Koerner, “Hoffer’s America,” and Hoffer, “The True Believer” & “The Temper of Our Time”
Allen Brownfeld reviews two novels by Eric Hoffer and one biography of the writer.
When his first book, The True Believer, was published in 1951, Eric Hoffer was unknown. Readers recognized, however, that a powerful and original talent had made its appearance and were astonished to learn that Hoffer was a common laborer who had been virtually blind in childhood, who had recovered his eyesight, and who had educated himself entirely by his own efforts.
The True Believer remains his most important book. In it he examined the appeal of mass movements and attempted to understand—and explain—how such totalitarian forces as nazism, fascism, and communism are able to enlist so many in their crusades.
Part of Hoffer’s conclusion is that when individualism dies, tyranny becomes possible and, often, probable. He wrote that, “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for lost faith in ourselves.… 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.… In running away from ourselves we either fall on our neighbor’s shoulder or fly at his throat.”
Totalitarian movements offer man an escape from the difficulties of freedom and the task of confronting his own individuality. The man who is unhappy with himself, Hoffer writes, is the prime target of the organizers of mass movements:
Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden. Of what avail is freedom to choose if the self be ineffectual? We join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility, or in the words of the 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 responsibilities for obeying orders. Had they not joined the Nazi movement in order to be free from responsibility?
Modern American society faces a strenuous movement in behalf of the philosophy which holds that “society”—not the individual—is responsible for all actions and that the goal of the body politic is the achievement of “equality”—not the traditional idea of equal opportunity, but the opposed notion of equality of condition. The appeal of such a philosophy, Hoffer tells us, is the same appeal held by nazism, fascism, and communism. He writes, “The passion for equality is partly a passion for anonymity, to be one thread of the many which make up a tunic, one thread not distinguishable from the others.… They want to eliminate free competition and the ruthless testing to which the individual is continually subjected in a free society.”
By rejecting his individuality, man, Hoffer states,
not only renounces personal advantage but is also rid of personal responsibility. There is no telling to what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts and the vague stirrings of decency which go with individual judgment. When we lose our individual independence in the corporateness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom—freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame or remorse.… The hatred and cruelty which have their source in selfishness are ineffectual things compared with the venom and ruthlessness born of selflessness.
To produce willing submission to tyranny, to enlist men and women who will man the gas chambers of Auschwitz or the slave labor camps of the Gulag Archipelago, totalitarian leaders must first destroy all aspects of individuality. As Hoffer points out:
In order to be assimilated into a collective medium a person has to be stripped of his individual distinctness. He has to be deprived of free choice and independent judgment.… By elevating dogma above reason, the individual’s intelligence is prevented from becoming self‐reliant. Economic dependence is maintained by centralizing economic power and by a deliberately created scarcity of the necessities of life.
Now, 23 years after publication of The True Believer, after six additional books, Hoffer is recognized as a brilliant aphorist and a provocative commentator on men and events. Despite this, Hoffer the man has remained rather obscure. In Hoffer’s America, James Koerner attempts to satisfy the curiosity of Hoffer’s readers and stimulate the interest of those who have not yet encountered him. In both of these attempts he is notably successful.
The book grew out of many talks and walks taken by the author with his subject, and many issues are touched upon in its. pages. As Hoffer sees the American past, it was personal liberty—and the heavy burden of work that goes with it—that gave the ordinary American the scope he needed to excel. For Hoffer, this freedom to be left alone, to be free of coercion by state or society, has always been crucial. When he traveled from New York to California as a young man and saw the country for the first time, he “looked around,” as he puts it, “and I liked what I saw. This was a country in which you could be left alone.… This country was made largely by people who wanted to be left alone. Those who couldn’t thrive when left to themselves never felt at ease in America.”
Koerner notes that, “Hoffer’s ire is easily raised, but nothing raises it quicker than the platitudes of liberal academics, intellectuals and politicians about the relationship of poverty and crime. The fact that their theories seem to be accepted unthinkingly by the majority makes him madder still.”
“Poverty causes crime.” Hoffer shouts. “That is what they are always shoving down our throats, the misbegotten bastards. Poverty does not cause crime. If it did we would have been buried in crime for most of our history and so would every other nation on earth.” He observers that he has lived most of his life with poor people who did not commit crimes. “Criminals cause crime,” he declares, “And the minute we let them get away with it, we are going to have lots more.”
The arrogance of American “intellectuals” is also a subject which brings forth a vigorous response. To Hoffer, the touchstone of the intellectual is not a passion for truth but a passion for power, especially power over people. The sine qua non of the Hoffer intellectual is his conviction that he belongs to an educated minority whose duty it is to instruct the rest of mankind and, if necessary, compel them to be better than they are. According to Hoffer, one need not be particularly intelligent to be an “intellectual” and he notes that, “In their hearts American intellectuals have always hated the ordinary man whom they have sought to dominate. They have never been able to accept the fact that the riffraff of Europe were able to tame the American continent and build the world’s greatest and best nation largely without the guidance of intellectuals.”
In The Temper Of Our Time, Hoffer discusses the role and outlook of the intellectual at some length. He writes that, “A ruling intelligentsia, whether in Europe, Asia or Africa, treats the masses as raw materials to be experimented on, processed, and wasted at will. Charles Peguy saw it long ago, before the First World War. The intellectuals, he said, dealt with people the way manufacturers deal with wares, they were capitalists of people.” Hoffer goes on to declare that,
A saviour who wants to turn men into angels will be as much a hater of human nature as a man who wants to turn them into slaves and animals. Man must be dehumanized, must be turned into an object. before he can be processed into something wholly different from what he is. It is a paradox that the idealistic reformer has a mechanical, lifeless conception of man’s being. He sees man as something that can be taken apart and put together, and the renovation of the individual and of society as a process of manufacturing.
Those who would destroy man’s individual uniqueness, who would place him in a straight‐jacket of “equality” and “uniformity,” who would take from him the responsibility for his own life and actions, are setting the stage for even greater tyranny than we have seen thus far in the twentieth century. Eric Hoffer understands this all too well, and he is justifiably concerned about contemporary trends. He is truly a philosopher of individualism and freedom, and those who would preserve a society in which such values flourish would do well to consider his ideas. Reviewed by Allan C. Brownfeld / Political Philosophy‐Psychology / True Believer (160 pages) / LR Price $.75 / Hoffer’s America (137 pages) / LR Price $5.95 / Temper of Our Time (138 pages) / LR Price $.75