Thursday, 28 July 2016

Please, please, please - would everyone dealing with the threat of Islamic terrorism just read Eric Hoffer's "The True Believer"?

"How could anyone do something like that?" (or some variant thereof) has probably been the most-asked question in Western countries during the past few weeks, as one ghastly, barbaric Islamist atrocity has followed another with bewildering rapidity. One convincing answer was provided by an autodidact San Francisco stevedore called Eric Hoffer 65 years ago in his book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, in which (among other things) he described the psychology of the typical follower of significant religious, nationalist and political movements in their various phases throughout the ages. I've written about Hoffer before (here), but I make no apology for doing so again. I read The True Believer for the third time last night, and I can confirm that almost every word of it seems eerily prescient. Here, for instance, is Hoffer's answer to "How could anyone do something like that?":

"...when we renounce the self and become part of a compact whole, we not only renounce personal advantage but are also rid of personal responsibility. There is no telling to what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts and the vague stirrings of decency that go with individual judgment. When we lose our individual independence in the corporateness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom - a freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse. Herein undoubtedly lies part of the attractiveness of a mass movement. We find there the 'right to dishonour,' which according to Dostoyevsky has an irresistible fascination."
There's nothing like the willingness to sacrifice yourself for some imaginary greater good to bring out the worst (and occasionally the best) in humanity: "The hatred and cruelty which have their source in selfishness are ineffectual things compared with the venom and ruthlessness born of selflessness." (Indeed - just look at the utterly vile behaviour of Corbyn supporters.)

Radical Islam isn't unique in allowing inadequates, misfits, malcontents, outsiders, the bored and the disappointed to slough off a life which they've grown to despise, thereby destroying a self which they hate even more than they do the rest of us. But, currently, Radical Islam happens to provide an ideal home for disaffected young Muslims, an extraordinarily large number of whom now live in western liberal democracies whose very moderation, decency and regard for human life and religious freedom makes them peculiarly vulnerable to young men without the inner resources to cope with modernity and liberty and the personal responsibility that they demand of us.

The True Believer is a short book (a mere 168 pages), so, inevitably, there are major lacunae. For instance, it would be interesting to hear Hoffer explain how Christianity managed to grow exponentially for almost 300 years into a major religion before Constantine adopted it as the official religion of his empire without its followers resorting to violence, despite suffering almost constant persecution. Perhaps it was because the New Testament - unlike the founding texts of other religions one could name - contains not one single smidgin of a scintilla of a  hint of a suggestion that Christians should spread their faith by conquest, or that unbelievers should be slaughtered?

Nevertheless, despite its brevity, Hoffer's book is stuffed with intriguing insights (not all of which I agree with, but they certainly make one think). English readers might like to reflect on the following statement:
"A people steeped in action is likely to be the least religious, the least revolutionary and the least chauvinist. The social stability and the political and religious tolerance of the Anglo-Saxon peoples is due in part to the relative abundance among them of the will, skill and opportunities for action. Action served them as a substitute for a mass movement."
Hoffer is also fascinating when discussing the belief shared by the major mass movements of modern times - e.g. Communism, Fascism, Radical Islam - that people in Western democracies are easy meat because they're "too soft, too pleasure-loving and too selfish to die for a nation, a God or a holy cause. This lack of a readiness to die, we are told, is indicative of an inner rot - a moral and biological decay. The democracies are old and corrupt and decadent. They are no match for the virile congregations of the faithful who are about to inherit the earth." While conceding that there's some truth in that, Hoffer goes on to say:
"In normal times, a democratic nation is an institutionalised association of more or less free individuals. When its existence is threatened and it has to unify its people and generate in them a spirit of utmost self-sacrifice, the democratic nation must transform itself into something akin to a militant church or a revolutionary party. This process of religiofication... does not involve deep-reaching changes." 
As an example of this, Hoffer cites the role Churchill played in encouraging Londoners'  stubborn "We can take it!" spirit during the Blitz. One can only hope that our current leaders are aware that - if Islamic terrorism within Europe worsens appreciably - their seemingly soft, decadent, selfish, pleasure-loving peoples have the capacity to resist.

