The True Believer by Eric Hoffer Summary

Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

The True Believer by Eric Hoffer Summary

Eric Hoffer (1902 - 1983)

Part 1

The Appeal of Mass Movements

I. The Desire for Change

“It is a truism that many who join a rising revolutionary movement are attracted by the prospect of sudden and spectacular change in their conditions of life."

“There is in us a tendency to locate the shaping forces of our existence outside ourselves. Success and failure are unavoidably related in our minds with the state of things around us. Hence it is that people with a sense of fulfillment think it a good world and would like to conserve it as it is, while the frustrated favor radical change. The tendency to look for all causes outside ourselves persists even when it is clear that our state of being is the product of personal qualities such as ability, character, appearance, health, and so on. ‘If anything ail a man,’ says Thoreau, ‘so that he does not perform his functions, if he have pain in his bowels even … he forthwith sets about reforming — the world.’”

Losers and winners both blame their failures and successes on circumstances.

The self-confidence of even the consistently successful is never absolute.

Anxiety and insecurity fuel both high achievers and underachievers.

No faith is potent unless it is also faith in the future; unless it has a millennial component.

Big movements know how to preach hope for the future.

Men of outstanding achievement and those who live happy, full lives usually set their faces against drastic innovation. They must be wholly ignorant of the difficulties involved in their vast undertaking. Experience is a handicap. The men who started the French Revolution were wholly without political experience. The same is true of the Bolsheviks, Nazis, and the revolutionaries in Asia.

II. The Desire for Substitutes

Nothing that has its roots and reasons in the self can be good and noble.

Their innermost craving is for a new life — a rebirth — or, failing this, a chance to acquire new elements of pride, confidence, hope, a sense of purpose and worth by an identification with a holy cause.

Joining a mass movement can give people a new group to find community in and they can find pride, confidence, and purpose by identifying themselves with the efforts, achievements, and prospects of the movement.

Some people will join a mass movement just in hopes of attaining fame and power.

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.

“The Pan-German movement could count on success only if it realized from the very first day that what was required was not a new party, but a new philosophy. Only the latter could produce the inward power to fight this gigantic struggle to its end. And for this, only the very best and courageous minds can serve as leaders.

If the struggle for a philosophy is not lead by heroes prepared to make sacrifices, there will, in a short time, cease to be any warriors willing to die. The man who is fighting for his own existence cannot have much left over for the community.

"In order to maintain this requirement, every man must know that the new movement can offer the present nothing but honor and fame in posterity. The more easily attainable posts and offices a movement has to hand out, the more inferior stuff it will attract, and in the end these political hangers-on overwhelm a successful party in such number that the honest fighter of former days no longer recognizes the old movement and the new arrivals definitely reject him as an unwelcome intruder. When this happens, the 'mission' of such a movement is done for.” – Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

  • This means that you need to have great leaders for a movement to work. If people see that leadership positions are open and anyone could get them (even someone unqualified and unintelligent), the worse the leaders will be. Then the movement will die because the followers won’t trust the leaders.

Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.

“The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready is he to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race, or his holy cause.”

  • This is why racism is something to pity in others. All racists and sexists are really just saying that they lack self-confidence.

A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business. This minding of other people’s business expresses itself in gossip, snooping, and meddling, and also in feverish interest in communal, national, and racial affairs. In running away from ourselves we either fall on our neighbor’s shoulder or fly at his throat.

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 holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. We gain self-esteem from having a selfless life rather than a self-centered one. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.

Mass movements are usually accused of doping their followers with hope of the future while cheating them of the enjoyment of the present. Yet to the frustrated the preset is irremediably spoiled. Comforts and pleasures cannot make it whole. You cannot be content and comfortable from hope alone.

A substitute embraced in moderation cannot supplant and efface the self we want to forget. We cannot be sure that we have something worth living for unless we are ready to die for it.

  • Being ready to die for the cause shows that it is beyond a self-centered objective. It proves that you are fighting for something that is bigger than yourself. It shows that it's a serious problem that needs to be fixed.

III. The Interchangeability of Mass Movements

When people are ripe for a mass movement, they are usually ripe for any effective movement, and not solely for one with a particular doctrine or program. In pre-Hitlerian Germany, it was often a toss up whether a restless youth would join the Communists or the Nazis.

