In a time of social and political radicalization, Eric Hoffer remained a free and independent thinker and identified the threat that Marxism posed for citizens. He reflects on human nature, individuality, and the responsibility and duty of thoughtful and informed citizens to upkeep open, democratic societies.
The American philosopher, Eric Hoffer (1902-1983), is a rare thinker. He is a philosopher in the classical sense of the word. Hoffer asks concrete and pressing questions that seek life-affirming answers. Rhetoric, radical skepticism, and intellectual game-playing, Hoffer asserts, defeat the point of philosophical reflection. Philosophical reflection is a vital activity that props man up to truth, regardless of where this may deliver us, for truth cannot be corralled.
There is much of the stoic in Hoffer. His books embody that indispensable quality that informs the thought of all great thinkers: intuition and perspicuity about the essences that inform human reality. In the absence of these staple qualities, philosophical reflection falls prey to stale, uninspired positivism. Positivism has infected all aspects of human life in postmodernism and reduced man to his bodily, mundane function in the world.
Ironically, because he lived late into the twentieth century, a time that saw an explosion of professional possibilities for the chattering class, Hoffer found himself in the difficult position of remaining a solitary thinker. Philosophical reflection in the second half of the twentieth century no longer demanded that reason make sense of man in the cosmos. This was an unprecedented move on the part of affected, academic intellectuals. This lamentable cultural situation made Hoffer’s moral, heuristic teaching a thing of the past. By the 1970s, Hoffer was definitely not “cool.”
As a philosopher, not merely a writer, Hoffer is supremely original. Consider that Hoffer’s major themes have to do with the nature of autonomous, self-ruling individuals and how these persons exist as a cosmic being. However, the influence that Marxism began to exert over Western man post-WWII, especially as dictated by the proponents of the Frankfurt School beginning in the 1960s, bolstered the rule of centralized government and the state, and attacked man’s capacity for self-rule.
The Marxist Frankfurt School elevated intellectuals to the role of burgeoning government bureaucrats. The role of intellectuals in Western civilization, the members of the Frankfurt School proposed, should be at the forefront of life in Western societies. This, they demanded, ought to be the case regardless of their lack of creative output or talent.
What mattered most to intellectuals of the Frankfurt School was the re-organization of the Christian West into communist societies. However, before full-blown communism could become a reality in Western nations, an elaborate mechanism of brainwashing and corruption of culture needed to be put in place.
The long march to communism, the Frankfurt School proposed, needed to concentrate on the destruction of Western culture, family structure and values, commerce, the free market, and people’s reliance on free will. Given the assault on culture, reason, and common sense employed by the Frankfurt School and its many variegated forms of Marxism, how can individuals pretend to autonomy and self-rule in an era of “all is political”?
During the 1960s, human responsibility and duty, the embrace of which is essential to man’s differentiated reality, were relegated to the aberrant notion that the social/political is the central axis of human life. This is one reason why Hoffer’s thought cannot be grasped using quantitative sociological and psychological categories.
In response to the politicization of Western culture by the Frankfurt School, Hoffer’s thought embraced the nature of individual persons and their ability to decipher reality. Hoffer is essentially a stoic, uprooted in a world where man has lost all moral/spiritual bearing. For instance, when Hoffer writes about intellectuals, he does so from the understanding that these self-possessed “professionals” do not represent the world of the men and women with whom he shared a vast amount of time working in the fields and waterfront.
Hoffer is an original thinker for several reasons. He reflects on human nature, individuality, and the responsibility and duty of thoughtful and informed citizens to upkeep open, democratic societies. Beginning in the 1960s, this broader and vital world of culture, Hoffer pointed out, was relegated to the myopic poverty of social/political categories. In other words, Hoffer understood to what alarming degree American culture had become politicized and poisoned by Marxist ideologues.
Hoffer’s thought cannot be reduced to narrow and intellectually lazy political categories. His thought addresses the contribution of self-governing individuals to open societies. The importance of self-governance in Western democracies came under attack after WWII. Hoffer was one of the first American thinkers to identify the threat that Marxism posed for citizens in open societies. While many commentators and critics of his work have focused on the content of his books, e.g., race relations, individual freedom, personal responsibility and duty, his thought is essentially an exploration of philosophical anthropology. Hoffer’s main concern is the nature of man.
Hoffer is clear about the meaning of his words. This is one indication that he is not an academic intellectual. This aspect of his thought is poignant, given the soft spot that post-WWII intellectuals had for totalitarianism, especially in the 1960s.
Hoffer’s conversational writing style is vibrant and reflective of his working-class upbringing. His writing is no-nonsense. He believed that because he lived among the derelict men and women of the world, he never failed to capture the true motivations and aspirations of the working class. His experience working alongside others in the fields of northern California and the San Francisco waterfront taught him not to romanticize the virtues and vices of working people.
