At its inception a mass movement seems to champion the present against the past. It sees in the established institutions and privileges an encroachment of a senile, vile past on a virginal present. But, to pry loose the stranglehold of the past, there is need for utmost unity and unlimited self-sacrifice.
This means that the people called upon to attack the past in order to liberate the present must be willing to give up enthusiastically any chance of ever tasting or inheriting the present. The absurdity of the proposition is obvious. Hence the inevitable shift in emphasis once the movement starts rolling.
The present—the original objective—is shoved off the stage and its place taken by posterity—the future. More still: the present is driven back as if it were an unclean thing and lumped with the detested past. The battle line is now drawn between things that are and have been, and the things that are not yet.
To lose one’s life is but to lose the present; and, clearly, to lose a defiled, worthless present is not to lose much. Not only does a mass movement depict the present as mean and miserable—it deliberately makes it so. It fashions a pattern of individual existence 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 its course against a colorful and dramatic background of collective pageantry serves to accentuate its 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. Faith in miracles, too, implies a rejection and a defiance of the present.
When Tertullian proclaimed, “And He was buried and rose again; it is certain because it is impossible,” he was snapping his fingers at the present. Finally, the mysticism of a movement is also a means of deprecating the present. It sees the present as the faded and distorted reflection of a vast unknown throbbing underneath and beyond us. The present is a shadow and an illusion.
There can be no genuine deprecation of the present without the assured hope of a better future. For however much we lament the baseness of our times, if the prospect offered by the future is that of advanced deterioration or even an unchanged continuation of the present, we are inevitably moved to reconcile ourselves with our existence—difficult and mean though it may be.
All mass movements deprecate the present by depicting it as a mean preliminary to a glorious future; a mere doormat on the threshold of the millennium.
To a religious movement the present is a place of exile, a vale of tears leading to the heavenly kingdom; to a social revolution it is a mean way station on the road to Utopia; to a nationalist movement it is an ignoble episode preceding the final triumph. It is true of course that the hope released by a vivid visualization of a glorious future is a most potent source of daring and self-forgetting—more potent than the implied deprecation of the present.
A mass movement has to center the hearts and minds of its followers on the future even when it is not engaged in a life-and-death struggle with established institutions and privileges.
The self-sacrifice involved in mutual sharing and co-operative action is impossible without hope. When today is all there is, we grab all we can and hold on. We are afloat in an ocean of nothingness and we hang on to any miserable piece of wreckage as if it were the tree of life.
On the other hand, when everything is ahead and yet to come, we find it easy to share all we have and to forego advantages within our grasp. The behavior of the members of the Donner party when they were buoyed by hope and, later, when hope was gone illustrates the dependence of cooperativeness and the communal spirit on hope.
Those without hope are divided and driven to desperate self-seeking. Common suffering by itself, when not joined with hope, does not unite nor does it evoke mutual generosity. The enslaved Hebrews in Egypt, “their lives made bitter with hard bondage,” were a bickering, back-biting lot. Moses had to give them hope of a promised land before he could join them together.
The thirty thousand hopeless people in the concentration camp of Buchenwald did not develop any form of united action, nor did they manifest any readiness for self-sacrifice.
There was more greed and ruthless selfishness there than in the greediest and most corrupt of free societies. “Instead of studying the way in which they could best help each other they used all their ingenuity to dominate and oppress each other.
Excerpt From: Eric Hoffer. “The True Believer.”