New Poor also include people who used to be extremely poor and now their conditions have improved a little. But instead of feeling satisfied, the improvement has highlighted all the ways their life is still lacking.
Now they have a taste that life could be better so they feel even more frustrated. For example, the communist revolution in Russia didn’t happen when the peasants were the most poor, but only after they experienced an improvement in their conditions and freedom.
Discontent is likely to be highest when misery is bearable; when conditions have so improved that an ideal state seems almost within reach. […] It is not actual suffering but the taste of better things which excites people to revolt.
The “New Poor” are the most frustrated group of people. They are those whose income, security and status in society has fallen… or those who rose from extreme poverty. In both cases, the taste of a better life motivates them to join mass movements.
5. Passionate hate unifies members of a mass movement
It doesn’t matter which country you live in, the politicians are masters of stirring up passionate anger and hatred. You will always see left wing politicians yelling about how rich people don’t pay enough taxes or right wing politicians shouting about the government wasting your money. They know strong emotions will motivate more people to go and vote for them.
Every mass movement takes this to another level and nurtures a fanatical hatred against someone or some group of people. For the communists, it was the property-owning bourgeoisie or kulaks. For the national socialists, it was the Jewish people. For Christianity, it was Satan who may be secretly inside our heads at any moment, tempting us to do bad things.
Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.
When Hitler was asked whether he thought the Jew must be destroyed, he answered: “No… We should have then to invent him. It is essential to have a tangible enemy, not merely an abstract one.”
An enemy serves as an effective scapegoat, allowing a True Believer to redirect attention from their own shortcomings. All their personal failures in life can be blamed on the enemy. All failures of the movement to accomplish their goals can also be blamed on the enemy. When millions of people died in famines (Wikipedia) due to the Soviet Union’s new policies, Stalin blamed the kulaks yet again.
Jordan Peterson is a Psychology Professor and best-selling author. Around 2018, he received a lot of attention for standing up against speech controls and censorship being promoted by political far-left groups. In his earlier book Maps of Meaning, he explained the purpose of traditional myths across many cultures. He says myths highlight the way we should all live to create a better world.
He also wrote about the danger of not accepting responsibility for one’s own frustrations: “Obviously if I am determined to overlook my own part in the failure to resolve my own frustrations, if I am determined to find a scapegoat for my problems, then I am just a stone’s throw away from the mentality that was responsible for Hitler’s final solution, or for the Spanish inquisition, or for Lenin’s cultural cleansing.” Read more in our summary of Maps of Meaning by Jordan Peterson.
Leaders of mass movements have always stoked anger by redirecting blame towards a common enemy like the wealthy, the Jews, etc. It’s one of the most effective ways to unite a group of people.
6. Men of Words prepare the ground for every mass movement
According to Eric Hoffer, every mass movement has 3 stages. Each stage requires a different leader. First is the Man of Words, second is the Fanatic, and third is the Man of Action. Let’s understand each of these one-by-one.
The Man of Words is an intellectual who criticizes established institutions, casts doubt on old beliefs and undermines the existing order. They plant seeds in the minds of a society which will later grow into a mass movement. However, they don’t organize the movement themselves.
Some examples of Men of Words include:
- Jesus – He planted the seeds which would become Christianity, but he never organized the building of churches himself.
- Karl Marx – He never created a communist economy, but others later took his ideas and attempted it.
- Martin Luther – He undermined the Catholic Church’s authority with his writings, which later gave birth to the enormous number of modern Protestant Christian communities.
Almost 100 years ago, Edward Bernays wrote the book Propaganda, which provides clear insight into both political propaganda and advertising. Today we often hear about influencer marketing, when a company pays someone with a large social media audience to use their product. Yet even a century ago, Bernays was explaining similar strategies.
For example, he said that society is made of many overlapping subcultures which have their own leaders and that “If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway.” Learn more in our summary of Propaganda by Edward Bernays.
Men of Words weaken existing communal bonds. People do not want to join a new mass movement if they already feel protected belonging to an existing tightly knit tribe, whether that is a family or a local tribe or a religious group. It’s well-known that communism attacks the authority of the parents and family unit, and even Jesus talked about how he had come to divide children against their fathers and mothers. (BibleGateway)
The Men of Words usually have the best intentions and want to make the world a better place, but their work always has major unexpected consequences. Undermining existing social institutions creates a vacuum of meaning, which is fertile soil for even more fanatical mass movements to take root.
When we debunk a fanatical faith or prejudice, we do not strike at the root of fanaticism. We merely prevent its leaking out at a certain point, with the likely result that it will leak out at some other point.
The Frenchmen of the enlightenment who debunked the church and the crown and preached reason and tolerance released a burst of revolutionary and nationalist fanaticism which has not abated yet.
The first stage of every mass movement is led by Men of Words, who undermine existing social institutions and group bonds. They plant seeds which will grow into a new movement.
7. Fanatics bring new mass movements into being
The second stage of every mass movement is led by a Fanatic who excites millions of people into organized action. He must come at the right time, filling people with hope and the vision of a glorious future.
The Fanatic often promises things which are impractical or impossible, but this is not a problem for true believers. Remember, they are looking for a holy cause to lose their self inside of, rather than a practical and realistic plan.
When someone believes heaven on earth is just around the corner, they become willing to sacrifice everything in the present to get there. A great hope overcomes the natural human resistance to change.
The second stage of every movement is led by a Fanatic, who motivates masses of people into unified action. His goal is to fill them with hope of a glorious future coming soon.
8. Men of Action stabilize mass movements
The last stage of every mass movement is led by Men of Action, who bring structure and order. They cause the once spontaneous revolution to become sealed into new establishments, with clear rules, rituals and hierarchy. For example, the American Revolution became the US Government, the Christian movement became the Church, and so on.
The early days of every mass movement are explosive, dynamic and free-flowing. For example, early Christianity borrowed many ideas from Pagan religions like Easter and the Christmas tree. Yet as every movement becomes mature, it hardens into solid unchanging traditions.
These structures exist until another mass movement comes along to reshape them. As they say, history doesn’t repeat but it does rhyme.
The third stage is led by Men of Action, who seal the once-dynamic mass movement into a solid structure that can last. As every religious movement becomes an organized religion and every political revolution becomes a new government.
This is an unconventional book to study. It is part history, part psychology, part politics. However, I do think it provides many insights about human nature that you won’t find anywhere else.
How can we use the knowledge from this book in the real world? First, by noticing when political leaders are trying to provide us with scapegoats for our personal shortcomings. This is a warning sign they are trying to tap into powerful human motives to gain power.
Second, we can use these ideas to create more unity within the groups we are part of, including our families, colleagues and businesses. In the book Start With Why, author Simon Sinek explains that companies become great when they have a deeper purpose that unites all their leaders, employees and customers together.
He wrote, “Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do. When I say WHY, I don’t mean to make money—that’s a result. By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief? WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed in the morning? And WHY should anyone care?” Answering these questions will help us build stronger and more meaningful bonds in the members of our communities. I recommend you check out our full summary of Start With Why by Simon Sinek.