May 21 marks the 1983 death of Eric Hoffer, the “longshoreman philosopher.” He was best known for his 1951 book The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, which brilliantly analyzed movements that played prominent roles in world events during his lifetime. He identified the allure of a larger, and therefore seemingly ennobling, collective cause, and the coercive power that goes with it, to those who are frustrated or disappointed, in “a flight from the self” to compensate for an absence of meaning in their own lives.
Today, the world faces a resurgence of similar movements. But Hoffer’s wisdom seems to have died with him. It is worth remembering his lessons to understand how such movements sacrifice freedom for an equality of dependence, which in turn, leads to coercion, tyranny, corruption and failure.
The aspiration toward freedom is the most essentially human of all human manifestations.Freedom means freedom from forces and circumstances which would turn man into a thing, which would impose on man the passivity and predictability of matter.The basic test of freedom is perhaps less in what we are free to do than in what we are free not to do.The real “haves” are they who can acquire freedom, self-confidence, and even riches without depriving others of them…by developing and applying their potentialities. On the other hand, the real “have nots” are they who cannot have aught except by depriving others of it. They can feel free only by diminishing the freedom of others, self-confident by spreading fear and dependence among others, and rich by making others poor.
From freedom to an equality of dependence:
Unless a man has talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden. Of what avail is freedom to choose if the self be ineffectual?To the frustrated, freedom from responsibility is more attractive than freedom from restraint. They are eager to barter their independence for relief from the burdens of willing, deciding and being responsible for inevitable failure. They willingly abdicate the directing of their lives to those who want to plan, command and shoulder all responsibility.Those who see their lives as spoiled and wasted crave equality and fraternity more than they do freedom. If they clamor for freedom, it is but freedom to establish equality and uniformity…No one can then point us out, measure us against others and expose our inferiority.We clamor for equality chiefly in matters in which we ourselves cannot hope to attain excellence.
From dependence to coercive power:
Those who lack the capacity to achieve much in an atmosphere of freedom will clamor for power.There is no alienation that a little power will not cure.The desire for freedom is an attribute of a “have” type of self. It says: leave me alone and I shall grow, learn, and realize my capacities. The desire for power is basically an attribute of a “have not” type of self.A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.
From coercive power to tyranny:
It is doubtful if the oppressed ever fight for freedom. They fight for pride and power--power to oppress others.There is no telling to what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts and the vague stirrings of decency that go with individual judgement. When we lose our individual independence in the corporateness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom--freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse.Men of power…every device they employ aims at turning men into a manipulable “animated instrument” which is Aristotle’s definition of a slave.The taint inherent in absolute power is not its inhumanity but its antihumanity…Absolute power turns its possessors not into a God but an anti-God. For God turned clay into men, while the absolute despot turns men into clay.
From tyranny to corruption and failure:
Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many.Absolute power corrupts even when exercised for humane purposes. The benevolent despot who sees himself as a shepherd of the people still demands from others the submissiveness of sheep.No matter how noble the objectives of a government, if it blurs decency and kindness, cheapens human life, and breeds ill will and suspicion--it is an evil government.
The movements Eric Hoffer so cogently analyzed long ago are echoed today. And their modern variants are just as much a threat to sacrifice freedom to tyranny for a “higher cause” that cannot really deliver meaningful lives.
No amount of power to coerce others can make a life meaningful for good. As Hoffer realized, only freedom can provide that opportunity. It does not guarantee a meaningful life; only the possibility. But to create or preserve that possibility, we need to bolster freedom. And as Hoffer also recognized, “Every device employed to bolster individual freedom must have as its chief purpose the impairment of the absoluteness of power…where power is one, the defeated individual, however strong and resourceful, can have no refuge and no recourse.”
Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. He is the author of The Apostle of Peace: The Radical Mind of Leonard Read.