The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements
by Eric Hoffer.
Perennial Classics, 1960, 2010.
Paperback, 192 pages, $15.
The American philosopher Eric Hoffer (1902–1983) is a rare thinker. Hoffer is a philosopher in the classic sense of the word—he sought life-affirming answers to vital concerns. Rhetoric, radical skepticism, intellectual posturing, and calisthenics, Hoffer asserted, defeat the essence of philosophical reflection. This is the case because philosophy is a vital activity that acts as a tool that props man up to purpose, meaning, and truth.
There is much of the stoic in Hoffer, a man known as the “Longshoreman Philosopher.” His work embodies that indispensable quality that informs the thought of all great thinkers: acumen for natural psychology that is guided by observation and perspicuity.
Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer is one of several insightful and important works that trace the trajectory of radical ideology of true believers in the bloody twentieth century. The book is an uncommon psychological and moral exposition of the Marxist/Soviet-inspired new man, which was touted by Western intellectuals as the future of Western democracies. What makes Hoffer’s thought unique is that he did not consider himself an intellectual. Instead, he was an autodidact who was a voracious reader and tireless scholar. A few introductory comments about The True Believer in relation to other seminal works of the same orientation seem appropriate.
The True Believer was published in 1951. While it is Hoffer’s first book, 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 men in difficult jobs. Hoffer was a consummate observer of people’s thoughts, emotions, and actions. His lucidness separates Hoffer’s work from the bloated abstractionism of the majority of twentieth-century intellectuals. Writing in clear sentences that do not over-intellectualize his chosen topics, Hoffer offers his readers stark realism concerning human nature. Lest we forget, observation of our surroundings is an essential tool of thoughtful and sincere philosophers.
The True Believer is a book of philosophy that concentrates on the crisis of individuality and autonomy vis-à-vis mass society during the mid-twentieth century. 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. We must be careful not to confuse labor with work. What is noble about Hoffer’s reflections on work is that he does not offer a radicalized or rendition of the working man. Hoffer does not romanticize the worker as does Marxism, the Frankfurt School, and Herbert Marcuse (a Marxist intellectual who was a contemporary of Hoffer).
Other notable twentieth-century works that expose Marxism’s exploitation of the working man for its totalitarian agenda include Malcolm Muggeridge’s work, especially after his disheartening return from the Soviet Union; the latter part of Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset’s seminal Revolt of the Masses (translated into English in 1960); and Albert Camus’s insightful analysis of revolutionary nihilism and tyrannical Marxist governments and institutions in The Rebel: An Essay of Man in Revolt (L’Homme révolté). Of equal importance is Czeslaw Milosz’s 1953 portrayal of the communist mind in The Captive Mind. Another masterful work that analyzes nihilism and its effect on personal autonomy in mass society is Gabriel Marcel’s 1962 Man Against Mass Society. Solzhenitsyn’s Warning to the Westand The Gulag Archipelago dissect the shifty rhetoric of dialectical materialism. Solzhenitsyn’s work scandalized the utopian, albeit murderous aspirations of Marxists.
At the time of its publication, The True Believer made great strides in making sense of fashionable social and political trends in the twentieth century. The book took on the intellectual establishment, which in turn attacked Hoffer as an unwashed, working-man fraud who knew nothing about highbrow Marxist theory. Yet Hoffer’s book is not a work of social/political philosophy, as some commentators have imagined. The genius of Hoffer’s thought is its detailed and measured account of man’s metaphysical and existential nature, how depending on man’s moral makeup and spiritual fulfillment, people come to interpret human reality.
Hoffer’s “True believers” are inseparable from Ortega y Gasset’s characterization of “mass man” as a resentful loafer, one who does not care to cultivate higher values, but who also keeps others from doing so. Irreverence for free will, Hoffer argues, is the dominant trait of true believers, people who embrace what Jean-François Revel calls the totalitarian impulse. Hoffer claims that “It is the true believer’s ability to ‘shut his eyes and stop his ears’ to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy.”
Aword of caution in writing about Hoffer’s work is necessary. It is the belief of this writer that in order to truly do justice to Hoffer’s philosophical insight, two ingredients are necessary. First, one must try to understand the astounding achievements of this hard-working, dedicated autodidact. Hoffer was a worker, not an intellectual who writes about workers. This situates him in a very small minority of writers who write about work. The twentieth century was dominated by thinkers and writers—intellectuals—who romanticized the plight of workers. Hoffer did not place garlands around the necks of the men he worked with. He knew their strong and weak points as people of flesh and blood, not ideological abstractions. Stated in simple terms, Hoffer realized that for practical reasons, work is a testament to free will, especially given that an idle existence not only bodes badly for man, but is also an aberration of the modern world.
Secondly, to think along with an independent thinker who did not embrace the self-indulgent pseudo-values of many intellectuals of his time, merits respect for Hoffer. We should not over-analyze Hoffer’s work, as we tend to do everything in our present cultural milieu. Such an approach will damage the simple lines of progression and insightful outcome of Hoffer’s thought into the human person. Thoughtful commentators best illuminate a past thinker’s work by demonstrating its relevance to today’s reading audience.
Hoffer’s thought is highlighted by several dominant and recurring themes: the astounding rate of change in the twentieth century, the loss of individual responsibility, and the proliferation of mass movements. The unifying theme in Hoffer’s work is postmodern man’s inability—or lack of desire—to confront existential freedom. Freedom, Hoffer reminds us, is a heavy burden to bear “unless a man has the talents to make something of himself.”
If the aforementioned crisis is symptomatic of a morally and spiritually diseased age, the major culprit, Hoffer contends, is nihilism brought on by self-consciousness. Hoffer was one of the first thinkers to identify this malaise that consumes our age and explore how the nihilistic malaise came to influence all aspects of twentieth-century life.
