The legacy of Eric Hoffer

Thomas Sowell

6/18/2003 12:00:00 AM - Thomas Sowell

The twentieth anniversary of the death of Eric Hoffer, in May 1983, passed with very little notice of one of the most incisive thinkers of his time -- a man whose writings continue to have great relevance to our times.

How many people today even know of this remarkable man with no formal schooling, who spent his life in manual labor -- most of it as a longshoreman -- and who wrote some of the most insightful commentary on our society and trends in the world?

You need only read one of his classics like The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements to realize that you are seeing the work of an intellectual giant.

Having spent several years in blindness when most other children were in school, Hoffer could only do manual labor after he recovered his sight, but was determined to educate himself. He began by looking for a big book with small print to take with him as he set out on a job as a migratory farm worker.

The book that turned out to fill this bill -- based on size and words -- was the essays of Montaigne. Over the years, he read many landmark books, including Hitler's Mein Kampf, even though Hoffer was Jewish. If ever there was a walking advertisement for the Great Books approach to education, it was Eric Hoffer.

Among Hoffer's insights about mass movements was that they are an outlet for people whose individual significance is meager in the eyes of the world and -- more important -- in their own eyes. He pointed out that the leaders of the Nazi movement were men whose artistic and intellectual aspirations were wholly frustrated.

Hoffer said: "The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause."

People who are fulfilled in their own lives and careers are not the ones attracted to mass movements: "A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding," Hoffer said. "When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business."

What Hoffer was describing was the political busybody, the zealot for a cause -- the "true believer," who filled the ranks of ideological movements that created the totalitarian tyrannies of the 20th century.

In a comment very relevant to the later disintegration of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe and the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union itself, he observed that totalitarian governments' "moment of greatest danger is when they begin to reform, that is to say, when they begin to show liberal tendencies."

Mikhail Gorbachev's place in history was secured by his failure to understand that and his willingness to believe that a decent and humane Communist society was possible. But, once the people in Eastern Europe no longer had to fear tanks or the gulags, the statues of Lenin and Stalin began being toppled from their pedestals, like the governments they represented.

Contrary to the prevailing assumptions of his time, Eric Hoffer did not believe that revolutionary movements were based on the sufferings of the downtrodden. "Where people toil from sunrise to sunset for a bare living, they nurse no grievances and dream no dreams," he said. He had spent years living among such people and being one of them.

Hoffer's insights may help explain something that many of us have found very puzzling -- the offspring of wealthy families spending their lives and their inherited money backing radical movements. He said: "Unlimited opportunities can be as potent a cause of frustration as a paucity or lack of opportunities."

What can people with inherited fortunes do that is at all commensurate with their unlimited opportunities, much less what their parents or grandparents did to create the fortune in the first place, starting from far fewer opportunities?

Like the frustrated artists and failed intellectuals who turn to mass movements for fulfillment, rich heirs cannot win the game of comparison of individual achievements. So they must change the game. As zealots for radical movements, they often attack the very things that made their own good fortune possible, as well as undermining the freedom and well-being of other people.