The True Believer By Eric Hoffer (Review & Detailed Summary)


Hoffer seeks to explain why mass movements happen. First he talks about different personality types, and why each is drawn to a movement. For example, people who join fanatical mass movements often feel their lives are useless or wasted. They latch onto a movement because it makes them feel that they have purpose, that the evil they see in the world can be beat.

Second he talks about a few profiles of specific types of people who might join a movement. They include sinners who seek absolution, the chronically bored, the talent less, and those who feel they have no meaning.

Next he discusses how mass fanatical movements subsume the individual, requiring that they give up their individuality, trading it for the identity of the group. The more the person sacrifices, the more they feel part of the tribe. These movements also promote faith based thinking over reasoning, which serves as a separator from the rest of the world. Their conversion is furthered and strengthened by seeing others converted. The concept of a devil is important. The group needs something to fight.

Finally Hoffer describes three categories, or stages that a group goes through. The first members are men of words, who break down the opposition because they feel spurned by the mainstream. Next come the fanatics, who take drastic actions to achieve the group’s goals. They feel unrecognized and thus lean towards destruction and extremism to make themselves seen. Finally come the practical men of action, who save the group from the previous destructive nature.

You’ll like this book if you are interested in a combination of sociology, philosophy, and psychology, and don’t care about the lack of academic citations or proof.


An engaging book that is quick to read. Surprisingly relevant for something written more than 50 years ago. Explains various aspects of mass movements in a usable, memorable, and pragmatic way. Not always linear and feels at the earlier part of the book like it should be a set of aphorisms.


Hoffer’s claim that “mass movements are interchangeable” is likely partially incorrect. It does describe stories like Paul/Saul in Christianity, and the conversion of people from Communist and Fascists membership in Germany. It doesn’t match other movements which seem to hold a well formed, long lasting, and independent group identity.

There isn’t much support for the generally vague claims that the author makes. He does address this in the preface to some degree by saying this is just a series of thoughts.

The writing can jump logically sometimes. You are left figuring out for yourself how concepts connect. Some are resolved later but others aren’t. The chapters don’t always fit together well into a coherent feeling narrative. We can’t help but feel that the book would have been even better with a bit of reorganizing.

Chapter By Chapter Summary

True Believer is a book about the psychological an sociological elements that lead to a mass movement. The author cites examples through history to illustrate his point. His incites are generally intuitive and enlightening, though very theoretical.

Part 1: The Appeal of Mass Movements

Chapter 1: The Desire for Change

People are drawn to mass movements because they want change. They want to hope for a better future. This hope in a better future comes in part because of a belief that their movement is special. They have a special leader, special method, special idea, or special technology. This special element will bring about the change, and it causes followers to have hope. The best followers are largely ignorant of the quantity of work that it will actually take to bring about the change.

Chapter 2. The Desire for Substitutes

Self interest motivates people who have a hope in the future. But those that fundamentally believe their lives are ruined or hopeless don’t respond well to self interest appeals. These people are motivated by something else. They want to renounce themselves and attach to a movement that can fulfill all the desires they had that couldn’t be met. For example, if you’ve lost faith in yourself, have faith in your holy cause. If you don’t think you are special or unique, you can believe your cause is exceptional and important. Their innermost craving is for a new life so they can discard their old broken one. They want a rebirth, and the sense of purpose, newness, and progress that comes with it.

Chapter 3. The Interchangeability of Mass Movements

The best way to stop a mass movement is to create a substitute. Another movement works best. The new movement must provide a new beginning, opportunity, chances to take action, and a way to attach to a new tribe. Because many movements match this description, mass movements are interchangeable.

Part 2: The Potential Converts

Chapter 4. The Role of Undesirables in Human Affairs

The disaffected see their lives as irredeemably spoiled. Because of this they can be grouped together and fashioned into a new part of society.

Chapter 5. The Poor

Anyone undergoing a substantial change in life is susceptible to a mass movement. They new poor are those who just lost their wealth, or those who are temporarily poor. They seek certainty, purpose, camaraderie, to rid themselves of anxiety, and to avoid responsibility. They become stripped of their status and their group in a few ways.

  • The tribe is undermined by attacking the credibility of the leaders.
  • Individuals are given more financial independence.
  • They are drawn away from more tribal areas, like when people move from the country to the city.

Once their group breaks down, or they are cast out, they are seen as individuals. Once seen as individuals they are analyzed and tested. Failure once tested often leads to a passion. Those who have a passion for equality are often those who want anonymity. They want to be free from comparison and judgement so as to hide their inferiority.

People don’t want freedom because it exposes them to responsibility. When you are responsible for where you are in life, you can be judged a failure. People want to avoid this.