All mass movements have extremist followers. They are very likely to go from one mass movement to another, even if the mass movements have opposing viewpoints, simply because the type of person to join one is one who will be on the extremes.

  • Captain Rohm (Nazi military officer) said that he could turn the reddest Communist into a nationalist in four weeks.
  • Karl Radek (Communist leader in the Soviet Union) said that he looked at Nazi Brown Shirts (S.A.) as a reserve for future communist recruits.

Rules for Mass Movements:

  1. All mass movements are competitive, and a gain of one in adherents is a loss of all the others. All mass movements are fighting over extremist followers.
  2. All mass movements are interchangeable. One mass movement readily transforms itself into another. A religious movement could develop into a social revolution or nationalist movement. A social movement into militant nationalism or a religious movement. And so on.

Mass movements can be stopped by replacing them with another mass movement. A social revolution can be replaced by a religious or nationalist movement.

Migration can serve as a substitute for mass movements.

Had the United States and the British Empire welcomed mass migration from Europe after WWI, there might have been neither a Fascist nor a Nazi Revolution.

In the US, free and easy migration over a vast continent contributed to our social stability.

Mass migrations are fertile ground for the rise of genuine mass movements. (Mass migration usually means there is a serious problem. People have to be willing to risk their lives and families to migrate.)

Part 2

The Potential Converts

IV. The Role of the Undesirables in Human Affairs

There is a tendency to judge a race, a nation, or any distinct group by its least worthy members. Though manifestly unfair, this tendency has some justification. For the character and destiny of a group are often determined by its inferior elements.

The reason that the inferior elements of a nation (the lower class people) can exert a marked influence on its course is that they are wholly without reverence toward the present. They see their lives and the present as spoiled beyond remedy and they are ready to waste and wreck both: hence their recklessness and their will to chaos and anarchy. They also crave to dissolve their spoiled, meaningless selves in some soul-stirring spectacular communal undertaking - hence their proclivity for united action. They are among the early recruits of revolutions, mass migrations and of religious, racial, and chauvinist movements, and they imprint their mark upon these upheavals and movements which shape a nation's character and history.

A nation without dregs and malcontents is orderly, decent, peaceful, and pleasant, but perhaps without the seed of things to come. It was not irony of history that the undesired in the countries of Europe should have crossed an ocean to build a new world on this continent. Only they could do it.

V. The Poor

The New Poor

People who have been poor for a while can become accustomed to it and maybe even content with it.

It is usually the "new poor" who throb with the ferment of frustration.

The new poor are much more likely to join a mass movement.

In Germany and Italy, the new poor were the chief support of the Nazi and Fascist revolutions.

Before, the new poor were usually people who had money and lost it. But now, it is largely working-class people who are in the low-mid low class.

Those who are unemployed due to a recession or depression are likely to join mass movements. They feel disheartened and think the situation is unjust.

The Abjectly Poor

The poor who are on the borderline of starvation are forced into the present moment. They are always looking for food and shelter. Their goals are concrete and immediate.

These people are immune to the appeal of mass movements.

Discontent is likely to be highest when misery is bearable; when conditions have so improved that an ideal state seems almost within reach.

De Tocqueville said that the French found their position the more intolerable the better it became in the French Revolution.

It is not actual suffering but the taste of better things which excites people to revolt.

We are less dissatisfied when we lack many things than when we seem to lack but one thing.

The Free Poor

Slaves are poor; yet where slavery is widespread and long-established, there is little likelihood for the rise of a mass movement.

Freedom aggravates at least as much as it alleviates frustration. Freedom of choice places the whole blame of failure on the shoulders of the individual.

Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden.

We join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility, or, in the words of the ardent young Nazi, “to be free from freedom.” It was not hypocrisy when the Nazis declared themselves not guilty of all the enormities they have committed. They thought they were simply following orders.

Those who see their lives as spoiled and wasted crave equality (socialism/equity) and fraternity more than they do freedom. They want this because being in a group gives them anonymity. No one can then point us out, measure us against others and expose our inferiority. The frustrated, oppressed by their shortcomings, blame their failure on existing restraints. They want an end to the free for all in society. They believe they cannot compete within the current market, so they want to eliminate free competition and the testing to which the individual is continually subjected to in a free society.

The Creative Poor

Poverty when coupled with creativity is usually free of frustration. (Artisan, writer, scientist.)

