Eric Hoffer was born 120 years today. Or 124: as Tom Bethell argued in his biography of Hoffer, the latter’s youth was kind of a mystery. He was parsimonious with information and often self-contradictory. He famously maintained that he was blind for a number of years and that later such blindness went away, as suddenly as it came.
But what it is clear a from Hoffer’s biography is that he was a most interesting and rare case among 20th century intellectuals. He had little formal education, if any. He was always a manual worker and, after trying unsuccessfully to join the Army after Pearl Harbour, he landed a job as a longshoreman in San Francisco. He loved to read and one day picked up in a library Michel de Montaigne’s Essays. As many before and after him, he was enchanted by the beauty of Montaigne’s prose and by his ability to look into himself. That planted the seed which would blossom in his own determination to become a writer. Such a determination was pursued casually, until he sent a long letter to the magazine Common Ground. The piece was rejected, but Margaret Anderson encouraged his talent and forwarded his essay to an editor at Harper Brothers. Ultimately they published his great book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the nature of Mass Movements.
Dwight Eisenhower allegedly considered The True Believer his favourite. The book also prompted Lyndon Johnson to call Hoffer to the White House. Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It caused quite a sensation and was favourably commented upon by many of the heavyweights of the time. It is a great book which digs into the “demand side” of political mass movements. Hoffer quoted Hitler saying “the petit bourgeois social-democrat and the trade-union boss will never make a National Socialist, but the Communist will.” He looked at great, all-embracing mass movements as sources of meaning for the individuals who became “true believers.” It is one of the Hofferian themes: “blind faith is no substitute for lost faith in ourselves.”
The True Believer is still a very famous book and pops up routinely, when a new political movement needs to be scrutinised and its followers became a subject of interest to the press. It has been mentioned in connection with Jihadism and with populism. Google “Eric Hoffer and Donald Trump” and you’ll stumble upon very different ways to use Hoffer to read Trumpism.
I am relatively new to Hoffer, but tremendously impressed by him. His other works, beginning with his aphorisms and with The Ordeal of Change deserve to be better known. The latter is a truly thought-provoking read.
A few years ago, Thomas Sowell wrote this beautiful appreciation of Hoffer. Now, Sowell on Hoffer: that’s the Dictionary definition of self-recommending. Sowell reminds us of a key point in Hoffer’s thought:
Hoffer’s strongest words were for the intellectuals — or rather, against the intellectuals. “Intellectuals,” he said, “cannot operate at room temperature.” Hype, moral melodrama, and sweeping visions were the way that intellectuals approached the problems of the world.
But that was not the way progress was usually achieved in America. “Nothing so offends the doctrinaire intellectual as our ability to achieve the momentous in a matter-of-fact way, unblessed by words.”
Since the American economy and society advanced with little or no role for the intelligentsia, it is hardly surprising that anti-Americanism flourishes among intellectuals. “Nowhere at present is there such a measureless loathing of their country by educated people as in America,” Eric Hoffer said.”
Hoffer’s insights on the hubris of professional intellectuals is as profound as his reading of mass movements. Actually, the two are connected. “Mass movements do not usually rise until the prevailing order has been discredited. The discrediting is not an automatic result of the blunders and abuses of those in power, but the deliberate work of men of words with a grievance.”
This impatience for wordsmiths went together with a profound appreciation of the common person and of that society built by “unheroic” people that Hoffer understood the America of his years to be. “What is the uppermost problem which confronts the leadership in a Communist regime?”, he asked himself. His answer was: “how to make people work.” Communism wasn’t capable of nurturing that “readiness to work” and that “practical sense” that, for Hoffer, came naturally being in the American capitalist society. This was at least in part due to a wrong reading of people’s motivations and desires:
I remember how scornful I felt when I first Marx’s description of the worker’s attitude toward work in a capitalist society. The worker, he said, feels physically and orally debated by his work. He is like an exile in his place of work and feels at home only when away from is job. Marx never did a day’s work in his life, and never took the trouble to find out how a worker reply feels when on the job. He naturally assumed that works were a lesser breed of intellectuals.
Having a job, being a productive part of society, wasn’t “the meaning of life” for Hoffer, but he believed it gave people “a sense of usefulness and worth”. If people need “certificates of value”, it is way better if a society awards such certificates to them for things they make, rather than for slaughtering enemies. In Hoffer, you find enlightening pages on the trade; “trading is a form of self-assertion congenial to common people – a sort of subversive activity; undoctrinaire, unheroic and uncoordinated, yet ceaselessly undermining and frustrating totalitarian domination”. You also find surprising and thought-provoking observations: “the business atmosphere of the workshop is more favourable for the awakening and unfolding of the creative talents of the masses than the precious atmosphere of artistic cliques”.
I wish I read Hoffer earlier; I look forward to reading and pondering his works as much as I can.