Eric Hoffer was born 120 years ago today. OR 124: As Tom Bethel argues in his biography of Hoffer, his youth was something of a mystery. He was fond of facts and often contradictory. He famously maintained that he had been blind for several years and that such blindness had subsequently gone, as if it had come on suddenly.
But what is clear from Hofer’s biography is that he was one of the most interesting and rare of twentieth-century intellectuals. He had little, if any, formal education. He had always been a manual worker, and after unsuccessfully trying to join the Army after Pearl Harbor, he got a job as a longshoreman in San Francisco. He loved to read and one day picked up Michel de Montaigne’s library Essays. As many before and after him, he was captivated by the beauty of Montaigne’s prose and his ability to see within himself. planted the seed that would blossom into her own determination to become a writer. Such a resolution was followed casually, until he sent a long letter to the newspaper common ground. The part was rejected, but Margaret Anderson encouraged his talent and sent his essay to an editor at Harper Brothers. Finally they published his great book, True Believers: Reflections on the Nature of Mass Movements.
Dwight Eisenhower is alleged to have been considered true believer His favorite. 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 stir and was favorably commented upon by many heavyweights of the time. This is a great book that digs into the “demand side” of political mass movements. Hofer quoted Hitler as saying “Petite bourgeois Social-Democrats and trade-union bosses will never make National Socialists, but Communists.” He saw the great, all-encompassing mass movement as a source of meaning for those who had become “true believers”. This is one of the Hofferian themes: “Blind faith is no substitute for our lost faith in ourselves.”
true believer It is still a very popular book and pops up regularly, when a new political movement needs scrutiny and its followers become the subject of newspaper interest. It has been mentioned in relation to jihadism and populism. Google “Eric Hoffer and Donald Trump” and you’ll stumble upon various ways Hoffer is used to read Trumpism.
I’m relatively new to Hoffer, but very impressed by him. His other works, beginning with his aphorisms and The ordeal of change Deserves to be better known. The latter is a truly thought-provoking read.
A few years ago, Thomas Sowell wrote this beautiful eulogy of Hoffer. Now, sway on Hoffer: that’s the dictionary definition of self-suggestion. Sowell reminds us of a key point in Hoffer’s thinking:
Hoffer’s strongest words were for intellectuals—or rather against intellectuals. “Intellectuals,” he said, “can’t work at room temperature.” Hype, moral melodrama and sweeping visions were the way intellectuals approached the world’s problems.
But that’s not how progress was usually achieved in America. “Unblessed by words, the ability to achieve important things in practical ways does not disturb the intellectual of our doctrine.”
As the American economy and society progressed with little or no role for intellectuals, it is not surprising that anti-Americanism flourished among intellectuals. “Nowhere today is there such immeasurable hatred of their country by educated people as in America,” said Eric Hoffer.
Hoffer’s insight into the hegemony of professional intellectuals is as profound as his reading of mass movements. In fact, the two are connected. “Mass movements usually do not grow unless the established order is undermined. Defamation is not an automatic result of mistakes and abuses by those in power, but rather the deliberate act of those who speak with grievance.”
This impatience for talkers was combined with a deep understanding of the common man and of the society made up of the “neutral” people that Hofer understood in America during his years. “What is the biggest problem facing leadership in a communist regime?”, he asked himself. His answer was: “How to make people work.” Communism was not able to foster that “readiness to work” and that “practical sense” that, for Hoffer, came naturally to American capitalist society. This was at least partly due to a misreading of human motivations and desires:
I remember the contempt I felt when I first described Marx’s attitude to work in capitalist society. He said the worker felt physically and verbally challenged by his work. He is like an exile in his workplace and feels at home only when away from work. Marx never worked a day’s work in his life and never bothered to find out what a worker’s answer was at work. He naturally assumed that works were a lesser breed of intellectuals.
Having a job, being a productive part of society, was not 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 would be better if a society issued such certificates for the things they create rather than killing their enemies. At Hoffer, you find illuminated pages on commerce; “Business is a form of self-belief favorable to ordinary people – a form of subversive activity; Dishonest, unheroic and uncoordinated, yet endlessly uninterrupted and depressing totalitarian rule”. You also find surprising and thought-provoking observations: “The business atmosphere of the workshop is more conducive to awakening and unfolding the creative talents of the masses than the precious atmosphere of the artistic circle”.
I’d read Hoffer first; I look forward to reading and pondering his works as much as possible.