The decline of handicrafts in modern times is perhaps one of the causes for the rise of frustration and the increased susceptibility of the individual to mass movements.

The Unified Poor

The poor who are members of a compact group - a tribe, a closely knit family, a compact racial or religious group - are relatively free of frustration and hence almost immune to the appeal of a mass movement.

People try to see themselves as not autonomous so that they do not see their own shortcomings as evidence of their own inferiority.

A disruption of the family fosters a collective spirit and creates a responsiveness to the appeal of mass movements.

In the industrialized western world, the family is weakened and disrupted mainly by economic factors. Economic independence for women facilitates divorce. Economic independence for the young weakens parental authority and hastens the splitting up of the family group.

Nations that are contacted by Western civilization don’t necessarily resent the west because of exploitation by domineering foreigners. It is the result of a crumbling or weakening of tribal solidarity and communal life.

The West brings the ideal of self-advancement when civilizing backward populations. This brings individual frustrations and these nations resent the West for giving them these ideals.

The nationalist movements in the colonial countries are partly a striving for group existence and an escape from Western individualism.

To successfully civilize a people as a philanthropic event you would have to encourage an increase in communal output. Do not promote individualism.

It is perhaps true that the successful modernization of a backward people can be brought about only within a strong framework of united action.

Experience shows that production is at its best when the workers feel and act as members of a team.

Incentive wage plans that offer bonuses to individual workers do more harm than good… Group incentive plans in which the bonus is based on the work of the whole team are much more likely to promote greater productivity and greater satisfaction on the part of the workers.

A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence.

A mass movement is appealing because it creates a community for people. For a mass movement to succeed it has to be welcoming. Be able to absorb and integrate all comers.

The chief passion of the frustrated is “to belong.”

Christianity spread when large numbers of men were uprooted (looking for a community).

Soldiers who have just returned back to society are likely to join mass movements.

VI. Misfits

Temporary misfits: adolescent youth, unemployed college graduates, veterans, new immigrants, etc. They can still find their way in life and do not need to join a mass movement if they do find their way. Before they find their way, they are more likely to join a mass movement but they have not given up in life so they are not the most staunch converts.

Permanent misfits lack talent or have an irreparable defect in the body or mind that makes it so that they cannot do the one thing for which their whole being craves.

  • Permanent misfits can find salvation only in complete separation of the self, and they usually find it by losing themselves in the compact collectivity of a mass movement.

The most frustrated of the permanent misfits are those who have an unfulfilled craving for creative work. Both those to try to write, paint, compose, etc. and fail decisively, and those who were once good artists and are now washed up and do not have the creativity they once had.

  • Neither fame, nor power, nor riches, nor even monumental achievements in other fields can end their frustration.

VI. The Inordinately Selfish

They are particularly susceptible to frustration. The very selfish often turn to promoting selflessness because their shortcomings or external circumstances did not allow them to attain what they desired.

They usually join a holy cause or group to try to feed their ego by helping a noble cause. And though it is a faith of love and humility they adopt, they can be neither loving nor humble.

VIII. The Ambitious Feeling Unlimited Opportunities

Having a lot of opportunities makes you think you are not doing enough or not capitalizing on what you could be doing. One might think that there is some get-rich-quick scheme that they are missing out on.

IX. Minorities

Insecurity is less intense in a minority intent on preserving their identity than in one bent upon blending in with the majority.

A minority who preserves his identity is immune from frustration. A minority bent on assimilation stands alone, pitted against prejudice and discrimination.

Ethnic minorities who are failures and successes are more likely to be for mass movements than those in the middle.

A minority who fails sees himself as an outsider, and if the minority wants to blend into the majority, failure intensifies the feeling of not belonging.

A minority who attains fortune and fame often finds it difficult to gain entrance into the exclusive circles of the majority. They are thus made conscious of their foreignness.

X. The Bored

There is perhaps no more reliable indicator of a society’s ripened for a mass movement than the prevalence of unrelieved boredom.

In their earliest stages, mass movements are more likely to find sympathizers and support among the bored than among the exploited and oppressed.

The consciousness of a barren, meaningless existence is the main fountainhead of boredom.

People in a close group or community are not accessible to boredom.

