To judge by a recent flurry of articles in important magazines, and the echoes of Marxist-Leninist slogans coming out of the New Left, the working-class white American may be in for a good deal of attention in the next few years. And although one may have misgivings about some of the things that are being said, the attention itself is. long overdue. Ever since the mid-1950's, American intellectuals have been virtually uniform in their aloofness from—if not down-right hostility to—that sector of the population which lies between the dramatically poor and the neurotically affluent. Part of the price of this hauteur has been paid in the national and municipal elections of the past year.
Perhaps this new concern for the “common man” or the “man-in-the-middle” as he is called—there is a lingering squeamishness about the use of the Marxian terms “worker” and “working class”—will make possible a new appraisal of the writings of Eric Hoffer.1
During the past few years Hoffer has emerged as a singular exception to the cultural blackout of the lower-income white. Although he is often rather glibly classified as a cold-war liberal, a backlasher, or a plain crank, his work deserves to be read seriously, even if only as a case study.2 For all his undeniable uniqueness, he is a rich example of some typical working-class attitudes—especially those which have been so perplexing to the American Left.
Calvin Tompkins, whose perceptive profile of Hoffer originally appeared in the New Yorker, quotes him as saying, “My train of thought grew out of my life just the way a leaf or a branch grows out of a tree.” No doubt this is true of most writers. But because Hoffer had little contact with professional intellectuals (except for radicals in the labor movement) until he was in his fifties and had published his first book, his personal experience must have been an unusually strong influence on his work.
Hoffer was born in New York of German immigrant parents and spent his childhood in relative poverty. He was afflicted by blindness when he was five, and when he recovered his sight at fifteen he became an avid and wide-ranging reader. The habit never left him—he discovered Montaigne, who had a great influence on him, simply by picking the fattest book off a shelf in a second-hand book store to take with him on a winter mining trip. Both of Hoffer's parents were dead by the time he was eighteen. “When my father died,” he says, “I realized that I would have to fend for myself. I knew several things; one, that I didn't want to work in a factory; two, that I couldn't stand being dependent on the good graces of a boss; three, that I was going to stay poor; four, that I had to get out of New York. Logic told me that California was the poor man's country.”
In the 1920's, California was still open country. Going west, Hoffer joined a great popular migration, made up for the most part of people of his own social class. These were the people who became the miners, longshoremen, railroad workers, sailors, and field-hands of the exploding, rough-and-ready capitalism of the Pacific coast. Their own adventurous natures combined with the relative freedom of western society to create in these workers a rambunctious individualism. The American West was one of the few places in the world where capitalist society really did rely to a great extent on “free labor.” There were, at least for a time, enough jobs to go around, so that if a worker got fed up at one he could pack up and find another. In contrast to the middle-class individualist who strained after business success, the working-class individualist sought mainly to preserve his mobility and independence (and bargaining power) against the onset of stable, large-scale economic organization, and the tightly structured society that came with it. These western workers, rather because of than in spite of their individualism, contributed a great deal to the rise of a native working-class radicalism in America. Those who had sought escape from the confines of Europe or the industrial East fought back bitterly when capitalism caught up with them in its inexorable westward march. Out of the disillusionment of these last seekers of the promised land come some of the epic names of American labor and radical history: Coeur D'Alene, Ludlow, Bill Haywood, the Western Federation of Miners, the IWW.
When Hoffer reached California in the early 20's the great working-class rebellion that had produced the Wobblies was very much in decline. Yet heavy traces of the Wobbly spirit must still have lingered in the air. Hoffer's experiences brought him into close association with many workers who, whether or not they shared the political program of the IWW, must have shared some of the basic social attitudes that marked its membership. He drifted from job to job, often living on skid row or in the hobo jungles. He has not written much about his personal experiences in this period—a regrettable compunction—but when he does, it is usually to illustrate a favorite theme: the great resourcefulness and natural decency of the people with whom he worked and traveled. For example:
Once, during the Great Depression, a construction company that had to build a road in the San Bernardino Mountains sent down two trucks to the Los Angeles skid row, and anyone who could climb onto the trucks was hired. When the trucks were full the drivers put in the tailgates and drove off. They dumped us on the side of a hill in the San Bernardino Mountains, where we found bundles of supplies and equipment. The company had only one man on the spot. We began to sort ourselves out; there were so many carpenters, electricians, mechanics, cooks, men who could handle bulldozers and jackhammers, and even foremen. We put up the tents and the cook shack, fixed latrines and a shower bath, cooked supper and the next morning went out to build the road. If we had to write a constitution we probably would have had someone who knew all the whereases and wherefores. We were a shovelful of slime scooped off the pavement of skid row, yet we could have built America on the side of a hill in the San Bernardino Mountains.
