This book is about individuals who are both engine of human progress and scourge of humanity – true believers. Actually they also supply fuel for all big changes in the human society. It was written in the middle of XX century that was crowded with mass movements probably more then any other century in human history. Communism, Nazism, Italian Fascism, innumerable small and big Nationalistic movements, and even to some extent western Democratic Statism are all samples of mass movements of the last 150 years.
There are quite a few very interesting points in Hoffer’s analysis of causes of such movements and personalities who become true believers and fighters for idea of such movements. The most important of them is the notion that such movements are caused by refusal of significant number of individuals in society to continue their lives within a framework of this society and they readiness to fight and even die in order to change this framework. Such movement is not aiming at practical improvement of society it rather attempts to completely change its organization and function from routine and maybe not great, but functioning state into some ideal superior state when all problems are resolved and some perfect stasis is achieved.
Very interesting and well-illustrated point is that individual becomes true believer in very specific circumstances:
1. Potential true believer is not destitute; he/she does not spent all time just trying to survive. It is rather combination of availability of material resources with deep psychological dissatisfaction with current status of individual in existing society.
2. The dissatisfaction of individual with his/her status is perceived as impossible to resolve bringing individual into condition of frustration and self-hate. It is especially true in free societies that provide wide range of opportunities and, consequently individual has nobody to blame for failure then himself.
3. There is an ideological framework which seems to be able provide future state when this individual is guaranteed to achieve the status he is craving for even if this guaranties are illusory.
4. Existing society framework weakened and is not capable to apply force on the scale necessary to suppress mass movement.
Actually a very interesting dynamics for mass movement is implied in this book:
There is tension between freedom and equality in society. If society forces equality as in Socialism/Communism/Nazism (which is always false, but it does not matter as long as people believe in it) it is supported by great majority, but prevent talented individual to apply their talents leading to stagnation and switch of activities of talented minority to building ideological alternative to existing society. On the other hand if society provides wide freedom and opportunity so the talented minority could dramatically improve productivity and quality of life for everybody, but in the greatly unequal levels. This creates resentment in everybody, but especially in talented people whose special talents do not provide for the status they believe they deserve. It could be one of most important reasons why so many artists who did not achieve fame and recognition became leaders of mass movements and why business people very seldom become involved in mass movement on their early stages. Maybe it is because there is not limit on number of successful businessmen in prosperous society and failed businessmen can start all over again eventually achieving some level of comfortable life, while artist who is not rich and famous by his/her 30s will probably never be able to achieve material and psychological comfort.
Finally I found very interesting Hoffer’s analysis of personality types which are most effective during different stages of mass movement:
1. Intellectuals/ideologues who channel their frustration into theory of society and humanity that becomes foundation of new mass movement. These individuals work within existing society and could do it only if it is free or already undermined and weakened if it is not free. The example very close to my heart is former Soviet Union where somebody writing something with the slightest critic of communist party would be dead within days as soon as secret police found it during 1930s to 1950s, but would get away with just a warning in 1980s. These people usually much better off if they die before mass movement takes power. In this case they become well esteemed founders and prophets like Marks, but if they live long enough they inevitably transfer their intellectual urges into critic of new regime that could never do everything right and consequently they get persecuted as enemy and killed like Trotsky.
2. Fanatics – these are frustrated artists and intellectuals who could not get status under old regime. These people would rather die for idea then live bring and tedious life saturated by feeling of individual failure to achieve. These people are essential for movement and if in possession of effective communication skills they become leaders of mass movement and either die fighting for it or bring it to power.
3. Practical people – these are the people who do pretty well in existing society, but either can see opportunity in new mass movement or forced to join when mass movement has enough coercive power. They are managers, engineers, communicators, and other specialists who bring their practicality to bear and turn mass movement into new framework of society that more or less allows it to keep going. Certainly when mass movement brings ideology deleterious to economic success like socialism or war generating qualities like Nazism no amount of talented Russian engineers and managers or German best in the world soldiers could prevent society from disaster.
I think that this book provide a great insight into catastrophic mass movements of XX century and indicate some way of preventing such catastrophes – just give people opportunities to apply their talents and strive to achieve whatever they want to achieve, but be vigilant when somebody moves in direction of violent achievement at other people’s expense.
Any movement, which targets human rights, either it is religious intolerant movement of Islamists who want to force everybody to accept their rules or it is anti-property rights movement of statists (they are not socialists anymore because socialism failed), such movement should be suppressed preferably with democratic means, but without slightest signs of weakness because any weakness invites father expansion of intolerance and inevitably lead to more loss of blood and treasure then necessary.