The True Believer and Positive Disintegration

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

33 thoughts on “The True Believer and Positive Disintegration

    1. Thank you, Cathy! I have another draft that I’ll be posting soon on this topic…Dabrowski’s work is one of my major themes here, and it weaves well into so many things. I’ve found it so useful in my own growth and overcoming of things that I want to share it widely.

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  1. Very interesting. I wonder how much positive developmental influence individuals are truly succeptable to as adults. Like you say – Eleanor Roosevelt acted as her husband’s compass. Does this necessarily suggest development (or even discernment) on his part? What if Eleanor had been an awful human being? I will need to do some research into their relationship.

    I find this interesting, as I myself am in the ‘Eleanor role’ (partner’s compass) – though mostly feel ill equipped for it. Perhaps the situation has spurred on my developmental drive, however. Over time I feel a gulf widening between the two of us. I note that this sort of widening developmental mis-match seems to be implicated in a lot of mid life+ divorces.

    This sort of mismatch could also cause bands to break up, and social movements to go south (etc). In the case of social movements, if inner tension causes a splitting off of those further along in development – which faction will wield the most influence going forward? I’m guessing the much larger faction, probably. I’d be interested to hear about the general profile of social movement group members that you have found to be most counterproductive to the cause – though understand it’s probably not a good idea to write about it here.

    What you wrote about the genesis of the True Believer is heartbreaking:

    “Having lost confidence in their social system, they feel that their lives are essentially wasted…”

    It really hit me in the gut – the word ‘wasted’. I’m not sure how to extrapolate my thoughts on that right now.

    Also Mika’s statement:

    ‘Unfortunately, in most human societies the so-called average people are closer in their (lack of) development to psychopaths, as Dabrowski noted.’

    I guess what I’m wondering is: can there be much of an external influence on individual _development_? Will leadership always have the largest societal influence in the sense that most people seek to do little more than follow, ‘go along’, and/’get theirs’? If this is the case, how can more altruistic types of leaders appeal to the base desires of human beings in order to get the majority on board? Or are the altruistic types merely left waiting to scoop up a critical mass of those who have been so screwed over by ‘the opposition’ that they decide to try an alternative (and then some time down the line, the majority of people swing back to the other side for similar reasons that caused them to leave it in the first place). Perhaps the real problem here is dualism, and the way it locks people into guaranteed unsatisfactory options when something entirely new is required.

    And do we want actual psychopaths/sociopaths to develop in any way – or is it safest for them to remain static?

    I’m honestly not sure how much of this made sense. My mind scatters. But thank you for sharing a bit of your ongoing research Jessie, and proving much food for thought. I might just read ‘The True Believer’ someday. It sounds like a fascinating book.

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    1. This idea might be mad – but it just popped into my head that perhaps there is a parallel track of development for sociopaths, much like Dawbrowski’s track, but geared towards the development of ‘negative traits’ and actualising them out in the world. Having influence, etc.

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    2. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, Ro!

      TPD actually has something to say about the developmental influence people are susceptible as adults, but it has to do with an innate level of developmental potential (DP). According to Dabrowski, people with low levels of DP will not experience positive disintegration, whether children or adults; I don’t know what more recent child psych says about this, so maybe it’s possible to elevate DP in children. But adults with sufficent DP (whether it’s actally innate or instilled in them as children) can indeed continue to grow. So we might assume here that Franklin had sufficient DP, and Eleanor had lots of it. It struck me when you said you felt ill-equipped for it, because so did Eleanor; I read an article-length bio of her parsed through TPD, and it made that much clear. So she’s a really great example of adult development!

