The True Believer by Eric Hoffer

I decided to read this book after seeing it quoted with approval in another – my usual way of discovering new books. One good thing leads to another.

It is a fascinating book by a fascinating man – he worked most of his life as a longshoreman – a docker or a stevedore – in New York. In his spare time, he wrote philosophical treatises and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was an autodidact.

I was attracted to this book because I have lately been wondering why so many people seem to want to believe in some overpowering truth that they hold as an axiom – that is, something beyond question or challenge. We see it in Europe in nationalist movements, where the axiomatic belief is that some part of a country should become a country in its own right; and in anti-EU movements, where the axiom is that leaving the EU is the right thing to do. And, of course, we see it in extreme organizations like ISIS. But the thing that interests me is the primacy of faith – the belief comes first and all other considerations have to fall in behind it.

Hoffer describes the psychology of such beliefs in detail. He was writing in the 1950s, when Communism and Fascism were the axiomatic belief systems of the day, and this is reflected in the text. But his observations remain relevant to today’s mass movements. The key ones are: organization is essential to a successful mass movement – Lenin and Hitler placed great premium on organization and discipline; a mass movement for radical change has to hate the present and believe in a notional future; and mass movements are attractive to people with feelings of inadequacy and self-hatred.

Not everything in the book is to be agreed with and some of it is quite provocative. But it really does focus on a major question for our times – what makes people abandon facts, evidence and reason in favour of a single belief that they zealously cling to? And provides some very thoughtful answers.


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