There is an article in the Wall Street Journal that perfectly, albeit unintentionally, captures a common variety of confusion in American thought. The piece is “The ‘Longshoreman Philosopher’ Saw Trump Coming in 1970” by Reuven Brenner. The premise is that in Eric Hoffer’s 1970 essay, Whose Country is America?, he “eerily anticipated not only the political events of 2016 but the tone and language of last year’s campaign and the anti-Trump hysteria since Election day.” Brenner then goes on to blame ‘intellectuals’ for everything
It is completely idiotic. And it’s a propaganda piece. I would simply dismiss it, if not for the fact that the influence of such propaganda is all too real. Because it is pushed by corporate media, it is worth analyzing.
Keep in mind that Brenner is an employee of the Koch-funded Cato Institute, originally called the Charles Koch Foundation, one of the most powerful and influential right-wing think tanks in the world. He also has done work for the Koch-funded Fraser Institute and Shell corporation. Think tank employees are regularly given a platform on corporate media. But beyond that, the ignorance of the piece is maddening. And worst of all, I suspect the author to some degree believes his own bullshit or else believes that pushing such bullshit onto others is good for his personal and professional agenda, which is to say for the agenda of the likes of the Koch brothers and Wall Street Journal. He is apparently a highly sought after intellectual-for-hire, an intelligentsia mercenary.
About Brenner’s assessment quoted above, other people would strongly disagree. Al Hackle wrote that, “If a desire for decency and honesty equates to elitism, if billionaires are the common people — and if someone writing in 1970 to bash the hippy youth, etc., of that era from a pretentiously anti-intellectual (but highbrow!) standpoint was actually foreshadowing the politics of 2016-17 — then this article makes perfect sense.”
I wasn’t familiar with the particular Hoffer essay in question. Brenner begins with this quote from it: “Scratch an intellectual, and you find a would-be aristocrat who loathes the sight, the sound and the smell of the common folk.”
That is plain bizarre on multiple levels, according to the normal definition of ‘intellectual’ (i.e., someone focused on intellectual activity as a career, lifestyle, or identity). I’ll have more to say about this further on, as the usage is apparently highly idiosyncratic. Also, one might suspect, as Matthew Watkins argued, that “I felt like the quoted passages were pieced together to validate the author’s anti-intellectual take on the election.” Well, Hoffer wrote those words almost a half century ago and so probably wasn’t attempting to predict distant future political events. But for the moment, let me take it at face value, in the way Brenner is treating it.
Hoffer is a famous American intellectual, even though he was of the self-taught working class variety (so he claimed; more about that below). This is nothing unusual, considering America has a long history of working class intellectuals. For that reason, it’s strange to hear anti-intellectualism from an intellectual, as if Hoffer worried that there is some kind of shame to being an intellectual and that he wants to defend against any accusation that he too is an intellectual, however he defines it. Stranger still is the fact that this is being quoted by Brenner who has made a long, successful career out of being a professional intellectual, and it’s quoted in an article written for a conservative newspaper that styles itself as highly intellectual (Wall Street Journal not being a low brow publication for the dirty masses). As one commenter put it (Patrick McCafferty), “Define irony: An intellectual essay complaining about the influence of intellectuals and their essays.”
Somehow, these ‘intellectuals’ are all of those other people to be dismissed, presumably the elite left-wingers aspiring to rule the world, bias the media, and propagandize the children. It turns intellectuality into some foreign danger invading the body politic and threatening the Real America of Real Americans, and accordingly this is why Real Americans (what right-wing culture warriors used to proclaim as being the “moral majority”) supposedly voted for and gave a political mandate to Trump. This portrayal of intellectuals, along with the portrayal of the American public, is a caricature in the demented fantasies of right-wing rhetoric. It’s amazing that this attack on intellectuals so often comes from intellectuals themselves, although less surprising when those intellectuals work for right-wing think tanks. One might suspect they are being disingenuous. Anyway, the average non-intellectual doesn’t read either Hoffer or Brenner. These intellectuals attacking other intellectuals, one might argue, are projecting their own sense of disconnection from the rest of the population. It would be amusing, if it weren’t so pathetic, specifically in the case of Brenner (as for Hoffer, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for the moment, since his words are being used for someone else’s purposes).
Let me break down Brenner’s argument:
Hoffer started his analysis with “the conspicuousness of the young”—that is the baby boomers. “They have become more flambouyant, more demanding, more violent, more knowledgeable and more experienced,” he wrote. “The general impression is that nowadays the young act like the spoiled children of the rich.”
Similar accusations had been made toward prior generations of youth, specifically the generations born into the emerging America of industrialization and growing middle class, from the Lost Generation born into consumerism and violence to the Silent Generation born into affluence and a pampered childhood. How can any reasonably informed person not know this? How can such historical amnesia have such persistence?
This lack of basic knowledge is all the more shocking when it comes from intellectuals. Maybe that is what one gets when an intellectual dismisses intellectuality. An anti-intellectual intellectual is a confused person. I might be able to excuse Hoffer because he was a working class autodidact and so his self-education was maybe more random than thorough, just some guy voicing his opinions after reading some books (like me). Brenner, on the other hand, has gained wealth and respect as a formally educated public intellectual. Worse still, Brenner is the elite of the elite, not only a respected thinker promoted and read by the elite but also a college professor and published academic. Even if Hoffer didn’t know better, Brenner should.
A bit further on, Brenner writes that,
The “phenomenal increase of the student population”—enrollment in colleges and universities would more than triple between 1958 and 1978—created a critical mass: “For the first time in America, there is a chance that alienated intellectuals, who see our way of life as an instrument of debasement and dehumanization, might shape a new generation in their own image.”
Actually, the sharp increase in college enrollment began in the 1940s, initially because of the GI Generation returning from war and taking advantage of the cheap college education offered through the GI Bill. Besides that, there were other reasons. The college students from the late 1930s to the mid-to-late 1960s were mostly of the Silent Generation, depending on the years defining that generational cohort. The earliest wave of Boomers hitting colleges didn’t happen until 1964 and it would only have been in the following years when they would have become the majority on campuses. The Silents were the first generation to receive universal public education (it having been made compulsory in the early 1920s) and so the first generation with high rates of high school degrees, a requirement for enrolling in college. They were extremely protected in childhood and, upon reaching adulthood, never had to fight in any major war. Because of the peace and prosperity of the times, more of them were able and could afford to go straight from high school to college.
