Eric Hoffer on Political Movements
they are usually rackets
Longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer is noted for his line from “The Negro Revolution” in The Temper of Our Time published in 1966. Wikiquote:
Up to now America has not been a good milieu for the rise of a mass movement. What starts out here as a mass movement end up as a racket, a cult, or a corporation.
He goes on, in my copy of The Temper of Our Time:
Unlike those anywhere else, the masses in America have never despaired of the present and are not willing to sacrifice it for a new life and a new world.
He goes on to write about Elijah Mohammed and his Nation of Islam movement. He says:
If confined to America the Black Muslim movement may eventually become a holding company of stores, backs, factories, and farms.
Actually, he reckons, thing are too easy for the black nationalists. You get to shoot your mouth off, “and you don’t have to life a finger to do a thing.”
But Hoffer wrote almost the same thing in 1970 in “The Madhouse of Change” in First Things, Last Things.” Only, I would say, he is a little more clear, that in America we don’t need no stinkin’ mass movements.
Can mass movements do ought for the Negro? The answer is no. America is hard on mass movements. What starts out here as a mass movement ends up as a corporation or a racket. The Black Muslim movement is on the way to becoming a holding company of stores, farms and banks, while the civil-rights movement is largely an instrument in the hands of the Negro middle class to force its way into the privileged enclaves of American life. Used thus, the Negro revolution is not a movement but a racket.
And this was written over 50 years ago, before Affirmative Action, before Quotas, before Diversity, before DEI, before Black Lives Matter, before Woke. I think the way to measure the value of a thinker is to read his stuff 50 years later. Because if he turns out to have been dead right, then maybe the ideas in his head were good ones.
I like Hoffer’s notion about mass movements, because it confirms what I believe: that all the “movements” championed by our liberal friends over the last century or so have not been genuine organic movements. Or, if the movement was initially genuine, our liberal friends co-opted it to serve their own class interests. I think this is true of workers’ rights, women’s rights, civil rights, and now LGBT rights. That is why Thomas Sowell writes about our three-layer society as the Anointed, the Benighted, and the Mascots.
And now let’s do an Ike and make the problem bigger. The problem with politics is that there is no politics without an enemy, and political people cannot see beyond fighting the enemy and gifting their friends. Therefore, America’s blacks — and indeed all “oppressed peoples” — must build their communities without the sponsorship of the ruling class. Because all ruling-class sponsorship will do is make the members of the movement into their special Mascots. Until they trade the Mascots in for new ones.
In “The Negro Revolution” Hoffer remembers an incident in the Great Depression, when he was part of a group of men hired off Skid Row to build a road in the San Bernardino Mountains.
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 next morning went out to build the road…
I have no way of telling whether two truckloads of Negroes would have performed as well.
It is the conceit of our rulers to believe that, oh wow, we gotta have experts in charge to tell people what to do.
It is the sense of Eric Hoffer that all the skills and abilities and knowledge are already out there. And if our rulers would just get out of the way, we ordinary Commoners will figure out what to do, and then go out and do it.
Then there are mass movements that grow up without ruling-class sponsorship, like the populist-nationalist movement that seems to be cropping up all over Europe and the US. I wonder what will happen to them?