      I also suspect that you’re right that mismatches in DP would contribute to midlife divorce, and to bands splitting up and groups breaking down. And yes, I think that the larger faction will certainly wield the influence. (I think that the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks are a great example from history. I’ve not read thoroughly yet, but so far, this seems like just such an example.) As for the profile of members, well, what I can say is that the dynamic I described in my post on Twitter bullying plays into this, some people participating in that probably did have significant developmental potential and will continue to grow. (Good news: I’ve seen this happen!) So there’s room for some small amount of optimism there (to counter the larger truth which is that most people don’t). That’s why I like the term catalyst — we need that small amount of catalytic material injected into a movement to activate the development of other members who have potential but are stuck in the morass of a mob of frustrated, angry people looking for belonging and validation. It’s not a comfortable place to be, and good people can surely be smothered by movements that go bad.

      On the true believer’s sense of wasting one’s life — I had that reaction, too. This is probably why I am more sympathetic to the true believers than Hoffer seems to be in his impartial analysis. I get why they’re frustrated! It can create a circle of despair if not harnessed properly by good people, and that’s very, very hard to pull off.

      Which brings us to your point about external influence on individual development. This is THE question, really. And I don’t know the answer, but this is the PhD I want to write one day! You hit precisely on the problem: the good (i.e. more altruistic) leaders are reluctant to appeal to base desires, and probably aren’t naturally good at doing so. FDR was interesting here too in that, as I recall, he basically told prosocial activists to make him do something, i.e., create political pressure so he has no choice, because from where he stood, political pressure was the rudder he was forced to follow. And I agree with you about dualism, too! Dualism seems to be something that people fall back on when they are uncomfortable with the complexity of a situation. (My favorite quote on this note: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” F. Scott Fitzgerald.)

      As for psychopaths developing, at least according to TPD’s definition, they can’t. The definition of development in TPD is to grow in conscience, and psychopaths are people who lack the ability to do that. Of course, they can grow in non-Dabrowskian sense, getting craftier at achieving their selfish ends! But, hey, I had something like your idea of a parallel track of development for psychopaths, which I called “negative levels of development.” I posted about it here: (That article and this one are two of my posts that led to the most discussion!)

      Thanks again for such a thoughtful comment!! I love all the questions you asked. Answers will be hard to come by, but we can make an effort and get something out of it, I think!

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      1. Thank you for sharing this fantastic response Jessie. Your PhD plans – wow! Very worthwhile topic. I think I might have read your linked article at the time, but I wasn’t too well – so will read again 🙂

        Quickly linking to this amazing series of articles (very long – 30,000 words all up apparently). The main articles are free to read if you click through. I thought some here might be interested in checking them out:

        These articles really opened my eyes to corporate heirarchy and structure – as well as the ‘best possible fate’ of the corporate sociopath (seems horrifying, from my perspective). This triggered me to consider a sort of parallel developmental trajectory…

        I just found it all very fascinating, though am personally not involved in corporate life in any way. The comments under the articles are sometimes illuminating as well.

        Best wishes Jessie. I love your passion and tenacity in studying and building upon the TPD.

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    1. This also reminded me of something I was meaning to ask. I’ve been a socialist since I was 14, so the first time I went looking for an explanation why the world is the way it is, I found socialism and I’ve stuck with it since. You became a socialist when you were older, so how did you explain the world to yourself before then?

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      1. Hmmm. Well, I didn’t come up with an explanation of the world for myself; I figured I would get it when I was older and had studied more. I originally asked my parents about Communism sometime around the fall of the Berlin Wall or a bit before (I turned 7 in 1989), and remember thinking it sounded good (and even a right winger will surely agree that a basic definition of Communism sounds great at first glance), and wondering why we Americans were supposed to hate it. Then I learned that people espousing that good idea had done bad things, and I had an elementary school level disillusionment with humanity, but one that I had faith we’d eventually be able to work out in the future, and in the meantime capitalism seemed to be more or less working from my middle class child’s perspective, even though lots of things were still happening that seemed unfair and even cruel. But we’d make progress and figure it out. So maybe I was always temperamentally a socialist, and only decided to declare it politically after 2008 when there seemed to be a political point to it.