There's plenty more to discuss, but you might as well capitulate and read the book. Meanwhile, I'll leave you with an illuminating passage on leadership in democratic societies:
"In a more or less free society, the leader can retain his hold on the people only when he has blind faith in their wisdom and goodness. A second-rate leader possessed of this faith will outlast a first-rate leader who is without it. This means that in a free society the leader follows the people even as he leads them. He must, as someone said, find out where the people are going so that he may lead them. When a leader in a free society becomes contemptuous of a people, he sooner or later proceeds on the false and fatal theory that all men are fools, and eventually blunders into defeat."  
As David Cameron just discovered. (Mind you, it doesn't explain how Barack Obama has got away with it for so long.)


  1. Or consider this: "Though there are obvious differences between the fanatical Christian, the fanatical Mohammedan, the fanatical nationalists, the fanatical Communist and the fanatical Nazi, it is yet true that the fanaticism which animates them may be viewed and treated as one... However different the holy causes people die for, they perhaps die basically for the same thing."
    Fanaticism is fanaticism is fanaticism.
    We fail Hoffer when we select one version of fanaticism and claim it as 'worst'.
    Incidentally - re violence and the NT - haven't you read the Book of Revelations? Aren't you aware of JC's advice to his disciples that they 'buy a sword'?
    My first degree taught me this: that we don't see things as they are, we see them as WE are.

    1. First, I have never suggested that Radical Islam is worse than other forms of fanaticism (it may be, I suppose - but I haven't said it is). It just happens to be the most immediately threatening (to Muslims and non-Muslims alike). Were Christian fanatics to start ploughing trucks into crowds and beheading imams in mosques and letting off suicide bombs, I - and the rest of the civilised world - would no doubt turn out attention to the threat from Radical Christianity. (If you hear of Christians doing any of these things, be sure to let everyone know.)

      Funnily enough, I re-read the Book of Revelation (it's singular, by the way) for the umpteenth just last week, in tandem with an extremely enlightening online commentary.

      Your "first" degree? What was that you said about playing the academic card?

      I see that you employ the breezy "JC" to refer to Jesus Christ. I wonder if you're in the habit of employing similarly semi-humorous devices when referring to the founder of Islam. Or would that be insensitive? Well, at least it's unlikely that any Christian will take offence: we're a very tolerant lot.

      With that, our non-meeting of minds must, I'm afraid, come to an end.


  2. It's quite possible I have missed something, but can anyone clarify for me what Hoffer meant when he wrote of "opportunities for action"?

    1. I think Hoffer just meant that there were plenty of opportunities for gainful employment, what with a large private business sector and (historically) lots of work available in the colonies and related professions such as the merchant navy and the military - and fewer barriers to advancement than in most other societies, and more personal liberty, meaning people could move where they wanted and do what they wanted, and fewer restrictions on employment based on caste or religion. (Hoffer doesn't specifically mention that Anglo-Saxon countries were mainly Protestant, but many have argued that this boosts business and general busyness.)

    2. A European historian (I can't remember who) said that Nazism occurred in Germany rather than England because Germans didn't have hobbies.

    3. Whoever said it, Tomahawk, it sounds spot on (I had a hunt online, but couldn't track the quote down). It reminds me of Noel Coward's lines about Britain being a nation of gardeners, from his script for "This Happy Breed". Sorry to quote myself, but here's what I wrote about the film:

      Coward’s conservative (and evidently deeply approving) view of English attitudes is most clearly expressed in a conversation later the same evening between Frank and Ethel, who’ve escaped to the back room to avoid Aunt Sylvia’s terrible singing. Ethel is fretting about Sam’s revolutionary posturing: “But it’s wrong, isn’t it, all this ‘down with everything’ business?”. In response, Frank delivers one of the film’s key messages: “Where they go wrong is trying to get things done too quickly, and we don’t like doing things quickly in this country. It’s like gardening. Somebody once said we was a nation of gardeners. And they weren’t far wrong. We like planting things and watching them grow, looking out for changes in the weather… What works in other countries won’t work in this one. We got our own way of settling things. It may be a bit slow, and it may be a bit dull, but it suits us all right. And always will.”

  3. Ah, the great Protestant work ethic! Thanks, Scott, I can be unbelievably dim at times.