Recalling Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer

I first read Eric Hoffer’s THE TRUE BELIEVER: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements shortly after it was published in 1951.

It was a big influence on me as a teenager.  Later on I thought it explained a lot about the 9/11 attacks.  I think it is very relevant today.

A number of writers in the early Cold War era tried to understand the psychology of totalitarianism—what it was that made Nazis and Communists willing to commit mass slaughter and also sacrifice their own lives.

Eric Hoffer went further than most.  He described the similarities not only between fanatic Bolshevism and fascism, but also fanatic Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Jacobinism and nationalisms of all kinds, including Zionism.

His book is highly readable, full of quotable aphorisms.  A lot of his statements are overly sweeping and forceful, but he said his intention was to provide food for thought, not to be the last word on anything.

Eric Hoffer

Hoffer himself was an interesting character.  The son of Alsatian immigrants to the United States, he was born in New York City in 1902.  Orphaned at the age of five, he went blind at seven.  Mysteriously, his sight was restored at the age of 15, and he became a lifelong voracious reader.

He traveled across the country working at odd jobs, and spent 25 years as a longshoreman on the San Francisco waterfront, retiring at age 65.  He was completely self-taught.  He died in 1983.

He did not regard mass movements as necessarily bad.  Sometimes, he thought, they were the only means of bringing about necessary change.

Nor did he think that religious believers, patriots and political activists are necessarily fanatics.  But he did think a fanatic minority is a more powerful driving force than a reasonable, moderate majority.

The fanatic John Brown did more to end U.S. slavery than all the moderates who drew up reasonable plans for compensated gradual emancipation.

People do not join mass movements because they are poor and oppressed, but because they are frustrated, Hoffer wrote.  Joining a movement satisfies what Abraham Maslow was to call higher-level needs—the need for self-esteem, the need for inclusion, the need for hope and the need for meaning.

If you have no pride in yourself, you can take pride being part of a holy cause.  If you are lonely, you can lose your sense of separateness by uniting with others in a mass movement.

If your future seems hopeless, you can accept the promise of a golden future, either in this lie or the next.  If your life seems boring and meaningless, you can become part of a dramatic struggle for righteousness.

One category of people who never become fanatics are those who are completely embodied in a traditional way of life, Hoffer wrote.  Thinking of themselves are part of family, a community and an unquestioned way of life, they see no need for change. 

Fanatic religious zealots either want something they don’t have, or want to regain something they think they have lost.

The 9/11 attackers were not deeply pious Muslims.  They drank alcohol and went to strip clubs.  They were alienated both from traditional Muslim society and from the modern West.  They hoped to redeem themselves by one desperate, suicidal action.

In the same vein, Hoffer quoted St. Bernard on how the Second Crusade was not carried out by respected, pious Christians, but by “murderers, ravishers, adulterers, perjurers and those guilty of every crime” who would thus active salvation.

Another category who are immune from fanaticism are the creative, according to Hoffer.  These include not only writers, artists and scientists, but craft workers and anybody, however poor or humble, who exercises a skill that produces a satisfying result.

Failed creative people are another matter.  Adolf Hitler, for example, was a failed painter, Joseph Goebbels was a failed novelist and many other top Nazis had literary and artistic ambitions.

The abjectly poor seldom become revolutionaries, Hoffer noted.  If they did, upheavals would be constant and never-ending.  But for them, simply surviving from day to day is a source of meaning and self-respect.

Revolutionaries commonly come from the newly poor, people who have lost something to which they felt they were entitled.  Or they come from poor people who were promised something better, and didn’t get  it.

Mass movements typically begin with intellectuals—”men of words”—undermining faith in an established order, Hoffer wrote. 

The French Revolution was preceded by skeptical philosophers who exposed the corruption and folly of the French monarchy and Catholic church.  But most of the people who lost faith in the old institutions were not by nature skeptics.  They wanted a new faith and a new source of authority to replace that which was lost.

The revolutionary movement provides a new dogma, enforced by a reign of terror.  Leading critics of the old order become victims of the reign of terror that follows.

True intellectuals are individualists, according to Hoffer; they delight in new ideas and can’t submit to any orthodoxy for very long, even one that they help create.  The non-creative intellectuals are the fanatics and enforcers of dogma.

The reign of terror—what Hoffer called the “active phase”—ends when a practical man of action, such as Napoleon or Cromwell, restores stability.

It seems to me that conditions today in the United States are ripe for the emergence of true believers and mass movements.  That will be the topic of my next post.


The True Believer Revisited by Timothy Madigan for Philosophy Now (2001)

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One Response to “Recalling Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer”

  1. philebersole Says:

    Here is an old sermon by my friend, the Rev. Richard Gilbert, a Unitarian-Universalist minister.

