This is a 60+ year-old book that retains its fascination because the varieties of ‘true believers’ persist, along with the results of radical actions. Essentially, Hoffer looks at multiple, seemingly heterogeneous movements, from Christianity to National Socialism and observes their leadership and, more important, their followers. He identifies the traits of those leaders and followers and records them in a succession of discussions—125 numbered divisions in a book of approximately 170 pp.
While he has done his homework in examining the movements he does not discuss one or a handful in depth. This is not historiography. It is more a collection of observations that flow from his own readings in history. With the large number of separate discussions the result is something like reading Pascal or Wittgenstein. One is presented with many unified discussions but the most powerful aspect of the book is the manner in which it breaks into single, quotable sentences. These are the rocks polished by the river of thought which preceded them.
p. 14: “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”
p. 24: “. . . the character and destiny of a group are often determined by its inferior elements.”
p. 29: “It is not actual suffering but the taste of better things which excites people to revolt.”
p. 33: “Those who clamor loudest for freedom . . . often . . . want to eliminate free competition and the ruthless testing to which the individual is continually subjected in a free society.”
p. 116: “There can be no mass movement without some deliberate misrepresentation of facts.”
p. 133: “However much the protesting man of words sees himself as the champion of the downtrodden and injured, the grievance which animates him is, with very few exceptions, private and personal.”
p. 144: “Whence come the fanatics? Mostly from the ranks of the noncreative men of words.”
Ultimately, this is a phenomenological study of human behavior in mass movements. Its key, overarching theme is the notion that the true believer suffers from some personal form of alienation or failure which pushes him to seek an alternative society in which he can comfortably fit. This is powerful stuff, endlessly suggestive and continuing in its relevance for our present condition. Highly recommended.