Within the last month, events have propelled Black Lives Matter into a major cause, with a great deal of clout, both directly and indirectly. That influence and the anger it is associated with has also made it very risky for people to disagree with BLM even in limited ways, because of threats to objectors’ reputations, safety and livelihoods. That presents the public with a very biased conversation. As a result, perhaps only someone who has already passed on can safely air concerns.
There is one such person known for his insight into group movements – Eric Hoffer, who died in 1983. Known as the “longshoreman philosopher” for the manual labor he performed for most of his life, Hoffer wrote eleven books, beginning with 1951’s “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements,” which focused on the allure of a seemingly ennobling collective cause, and the coercive power which it puts in the hands of leaders and their discontented followers, in contrast with freedom, which is the only milieu in which creative individuals can flourish and find fulfillment.
Consider some of what the Presidential Medal of Freedom holder had to say about such causes:
The desire for freedom … says: leave me alone and I shall grow, learn, and realize my capacities.
Freedom of choice places the whole blame of failure on the shoulders of the individual.
Those who fail … incline to blame the world for their failure.
There are many who find a good alibi far more attractive than an achievement … when we have a valid alibi for not achieving anything we are fixed, so to speak, for life.
Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden. Of what avail is freedom to choose if the self be ineffectual? We join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility.
There is in us a tendency to locate the shaping forces of our existence outside ourselves … The tendency to look for all causes outside ourselves persists even when it is clear that our state of being is the product of personal qualities such as ability, character, appearance, health and so on. “If anything ail a man,” says Thoreau, “he forthwith sets about reforming – the world.”
We all have private ails. The troublemakers are they who need public cures for their private ails.
Those who lack the capacity to achieve much in an atmosphere of freedom will clamor for power.
Those who fail in everyday affairs show a tendency to reach out for the impossible … For when we fail in attempting the possible, the blame is solely ours; but when we fail in attempting the impossible, we are justified in attributing it to the magnitude of the task … It is thus that failure in everyday affairs often breeds an extravagant audacity.
The danger inherent in reform is that the cure may be worse than the disease … reformers are not on guard against unpredictable side effects which may divert the course of reform toward unwanted results. Moreover, quite often the social doctors become part of the disease.
It has often been said that power corrupts. But it is perhaps equally important to realize that weakness, too, corrupts. Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many. Hatred, malice, rudeness, intolerance, and suspicion are the faults of weakness.
When the weak want to give an impression of strength they hint menacingly at their capacity for evil. It is by its promise of a sense of power that evil often attracts the weak.
It is doubtful if the oppressed ever fight for freedom. They fight for pride and power – power to oppress others … They want to retaliate.
They who clamor loudest for freedom are often the ones least likely to be happy in a free society. The frustrated, oppressed by their shortcomings, blame their failure on existing restraints … They want to eliminate free competition and the ruthless testing to which the individual is continually subjected in a free society.
It is maintained that a society is free only when dissenting minorities have room to throw their weight around. As a matter of fact, a dissenting minority feels free only when it can impose its will on the majority: what it abominates most is the dissent of the majority.
Those who see their lives as spoiled and wasted crave equality and fraternity more than they do freedom … No one can then point us out, measure us against others and expose our inferiority.
The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready is he to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.
Mass movements strive … to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside it … to “shut his eyes and stop his ears” to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard … Thus the effectiveness of a doctrine should not be judged by … the validity of the truths it embodies, but by how thoroughly it insulates the individual from his self and the world as it is.
The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.
In order to be effective a doctrine must not be understood, but has rather to be believed in.
The effectiveness of a doctrine does not come from its meaning but from its certitude. No doctrine however profound and sublime will be effective unless it is presented as the embodiment of the one and only truth. It must be the one word from which all things are and all things speak. Crude absurdities, trivial nonsense and sublime truths are equally potent … if they are accepted as the sole, eternal truth.
The desire to escape or camouflage their unsatisfactory selves develops in the frustrated a facility for pretending – for making a show – and also a readiness to identify themselves wholly with an imposing spectacle.
A movement’s call for action evokes an eager response in the frustrated, for they see in action a cure for all that ails them.
Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.
Passionate hatreds can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. These 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.
The true believer is apt to see [that] He who is not of his faith is evil.
The enemy – the indispensable devil of every mass movement – is omnipresent. He plots both outside and inside the ranks of the faithful. It is his voice that speaks through the mouth of the dissenter, and the deviationists are his stooges. If anything goes wrong within the movement, it is his doing … the true believer … must be constantly on the lookout for saboteurs, spies and traitors.
There is no telling to what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts and the vague stirrings of decency that go with individual judgement. When we lose our individual independence in the corporateness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom – freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse.
The sick in soul insist that it is humanity that is sick, and they are the surgeons to operate on it … And once they get humanity strapped to the operating table, they operate on it with an ax.
It always fares ill with the present when a genuine mass movement is on the march.
When hopes and dreams are loose in the streets, it is well for the timid to lock doors, shutter windows and lie low until the wrath has passed. For there is often a monstrous incongruity between the hopes, however noble and tender, and the action which follows them … as if ivied maidens and garlanded youths were to herald the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
After all that has happened [people] still do not know that you cannot build utopia without terror, and that before long terror is all that’s left.
The characteristics of group movements Hoffer so cogently analyzed are being echoed in America today. And the domestic variant is just as much a threat to sacrifice our freedom to the power of some to become tyrants over others, for an assertedly incontrovertible “higher cause.” The claims they are based on, the inconvenient facts ignored, and the “solutions” proposed, deserve just as much scrutiny today as when Hoffer wrote.
Done seriously, that examination may convince us that to better enable lives meaningful for good, we need far less coercion and more freedom, rather than the other way around. And there is no better place to start than by reading his work.
One indicator of how insightful Hoffer still is today comes from a Thomas Sowell article for the 20th anniversary of the death of “one of the most incisive thinkers of his time,” who authored “some of the most insightful commentary on our society and trends in the world.” In it, he reported that Hoffer “was completely at odds with the pious cant and slippery evasions” of the “rhetoric ridden” 1960s.
To illustrate, Sowell wrote the following:
When a black man declared his “rage,” Eric Hoffer shot back: “Mister, it is easy to be full of rage. It is not easy to go to work and build something.” For this, he was accused of “racism” for not rolling over and playing dead at the sound of one of the buzzwords of the times – and, unfortunately, of our times as well.
Hoffer was convinced that the black leadership was taking the wrong approach, if they wanted to advance the people in whose name they spoke. Only achievement would win the respect of the larger society and – more important – their own self-respect. And no one else can give you achievement.
Sowell’s conclusion is also worth recalling: “Eric Hoffer was ahead of his time. It is a literary treat to read him in order to catch up with our own times.” And in tough times, it is important to treat ourselves once in a while.
Harold F. Callahan is the pen name for an economist and public policy writer who wishes to maintain privacy due to threats and risks involved with the subject.