The Magazine

Working Man Blues

Eric Hoffer: longshoreman, writer, prophet.

Jan 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 16 • By FRED SIEGEL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Not long ago Thomas Edsall told readers of the New York Times that the 2012 Obama campaign had essentially given up trying to win the support of white working-class voters. The Democrats, explained Edsall, had become a top-and-bottom coalition of highly educated professionals, many of whom work directly or indirectly for government, at one end, and the low-income recipients of government benefits on the other.

Photo of Eric Hoffer laughing

Eric Hoffer, Lyndon Johnson (1967)

Bettmann / Corbis

What’s missing from that alignment are the producers, people who make things and those who maintain and repair them. The starkness of the division was anticipated 45 years ago in the writings of the San Francisco dockworker Eric Hoffer (1902-1983).

Hoffer, a major intellectual figure for three decades, became famous with his 1951 essay on communism and fascism, The True Believer, which bypassed Marx and Freud to explain totalitarianism. Tom Shactman has brought this extraordinary, but unfortunately forgotten, figure back into the public eye with this new biography.

Born in the Bronx roughly at the turn of the 20th century, Hoffer was the child of Alsatian immigrants: a gruff, highly literate father who worked as a cabinetmaker and a homemaking mother devoted to her only child. But Hoffer’s mother took a terrible fall that led to her death and his own blindness. He had already been reading English and German, but he remained blind from ages 7 to 15 when his sight inexplicably returned, along with his love of reading. The family maid, who was devoted to him, returned to Germany just before World War I, and his father died in 1920. Hoffer, who had never attended school or received religious instruction, was a solitary man.

In the wake of the Great War, with the $300 death benefit he had received from his father’s union, he headed off alone for Los Angeles, settling on a skid row. There, apart from the books he read such as Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and Ernest Renan’s multivolume history of the ancient Israelites, he led a desultory existence for a decade. But after a failed suicide attempt in 1931, devoid of self-pity, he headed off for a decade in the California fields as a migrant farm worker picking cotton, thinning beets, and mining gold.

Building on his experience working in the fields, Hoffer saw that the undesirables of Europe, the freewheeling pioneers of early generations, bore more than a passing resemblance to the vagabonds and tramps he worked with as a migrant farmworker.

In 1936, fearing that he would be trapped by the bitter winters of the Sierra Nevada while mining, he took with him the collected essays of Michel de Montaigne. Hoffer read through the small print of that massive tome twice, and then skimmed through it a third time. Montaigne was famous, in the midst of the wars of religion, for such aphorisms as “It is to put a very high value on your surmises to roast a man alive for them” and “Reason is a two-handed pot: You can grab it from the right or the left.”

Hoffer, drawn to the Frenchman’s stoicism and self-reflection, declared that Montaigne “knew my innermost thoughts.” Hoffer tried to emulate both Montaigne’s writing style—in which Montaigne noted that “the speech I love is simple, natural speech, the same on paper as in the mouth”—and his approach to knowledge: “I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics; that is my physics.”

Hoffer took this to heart, declaring that “my writing grows out of my life just as a branch from a tree.”

In 1942 he volunteered for the Army and was rejected because of a hernia. Short but powerfully built, he went to work on the San Francisco docks to be part of the war effort. He listened to what his coworkers had to say, sometimes arguing with the Communists in his union; but he lived alone, and kept to himself after work, devoting himself to reading. He would later write in his notebooks: “It’s only when the oyster keeps its mouth shut that a grain of sand within may become a pearl.”

In 1951, Hoffer’s efforts to think about “the inner nature of things” produced The True Believer, the short book on mass movements that made him famous. In it he saw the inner similarity, the “alchemy of conviction,” between the Nazis and the Communists in their fanatical devotion to a seemingly selfless ideal. He saw that in both movements self-contempt was transformed into pride by way of “deprecat(ing) the present on behalf of a glorious future” in which the devil—who was essential for fanatical mass movements, be it Jews or the bourgeoisie—was to be exterminated. Hoffer saw that the tensions inherent in pluralist societies were preferable to the alternatives. Grasping the essential irony of benevolence by way of indirection, he wrote,

By keeping clear of the guilt of selfishness .  .  . we commit atrocities and enormities without .  .  . fear of remorse. .  .  . A sense of duty and devotion to an idea often produces a selflessness more ruthless and harmful than extreme selfishness.

