The Lure of Mass Movements

I recently read an article discussing the psychology of messianic ideologies with respect to Islamic terrorism. The piece relied heavily on Eric Hoffer, author of The True Believer (1951), who examined the appeal of totalitarian creeds. According to Hoffer

A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.… Their innermost craving is for a new life—a rebirth—or, failing this, a chance to acquire new elements of pride, confidence, hope, a sense of purpose and worth by an identification with a holy cause.… To the frustrated, a mass movement offers substitutes either for the whole self or for the elements which make life bearable and which they cannot evoke out of their individual resources.

Hoffer was not the only one to notice this sociological pattern. Similar views have been put forward by J. L. Talmon and Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. Yet Hoffer’s analysis seems wanting. The role of “self-renunciation” does not sufficiently explain the motivation of every totalitarian. There is also the libido dominandi or “lust for domination” as St. Augustine put it. No doubt an ideological movement—even something like animal rights—can provide the comforting semblance of virtue without the demands of a genuine moral system. Political dogmas are selectively ethical. Therein lies their appeal, and their perversity. Mass movements contain a great deal of egotistical fantasizing. That is why, despite their tendency toward collective sacrifice, they remain fundamentally selfish and short-sighted.

The social “sense of purpose” Hoffer refers to is clearly beneficial when it is not warped into a form of arrogant nihilism. It is true that both the religious person and the totalitarian may believe in “paradise,” but how they strive for perfection makes all the difference. Unfortunately some secular thinkers (e.g., Lee Harris, Civilization and its Enemies) blur the distinction between devout conviction and crude fanaticism. Hoffer lumps religious critics of democracy in with totalitarian ideologues without stopping to consider their varying motives or even to ask the obvious question: “is democracy just another modern political faith?” He was a talented self-taught journalist who arrived at some correct conclusions through gut instinct.

Almost all our contemporary movements showed in their early stages a hostile attitude toward the family, and did all they could to discredit and disrupt it. They did it by undermine the authority of the parents; by facilitating divorce; by taking over the responsibility for feeding, education and entertaining the children; and by fostering illegitimacy.

But Hoffer can also be simplistic. Any undertaking, be it democracy or theology, will be only as good as the flawed humans who pursue it. Some individuals may distort religious belief in the pursuit of worldly aims. Nevertheless, traditional Christianity has never been a “mass movement” in the sense that Hoffer understands it. True zeal is motivated by charity and humility and in this respect is quite unlike the political violence of Marxists or modern Jihadists.

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