It’s possible that Hoffer was directing his antagonism more at the Silent Generation than any other. They fit the description of what he was complaining about, as they were the rising vanguard of intellectuals, radicals, activists, and leaders that brought on the tumultuous 1960s — having included such figures as Martin Luther King jr and Malcolm X, Jane Fonda and Wavy Gravy.
Hoffer was of the Lost Generation (according to the birthdate he gave), the generation before the GIs. They were one of the most criticized generations in modern history (the earlier equivalent of Generation X), although largely forgotten now as a cohort. Unlike the Silent Generation, they were not pampered and instead were latchkey kids.
The Lost Generation was known for growing up quick because they had little choice, having been born into a world of mass industrialization and urbanization, of absent parents and broken communities. Most of them spent their childhoods working, rather than in school, and they experienced little parental oversight. They were a precocious lot, the first generation of mass consumers, and possibly the most violent generation America has ever seen. The world they knew as children was rough and chaotic. They were notorious for forming youth gangs in the cities rapidly becoming overcrowded (think of the movie “Gangs of New York” which, although portraying an earlier generation from the mid-19th century, was based on a work written by someone of the Lost Generation, Herbert Asbury). Later on, they were the veterans of WWI who experienced the larger world and came back not just with a cosmopolitan woldliness but also suffering PTSD, alcoholism, and addiction. They were among the most famous gangsters and bootleggers, not to mention among the most famous artists and writers: Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Nucky Johnson, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Aldous Huxley, Norman Rockwell, Grant Wood, George Gershwin, etc (some of the Elliot Ness’ Untouchables were of the same generational cohort). This generation made itself known and notorious during the Roaring Twenties, as I previously described them:
The members of Lost Generation were many things, but respectable they were not. They were immigrants and the children of immigrants, hoboes and migrant workers, gangsters and bank robbers, socialists and anarchists, drunks on Cannery Row and Bonus Army veterans camped out in Washington, DC. The Lost Generation members of my mom’s family in Southern Indiana included moonshiners and moonshine runners. They were born into a rough world, lived rough lives and often had rough endings. They were what the KKK so feared, what the older generation saw as a threat to the American Way.
These younger Americans didn’t have respect for tradition and social order, especially not the young blacks and the young women who demanded equal rights, the women even gaining the right to vote in 1920. It was in this early twentieth century era when the NAACP was founded and when the IWW was organized.
Of course most of that generation were forgotten members of the nameless working class. But even among the working class, radicalism was in the air and the many workers organized to confront the powers that be, sometimes with violent results which usually meant workers getting hurt and killed by the agents of corporate and political power. For example, Hoffer belonged to the militant leftist ILWU that was formed following a 1934 bloody strike and was headed by Harry Bridges, another member of the Lost Generation. The mostly unknown men in that and many other strikes made sacrifices that would benefit the workers who followed them. The good life of later generations, including that of Brenner’s Boomer Generation, was built on their backs. And sadly all that many in the Lost Generation got for their sacrifices was high rates of poverty and short lives. But they paved the way for the better life that would follow in the post-war Boom era.
Interestingly, Hoffer speaks of “alienated intellectuals”. The odd thing is that he gives voice to the alienated intellectual, apparently perceiving himself as a thinker alienated from a new generation of thinkers, which is the source of his complaint. The largely uneducated Lost Generation is famous for its alienated intellectuals. They were also highly critical of American society.
The protests of the 1960s was child’s play compared to the violent rampage of the Lost Generation, a complete overturning of the social order at the beginning of the 20th century. They didn’t just have race protests. They went so far as to have race wars that involved WWI veterans fighting military-style battles on American streets, sometimes leading to hundreds injured and killed along with bombings and the burning down of neighborhoods. That was the origin of the Civil Rights Movement. The labor organizing of that era, not just on the docks where Hoffer worked but also in Appalachian mining communities, was the most ferociously combative in American history. And when the Lost Generation wasn’t involved in that kind of ideological violence, the most dangerous troublemakers among them were committing gang violence and sometimes fighting federal agents. Social conflict at such extremes and violence at such high rates hadn’t been seen at that time since the Civil War. And holy shit were their politics radical, rooted in left-wing ideologies of a working class variety: trade unionism, syndicalism, anarchism, Marxism, communism, socialism, etc. The Lost Generation were extremists in so many ways, particularly on the political left but also on the political right, including some drawn toward fascism.
Maybe more than any other generation, they helped create what modern America has become. Or at the very least, they most starkly represented the societal change that transformed America and the world, whether they are considered a cause or a product of that change.
Continuing his ‘analysis’, Brenner makes further use of Hoffer’s writing:
The problem for society is “that the alienated intellectual does not want to be left alone,” Hoffer wrote. “He wants to influence affairs, have a hand in making history, and feel important.” The country continued to be plagued by problems “like race relations, violence, drugs.” Common people, however, “know that at present money cannot cure crime, poverty, etc., whereas the social doctors go on prescribing an injection of so many billions for every social ailment.”
That is rich. If the likes of Brenner (and presumably Hoffer) had no desire to influence or feel that their existence mattered in the slightest, why all the writing directed at an audience consisting mostly of the educated? It has been mostly intellectuals like Brenner who have read intellectuals like Hoffer. These arguments aren’t to any great degree reaching the lower classes, not that they were ever the intended audience.
Once again, what is most irritating is the historical amnesia. It was the Lost Generation, especially later in life, that did so much to promote big government in throwing large sums of tax money at problems, such as helping to create Social Security and universal public education that helped following generations. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was immensely popular among the that generation and that was decades before the 1960s. And that public spending was funded with the highest tax rate the country had seen before or since.
Many in the Lost Generation, for all the deserved or undeserved blame they got, didn’t want others to have to suffer what they suffered. And because of their sacrifices, they were the last generation of uneducated child labor. They worked hard to ensure their own children and grandchildren could get educated and get good jobs. I doubt many felt nostalgic and morally righteous about their own brutally deprived childhoods. Quite a few of them for damn sure believed in the role of collective action, through government and unions, in ensuring the public good. This is how the American Dream was created, with rise of economic mobility and growth of the middle class promoted through immense government funding for public infrastructure and public programs, World War II vets benefiting most of all in a way that World War I vets never experienced, although life did improve for those of the Lost Generation who lived long enough.