Hoffer’s books contribute immensely to eradicate the vacuous romanticism of people who make a living from paying lip-service to the working class. Hoffer had an uncanny ability to predict the takeover of Western culture by true believers.
Hoffer toiled in the fields with farm workers, in the storerooms of ships as a longshoreman and other menial jobs. Because he worked with the people about whom leftist intellectuals romanticize in their books, he found very little use for theories that obfuscate human nature. Hoffer prided himself in writing and thinking about things that he experienced firsthand. He detested abstract thought.
Hoffer had very little compulsory education. Yet he possessed an insatiable desire for knowledge. After teaching himself to read, he became a lifelong voracious reader. The study of history was his greatest preoccupation.
Hoffer offers his readers insight about the most pressing problems of our time, including how best to utilize free will in response to the increasing complexity and pace of life in Western democracies. His most important book is The True Believer (1953), a superb example of philosophical perspicuity.
Hoffer’s books are deceptively simple. He has no use for neo-logisms or fashionable academic theories. His prowess as a thinker is rooted in wonder, respect for common sense, and his ability to communicate profound ideas through clear writing.
Hoffer argues that personal freedom—what is every man’s existential burden—makes some people neglect duty and responsibility through a form of decision-making paralysis. Hoffer is one of the few thinkers in the mid-twentieth century who realized that free will was a burden for some people. This is one of the profound contributions that he made to philosophical reflection.
Hoffer’s understanding of mass man is monumental. The True Believer warns readers about the dangers of totalitarian societies and the forces that help shape them. His philosophic vision detected a time of change, when intellectuals placed themselves at the service of what Francois Revel later referred to as the totalitarian impulse.
Other similar works to The True Believer include Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses, Camus’ The Rebel, Marcel’s Man and Mass Society, Milosz’s The Captive Mind, and Solzhenitsyn’s Warning to the West. These works explain how morally bankrupted and fallacious ideas give rise to totalitarianism.
Hoffer did not romanticize his wayfaring ways as a young man. His was a difficult life. There is no sense of adventure or exploration in his description of life as a migrant worker or longshoreman in his work. He was not a rebel without a cause, as is often romanticized by leftist intellectuals. It is a significant detail that he did not use the people he worked with as tokens to promote social/political notions of disenfranchisement and other catchphrases of social/political radicalism.
His modest fame as a thinker and writer did not come about until the 1960s and ‘70s. This is a significant fact, for those were times of Marxist student revolts and mass upheaval that were inspired and organized by activists who were aligned with the Frankfurt School. Hoffer could have played the revolutionary card. Having done so, he would have gained unspeakable appeal and fame. This is particularly true given that he was a working man. He would have also gained wealth.
Because Hoffer worked in San Francisco’s waterfront, a place in America that was a hotbed of unionists and Marxists, he would have garnered immense fame among the radicals who strove for political power at the time. Undoubtedly, he would have been promoted to community organizer and radical-at-large. Hoffer could have sold books in much greater numbers than he did. In addition, he would have yielded power over students and other intellectuals, given the opportunist power-grab of Marxism. He would have influenced policy makers and politicians. Instead, Hoffer chose not to prostitute his convictions, a trait that great thinkers share.
Hoffer’s understanding of the upheavals of the 1960s is indicative of the sophisticated grasp he had of Marxist ideology in the latter half of the twentieth century. It would have been easy for Hoffer to play the American counterpart to the communist ideologue, Jean-Paul Sartre. Hoffer could have rubbed shoulders with the power brokers of his time. In doing so, he would have saved himself many headaches from the attacks leveled at him by his malcontented, radicalized critics.
The Personality of True Believers
Hoffer defines the personality of true believers as that of a fanatical person who is easily blinded by radical, mass-man notions. Part of the profundity of The True Believer can be attributed to Hoffer’s firsthand account of the fanatical beliefs and actions of true believers. In our own time, we can substitute the word fanatical for radical ideologue.
The True Believer is one of several important works that trace the radical ideology of true believers in the twentieth century. In many regards, Hoffer’s book is a rare psychological and moral exposition of the Soviet new man, as this ideologically crafted entity morphed in Western democracies. Hoffer explains how intellectuals sold Western man Marxist ideology. The new Soviet man is not an organic, grassroots entity. Instead, Hoffer contributes vast understanding to a philosophical-sociological phenomenon that is unprecedented in human history: the explosion of mass man values. Stroking the fire of this newest form of barbarity, Hoffer informs the reader, are self-absorbed intellectuals.