Chapter 6. Misfits

Those who have routine taken away from them are susceptible to mass movements because they have lost certainty and order in their lives. They are exposed to freedom and not sure what to do with it. For example, soldiers who recently retired and students who graduate. They are used to a disciplined system that tells them what to do all the time. It has goals, rules, and expectations. Once they leave, they don’t have a place. Nothing dictates their lives anymore. This is scary and people want to fill this void.

Chapter 7. The Inordinately Selfish

The selfish are susceptible to mass movements because they will never have enough.

Chapter 8. The Ambitious Facing Unlimited Opportunities

These people have many good opportunities, and the overwhelming options cause them to desire certainty. The unlimited options devalue the present. No matter what they are currently doing, there might be something better or more optimal that they could do. They will seek something to tell them what to do.

Chapter 9. Minorities

If a minority is bent on assimilation, the person becomes more of an individual. They don’t feel connected to their group. They feel different and disconnected. This feeling makes them crave unity. Even successful minorities will feel this craving as success just reminds them how they are different.

Chapter 10. The Bored

The bored want something interesting to happen to them. Unless they tack action they will fall prey to mass movements. There are three things they can do.

  • Art or a creative based endeavor.
  • A struggle for survival (not starving keeps you from being bored or concerned about anything else).
  • An occupation that consumes your time.

If they aren’t doing one of these things the person is liable to join a mass movement.

Chapter 11. The Sinners

Mass movements tend to both sell and provide redemption for sin. If a person can be convinced that they are doing something wrong, they can also be sold the solution. Repentance feels like it is working because it is the process of a person moving from being an individual separated from the group by sin, to an individual reunited with the group by renouncing something individualistic like pride.

“Salvation is found by losing oneself in the Holy oneness of the congregation.”

Part 3: United Action and Self Sacrifice

Chapter 12. Preface

Mass movements nurture and enhance the feelings of frustrated people.

Chapter 13. Factors Promoting Self Sacrifice

Mass movements need to promote sacrifice of each member. They promote this through a few different means.

They devalue the present. The present is devalued by either emphasizing the past, preaching of the glorious future, or discussing how the present is broken. The more followers ignore the value of what they have in the present, the more they are willing to sacrifice for the perfect future. When everything important is yet to come, why fret over things sacrificed in the present?

They use doctrine to insulate members from external criticism. This fact proof narrative must be vague, unverifiable, and give the member a feeling of certainty by purporting to explain everything. Members are isolated from what they could receive in the world by the doctrine. Isolation makes it easier to sacrifice because all things they are familiar with tell them to sacrifice.

Chapter 14. Unifying Agents

Mass movements seek to unify members in order to make the movement more successful. They achieve unity with a few different methods.

Hatred is a powerful tool for unity. When we hate we seek allies. Hatred in mass movements is often a result of self hatred and feelings of insufficiency projected outward. Hatred gives people meaning and purpose. The hatred must be pointed at a devil that is significant and powerful.

Doctrine of separateness gives a feeling of superiority. As the doctrine points out how unique and special the people who know the truth about the future, it necessarily unifies them with others who think the same thing. Those who believe in this doctrine and sacrifice for it will inevitably look down at those who don’t behave in the same way. This isolates them from the world and further unifies them with the group.

Continual observation causes people to become fanatical in order to prove their allegiance. Increased fanaticism further isolates and unifies.

Proselytizing is a method of seeking self confirmation that the message is true. If others believe this is a sort of proof that they are on the right track. Like hatred, sharing the message is often an outgrowth of a feeling of insufficiency.

Part 4: Beginning and End

Chapter 15. Men of Words

Mass movements need to be build on doubt and uncertainty. Before a strong movement can form the current powers must be doubted. Men of words are essentially academics that poke fun, use logic, highlight blunders and abuses of power, and create an environment that is ready for a mass movement. Disillusionment leads to people seeking for a new movement to have faith in, and to give them certainty. Men of words seek status and recognition, and are bitter at the current powers for not recognizing them. They aren’t good at doing what needs to be done for the group to fully grow. They need someone more radical.

Chapter 16. The Fanatics

Fanatics come after men of words and move the movement forward with force. The fanatic justifies their hatred and destruction by pointing out that the existing order must be torn down if a new one is to be built in its place. Their bitterness and hatred can destroy the movement by attacking friends once enemies are destroyed.

Chapter 17. Practical Men of Action

Practical men of action bring the movement into a stable position. They consolidate power and create long term plans. This allows career men to come in and be motivated by predictable selfishness instead of emotion. At this stage the movement still deals with the frustrated but only seeks to pacify.

Chapter 18. Good and Bad Mass Movements

Useful movements bring about change that improves. The mastery of the art of religiosification is necessary for any leader who hopes to build a good mass movement. It is probably best for old ways to be torn down, with the resource and human waste, than for them to continue.

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