Hoffer offers poignant examples the ways nihilism’s moral cancer chokes our age by exploring the makeup of true believers. His insight into the pathology of their mindset is his greatest contribution to twentieth-century thought. Hoffer contends that true believers are self-absorbed people. He writes: “The tendency to look for all causes outside ourselves persists even when it is clear that our state of being is the product of personal qualities such as ability, character, appearance, health, and so on.” Hoffer agrees with Thoreau that “If anything ail a man, so that he does not perform his functions, if he have a pain in his bowels even … he forthwith sets about reforming—the world.” True believers, Hoffer tells us, find meaning and purpose in life by embracing popular causes and by becoming willing participants in groupthink.
Hoffer values instead the solitary life of nonconformists. He argues that life itself should be the primary concern of sincere people. As a thinker who reflected in order to become well grounded in human reality, he showed little tolerance for the cynical and fashionable “all is political” slogan of the 1960s.
It is important to realize that Hoffer’s analysis of true believers is not isolated to mass movements. Hoffer predicted that the life of Western man would eventually come to be dominated by the easy values of nihilism. In other words, he recognized that the mantra of a positivistic age entails the politicization of all aspects of life. The radical ideological program of true believers would come to dominate all aspects of postmodern life, making it a homogenized zombie colony. Hoffer was well aware of the social-political program of cultural Marxism after World War II. He understood that the fanaticism of true believers would eventually engulf the lives of people who voluntarily give up their autonomy by shunning free will.
A self-conscious society, Hoffer contends, creates a devastating loss of innocence. Innocence foments good will. In turn, this safeguards human aspirations about life and other people. The opposite of innocence, at least as this plays out in our self-possessed age, is cynicism.
This is a particularly relevant aspect of Hoffer’s work because his firsthand observations do not spring from “case studies.” Hoffer came to know human reality by living among the people he wrote about. His immersion in the reality of work and the people who perform it allowed Hoffer to check his idealism. In the process, he discovered that a self-conscious age leaves no stone unturned; no form of imagination can be left standing. A self-conscious age politicizes culture, vital life, friendship, love, language, beauty, religious belief, art, and sex ad nauseam.
In a self-conscious age thought reaches such a low-water mark that it eventually has nothing to offer autonomous people, for thought no longer contributes to the sphere of the individual. Under such conditions, what passes muster as thought is merely conditioned groupthink. Hoffer’s thought is a reaction to the aberrant world that he witnessed. He feared that aberration in postmodernity would be championed as the new norm.
In many respects, Eric Hoffer is a symbol of a type of man and thinker that can no longer be replicated today. His critical ability for philosophical reflection is not something that he took from teachers and other intellectuals. This is verified by his limited formal education. This may also explain why his intellect and ability to decipher destructive social trends were never contaminated by fashionable theories and radical ideology. By refuting the claims of the latter, Hoffer was able to keep his thought rooted in and dependent on truth, as this informs the life of independent thinkers.
Because Hoffer was not a radical—an alleged committed intellectual—he did not embrace the many forms of hypocrisy and dishonesty that are so prevalent among intellectuals. As a nonconformist and independent thinker, Hoffer’s thought is not the result of having to accommodate the demands of radical ideology.
Hoffer’s ability to decipher the moral makeup of radicalized twentieth-century intellectuals is truly insightful. He recognized these intellectuals as being nonchalant about logic and reason. He was horrified by their reluctance to accept common sense. This is because true believers replace facts, statistics, economics, and irrefutable time-proven history with irrational and politicized passions. In contradistinction to self-absorbed intellectuals, Hoffer enables the reader to witness how philosophical reflection engenders the art of self-reflection and self-knowledge.
Hoffer’s stoicism has much to teach us about thoughtful people. His horse sense refused to give in to fashionable mendacity. Also, because Hoffer embraced physical work from an early age, his ability to make sense of essential categories of human reality remained rooted. His genius for pointing out the essences that determine our understanding of reality is that of a man who showed tremendous respect for the redeeming nature of work. Hoffer shares Wyndham Lewis’s idea that too much schooling actually can do serious harm to a person’s ability to distinguish between appearance and truth, fantasy and reality. Hoffer thought this also applied to many intellectuals during his time.
Hoffer showed little patience for the social and political mayhem emerging from the hippie era. He had instead a profound understanding that reality has very little to do with our utopian claims. His work also has much to teach us today about the demise of the hierarchy of values and subsequent destruction of our most sacred institutions. It is ironic that in a time of dissolution like the 1960s, Hoffer was one of the few American thinkers who remained a genuinely free spirit.
Hoffer’s thought does not employ neologisms and unnecessary technical terms. The driving concern of his thought is man’s loss of existential autonomy—what philosophers like Ortega y Gasset and Camus have called authenticity. Hoffer’s genius is showcased in his treatment of concepts like individuality, authenticity, and autonomy. For him these are not mere words to be toyed with but fundamental human values. Hoffer took ideas that during his time had already taken on a modish, debased appeal and rooted them to vital life. It is in this regard that one can refer to Hoffer as a philosopher of the lived experience.
Being a thinker concerned with questions relating to vital life during the positivistic twentieth century had major drawbacks. Because Hoffer embraced a philosophy of commonsense values that addressed everyday life, the radicalized academic establishment has dismissed him. Hoffer’s major crime, as it is easy to see today, is that he tried to wrest control of moral values away from nihilistic intellectuals. By safeguarding basic truths and values—ideas that enable man to flourish in daily life—from becoming the domain of fashionable theories, Hoffer was made persona non grata by radical ideologues and opportunistic intellectuals. Yet while being shunned by radicalized academics, Hoffer enjoyed tremendous success among his readers in the general public.
Pedro Blas González is a professor of philosophy at Barry University.