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    In 1951, when Believer first appeared, eager eyes had long been peeled for the emergence of a
    proletarian philosopher.  A genuine one emerged at last--with a philosophical cast very different
    from what a proletarian was supposed to think.  The literary shock could hardly have been greater.

    For Hoffer's hero is 'the autonomous man,' the content man at peace with himself, engaged in the
    present.  In Hoffer's book, this hero, nourished by free societies, is set off against 'the true believer,'
    who begins as a frustrated man driven by guilt, failure and self-disgust to bury his own identity in a
    cause oriented to some future goal.
            -Editor's Preface to the Time-Life Books edition of The True Believer

There may be no harder form for an author to attempt than writing in aphorisms.  The required combination of brevity and profundity is exceptionally hard to maintain, in fact most authors only toss off a few good ones in their entire career.  The most famous exception to the rule is Friederich Nietzsche, who, whatever we may think of the destructive influence of his ideas, must be admitted to be a brilliant philosopher (see Orrin's review.)  But interestingly enough, Eric Hoffer, a self educated field hand and longshoreman, is more than a match for him.  There are so many quotable passages in this little book that you can seriously open to just about any page and find a sentence that will stop you in your tracks and make you ponder its implications.  It is in no way possible to address all the ideas that he broaches, so let me just try a couple.

Perhaps the most important insight in the book--and it is very hard to settle on just one--is that the members of mass movements, who ostensibly seek to better the lot of all mankind, are motivated not by altruism but by selfishness.  They join such movements not because they believe in any particular ideals or goals but because they do not believe in themselves :

    Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden...We join
    a mass movement to escape from individual responsibility, or, in the words of an ardent young
    Nazi, 'to be free from freedom.' It was not sheer hypocrisy when the rank-and-file Nazis declared
    themselves not guilty of all the enormities they had committed.  They considered themselves
    cheated and maligned when made to shoulder responsibility for obeying orders. Had they not
    joined the Nazi movement in order to be free from responsibility?


    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.


    A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his
    mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business.

With these startling thoughts, Eric Hoffer, one of the very proletarians for whom activist intellectuals always claim to be fighting, stood conventional wisdom on its collective head and threw down a challenge which has never been adequately answered.

Traditionally folks have been willing to forgive coercive utopians for the catastrophic harm they have done to society because it was felt : "their hearts were in the right place," that however misguided their actions proved to be, they should be forgiven because they meant well.  Think of how charitably we look upon youthful membership in the Communist Party by many artists and intellectuals of the 1930's.  Sure the Party was funded by Moscow and served Soviet ends and, of course, we realize now that Communism was not quite as beneficial to the workers of the world as it was supposed to be, but surely we can all agree that their motivations were noble, that they were thinking only of the downtrodden, right?  Wrong.  Hoffer exploded that myth and forced us to consider that they were driven by feelings of personal inadequacy and the desire to tear others down.

In fairness to Hoffer, let it be noted that he applied this logic to all mass movements, including Christianity, not just to Communism or Nazism.  In addition, he differentiated amongst such movements, believing some to be more beneficial in the long term than others :

    The manner in which a mass movement starts out can also have an effect on the duration and mode
    of termination of the active phase of the movement.  When we see the Reformation, the Puritan,
    American and French revolutions and many nationalist uprisings terminate, after a relatively short
    active phase, in a social order marked by increased individual liberty, we are witnessing the
    realization of moods and examples which characterized the earliest days of the movements.  All of
    them started by defying and overthrowing a long-established authority.  The more clear-cut this
    initial act of defiance and the more vivid its memory in the minds of the people, the more likely is
    the eventual emergence of individual liberty.

Of course, this really boils down to the fact that those movements which had freedom as their ultimate goal were more likely than others to arrive there.  For this reason, the French Revolution does not actually belong in this category, but serves to prove the point.  It was less about liberty and more about equality, or at least placed equal emphasis on the two; but history has shown these to be incompatible goals and that, contrary to the kind of Rousseauean ideals of the French, equality does not occur naturally, and can only be imposed by government force.    Thus, the French Revolution was fated to end in the Terror, while the American Revolution was destined to end in libertarian democracy.

For Hoffer though, as I would assume for the rest of us these days, the free, or autonomous, man is real hero of society.  Though activists of all ideological stripes tend to dismiss them as complacent and unmotivated, even characterless :

    Free men are aware of the imperfection inherent in human affairs, and they are willing to fight and
    die for that which is not perfect. They know that basic human problems can have no final solutions,
    that our freedom, justice, equality, etc. are far from absolute, and that the good life is compounded
    of half measures, compromises, lesser evils, and gropings toward the perfect.  The rejection of
    approximations and the insistence on absolutes are the manifestation of a nihilism that loathes
    freedom, tolerance, and equity.

