I recently finished a book that I’d recommend to any of you who are interested in social movements, whether as observers or participants. You may already have heard of it: it’s called the The True Believer, by Eric Hoffer, and it’s something of a sociological classic. It’s old enough to speak of the Nazis as very recent history, but Hoffer’s insights are still relevant to the movements of our times, including the Alt-Right and the broader Trump movement as well as, yes, elements on the Left. I’m active in the modern socialist movement, so that context came often to my mind as I read, and from that perspective, Hoffer’s work was too often dishearteningly accurate. I don’t agree with everything he said, but his overall thesis has something to it, and I’d love to see members of movements I support treat it as constructive criticism and an opportunity for self-reflection. I know I sure did.
But I’m not going to focus on the socialist movement in this post. I’m going to talk about the Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD). Because about halfway through this book, it struck me: The True Believer is all about unilevel disintegration. It sheds light on what happens at this level, and suggests something valuable about what it means to fall back to Level I instead of progressing to Level III. Personally, I’m excited about this, because by viewing the people Hoffer dubs “true believers” through the lens of Dabrowski’s hierarchy of development, I found some clues as to why some movements achieve constructive social change while others become destructive. (This has long interested me as a socialist for obvious reasons.) Moreover, this insight could be useful to all of us, activists or not and in whatever movement, who are seeking to grow and develop in politically precarious times that need us to be at our best.
So, first, let’s recap: what exactly did Hoffer and Dabrowski have to say?
What Did Hoffer Mean by “True Believer?”
I obviously will only be skimming the surface here, and can’t touch on everything that’s interesting in a single blog post, so here’s just the core of Hoffer’s argument: mass movements begin with lots of frustrated people. Having lost confidence in their social system, they feel that their lives are essentially wasted—a statement that I find readily applicable to many on the Left and the Right. “When our individual interests and prospects do not seem worth living for, we are in desperate need of something apart from us to live for,” says Hoffer.
And movements offer just that. They give us feelings of purpose. They provide hope. They promise a future! But the cost of all this is that the movements tend to tell members what to think. As Hoffer describes it, they offer “fact-proof screens between the faithful and the realities of the world.”
Hoffer sees these adherents emerging from several places. First and foremost, they come from the “new poor,” meaning those who have seen their fortunes sink (which would seem to describe, for example, highly educated but debt-laden Millennials). Others come from a variety of groups that Hoffer describes collectively as “misfits.”
When these people assimilate themselves into the group—and find belonging and purpose—they enmesh themselves into a social dynamic that promotes a “facility for united action and self-sacrifice.” In doing so, they limit their room for questioning and individual opinion. Hence Hoffer’s epithet, “true believer.” And this facility for united action is precisely where the movement’s catalytic power comes from.
But the book ends with a small bit of hope. The final chapter is called Good and Bad Mass Movements, implying that movements for good causes aren’t necessarily doomed to go Bolshevik. Despite his unflattering portrait of what he considers the typical adherent, Hoffer does note that needed social change necessarily comes from the efforts of these frustrated masses.
What Did Dabrowski Mean by “Unilevel Disintegration?”
If you’re otherwise interested in this post but don’t know much about TPD, you may want to check out my beginner’s guide, especially the part about the levels, but here’s a quick review of the relevant details. TPD posits that individuals can (though not all do) progress through several levels of development, ranging from a self-centered integration on the low end (Level I) through a prosocial integration on the high end (Level V). Levels II, III and IV, however, are all stages of psychic disintegration, in which people are internally messy in distinct ways.
People who find personal value in TPD tend to focus their attention on Levels III and IV, which are all about multilevelness: you perceive higher and lower paths, and you aim to follow the higher. And it’s precisely this perception of a hierarchy of values that marks the step from Level II to III. That means that our poor Level IIer is experiencing the very painful process of unilevel disintegration, in which he is buffeted about by what Dabrowski called ambivalences and ambitendencies. In other words, he knows something is wrong—he’s experiencing disintegration—but he can’t decide on his own what to do about it. He’s not adjusted to the norm, but he can’t determine which path to adjustment will lead him up out of his maladjustment. He therefore wants nothing more than to reintegrate down to the stability and security of Level I.
That’s what I think is going on with Hoffer’s true believer.
The Unilevel Disintegration of the True Believer
So, the true believer is, above all, frustrated because she hasn’t been able to meet some basic needs under the present system; TPD would call this maladjustment. Hoffer contrasts this with the people who are doing just fine under the status quo, and who therefore do not take up any holy transformative cause. (Of course, viewed through the TPD lens, those well-adjusted people could easily be at Level I; they’re not necessarily more developed than the frustrated folks we’re looking at.)