Hoffer, having lived into the 1980s, was a beneficiary of this government funding and progressive economic policies, this political activism and labor organizing. His self-education and writing career was made possible from the high paying job and plenty of free time ensured by the labor union, having been a member of the most powerful leftist union at a time when unions were at their height of power. His retirement was supported through social security along with a union pension. Although he claimed to have wanted neither, he actively sought out filing his application for social security when he was around 40 years old and as a longshoreman he was an actively involved union member.
At an earlier point in his life when he was unemployed and homeless, a police officer directed him to a federal work camp. He spent a month there getting back on his feet. Observing his fellow tramps, his thinking was split between judgment and praise of these lowest of the low, but he had one moment of clarity in realizing that modern capitalism couldn’t do much for these impoverished men in stating that, “less than half the camp inmates (seventy normal, plus ten youths) were unemployed workers whose difficulties would be at an end once jobs were available. The rest (60 per cent) had handicaps in addition to unemployment.” But he didn’t seem to follow this line of thought to explore its implications for the larger society.
Also, he was proud of having made use of public libraries in his self-education, which is to say his supposed self-education was publicly funded. Besides, there are reasons to question the account he gave of his past, as no one has been able to confirm most of it. This is detailed by Thomas Bethell in his book, Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher. Hoffer could speak English, German, and Hebrew. Also, he was familiar with German textbooks on botany and Chemistry. He claims to have taught himself much of this while living in poverty on skid row in Los Angeles. Bethell concludes in one article, “That is hard to believe” (The Mystery of Eric Hoffer). More plausible is that he had received an education at some point and for unknown reasons wanted to keep this past a secret, one explanation being that he was an undocumented immigrant from Germany. As Aram Bakshiam explains, in “The Ultimate Self-Made Man“:
While we will probably never know the true details of his birth and childhood years—most of what he wrote about them was contradictory or unsubstantiated—he clearly was immigrant stock, and quite possibly an immigrant himself. Until his dying day, he spoke with a particular type of thick German accent: southern “Low German” characteristic of Bavaria and Austria, although he claimed that his father was a cabinet maker from Alsace-Lorraine who had settled in the Bronx. No records exist to that effect. His dramatic accounts of childhood blindness, benevolent nurses, and the early deaths of both parents are also unsubstantiated. Indeed, the first documentation of Hoffer himself is his application for a Social Security account, filed in Sacramento, California, on June 10, 1937, when he would have been 38 years old. His pre-California life is thus a matter of speculation, and it is possible—even likely—that he was born in Germany, received some primary and secondary education there, and emigrated to America on his own as a young man, “jumping ship” without papers and heading pretty quickly to the West Coast.
Despite his expressed anti-intellectualism and attacks on the more educated younger generation, the same year he wrote “Whose Country is America?” (1970) he also “endowed the Lili Fabilli and Eric Hoffer Laconic Essay Prize for students, faculty, and staff at the University of California, Berkeley” (Wikipedia). And that was at a time when Berkely was almost entirely funded by government, as compared to only 14% public funding today.
So, it’s not clear who were the intellectuals he was attacking. He had weird notions about intellectuals. This is made clear by reading his 1970 essay, Whose Country Is America? Having not read it previously, I gave it a perusal. I can see why Brenner decided to use it. The piece is still relevant, although for reasons Brenner doesn’t understand or for reasons Brenner would rather others not understand. The same confusion that Hoffer espouses remains common to this day among too many Americans. Still, it’s quite telling in the ways that Brenner misreads and falsely portrays Hoffer’s views. In the last half of Brenner’s article, he explains what he considers to be Hoffer’s accurate prediction:
It’s a warning that affluence condemns younger generations to political decline unless institutional checks and balances, combined with education for civic responsibility, are rigorously preserved.
That is a highly deceptive paraphrasing of the original argument. It is true that Hoffer targets affluence as problematic. But what a plutocratic apologist like Brenner won’t acknowledge is that Hoffer was aiming his sights on the plutocracy. In Brenner’s conclusion he quotes Hoffer as concluding that, “We must deflate the pretensions of self‐appointed elites. These elites will hate us no matter what we do, and it is legitimate for us to help dump them into the dust bin of history.” What is left out is that he is talking about the moneyed elite, not just the educated elite, Hoffer having intentionally conflated the two in his argument. The elite that is being referred to is the aspiring technocrats of inherited wealth who, in seeking global influence (specifically referring to foreign aid), “hanker for the trappings of the 20th century. They want steel mills, airlines, skyscrapers, etc.” It’s a vision of industrialized corporatism. Today we would see in this the agenda of neoliberal globalization and neocon imperialism, the kind of thing Brenner fully supports.
Brenner is a joke. There is no need to take his ideas seriously, even as his intentions are deadly serious. He isn’t making an honest argument. But Hoffer is more problematic for his argument is earnest in its honest attempt at persuasion, genuinely believing what he is expressing. Still, I want to be clear that the moral faults of Brenner shouldn’t be projected onto Hoffer. The latter hated the likes of the former. There is good reason to doubt there would have been any friendship or kindness between those two, if they had ever met. Now I want to take Hoffer on his own terms, considering where he was coming from in his views and exploring what he meant by ‘intellectuals’.
It’s not clear what were Hoffer’s ultimate political commitments. In his writings, there are many thoughts expressed, not all of them fully articulated or consistent. But I feel confident that, for all of his complaints about what some might call the liberal class or bourgeoisie, he was far from standard American conservatism. As someone who personally preferred lovemaking to marriage, he stated in no uncertain terms that, “Lovemaking is radical, while marriage is conservative.” And he was equally clear about religion: “Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.” He was no culture warrior seeking to defend religious morality and family values.
About ‘intellectuals’, it was simultaneously more narrow and more broad than how most Americans would use the word, at least in present usage. He wrote that, “In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” Yet, speaking of himself a couple of year before his death, he referred to himself as learned: “I have written learnedly on the nature of creative milieus” (Last Notebook, September 25, 1981; quoted in Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher by Tom Bethell, p. 248). So, who exactly are the ‘learned’? It’s not entirely clear, since being learned apparently can be either a good or bad condition. Otherwise, we must assume that he was criticizing himself in his old age, implying that in having become learned he had found himself “beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” That latter interpretation is a real possibility. There is a note of nostalgia in some of his writing.
