The True Believer (I)
“Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”
“However different the holy causes people die for, they perhaps die basically for the same thing.”
“[This] book passes no judgments, and expresses no preferences. It merely tries to explain; and the explanations — all of them theories — are in the nature of suggestions and arguments even when they are stated in what seems a categorical tone. I can do no better than quote Montaigne: “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.” […] The reader is expected to quarrel with much that is said in this […] book. He is likely to feel that much has been exaggerated and much ignored. But this is not an authoritative textbook. It is a book of thoughts, and it does not shy away from half-truths so long as they seem to hint at a new approach and help to formulate new questions.”
I’d rather have read an authoritative textbook on these topics, which both the rating I gave the book and the review I wrote on goodreads reflect. That said, this is not a bad book, and it’s very ‘quotable’ – the attentive reader will recall that I’ve quoted Hoffer multiple times before in my quotes posts. In my quotes posts I usually search the blog for all the quotes I intend to add to the new posts before I add them, in order to avoid repeating any quotes I’ve already posted here; it would however be a lot of work to try to avoid repeating anything posted in quotes posts in this post and to limit coverage to stuff I haven’t already blogged. This would also be somewhat counterproductive, as some key points made in the book would likely have to be left out of this post coverage simply on account of having been covered elsewhere on the blog before.
As I pointed out in the goodreads review, “Paraphrasing what I said about Kuhn’s book, ‘it’s a model.’ I don’t think it’s a bad model as such, but there’s a lot of stuff he’s left out of the picture. This, and the speculative nature of the coverage and the over-reliance on anecdotes, makes it difficult for me to give the book a higher rating, despite the fact that I quite liked this book. ” In a way this is a slightly inaccurate way to put it, in the sense that there’s arguably more than one model presented here (there’s a receptiveness model, a model of the evolutionary path of mass movements, a behavioural model, etc.) – this is relevant because some model aspects are more ‘correct’ in hindsight than are others, and this is of course again relevant because it makes it even harder to evaluate the book as a whole. It is my opinion that most people would be likely to benefit from reading this book, and it’s a very easy read compared to the books I usually cover on this site.
I have added some ideas and quotes from the book below.
“This book deals with some peculiarities common to all mass movements, be they religious movements, social revolutions or nationalist movements. It does not maintain that all movements are identical, but that they share certain essential characteristics which give them a family likeness. All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and singlehearted allegiance. […] This book concerns itself chiefly with the active, revivalist phase of mass movements. This phase is dominated by the true believer — the man of fanatical faith who is ready to sacrifice his life for a holy cause — and an attempt is made to trace his genesis and outline his nature.”
“The powerful can be as timid as the weak. What seems to count more than possession of instruments of power is faith in the future. Where power is not joined with faith in the future, it is used mainly to ward off the new and preserve the status quo. On the other hand, extravagant hope, even when not backed by actual power, is likely to generate a most reckless daring. For the hopeful can draw strength from the most ridiculous sources of power—a slogan, a word, a button. No faith is potent unless it is also faith in the future […] Those who would transform a nation or the world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent or by demonstrating the reasonableness and desirability of the intended changes or by coercing people into a new way of life. They must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope. It matters not whether it be hope of a heavenly kingdom, of heaven on earth, of plunder and untold riches, of fabulous achievement or world dominion. […] When hopes and dreams are loose in the streets, it is well for the timid to lock doors, shutter windows and lie low until the wrath has passed. For there is often a monstrous incongruity between the hopes, however noble and tender, and the action which follows them.”
“There is a hope that acts as an explosive, and a hope that disciplines and infuses patience. The difference is between the immediate hope and the distant hope. A rising mass movement preaches the immediate hope. It is intent on stirring its followers to action, and it is the around-the-corner brand of hope that prompts people to act. […] Later, as the movement comes into possession of power, the emphasis is shifted to the distant hope — the dream and the vision. For an “arrived” mass movement is preoccupied with the preservation of the present, and it prizes obedience and patience above spontaneous action […] Every established mass movement has its distant hope, its brand of dope to dull the impatience of the masses and reconcile them with their lot in life. Stalinism is as much an opium of the people as are the established religions.”
“The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready is he to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.”
“When people are ripe for a mass movement, they are usually ripe for any effective movement, and not solely for one with a particular doctrine or program. In pre-Hitlerian Germany it was often a toss up whether a restless youth would join the Communists or the Nazis. […] This receptivity to all movements does not always cease even after the potential true believer has become the ardent convert of a specific movement. Where mass movements are in violent competition with each other, there are not infrequent instances of converts — even the most zealous — shifting their allegiance from one to the other.”
“One mass movement readily transforms itself into another. A religious movement may develop into a social revolution or a nationalist movement; a social revolution, into militant nationalism or a religious movement; a nationalist movement into a social revolution or a religious movement. […] It is rare for a mass movement to be wholly of one character. Usually it displays some facets of other types of movement, and sometimes it is two or three movements in one. […] The religious character of the Bolshevik and Nazi revolutions is generally recognized. The hammer and sickle and the swastika are in a class with the cross. The ceremonial of their parades is as the ceremonial of a religious procession. They have articles of faith, saints, martyrs and holy sepulchers. The Bolshevik and Nazi revolutions are also full-blown nationalist movements. The Nazi revolution had been so from the beginning, while the nationalism of the Bolsheviks was a late development.”