The differentiated individual is free of boredom only when he is engaged either in creative work or some absorbing occupation or when he is wholly engrossed in the struggle for existence. Hedonism and dissipation (a descent into drunkenness and sexual dissipation) are ineffective palliatives.

Boredom is what causes unmarried women and middle-aged women to join mass movements.

Bored people can even support causes that are not even good for their own group.

  • Even in Islam and the Nazi movement, which frowned upon feminine activity outside the home, we see women of a certain type playing an important role in the early stage of their development.

Marriage has for women many equivalents of joining a mass movement. It offers them a new purpose in life, a new future, and a new identity (a new last name).

  • Unmarried women and women who are not happy in their marriage do not have these benefits.

XI. The Sinners

The technique of a mass movement aims to infect people with a malady (disease/problem/feeling like they are a sinner) and then offer the movement as a cure.

Effective mass movements depict the autonomous self not only as barren and helpless but also as vile.

Part 3

United Action and Self-Sacrifice

XII. Preface

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 instill a readiness for self-sacrifice.

  • Basically, movements succeed solely because of united action and the self-sacrifice of its followers.

What ails the frustrated? It is the consciousness of an irremediably blemished self.

The frustrated can be pointed out by their depreciation of the present (this is a huge number of people. anyone who overindulges in almost anything notably, alcohol, TV, social media.), a facility for make-believe (video game players, social media, people who live in their own world or tell themselves lie about who they are), a proneness to hate (people who hate successful people, racism, money is the root of evil, people who leave negative comments), a readiness to imitate, credulity (a tendency to be too ready to believe that something is real or true), a readiness to attempt the impossible, etc.

  • These all lead to recklessness.

“To illustrate a principle, you must exaggerate much and you must omit much.” - Bagehot

To join an effective mass movement, one must give up privacy, individual judgment, and often individual possessions.

Everything that strengthens unity also strengthens a tendency for self-sacrifice and vice versa.

XIII. Factors Promoting Self-Sacrifice

Identification with a Collective Whole

The fully assimilated individual does not see himself and others as human beings. When asked who he is, his automatic response is that he is a German, a Christian, or a member of a certain tribe or family.


Dying and killing seem easy when they are part of a ritual, ceremonial, dramatic performance, or game. This is the need for some kind of make-believe in order to face death unflinchingly. To our real, naked selves there is not a thing on earth or in heaven worth dying for.

It is doubtful whether in our contemporary world, with its widespread individual differentiation, any measure of general self-sacrifice can be realized without theatrical hocus-pocus and fireworks.

For people in the military: We are ready to sacrifice our true, transitory self for the imaginary eternal self we are building up, by our heroic deeds, in the opinion and imagination of others.

Depreciation of the Present

Mass movements depict the present as mean and miserable to make people ok with self-sacrifice. To lose one’s life is but to lose the present; and, clearly, to lose a defiled, worthless present is not to lose much. Mass movements deliberately make their followers think the present is mean and miserable.

A mass movement fashions a pattern of individual existence that is dour, hard, repressive, and dull. It decries pleasures and comforts and extols the rigorous life. It views ordinary enjoyment as trivial or even discreditable, and represents the pursuit of personal happiness as immoral. To enjoy oneself is to have truck with the enemy — the present.

Self-sacrifice requires hope to be productive. Without hope of a better future, people will hate the suffering they have to have in the present.

Religious movements go back to the day of creation; social revolutions tell of a golden age when men were free, equal, and independent; nationalist movements revive or invent memories of past greatness.

  • The preoccupation with the past demonstrates the legitimacy of the movement and shows up the present as a mere interlude between the past and future.

A pleasant existence blinds us to the possibilities of drastic change.

Common sense and a practical point of view are names for an all-absorbing familiarity with things as they are.

Conservatives and liberals like the present. Conservatives think the past will repeat itself. Liberals think the future can be bettered. The radical and reactionary loathe the present.

The radical thinks that man’s nature can be perfected and a perfect society can be achieved.

The reactionary does not believe that man can be good. A reactionary think that good can only come by recreating the past.

The frustrated derive joy from saying how bad the present is. By saying the times have an incurable baseness and vileness, the frustrated soften their feelings of failure and isolation. By depreciating the present they acquire a vague sense of equality.

