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The premise of the book is as follows: Mass movements spread by promising a glorious future, and they need people to be willing to sacrifice all for that future, including themselves and others. To do that, they need to devalue the past and present. Therefore, mass movements appeal to the frustrated; people who are dissatisfied with their current state, but are capable of a strong belief in the future and to people who want to escape a flawed self by creating an imaginary self and joining a compact collective whole to escape themselves. Some categories of such people are the poor, the misfits, the creative thwarted in their endeavors, the inordinately selfish, the ambitious facing unlimited opportunities, minorities, the bored, and the sinners. The book also explores the behavior of mass movements once they become established (or leave the "active phase").
The True Believer spares no one. Communists, Fascists, Nationalists, early Christians, racial agitators are described. Indeed, part of his thesis is that movements are interchangeable and that fanatics will often flip from one movement to another.
With their collapse of a communal framework people can no longer defeat the feelings of insecurity and uncertainty by belonging to a compact whole. If the isolated individual lacks vast opportunities for personal advancement, development of talents, and action (such as those found on a frontier), he will seek substitutes. These substitutes would be pride instead of self-confidence, memeberships in a collective whole like a mass movement, absolute certainty instead of understanding.
There have been 23 editions of The True Believer published between 1951 and 2002. A library of 4 million volumes may have 15 copies. It remains a classic of Social Psychology.
Table of Contents
As it appears in the Harper and Row edition, Perenial Library imprint (160 pages).
- PART ONE. THE APPEAL OF MASS MOVEMENTS
- 1. The Desire for Change
- 2. The Desire for Substitutes
- 3. The Interchangeability of Mass Movements
- PART TWO. THE POTENTIAL CONVERTS
- 4. The Role of the Undesirables in Human Affairs
- 5. The Poor
- The New Poor
- The Abjectly Poor
- The Free Poor
- The Creative Poor
- The Unified Poor
- 6. Misfits
- 7. The Inordinately Selfish
- 8. The Ambitious Facing Unlimited Opportunities
- 9. Minorities
- 10. The Bored
- 11. The Sinners
- PART THREE. UNITED ACTION AND SELF-SACRIFICE
- 12. Preface
- 13. Factors Promoting Self-sacrifice
- Identification With a Collective Whole
- Deprecation of the Present
- "Things Which Are Not"
- Mass Movements and Armies
- 14. Unifying Agents
- Persuasion and Coercion
- The Effects of Unification
- PART FOUR. BEGINNING AND END
- 15. Men of Words
- 16. The Fanatic
- 17. The Practical Men of Action
- 18. Good and Bad Mass Movements
- The Unattractiveness and Sterility of the Active Phase
- Some Factors Which Determine the Length of the Active Phase
- Useful Mass Movements
- The True Believer Revisited by Tim Madigan from Philosophy Now a magazine of ideas Issue 34.
- makeoutcity.com: July 06, 2004: The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, by Eric Hoffer
- True believer syndrome related but not identical to the subject of the book
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