    2. I just read that too (via NC) and I thought exactly the same thing!
      JMG is an interesting character, I think he isn’t always right about his interpretation of technology related facts, but when he is lucid he can be very very lucid

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    3. Loving this article! “My socially conservative reader and the furious Democrats were alike behaving as though they didn’t actually have to convince anyone who disagreed with them—and they were doing this in a situation where, by any reasonable assessment, they had to do just that.” YES YES YES. And this: “[I]nstead of having to contend with antagonists who go around with big signs saying KICK ME—I’M EVIL taped onto their rumps, Harry and his pals are up against the visionary idealist Tom Riddle and his Campaign for a New Wizarding Future, which is full of bright faces, youthful enthusiasm, and soulful concern about how the wizarding world is being crushed under the boot-heel of mudbloodcentric hegemony.” YES. I’d read that book! It sounds terrifying in exactly the right way. A useful way. And I fear that he’s right that it probably wouldn’t have been the hit that the actual Harry Potter series was…. Also, excellent analysis of the roots of shaming as a political tactic here.

      The Babbitt Fallacy — this is great!! I’m going to have to refer to this here. (Yes, I’m making comments as I read.) I see why you shared this here: “He’s a jerk in an excellent cause—as Hesse himself did, he tries to oppose the movement toward a renewed militarism that ended up leading Germany into Hitler’s clutches—but he’s still a jerk, and one of the consequences is that he alienates an old friend who might otherwise have been sympathetic to his ideas.” Yup! That’s what’s happening in Good Movements right now.

      Oh, and this! Jotting down for myself to remember: “nor does what passes for a moderate stance these days, which usually amounts to blind commitment to business as usual at a time when business as usual has definitively passed its pull date.” Yeah, I have a blog post about that coming up. Stay tuned.

      Thanks for the link! And no, I haven’t read either of the books you mentioned, but I’d been thinking that Man’s Search for Meaning seemed worthwhile for a long time, and I’ll add The Mass Psychology of Fascism to my list, too!


      1. I just read Zamyatin’s We and Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning back to back (both free online). I’m drowning in positve disintegration here. Send help. 🙂

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  2. Thanks Jessie

    Your article resonates strongly with me as I’ve been using Dabrowski to help navigate through a very heart-breaking challenge of social ‘unilevel’ ambivalence towards whistle blowers (who’ve I’ve been supporting) through the process of exposing cases of abuse within a school system and the extended community. So experiencing the behaviour of ‘true believers’ from the coalface I’ve needed to understand this from up close.

    As Hoffer describes it, they offer “fact-proof screens between the faithful and the realities of the world.” These fact proof screens function as mutually co-dependent mechanisms between the authority figures/establishment and their followers to maintain the level 1 core needs of certainty, connection and significance. Any conflicting facts that interfere with level 1 integration will be met with denial.

    In order to better recognise behaviour of denial I’ve been developing a system using three other ‘D’ words which I call the 3D mindset. Diminish, Distract and Distance which in various permutations make up what we call the dysfunctional reaction to positive disintegration and the hindered progress towards multi level conscience. There are many examples but here is just an illustration:

    -Diminish the problem. (E.g.- It’s not that bad! or they are over-exaggerating or threats/intimidation etc )
    -Distract from the problem. (E.g.- look away and pretend it’s not there etc)
    -Distance from the problem.(E.g.- It’s not our problem or shunning the victim etc)

    These form a vocabulary towards what I call an ‘aware literacy of denial’, helping navigate through the motivations of the ‘true believer’ found in level 1 paradigms not only in others but ourselves included.

    On a more empowering note, I have also found another ‘D’ word that overcomes the scourge of denial. It is when brave individuals who ‘Dare’ to deal with the conflicts facing them they begin to discover a new way. The way onwards and upwards towards the multi-level personality.

    I hope these reflections add to your conversation.


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    1. A variant of this explanation is the ‘just world hypothesis’, the belief many hold deep down that good things will happen to good people and bad things will happen to bad people. If a bad thing happens to a good person they then either have to accept their view of the world is wrong, or try to make the bad thing less bad and the good person less good.