As he distinguishes being a learner and being learned, he doesn’t see all of intellect and intellectual activity as the sole proprietorship of the intelligentsia. Taken from an interview by Calvin Tomkins published in New Yorker, Penn Kemble offers this quote by Hoffer (On Eric Hoffer): “Every longshoreman thinks he could write a book if he tried—and it is true, he probably could… 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.” This could be taken as humility. After all, he was a longshoreman who thought he could write a book if he tried and successfully did so. Still, it is an exaggeration. It is highly improbable that many longshoreman ever have such thoughts. As far as I can tell, most people in general have no aspiration to write a book, not even as a casual possibility.
Hoffer was just making a point, basically declaring the intelligentsia to be condescending. And no doubt this would accurately describe some of those in the intelligentsia, especially at a time when being an intellectual meant being part of a clearly defined and confined class. But these days, it sounds strange. Intellectuals are dime a dozen in the world right now, most of them not being part of the upper classes, much less a real or aspiring ruling elite. I live in a town where large proportion of the working class is ‘learned’, in that they have college degrees. When Hoffer was a young man, having a college degree meant a lot more than it means now.
It still seems strange. All of his writings were written fairly late in his life, his first book True Believer having been published in 1951 which was more than a half century after his birth in the late 19th century. His strident harping on intellectuals came in the following decades. The piece that Brenner quotes was written by Hoffer as an old man in his 70s. In those decades of his late life writing career, college education was becoming more common and far from being limited to the economically well off. He lived to see a large portion of several generations having moved from working class to middle class by going to college. Even though he acknowledged this new affluence as a key factor in what he perceived as fraying the moral fiber of society, he continued to think of higher education in purely class terms, as if most college students were still the children of the plutocracy. His observations and condemnations lagged behind changing realities.
Something just occurred to me. He is giving voice to the complaints that were made during his own childhood and young adulthood, although a slightly different context. Jackson Lears discusses this in Rebirth of a Nation, the relevant passage to be found in a post of mine from a few months ago (Juvenile Delinquents and Emasculated Males). As rural life came to an end and a new generation was being urbanized, there was a sudden fear about the loss of rites of passage that were supposedly provided by farming, fishing, and hunting. It was a fear of immaturity and emasculation, that boys wouldn’t grow up to be real men (nor girls real women). As Lears put it, “for many other observers, too many American youths—especially among the upper classes—had succumbed to the vices of commerce: the worship of Mammon, the love of ease.” This seems to be what Hoffer means when he speaks of ‘intellectuals’, the anxious transition toward deindustrialization having followed closely after the anxious transition toward post-rural industrialization. In “Whose Country is America?”, he writes:
In the past, breakdowns of value affected mainly the older segment of the population. This was true of the breakdown of the Graeco‐Roman civilization, of the crisis that gave birth to the Reformation, and of the periods of social disintegration that preceded the French, the Russian and the Nazi revolutions. That our present crisis particularly affects the young is due partly to the fact that widespread affluence is robbing a modem society of whatever it has left of puberty rites to routinize line attainment of manhood. Never before has the passage from boyhood to manhood been so difficult and explosive. Both the children of the well‐to‐do and of families on welfare are prevented from having a share in the world’s work and of proving their manhood by doing a man’s work and getting a man’s pay. Crime in the streets and insolence on the campus are sick forms of adolescent self‐assertion. The young account for an ever‐increasing percentage of crimes against persons and property. The peak years for crimes of violence are 18 to 20, followed by the 21 to 24 age group.
He talks about this as if it were a new phenomenon or else a new phase in an ongoing phenomenon. I wonder if was unaware that these exact same charges were made against his own generation. This shift had been going for centuries as urbanization progressed, but the same complaints were probably heard in the first city-states millennia ago. Certainly, there was rising crime rates centuries ago when, because of land enclosure, unemployed landless peasants crowded into cities. And there was a severe spike of youth violence in Hoffer’s own generation at the beginning of the 20th century, caused by rapid urbanization, mass immigration, and high rates of childhood lead toxicity. But overall violence and crime had been decreasing across history, as Steven Pinker pointed out with the Moral Flynn Effect. Nonetheless, I will give Hoffer credit for understanding that there is a larger historical context that needs to be considered, for a few paragraphs on he adds:
THE contemporary blurring of childhood is not unprecedented. During the Middle Ages, children were viewed and treated as miniature adults. Nothing in medieval dress distinguished the child from the adult. The moment children could walk and talk they entered the adult world, and took part in the world’s work. In subsequent centuries, the concept of childhood became more clearly defined. Yet even as late as 1835 schoolbooks in this country made no concession to childhood in vocabulary or sophistication. Child labor, so widely practiced in the first half of the 19th century, and which we find abhorrent, was not totally anomalous in a society that did not have a vivid view of childhood as a sheltered, privileged age.
To counteract an old man’s tend ency to snort at the self‐important young, I keep reminding myself that until the middle of the 19th century the young acted effectively as members of political parties, creators of business enterprises, advocates of new philosophical doctrines and leaders of armies. Most of the wars that figure in our history books were fought by teenagers. ‘There were 14‐year‐old lieutenants in Louis XIV’s armies. In one of his armies the oldest soldier was under 18. The middle aged came to the fore with the Industrial Revolution. The experience and capital necessary to make an industrialist required a long apprenticeship. One might say that from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century the world was run by and for the middle‐aged. The post industrial age seems to be groping its way back to an immemorial situation interrupted by the Industrial [Revolution?].
That is a thousand more times interesting than how Brenner filters the argument down into simplistic ideological rhetoric. It reminds me of a number of things. Daniel Everett observed that the Amazonian Piraha lack any extended childhood and adolescence with no stage of life involving tantrums or rebellion, just a straight and immediate transition into adulthood following toddlerhood. Research has found that, under stressful conditions, biological including neurocognitive development happens at a faster rate (related to this, Adam Smith argued for universal public education precisely for the reason that he predicted repetitive labor would stunt cognitive development, which is confirmed by this research showing stress-related premature development correlates to constrained development, meaning that earlier maturation comes at the cost of human potential). That is surely the case with the Piraha with the dangerous environment they live in and the corresponding high rate of child mortality, such conditions demanding early maturity which Everett noted in the greater physical ability of Piraha children. The same would have been true for childhood prior to modern public education and health concerns. For most children in the Western world until the GI Generation, they had to grow up fast often for the sake of survival. A kid who didn’t mature rapidly would have a low survival rate while working on a farm, in a mine, or in a factory. That was the reality for most children until child labor laws.
