Eric Hoffer and The True Believer

Originally published here 24 Oct 2011

Eric Hoffer was an American, born in 1902. He went blind as a child after an accident and then recovered his sight when he was a teenager.

He lost both parents at a young age, and was a bum on Skid Row for years until he decided to turn his life around.

He was a migrant worker during the Great Depression, so he saw life from the bottom.

Meanwhile, he read and read, borrowing books from public libraries as he moved around the country.

He wrote The True Believer, which was published in 1951.

In the book he analyses what it takes to make someone into a true believer in a mass movement. Just to be clear, he doesn’t use the phrase ‘true believer’ positively. In his view it is an unhealthy state of mind.

In his view, it doesn’t matter whether the mass movement is a religious movement, a fascist political movement, a communist movement, or any other kind of mass movement.

It’s any movement where the individual loses himself or herself in the movement.

Health, Indpendence, And Freedom

Hoffer says a person is psychologically healthy when he has self esteem.

Of course, societies vary in how much freedom they give to individuals. Some freedom is necessary, isn’t it, in order to have room to explore a sense of self esteem?

It must be difficult to have much self esteem when you are physically terrified all the time, such as in Cambodia in the 1970s or the death camps during WWII.

Or maybe not. Maybe, as Victor Frankl says, sometimes the only option is to suffer. And even in suffering, it’s possible to have a developed sense of self esteem.

Well it sounds good in theory – but if you subscribe to the two-dollar-watch theory (that human beings can be broken very easily – like a two dollar watch) – then maybe it’s pie in the sky to suggest that people can enjoy a sense of self esteem when they live in terror.

Back to Eric Hoffer – He says that when the individual is allowed to be free, it brings problems if he has low self esteem.

This is because freedom includes the freedom to feel inadequate.

So to distance himself from feelings of inadequacy, a man joins a movement that tells him that today is bad but tomorrow will be better – within the movement.

Tomorrow may be when the revolution is won, or in the next life, or at any time that is in the future and always unreachable.

Being within the movement is more important than the truth of the message of the movement itself, which is why Hoffer lumps fascist and communist movements together with religious movements..

In Civilisation and Its Discontents, Freud write about the good and the bad of civilisation, and what is needed for the individual to become whole in the context of others, I’ll write about that another time.