      The version of the three Ds I’d heard of before is called the ‘abuser triad’ – deny, minimize, blame. I’m trying to remember if anyone has ever developed a system for breaking people out of this pattern, but nothing is coming to mind.

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      1. Thanks for mentioning the abuser triad as I’ve never heard of it before. I’m curious to see if others have systemised this. I have been thinking of ways to implement the 3d approach so I should dig deeper into the abuser triad to see if there is anything out there.

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    2. Nathan, thank you so much for such a thought-provoking comment! I hadn’t thought of the true believer mindset with respect to whistle-blowers (and those responding to them), but it makes a lot of sense. You also said something that makes me want to refine how I talk about this issue: a potential true believer is at Level II; it’s reintegration at Level I that makes them qualify as an active true believer, in Hoffer’s sense.

      I love the language you have offered for the aware literacy of denial (and especially that you suggest we remember it can apply to us, too). I’ve seen diminishing, distracting, and distancing all at work — and not just in Hoffer’s “fanatic.” Those who are happily integrated at Level I do it regularly, too. As for those who are at higher levels and aspire to go higher still…I think those people can hope to be aware of these behaviors in themselves, but shouldn’t rest on the assumption that they will never unknowingly fall back on them. This is very human and speaks to how hard development actually is.

      As for Dare — this is true, and uplifting. It can be frightening, occasionally even dangerous. But we CAN empower ourselves. Thank you for this reminder!

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  3. You’re getting bombed with comments. Here’s another one.

    I followed the links to the TPD/Dabrowski stuff. This is connecting so many formerly separate lines of thought / learning, many many thanks for posting it. Makes me wish I wasn’t such a miserable student of non-STEM when I took psych 101 like 17 years ago or whenever. Who knew it could be useful to your own life? On a personal life level, completely separate from what I’m about to follow this with, this is really cool and helps me maybe begin to understand some utterly confusing things I’ve been trying to decode from someone important to me, so I just want to thank you for putting it up.


    [ long preface, tldr: Anyway, specifically as it applies to social movements, I want to maybe put in some related things. Using the analogy from individual personality development, to an individual or group’s approach to politics. It’s going to be a poor analogy , very misshapen by the purposes of my online writing, but that’s the angle I’m coming from at the moment. I realize (I think) that what you’re talking about is entirely about *self* development, developing empathy and conscientiousness and so forth as individuals and as a group – that you’re not talking about manipulating others. However I will, for just a second, because I think manipulating others is the essence of applied contemporary politics, and therefore these manipulations will be a mighty distracting force for any positive human examplars , any genuine movement building etc. So with that- the flawed analogy I came upon via my own blogging experiences. ]

    It seems that people at this vulnerable stage (which I think shares so much with the TPD description of level II??) are ripe for beginning an exploration of politics through a lens other than that of the two “mainstream” parties. (This is a double edged sword, IMO. Rejection of the mainstream is an unavoidable precondition of reform, but is also a precondition of a lot of crappy political beliefs). Returning to the hypothetical person in question, experiencing this crisis of belief… I don’t think they’re just vulnerable, I think they’re actively pushed (with ulterior motives), on the one hand, and actively encouraged to return to “level 1” on the other hand.

    In terms of actively pushed with ulterior motives, I think two specific groups have been more savvy than the “old left” in this- specifically, libertarians and the ethno-nationalists / alt-right (in contrast to mainstream conservatives), both of which have appropriated several formerly leftist themes (such as anti-war), and are currently in the process of appropriating economic justice for a working-class audience. In future years they will go after latinos on the basis of family values.

    On the other hand, in terms of being actively encouraged to regress, that is obviously the burning need of the mainstream “centrist” parties, threatened simultaneously from both sides.

    This all leads to really awful places – using scholarly knowledge of human personality development as a means to an end. That’s not where I’m going. However, I think it’s pretty clear that it will be done by others at an accelerating rate. (and FWIW enabled by social media, this wild new factor in group behavior)

    So I wish I could say more about Socialist / SocDem movement building, but it seems like youre approaching some sort of common factor that I’ve seen derail progressive electoral efforts since 2004.

