From psychology to mass movements

I decided a while ago that I needed to read the definitive book on the psychology of religion. This was mainly because I was looking for a different framework to compare with the experience of living in a relatively closed society like East Germany. The parallels of organisation and structure had struck me many years ago and I wanted to explore the possible similarities, and of course the significant differences. Over the years, I had been struck by some of the similarities in the language used to describe the experience of being within, and sometimes leaving, a controlling religion and East Germany. I still haven’t found that book, but I did come across a very different one which seemed to be approaching the topic in a different way. I could see the potential correlation from the title – The True Believer (no, not the novel by Nicholas Sparks…)

This, I thought, might be what I was looking for. An investigation, if not necessarily an explanation for, the true believers in all walks of life. The people who can exist in a world where they believe things to be true which, at one level, they know factually not to be true.

Eric Hoffer wrote his book in 1951, so a few years after the Second World War and a full ten years before the Berlin Wall. Hoffer himself is an interesting character. He could have been a character in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; he was a migrant worker in California in the 1930s and much of his life is shrouded in the mystery that comes from the poverty he was born into and lived in. He was a nobody and could well have remained so if he had not spent his time reading and writing, making up for his lack of formal education and qualifications. He wrote The True Believer on a plank of wood in the room he rented and there seems to have been no indication that he was even writing this book. And, after all, who would have been interested in a drifter writing a book?

Somewhere along the line, the book caught the attention of President Eisenhower, who quoted from it in one of the first televised presidential press conferences. And then everything changed and he became famous.

So, what of the book?

True Believer

I should start by repeating Hoffer’s important clarification about his work on mass movements. He emphasises that, while he concludes that

mass movements have many traits in common, [this] does not imply that all movements are equally beneficent or poisonous.

So similarities between the development of different types of movement, be they social, political or religious, says nothing about the motives or aims of those movements.

Mass movements begin with the desire for hope and the hope for change.

Those who would transform a nation or the world […] must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope. It matters not whether it be hope of a heavenly kingdom, or heaven on earth, or plunder and untold riches, of fabulous achievement or world domination. […] They know how to preach hope.

They then need to foster a strong sense of unity between members of the movement:

It is perhaps impossible to understand the nature of mass movements unless it is recognised that their chief preoccupation is to foster, perfect and perpetuate a facility for united action and self-sacrifice.

In this we have a reminder that this can be either a good or a bad thing, depending on the cause to which that unity and self-sacrifice are directed. It says nothing about the moral value of that cause. The twin evils of the twentieth century, Nazism and communism (of the Stalinist, not Marxist variety) shared the desire for united action and self-sacrifice with those seeking peace and a more humane way of living, even though the causes they were supporting were fundamentally different.

Where some of the psychological traits become more problematic, I think, is in the true believer’s understanding of truth and facts. These words about a ‘fanatical Communist’ can readily be applied to the true believers in a wide range of other causes:

The fanatical Communist refuses to believe any unfavourable report or evidence about Russia, nor will he be disillusioned by seeing with his own eyes the cruel misery inside the Soviet promised land. It is the true believer’s ability to “shut his eyes and stop his ears” to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be […] baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence. Strength of faith […] manifests itself not in moving mountains but in not seeing mountains to move.

You can perhaps see some parallels to current political debates as well as to the kind of cognitive dissonance which can affect members of some religions when facts become inconvenient. Here is another example of the approach which can be taken to dealing with the difficulties logic and reason can otherwise present to ideological movements:

The devout are always urged to seek the absolute truth with their hearts and not their minds. Rudolph Hess, when swearing in the entire Nazi party in 1934, exhorted his hearers: “Do not seem Adolph Hitler with your brains; all of you will find him with the strength of your hearts.”

And of course, having a nemesis is always helpful:

Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil. Usually the strength of a mass movement is proportionate to the vividness and tangibility of its devil. When Hitler was asked whether he thought the Jew must be destroyed, he answered: “No… We should then have to invent him. It is essential to have a tangible enemy, not merely an abstract one.”

A chilling way to regard other human beings, but one which is perpetuated throughout the ages, just with different groups and with different ways of dealing with them. Witches, Jews, immigrants, always someone else to be someone’s devil. Some of them reappear time and time again as the new, old, scapegoat.

The ideal devil is a foreigner.

If unity within the group is one feature of mass movements, it is also important that this is contrasted with those outside the group:

Every device is used to cut off the faithful from intercourse with unbelievers. Some mass movements go to the extreme of leading their following into the wilderness in order to allow an undisturbed settling of the new pattern of life.

Part of this exclusion of those outside of the group is the importance of obedience to the movement:

All mass movements rank obedience with the highest virtues and put it on a level with faith. […] Obedience is not only the first law of God, but also the first tenet of a revolutionary party and of fervent nationalism. “Not to reason why” is considered by all mass movements the mark of a strong and generous spirit..

When we think of some mass movements, a particular leader comes to mind – Hitler and Stalin are obvious examples of this in our political history. I particularly liked Hoffer’s casual remark that

The well-adjusted make poor prophets.

But of course, a movement needs not just a leader, but a cadre of able and committed lieutenants, and the leader knows that he must have

a capacity for winning and holding the utmost loyalty of a group of able lieutenants. This last faculty is one of the most essential and elusive. The uncanny powers of a leader manifest themselves not so much in the hold he has on the masses as in his ability to dominate and almost bewitch a small group of able men. These men must be fearless, proud, intelligent and capable of organising and running large-scale undertakings, and yet they must submit wholly to the will of the leader, draw their inspiration and driving force from him, and glory in this submission.

There is a danger in reading Hoffer’s work that we think primarily of the examples of mass movements whose aims most people would today regard as insidious or downright evil. But this would be to forget that similarities of features of mass movements are not synonymous with the moral value of the movements themselves. Workers’ movements have led to great social progress. Gandhi and Mandela remain examples of the founders of movements which had laudable aims and changed whole countries for the better.

Hoffer’s book is not the one I started looking for, but I am glad to have found it. It’s also a remarkably easy read given the complexities and potential sensitivities of its topics. I still have to find that other book though. So far, it is proving elusive.

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