    Richard S. Gilbert – Ithaca, New York – January 14, 1968

    Who is Eric Hoffer? He is a TV celebrity, a long-shoreman, the author of four books, recent visitor at the White House, champion of the common man, an intellectual who is anti-intellectual. He is opposed to the juvenile mentality which he sees sweeping the globe; (history is made by juvenile delinquents, a sharp critic of the New Left; nevertheless he believes the hippies, except for drug taking, represent a healthy reaction to the rat race. He was Dwight Eisenhower’s favorite philosopher, yet in discussing American leadership, he praised the common man of this country for having survived eight years of Mr. Eisenhower’s guidance. A man of contradictions? Yes! Yet his life and his thoughts are so stirring that I believe they are important to consider as we look out upon the landscape of the 20th century.

    Hoffer was born in the Bronx in 1902, the only child of Alsatian immigrants of working class background. He was almost totally self-educated, having taught himself to read English and German at five. At seven his mother died and shortly thereafter Eric Hoffer went blind. At 15, he regained his sight as well as a. “terrific” bunger for the printed word, and he began reading everything he could lay his hands on. He had no formal schooling. After his father’s death and while still a young man be travelled to Los Angeles, landing on Skid Row. During the 1920’s he did odd jobs for survival but his preoccupation was in voracious reading. He began a life-long habit of haunting the public libraries. During the 30’s Hoffer worked chiefly as a migrant farm worker, still reading intensely and observing life about him.

    It was in 1936 that he became convinced he could be a writer. He was on his way to do some mining near Nevada City and had a hunch he would be snowbound there. So he sought out a book to read, one long enough to pass the time. Wandering into a favorite second-hand book store he came out with Montaigne’s Essays – a choice made purely on the basic of proper length (several hundred pages, and price (it cost $1.00). Hoffer was right. He became snowbound and read the book three times, virtually committing it to memory. He was taken with its style, about which he said: “The sentences have hooks in them which stick in the mind; they make platitudes sound as if they were new.” Montaigne was not above anyone’s head. Once in a worker’s barrack near Stockton, the man in the next bunk picked up my Montaigne and read it for an hour or so. When he returned it he said: “Anyone can write a book like that.” Hoffer, having acquired a taste for the good sentence, began his own writing; his literary career was launched. In 1941 he volunteered for the army but was rejected for medical reasons. He then looked for the “hardest work available,” preferably something connected with the war effort.

    It was in 1943 that he became a longshoreman and settled in San Francisco. He never married, and has few friends. He lives a relatively Spartan existence in a one-room apartment in one of San Francisco’s Chinese neighborhoods. In 1951 The True Believer, his first book, came out, and went on to sell over half-a-million copies. It was an original discussion of the nature of mass movements. His contention was that such movements emerge when large numbers of people are frustrated with their own lives and look to some holy cause for significance. Once they identify with it they are willing to sacrifice and die for it; it becomes an all consuming passion. In 1955 Hoffer published The Passionate State of Mind, a collection of 250 original aphorisms on the human condition. In 1963 The Ordeal of Change appeared. In this series of essays he suggests that drastic change is so profoundly disturbing that when we face the new and unprecedented our past experience is more a hindrance than a help. Most recently he has written The Temper of Our Time, a selection of essays on juvenile mentality, automation, the Negro Revolution, the struggle between the common man and the intellectuals and between man and nature.

    Now retired from the waterfront he continues to read, think, make occasional public appearances and meet once a week with University of California students as Senior Research Professor. Since it is impossible to do justice to all or even many of his themes, I have tried to select a few of the more interesting, and I think significant ones. I hope to state his central motifs and briefly discuss them, reserving some time for a general critique.
    It is commonly believed, according to Hoffer, that this is the age of the masses. They have impressed their tastes and values on the whole of society. But the masses are on the way out as automation makes them little more than waste products with which nobody knows what to do. America is now being run by what he calls supermen in their expensive laboratories. The intellectual, as Hoffer defines him, is “a literate person who feels himself a member of the educated minority.” It is his feeling of belonging to an elite rather than possession of a superior intellect that marks him. He is the beneficiary of current change, and Hoffer resents it. The intellectual, according to Hoffer, is incompatible with the masses and with America. He believes the common people are unfit for liberty and self-government.

    Speaking of the intellectual Hoffer says: “What he cannot stomach is the mass of the American people – a mindless monstrosity devoid of spiritual; moral and intellectual capacities.” His solution for this problem, outlined in The Temper of Our Time, is, interestingly enough, to make everyone an intellectual. With increased leisure he believes we should develop society as a school with the common man as the main student. Living and learning will become almost synonymous and with this learning the common man will be able to guard himself against the tyranny of the intellectual elite.