Those who fail in everyday affairs show a tendency to reach out for the impossible. It is a device to camouflage their shortcomings. For when we fail in attempting the impossible, we are justified in attributing it to the magnitude of the task. There is less risk in being discredited when trying the impossible than when trying the possible.

“Things Which are Not”

When men already have “something worth fighting for” they do not feel like fighting. People who live full, worthwhile lives are not usually ready to die for their own interests not for their country nor for a holy cause. Craving, not having, is the mother of a reckless giving of oneself.

It makes sense to give your life for something symbolic like a flag, a word, or an opinion. But it makes no sense to give your life for something tangible because you cannot enjoy the object once you are dead.


Self-sacrifice makes no sense for the individual (especially death). Mass movements claim that their doctrine is the ultimate and absolute truth and there is no truth outside it in order to get their followers to self-sacrifice.

The true believer will shut his eyes and stop his ears to facts that do not follow his doctrine (the doctrine of the mass movement). Strength of faith is not moving mountains but not seeing mountains to move. His infallible doctrine renders the true believer impervious to uncertainties, surprises, and the unpleasant realities of the world around him.

  • Therefore a doctrine is effective not when it is profound and accurate but when it can insulate an individual from his self and the world as it is.

The effectiveness of a doctrine does not come from its meaning but from its certitude (absolute certainty or conviction that something is the case).

  • The movement's doctrine must claim that it is the one and only truth.

A doctrine must not be understood, but has rather to be believed in. We can be absolutely certain only in things we do not understand. The fact that they understand a thing fully impairs its validity and certitude in their eyes.

The devout are always told to seek the truth with their hearts and not their minds.

  • This happened in Nazi Germany “Do not seek Adolf Hitler with your brains, all of you will find him with the strength of your hearts.”

If a doctrine is not unintelligible, it has to be vague; and if neither unintelligible nor vague, it has to be unverifiable.

  • One has to get to heaven or the future to verify the doctrine.
  • When some part of a doctrine is relatively simple, there is a tendency among the faithful to complicate and obscure it.

There is some connection between dissatisfaction with oneself and a proneness to credulity. The urge to escape our real self is also an urge to escape the rational and obvious. They ask to be deceived.

The rule seems to be that those who find no difficulty in deceiving themselves are easily deceived by others. They are easily persuaded and led.


The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure - so they passionately cling to a mass movement. They see themselves as the defender of the holy cause and that is why they would sacrifice their life. It’s to show that they are really willing to defend the cause. He sacrifices his life to prove his worth.

But he finds no difficulty in swinging suddenly and wildly from one holy cause to another. His passionate attachment is more vital than the quality of the cause to which he is attached.

It is the fanatic and the moderate who are poles apart and never meet. Fanatics of all kinds are actually close.

There seems to be a thin line between violent, extreme nationalism and treason.

It is doubtful whether the fanatic who deserts his holy cause or is suddenly left without one can ever adjust himself to an autonomous individual existence.

  • What matters to him is not the contents of the cause but the total dedication and communion with a congregation.
  • They are even willing to join a crusade against their former holy cause.
  • People are likely to go to either extreme. Once their holy cause is found to be a fraud, they will likely go to the opposite extreme.

Mass Movements and Armies

Mass movements and armies have in common: collective bodies, strip the individual of his separateness and distinctness, demand self-sacrifice, unquestioning obedience, extensive use of make-believe to promote daring and united action. And both can serve as a refuge for the frustrated who cannot endure an autonomous existence.

Mass movement and army differences: an army does not come to fulfill a need for a new way of life, it is not a road to salvation. An army is mainly an instrument devised for the preservation or expansion of an established order - new or old. It is a temporary instrument that can be assembled and taken apart at will. On the other hand, a mass movement seems an instrument of eternity and those who do so join it for life. The army is an instrument for bolstering, protecting, and expanding the present. The mass movement comes to destroy the present. Armies have strategies and deal with the possible. Its leaders do not rely on miracles. If they must surrender, they will. The leader of a mass movement relies on miracles. He destroys his country and his people rather than surrender.

The fanatical soldier is usually a fanatic turned soldier rather than the other way around.

XIV. Unifying Agents

Hatred (Racism)

Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents.

Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.

“It is essential to have a tangible enemy, not merely an abstract one.” - Hitler

The ideal devil is omnipotent and omnipresent.

