loren Eric Swanson: The True Believer--Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The True Believer--Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

Last night, flying from Denver to Atlanta, I re-read Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer—Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Hoffer was a self-educated philosopher and social historian who worked as a longshoreman in San Francisco for 25 years, during which time he authored more than ten books. I sometimes tell people that I majored in “science” when I was in college. When pressed to define what kind of science, I tell them “soft science.” When pressed as to how soft, my final answer is “social science.” ("Social Science" in itself is an oxymoron.) For my senior thesis on Social Movements I wrote my thesis on early Christianity as a social movement. It was actually quite instructive. Hoffer was the fount of movement ideas. Although Hoffer made many references to political movements, The True Believer contains many seminal ideas on movements—some of which are applicable to spiritual movements and “launching movements everywhere” or for helping to build God’s kingdom. I’ll put a few of Hoffer’s thoughts on paper—for rumination and for quotation followed by reflective questions.

“Those who would transform a nation or the world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent or by demonstrating the reasonableness and desirability of the intended changes or by coercing people into a new way of life. They must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope. It matters not whether it be hope of a heavenly kingdom, of heaven on earth, of plunder and untold riches, of fabulous achievement or world dominion. If the Communists win Europe and a large part of the world, it will not be because they know how to stir up discontent or how to infect people with hatred, but because they know how to preach hope” (p. 9)

What is our message? Is it one of discontent or extravagant hope?

“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. It ceases then to be a movement and becomes an enterprise” (p. 13).

How does an enterprise differ from a movement? Can “career missionaries” be movement leaders?

“We cannot be sure that we have something worth living for unless we are ready to die for it” (p. 16)

“…a rising movement can never go too far in advocating and promoting collective cohesion. He knew that the chief passion of the frustrated is ‘to belong,’ and that there cannot be too much cementing and binding to satisfy this passion” (p. 42).

A sense of belonging seems to be key to sustained movements. How do you communicate to people, they belong?

“There is perhaps no more reliable indicator of a society’s ripeness for a mass movement than the prevalence of unrelieved boredom. In almost all the descriptions of the periods preceding the rise of mass movements there is reference to ennui: and in their earliest stages mass movements are more likely to find sympathizers and support among the bored than among the exploited and oppressed…When people are bored, it is primarily with their own selves that they are bored. The consciousness of a barren, meaningless existence is the main fountainhead of boredom” (p. 52).


“The vigor of a mass movement stems from the propensity of its followers for united action and self sacrifice. When we ascribe the success of a movement to its faith, doctrine propaganda, leadership, ruthlessness and so on, we are but referring to instruments of unification and to means used to inculcate a readiness for self-sacrifice. It is perhaps impossible to understand the nature of mass movements unless it is recognized that their chief preoccupation is to foster, perfect and perpetuate a facility for united action and self-sacrifice” (p. 59).

If movements are built around united action and self-sacrifice, what do you do to accommodate both?

“No matter how vital we think the role of leadership in the rise of a mass movement, there is no doubt that the leaders cannot create the conditions which make the rise of a movement possible. He cannot conjure a movement out of the void. There has to be an eagerness to follow and obey and an intense dissatisfaction with things as they are, before movement and leader can make their appearance. When conditions are not ripe, the potential leader, no matter how gifted, and his holy cause, no mater how potent, remain without a following” (P. 112).

How does the convergence of leadership and timing play itself out in the intentional launching of spiritual movements?

“Action is a unifier. There is less individual distinctness in the genuine man of action—the builder, soldier, sportsman and even the scientist—than in the thinker or in one whose creativeness flows from communion with the self…. Those who came to this country to act (to make money) were more quickly and thoroughly Americanized than those who came to realize some lofty ideal. The former felt an immediate kinship with the millions absorbed in the same pursuit. It was as if they were joining a brotherhood…. Men of thought seldom work well together whereas between men of action there is usually an easy camaraderie. Teamwork is rare in intellectual or artistic undertakings but common and almost indispensable among men of action. The cry ‘Go, let us build us a city, and a tower’ is always a call for united action” (p. 120).

What “action” are you calling people to?

“Where the articulate are absent or without a grievance, the prevailing dispensation, though incompetent and corrupt, may continue in power until it falls and crumbles of itself” (p. 131).

“The mass movements of modern time, whether socialists or nationalists, were invariably pioneered by poets, writers, historians, scholars, philosophers, and the like. The connection between intellectual theoreticians and revolutionary movements needs no emphasis” (p.138).

What are you doing to pioneer movements through the use of language—to be a man (or woman) of words?
”To sum up, the militant man of words prepares the ground for the rise of a mass movement:
1. By discrediting prevailing creeds and institutions
2. By indirectly creating a hunger for faint in the hearts of those who cannot live without it
3. By furnishing the doctrine and the slogans of the new faith
4. By undermining the convictions of the ‘better people’—those who can get along without faith” (p. 140).

“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” (p. 147).

What is your reaction to Hoffer’s thoughts on movements? What can you apply to your situation as a leader?


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