The True Believer

Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

Eric Hoffer



Mass movements come from frustration and desire for change. Frustrated actors joining of their own accord.

Part I - The Appeal of Mass Movements

Chapter 1 - The Desire for Change

1. Whether religion, [social] revolution or nationalism, it always comes from a desire for change.

New religions used to be the main engine of change.

In modern times, it is most of the time [social] revolution and/or nationalism.

2. Whether success or failure, individuals exteriorise causes to the external world. Hence frustrated people do not want to change themselves: they want to change the world.

3. People still need some sense of power to desire change. Precarious/powerless people are conservative because they fear change even more than they current condition.

4. "Where power is not joined with faith in the future, it id 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."

5. Status does not matter - only hope for change does.

6. "Experience is a handicap." Example of French Revolution, Bolsheviks, Nazis, Asian revolutions.

Chapter 2 - The Desire for Substitutes

7. "A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation." (vs. practical organisations)

"People who see their lives as irremediably spoiled cannot find a worth-while purpose in self-advancement."

"When a mass movement begins to attract people who are interested in their individual careers, it is a sign that it has passed its vigorous stage; that it is no longer engaged in molding a new world but in possessing and preserving the present."

8. "Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves."

9-10. "A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business."

11. "The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless."

12. "In a modern society people can live without hope only when kept dazed and out of breath by incessant hustling." - Unemployment is dangerous as unemployed people have no present nor individual future to live for.

13. "A substitute embraced in moderation cannot supplant and efface the self we want to forget." - readiness to die for the substitute is the standard

Chapter 3 - The Interchangeability of Mass Movements

14. "All mass movements are competitive, and [...] all mass movements are interchangeable. One mass movement readily transforms itself into another."

15. "It is rare for a mass movement to be wholly of one character. Usually it displays some facets of other types of movements, and sometimes it is two or three movements in one." ([social] revolution, religion & nationalism)

16. "The problem of stopping a mass movement is often a matter of substituting one movement for another." - but it is neither cheap nor without risks

17. Because "emigration offers some of the things the frustrated hope to find when they join a mass movement, namely, change and a chance for a new beginning [...] migration can serve as a substitute for a mass movement."

Part II - The Potential Converts

Chapter 4 - The Role of the Undesirables in Human Affairs

18. "The game of history is usually played by the best and the worst over the head of the majority in the middle"

"A nation without dregs and malcontents is orderly, decent, peaceful and pleasant, but perhaps without the seed of things to come."

20. Usually discarded & rejected

a. the poor

b. misfits

c. outcasts

d. minorities

e. adolescent youth

f. the ambitious (whether facing insurmontable obstacles or unlimited opportunities)

g. those in the grip of some vice or obsession

h. the impotent (in body or mind)

i. the inordinately selfish

j. the bored

k. the sinners

Chapter 5 - The Poor

The New Poor

20. The feeling of degradation and disinheritance is a strong catalyst

The Abjectly Poor

21. "The poor on the borderline of starvation live purposeful lives."

22-24. "It is not actual suffering but the taste of better things which excites people to revolt." (cf. De Tocqueville's analysis of the French Revolution)

25. First, immediate hope to crystallise the movement, then distant hope as motivational dream and vision - "Every established mass movement has its distant hope [...] to dull the impatience of the masses and reconcile them with their lot in life."

The Free Poor

26. "Freedom of choice places the whole blame of failure on the shoulders of the individual." [...] "Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden."

27. "The important point is that in forgetting or postponing individual liberty, the active mass movements does not run counter to the inclinations of a zealous following. Fanatics, says Renan, fear liberty more than they fear persecution."

28. "Those who clamor loudest for freedom are often the ones least likely to be happy in a free society."

29. "Equality without freedom creates a more stable social pattern than freedom without equality."

The Creative Poor

30. "The decline of handicrafts in modern times is perhaps one of the causes for the rise of frustration and the increased susceptibility of the individual to mass movements."

The Unified Poor

31. "The less a person sees himself as an autonomous individual capable if shaping his own course and solely responsible for his station in life, the less likely is he to see his poverty as evidence of his own inferiority." - Rising mass movements will try and attack and destroy family/group cohesion's competing loyalty, while established ones will nurture it to ensure long-term stability.