Every difficulty and failure of the movement is the work of the devil and every success is a triumph over his evil plotting.

The ideal devil is a foreigner. To qualify as a devil, a domestic enemy must be given a foreign ancestry.

Hatred is an expression of a desperate effort to suppress an awareness of our inadequacy, worthlessness, guilt, and other shortcomings of the self. Self-contempt is here transmuted into hatred of others. There is a determined and persistent effort to mask this switch. The most effective way to do this is to find others, as many as possible, who hate as we do.

Even if there is a reason for the hatred, our hatred comes less from a wrong done to us and more from helplessness, inadequacy, and cowardice - in other words from self-contempt.

When we feel superior to our tormentors, we are likely to dislike them, even pity them, but not hate them.

The relation between a wrongdoing and a hatred is not simple and direct. The released hatred is not always directed against those who wronged us. Often, when we are wronged by one person, we turn our hatred on a wholly unrelated person or group. Germans, aggrieved by the Treaty of Versailles, avenged themselves by exterminating Jews.

There is an intimate connection between hatred and a guilty conscience. There is perhaps no surer way of infecting ourselves with virulent hatred toward a person than by doing him a grave injustice. That others have just grievances against us is a more potent reason for hating them than that we have a just grievance against them. We do not make people humble and meek when we show them their guilt and cause them to be ashamed of themselves. We are more likely to stir their arrogance and rouse in them a reckless aggressiveness. Self-righteousness is a loud din raised to drown the voice of guilt within us.

The most effective way to silence the conscious of someone who has done wrong is to convince themselves and others that those we have sinned against are indeed depraved creatures, deserving every punishment, even extermination.

It seems that when we are oppressed by the knowledge of our worthlessness we do not see ourselves as lower than some and higher than others, but as lower than the lowest of mankind. We hate then the whole world, and we would pour our wrath upon the whole of creation.

There is a deep reassurance of the frustrated in witnessing the downfall of the fortunate and the disgrace of righteousness.

  • They see in a general downfall an approach to the brotherhood of all.
  • Misery loves company.

There is no telling what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go to when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts, and vague strings of decency that go with individual judgment. When we join a mass movement we lose our individual independence and we find a new freedom— freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame or remorse.

Hatred is a means of unification.


The frustrated are likely to imitate those who they admire and those who are different from themselves.

The more we mistrust our judgment and luck, the more we are ready to follow the example of others.

A feeling of superiority counteracts imitation. If you are successful, you want to be yourself, you don’t want to imitate.

Imitation is often a shortcut to a solution. We copy when we lack the inclination, the ability to the time to work out an independent solution. People in a hurry will imitate more reality than people at leisure.

Persuasion and Coercion

We tend to exaggerate the effectiveness of persuasion as a means of inculcating opinion and shaping behavior. Propaganda is not nearly as powerful as people think. Propaganda cannot force its way into unwilling minds. It also cannot keep people persuaded once they have ceased to believe. Propaganda only works on people who are open minded and it simply articulates and justifies opinions already present in the minds of its recipients.

To maintain itself, a mass movement has to order things so that when the people no longer believe, they can be forced to believe.

Words are most important in the early stages of a mass movement.

Propaganda is more of a way for the followers to justify their actions (potentially exterminating people) than it is to change people’s minds.

Coercion when implacable and persistent has an unequaled persuasiveness, and this is not only with simple souls but also with those who pride themselves on the strength and integrity of their intellect.

There are not many examples of mass movements where persuasion alone worked. They usually need some form of army or militia.

Force can stop a mass movement.

Proselytizing (converting or attempting to convert someone from one religion, belief, or opinion) is just trying to make the movement secure in that their truth is the absolute truth.


The leader of a movement is not the one who makes the conditions for a rise possible. 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.

There is a period of waiting in the wings - often a very long period - for all the great leaders whose entrance to the scene seems to us a most crucial point in the course of a mass movement.

Without a leader, there is no movement.

Leaders do not need exceptional intelligence, noble character, or originality.

Leaders need audacity and a joy of defiance, an iron will, a facial conviction that he is in possession of the one and only truth, faith in their destiny and luck, a capacity for passionate hatred, contempt for the present, a cunning estimate of human nature, a delight in symbols (spectacles and ceremonials), unbounded brazenness which finds expression in a disregard of consistency and fairness, a recognition that the innermost craving of following if for communion and that there can never be too much of it, a capacity for winning and holding the utmost loyalty of a group of able lieutenants.