Hoffer’s thought is unique because he did not consider himself an intellectual. A few introductory comments about his work in relation to other seminal works of the same orientation, seem in order.
While The True Believer is the first of Hoffer’s books to be published, it is also the mature thought of a thinker who, by the time of the book’s publication, had spent several decades working alongside other people in difficult jobs. Hoffer was a consummate observer of the thought, values, and actions of people. His gift of perspicuity alone separates his work from many other twentieth-century intellectuals.
Because he understood the spread of communism in Europe, especially post-WWII, his poignant analysis of Marxism and communist disinformation is akin to that of Ayn Rand and Malcolm Muggeridge, thinkers who lived in the bowels of Stalinism. This is indicative of thinkers who knew more about Soviet communism than hapless Western intellectuals.
With an economy of language that does not over-intellectualize, Hoffer offers his readers stark realism about human nature. Lest we forget, observation of our surroundings is an essential tool of thoughtful philosophers. This aspect of Hoffer’s thought placed him in stark contrast with members of the Frankfurt School. In contrast to the Frankfurt School’s apologia for Marxism that destroyed spontaneity in Western life through the politicization of culture, Hoffer’s thought offers vast avenues to understand the nature of man.
Hoffer Identifies the Culture War in the 1950s
The True Believer was one of the first books of philosophy in the English language to concern itself with the crisis of moral self-rule and individuality vis-à-vis mass society during the mid-twentieth century. This makes The True Believer an existential work that focuses on authenticity. This also places Hoffer in the company of existentialists like Albert Camus, Ortega y Gasset, and Gabriel Marcel. Existentialism and philosophy of existence, both of which Hoffer explores, concentrate on concrete human existence.
Even today, few cultural commentators and historians of ideas have caught on to the fact that Hoffer is a philosopher who writes about the nature of work from the perspective of the working man. This is a notable achievement because Hoffer does not offer a radicalized, sanguine rendition of the working man. The working man, Hoffer tells us, is the oldest embodiment of human beings that can be identified in history.
From prehistory, human existence has been marked by man’s capacity to toil and do so repeatedly without invoking the ire of God or other men. Human survival beckons man to embrace work. Survival is instinctual, not learned behavior. It is likely that prehistoric man imitated hunting and gathering technics that he observed in animals. This was a laborious task that led to longevity.
Other notable twentieth-century works that explore Marxism’s exploitation of the working man for its totalitarian agenda include Malcolm Muggeridge’s work, especially after his disheartening and eye-opening trip to the Soviet Union in the 1930s; José Ortega y Gasset’s seminal work The Revolt of the Masses, which appeared in 1930 but was not translated into English until 1960; and Albert Camus’ analysis of revolutionary nihilism and tyrannical Marxist governments and institutions, The Rebel: An Essay of Man in Revolt, published in 1951 and appearing in English in 1953. Of equal importance are Czeslaw Milosz’s portrayal of the communist psyche in The Captive Mind, published in 1953; Gabriel Marcel’s Man Against Mass Society, a masterful book that analyzes man’s embrace of nihilism and what this means to personal autonomy in mass society; and Solzhenitsyn’s Warning to the West.
The True Believer made great strides in making sense of fashionable social-political trends in the twentieth century. Hoffer exposed American communists and their Internationalist cadre like few other thinkers during his lifetime.
The True Believer showcases Hoffer’s understanding of the politicization that America was undergoing at the hands of the Frankfurt School, and other forms of communist ideology in the 1960s. We encounter Hoffer’s philosophical prowess in his detailed account of man’s metaphysical and existential nature, and how, depending on man’s moral make-up and spiritual fulfillment, an individual fashions his life.
Hoffer possessed a street-wise understanding of man, of his dreams and aspirations, but also of man’s capacity for envy, resentment, and calumny. The story that Hoffer conveys about man is a universal tale. Like Pascal, Hoffer does not cover man’s nature with one finger, as the saying goes. What he describes in his books, he learned in the streets. Much like Pascal, Hoffer views man as fallen, yet capable of contentment. If man is to find inner peace in this world of strife, he must begin by recognizing his limitations. Hoffer attributes the discontent and dysfunctionality of true believers to unhappiness and their incapacity to simply let life be.
The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset refers to true believers as mass man. Ortega characterizes mass man as a loafer, the type of person who does not care to cultivate higher values and keeps others from doing so. This condition demonstrates irreverence for free will, Hoffer argues.
A word of caution in writing about Hoffer’s work is warranted. To do justice to his thought, two ingredients are necessary. First, one must try to understand the lucidity of this hard-working autodidact without recoiling to academic theories, given that Hoffer’s thought rejects fashionable theory. Hoffer was a worker, not an intellectual who wrote about workers. This situates him in a unique minority of writers who have written about labor.