32. "[Confucianists] argued [against Mo-Tzu] that the principle of universal love would dissolve the family and destroy society."

33. "The ideal of self-advancement which the civilizing West offers to backwards populations brings with it the plage of individual frustration."

34. "In order to succeed, a mass movement must develop at the earliest moment a compact corporate organization and a capacity to absorb and integrate all comers." - example of the Christian Church

35. "When people revolt in a totalitarian society, they rise not against the wickedness of the regime but its weakness." - example of the Jewish community

Chapter 6 - Misfits

36. "Temporary misfits: people who have not found their place in life but still hope to find it. Adolescent youth, unemployed college graduates, veterans, new immigrants."

37. "The permanent misfits [mostly failed creative artists] can find salvation only in a complete separation from the self; and they usually find it by losing themselves in the compact collectivity of a mass movement."

Chapter 7 - The Inordinately Selfish

38. Selfish who have lost faith in their own self.

Chapter 8 - The Ambitious Facing Unlimited Opportunities

39. Too many possibility discounts the value of the present.

Chapter 9 - Minorities

40. "In a minority bent on assimilation, the individual stands alone, pitted against prejudice and discrimination."


"The least and most successful of a minority bent on assimilation should be the most responsive to the appeal of mass movement."

Chapter 10 - The Bored

41. "Where people live autonomous lives and are not badly off, yet are without abilities or opportunities for creative work or useful action, there is not telling to what desperate and fantastic shifts they might resort in order to give meaning and purpose to their lives."

"Boredom accounts for the almost invariable presence of spinsters and middle-aged [married] women at the birth of mass movements."

Chapter 11 - The Sinners

42. "It sometimes seems that mass movements are custom-made to fit the needs of the criminal - not only for the catharsis of the soul but also for the exercise of his inclinations and talents."

Part III - United Action and Self-Sacrifice

Chapter 12 - Preface

43. "With few exceptions, 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."


"The technique of an active mass movement consists basically in the inculcation and cultivation of proclivities and responses indigenous to the frustrated mind."


"The capacities for united action and self-sacrifice seem almost always to go together."

Chapter 13 - Factors Promoting Self-Sacrifice

Identification with a Collective Whole

44. "To a man utterly without a sense of belonging, mere life is all that matters" - example of Raskolnikov

The individual must always be or feel with the group, and share everything and every experience with it.

45. "When the individual faces torture or annihilation, he cannot rely on the resources of his own identity."

46. Example of Soviet Russia


47. "Glory is largely a theatrical concept. There is no striving for glory without a vivid awareness of an audience."

Deprecation of the Present

48-49. "At its inception a mass movement seems to champion the present against the past. [...] Once the movement starts rolling, the present - the original objective - is shoved off the stage and its place taken by posterity - the future. More still: the present is driven back as if it were an unclean thing and lumped with the detested past."

50. "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. [...] Furthermore, a vivid awareness of past and future robs the present of its reality."

51. "Those who reject the present and fix their eyes and hearts on things to come have a faculty for detecting the embryo of future danger or advantage in the ripeness of their times."

52. Comparison of "the attitudes toward present, future and past shown by the conservative, the liberal, the skeptic, the radical and the reactionary."

53. "By expiating upon the incurable baseness and vileness of the times, the frustrated soften their feeling of failure and isolation."


"Those who fail in everyday affairs show a tendency to reach out for the impossible. It is a device to camouflage their shortcomings. [...] It is thus that failure in everyday affairs often breeds an extravagant audacity."

Things which are not

54."Failure in the management of practical affairs seems to be a qualification for success in the management of public affairs."

55. "Self-sacrifice cannot be a manifestation of self-interest." <I marginally disagree with this: general fitness theory goes against this in case of sacrifice for the sake of the survival of a genetic lineage with strictly higher fitness than the self. But again this is only evolutionary instinct.>


56. "The readiness for self-sacrifice is contingent on the imperviousness to the realities of life. [...] Thus the effectiveness of a doctrine should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity or the validity of the truths it embodies, but by how thoroughly it insulates the individual from his self and the world as it is."

57. "The effectiveness of a doctrine does not come from its meaning but from its certitude."

"We can [only] be absolutely certain about [ideas] we do not fully understand." - rational understanding always involves a healthy level of doubt

"The devout are always urged to seek the absolute truth with their hearts and not their minds."