It seems a long way from Eric Hoffer to the IWW; any comparison must sound sacrilegious to those campus radicals who are trying to establish their own paternity in the Wobblies' struggles for free speech and the eight-hour day. And indeed, the differences between the Wobblies and Hoffer are unmistakable: they were revolutionaries, he certainly is not. Yet there are intriguing likenesses as well. Hoffer's vision of building America in the San Bernardino Mountains has much in common with the syndicalism of Big Bill Haywood, the IWW leader, who called for the reorganization of society into “One Big Union.” Both evoke a world without bosses, professors, hippies, or welfare cases, a world in which honest workers build and produce.
In this syndicalist vision workers not only manage basic production, they create a total civilization. “Every longshoreman thinks he could write a book if he tried—and it is true, he probably could,” Hoffer told Calvin Tomkins. “Every intellectual thinks that talent, that genius is a rare exception. Talent and genius have been wasted on an enormous scale throughout our history; this is all I know for sure.”
Hoffer's disdain for intellectuals, another of his pet themes, echoes a familiar prejudice. Yet he is in no sense an anti-intellectual of the Know-Nothing, Ku-Kluxer variety, for his own work shows scholarship and a great enthusiasm for ideas. He does not mind intellectuality; he resents professional intellectuals. His reasons, put very simply, are that intellectuals don't work, and that they have a great urge to dominate those who do. The two objections are actually related, since in Hoffer's view it is the intellectual's lack of a “sense of social usefulness” which goads him into grandiose dreams of power.
A belief in the moral and social healthfulness of work is probably the major premise of Hoffer's outlook. It colors not only his attitude toward intellectuals, but his views on the race issue and the problems of the Third World. In the case of the intellectuals he abandons any pretense of Montaigne's detachment, and strikes out with polemical ardor:
One of the greatest surprises of the 20th century was sprung by the educated when they came to power. Gandhi once said that what worried him most was “the hardness of heart of the educated,” and it staggers the mind that education rather than educating the heart often makes it more savage. . . . We have yet to assimilate the fact that it took a nation of philosophers to produce Hitler and Nazism, and that in Stalin's Russia professors, writers, artists, and scientists were a pampered and petted aristocracy.
No honest democrat can deny that this statement hits on an important fact of 20th-century political life. It certainly should give a moment's pause to those who see the growing size and influence of our intelligentsia as a prelude to an inevitable movement toward greater democracy and social justice. Whatever its progressive accomplishments, the new intelligentsia has also shown a second, unmistakably ominous face. Alongside the democratic and nonviolent idealism (which has by no means fully vanished), there have now appeared a familiar elitism, an exaltation of militant totalitarianism, and a juvenile but no less dangerous mystique of violence.
Yet it is not hard to believe that, had other things been different, the restlessness of the intellectual might have led—it might still lead—to far different results in the politics of America and the world. Intellectuals have given themselves both to despotism and to democracy, depending on the character of the larger social forces around them. They helped create the American Republic, and figured largely in the overthrow of European absolutism during the 18th and 19th centuries. It was the intellectuals of the Petofi circle who gave leadership to the Hungarian people in the first major popular uprising against modern totalitarianism. And this year we have seen a constant stream of reports of protests by Czech and Russian intellectuals against the growing chill of Soviet despotism. Hoffer's history is unbalanced; it would be fairer to say that in the intellectuals, to borrow the words of the anti-Stalinist writer Victor Serge, “the best and worst live side by side, and sometimes mingle—and that which is worst comes through the corruption of what is best.”
But it should come as no surprise that someone like Hoffer feels as he does about intellectuals. Like most American workers, he probably has rarely sensed that the intellectual community has been on his side. Those intellectuals whom he has encountered in the labor movement have for the most part only confirmed this impression. He describes some, of benign intention, whose obsession with the social millennium has led them to scoff at the practical, day-to-day needs of workers—those banalities which often mean the difference between human degradation and a semblance of dignity to a working-class family. And there have been those who have simply used the labor movement to advance a totalitarian design—the Communists, whom Hoffer knows well from his years on the San Francisco waterfront.
Hoffer's views on the race problem are similarly rooted in his ethics of work:
The simple fact is that the people I have lived and worked with all my life, and who make up about 60 per cent of the population outside the South, have not the least feeling of guilt toward the Negro. The majority of us started to work for a living in our teens, and we have been poor all our lives. Most of us had only a rudimentary education. Our white skin brought us no privileges and no favors. For more than twenty years I worked in the fields of California with Negroes, and now and then for Negro contractors. On the San Francisco waterfront, where I spent the next twenty years, there are as many black longshoremen as white. My kind of people does not feel that the world owes us anything, or that we owe anybody—white, black, or yellow—a damn thing. We believe that the Negro should have every right we have: the right to vote, the right to join any union open to us, the right to live, work, study, and play anywhere he pleases. But he can have no special claims on us, and no valid grievances against us. He has certainly not done our work for us.
