Hope. That is what the longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer identified as the propellant for mass movements like Hamas, or for the Chinese and Soviet Communist parties in their revolutionary heyday.
Hoffer’s is a counterintuitive take. It cuts against the imagery normally associated with such movements, in which glowering adherents shout slogans and brandish arms. You would think hate, not hope, sets mass movements ablaze.
Yet Hoffer’s take makes sense. Set forth in his classic treatise The True Believer, it helps those squaring off against mass social movements discern what they are facing, and acquainting oneself with the foe is an indispensable first step toward victory.
How True Believers Are Created
Hoffer was an American original, part of the Grapes of Wrath generation of the 1930s that migrated to the sunny uplands of California. He loaded and unloaded freighters in San Francisco, discovered he had a knack for philosophy, started writing, and eventually landed an adjunct position at UC Berkeley. This self-made philosopher was awarded the Medal of Freedom shortly before his death in 1983.
Hoffer catalogs the ingredients of mass movements and explains how they work together to kindle what he calls extravagant hope among potential believers.
The first ingredient is discontent. True believers nurse far-reaching grievances with the way things are. Hoffer starts out by claiming that human beings tend to look for the “shaping forces of our existence” outside themselves. They survey the world and are either satisfied with their place in it, or not. Thus “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.”
Attitudes toward change are the key difference between conservators and enemies of the status quo. Conservators apply themselves to ward against change to a beneficent order. The frustrated — prospective recruits to a mass movement — want to tear down a loathsome status quo and replace it with something entirely different. That is a quintessential revolutionary aim.
Powering the Mad Cause
Second comes a sense of power. It takes not just discontent with the existing order, but a sense that the movement can sweep away that order, to fuel the desire for change. This is not actual power, mind you — at their inception these movements have little or none — but it is a sense of power. They believe they can bring about seismic goals given enough fervor, united action, and perseverance. Hoffer’s commentary echoes the line from Wordsworth about the atmosphere pervading France at the French Revolution’s onset: Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!
French revolutionaries were frustrated with the ancien régime, convinced themselves they could amass the power to overthrow it, and accomplished the seemingly impossible. How to get people to defy daunting odds is a pivotal question. Hoffer strongly hints that inexperience is a virtue among true believers. After all, experience might discourage potential followers from joining a venture with odds stacked heavily against it. But if you do not know that what you’re attempting is impossible, you might well rush in.
And once in a while, a seemingly mad cause might succeed.
Faith and Religiofication
Third, movement adherents must have faith in the future. Hoffer observes that faith sustains even sober desires for incremental change. But there is a millenarian element not just to religious but also to secular movements striving to uproot the existing order. Religious movements tend to promise the faithful rewards in the afterlife. Secular movements in effect promise to build heaven on earth, delivering riches that vary from movement to movement, according to what kind of brave new world it wants to found.
It is critical to determine the nature of the future in which true believers place their faith.
The fourth key attribute is leadership. “Those who would transform a nation or the world,” says Hoffer, “cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent or by demonstrating the reasonableness and desirability for the intended changes or by coercing people into a new way of life.” Rational appeals are insufficient, if not outright counterproductive. Instead, aspiring leaders “must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope. It matters not whether it be hope of a heavenly kingdom, of heaven on earth, or plunder and untold riches, of fabulous achievement or world dominion.”
That being the case, the central task for leaders of a mass movement is “religiofication,” a neologism denoting the “art of turning practical purposes into holy causes.” The inspirational leader knows how to rouse believers’ passions, summoning up “reckless daring” from them. “For the hopeful,” Hoffer writes, “can draw strength from the most ridiculous sources of power — from a slogan, a word, a button.”
A range of causes lend themselves to religiofication. Nationalism is one prime mover for revolutionary endeavors. For instance, the philosopher observes, “the phenomenal modernization of Japan would probably not have been possible without the revivalist spirit of Japanese nationalism.” Marxism-Leninism is another. Hoffer attributes the Chinese Communist Party’s triumph in China’s civil war to party supremo Mao Zedong’s ability to electrify sentiment among the peasantry where Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek could not. And, of course, religion has fueled mass movements since time immemorial, from the Crusades to 9/11.
Bringing a Mass Movement to Zero
So there is Eric Hoffer’s diagnosis of what animates mass movements. Hoffer does not put it this way, but I think he would agree that extravagant hope is a product of multiplication — not addition — of the factors he lists. It comes from multiplying the degree of frustration with the status quo by followers’ sense of power, by their faith in the future, by their leaders’ capacity for religiofication.
If so, Hoffer points the way to a counterstrategy: Guardians of the status quo could defeat a mass movement by driving just one of those factors to zero.
After all, the biggest number multiplied by zero is zero.
Granted, it may be impossible to disabuse the inner circle of true believers of their extravagant hope, but it may be possible to dishearten supporters less ardently devoted to the cause. If inexperience helps a movement attract supporters, for example, the experience of repeated military defeat ought to cause the less fanatical to waver. Extravagant hope will fade, deadening the movement’s efforts. Some adherents might leave the movement altogether, simplifying the task of suppressing the zealots.
So take it from a longshoreman: To beat a mass movement, study the psychology that makes it tick.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Distinguished Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone.