Labor Day 2013–
REMEMBER Eric Hoffer, AMERICA’S Genius Laborer
By Jay B Gaskill
My favorite populist thinker of the 20th century was Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher. He was self-educated, trenchant and brilliant. His signature works include “The True Believer”, a classic takedown of the elites of Soviet communism and German Nazism whose organizational structures resembled those of fanatical religions, “The Temper of Our Time” and “Working and Thinking on The Waterfront”, among many others.
I had the privilege of seeing this passionate, insightful longshoreman in pero0n twice while I was a law student in the Bay Area. Eric Hoffer was a man rough hands and a supple mind – both from a lifetime of manual labor and a field study of the human condition.
As a college student, I worked summers in road construction (shovel, jackhammer & heavy equipment) and enjoyed the company of these older guys for whom a 10 hour day with a shovel or jackhammer was a career, as opposed to a source of tuition money.
Hoffer was a thick, stocky man – a peasant endowed genius and with the autodidact’s earned self-confidence. He maintained from life experience that the “common” people were “lumpy with talent”, and that the “intellectuals’ (especially those who never had to rub shoulders with “ordinary” people, were endowed with a dangerous combination of skill and lack of judgment. They were especially dangerous when left idle. As Hoffer saw it, the failure of a civilization to keep the intellectual class busy, productive and happy was a potentially fatal mistake.
Hoffer was born in the Bronx at the turn of the century to immigrants (his father, Knut Hoffer, a cabinetmaker and his mother, Elsa, were both from Alsace). By the age of five, little Eric could read in both German and English. Then Hoffer while still a small child, he was inexplicably blinded; years later, as a teenager, his sight was inexplicably restored. Hoffer then read voraciously for the rest of his life.
When Eric left home, he lived as a drifter and a farmworker, collecting library cards from all over the country. In 1941, Hoffer tried to enlist in WWII but was rejected on medical grounds. Then Hoffer befriended Harry Bridges (head of the Longshoreman’s Union) and became a dockworker in San Francisco.
He was a bull of a man, a passionate friend of America’s new middle class workers and an even more passionate enemy of the communists. When the communist government under Khrushchev began moving Russia’s farmland peasants out of their homes and into the urban underclass, he railed at “the filthy apparatchiks”. He knew the game. Those peasants, like the early medieval middle class, were sturdy independent, mostly landowning, workers. They had to be eliminated before communism could progress to the next stage. Eric Hoffer saw it for the thinly disguised genocide it was.
Hoffer’s insights into the human condition are legendary and still sharply relevant,. Hoffer once pointed out that “the common people are lumpy with talent”. He was fond out reminding us of the value of play. Some of the most powerful practical innovations first appeared as toys – the first steam engine, for example, was a toy for ancient Roman children, the practical applications of which were ignored by the intellectual elites of the day.
Eric Hoffer died in 1983 in San Francisco, having been awarded the Presidential Order of Freedom earlier the same year. Among his books –
1951 The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature Of Mass Movements ISBN 0-06-050591-5
1955 The Passionate State of Mind, and Other Aphorisms ISBN 1-933435-09-7
1963 The Ordeal of Change ISBN 1-933435-10-0
1967 The Temper of Our Time
1969 Working and Thinking on the Waterfront: A Journal, June 1958 to May 1959
1971 First Things, Last Things
1973 Reflections on the Human Condition ISBN 1-933435-14-3
1976 In Our Time
1979 Before the Sabbath
1982 Between the Devil and the Dragon: The Best Essays and Aphorisms of Eric Hoffer ISBN 0-06-014984-1
1983 Truth Imagined ISBN 1-933435-01-1
America’s leaders must never forget this remarkable man. …Nor should we. I never will.
Labor Day 2013
Eric Hoffer – America’s premier laborer.
Copyright© 2013 by Jay B Gaskill
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