    This is all very charming, except I don’t believe it is true. Hoffer very neatly lumps all intellectuals together and excoriates them. One critic is reminded of a fable Mark Twain told about the cat who once sat down on a hot stove and learned from that experience never to sit down again on any stove, instead of just learning to avoid hot ones. Having witnessed the failure of the intellectual to recognize the menace of Nazism and Communism for what they were, he has no trust in intellectuals today. Let one example of this confusion suffice. He declares a kinship with President Johnson and has kind things to say about him. “I’ve lived with Johnsons all my life, see – I know them. He’ll do the right thing. Let me go all the way – he’ll be the foremost President of the 20th century,” (Shortly thereafter Hoffer was a guest at the White House., He identifies with Johnson, not as an intellectual but as representative of the common man who made this country great.

    Yet he says in The Temper of Our Time the coming of the intellectual in international affairs has brought to the fore the cult of naked power. “The intellectual in power seems to understand only the simple language of divisions, warships, bombers and missiles. He has a most sensitive nose for iron determination.” I submit that describes President Johnson at least as well as it does President Kennedy, whom Hoffer believes belonged to the intellectual elite. The point is that Hoffer makes a gross overgeneralization here. The problem is not as Hoffer would have it, that the untrustworthy intellectuals are increasingly in power instead of the common man, but that we as a nation are in a moral crisis without a clear sense of value and priority. This failure is not the monopoly of either common man or intellectual.

    This leads to a second motif in Hoffer, which I call his undifferentiated celebration of America. This is, I believe, the key to his popularity. When so much of the intellectual community is denigrating our nation, here is the voice of one crying in the wilderness saying in effect: “Keep the faith, Baby, this is a grand old land.” In response to the positive response to his CBS interview he said: “They tell me I delivered a sermon in defense of America.” And so he did. Hoffer claims that “the only new thing in history is America.” This is because America is the only land where the common man was given a chance and told: “Go to it; it is yours.” Goaded by no grand ideology, and by the most trivial of motives, the profit motive, he tamed the continent and made of it a democracy which is the envy of the world.
    But a better example of the problem of this undifferentiated praise of America is his defense of the common man in his chapter on the Negro Revolution. Hoffer says the Negro’s plight is that he is first a Negro and an individual only secondly. He feels the Negro community as a whole must perform something to win admiration. He chastises Negro leadership for a lack of faith in the Negro masses. In this kind of soil the 
Negro Revolution cannot grow. He says that community building is the next great task. With much of the foregoing we might agree.

    Then he makes some statements which show a poor grasp of the current situation. He claims that Negroes have no taste for patient, quiet, organizational work, and maybe there is food for thought here. But the elections in Cleveland and Gary, Indiana, plus the tremendous work of a number of civil rights groups and leaders put the lie to this bald claim. He claims the Negro Revolution is a trend, apparently equating the recent riots vs. the non-violent revolution.

    This is unfair. What is really shocking, however , is this statement: “The simple fact is that the people I have lived and worked with all my life, and who make up about 60% of the population outside the South, have not the least feeling of guilt toward the Negro.” …. My kind of people does not feel that the world owes us anything, or that we owe anybody – white, black, or yellow – a damn thing. We believe that the Negro should have every right we have. …. But he can have no special claims on us, and no valid grievances against us. Our hands are more gnarled and work-broken than his, and our faces more lined and worn.”

    This is inaccurate and morally outrageous! In the first place this much celebrated common working man is the very one who keeps Negroes out of unions (Hoffer’s experience has been with the integrated longshoremen’s union not the building trade’s union. He has been the very fellow (though not alone) who has denied fair housing to the Negro (look at Cicero, Illinois), who thinks the Negro is “moving too fast” in the face of evidence to the contrary; and who by his utter lack of a sense of justice has managed to suppress the Negro population for a century inflicting incredible psychic damage.

    Milton Konvits in a review also rises to this point: “I do not know Eric Hoffer’s ‘kind of people’ who feel that they do not “owe anybody … a damn thing.” The question, of course, is not whether we owe anything to other people in the book-keeping sense of creditors and debtors. The moral law does not assume that I owe anything in this commercial sense to the poor, the widow, the orphan, the maimed, the stranger. I owe them what righteousness and love demand of me. A man has no right to look at the hands of his neighbor who needs help to see if they are “more gnarled and work-broken than his;” he has no right to look into his face to see if it is “more lined and worn.”

    Hoffer is a champion of the common man, whom he says is “lumpy in talents.” He says one of America’s greatest contributions to history is that here the workingman ceases to be proletarian. He feels he is as good as anybody else. As he puts it in his own colorful way, “The masses … eloped with history to America and we have been living in common-law marriage with it. …. America was not America until the masses took over. Before that, you had a bunch of snobs running it.”

