In 1951, a book by Eric Hoffer was published
that remains a classic to this
day. It is The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. You
can still purchase it as a Harper Perennial softcover. No one who wants to
understand the last century and this new one should fail to read Hoffer's
extraordinary examination of fanaticism and frustration when it is channeled
into nationalism, religious movements, or the political perversion known as
The individual to whom Hoffer referred as the "true believer" is essential to
mass movements and we are seeing this today in the rise of Islamic
fundamentalism and the revival of Communism. To those who think Communism is
dead, I suggest you check the map for nations that include Russia, China,
North Korea, Cuba, and places like Venezuela. Communism is on the march again.
Islamic fundamentalism has the Middle East in its grip. Hoffer's true
believer is best seen in the expendable youths who strap explosives to their
chests and kill themselves in acts of terrorism against Israeli citizens.
"The true believer sees himself part of something that stretches endlessly
backward and forward-something eternal. Dying, too, they see as a gesture, an
act of make-believe."
At the very heart of all mass movements are people who feel frustrated. By
this, Hoffer means those who believe their lives are spoiled or wasted. "The
frustrated favor radical change." Here, though, is where it gets really
interesting, "A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it
can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the
passion for self-renunciation." The other form of true believers are those
anarchists and radical leftists found in the streets protesting every time
the leaders of Western nations gather.Individualists, people taught to think
for themselves, do not join mass movements.
"Faith in a holy cause," said Hoffer, "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."
What is roiling the Middle East is the "jihad", the holy war. It is not just
a war on Israel. It is an Islamic war on all other religions, but primarily
its progenitors, Judaism and Christianity. Islam is about 1,500 years old,
the last of the world's mass religions to come along, having cherry-picked
its precepts from both earlier religions.
Islam is a religion created for desert tribes that it finds itself at a
crossroads in the modern world it fears will undermine its strictures. These
include Islam's rules regarding the relationship between men and women, the
prohibition on charging interest for the use of money, prohibitions on
alcohol and certain foods, and its insistence that Mohammed was the last,
true prophet. It does not merely recommend prayer; it requires it five times
Islam is a religion at war with the present and the future. Its golden age
was when it was most tolerant. It has now lapsed into its own Dark Ages.
"All true believers of our time," wrote Hoffer, "declaimed volubly on the
decadence of the Western democracies. The burden of their talk is that those
in the democracies are too soft, too pleasure loving and too selfish to die
for a nation, a God, or a holy cause. This lack of readiness to die, we are
told, is indicative of an inner rot a moral and biological decay."
Hoffer, who wrote his book shortly after the defeat of Germany's Nazism,
Italy's Fascism, and Japanese nationalism and at a time when Soviet
Communism, led by Stalin, was seeking to impose itself on the world, warned
"It always fares ill with the present when a genuine mass movement is on the
march." This is no less true today as Communism works to reassert itself and
as Islamic fundamentalism threatens world peace.
It is American culture, its political and economic success that poses the
greatest threat to both movements. It is no accident that the victims in
Beijing's Tienanamen Square had erected a replica of the State of Liberty! It
is no accident that, as a nation, Israel embodies and protects the tenets of
both Judaism and Christianity. For both Communism and Islamic fundamentalism,
it is American ideals of individual freedom, Capitalism, and religious
tolerance that are the enemy.
In the case of Islamic fundamentalism, Hoffer identifies its root cause. "The
discontent generated in backward countries by their contact with Western
civilization is not primarily resentment against exploitation by domineering
foreigners. It is rather the result of a crumbling or weakening of tribal
solidarity and communal life."
Soviet Communism underwent a transformation when Russians in its eastern
regions were able to see television coming out of Europe. The comparison
between the economic abundance and lifestyle of America and Europe, and the
austerity that Soviet Communism compelled was sufficient to create the
dissatisfaction that forced the Party to try reforms and, from there, it was
a swift slide to its loss of power. However, a decade later, unable to master
the rule of law and concepts of private property, the Russians are ripe for
renewed rule by the Communist Party. It remains the dominant party in the
In the same way, the failure of Middle Eastern despots to provide economic
prosperity throughout the region has been fashioned into a holy war to focus
their people's frustration on external enemies that include Israel and the
West. Here again, Hoffer offers a wonderful insight. "When people revolt in a
totalitarian society, they rise not against the wickedness of the regime, but
The 2lst century has inherited all the leftover problems of the 20th and
added a new one, the Islamic holy war. The United States of America has
emerged from the last century as the lone superpower, but it can only remain
one if it is willing to assert that power. Half measures do nothing but
prolong problems. The United States, a nation based on belief in the rights
of the individual to enjoy and exercise Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms,
bears a heavy burden in these early hours of a new century.
Hoffer wrote "the freedom the masses crave is not freedom of self-expression
and self-realization. They want freedom from 'the fearful burden of free
They do not want freedom of conscience, but faith-blind,
Both Communism and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism offer blind,
In 1951, Hoffer wrote, "The true believer is everywhere on the march, shaping
the world in his own image. Whether we line up with him or against him, it is
well we should know all we can concerning his nature and potentialities."
This is no less true today than when those words were penned over a half