Hoffer doesn’t make it clear, but the issue of concern isn’t merely ‘intellectuals’. The comfortable intellectual class along with college students are symbolic in his mind of the growing affluence of society in general and so indicative of the worsening anxiety about what the changes mean. That said, his claim is absurd in arguing that the younger generations are acting out delayed adolescence in fighting for basic human rights. There is an element of truth that affluence makes social progress possible. The desperately poor and disenfranchised often have a harder time challenging entrenched power. The American colonists, for example, were able to successfully revolt partly because they were one of the most free and affluent populations in the world at that time. It takes immense resources (human, economic, and natural) to support such a collective action against centralized authority, even when it was as distant as was the seat of British imperial power. But it is pointless and unfair to complain about people who choose to seek betterment for themselves and their society when the opportunity arises. This is particularly the case for someone like Hoffer who took advantage of such a time of affluence, fought for by others, that allowed him to work shorter hours for greater pay in order to have the freedom to write and get published such intellectual arguments.
I find it hard to follow the line of his thought. He sees a modern industrial society as inevitably aligned with the middle class. But he doesn’t seem to mean the struggling and aspiring lower middle class of the upwardly mobile American Dream, many having been of the working class not long before. Maybe he is primarily speaking of the upper middle class professionals, the segment of the middle class that had been fairly stable for many generations at that point. Such stability is what is required for an intelligentsia to form, what he simply refers to as ‘intellectuals’. The argument, from what I can tell, is that affluence has made this upper middle class too stable and secure, and so utterly disconnected from the working class that they look down upon. There is some kind of loss of what originally motivated the middle class and fueled the Industrial Revolution, as a post-industrial age takes over and indeed in that 1970 piece he already saw America as becoming post-industrial, whatever that meant to him at that time.
It’s as Hoffer continues with his piece that he goes from being a crotchety old man to a mad visionary of fevered dreams. Listen to him here:
In this country, the coming of the postindustrial age may mean the loss of all that made America new—the only new thing in the world. America will no longer be the common man’s continent. The common people of Europe eloped with history to America and have lived in common‐law marriage with it, unhallowed by the incantations of “men of words.” But 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, booted and spurred, feel themselves born to ride
What the fuck! It’s an amusing image, but it’s plain nonsense. When did the common man control all of American society? When the Constitution was put into place, only a few percentage of Americans could vote, hold public office, or participate in any way. Most blacks were enslaved, Native Americans were still experiencing genocide, most women didn’t even have the most basic rights, and even the vast majority of white men were disenfranchised. This has always been a country of a ruling elite, even as some Americans were always seeking to escape to the frontier to get beyond their reach.
What Hoffer probably had in mind was the sweet deal he had in one of the rare highly democratic labor unions in the country where workers had control over their own fates. As for most other Americans at the time, they had little control at all and neither did their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. In America, when the common man fought the elite, I can promise you the common man rarely won that fight. Legalized slavery through chain gangs, oppression in diverse forms, and political disenfranchisement continued well into the 20th century. Hoffer’s latter years were spent in one of those rare places and times in American history, far from being representative of what most Americans had experienced. And the freedom that Hoffer was given freely by his fellow union members was bought for with generations of their sweat, blood, and tears. It was a heavy price to pay for that small amount of freedom for a small part of the population and even that would be lost as unions came under attack near the end of his life. He took a lot for granted.
The phenomenal increase of the student population is shaping the ‘attitudes and aspirations of the young. There are now more students in America than farmers. For the first time in America, there is a chance that alienated intellectuals, who see our way of life as an instrument of debasement and dehumanization, might shape a new generation in their own image. The young’s sympathy for the Negro and the poor goes hand in hand with an elitist conceit that pits them against the egalitarian masses. They will fight for the Negro and the poor, but they have no use for common folk who work and moonlight to take care of their own. They see a free‐wheeling democracy as a society stupefied by “the narcotic of mass culture.” They reserve their wrath for the institutions in which common people are most represented: unions, Congress, the police and the Army. Professor Edgar Z. Friedenberg thinks that “elitism is the great and distinctive contribution students are making to American society.” Democracy is for the dropouts; for the elite, an aristocratic brotherhood.
Holy fuck! What was this guy smoking? He seems to think being educated is a bad thing, the doom of America. Besides, it’s not like students killed all the farmers and feasted upon their blood. Many of those first generation of college students had been raised on farms. Their uneducated parents wanted them to get a college degree and do better. Considering that Hoffer comes off sounding like an alienated intellectual, his whole ranting jeremiad is rather misguided.
Even more unforgivable, he dismisses everyone who is not like him as being allowed membership into the “common folk”. Minorities aren’t common folk. The poor aren’t common folk. The young aren’t common folk. And anyone who aspires above the most basic manual labor isn’t common folk. I guess only older whites with little education but well paid unionized workers like Hoffer who hate mass culture are common folk. If so, these idealized common folk aren’t all that common. It’s disturbing to learn that all of the major institutions of American society (unions, Congress, the police and the Army, not to mention democracy itself) don’t represent minorities, the poor, the young, the educated, dropouts, the elite, or anyone else who doesn’t precisely share Hoffer’s demographic profile. I suppose I’m fine with excluding the aristocrats, but I don’r run into too many of them these days.
He preaches that, “For those who want to be left alone to realize their capacities and talents, this is an ideal country.” As he wrote those words, poor minorities were being ghettoized, working class white communities were falling into poverty and despair, an entire generation was once again being poisoned with lead toxicity, the police were being militarized to target the lower classes, his beloved unions were under attack, the government was destroying grassroots movements with oppressive COINTELPRO, a hopeless war in Vietnam was being fought and pointlessly killing so many in the process, several inspiring leaders had been assassinated, and one of the most corrupt leaders in US history was president. All he had to do was open his eyes and clean the wax out of his ears. His ideal society was in shambles.
He further lambasts the ‘intellectual’:
The trouble is, of course, that the alienated intellectual does not want to be left alone. He wants to be listened to and be taken seriously. He wants to influence affairs, have a hand in making history, and feel important. He is free to speak and write as he pleases, and can probably make himself heard and read more easily than one who would defend America. But he can neither sway elections nor shape policy. Even when his excellence as a writer, artist, scholar, scientist or educator is generally recognized and rewarded he does not feel himself part of the power structure. In no other country has there been so little liaison between men of words and the men of action who exercise power. The body of intellectuals in America has never been integrated with or congenial to the politicians and business men who make things happen. Indeed, the uniqueness of modem America derives in no small part from the fact that America has kept intellectuals away from power and paid little attention to their political [opinions].