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    1. Pete, welcome and thank you for the great comment! (I consider it a win when a post is bombarded with thoughtful comments. 🙂 ) I’m so glad that the Theory of Positive Disintegration was interesting and potentially useful to you. I just had this sense that it would be, if only more people knew about it, so it’s always gratifying to meet one more person who shares that sense.

      I think you’re absolutely right about the role of manipulation in mainstream politics. It’s all about people with power trying to channel the masses in the direction of their choosing. And YES, this definitely means that such manipulators want people to return to Level I! This is also a bit different from what Hoffer was talking about, at least in the beginning stages of a movement; eventually, the powerful will take it over and it’s not catalytic anymore, but just a new normal. (That’s something else Hoffer wrote that I didn’t get into.)

      And you touch on THE question, which is…what is a highly developed person supposed to make of these realities of the human political sphere? Do they use this knowledge to some positive end? (I think many on the Left would argue they’re doing just that, in response to any suggestions I or others might make that they’re doing something counterproductive.) This is why I’m interested in the biographies of leaders, both the truly admirable and the effective but scary types. More and more, I am coming to see that leadership does matter, even as I want to empower ordinary people. But you can’t lead people who aren’t at least a bit like you. Hmmmm. Suffice it to say I don’t have an answer, but am thinking in line with you on this. I want to dig deeper into this in future posts and even maybe some bigger projects. Again, I see it as THE question, perhaps for all time and never to be fully surmounted, but still with the potential for the forces of good to gain some ground.

      And social media is hugely important in this, as we’re seeing with all this Russia election stuff, and as we saw even before that with the social media of various movements, right, left, and even center.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Oh, and one thing I forgot to add: Hoffer expressly cites nationalism as something that is always fertile ground for movements, because outsiders are always the easiest people to blame for anything. It was eerily prescient of…well, of so many things, really.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Dabrowski was a collaborator in the Soviet underground with A. Lobaczewski (a Polish clinical psychologist) and other psychologists and psychiatrists on a work that was later to become ‘Political Ponerology’. In this very scholarly book Lobaczewski references Dabrowski’s ‘disintegration’. The book describes how totalitarian states are born and how through a natural biological sequence psychopaths end up in charge of such states. Elizabeth Mika (also a Polish clinical psychologist) references both Dabrowski and Lobaczewski in her writings (see her wordpress blog, ‘Good Marriage Central’)

    The process begins when a privileged part of society (e.g. the well-off) refuses to face unpleasant truths about how it became privileged (i.e. injustices). It blocks out its conscience, and as a result starts to think with twisted rationalizations, to become egotistical and to become highly emotional. This sickness spreads over many generations throughout society, which gradually becomes polarized. The sickness (‘hysterization’) results in an inability to accurately judge reality and the psychological health of others: increasingly dysfunctional / pathological people gradually rise up the ranks, each type of deviant preparing the way for the next (worse) type of deviant, much like a bad office environment can produce bad managers from its ranks who in turn make the office environment even worse. Eventually a ‘spellbinder’, typically a malignant narcissist, a psychopath or an individual with damage to the frontal lobes of the brain rises to power. This individual is pathologically grandiose and pours out twisted logic, twisted morality and Big Lies. The ‘spellbinder’ either leads the nation into wars, implosion or a totalitarian state. In the totalitarian state psychopaths infiltrate an existing ideological movement and gradually work their way to the top.

    Lobaczewski makes the point that moral or emotional judgements of pathological people in power, who are either suffering from pathological parenting, brain lesions (infections, medicinal damage, trauma etc.) or hereditary factors (psychopaths) makes everything worse as it simply plays into their hands. As an analogy, calling someone with dyslexia ‘bad’ means that we can’t help him or her effectively. Likewise, we can’t effectively oppose ‘spellbinders’ or other deviants in power if we concentrate on their policies (their ‘ideological masks’), or their morality, or if we get emotionally outraged at their behavior , in the same way that morally judging a psychiatric patient, or taking their verbiage seriously, or getting outraged at their behavior won’t allow us to find appropriate treatment for them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Lo! Let it be known from this day forth that if you hear people say we should “put it behind us”, “let the past be the past”, “for the common good”, you have just met the new ruling class and THIS IS WHAT THEY WILL BRING ABOUT. Heed well this from now until our final day.