Frustration, obviously, can make a mess of our psychological well being. In TPD, maladjustment to our surroundings is a major disintegrating force, and it has both positive and negative forms. The form our disintegrating individual experiences depends in part on the way he handles those frustrations and the resources for coping that are available to him. Consider this description Hoffer offers of the “fanatic” (which is one of three subcategories of true believers, and is the one I’m mainly focusing on for this post):
The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual resources—out of his rejected self—but finds it only by clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace. […] He embraces a cause not primarily because of its justness and holiness but because of his desperate need for something to hold on to. (80)
In his drive to reintegrate, then, the fanatic relies on external influences (Dabrowski would refer to this as the second factor) to direct his adjustment. But there’s also something called the third factor in TPD (which I’ve tried to unpack in another post) which we can define essentially as an autonomous conscience. Unfortunately, in the case of Hoffer’s typical fanatic, neither the internal nor the external environment is conducive to developing the third factor. And so this true believer fails to perceive the higher path—and I am speaking here not of a path to a superior political end, but to developing as a person, which will affect how one follows any given political path—and therefore is likely to reintegrate at Level I rather than progress to Level III.
The Role of Dabrowski’s Catalysts
One of the places where I’d qualify Hoffer’s work is that I don’t think people close to the caricature of the true believer necessarily constitute the majority of the activists and organizers I’ve known. (Indeed, I’ve written before that I think a lot of people join DSA at Level III.) Reality is messier than any given sketch of a hypothetical activist; everyone surely has threads of fanatic potential woven into their psyche, and could find these threads woven more tightly in the right circumstances. Furthermore, most of us probably exhibit Level II behavior some of the time (your overall level is an average of the levels of various behaviors you exhibit). That’s why I think it would be so healthy for activists to read this book and size ourselves up against it, without necessarily accepting the caricature as our spitting image.
But there are people active in what I’d consider good movements—movements with healthy, pro-social goals—who do behave (whether consistently or just at key moments) like Hoffer’s true believer. And if that becomes the overall dynamic of the group, the movement will reintegrate collectively at Level I instead of progressing to Level III. This could lead to a variety of negative outcomes: in the socialist movement, for example, the scariest would be that (after becoming big enough to gain real power) we follow the path that the fledgling Soviet Union took; a more likely and still disheartening one is that the small group never does get that big, and just becomes a venting club for like-minded people that alienates potential supporters.
On this note, I found a highly relevant passage in an article by Elizabeth Mika, who writes excellent articles on TPD (and who has joined our discussion before). In Our Positive Disintegration, an introduction to TPD for the Trump era, she writes:
The health of a society can be measured by the number of people who have achieved the level of personality [ed. note: Level IV-V], and by the emotional and moral health of the average people inhabiting the so-called statistical norm. The greater the number of moral exemplars, but also average people who are closer in their character profiles to psychoneurotics (folks with an overactive conscience), the healthier the society. Unfortunately, in most human societies the so-called average people are closer in their (lack of) development to psychopaths, as Dabrowski noted.
This passage surely can be applied not just to society, but to movements. The more people in them who reach higher levels of development, the healthier that movement will be—and, I’d wager, the more likely those movements are to be what Hoffer describes as good movements.
Unfortunately, not everyone in a movement will reach Level IV-V. This simply is too rare to make it our goal. But we can focus on raising the overall level! And I see two ways to do this:
First, leadership matters. And here’s where we see something else intriguing: the leaders Hoffer cites as leading what he (and most of us) would consider good movements are some of the same people Dabrowski cites as personality exemplars and human catalysts. Hoffer names Lincoln, Gandhi, and FDR as leaders who effectively channeled their mass movements to effect positive social change; Dabrowski and Piechowski have cited all of these leaders as demonstrating high level (Level IV+) development (or, in the case of FDR, it was really Eleanor, his noted external conscience, who reached Level IV, and then told Franklin what he ought to do).
But it can’t be all about the leader. As Mika noted, the overall level of the rank and file members matters, too. So for a movement to be healthy, it would seem that there need to be enough people holding out a hand to the Level IIs and encouraging them to continue their disintegration: don’t reintegrate back at Level I, where you need not think, and where the group’s norms shield you from messes and pain; but go on to Level III, where the multilevelness of things becomes more and more visible, and where you become increasingly able to navigate its complexity.
This can only happen if the environment doesn’t drive away those who see things a little differently. It has to be willing not just to tolerate (e.g., refrain from publicly shaming) individuals with “wrong” takes, but to embrace them as people who have their own stories that brought them to their own disintegrations. (This is particularly important in movements that hold democracy as a value.)
Speaking for myself rather than trying to represent Hoffer, the movements I think are good are the ones that can exist in a Level IV-V form. True believers in white supremacy, for instance, can’t ever be said to have the “universal values” that make up Level V. But various other movements on the Left—and, sure, maybe there are even some that are not on the Left ;)—have at their heart values that are undeniably good, even if in their pursuit we sometimes falter and veer off track. And though we can hope that a Gandhi or an Eleanor Roosevelt shows up to lead us, we can’t rely only on the leaders. It is up to each one of us who is seeking to improve our world to go through that difficult process of disintegration and reintegration directed by our own autonomous conscience, all the while holding out a hand to others seeking to do the same.
Image credits: Free-Photos, DasWortgewand, kellepics, Daniel_Nebreda, and EvaTejado via Pixabay