The Sunday Magazine

Tom Shachtman on the influence of Eric Hoffer and his book 'The True Believer'

Author and documentary filmmaker Tom Shachtman talks about the influence of the late Eric Hoffer and his book The True Believer, which has become a classic. It is almost seven decades old, but it describes the brand of political extremism we see in politics today.

The author and documentary filmmaker explains why Hoffer was so wary of ‘followers’

Eric Hoffer's first book, The True Believer, has been hailed as prophetic, a book that foresaw the rise of militant populism in the United States and right wing forces around the world. (HarperCollins)
Listen20:02

Almost seven decades ago, an American longshoreman with no academic training of any kind wrote a book that became a bestseller. That longshoreman was Eric Hoffer and the book was The True Believer, about the nature of mass movements. 

The True Believer has been hailed as prophetic, a book that foresaw the rise of militant populism in the United States and right wing forces around the world. The fanaticism we see around us today was described by Eric Hoffer in the 1960s.

"He believed that ideas are dangerous things, especially when they get into the minds of a lot of people at the same time," explained author and documentary filmmaker Tom Shachtman, who has spent much of his career studying Hoffer.

Hoffer was born in New York City at the turn of the century to German parents from the Alsace region of France, but continually lied about his age.

"He didn't want to be known as a man of the 19th century," said Shachtman. "He was actually born in 1898, but he said he was born in 1902."

He believed that ideas are dangerous things, especially when they get into the minds of a lot of people at the same time.- Tom Shachtman

He never went to school but was always reading and, in 1943, he moved to San Francisco to become a dock worker. In between shifts, he would take long walks jotting his thoughts down on pocket-sized notebooks or on a makeshift desk in his tiny apartment.

"It wasn't really a desk," explained Shachtman of Hoffer's modest lifestyle. "It was sort of a door plank he put over his knees."

His ideas formed the basis for The True Believer, Hoffer's 1951 debut. In it, he attempted to explain why people join mass movements. He shocked his readers by drawing a comparison between Nazis and Communists, who in Hoffa's eyes both were mass movements with true believers.

"Hoffer was trying to figure out why people would do this, what would lead them to give themselves up and let themselves be led, especially in a direction that may be far beyond what they had initially imagined," said Shachtman.

The True Believer was a sensation. It was endorsed by then U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and the English philosopher Bertrand Russell. In the decades after Hoffer's 1983 death, the book took on a life of its own. In the aftermath of 9/11, pundits turned to it as a way to explain radical Islamists across the world. Others say the book helps explain Donald Trump's following.

"All mass movements scared him [Hoffer] and that was why he wrote about them," explained Shachtman. "Not because he was particularly afraid of the movement, but because there are things that followers do when they get going that are really scary."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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