He could have been a typical representative of the proletariat, for in his life he never got beyond casual work as a harvest worker and longshoreman and, in his youth, had not even been able to attend school.
In other words, for the likes of Marx Eric Hoffer should have presented a prime example of a man whose consciousness is molded by his belonging to the proletarian class. But this son of a simple cabinetmaker who, like many other Germans, emigrated to the United States towards the end of the 19th century, spectacularly disproves Marx’s claim of such a correlation. The proletarian Hoffer did not talk about the harshness of fate, he did not even protest against it, but reflected on the course of development of states and on the men, who shape them. This simple worker, occupied at least half a week with scraping together enough money for his survival, spent the second half sifting through world literature in insatiable curiosity and brooding over things that had virtually nothing to do with his present life. If we think it a merit that some saints of the past only thought of how to help their fellows while completely disregarding their own personal needs, then we may regard Eric Hoffer as a kind of saint: a holy proletarian.
Hoffer himself did not see his own affinity with other members of his class, but with a French nobleman, the brooding philosopher Michel de Montaigne. The contrast couldn’t be greater: Here the proletarian working hard for his own subsistence, there the man whose birth had already secured him an outstanding social position. Because of his wealth, Montaigne had enough leisure to reflect on human nature, free from all partiality, all zeal, and all desires for conversion, his detachment still fills us with wonder and admiration. But Hoffer is much closer to our present time – he died in 1983. What this man has to say to us in his most famous first work “The True Believer” is timeless but nevertheless very much related to present problems. Hoffer’s always sharp-witted aphorisms and psychologically profound reasoning immediately show that he is all at the same time: a psychologist who without reticence looks down into the darkest corners of the human soul, and a mercilessly dissecting scientist who investigates man as another type of social animal. In other words, he reveals himself to be an outstanding sociologist and political scientist, for whose book of just 170 pages one may confidently sacrifice entire libraries coming from the pen of average representatives of the two subjects.
Since this man is not even mentioned in left-wing discussion forums, I dare say that his portrait, not to mention his writings, will not be found either in party headquarters or among the disciples of the left-wing camp. The question is, why? After all this fact must seem to be very strange when considering that Hoffer embodies the “thinking proletarian” more than anyone else. Marx, Engels, Lassalle, Kautsky or Tucholsky did not belong to the class of proletarians, but were born bourgeois and partly rich ones for that matter. Should not, according to the orthodox creed, their origin irremediably falsify their class consciousness? Why has it been accepted without objection that these bourgeois offspring pretended to know the fate and destiny of the social underclass, while a man like Hoffer, who belonged to it all his life, is still virtually non-existent and unknown to the left?
There is one obvious reason for this: Hoffer is a man of justice, but he reduced to absurdity the ideologies of all colors. The provocation begins with the fact that- like but independently from Hannah Arendt – he makes no distinction between left-wing and right-wing fanatics (both equally called “true believers”). But being not even satisfied with this insight, Hoffer goes in fact much further than Hannah Arendt (who, in a letter to Karl Jaspers, praised him in an exuberant way after she had met the 53-year-old in 1955). For Hoffer there is no doubt that the fanaticism of the do-gooders has its roots in personal frustration and insufficiency; people who lead a fulfilled, creative life do not think of rebellion. “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves”, he says. It is the “frustrated”, who tend to interpret their own failures as a deficiency of society or the world, which they therefore strive to change. For this reason, we so often find failed artists among the most violent foes of prevailing conditions. “Hitler tried painting and architecture; Goebbels, drama, the novel and poetry; Rosenberg, architecture and philosophy; von Schirach, poetry; Funk, music; Streicher, painting. Almost all were failures, not only by the usual vulgar criterion of success but by their own artistic criteria. Their artistic and literary ambitions were originally far deeper than political ambitions: and were integral parts of their personalities … Marat, Robespierre, Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler are outstanding examples of fanatics from the ranks of non-creative “men of the word”.
