Written in 1951 by Eric Hoffer, a self educated field hand and longshoreman,this book was considered a classic very soon after being published, as it was written during the decade after WWII ended. The concepts of mass coercion, extermination and ideological war were fresh in the minds of Westerners. The West was afraid of communism, of fascism, of totalitarian rule and the destruction of personal liberties.
Hoffer’s book is a provocative model rich with insights into the nature and functioning, the dynamics, of mass movements generally and fanatics and fanatical movements specifically. It is full of interesting questions about the nature of being a human, being a part of the collective human body. It is also full of ideas about what it means to be an individual.
He argues that nearly all mass movements have certain elements in common. At times these elements combine to form dynamic, sweeping changes that result in tremendous progress. At other times, however, those same elements come together in the service of evil. Hitler’s Germany. China’s Cultural Revolution. Communist Russia. Fascist Italy. More recently, Religious Terrorism.
The people who populate these movements are the true believers. They are fanatical, driven, and immune to reason, convinced of their rightness, convinced of the infallibility and inevitability of their cause.
There are the Men of Words, who discuss and stir discontent. Fanatics, who take their stirred emotional state to wild extremes–to brazen sacrifice of self, things, people they love. And finally men of action, who take the wobbling imprecision of a mass movement and systemize, stabilize and institute.
What factors give strength to these movements It is dissatisfaction with the present that initiates the early stages of a mass movement–whether that is frustration from liberty, or lack thereof. The group of people that are most susceptible to being recruited in mass movements are misfits: people who don’t feel they fit into the normal social structure.
The ultimate rewards promised by movements like communism, however, are not necessarily what motivates the devoted followers. As Hoffer notes, “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. It cures the poignantly frustrated not by conferring on them an absolute truth or by remedying the difficulties and abuses which made their lives miserable, but by freeing them from their ineffectual selves – and it does this by enfolding and absorbing them into a closely knit and exultant corporate whole.”
Institution marks the end of a mass movement, as Hoffer explains. The “active phase” of a mass movement, that is. Jesus was a man of words, the apostles fanatics, and the pope a man of action. Where Jesus stirred the mind, the apostles died for his ideas, and the pope makes an institution out of it.
It is in no way an authoritative treatise in the underpinning of mass movements. This book is required reading for anyone trying to make sense of the 20th Century, and still remain pertinent in the 21st. It is concise, lively, and thought provoking, a book you will return to again and again.