    I am afraid I cannot be quite so exuberant in championing the common man. After all it was in Hoffer’s own California that such a man elected two movie stars to high public office and put George Wallace on the ballot. Lester Maddox bills himself as spokesman for the common man. Is he Hoffer’s image of America? I have lived with the common man a good share of my life. I am a product of small town America, and I detected no monopoly on virtue there. I found that virtue and vice cannot be attributed to any class, but depend on the human raw material and the societal structure in which it is formed.

    It may seem that I have taken rather sharp issue with Eric Hoffer on each of a number of vital points. It may even be asked, if you are so critical of him why do you preach on Eric Hoffer, prophet of the human spirit? This is a fair question. I selected Hoffer for a number of reasons among which was that here is a man who defies classification. In an age of specialization, in which each expert has his own little niche and can speak only of it, here is a man who is a generalist, who speaks to the whole of the human condition out of his own experience. He is not oriented to calipers, slide rules and statistics but to life as he lives it. Some try to label him a philosopher, a “blue-collar Plato,” or a Docker of Philosophy.”

    But he said of himself: “I’m not a professional philosopher. I don’t deal with the abstract. My train of thought grew out of my life just the way a leaf or branch grows out of a tree.” Hoffer is essentially a moralist or a secular preacher. He has a capacity, in the words of one reviewer, for “bold generalizations.” This is at once his strength and his weakness. He does generalize in the most blatant ways, and yet here is his strength. He is able to universalize small bits of his own experience and cut through human problems and continually stimulate the reader anew.

    His writing style, similar to Montaigne, fits this emphasis well. Take a few random selections: On automation, leisure and the masses. “Up to now in this country we are warned not to waste our time but we are brought up to waste our lives…. The feeling of being hurried and of having no time is not usually the result of living a full, busy life but, on the contrary, of a vague fear that lie are wasting our lives.” On brotherhood: “It is easier to love humanity as a whole than to love one’s neighbor.” On man’s purpose: “It behooves us to remember that man’s only legitimate end in life is to finish God’s work – to bring to full growth the capacities and talents implanted in us.”

    In some respects his perspective is limited. Here is a man who has traveled very little in terms of the geography of the earth. He has traveled widely, however, in the geography of the soul. We are reminded of Kant, one of the great minds of the modern era, who is said never to have left Konigsberg. What Hoffer may lack in breadth of experience, he compensates for in the depth of experience. He has led a life aptly described by the title of one of his books: The Passionate State of Mind. He has savored of the units of experience that have come his way and he makes the most of then. He learned something of human nature from a butcher, who upon seeing he was nearly destitute, arranged a job, a room and bought him a meal. Later Hoffer learned this man had been arrested for leading a vigilante group that had terrorized, tarred and feathered a Jewish merchant thought to be a Communist.

    However one may disagree with this man, what he says is genuine – it is his and no one else’s. There is nothing second hand here – it is first-hand material. With all his limitations, here is a phenomenal man. He is the Horatio Alger myth in the flesh – a son of poor immigrants, now a celebrated writer. At home alike with renown scholars and the longshoremen of the West Coast, he is an incredibly fascinating man. I suppose the highest tribute I could pay to the man, three of whose books I have read, whom I have seen on T. V. twice in remarkable performances, is that here is a man I should like to know. I would like to speak with him, to listen and to confront.

    And here, too, another lesson for me. As I chose to preach on this man it was largely on the basis of reputation. I had read very little of his work. As I dug into his writings, I found that disagreement came easy, though I also found much to admire; still more was intensely stimulating. And as I thought I concluded, why should I not preach about one who profoundly disturbs me, whose generalizations I cannot accept, whose view is that of a generation that seems far removed from my own? If we cannot learn from those who disagree with us we are small men indeed. If we insist on ruminating among only those pages which confirm our own small ideas what possibility of growth is there? If we are not willing to put our thoughts in the market place of ideas to see if they are made of sound stuff, of what use are they?

    Eric Hoffer, I conclude, still deserves to be listed as a prophet of the human spirit. His analysis of mass movements alone would guarantee his spot in intellectual history. And he has opened up for me and for others the hidden potential in what we loosely call the common man. He is champion of the masses, and perhaps those of us who tend to be involved and listen to the “intellectuals” need to renew our acquaintance with the common man. And perhaps a sermon in praise of America is a useful corrective for those of us who are so outraged at our nation’s moral stance. If a prophet is one who speaks forth the truth as he understands it; if he is one who drops a plumb line unafraid of the consequences; if he is one who challenges conventional assumptions; then Eric Hoffer is a prophet, one I should enjoy knowing.


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