The nineteen‐sixties have made it patent that much of the intellectual’s dissent is fueled by a hunger for power. The appearance of potent allies—militant blacks and students —has emboldened the intellectual to come out into the open. He still feels homeless in America, but the spectacle of proud authority, in cities and on campuses, always surrendering before threats of violence, is to him a clear indication that middle‐class society is about to fall apart, and he is all set to pick up the pieces.
There is no doubt that in our permissive society the intellectual has far more liberty than he can use; and the more his liberty and the less his capacity to make use of it, the louder his clamor for power—power to deprive other people of liberty.
Martin Luther King, jr was an alienated intellectual. There were many people who had sought higher education to improve themselves and to better their life circumstances. That has always been a core element to American society, the aspiration for something more. Hoffer is correct in a sense that such people aspiring didn’t merely want to be left alone. They wanted freedom and opportunity to act. They wanted to be treated as full citizens as part of a functioning democratic society. They wanted to participate in civic society and to feel like they belonged. They wanted to be able to give their children what they had not been given. I doubt even Hoffer merely wanted to be left alone. His unionized job gave him far more than that. Most other Americans simply wanted what Hoffer had and took for granted. Getting a college education hardly gave most people entry into the intellectual elite. Hoffer sounds resentful of the younger generations for being given opportunities of higher education he had maybe been denied when he was younger, even though such new opportunities were still rather limited. The generations following his own were hardly living the high life. Most Americans of all generations continued to have rather basic lives, their greatest achievements maybe involved owning a house and affording to take vacations, no different than what was available to Hoffer.
It is odd that he felt so threatened by ‘intellectuals’. To this day, most people with higher education don’t have much power in our society. It’s the plutocracy of politicians and businessmen who go to Ivy League colleges and dominate American society. Even the average college professor or teaching assistant is far from being part of the ruling elite, especially as universities become increasingly dependent on private funding from wealthy benefactors and corporate interests. Sure, intellectuals could express their dissent and lend their voice to protest movements, but the intellectuals of recent history ended up having less impact than the intellectuals from earlier in our country’s history, from the American Revolution to the Civil War. The only way intellectuals can gain power is to become part of the political class or get hired by a corporate think tank, as did Brenner. Obviously, Hoffer had no idea where the country was heading, from his limited vantage point from a half century ago.
A bit further on, his tirade goes into yet more strange territory:
AN interesting peculiarity of present‐day dissenting intellectuals is their lack of animus toward the rich. They are against the Government, the Congress, the Army and the police, and against corporations and unions, but hardly anything is being said or written against “the money changers in the temple,” “the economic royalists,” “the malefactors of great wealth” and “the maniacs wild for gold” who were the butt of vituperation in the past. Indeed, there is nowadays a certain rapport between the rich and the would‐be revolutionaries. The outlandish role the rich are playing in the affluent society is one of the surprises of our time. Though the logic of it seems now fairly evident, I doubt whether anyone had foreseen that affluence would radicalize the upper rich and the lowest poor and nudge them toward an alliance against those in the middle. What ever we have of revolution just now is financed [by?] the rich.
I didn’t know that present-day intellectuals lacked animus toward the rich. Apparently, there were quite a few intellectuals who weren’t told about this. Besides inspiring leaders like MLK, there were college-educated radicals such as Fred Hampton and academics such as Chomsky. There has been a long tradition of American intellectuals with less than friendly attitudes toward the problems of concentrated wealth and plutocracy. That has been a major driving force of a strain of American intellectuality over the centuries and directed at diverse guilty parties: British monied interests, Southern aristocrats, wealthy slaveholders, war profiteers, large landholders, those of inherited wealth, Robber Barons, etc. These intellectual critics of the rich have come from diverse backgrounds, from various degrees of education to various levels of socioeconomic class.
It’s extremely hard to figure out what Hoffer is going on about. Who are these “the money changers in the temple,” “the economic royalists,” “the malefactors of great wealth” and “the maniacs wild for gold”? If these plutocrats and moneyed interests aren’t in any aspect of government or business, then what are they doing and where did the wealth come from? He is being intellectually vague and evasive. The target of his ire appears to be an apparition of his imagination. What the heck is a revolution financed by the rich who aren’t involved in either the public sphere or the private economy? Is he suggesting that the Civil Rights movement, anti-war protests, Black Panthers, etc are all being secretly funded by a plutocratic conspiracy against the middling but uneducated common folk? And what is this radicalism that he speaks of? Is he not including the labor union he belonged to, one of the most radical in US history? Why is the radicalism that has benefited him personally not included in his criticisms?
More along these lines, he explains this radicalism:
Moreover, the radicalized rich have radical children. There is no generation gap here. The most violent cliques of the New Left are made up of the children of the rich. The Weathermen…have not a member with a workingman’s back ground. The behavior of the extremist young makes sense when seen as the behavior of spoiled brats used to instant fulfillment who expect the solutions to life’s problems to be there on demand. And just as in former days aristocratic sprigs horse whipped peasants, so at present the children of the rich are riding rough shod over community sensibilities. The rich parents applaud and subsidize their revolutionary children, and probably brag about them at dinner parties.
I don’t know of many in the New Left that came out of wealthy elite. There were many radicals and activist that came out of the middle class, including the lower middle class. That has always been true, partly because the middle class have more time and resources for political involvement. Still, it would be false to say that the working class weren’t involved as well. He seems aware of this when in this same piece he wrote that, “affluence would radicalize the upper rich and the lowest poor,” unless he is arguing that the working class and the working poor are two separate groups with the latter somehow being radically aligned with the plutocracy, which would be a kooky argument to make. I’m not sure how affluence radicalizes the lowest poor who lack affluence more than anyone else. There is absolutely no logical consistency and coherence to this meandering line of thought. His mind is all over the place.
Let me get at some specifics. Even where it’s clear what he means, it is far from justified. Take his claim that, “The Weathermen…have not a member with a workingman’s back ground.” That is patently false. I don’t know the background of all the members of the Weather Underground, but some of them were from the working class, such as Terry Robbins having been raised by a single father who was a factory worker and Naomi Jaffe having grown up on a small family farm. The New Left, like the Old Left, included many from the working class. As with MLK, the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton sought to organize the working class of all races and ethnicities in what was called the Rainbow Coalition. Hampton reached out to the working class white groups such as the Young Patriots, the kind of people who didn’t have the protection and representation of labor unions as did Hoffer. These working poor whites felt immense gratitude in being acknowledged and included by the Black Panthers, as they had been ignored and dismissed by mainstream society.