When the essay from which the preceding statement is taken first appeared in the New York Times Magazine, supporters of the civil-rights movement were generally offended. That was in 1964, when integration was still fashionable. It is a fascinating irony that while Hoffer's tone and analysis would still in some circles be considered “racist,” his program for solving the race problem would today be endorsed by many black militants and their white supporters. Hoffer believes simply that the Negro must solve his own problems: “Anything done to and for the Negro must be done by Negroes.” Rhetorical packaging aside, this is the same rationale as that behind CORE's Black Capitalism and Stokely Carmichael's Black Power.
Of course, what all the bootstrap strategists, Hoffer included, overlook is that the American economy has eliminated the opportunities which once made it possible for so many unskilled, “culturally disadvantaged” whites to achieve a half-decent way of life. When an unskilled Southern black follows Hoffer's footsteps to the West Coast today, he finds the fields and the building sites tended by tractors and bulldozers, the canneries humming with fabulous new machinery. Few summonses await him in the help-wanted listings.
Hoffer is partly aware of this. He acknowledges that “the European immigrants not only had an almost virgin continent at their disposal and unlimited opportunities for individual advancement, but were automatically processed on their arrival into new men.” But he neglects to follow through the implications this momentous difference has for his do-it-yourself solution to the stagnation and fury of the black ghetto.
One suspects that there is more at work here than simple oversight. For all his testiness, Hoffer is a subtle and logical thinker, and the problems of Negro unemployment are more or less common knowledge. Possibly he senses, if only subconsciously, that once it is acknowledged that the Negro has few opportunities available to him, Hoffer and “his kind” will be asked to pay the price of creating new ones. Given the drift of liberal opinion over the last few years, this is by no means an imaginary threat to a working man. Comfortable liberals have shown astonishing generosity in heaping social responsibilities on the shoulders of low-income whites. If there are too few jobs for blacks, the answer has often been to try to squeeze out a few white workers. If ghetto schools are bad, teachers are asked to sacrifice their own hard-won gains. If welfare funds are short, the taxes of working people show the first and proportionately greatest rise. And, to make it worse, if those who carry the burden of this “progress” show any ill feeling, they are promptly branded as reactionaries.
The ethic of work can become a rationale which working people will use to justify complacency and conservatism. Thus, they may vote against anti-poverty measures by telling themselves, “Let them work for a living like I do.” They can dismiss intellectuals, as Hoffer does, as a bunch of labor-fakers: “To me, they haven't raised a blade of grass, they haven't laid a brick, they don't know a god-damned thing, and here they sit in judgment.” Yet these opinions spring from a simple insight which is in a sense very radical: society is to a very great extent built on the labor of working people. It is out of the sweat of their brows or the tedium of their days that Americans draw welfare benefits, go to college, finance the Ford Foundation, and shop on Fifth Avenue. The worker sometimes senses that he is paying for most of this, and he may resent it. If he occasionally turns on those most vulnerable and near-at-hand—the welfare client, or the black—he is also capable of turning against the most powerful: his corporate bosses. It is no coincidence that the backlash voting of the past year was preceded by a period of bitter industrial strife. The number of man-hours lost in strikes in 1967-68 was higher than that of any comparable period since the end of World War II. It was only after this struggle to keep pace with rising profits and prices failed—without ever arousing a flicker of sympathy from the liberal intellectuals—that a significant number of workers turned away from their unions to seek relief by voting against the taxes and social programs of the Great Society.
It should be noted that Hoffer is a good union member. He never ran for office in the International Longshore Workers' Union, but his diary indicates that he participated actively as a rank-and-filer. He does not see the unions as agencies of social reconstruction; he is a classic “pure-and-simple” trade unionist. But on the other hand he knows from his own experience that unions cannot be brushed aside in the Galbraithian manner as unimportant vestiges of the first industrial revolution:
To the eternal workingman management is substantially the same whether it is made up of profit seekers, idealists, technicians, or bureaucrats. The allegiance of the manager is to the tasks and the results. However noble his motives, he cannot help viewing the workers as a means to an end. He will always try to get the most out of them; and it matters not whether he does it for the sake of profit, for a holy cause, or for the sheer principle of efficiency. . . . Our sole protection lies in keeping the division between management and labor obvious and matter-of-fact. We want management to manage the best it can, and the workers to protect their interests the best they can. No social order will seem to us free if it makes it difficult for the worker to maintain a considerable degree of independence from management. The things which bolster this independence are not utopian. Effective labor unions free movement over a relatively large area, a savings account, a tradition of individual self-respect—these are some of them.
