07/25/2011 09:17 am ET Updated Sep 24, 2011

What Motivates Extremists? The True Believer , Eric Hoffer's 168-Page Classic, Has Some Answers

How did our country become so divided?

Scratch a pundit, get an answer.

But you won't get satisfaction.

If you dig a little deeper -- if you drive past the easy answers of a hard-working middle class vs. a lazy welfare class, the greed of the rich, the far Right's hatred of a black president and our tragic worship of gun-toting men -- you will, eventually, get to Eric Hoffer and his remarkable book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.

It's short: just 168 pages. Hoffer believed in short. Anything that needs to be said, he believed, could be said in 200 words.

It's blunt. Hoffer thought of himself as a writer of sentences, and his book is a collection of remarkable thoughts, simply and precisely expressed. (If you're the kind who reads with a pen in hand, beware -- you could find yourself underlining almost the entire book.)

And it's profound. This freaks out any number of readers, because Eric Hoffer (1902-1983) is nobody's ideal of a public intellectual. He had no real schooling. He spent most of his working life as a longshoreman on the San Francisco docks. Almost every day, he took a three-mile walk. Along the way, thoughts formed. Later they became sentences, then books. Over the years, he wrote ten. The True Believer is his masterpiece. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

The genius of this book is Hoffer's ability to see beyond individual behavior to patterns of thought and behavior. On page one:

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.

Whoa. Let's unpack that.

What Hoffer is saying: Yes, you fundamentalist Christian dreaming of bombing Planned Parenthood... yes, you hard Right "conservative" who thinks life was better in 1955 and endorses any politician who pledges to get you there, no matter how... yes, you militia member who's certain that the government wants to confiscate your assault weapons before moving on to the rest of your arsenal -- for Eric Hoffer, you are the spiritual brother of the Nazi, of bin Laden, of Stalin, the KKK and, as of a few days ago, Anders Behring Breivik, the suspect in the shooting of almost a hundred of his fellow Norwegians, who seems to have hoped that this "necessary" slaughter will produce a hundred more.

Why does Hoffer make such a blanket condemnation?

All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them... breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single hearted allegiance. All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind.

As an idea, this isn't a splash of cold water -- it's a bitch slap to all those who believe so strongly in a cause that they want everybody else to believe in it. That single-mindedness, that intolerance, is the core question of Hoffer's book: what kind of people become fanatics?

The answer is personal. And psychological. Before they believed, Hoffer writes, they felt small, confused, destined for nothing. With belief, they feel strong, certain. Their fanaticism transforms them; losers become winners. ("Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in himself.")

Lost people attaching themselves to a passing raft -- if the cause sounds almost randomly chosen, it is. ("In pre-Hitlerian times, it was often a toss up whether a restless youth would join the Communists or the Nazis.")

The goal of the mass movement doesn't matter? Not according to Hoffer. He says: the more unrealistic and unattainable, the better. It's not even important that the doctrine be understood. In fact, Hoffer says, the harder it is to believe, the better. Forget your mind, trust your heart, the zealot says, and his followers do just that. ("We can be absolutely certain only about things we don't understand.")

You and I know that change is the one immutable law of life, that there are always at least two opinions, that we'll probably die not knowing the ultimate answers. Not so the members of mass movements. They know it all. ("A mass movement... must act as if it had already read the book of the future to the last word. Its doctrine is proclaimed as a key to that book.")

Right now, we are seeing the spread of anti-Muslim groups in Europe. (That is textbook Hoffer: "A movement can exist without a God but no movement can exist without a devil.") Here at home, we have quite a few zealots who also have a genius for identifying "devils" and turning them into "the Other." So it seems fairly obvious to me that at some point in the next few years -- if I were a betting man, I'd say before the 2012 election -- a home-grown extremist will use a legal weapon to kill dozens of people who have the misfortune to be Mexicans, Muslims, liberals, Jews or African-Americans.

There will be widespread disbelief when this happens. And punditry for weeks. Eric Hoffer's work will not be quoted -- it implicates many more people than the perpetrator of the violence. But if you've read The True Believer, you'll have a clue why it happened. And what, if we're unlucky, might come next.

Cross-posted from

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.