What I’m Reading: The True Believer, Eric Hoffer

Author: Robert Schmuhl ’70

During the traditionally nerve-racking period of final exams, students review class notes and brush up on — or, truth be told, read for the first time — the books assigned during a semester. But books themselves are subject to never-ending tests of their own.

Do the words assembled in a particular volume continue to convey lasting meaning and possess perennial pertinence? More bluntly, does a work pass time’s test?

One book that hasn’t lost its relevance since appearing in 1951 is Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Though written in the still-smoldering midcentury aftermath of the rise of fascism, Nazism and communism, Hoffer’s analysis could readily apply today to QAnon, Putinism, Al Qaeda or any other movement that takes extreme positions and tries to make fringe ideologies central to mainstream thinking and action. 

Fanaticism flows from frustration, we’re told, and people who are bored or disaffected band together when they find a leader willing to air their grievances and offer a more exhilarating tomorrow. Fanatics are followers at heart, passionate in their allegiance to someone who stirs their emotions, even their souls.

The True Believer Hoffer

Halfway through this brief yet penetrating book, Hoffer admits that “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.”

Authorial modesty aside, this “book of thoughts” reflects omnivorous reading and a talent for the sharply phrased generalization. Remarkably, it’s the first book of a part-time writer, who for two decades made his living as a longshoreman in San Francisco after several years as a migrant worker in California.

Never married and more solitary than social, Hoffer is a curious composer of a book about mass movements and fanatics. Yet his writerly singularity and his personal knowledge of the common person in America help provide a shrewd perspective on the calamitous political dogmas of the first half of the 20th century and their vast differences from the freedoms enjoyed in the the United States.

Enthusiasts of communism, fascism, Nazism or similar movements are searching: to turn the page, to change their conditions, to become different from how they’ve viewed themselves in the past. For these true believers, Hoffer writes, “Their innermost craving is for a new life — a rebirth — or, failing this, a chance to acquire new elements of pride, confidence, hope, a sense of purpose and worth by an identification with a holy cause. An active mass movement offers them opportunities for both.”

Becoming one among many in whatever “cause” — the word “holy” is always used ironically — involves the sacrifice of individual identity and submission to the larger ends or objectives of united action, oftentimes of questionable pursuit. There’s usually a dark side to this kind of fanaticism.

“Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life,” Hoffer observes. “Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance.”

Joined together by a common hatred and compelling grievance, the people marching under whatever banner find strength in numbers. Frustration subsides; an appealing obsession provides guidance and direction.

In Hoffer’s interpretation, a movement demands “an outstanding leader,” and he repeatedly refers to Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin as quintessential figures for motivating their true believers.

“The leader personifies the certitude of the creed and the defiance and grandeur of power,” he notes. “He articulates and justifies the resentment dammed up in the souls of the frustrated. He kindles the vision of a breathtaking future so as to justify the sacrifice of a transitory present. He stages the world of make-believe so indispensable for the realization of self-sacrifice and united action.”

Throughout The True Believer, Hoffer views leaders as specifically male in the bygone fashion of seven decades ago, with masculine pronouns omnipresent. That stylistic characteristic notwithstanding, the prose is frequently aphoristic: a single sentence lighting up a statement or paragraph.

“The true believer is eternally incomplete, eternally insecure.”

“In running away from ourselves we either fall on our neighbor’s shoulder or fly at his throat.”

“We cannot be sure that we have something worth living for unless we are ready to die for it.”

Quoting Hoffer is risky because it’s difficult to stop. Epigram after epigram punctuates his analysis. After The True Believer appeared, some of his subsequent books, including The Passionate State of Mind and Reflections on the Human Condition, brought together aphorisms that serve as miniature meditations on topics both grand or less momentous.

With a directness that derives from the distillation of acute observation, Hoffer jotted his thoughts in notebooks and later honed them into succinct statements of continuing resonance. When it was published in 1955, the complete title of The Passionate State of Mind included these three additional words: And Other Aphorisms. Here are just a few of the 280 collected and arranged for the book:

“We lie loudest when we lie to ourselves.”

“No one is truly literate who cannot read his own heart.”

“Hatred often speaks the language of hope.”

“It is a paradox that secretiveness plays the same role as boasting: both are engaged in the creation of a disguise.”

“The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.”

After Hoffer retired as a longshoreman in 1964, he became an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and turned out a series of books as well as a syndicated newspaper column. In the late 1960s, with the Vietnam War raging and college campuses in turmoil, he appeared on widely watched prime-time television programs with Eric Sevareid of CBS News to try to explain what he called (in the title of his 1967 book) The Temper of Our Time.

Hoffer was fond of declaring, “If anybody asks me what I have accomplished, I will say all I have accomplished is that I have written a few good sentences.”

There are more than a few time-tested sentences in The True Believer, and many of them provide salient warnings about the menace of mass movements that fanatics and their leaders turn into unholy actions.       

Bob Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor Emeritus of American studies and journalism at Notre Dame. He’s the author or editor of 15 books, including Fifty Years with Father Hesburgh: On and Off the Record. The expanded edition of his book, The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from the New Deal to the Present, will be published this fall by Notre Dame Press.