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Eric Hoffer

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Eric Hoffer (July 25, 1902 – May 21, 1983) was an American writer and social-commentator (circa the early 1950s thru the early 1970s) whose works explored the reason people are attracted to political and religious mass movements. The True Believer (1951) is his best known book. Among skeptical writers he is something of an anomaly, since most maintain a (subjective) political point of view even as they practice (objective) skepticism on other matters. Hoffer is best described as detached from any political agenda at all, other than a dispassionate interest in the underlying reasons why anyone would adopt a political ideology in the first place.

Hoffer's writings are complicated, nuanced, and defy easy categorization, although they are often seen as part of a general "end of ideology" trend among political and sociological writers of the 1950s and early 1960s. The True Believer became a staple of 1950s-1960s centrism as it lent itself to critiques of political extremism on both sides (during a time when both the Communist Party and the anti-Communist John Birch Society were frequent objects of public denunciation under the general heading of "extremists") -- yet it would be wrong to categorize Hoffer himself as necessarily a centrist, as when he did express views on current issues they tended to stem from his detached structural analysis rather than any ideology, and thus appear "all over the map" to somebody expecting a more conventional political bias.

Ironically, he has extremist fans too: conservative/libertarian laissez-faire columnist Thomas Sowell on the right, and Ted Kaczynski aka the Unabomber, to name a couple.

Among the more notable observations in The True Believer, Hoffer noted the interchangeability of mass movements: fanatical Nazis often made the best and most devoted converts to Communism or vice versa; Saul, the fanatical persecutor of Christians could easily morph into Paul, the fanatical Christian, and so on.

Applying this observation today can explain why so many easily switch their allegiance from one fanaticism to another, such as Trotskyists becoming neoconservatives, and "former Satanists turned Christians" -- and why people attracted to political (on any end of the spectrum) or religious fanaticism tend to be simultaneously attracted to other seemingly unrelated movements, including health woo and conspiracy theories. He did, however, fail at one point, citing Fyodor Dostoyevsky, of all people, to claim that atheism is not the opposite from religion but a religion in itself. Exactly what he thought is the opposite from religion thus remained unclear [Note = "The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not."-- Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (1951)]

According to Hoffer, what makes these people tick isn't the actual ideology they profess, it is factors attracting them to fanaticism in general, and they could have joined anything as long as it offers a simplistic explanation, hope for changing a world they are fundamentally unhappy with, and a mass movement they can find meaning in life by identifying with.

Hoffer tends to locate attraction to fanaticism in a lack of personal self-esteem which can result from a variety of reasons - often an inability to otherwise find a place for themselves in the world - to which both the poor and the idle rich (or in his words "the ambitious facing unlimited possibilities") seem especially prone. This latter observation is sometimes countered by other sociologists (especially those who are critical of producerism) who try to make a case that extremist movements, especially in the United States, are very much the product of middle class American culture.

Unfortunately Hoffer was also something of a hawk on foreign policy, supporting the Vietnam War and expressing disgust with the anti-war movement. He later toned this down in the late 70's, possibly because of the results of Vietnam. He also opposed the civil rights movement and denounced its leaders.