“The problem of stopping a mass movement is often a matter of substituting one movement for another. A social revolution can be stopped by promoting a religious or nationalist movement. Thus in countries where Catholicism has recaptured its mass movement spirit, it counteracts the spread of communism. […] In general, any arrangement which either discourages atomistic individualism or facilitates self-forgetting or offers chances for action and new beginnings tends to counteract the rise and spread of mass movements.”
“It is sometimes difficult to tell where a mass migration ends and a mass movement begins—and which came first. […] Every mass movement is in a sense a migration—a movement toward a promised land; and, when feasible and expedient, an actual migration takes place. […] whether in the form of foreign conquest, crusade, pilgrimage or settlement of new land it is practiced by most active mass movements.”
“Misery does not automatically generate discontent, nor is the intensity of discontent directly proportionate to the degree of misery. Discontent is likely to be highest when misery is bearable; when conditions have so improved that an ideal state seems almost within reach. A grievance is most poignant when almost redressed. […] It is not actual suffering but the taste of better things which excites people to revolt. […] The intensity of discontent seems to be in inverse proportion to the distance from the object fervently desired. […] Our frustration is greater when we have much and want more than when we have nothing and want some. We are less dissatisfied when we lack many things than when we seem to lack but one thing.”
“Freedom aggravates at least as much as it alleviates frustration. Freedom of choice places the whole blame of failure on the shoulders of the individual. And as freedom encourages a multiplicity of attempts, it unavoidably multiplies failure and frustration. Freedom alleviates frustration by making available the palliatives of action, movement, change and protest. Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden. Of what avail is freedom to choose if the self be ineffectual? We join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility […] They who clamor loudest for freedom are often the ones least likely to be happy in a free society. The frustrated, oppressed by their shortcomings, blame their failure on existing restraints. […] If they clamor for freedom, it is but freedom to establish equality and uniformity.”
“we can never have enough of that which we really do not want, and […] we run fastest and farthest when we run from ourselves.”
“the technique of a mass movement aims to infect people with a malady and then offer the movement as a cure.”
“The vigor of a mass movement stems from the propensity of its followers for united action and self-sacrifice. When we ascribe the success of a movement to its faith, doctrine, propaganda, leadership, ruthlessness and so on, we are but referring to instruments of unification and to means used to inculcate a readiness for self-sacrifice. It is perhaps impossible to understand the nature of mass movements unless it is recognized that their chief preoccupation is to foster, perfect and perpetuate a facility for united action and self-sacrifice. […] With few exceptions,1 any group or organization which tries, for one reason or another, to create and maintain compact unity and a constant readiness for self-sacrifice usually manifests the peculiarities — both noble and base — of a mass movement. On the other hand, a mass movement is bound to lose much which distinguishes it from other types of organization when it relaxes its collective compactness […] The technique of fostering a readiness to fight and to die consists in separating the individual from his flesh-and-blood self—in not allowing him to be his real self. This can be achieved by the thorough assimilation of the individual into a compact collective body […]; by endowing him with an imaginary self (make-believe) […]; by implanting in him a deprecating attitude toward the present and riveting his interest on things that are not yet […]; by interposing a fact-proof screen between him and reality (doctrine) […]; [and] by preventing, through the injection of passions, the establishment of a stable equilibrium between the individual and his self (fanaticism)”.
“To ripen a person for self-sacrifice he must be stripped of his individual identity and distinctness. […] The fully assimilated individual does not see himself and others as human beings. When asked who he is, his automatic response is that he is a German, a Russian, a Japanese, a Christian, a Moslem, a member of a certain tribe or family. He has no purpose, worth and destiny apart from his collective body; and as long as that body lives he cannot really die.”
“Not only does a mass movement depict the present as mean and miserable—it deliberately makes it so. It fashions a pattern of individual existence that is dour, hard, repressive and dull. It decries pleasures and comforts and extols the rigorous life. It views ordinary enjoyment as trivial or even discreditable, and represents the pursuit of personal happiness as immoral. To enjoy oneself is to have truck with the enemy — the present. […] The very impracticability of many of the goals which a mass movement sets itself is part of the campaign against the present. All that is practicable, feasible and possible is part of the present. To offer something practicable would be to increase the promise of the present and reconcile us with it. […] All mass movements deprecate the present by depicting it as a mean preliminary to a glorious future; a mere doormat on the threshold of the millennium. To a religious movement the present is a place of exile, a vale of tears leading to the heavenly kingdom; to a social revolution it is a mean way station on the road to Utopia; to a nationalist movement it is an ignoble episode preceding the final triumph.”
“A glorification of the past can serve as a means to belittle the present. But unless joined with sanguine expectations of the future, an exaggerated view of the past results in an attitude of caution and not in the reckless strivings of a mass movement. On the other hand, there is no more potent dwarfing of the present than by viewing it as a mere link between a glorious past and a glorious future. Thus, though a mass movement at first turns its back on the past, it eventually develops a vivid awareness, often specious, of a distant glorious past. Religious movements go back to the day of creation; social revolutions tell of a golden age when men were free, equal and independent; nationalist movements revive or invent memories of past greatness.”
“It is futile to judge the viability of a new movement by the truth of its doctrine and the feasibility of its promises. What has to be judged is its corporate organization for quick and total absorption of the frustrated. Where new creeds vie with each other for the allegiance of the populace, the one which comes with the most perfected collective framework wins.”
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