Not content even with this merciless psychological analysis, Hoffer goes still one step further. According to him, even their respective ideologies are not what really matters. What people unconsciously want and what fanatical leaders from right and left actually give them is, first of all, the feeling of “belonging”, of escaping from unbearable isolation, from dissatisfaction with one’s own inconspicuous or hated selves, so that they may merge into a greater and comprehensive movement. Ideology is but a minor matter, it has no other function than that of a flag under which believers unite. That is why Hitler really hated only intellectuals, skeptics and liberals, while he saw in Stalin a kindred seducer of his own kind and type. Converted Communists, he demanded, should be accepted into the Nazi party without much ado. We may say that even before Hannah Arendt and Eric Hoffer, Hitler himself was intuitively aware of the spiritual closeness and interchangeability of the fanatics of left and right!
At the beginning of the new century such thoughts are likely to evoke an echo in commentators on the prevailing zeitgeist. In present-day America too, the hatred of the fundamentalist Evangelicals is not so much directed against equally militant Muslims or fanatical atheists – here one evil spirit is quite akin to the other – but instead it turns against the doubters and liberal skeptics: it is they who are the primary hate-objects of fanaticism. Hoffer is timeless in his analysis, but he is so in a way that the zealots from both the left and the right do not appreciate. Like Montaigne, he stands strangely alone above his noisy contemporaries speaking only to those who guard their freedom against ideological narrowness. Only eminent intellectuals like Bertrand Russell or Hannah Arendt were capable of recognizing Hoffer for what he was: a solitary genius.
But, mind you, Hoffer may be read in quite a different way too, namely as a textbook for budding dictators. In perfect detail, Hoffer describes what they should do or not do when making success their only guideline. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping certainly did not look into Hoffer’s book: but intuitively they both act exactly according to his insights. Governments, says Hoffer, are rarely overthrown when conditions become unbearable or when they are too harsh, too intolerant, too cruel against their citizens; on the contrary, they are overthrown when showing signs of indulgence and weakness. In the decade before the French Revolution, France was far better off economically than in the two decades that followed it, in Russia the revolution took place after the Muzhik had been largely liberated from serfdom, and the peasant wars that took place in Luther’s time and for which he was essentially responsible broke out in areas where the rural population was doing relatively well. But the weakness of government was produced by “men of the word”, the intellectuals of those times, who had expressed thoughts of rebellion which were to shake to its very core the existing social order.
Men of the Word! Intellectuels. They play a special role with Hoffer, for example Luther. As long as the great reformer questioned the Church as the ruling power, he spoke of the “poor, simple, common people”, but as soon as he had allied himself with the powers that be, i.e. with the princes, and enjoyed their protection, he took a completely different stance: “God would prefer to suffer the government to exist no matter how evil, rather than to allow the rabble to riot, no matter how justified they are in doing so.” According to Hoffer, “men of the word” represent a permanent source of unrest, since they are at the origin of most rebellions and revolutions. The best way for a state to protect itself against them is to secure their livelihood. “A bishopric conferred on Luther at the right moment might have cooled his ardor for a Reformation.” The millennia of stability characterizing the Chinese Empire Hoffer attributes to the fact that the intellectuals who passed the difficult exams prescribed by the State Academy could afterwards count on a secure job. Hoffer could have made the same observation with regard to India, where reading and writing were a privilege exclusively reserved to the small elite of Brahmins.
The reverse conclusion applies as well: disregarded or unemployed intellectuals form a constant potential of turmoil and upheaval. In a consenting way, Hoffer quotes Thoreau: “I believe that what so saddens the reformer is not his sympathy with his fellows in distress, but, though he be the holiest son of God, is his private ail. Let this be righted … and he will forsake his generous companions without apology.” However, such dispassionate dealing with the fanaticism of frustrated minds did not prevent Hoffer from acknowledging that they quite frequently are at the origin of the most momentous socio-political changes.