The most important requirement of a leader is their ability to dominate and almost bewitch a small group of able men. Here men must be fearless, proud, intelligent, and capable of organizing 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.

The quality of ideas plays a minor role in mass movement leadership. What matters is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard for the opinion of others, and the singlehanded defiance of the world. Charlatanism of some degree is necessary.

Good mass movement leaders are ready to imitate both friend and foe, both past and contemporary models.

Blind obedience is the most effective way to get unity and self-sacrifice.

The true believer, no matter how violent his acts, is basically an obedient and submissive person.


Action is a unifier. There is less individual distinction in anything that requires action (building, soldier, sports, and even scientist) than in the thinker or creative person whose work flows from communication with the self.

Even marching is an action that is a great unifier.

Frustration stems chiefly from an inability to act, and the most poignantly frustrated are those whose talents and temperament equip them ideally for a life of action but are condemned by circumstances to rust away in idleness.

When a mass movement succeeds in action, they actually weaken the movement in a way. The true believer who succeeds in all he does gains self-confidence and becomes reconciled with himself and the present. Once he is self-confident and sees he can succeed on his own, he no longer needs to cling to a mass movement to find community and meaning.

If action is blocked by a severe depression or defeat in war, the resulting frustration is likely to be so intense that almost any mass movement would find the situation ready-made for its propagation.

  • Germany after the first world war. Hitler gave them action.


The awareness of their individual blemishes and shortcomings inclines the frustrated to detect ill will and meanness in their fellow men.

Self-contempt, however vague, sharpens our eyes to the imperfections of others.

We usually strive to reveal in others the blemishes we hide in ourselves.

People will follow a mass movement perfectly because they think others are watching them and judging them due to their own insecurity. Knowing themselves continually watched, the faithful strive to escape suspicion by adhering zealously to prescribed behavior and opinion. Strict orthodoxy is as much the result of mutual suspicion as of ardent faith.

Fear of one's neighbors, one's friends, and even one's relatives seem to be the rule within all mass movements. Now and then innocent people are deliberately accused and sacrificed in order to keep suspicion alive.

The loyalty of the true believer is to the whole - the church, party, nation - and not to his fellow true believer.

The Effects of Unification

Economic dependence is maintained by centralizing economic power and by a deliberately created scarcity of the necessities of life. Social self-sufficiency is discouraged by crowded housing or communal quarters, and by enforced daily participation in public functions. Ruthless censorship of literature, art, music, and science prevents even the creative few from living self-sufficient lives.

People raised in the atmosphere of a mass movement are fashioned into incomplete and dependent human beings even when they have within themselves the making of self-sufficient entities.

Part 4

Beginning and End

XV. Men of Words

Men of words = orators (talented public speakers)

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 itself. On the other hand, a dispensation of undoubted merit and vigor may be swept away if it fails to win the allegiance of the articulate minority.

The preliminary work of undermining existing institutions, familiarizing the masses with the idea of change, and of creating receptivity to a new faith, can be done only by men who are, first and foremost, talkers or writers and are recognized as such by all.

As long as the existing order functions in a more or less orderly fashion, the masses remain basically conservative. They can think of reform but not of total innovation.

  • There can't be any mass movements in contemporary America because the standard of living is too high. Only a world war or depression could change this.
  • A fanatical extremist, no matter how eloquent, will be seen as dangerous, traitorous, impractical, or even insane if the conditions are not harsh enough to warrant a mass movement.

Men of words can become fanatics, fanatics can become practical men of action, and practical men of action can become fanatics or any combination of the three.

A man of words is any type of intellectual in their circumstances. In America, a man of words could be a professor, student, priest, writer, etc. In uneducated places or third-world countries, mere literacy can make one a man of words.

Men of words crave recognition; a craving for a clearly marked status above the common.

There is apparently an irremediable insecurity at the core of every intellectual, be he noncreative or creative. Even the most gifted and prolific seem to live a life of eternal self-doubting and have to prove their worth anew each day.

When his superior status is suitably acknowledged by those in power, the man of words usually finds all kinds of lofty reasons for siding with the strong against the weak.

  • If men of words are given a good position in the current government, they will likely be satisfied and not try to create a mass movement against the government.

