It would be hard to over-state just how crucial this book is to read these days, right now. In True Believer Eric Hoffer isn’t speaking just of politics, but all mass movements and it can be unsettling that he doesn't it without judgement. He isn’t interested in their ideology but how, and more importantly, why they work. What causes the person to abandon the self to submit it to the rule of a mass movement? Who are the True Believers? What are they seeking? And what happens when they don’t find it?
It’s a slim volume and the language is accessible. Hoffer was no academic, but a longshoreman of all things. But his books made an impact when they first arrived in a world still reeling from the great clash of ideologies called World War II. One of his most interesting observations, and most relevant today, is the fact that the socialist and the fascist were not recruiting from different or even opposing groups of the population, but the same: the new poor. Those groups that had lost in the latest societal shift. The new rich want to maintain their gains, and the abject poor just want to make it to the end of the week. And that leaves the great sinking middle class, aware of sliding influence and opportunity. Say, for instance, those who lost out in the great asset implosion of 2007/08.
Most True Believers: left, right, secular and religious claim to be seeking freedom, but judging by the patterns mass movement largely follow, the answer is not that simple. What they are looking for is illustrated in a quote from an idealistic young Nazi before the war, "We are seeking freedom from freedom." Freedom from their insecurities, failures and mistakes. Freedom from a self that they really don't like, so they need to have faith in into a mass movement to be a part of something greater that they cannot achieve themselves.
Ironically, it is the nature of mass movements that they don't need a God or anything higher in which to place their faith to provide the cohesion. Just something larger. What the True Believer tends to have faith in the most is the self-evident evil of the “other.” As Hoffer points out: “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.”