Cult Leaders Aim To Detach Their Followers From Reality

‘Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.’

For students of the human condition, Eric Hoffer is an indispensible guide. A self-educated dock labourer, Hoffer’s book ‘The True Believer’ is regarded as a classic of political psychology.

This blog post outlines Hoffer’s views on the power of mass movements, including his explanation as to why many ordinary people are willing to give up everything to sacrifice themselves to a ‘greater’ cause – even when that cause involves the slaughter of millions.

The Simple Dynamics of Mass Movements

According to Hoffer, every mass movement, be it communism, Nazism, nationalism or Islamic extremism, operates on the following simple dynamic.
A mass movement generates enthusiasm and fanaticism based on a fervent hope for change. But between longing for change and change itself lie ‘obstacles’ that must be removed.

These ‘obstacles’ – be they capitalists, Jews, foreigners or infidels – become the focus of intolerance and hatred.

The leaders of mass movements are masters at generating and manipulating the emotions that arise from this deceptively simple process.

Losing the Self in the Madness of the Crowd

The basic criteria for the success of any mass movement, according to Hoffer, is its ability to persuade people to surrender their individuality in pursuit of a ‘greater’ cause.

The first step in this process is achieved by immersing the individual in a group. By identifying with the group, the individual must come to believe that his hopes and sorrows, his pride and meaning, come from the nature and successes of the group rather than from his individual abilities and desires.

This task is made easier by the fact that mass movements have a powerful attractive force. When we become part of such a group, we feel a source of strength greater than anything we can feel as individuals. We cease to be our puny selves and become instead part of something eternal – a party, a religion, a race, a nation. Becoming part of such a movement can make us feel that we have found a new life and a new meaning.
Identifying with the group, however, as Hoffer explains, acts to detach us from reality and leaves us vulnerable to identifying with the imaginary identity that the group’s leaders have skilfully created.

In fact, according to Hoffer, it is one of the essential roles of the movement’s leadership to detach their followers from reality.

Members of the group must be persuaded, for example, to belittle the present and to focus their attention on a promised utopian future. In their searing speeches, the movement’s leaders urge their followers to sacrifice their present, transitory selves for eternal, heroic selves that will be applauded by an imaginary audience of future generations.

The leadership also uses doctrine and propaganda to make their followers impervious to the realities of the world.

‘The effectiveness of a doctrine’, Hoffer writes, ‘ should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity or the validity of the truths it embodies, but by how thoroughly it insulates the individual from his self and the world as it is.’ [1]

To this end, the movement’s leaders claim that ultimate and absolute truth is embodied in their doctrine alone. They insist that the faithful must act, not on their own experiences or observations, but on blind faith in their dogma.

Despite the power of group psychology, however, and the leadership’s best efforts in the use of doctrine and propaganda, persuasion alone is seldom enough to maintain the illusion upon which the movement is based.

To ensure its success, Hoffer reminds us, every mass movement must rely on violence and coercion as an indispensible tool for winning and keeping converts.

Eradicating the Enemy – The Power of Suspicion and Hate

Religious, nationalist, and socialist revolutionary movements are engines for generating enthusiasm and a fervent hope for radical change in the conditions of people’s lives.
All such movements, Hoffer writes, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their adherents from the same types of humanity, the same types of minds.

The success of such movements lies in the fact that they tap into basic human desires, including the longing for change in a context of profound injustice, and the passionate wish for a better future.

The leaders of mass movements must therefore know how to generate hope and a passion for change.

On the darker side, they must also know how to foster and exploit the powerful emotions that are evoked whenever progress towards the longed for goal is thwarted or delayed. When this inevitability occurs, the leaders consolidate their power by stoking hatred and paranoia, and by directing the masses’ hostility towards an unpopular ‘enemy’.
And if such enemies do not exist, they must be invented.

Hoffer highlighted this fundamental driver in the dynamic of mass movements in his memorable quote, ‘Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.’

Like a deity, this ‘devil’ must be omnipotent and omnipresent. Every setback and failure within the movement must be ascribed to the work of this devil – be it Jews, class enemies, infidels, or foreigners.

Mass movements also make extensive use of suspicion in their machinery of domination. The rank and file within the movement are made to feel that they are continually under observation and kept in a permanent state of fear. Innocent people are deliberately accused and sacrificed in order to keep suspicion alive.

It is the sacred duty of the true believer to be constantly on the lookout for saboteurs, spies and traitors.

Having given up their individual identities to the group in the service of attaining a longed for future, the members of the movement are now asked to buy into the leader’s conviction that further success depends on eradicating the ‘obstacles’ that stand in the way of progress.

The deadliness of the movement now hinges on the success of its leaders in infecting their followers with their particular brand of unreasonable hatred and in convincing the masses that their chosen opponents are the incarnation of evil and must be crushed.

Once the individuals making up the group become infected with the leader’s hatred, Hoffer writes, a new sense of freedom awaits.
‘There is no telling to what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts and the vague stirrings of decency that go with individual judgement. When we lose our individual independence in the corporateness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom – freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse.’ [2]

Utopia Denied – The Deadly Consequences of Group Psychology

In his poem ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’, W.H. Auden wrote:

‘Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.’

The leaders of violent mass movements, like their followers, seek to sweep away the old order . But they do not intent to create a society of free and independent men. Instead they seek to establish uniformity, individual anonymity and a structure of perfect unity within the movement they command– a unity of hatred focused on carrying out the leaders every wish.

Like Auden, Hoffer too writes poetically about the consequences when such leaders succeed:

‘When hopes and dreams are loose in the streets, it is well for the timid to lock doors, shutter windows and lie low until the wrath has passed.

For there is often a monstrous incongruity between the hopes, however noble and tender, and the action which follows them.

It is as if ivied maidens and garlanded youths were to herald the four horsemen of the apocalypse.’ [3]


1. Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Harper Perennial; Reissue edition, 2009, page 80

2. Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Harper Perennial; Reissue edition, 2009, page 100

3. Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Harper Perennial; Reissue edition, 2009, page 11

Note: This post quotes extensively from ‘The True Believer’ throughout.

4 thoughts on “Cult Leaders Aim To Detach Their Followers From Reality

    • Thanks Doug.
      I’ve just been to see the movie Salma. That gives a very different take on mass movements than the way Hoffer writes about them. Martin Luther King’s non-violent movement for civil rights has some of the same dynamic – a mass of people longing for change and a leader who generates hope for a better future.
      The crucial difference is the absence of hate and paranoia aimed at those who oppose change. It seems the really inspirational figures – MLK, Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi among them – are all able to work with the positive emotions generated by a mass movement and effectively diffuse the negative.

  1. Pingback: A Composition for Social Upheaval: Tribalism, Ideologues, Scapegoatism and Modern Media - LA Progressive

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