The Magazine

Working Man Blues

Eric Hoffer: longshoreman, writer, prophet.

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