The Magazine

Working Man Blues

Eric Hoffer: longshoreman, writer, prophet.

Jan 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 16 • By FRED SIEGEL
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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,