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The Legacy of Eric Hoffer

The twentieth anniversary of the death of Eric Hoffer, in May 1983, passed with very little notice of one of the most incisive thinkers of his time — a man whose writings continue to have great relevance to our times.

How many people today even know of this remarkable man with no formal schooling, who spent his life in manual labor — most of it as a longshoreman — and who wrote some of the most insightful commentary on our society and trends in the world?

You need only read one of his classics like The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements to realize that you are seeing the work of an intellectual giant.

Having spent several years in blindness when most other children were in school, Hoffer could only do manual labor after he recovered his sight, but was determined to educate himself. He began by looking for a big book with small print to take with him as he set out on a job as a migratory farm worker.

The book that turned out to fill this bill — based on size and words — was the essays of Montaigne. Over the years, he read many landmark books, including Hitler’s Mein Kampf, even though Hoffer was Jewish. If ever there was a walking advertisement for the Great Books approach to education, it was Eric Hoffer.

Among Hoffer’s insights about mass movements was that they are an outlet for people whose individual significance is meager in the eyes of the world and — more important — in their own eyes. He pointed out that the leaders of the Nazi movement were men whose artistic and intellectual aspirations were wholly frustrated.

Hoffer said: “The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.”

People who are fulfilled in their own lives and careers are not the ones attracted to mass movements: “A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding,” Hoffer said. “When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.”

What Hoffer was describing was the political busybody, the zealot for a cause — the “true believer,” who filled the ranks of ideological movements that created the totalitarian tyrannies of the 20th century.

In a comment very relevant to the later disintegration of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe and the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union itself, he observed that totalitarian governments’ “moment of greatest danger is when they begin to reform, that is to say, when they begin to show liberal tendencies.”

Mikhail Gorbachev’s place in history was secured by his failure to understand that and his willingness to believe that a decent and humane Communist society was possible. But, once the people in Eastern Europe no longer had to fear tanks or the gulags, the statues of Lenin and Stalin began being toppled from their pedestals, like the governments they represented.

Contrary to the prevailing assumptions of his time, Eric Hoffer did not believe that revolutionary movements were based on the sufferings of the downtrodden. “Where people toil from sunrise to sunset for a bare living, they nurse no grievances and dream no dreams,” he said. He had spent years living among such people and being one of them.

Hoffer’s insights may help explain something that many of us have found very puzzling — the offspring of wealthy families spending their lives and their inherited money backing radical movements. He said: “Unlimited opportunities can be as potent a cause of frustration as a paucity or lack of opportunities.”

What can people with inherited fortunes do that is at all commensurate with their unlimited opportunities, much less what their parents or grandparents did to create the fortune in the first place, starting from far fewer opportunities?

Like the frustrated artists and failed intellectuals who turn to mass movements for fulfillment, rich heirs cannot win the game of comparison of individual achievements. So they must change the game. As zealots for radical movements, they often attack the very things that made their own good fortune possible, as well as undermining the freedom and well-being of other people.

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“There are many who find a good alibi far more attractive than an achievement. For an achievement does not settle anything permanently. We still have to prove our worth anew each day: we have to prove that we are as good today as we were yesterday. But when we have a valid alibi for not achieving anything we are fixed, so to speak, for life.”

This is just one of the pungent insights of Eric Hoffer, who died twenty years ago. This particular quote is from his book of short sayings called The Passionate State of Mind. In another such book, Before the Sabbath, he saw the “Nixon tragedy” as that of an “opportunist who missed his greatest opportunity.”

Some of Hoffer’s books are collections of short, sharp insights, while others — The True Believer, The Ordeal of Change, and The Temper of Our Times, for example — offer more extended discussions of particular issues.

Although Eric Hoffer was perhaps at his zenith during the 1960s, he was completely at odds with the pious cant and slippery evasions of that rhetoric-ridden decade, whose tragic consequences are still with us today.

When a black man declared his “rage,” Eric Hoffer shot back: “Mister, it is easy to be full of rage. It is not easy to go to work and build something.” For this, he was accused of “racism” for not rolling over and playing dead at the sound of one of the buzzwords of the times — and, unfortunately, of our times as well.

Hoffer was convinced that the black leadership was taking the wrong approach, if they wanted to advance the people in whose name they spoke. Only achievement would win the respect of the larger society and — more important — their own self-respect. And no one else can give you achievement.

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.

Some of the outrageous comments from intellectuals and academics, that the 9-11 terrorist attacks were somehow our own fault, bore out what Hoffer had said many years earlier.

Eric Hoffer never bought the claims of intellectuals to be for the common man. “A ruling intelligentsia,” he said, “whether in Europe, Asia or Africa, treats the masses as raw material to be experimented on, processed and wasted at will.”

One of the many conceits of contemporary intellectuals that Hoffer deflated was their nature cult. “Almost all the books I read spoke worshipfully of nature,” he said, recalling his own personal experience as a migrant farm worker that was full of painful encounters with nature, which urban intellectuals worshipped from afar.

Hoffer saw in this exaltation of nature another aspect of intellectuals’ elitist “distaste for man.” Implicit in much that they say and do is “the assumption that education readies a person for the task of reforming and reshaping humanity — that is equips him to act as an engineer of souls and manufacturer of desirable human attributes.”

Eric Hoffer called it “soul raping” — an apt term for what goes on in too many schools today, where half-educated teachers treat the classroom as a place for them to shape children’s attitudes and beliefs in a politically correct direction.

This is creating the next generation of “true believers,” indoctrinated with ideologies that provide “fact-proof screens from reality” in Hoffer’s words. It is the antithesis of education.

Eric Hoffer was ahead of his time. It is a literary treat to read him in order to catch up with our own times.

  • SCIdirector

    Eric Hoffer’s great insight into human behavior was will willingness of too many of us to fail to embrace our responsibilities toward one another as members of a community. Locke’s ideal of voluntary association could not stand for long, as he himself acknowledged in what is referred to as Locke’s Proviso (i.e., that there is enough land of equal potential productivity for all). Even Mr. Sowell (from what I have read by him) has not recognized the key insights of the political economists from which his profession derives. Smith shared with Quesnay and Turgot the moral as well as practical need to distinguish nature (i.e., that which is available to us to exploit but which is not produced by labor with or without capital goods) and the products which ought to be recognized as legitimate forms of private goods and property. Thus, the world described by Eric Hoffer was and is a world plagued by entrenched rentier interests.

    The insights of the great moral philosophers have been lost not because intellectuals have rejected them but because those who are described as or who self-describe themselves as intellectuals are deeply but narrowly schooled. Robert M. Hutchins, the much maligned President of the University of Chicago from 1931 to about 1950, embarked on a failed attempt to reverse the pattern of specialized instruction and the dismantling of the mission of the university to provide an environment for interdisciplinary learning based on the study of the Great Books of Western Civilization.

    I may not fully agree with the list of Great Books as compiled by Mortimer Adler, but the study of original texts in full rather than brief extracts that appear in modern textbooks is how true understanding develops. To fully understand ‘laissez-faire’ students should be reading not only Adam Smith but Turgot and the other Physiocrats. To fully understand ‘state-socialism’ should be reading Marx and Lenin. To fully understand constitutional democracy, students should be reading Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke, as well as the Federalist papers.

    The curious few will seek out and gravitate to these important contributors to our understanding of the dynamics of civilization and human behavior. I believe that Hutchins and Adler were correct: all young persons should be exposed to the great books and the great ideas early in life to lay the foundations for thoughtful discourse as life progresses.