    2. Paul, welcome to the board and thanks for the thoughtful post. This sounds quite interesting. Where did you hear about Lobaczewski’s work, and Dabrowski’s connection to it? I haven’t stumbled across it in the Dabrowski materials available at, and wonder if the greater TPD community is familiar with this work. I’ll talk to Elizabeth Mika about it for sure. Thanks for flagging this!

      The idea that we need to understand the “patient,” even if the patient is actually a world leader, rings true to me. Of course harmful policies do need to be opposed, but that’s not enough. Not if we want to figure out why these people rise (and keep rising) to power, and do something about that.


      1. Hi, just seen that you’ve replied to this post, hope that I remember which email I used. I realise that this blog is officially now dead, but this might reach you. The quotes below reference avoiding moralizing judgements of pathological ‘leaders’, and mention Dabrowski and Positive Disintegration.

        ‘We close the door to a causative comprehension of phenomena and open it to vengeful emotions and psychological error whenever we impose a moralistic interpretation upon faults and errors in human behavior, which are in fact largely derived from the various influences of pathological factors, whether mentioned above or not, which are often obscured from minds untrained in this area. We thereby also permit these factors to continue their ponerogenic activities, both within ourselves and others. Nothing poisons the human soul and deprives us of our capacity to understand reality more objectively than this very obedience to that common human tendency to take a moralistic view of human behavior.
        Many people suffer an inevitable shock and react with opposition, protest, and disintegration of their human personality when informed of such a state of affairs, namely that they have been under the spellbinding and traumatizing influence of a macrosocial pathological phenomenon, regardless of whether they were followers or opponents thereof. Many people are awakened to anxious protest by the fact that the ideology they either condemned or somehow accepted, but considered a guiding factor, is now being treated as something secondary in importance.

        The noisiest protests will come from those who consider themselves fair because they condemned this macrosocial phenomenon with literary talent and raised voices, utilizing the name derived from its most current ideology, as well as making excessive use of moralizing interpretations with regard to pathological phenomena. Forcing them to an apperception of a correct understanding of the pathocracy will be quite a Sisyphean labor, since they would have to become conscious of the fact that their efforts largely served goals which were the opposite of their intentions. Especially if they engaged in such activities professionally, it is more practical to avoid liberating their aggressions; one could even consider such generally elderly people too old for therapy.
        Essential psychopathy: Within the framework of the above assumptions,
        let us characterize another heredity transmitted anomaly whose role in ponerogenic processes on any social scale appears exceptionally great. We
        should also underscore that the need to isolate this phenomenon and examine it in detail became quickly and profoundly evident to those researchers – including the author – who were interested in the macrosocial scale of the genesis of evil, because they witnessed it. I acknowledge my debt to Kazimierz Dabrowski in doing this and calling this anomaly an “essential psychopathy”.
        If any group seeks to avoid ponerization, it will want to exclude individuals with any psychological dependence on subjective beliefs, rites, rituals, drugs, and certainly those individuals that are incapable of objectively analyzing their own inner psychological content or who reject the process of Positive Disintegration.’


        1. Hi Paul,

          Interesting passages. If you’re interested in sharing this with a wider audience, why not pitch a piece to Third Factor? Of course, what you have here is pretty abstract, so an introduction and basic primer might be a place to start, asserting why and how to apply this today….


  5. I’ve just finished thoroughly reading a very long description of Dabrowski’s theory. And I can say, from personal experience of my own psychological development, as well as my free-thinking contemplation of both sides of politics from the standpoint of a disaffected middle, that everything he said about becoming a better person is exactly backward.

    Anyone who actually follows through with Dabrowski’s program would become a terrorist.


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