What saddens the reformer (man of words) is not his sympathy with his fellows in distress, but, though he be the holiest son of God, is his private ail.

When we debunk a fanatical faith or prejudice, we do not strike at the root of fanaticism.

  • Debunking a grievance doesn't solve the underlying problem. People are fanatical or prejudiced because they are frustrated and believe their life is meaningless.

Men of words are not the ones who continue the mass movement. They are not capable of it because a mass movement has to remove individualism to succeed and it is also what the followers want. A man of words believes in the possibility of individual happiness and the validity of individual opinion and initiative. Once a movement gets rolling, power falls into the hands of those who have neither faith in, nor respect for, the individual. The reason they prevail is not so much that their disregard for the individual gives them the capacity for ruthlessness, but that their attitude is in full accord with the ruling passion of the masses.

XVI. The Fanatics

When the moment is ripe, only the fanatic can hatch a genuine mass movement. Without a fanatic, any change in government is usually no more than a transfer of power from one set of men of action to another.

Fanatics are mostly noncreative men of words. Creative men of words have a creative outlet, are content with the present moment, and only want reform. Noncreative men of words want to completely destroy the current government.

Noncreative men of words are eternal misfits and the fanatical contemners of the present.

Marat, Robespierre, Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler are outstanding examples of fanatics arising from the ranks of noncreative men of words.

  • Peter Viereck points out that most of the Nazi bigwigs had artistic and literary ambitions which they could not realize. Hitler tried painting and architecture; Goebbels tried drama, writing, and poetry; Rosenberg tried architecture and philosophy, etc. Almost all were failures by public and personal criteria of success.

Fanatics want to keep doing extreme things even after the mass movement has won. This can lead to the mass movement breaking apart or failing. Only the entrance of a practical man of action can save the achievements of the mass movement.

XVII. The Practical Men of Action

A movement is pioneered by men of words, materialized by fanatics, and consolidated by men of action.

A movement is more likely to succeed if the men of words, fanatics, and practical men of action are all different groups of people who succeed each other rather than the same group of people who change to fit each role.

Hitler and Stalin were mainly fanatics and their movements failed because they did not give power to men of action.

The man of action saves the movement from the suicidal dissensions and recklessness of the fanatics.

Men of action just keep the movement in power after the men of words and fanatics get the movement its power.

The chief preoccupation of a man of action when he takes over an “arrived” movement is to fix and perpetuate its unity and self-sacrifice. Enthusiasm and persuasion are not strong enough to do this. He uses drills (like military drill sergeant or drills in sports practice) and coercion.

XVIII. Good and Bad Mass Movements

The Unattractiveness and Sterility of the Active Phase

The atmosphere of the active phase of a movement cripples or stifles the creative spirit.

  1. The fervor of a mass movement drains the energies that would have flowed into creative work.
  2. It subordinates creative work to the advancement of the movement. Literature, art, and science must be propagandistic.
  3. Mass movements open vast fields of action (war, colonization, industrialization) that additionally drain creative energy.
  4. The fanatical state of mind itself can stifle all forms of creative work.

Some Factors Which Determine the Length of the Active Phase

A mass movement with a concrete, limited objective is likely to have a shorter active phase than a movement with a nebulous, indefinite objective.

Useful Mass Movements

In the eyes of the true believer, people with no holy cause are without backbone and character. On the other hand, true believers of various hues, though they view each other with mortal hatred and are ready to fly at each other’s throats, recognize and respect each other’s strength.

  • Ex) Hitler looked at the Bolsheviks as his equals and gave orders the former communists should be admitted to the Nazi party at once.

Even the religious fanatic and militant atheist are not without respect for each other.

Only a goal that lends itself to continued perfection can keep a nation potentially virile even though its desires are continually fulfilled. The goal need not be sublime. The gross ideal of an ever-rising standard of living has kept this nation fairly virile (strong, with energy).

In large places like Russia, China, India, etc. mass movement could be the only way to create change.

When a government shows signs of chronic incompetence, there should be a mass movement to change the government - even though an overthrow would require a considerable waste of life and wealth - because that is better than having it fall and crumble itself. When a government is left to have a lingering death, the result is often stagnation and decay - perhaps an irremediable decay.

Ian Greer © . All rights reserved.