Book Review: The True Believer by Eric Hoffer


Avoid Fanaticism—Believe In Nothing

The True Believer by Eric Hoffer; Harper & Row, 1966, 151 pps; $.60.

Eric Hoffer, a self-made man, a longshoreman—philosopher, has been chosen by President Johnson to serve on a committee studying violence in the United States. No doubt this book, written just prior to the outbreak of the Korean War, served as one of his qualifications. Anyway, LBJ “likes” Hoffer and the feeling is mutual; and so it appears that Hoffer has been accepted by the Establishment as a reasonable man. Even though he gives a first impression of fierce independence, to be sure, he ends up supporting the political powers that be every time. His attitude, reminiscent of the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, another popular rough-and-tough individualist, might be labelled Cynicism. To take up Cynicism, all we have to do is profess belief in this ultimate value: our own individual self-interest. The subject of THE TRUE BELIEVER is Mass Movements, and more particularly, the kind of persons who attach themselves to large-scale revolutionary, nationalistic, or religious uprisings. Hoffer calls such men fanatics, and he doesn’t like ’em. They are “ruthless, self-righteous, credulous, disputatious, petty and rude.” True Believers are anti-present and pro-future: they can’t stand reality and are ready to give themselves to an impossible dream. They are anti-self, and only want to dissolve their existence in a larger corporate identity. A mass movement’s program is not important. Any cause will do for the fanatics.

Hoffer’s favorite adjective for the villains of his piece is “frustrated”—the assumption being they aren’t strong enough to face themselves and make a go of it in the world, so in their weakness they are driven to chasing illusions.

But—and this is a crucial exception to his main trend of thought—he admits that, given the heroic efforts of fanatics, “‘Things which are not’ are indeed mightier than ‘things that are.'” Now, to Hoffer, this must be a terrifying prospect: could it be that these misfits really obey a law higher than the status quo he defends? Is that apparent illusion actually a more fundamental reality? Again, near the end of the book, he says, “A genuine popular upheaval is often an invigorating, renovating and integrating process … a miraculous instrument for raising societies and nations from the dead—an instrument of resurrection.” It’s hard to think that all these religious terms are lost on Hoffer. Elsewhere he states that “religiofication” is necessary for a movement to be successful—and, through all the psychological and political reasoning, this chord sounds most strongly.

When he decides to praise movements, Hoffer usually prefaces his sentences with “Strangely enough,” or “It is strange to think…” So, putting them all together, he sees that radicals can cause an invigorating and strangely miraculous resurrection for the sake of things which do not exist.

Yes; very strange that so much energy can be motivated by illusions and come out creating things positive. Without True Believers, the world becomes stagnant. But, for Hoffer, the only reason men become fanatics is their own individual stagnation—this is the main point of the book.

He doesn’t mince around here. For example: “People with a sense of fulfillment think it is a good world and would like to conserve it as it is, while the frustrated favor radical change.” In another place he points to “men of outstanding achievement” and “people who live full, worthwhile lives” as the opposite numbers of the man-with-a-cause.

Exactly who is “outstanding” is not clearly stated, but there is certainly a suggestion that it is the financially comfortable middle class, which fears change the most. Why are they being praised? Ah, but here Hoffer chooses to employ the “objectivity” of the social scientist. Though he gives no end of examples to bolster his use of the words “frustrated misfits” for the extremists, he gracefully declines from giving affirmative examples for the “worthwhile” folks who made his book a best-seller. Apparently he doesn’t want to sway our opinion. As a matter of fact, he gives only the most unflattering motivations for the conservatism of the “inert Mass,” indicating a certain lack of respect for them; but he certainly is affectionate toward their respectability as such, their contentment with “things as they are.”

Anyway, in a group called The Worst, part of a social structure of Hoffer’s design, he gathers all those who are an easy mark for a mass movement’s recruiting program: “failures, misfits, outcasts, criminals, and all those who have lost their footing, or never had one, in the ranks of respectable humanity.”

These unfavorable prospects “join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility … to escape from an ineffectual self … to seek refuge from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence.” The message is clear. And the fanatic becomes dangerous, building a program of hate based on “the delight of the frustrated in chaos and the downfall of the fortunate.”

THE TRUE BELIEVER is studded with examples, most of them, on the face of it, quite convincing. It seems, for instance, that Martin Luther often found it easier to concentrate on his prayers if he thought about his enemies rather than his friends; Hitler originally had plans to be a painter and architect, but felt himself to be a failure; and so on.

Hoffer’s bias is not his alone. Whenever one dissenter decries a deplorable situation, many others, eager to protect their hard-earned gains, will point out the critic’s personal failings and assert his cause to be simply a cover-up, a means of escaping the ugly reality of his own existence. It’s an old trick. And it’s one of the main reasons why so many people saw in Robert and John Kennedy the hopes of changing our world. Being in so many ways favored, they seemed to stand above the suspicions elucidated so clearly in THE TRUE BELIEVER.

This general assumption is all too often extended to mean that there are no causes worth fighting for, that there is no reality transcending the most mundane aspects of materialistic living. “Ordinary” life is indeed boring, but the cynic must affirm it, idolizing those who have somehow beat the game “in commerce or industry,” as Hoffer puts it. The ideal, like that of the Practical Organization he speaks of, is always one’s own self: self-interest, self-reliance, selfadvancement.

The Cynic believes that the fanatic is actually just as interested in himself, but can’t admit it because he’s afraid of himself. Such thinking reveals a conception of “self” infinitely less vital than that revealed in the True Believer’s activities. Certainly, most people—conservative and radical alike—are unwilling to ask the question, “Who am I?” But to limit the driving force behind those who would change the world to a simple neurotic deficiency doesn’t begin to explain, for instance, why mass movements are necessary in human history as an “invigorating, renovating, integrating process.” Aren’t there, after all, worthy causes?