"When a movement begins to rationalize its doctrine and make it intelligible, it is a sign that its dynamic span is over; that it is primarily interested in stability [by getting the allegiance of the intellectuals]."

58. "The true doctrine is a master key to all the world's problems."

59. "The urge to escape our real self is also a urge to escape the rational and the obvious."


60. "The human plasticity necessary for the realization of drastic and abrupt changes seems [...] to be a byproduct of the process of unification and of the inculcation of a readiness for self-sacrifice."

61. "[The fanatic's] sense of security is derived from his passionate attachement and not from the excellence of his cause."

"The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense. [...] But he finds no difficulty in swinging suddenly and wildly from one holy cause to another."

62. Proper social categorisation is fanatics-of-all-kinds vs. moderate

63. Doctrine conversion examples

Mass Movements and Armies

64. Similarities

  • collective bodies

  • no individual distinctiveness

  • self-sacrifice & unquestioned obedience


  • an army is an instrument of the present

  • an army is pragmatic

  • in an army, self-sacrifice is more rational

  • army leaders fear and contempt the mass

Chapter 14 - Unifying Agents


65-66. "Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil." - historical examples of "devils"

67. The ideal devil is:

  • unique

  • omnipotent & omnipresent

  • foreigner

68. "We do not usually look for allies when we love. [...] But we always look for allies when we hate."

69-71. "That others have a just grievance against us is a more potent reason for hating them than that we have a just grievance against them."

72. "A sublime religion inevitably generates a strong feeling of guilt. There is an unavoidable contrast between loftiness of profession and imperfection of practice."

73. "We cannot hate those we despise."

74. "[The frustrated] see in a general downfall an approach to the brotherhood of all."

75-76. "Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life."

77. "The act of self-denial seems to confer on us the right to be harsh and merciless toward others."

"When we renounce the self and become part of a compact whole, we not only renounce personal advantage but are also rid of personal responsibility."


78-79. "The less satisfaction we derive from being ourselves, the greater is our desire to be like others."

80. "A feeling of superiority counteracts imitation."

81. "People in a hurry will imitate more readily than people at leisure." - constant activity fuels uniformity

82. Imitativeness is a favourable ground to conversion - hatred of contempt for the foreign are usually employed as a counter-measure.

Persuasion and Coercion

83. "Where opinion is not coerced, people can be made to believe only in what they already "know"."

84. "Propaganda [...] serves more to justify ourselves than to convince others."

85. "It needs fanatical faith to rationalize our cowardice."

86. Coercion is usually the main propagation medium. Conversion is more of a bonus.

87. "A [defensive] persecution that is ruthless and persistent can come only from fanatic conviction."

88. "The proselytizing fanatic strengthens his own faith by converting others."


89. "When conditions are not ripe, the potential leader, no matter how gifted, and his holy cause, no matter how potent, remain without a following." - historical examples

90. "It needs the iron will, daring and vision of an exceptional leader to concert and mobilize existing attitudes and impulses into the collective drive of a mass movement." - historical examples

91. "There can be no mass movement without some deliberate misrepresentation of facts."

92-94. "The true believer, no matter how rowdy and violent his acts, is basically an obedient and submissive person."

95. "Where, as in an active mass movement, the leader can exact blind obedience, he can operate on the sound theory that all men are cowards, treat them accordingly and get results."


96-97. "Action is a unifier."

98. "[Action] brings self forgetting and it gives [the frustrated] a sense of purpose and worth."

99. "The true believer who succeeds in all he does gains self-confidence and becomes reconciled with his self and the present." - too much concrete present success can exhaust a mass movement


100. "[The frustrated's] self-contempt [...] sharpens [their] eyes for the imperfections of others."

101. "The loyalty of the true believer is to the whole - the church, party, nation - and not to his fellow true believers."

The Effects of Unification

102. "The true believe who is wholly assimilated into a compact collective body is no longer frustrated."

