Must-Read Book: The True Believer – Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements By Eric Hoffer

12.12.19

There are certain books that are essential to understanding your chosen craft. They speak a truth that is the basis, or foundation stone, for much of what is accepted about what you do. If you work in communications of any sort – The True Believer by Eric Hoffer is one of those books. 

Eric Hoffer, the son of German emigrants, was born in the Bronx in 1898. He had a very poor childhood and had little formal education. In a childhood accident, Hoffer lost his sight for two years. When it returned, he began to read vorasciously, for fear he would lose his sight again. It was a habit he kept all of his life.

When his father died – the cabinet makers Union paid for the funeral and presented Hoffer with $300. He made his way to California and ended up working as a Longshoreman in San Francisco. He spent most of his adult life educating himself by reading, writing and attending libraries. 

The True Believer was Hoffer’s first book and it was published in 1951 – the year he turned 53 years of age. In the book Hoffer discusses the psychological causes of fanaticism. It was published eight years after the end of the second world war and many of it’s reflections are based on the uncheck rise of Nazism. 

Oddly, extreme examples are often the best fodder for learning. Because they are so pronounced, they are easier to learn from. It’s as if the cause and effect are in clearer focus and make analysis easier. Hoffer uses simple language and critical thinking to shine a light on the motivation behind extremism. 

Hoffer defines a “true believer” as “the man of fanatical faith who is ready to sacrifice his life for a holy cause.” 

Leaders of the mass movement “must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope.” 

For Islamic fanatics, death is the key to instant heaven: “If they join the movement as full converts they are reborn to a new life in its close-knit collective body, or if attracted as sympathizers they find elements of pride, confidence and purpose….” (p. 13)

The book itself is almost like a religious, or prayer book. It’s chapters and entries are very short, thought provoking and impactful. Hoffer manages to get inside the mind of an extremist and convey in vivid and logical detail the way communication gets people to act. Here is an example of an entry talking about what attracts vulnerable people to a cause:

“The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.”

I’ve had a copy beside on my beside-locker for years. It’s the sort of book that you can pick up on a whim, read a couple of pages, and be thinking about them for the day. It a wonderful reference book for trying to understand the nature of political movements or why people act they way they do. 

The True Believer was almost an instant hit. President Dwight Eisenhower read it in 1952 and bought multiple copies for his friends. It came back into relevance after the 9/11 attacks. Hillary Clinton cited it as one of the books that she recommended her staff to read in the 2016 presidential race. 

Eric Hoffer went on to write 12 books – his first was by far his most famous. In 1983 – the year he died – he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan. He proved that you don’t have to go to University to be educated and was one of the most influential thinkers of his generation. Get this book on your list.

 

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