The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

author: Eric Hoffer

name: Steev

average rating: 4.12

book published: 1951

rating: 4

read at: 2009/10/17

date added: 2009/10/24

shelves: politics, own-it

In this slim volume psychologist and thinker Eric Hoffer wrote down his observations on many regrettable social groups like the Nazis, Stalin's USSR, and Mussolini's facists, as well as more debatable tendencies like Zionism, the Christian church, and Islam. The fact that the book was first published in 1951 gives it, in hindsight, some limitations.

First of all, the world was about to see the beginning of a series of what almost everyone agrees are positive examples of mass movements: the civil rights movements, the anti-war movement, women's liberation, and later the anti-globalization movement and renewed anti-war-on-terror movement.

Second, Hoffer's writing and research belong to an earlier time, before the sciences of sociology and anthropology and other such "soft" sciences had really come into their own and taken on a more rigorous M.O., and before cultural studies writing really developed a sense of scientific resposibility. I think this is the explanation for why he seems to spend very little time backing up his claims with real data. His was an earlier time when thinkers made broad and sweeping generalizations from observations that, compared to today, seem somewhat cursory, although most of his conclusions and claims do seem to make a lot of logical sense. I just think that nobody today besides conservative ranters would get away with writing a book like this in this way.

That said, he makes some provocative statements about mass movements and the people that lead and compose them, and these statements for the most part ring very true and seem to explain a lot of historical events.

Hoffer is also, like Marshall McLuhan, a master of the pithy and quotable aphorism. For instance, "To be in posession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity." Sounds incredibly profound and poetic, but what exactly does it mean? Hoffer goes on to explain that the movement follower basically wants dogma and absolutes so that his life can be simple and without uncertainty.

Like I said, makes sense, makes me nod my head yes, but today an author would probably be forced to have at least some survey or poll to back up that "truth" about truth.

Which is not to totally invalidate the book. If anything, it gives the reader a variety of hypotheses and theories to test against more recent events and more thorough studies, a part of a quest to understand why people do what they do, especially in extreme situations and during the tipping points of history.