Devoid of pretension, steely in his independence, even after he achieved fame with The True Believer, Hoffer went back to work on the dock for another 25 years. A man apart, he made it clear that he didn’t represent the working class; rather he was proudly of the working class. At one point he suffered a severed thumb in a work accident that cost two men their lives, but he kept working. Work, and America’s respect for it, was central to his sense of identity.

Reading Tom Shactman’s engaging and clearly written account, I found myself compelled to reread all of the Hoffer essays of the 1960s. Here I came across the one obvious failing of Shactman’s book: It scants the brilliance of Hoffer’s conceptual demolition of the pretensions that took hold in the mass movements of the Age of Aquarius. Supportive of the civil rights movement, Hoffer saw the racialism of the black power movement as an expression of a pride that masked self-doubt, even self-contempt. He recognized that the black power movement was, in part, a “racket,” an opportunity for race hustlers and charlatans to promise a short cut to prosperity that they could cash in on but that would leave most blacks even worse off. There was, he rightly insisted, no substitute for the self-discipline, the relentless work, required to make the long, hard slog to well-being.

America, as Hoffer rightly understood, was exceptional: “Only here, in America,” he wrote, “were the common folk of the Old World given a chance to show what they could do on their own, without a master to push and order them about.” It was the practicality of working people, untutored by intellectuals, that was integral to America’s success. “Scribe-dominated” societies, he argued, derived “a rare satisfaction from tearing tangible things out of the hands of practical people. .  .  . America is the only country where the masses have impressed their tastes and values on the whole of the country.”

It was precisely this egalitarianism that alienated intellectuals, who felt they weren’t given their due in the land of the common man. Intellectuals thrived, he noted, in social orders dominated by autocracies and aristocracies. But “one cannot escape the impression that the intellectual’s most fundamental incompatibility is with the masses.”

In the early 1960s, when containerization arrived on the San Francisco docks, and automation took hold in manufacturing, Hoffer welcomed them as relieving people of their burdensome tasks. We were at the Gates of Eden, he wrote. But he soon also saw the underside of this transformation. In “America just now,” he wrote in the mid-1960s, “the masses are on their way out.” With the coming of automation, he wrote with exaggeration, “90 percent of the common people will become unneeded and unwanted.” The future, he argued (anticipating Silicon Valley), is being shaped “by laboratories manned by supermen” with little use for the average guy: “The elites are finally catching up with us. We can hear the swish of leather as saddles are heaved on our backs. The intellectuals and the young [student radicals], booted and spurred, feel themselves born to ride us.”

Where others saw idealism in the student radicalism of the 1960s, Hoffer saw a drive for power:

There is nothing in contemporary America that can cure or alleviate their chronic frustration. They want power, lordship, and opportunities for imposing action. Even if we should banish poverty from the land, lift up the Negro to true equality, withdraw from Vietnam, and give half the national income as foreign aid, they will still see America as an air-conditioned nightmare. .  .  . What [they] cannot stomach is the mass of the American people—a mindless monstrosity devoid of spiritual, moral, and intellectual capacities.

Hoffer feared that the liberals’ and student radicals’ sympathy for the criminality of some African Americans, combined with their hostility to working-class whites, was the expression of a would-be aristocracy in the making. Writing about the contemporary campus hero Herbert Marcuse, he noted Marcuse’s disdain for the sight, sound, and smell of the average American. For Marcuse, “there is something fundamentally wrong with a society in which the master and the workers, the typist and the boss’s daughter, do not live totally disparate lives.” Today we’ve achieved what Marcuse and the intellectuals hoped for: a far more stratified society in which liberals can live in upper-middle-class bubbles insulated from the masses.

Hoffer was the first to anticipate the coming of the top-bottom coalition: “An interesting peculiarity of present-day dissenting intellectuals,” he noted, “is their lack of animus towards the rich. .  .  . I doubt whether anyone had foreseen that affluence would radicalize the upper rich and the lowest poor and nudge them toward an alliance against those in the middle. What we have of revolution just now is financed largely by the rich.”

The plight of African Americans became, as he recognized, the means by which the masses, stigmatized as hopelessly racist, could be displaced from the center of American life. Hoffer saw the underlying logic of the question that has emerged as we approach the 2012 election: Does the voice of the middle-class black and white still define our polity or culture?

Fred Siegel, scholar in residence at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.