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The True Believer Revisited

Tim Madigan on September 11th and on a longshoreman who understood the psychology of mass movements.

After the initial horrified reaction I experienced on September 11th, my first question was: How could the terrorists have sacrificed their own lives, and taken the lives of thousands of others, as well as causing such colossal destruction? What could lead them to justify in their own minds committing mass atrocities? This goes far beyond a debate over religious beliefs, to the very heart of human nature: what allows certain people to override any sense of community with their fellow human beings, and willfully cause death and destruction for the sake of a higher cause?

I was reminded of a book I hadn’t read in over fifteen years, and its observations on the rise of mass movements and the leaders of them, who called upon their followers to annihilate all who differed with their worldviews. The work, entitled The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements was written by Eric Hoffer (1902-1983), a very unconventional man and a freethinker. The son of Alsatian immigrants to the United States, he was born in New York City. Orphaned at the age of 5, he went blind at 7. Mysteriously, his sight was restored at the age of 15 – this period of blindness perhaps affected his own perceptions on the world, and made him appreciate the capriciousness of human existence.

Hoffer worked in various odd jobs and drifted throughout the country (including Los Angeles’ famous Skid Row), until becoming a longshoreman in 1943, a job he kept until his mandatory retirement at the age of 65. Completely selftaught, after he became a noted author he would fit his lectures and writing into his work schedule. When asked once “Are you an intellectual?”, Hoffer proudly responded, “No, I’m a longshoreman.” But his works ably demonstrated that the two are not mutually exclusive.

Hoffer was to write several books throughout his career, but it was first book, The True Believer which, published in 1951, made his name and fame. Aphoristic in style (his later books would be even more in this vein, some having only a single sentence on a page), it was based upon years of reflection, and his own observations of the rise of fascism, Nazism and communism as reactions to the Great Depression. The main point Hoffer stresses in his book is that, for the ‘true believer’ (someone so committed to a cause that he or she is willing to unthinkingly die for it) ideologies are interchangeable. It is the frustrations of life which lead the believers to join a cause that gives meaning to their own existences, and the more frustrated they feel, the more attracted they are to extreme revolutionary solutions to their problems. Such frustrations can be the basis for positive social change, but usually mass movements have less beneficial effects. The message that self-sacrifice is needed for the good of a cause can often justify the most heinous of endeavors, and followers are treated as interchangeable cogs in a machine rather than as flesh-and-blood humans. Abstractions and atrocities often go hand-in-hand.

Hoffer is very perceptive in his criticisms, and much of what he has to say is relevant to the present situation. For instance, he points out that we often imitate what we hate. “Every mass movement”, he writes, “shapes itself after its own specific demon.” And it can then become the very demon it denounces. Christianity in the Middle Ages became so obsessed with devils and witchcraft that it justified mass slaughter and the very sorts of atrocities one would normally attribute to satanic forces. The Jacobins who overthrew the French Monarchy because of its tyranny ended up becoming far greater tyrants themselves, and unleashed The Great Terror upon the populace. The Bolsheviks in Russia denounced capitalism yet amassed a monopoly, and Lenin took over the Czar’s secret police apparatus without a moment’s hesitation.

This reminds me of the paradoxical reality that contemporary religious fundamentalist movements, while claiming to be bringing back an idyllic past, nonetheless utilize the most up-to-date technologies to spread their messages. The Ayatollah Khomeini, for example, used tape recordings of his sermons to keep his Iranian followers informed of his views during his long exile in France. And the September 11th terrorists not only learned to fly sophisticated aircrafts, they no doubt used the internet, cell phones and other modern means of communication to plan their deeds and keep their conspiracy a secret.

Hoffer also offers some insight into why the September 11th terrorists committed such horrific acts. “All the true believers of our time”, he wrote in 1951, “communist, nazi, fascist … declaim volubly about the decadence of the West.” The weakness of the West, and its moral decay, were frequent themes of Osama Bin Laden’s recent video sermons. Ironically, views not dissimilar were expressed by the Reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson just days after the bombings, when the former stated that secularism, homosexuality, abortion and feminism had weakened the moral fiber of the nation and made it vulnerable to attack, as well as to God’s wrath. As Hoffer so well understood, True Believers think alike, regardless of the content of their thoughts.

True Believers of all kinds share certain characteristics, including contempt for those who don’t have a holy cause themselves, and respect for fellow fanatics. Hitler and Stalin, for instance, each admired the techniques the other had used to gain and maintain absolute power, and both expressed contempt for the democratic leaders Churchill and Roosevelt. Most of all, Hoffer writes, “A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrines and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence.” The less control people feel they have over their lives, the more attractive the message of mass movements will be.

How then does one combat True Believers? Can one make a love of democracy and the advocacy of individualism a holy cause itself? “Though hatred is a convenient instrument for mobilizing a community for defense,” Hoffer warns, “it does not, in the long run, come cheap. We pay for it by losing all or many of the values we have set out to defend.” The best way to fight is to encourage individualism, contrary thinking and a disinclination to follow blindly the teachings of any leaders, no matter how seemingly benign.

What motivated Hoffer to write The True Believer? In later interviews, he confessed that he saw himself as a potential mass leader – he had charisma, a way with words, and a cold heart towards his fellow human beings, all essential elements for leading large numbers of people and not caring what ultimately happens to them.

Hoffer withdrew from the limelight in the early 1970s, after the bad experiences he had on the UC-Berkeley campus where, as a visiting scholar, he felt the student movement’s growing advocacy of violence only verified the claims he had made about the dangers of True Believers. He faded from the limelight, saying “Any man can ride a train. Only a wise man knows when to get off.”

As we near the 100th anniversary of Hoffer’s birth, it is good to reflect upon his unique work – a modern-day Socratic figure, a working-class hero and longshoreman/intellectual, Hoffer’s writings still have much to teach us in the uncertain times ahead.

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2001

Tim Madigan is Editorial Director of the University of Rochester Press and Vice President of the Bertrand Russell Society.

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