Given these attitudes, the Cynic is doomed to a dull, secular, middle-of-the-roadism. Any established institution is OK. An army, for instance: Hoffer says an army might be like a mass movement, except that it “deals mainly with the possible.” Whereas a mass movement runs on “passion and enthusiasm,” an army depends on “unimpassioned mechanism” in a “sober atmosphere.” Since an army is a practical organization, then it must be sober. But I doubt Vietnam GI’s, shooting methedrine into their veins before they go out to drop napalm on people would agree. Furthermore, few commanders would be likely to tell you that the morale of their troops means nothing; and morale is no more than the intensity of passion and enthusiasm which the men feel in pursuing victory.

If a person is disgusted with the social situation around him, and I think it only reasonable to say that many human societies have had the gravest faults, he is naturally going to try to find a means to change it. So he might first go to the Communists, then to the Nazis, then to the Christians. Trial-and-error is involved. So, as Hoffer points out (with a quite different argument in mind), the Nazis found it easier to recruit from the ranks of young Communists than from the uncommitted youth. But wasn’t this because the Communists were already convinced that a radical step was necessary—and not, as Hoffer would have it, because they were willing to join any cause, no matter what its program?

The “frustrated” person’s analysis of things might be shared by a number of groups; he wants to find the one group whose solution he agrees with. And he wants to find a group, because if you want change, that’s the way to do it—you can’t change the world by yourself. To pass this off as a desire to lose real, “individual” identity in a fog of false group identity is absurd. It’s quite easy to retain one’s own personality even though political or religious convictions are shared with others. I do not doubt that Mr. Hoffer has managed to remain unsubmerged in his service to Lyndon Johnson, for example.

Also, if the fanatic is frustrated, if he has never had a firm footing, if he seeks refuge, he is really no different from anybody else in these respects. Why single him out as unique? Or does our middle-class tranquilizer epidemic have no place in Mr. Hoffer’s thinking?

Now, where is Eric Hoffer himself in all this? Probably he would like to be found in a group he calls the Creative Poor. As such, he would be free from the siren song of mass movements because “Nothing so bolsters our self-confidence and reconciles us with ourselves as the continuous ability to create; to see things grow and develop under our hand, day in, day out.” Self-interest becomes self-glorification. The longshoreman becomes the Sunday painter, playing God, watching things grow and develop under his hand. And what is it that distinguishes the creative man? How does he hold his own? It’s “his critical faculty.” Mr. Hoffer doesn’t elaborate on Criticism, but something tells me it’s close to that Cynicism he also holds so dear. How it differs from the sort of criticism which inspires mass movements of revolution is, however, unclear.

Another name for democratic man, in Hoffer’s jargon, is “the gentle cynic.” You know the type: he accepts no truth as absolute, he always keeps a skeptical attitude, his only frame of reference is his own panoply of ever-shifting desires. He’s good for business.

Creativity amounts to nothing more than watching his thoughts change, day in, day out. There is no desire to reach a goal. Nor does he care about answers: this book “does not shy away from half-truths so long as they seem to hint at a new approach and help to formulate new questions.” New questions. But no answers.

Lastly, who is the “self” who’s so important to this philosophy? Here is the crux of the problem. It is “our true transitory self” which is real, according to Hoffer, and not “the eternal self we are building up.” We live within “the overwhelming reality of life and death.” Another term for self, as he uses it, is, when you get right down to it, body. Who am I? Hoffer says, I am this body. What is my self-interest? My bodily interest; namely protecting myself from attacks, keeping my stomach full, getting enough sleep, and having sex.

Man is, however, bound to get frustrated by such a belief. He is bound to run away from a concept of self that admits only the most gross and ultimately dissatisfying of pleasures. If his culture teaches him that he is just a blob, just a combination of chemicals, only a body—hold onto your hats. He’s going to explode. That’s one good reason why there’s violence in the United States today. Most of the population is laboring under the conception that they are no more than body. And that isn’t natural. So, yes, people do get very frustrated. And they certainly do try very hard to escape from that kind of self. They’ll do anything to change the material conditions that go along with that gross bodily view of life.

But, of course, all there is to turn to in most cases, is more materialism. Therefore, Hoffer has good reason to be cynical. Monarchies, representative democracies, socialist dictatorships, welfare states—all have, in their turn, claimed to be the only proper form of government, but still the people are in revolution. Nations have formed, split up and recombined, but still people cannot find their sense of completeness.

On this planet there are three and a third billion humans, and countless billions of other living beings. And we’re all trapped—in the limited consciousness so well typified by Eric Hoffer’s book; trapped by its view, and by the views of the radicals it criticizes as well—we’re all trapped until a truly liberating movement is undertaken, a movement of liberation from materialism, and deliverance into the higher reality of spiritual consciousness.

Now, Hoffer spends a great deal of time criticizing religious movements, along with all others. Yet he sees that for any great change to take place in society, “religiofication is an indispensable factor.” And, as explained previously, the upheavals themselves are “miraculous resurrections.” Mass movements are religious inasmuch as they express man’s desire for an end to material suffering. But they fall short of their goal if they cannot propose a positive plan for spiritual activity, a plan that cuts through the limitations of man’s puny speculative abilities. Such a plan must come, not from man, but from God. Of course, only a fanatic would say such a thing. But then, if there is a God—and for all his cynicism, Hoffer never tries to say there isn’t—then maybe it’s the cynics and skeptics who are the fanatics, trying as they do to escape that ultimate Reality.

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