Like so many other respectable people at the time, Hoffer shows little understanding of these people and this is in spite of his once having had known poverty. His own words make clear the disconnection from the common folk that he projects onto supposedly wealthy intellectuals. In his comfortable older age made possible by the working class activism of his labor union, he forgot what it meant to be poor. He makes the odd assertion that, “It is remarkable that common people are aware of this fact. They know that at present money cannot cure crime, poverty, etc., whereas the social doctors go on prescribing an injection of so many billions for every social ailment.” Well, he must not have been talking to many common folk when he wrote those words in 1970. Yet he occasionally comes close to understanding, before flitting away back to his perch of middle class identity:
The diffusion of affluence has accelerated the absorption of the majority of workingmen into the middle class. The unemployable poor, left behind, feel isolated and ex posed, and it is becoming evident that a middle‐class society, which hugs the conviction that everyone can take care of himself, is singularly inept in helping those who cannot help themselves. If the rich cannot feel rich in an affluent society, the poor have never felt poorer.
What is left out is the large numbers of working poor. This population was the majority for most of American history. The middle class did briefly grow larger, but the working poor have never been small in number and they are returning to their predominance in our society. Hoffer doesn’t seem to realize the highly unusual and precarious nature of the temporary economic boom that made a large middle class possible after World War II. He acts like the working poor have disappeared from the world, based on an assumption that the only poor people remaining are those unable or unwilling to work. Yet most poor people continued to work what jobs they could find, although it is true that some turned to the black market for a source of income. Heck, when Hoffer was poor, he also turned to the black market of odd jobs. How did he come to lose this awareness of the lives of the working poor? Talk about disconnection of an extreme variety.
After imagining the working poor out of existence, he goes back to his routine of blaming the ‘intellectuals’:
I have yet to meet an intellectual who truly believes that common people can govern themselves and run things without outstanding leaders. In the longshore men’s union the intellectuals have a nervous breakdown anytime a common, barely literate longshoreman runs for office and gets elected.
He says this about the union he belonged to, the ILWU. What made it unique is that it broke free from another union that the workers perceived as corrupt. They formed the ILWU to be more democratic with little hierarchy to separate the union leaders from the union members, such as disallowing high salaries. Those supposed intellectuals had spent their lives making sacrifices and had participated in bloody strikes. These union leaders and activists were far less disconnected from the realities on the ground than apparently was Hoffer. And where does his moral high ground come from? He was an active member of the union, but he never sought a leadership position or to volunteer on behalf of his fellow workers. No one was keeping him from being more involved and having greater influence. Instead, he chose to spend the freedom that the union made possible to pursue his intellectual ambitions. That is as it should have been. The freedom given to him was a good thing. But maybe he should have shown more appreciation and gratitude.
Like his definition of an intellectual, his view on socioeconomic classes was a bit unusual. But the confusion is maybe more common than in a country like this. The class order has been constantly shifting for the entirety of American history. So, I’m not sure what to think of Hoffer’s ideas about class. Seven years earlier in 1963, he wrote another piece titled The Role of the Undesirables. He uses a similar class breakdown and yet his conclusion has a slightly different emphasis compared to his 1970 analysis.
In both cases, 1963 and 1970, he seems to conflate the working class with the middle class, portraying the extremes at the top and bottom as something else entirely. But in the 1963 piece, he refers to them as the best and the worst, which I guess portrays the amalgamated working-middle class as mediocre — stating that the “inert mass of a nation is in its middle section” and that, apparently in an inert state of impotence or apathy, “are worked upon and shaped by minorities at both extremes: the best and the worst.” He is uncertain about whether he should blame or praise the broad middle section of workers, even though he idealizes the work that he claims that only they do, the very work that supports and pays for all of society including the lifestyles of the presumably nonworking rich and poor. Yet as he argues in 1970, the affluence has made the middle class flabby and indolent. Does this mean the affluence has lifted them up into the lazy upper class? As for intellectuals, he never is clear about whether to entirely blame them on the upper class or to share some of the blame with the middle class. Where else are the increasing number of college students to come from other than the growing middle class?
In Hoffer’s vision of class order, specifically as it relates to the moral order, inertness is the rhetorical opposite of action. He often speaks of men of action. Like so much else in Hofferian thought, it’s not clear about the quality or value of such things. Businessmen and politicians are often portrayed as ultimate men of action, but also leaders of mass movements (True Believer, p. 115). On the other hand, the rich and intellectuals are defined as being men of leisure, no matter how much they may long for power over others. You’d think that this is praise of capitalist system where men of action dominate, but his take on capitalism is nuanced:
It is probably true that business corrupts everything it touches. It corrupts politics, sports, literature, art, labor unions and so on. But business also corrupts and undermines monolithic totalitarianism. Capitalism is at its liberating best in a noncapitalist environment.
(“Thoughts of Eric Hoffer, Including: ‘Absolute Faith Corrupts Absolutely,'” in The New York Times Magazine, 25 April 1971, p. 50)
Now that is a unique view of capitalism. There is an implied corollary conclusion: Capitalism is at its liberating worst in a capitalist environment. That is to say that capitalism only leads to freedom when it doesn’t dominate. So, one would think that the moment one is free capitalism should be quickly limited and powerfully regulated, lest it becomes a new force of corruption. Just because the businessman avoids the moral failing of leisure and laziness doesn’t mean that being a man of action necessarily leads to moral worth and excellence. Men of action are only made worthy in their capacity to build and contribute, even the most lowly men forced into action by circumstances. As a writer and an intellectual, Hoffer still sought his identity as a manual laborer, one who does productive work. Any other kind of action was suspect. So, the worker needed to distinguish himself from the intellectuals, including the intellectuals in union leadership, even when those intellectuals had worked their way up from mere laborers. And workers as men of action are in opposition to managers as men of action, when their action was merely to manage workers doing the real work. It’s an almost left-wing idealization of the worker minus any clear left-wing ideology.
Penn Kemble, in On Eric Hoffer, offers this quote:
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.
