Saturday, 20 August 2011

extremists vs the present

I took a punt on The True Believer by Eric Hoffer recently. It's a series of reflections on how movements like communism and fascism attract adherents, and what kind of people are drawn to them. It's not great as it's very speculative (no underlying research) amd I suspect if it were written today it would vanish without a trace. Analysis has moved on a great deal since the 50s!

Still, it does hit the target quite a bit too (though maybe that's just because it confirms my prejudices about extremists). For example:
Not only does a mass movement depict the present as mean and miserable - it deliberately makes it so. It fashions a pattern of individual experience that is dour, hard, repressive and dull. It decries pleasures and comforts and extols the rigorous life. It views ordinary enjoyment as trivial or even discreditable, and represents the pursuit of personal happiness as immoral. To enjoy oneself is to have truck with the enemy - the present. The prime objective of the ascetic ideal preached by most movements is to breed contempt for the present. The campaign against the appetites is an effort to pry loose tenacious tentacles holding on to the present. That this cheerless individual life runs it's course against a colourful and dramatic background of collective pageantry serves to accentuate it's worthlessness.

The very impracticability of many of the goals which a mass movement sets itself is part of the campaign against the present. All that is practicable, feasible, and possible is part of the present. To offer something practicable would be to increase the promise of the present and reconcile us with it...

The radical and the reactionary loathe the present. They see it as an aberration and a deformity. Both are ready to proceed ruthlessly and recklessly with the present, and both are hospitable to the idea of self-sacrifice.. In reality the boundary line between radical and reactionary is not always distinct. The reactionary manifests radicalism when he comes to recreate his ideal past. Hs image of the past is based less on what it actually was than on what he wants the future to be. He innovates more than he reconstructs. A somewhat similar shift occurs in the case of the radical when he goes about building his new world. He feels the need for practical guidance, and since he has rejected and destroyed the present he s compelled to link the new world with some point in the past. If he has to employ violence in shaping the new, his view of man's nature darkens and approaches closer to that of the reactionary

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