Understanding what they have in common prompts a new look at a social philosopher whose work was praised by one Republican, Eisenhower in the 1950s, and rewarded with a Presidential Medal of Freedom by another, Reagan, just before Eric Hoffer’s death in 1983.
His central theme was the anatomy of what Hoffer called “The True Believer”—-the unthinking adherent of mass movements from Communism and Fascism to Christianity and Islam.
"Passionate hatred," he wrote, "can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance."
In those days, such true believers were limited to the fringes of post-World War II America in the ranks of dwindling Communist faithful and their Joe McCarthy enemies. In a prosperous and optimistic time, their ideas did not take root. But now that the political soil is far different, Hoffer’s description has more relevance:
“All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single-hearted allegiance.”
Hoffer’s true believer” is “without wonder and hesitation.” Losing independence in a mass movement, the follower gains “a freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse.”
As the 2012 election heats up with a 24/7 stream of invective on both sides, a new look at Hoffer could help understanding of where we are and where we are heading.
“There is no greater threat to sanity,” he wrote, “than the taking of one’s life too seriously. No one will miss us long when we are gone. No one will lose his appetite because we are no more.”
Americans could do much worse now than revisit the work of the fabled “Longshoreman Philosopher” who is no more but whose ideas might help those who remain.