Management is to be kept in its place, serving its limited role and leaving workers alone. That describes how his labor union operated, as employment and specific work opportunities were directly controlled by the union, not management. He has the left-wing mistrust of management. And he goes so far as to see business as a corrupting force. Yet it is the intellectual who is most easily corrupted. In a 1967 interview by CBS’s Eric Sevareid, Hoffer explained:
First of all, I ought to tell you I have no grievance against the intellectual. All I know about the intellectuals is what I read in history and how I saw them perform. And I’m convinced that the intellectual, as a type, as a group, are more corrupted by power than any other human type. It’s disconcerting, Mr. Sevareid, to realize that businessmen, generals even, soldiers, men of action are not corrupted by power like intellectuals.
Here is how I make sense of this. Men of action have the power to corrupt. But it is men of leisure who are prone to corruption. I presume that is the fear of the middle class transitioning from a bourgeoisie working class to a bourgeoisie leisure class. And I presume that is why colleges are to be seen as potential sites of corruption, for that is where a new generation of wealthier intellectuals is born out of the middle class. Or something like that. As such, the only saving grace of society is the work of the working class, which he calls the middle class. This is why he argues for work being instated as a rite of passage for the young generation, to ensure they turned into proper adults, rather than lingering in extended adolescence. The proposal in question seems to be some kind of work program for social uplift, by keeping the middle class grounded in the working class out of which it emerged. Yet he acknowledges this situation was a creation of a middle class industrialized society and so the fate of a post-industrial society is far from hopeful.
I’m attempting to clarify what Hoffer himself never quite made clear. His thought had too many loose strands. Like his mysterious past, his criticisms of society and his moral vision maybe doesn’t quite add up. It feels like he is attempting some kind of balancing act with no specific point of balance. The poor and the rich don’t work. But the middle class that is the working class has become inert and is in danger of no longer producing men of action. These men of action are needed, even as they are inevitably corrupting. They are still better than the men of inaction who are simply corrupted. The problem is that action is motivated by work toward affluence, but that affluence undermines society. Everything is constantly under threat of becoming something else and so the whole precarious order breaks down. His intellectual philosophizing was formed out of and made possible by the radical activism of trade unionism, even as he denigrated both intellectuality and radicalism. Praise becomes criticism and criticism becomes praise. His thoughts go round and round without quite cohering into a whole.
All of this makes it easy to cherrypick quotes from Hoffer’s decades of writings and take his life experience out of context. His lack of clarity is a product of our confused society. And so it makes for useful fodder in justifying the muddled rhetoric about the social order, as long as one ignore the inconvenient parts of his thought. That is how such an odd thinker can end up being used by a think tank intellectual in a Wall Street Journal propaganda piece.
* * * *
The Right’s Working-Class Philosopher
by Peter Cole, Jacobin
He was a frequent guest on network television, often praising conservative politicians like then-California Governor Ronald Reagan. In his first and most influential book, The True Believer, Hoffer criticized mass movements of all stripes, especially communism, and lauded the government’s containment policy.
Yet Hoffer was a walking contradiction. Despite his rightist politics, Hoffer belonged not just to the country’s most powerful leftist union, the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), but its most militant local, the San Francisco Bay Area’s Local 10.
The central paradox of Hoffer’s life is even more striking because it was precisely the left-wing militancy of the ILWU that provided him the good fortune (yes, fortune) and time to write nearly a dozen books and hundreds of articles condemning radicalism, civil rights, and the social advances of the 1960s. […]
In a real sense, sailors and dockers were the world’s first proletarians, toiling under corporate-controlled shipping lines in the first global industry. And like some of the pirates of yesteryear, the ILWU had created a system that spread the wealth among all its members.
In addition to this largesse, Hoffer also benefited from the tremendous flexibility ILWU members had won. In essence, rank and filers could decide when — and if — they wanted to work on a particular day. He also had the advantage of location: While there were no guarantees of a ship to work, San Francisco had long been the largest and busiest port on the coast.
All Hoffer had to do to maintain his union membership was report to the hall a certain number of days each quarter, attend monthly meetings, and pay his union dues. Thus, the “longshore philosopher” could work three days a week, write the other days, and know that he would get dispatched when he showed up at the hall. Or, he could work six straight days and take a week off to think and write, as he often did. And if that didn’t provide him enough latitude, union members like Hoffer could decide that they wanted to work in another ILWU-controlled port.
It was into this union that Hoffer stumbled, making (for a writer) an incredibly soft landing. He then proceeded to lambast the politics of the Left that had made his life so rich in money, safety, and workplace power.
Hoffer deeply appreciated the working conditions created by his powerful union, calling them “millennial” on numerous occasions. Yet he refused to praise the union and its leftist leadership, including President Harry Bridges. Bridges and the ILWU membership were highly critical of US foreign policy, especially its military interventions in Asia.
As a result of their politics, hundreds — perhaps thousands — of ILWU members were investigated for “communist sympathies.” Bridges himself was likely the single most persecuted labor leader during the McCarthy era — both by the government and a rightward-shifting CIO, which expelled the ILWU in 1950. However, he survived due to the tremendous loyalty of ILWU members, most of whom were not communists but almost all of whom loved what Harry and the other “’34 men” had done to create such a great job for working people.
Even in his private journals, some of which later were published, Hoffer rarely credited the union, and never Bridges. Though the man wrote constantly and voluminously, he rarely wrote about the union that made the selfsame writing possible.
He occasionally commented in his journals on the work he did — unloading transistor radios for eight hours at Pier 34 or working with a Portuguese partner while talking about his family. But the “longshoremen philosopher” never seemed to reflect deeply on the ILWU nor his role in it. For a while he became interested in automation and its impacts on workers, but largely was sanguine, hopeful, and arguably naïve about the benefits of capitalism for ordinary people.
The man lived a rich life of the mind — reading on the job during breaks, taking half-day walks to ponder particular intellectual conundrums, journaling fastidiously, and writing for publications. However, he never changed his views that politicians like Nixon and, especially, Reagan (first as governor, later as president) were noble and his union leaders dupes, “true believers” of false idols who demonstrated their own lack of self-confidence by joining a mass movement. Based on the limited record, Hoffer never spoke at meetings, never ran for any union office, and never volunteered in the union to help his fellow workers.
Ironically, the best-known working-class American of the Cold War era was a conservative who was lucky enough to find a job represented by the most powerful leftist union in postwar America. As such, his life represents the cognitive dissonance of many working Americans today: profiting from — albeit less so than in the past — the great gains of the labor movement yet unwilling to become union advocates.
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