Hoffer manages to dissect state and people with such relentless objective coldness as if he were dealing with the denizens of an anthill. That has earned him the accusation of cynicism. In the analytical implacability of his investigations he resembles Spinoza, but he differs from his spiritual mentor Montaigne. The latter too lets his gaze glide unflinchingly over man and his shortcomings, but does so with indulgence and even compassion. If, after all, we may be reluctant to be totally convinced by Hoffer it is because he tends to overlook the fact that compassion does indeed exist, that helpfulness among people is really to be found and that there are in fact ideals for which some people are ready to suffer even to their great personal detriment.
Perhaps we may attribute Hoffer’s partial blindness to the fact that he was a man of unbelievable pride and feared nothing so much as to be accused of even a hint of self-pity and self-indulgence. Hence his merciless objectivity, as if his personal existence did not count when he talked about people and humanity. In this respect, he must be said to be even more proud and certainly more honest than Friedrich Nietzsche. The latter was, as we know, one of the most sensitive, most vulnerable people who was moved to tears when in Turin observing how a coachman beat his horse almost to death. But Nietzsche couldn’t stand looking at himself as psychologically weak. So he created his own ideal counter-image in the shape of Zarathustra, the very antithesis to himself, a preacher of violence who, if need be, forbids himself all impulses towards compassion and humanity.
But Hoffer did not deceive himself. He does not demand that those above him be overthrown just because he himself is placed at the bottom. Hoffer is far too astute not to see through the personal resentment behind such an appeal. Nevertheless, he did believe in ideals, at least in an ideal society where the common man sets the tone, because he “needed no king, no Hitler or Stalin to build his roads, his dass, his factories, his schools, his playfields, parks and pleasure houses. Here, for the first time in history the common man knew the fast of real freedom.” He refers, of course, to the United States of America.
Hoffer wrote these lines in the sixties. He did not see that at that time America had already become a different state, a state of the upper one percent, which controlled politics and economy from the background and hardly needed to take care of the common man. Hoffer proves an old truth. Those who, with stupendous ingenuity, succeed in illuminating the past because it is placed at a safe distance are not necessarily in a position to correctly evaluate the present lying immediately in front of their eyes. In fact, this man, who made himself the advocate of the small people, finally ended up with the neoconservatives. At the approach of death, he even turned into a reactionary.
Hoffer is a man of contradictions. He despised intellectuals, but was himself one of them – even one of the greatest. He wanted the best for the common people, but was mainly concerned with the big shots: aristocrats, kings and dictators. He lived in the United States, but he mainly read European authors. In other words, he was not this or that, but a man torn between extremes. That is why it is so worthwhile to read this man even today. In the United States he is rightly regarded as one of the great thinkers, but he also deserves to be recognised as a seer in the rest of the world.
He may have been destined to become a seer in his early youth already, as he was blind between the age of seven and fifteen because of an unfortunate accident (at least that is what he himself claimed, but the first thirty years of his life remain obscure up to the present day. He may have come to the country as an illegal migrant).
Hoffer possessed the rare ability to completely dissociate his thoughts from his own person, but in the last analysis he always spoke about himself proving as he did what a man can make of himself, even if he grows up without schooling and spends half of his life carrying loads and performing all kinds of menial tasks. If there is a proletarian thinker who deserves this name, then it is Eric Hoffer, the saint, whom True Believers from the left and the right will never really appreciate, because he stands too far above them: He is too free, too sovereign a man.
Addendum: With the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, The True Believer was rushed back into print. Jihadists seemed to be following Hoffer’s fifty-year-old script. Young men were joining the Islamist cause with little in the way of coercion, volunteering for death in return for promised rewards in a transformed existence.
Hoffer is quoted several times in: „Auf der Suche nach Sinn und Ziel der Geschichte – Leben in der Ära der Streitenden Reiche“. English version currently still available on the net ( “In Search of Meaning and Purpose in History„).