The twentieth century was dominated by thinkers and writers—intellectuals—who romanticized about the plight of workers, many of whom knew nothing about work. One of these is Jean-Paul Sartre, communist bon vivant and recipient of the 1964 Nobel Prize for literature. Unlike Sartre, Hoffer did not use workers as tokens of Marxism. Stated in simple terms, Hoffer was not born with a silver spoon. To critique the work of a thinker who shied away from self-indulgent pseudo-values requires honesty.
A unifying theme of Hoffer’s work is modern man’s inability—or lack of desire—to confront existential freedom. Freedom, Hoffer reminds us, is a heavy burden to bear for many people.
If the aforementioned is symptomatic of a morally and spiritually bankrupted age, the major culprit is self-consciousness. Hoffer was one of the first thinkers to identify the narcissistic malaise that began to consume Western civilization in the 1960s, and how this has come to influence all aspects of life in the twenty-first century.
True believers have radicalized all aspects of postmodern life. This observation is perhaps Hoffer’s greatest contribution to twentieth-century thought. Western man no longer exercises spontaneity in his dealings with other people or institutions. True believers are self-conscious people. Existential reflection, which is a creative act that enables man to cultivate self-knowledge, ought not to be confused with life as self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is the purview of narcissists.
According to Hoffer, for true believers, life means discontentment. True believers can never experience the intense joy that C.S. Lewis celebrates. Instead, the true believers’ attitude toward life culminates in the virulent “all is political” slogan of the 1960s. In embracing popular causes, true believers find it necessary to merge themselves with the confluence of the popular causes they promote.
Hoffer’s analysis of true believers is not isolated to mass movements. He laments that true believers are not content to live their lives in the absence of taking up a myriad of public causes.
Hoffer argues that the character of true believers has infected Western society. As self-possessed entities, the ideas and behavior of true believers has spread to all aspects of Western culture, for the radicalization of true believers destroys man’s capacity for self-rule.
With the age of self-consciousness, Hoffer argues, also comes an asphyxiating loss of innocence. The opposite of innocence, at least as it plays out in our self-possessed age, is cynicism. Innocence allows for good will. In turn, this safeguards human aspirations about life and other people.
A self-possessed age leaves no stone unturned, no form of imagination left standing. A self-possessed age scrutinizes culture, vital life, friendship, love, sexuality, language, beauty, religious belief, and art ad nauseum. In a self-possessed age thought reaches a low-water mark that eventually has nothing to offer thoughtful individuals. Under such conditions, what passes as reason is merely conditioned groupthink.
Eric Hoffer is a symbol of the type of man and thinker that can no longer be replicated today. Hoffer’s perspicuity and ability to decipher destructive social trends was never contaminated by fashionable theories or radical ideology. By keeping the latter forces at bay, he was able to keep his thought rooted in truth, as this informs the lives of independent, free thinkers.
Because Hoffer’s thought is not that of a “committed” intellectual, he did not fall prey to the many forms of hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty that are so prevalent among intellectuals. Hoffer may be wrong in some of his assessments. However, his errors are not the result of having to make reality conform to social-political ideology.
Hoffer’s stoicism has much to tell us about the man of flesh and blood. His horse sense, as it were, refused to embrace social/political mendacity. Also, because Hoffer embraced physical labor from an early age, his ability to make sense of essential categories of human reality remained rooted in the values of working people. His genius for pointing out the essences that determine man’s understanding of reality is that of a man who demonstrated respect for work. Hoffer shared Wyndham Lewis’ idea that too much schooling does serious harm to a person’s ability to separate falsehood from reality.
Hoffer understood that reality has little to do with man’s wish to deform it. His writing has much to teach us about the demise of constructive values and the destruction of once-important institutions. It is ironic that in a time of social/political radicalization like the 1960s, Hoffer was one of the few American thinkers who remained a genuine free spirit.
Hoffer’s genius can be ascertained through his treatment of concepts like authenticity, self-rule, and individuality. For him, these are not fashionable theories or concepts but rather fundamental human values. This makes Hoffer a philosopher of existence; he embraced the lived experience as vital.
Ironically, because Hoffer embraced an apolitical philosophy of common-sense values that speak to everyday life, he was essentially dismissed as a thinker by the academic establishment. Hoffer’s major offense is that he tried to wrestle control of human values away from opportunist Marxist intellectuals. By keeping the most basic truths and values that man needs in order to flourish from becoming the domain of fashionable theories, Hoffer was considered persona non grata by Marxist ideologues.
Another poignant irony about Hoffer’s thought is that he enjoyed great success in being read by the general public.
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