103. Tools to maximise individual dependance to the mass movement.

Part IV - Beginning and End

Chapter 15 - Men of Words

104. "The preliminary work of undermining existing institutions, of familiarizing the masses with the idea of change, and of creating a receptivity to a new faith, can be done only by men who are, first and foremost, talkers or writers and are recognized as such by all." - historical examples

105. "When his superior status is suitably acknowledged by those in power, the man of words usually finds all kind of lofty reasons for siding with the strong against the weak." - historical examples

106-107. "Where all learned men are bureaucrats or where education gives a man an acknowledged superior status [to flater their vanity], the prevailing order is likely to be free from movements of protest." - historical examples

108. "The militant man of words unwittingly creates in the disillusioned masses a hunger for a faith. [...] [He] also undermines the convictions of [...] those who can get along without faith - so that when the new fanaticism makes its appearance they are without the capacity to resist it."

109. "The only people cheated in the process are the intellectual precursors. [...] They [...] call for freedom of self-expression and self-realization. [...] However, [...] the masses crave [...] freedom from the intolerable burden of an autonomous existence. [...] [The masses] are not cheated in the process."

Chapter 16 - The Fanatics

110. "When the moment is ripe, only the fanatic can hatch a genuine mass movement."

111. "Noncreative men of words [...] feel at home only in a state of chaos. [...] Only when engaged in change does he have a sense of freedom and the feeling that he is growing and developing."


"Since the genuine man of words can never wholeheartedly and for long suppress his critical faculty, he is inevitably cast in the role of the heretic."

112. "The danger of the fanatic to the development of a movement is that he cannot settle down. Once victory has been won and the new order begins to crystallise, the fanatic becomes an element of strain and disruption."

Chapter 17 - The Practical Men of Action

113. "A movement is pioneered by men of words, materialized by fanatics and consolidated by men of action. It is usually an advantage to a movement, and perhaps a prerequisite for its endurance, that these roles should be played by different men succeeding each other as conditions require. When the same person or persons (or the same type of person) leads a movement from its inception to maturity, it usually ends in disaster."

114. "The man of action saves the movement from the suicidal dissensions and the recklessness of the fanatics. But his appearance usually marks the end of the dynamic phase of the movement. The war with the present is over. The genuine man of action is intent not on renovating the world but on possessing it."

115. "The genuine man of action is not a man of faith but a man of law." [...] "The man of action is eclectic in the methods he uses to endow the new order with stability and permanence."

116. "In the hands of a man of action the mass movement ceases to be a refuge from the agonies and burdens of an individual existence and becomes a means of self-realization for the ambitious."

Chapter 18 - Good and Bad Mass Movements

The Unattractiveness and Sterility of the Active Phase

117. "No matter how noble the original purpose of a movement and however beneficent the end result, its active phase is bound to strike us as unpleasant if not evil. [...] Where a mass movement preserves for generations the pattern shaped by its active phase (as in the case of the militant church through the Middle Ages), or where by a successive accessions of fanatical proselytes its orthodoxy is continually strengthened (as in the case of Islam), the result is an era of stagnation - a dark age."


"The atmosphere of an active movement cripples or stifles the creative spirit."

118-119. Reasons for interference of a mass movement against creativity

  • energy is a zero-sum-gain and goes into fanatic fervor (exacerbated in case of large-scale action such as war, colonisation or industrialisation)

  • art is systematically subordinated to propaganda

  • "the fanatical state of mind itself can stifle all forms of creative work"

Some Factors which Determine the Length of the Active Phase

120. "A mass movement with a concrete, limited objective is likely to have a shorter active phase than a movement with a nebulous, indefinite objective."

121. Scale is a good proxy to determine the ugliness of a mass movement. Submissiveness of the masses as well.

"In a traditionally free country the individual who pits himself against coercion does not feel an isolated human atom but one of a mighty race - his rebellious ancestors." - historical examples

122. "[Great leaders] not only try to curb the evil inherent in a mass movement but are willing to out an end to the movement when it s objective is more or less realized." - historical examples

123. "The more clear-cut this initial act of defiance [against long-established authority] and the more vivid its memory in the minds of the people, the more likely is the eventual emergence of individual liberties."

Useful Mass Movements

124. "Only a goal which lends itself to continued perfection can keep a nation potentially virile even though its desires are continually fulfilled."

125. "A genuine popular upheaval is often an invigorating, renovating and integrating process. Where governments are allowed to die a lingering death, the result is often stagnation and decay - perhaps irremediable decay." - historical examples