Hoffer's free man has none of the romantic trappings of the radical, perhaps appeals less to a certain kind of imagination.  But as experience has shown, at great cost in human life, the adherents of mass movements, cloaked though they are in the language of selflessness, are, as Hoffer says, all too eager to trade the burden of freedom for the comfort of equality, however brutally attained and maintained.

Despite some historical inaccuracies, occasionally sketchy reasoning, and a too thorough dismissal of the value of faith,  Hoffer's great contribution throughout the book lies in his recognition that these are not fundamentally economic matters, that mass movements, despite their protestations to the contrary, are not truly concerned with altruistically securing a better standard of living for everyone, but rather are driven by a selfish desire to secure an equal standard for all, regardless of the cost.

Though this insight has taken hold in the intervening fifty years, as academic Marxism, with its emphasis on economics, has been put to flight, Hoffer seems now to be largely forgotten.  This seems to be partly a function of his own personality--worldly success made him uncomfortable, so he did not capitalize on his temporary fame as others might have.  But it is undoubtedly also a function of the challenge his ideas pose to the academic Left.   Though his intellectual honesty is admirable, when he said during the years of student unrest in the 1960's that :

    The intellectuals and the young, booted and spurred, feel themselves born to ride us.


    Never have the young taken themselves so seriously, and the calamity is that they are listened to and
    deferred to by so many adults.

he essentially committed professional suicide.  Of course, he never considered himself a professional philosopher, returning always to life as a longshoreman.

This book is required reading for anyone trying to make sense of the 20th Century, and, unfortunately, will likely remain pertinent in the 21st.  It is concise, lively, and thought provoking, a book you will return to again and again.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Eric Hoffer Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Eric Hoffer
-ESSAY: The Prophets: Eric Hoffer: In 1951, a book by an unschooled dockworker predicted the forces that would give rise to radical politics on the left, populism on the right—and a president like Donald Trump. (Rob Henderson, April 13, 2024, The Free Press)
    ESSAY: The Longshoreman Philosopher: Combining the life of a working man with a life of reading and writing, the San Francisco longshoreman Eric Hoffer became a noted philosopher, a best-selling author, and an acute observer of American life. His papers in the Hoover Archives run to many thousands of pages and include journals that have never been published. Tom Bethell examines the Hoffer trove (Tom Bethell, Winter 2003, Hoover Digest)
    -ESSAY: Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher’s Thought & Work (Pedro Gonzalez, January 27th, 2021, Imaginative Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher by Tom Bethell (Daniel J. Flynn, University Bookman)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Your search: "eric hoffer"
    -BIO : Eric Hoffer (Universe of the Incarnate Word)
    -Hero of the Day : Eric Hoffer (Daily Objectivist)
    -Hoover acquires Eric Hoffer papers (Stanford Report Online)
    -DEFINITION : true-believer syndrome (Skeptic's Dictionary)
    -ESSAY : Apr 21, 1994 Garry Wills: The Saint of Mott Street (NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY : CASCADE COMMENTARY The True Believer (Cascade Policy Institute)
    -ESSAY : Excerpts from Eric Hoffer's The True Believer  with Annotations Regarding the Fitness (Aerobics) Movement (Ken Hutchins, SuperSlow Exercise Guild)
    -ESSAY : Eric Hoffer's Message for Our Time (Larry Barnhart)
    -REVIEW : May 8, 1969 Edgar Z. Friedenberg: Only in America, NY Review of Books
       The Temper of Our Time by Eric Hoffer
       Working and Thinking on the Waterfront by Eric Hoffer
       Eric Hoffer by Calvin Tompkins and with Aphorisms by Eric Hoffer
    -PROFILE: How Steve Bannon guided the MAGA movement’s rebound from Jan. 6 (Isaac Arnsdorf, April 4, 2024, Washington Post)
-ESSAY: Eric Hoffer and the Creation of Fanatical Mass Movements (fs blog)
    -ESSAY: The dark side of charisma in politics : ‘Charismatic appeal... seems to have real power right now, especially in the United States,' says scholar (CBC Radio, Oct 03, 2023)
<"To me, what charisma is really about is the impulse to worship, to connect with someone or something transcendent that lends meaning to our puny mortal lives and gives us a sense of control over the chaos," Worthen said in her 2023 Larkin-Stuart Lecture that she delivered at Trinity College at the University of Toronto in March 2023. /blockquote>
    -VIDEO LECTURE: Gurus, Prophets, and the Problem of Charisma in North American Politics (Molly Worthen, Larkin-Stuart Lecture 2023)