In his acceptance of a strong role for private management Hoffer is not necessarily expressing enthusiasm for free enterprise. He is, at least in part, reacting to the state-controlled economies of the totalitarian countries. “The elimination of the conventional employer gives rise to a general monstrosity that bosses not only our working hours but invades our homes and dictates our thoughts and dreams.” As so often happens, Hoffer here confuses the regimentation imposed by a totalitarian party with the democratic economic planning and the libertarian political order which is the authentic socialist vision. He does remark on “the promising communal settlements in the small state of Israel and the successful programs of socialization in the small Scandinavian states.” But he attributes these advances to the smallness of the countries and the heterogeneity of their populations, not recognizing that these are forms of democratic control over economic life which differ radically from the Communists' bleak experiments in bureaucratic monopoly. (One might even argue that the smallness of these countries has made successful socialization more, not less, difficult.)
Democratic individualism, a reluctance to sacrifice in the present for the promise of a new world deep hostility to totalitarianism, suspiciousness and resentment toward intellectuals, and the ethic of work—these qualities of the American working class have all been factors in the conservatism which has dominated American politics for much of this century, and which is now making an alarming recovery. Put another way, these are factors which have helped frustrate the rise of a broadly based radical Left in the United States.
The recognition of these characteristics has usually led radical intellectuals to the opinion that something is peculiarly “wrong” with the American working class. It is not often suggested that something may be basically wrong with American radicalism. Yet after a near century of radical failure—heroic though that failure may sometimes have been—this proposition deserves frank consideration. Central to any reappraisal of the radical Left should be the record of snubs and betrayals committed by radical intellectuals against ordinary working people and their often glamorless efforts to better their lot in the face of an immensely powerful corporate elite. This record is made easier to grasp by the words and actions of those in the New Left who are pedantically repeating all the mistakes of the past. The campaign against the UFT in New York, the dual unionism being promoted by black separatists and their campus allies in the auto industry, the contemptuous attitudes toward low-income whites held by many in the New Politics movement, the opinion that working-class anti-Communism is merely ignorant and reactionary—all these are part of a sorry drama which is reenacted in almost every generation. There are many among the intellectuals to voice dissatisfactions with the American worker and few, such as Hoffer, among the workers to answer back. Votes not words, too often tell the final story.
But what is saddest about the current swing to the Right by numbers of lower-income whites is the realization that the frustrations which created it could—even now—produce a turn toward the democratic Left. It may seem quixotic to suggest this today, when leaders of the New Left are prophesying repression and even some who consider themselves part of the democratic Left are in a pessimistic droop. But the same failing that caused the Left to overlook the danger of a conservative backlash can also cause a blindness to the possibilities for a resurgence of the movements for change. Paradoxically, the backlash itself has proved that the average white American is not an inert atom in a mass society—a favorite theory of the disillusioned 50's which the New Left took more or less for granted. He has shown that he can respond effectively to fear and anger. It is not impossible that, were a thoughtful appeal made to his own democratic traditions and radical impulses, he could also be won to a new politics of hope.
1 Hoffer's books are available in paperback in the Perennial Library series published by Harper & Row. They include: The True Believer (1966), 160 pp. $.60; The Ordeal of Change (1967), 120 pp., $.60; The Passionate State of Mind (1968), 143 pp., $.75; and The Temper of Our Time (1969), 138 pp., $.75. His latest book, also published by Harper & Row, is Working and Thinking on the Waterfront, 180 pp., $4.95. See also Eric Hoffer: An American Odyssey, by Calvin Tompkins, photographs by George Knight, aphorisms by Eric Hoffer. Dutton, 115 pp., $4.95.
2 Hoffer's books have little of the impetuosity and vehemence that frequently color his television appearances and other public pronouncements. In a widely publicized statement before the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, he blurted that the problem of campus disorders might be solved if Grayson Kirk and other college presidents had only gotten guns and shot down a few disrupters. Rhetorical overstatement that this was, it was nevertheless extreme, even for Hoffer. A number of liberal writers seized on the remark as long-awaited evidence that Hoffer is a dangerous reactionary. A good many of these same people have spent the last few years explaining irresponsible speeches and acts of black separatists in terms of the Negro's condition, and the wild behavior of the New Left in terms of the Vietnam war. Hoffer deserves at least as much sympathetic understanding as the black and student extremists who, after all, have often acted out their foolishness.