"There is absolutely no greater high than challenging the power stucture as a nobody, giving it your all, and winning." --Abbie Hoffman
Abbie Hoffman's legacy remains a great boon to anyone fighting for freedom of expression today.
Following the early years of pool-hustling and studying under such legendary minds of the 60's as Herbert Marcuse and Abe Maslow at Brandeis University, Abbie put his ass on the line as an organizer in the Civil Rights Movement in the South in the early 60's. What brought Abbie's name into households throughout the country and the world however, was his fusing of the then-burgeoning, pot smoking/free-loving/rock & rolling "hippie" counter-culture with the growing (but heretofore strictly 'straight') anti-Vietnam War movement of the day. It was on New Year's Eve 1968 that Abbie and notorious pals Jerry Rubin, Paul Krassner and girl friends, laying on pillows scattered around the "postage stamp living room" of an apartment on New York's Lower East Side, came up with a new social movement, The Youth International Party, and better yet a whole new word: YIPPIE!
Yippie! was the clarion call bringing thousands of young people to the streets of Chicago in August 1968 for a counter-cultural "Festival of Life" as an alternative to the then-war-raging President Johnson's Democratic Party Convention. The subsequent police riot there earned Abbie and 7 other Movement leaders indictments for conspiracy to riot. Youth around the country--including this youth--was deeply politicized by the heavy-handed spectacle of 1969's Chicago 7 Conspiracy Trial--called by many the most important political trial in U.S. history. Abbie's "antics" at the trial--he and Rubin wearing judge robes, blowing kisses, etc.--were what many remember most from the trial. Abbie called such "antics" "monkey warfare" or what Marty Jezer, 60's Movement compatriot and author of "Abbie Hoffman, American Rebel" (Rutgers University Press) has called "the politics of theatrical confrontation...a carefully thought-out way to move the anti-war movement from the margin of society to the television screen of every home."
A look at Abbie's educational roots is instructive: "At Brandeis University in the late 1950's, Abbie rejected the critique of the old left socialists, prominent on the faculty, who analyzed the country through a European framework of Marxist ideology," writes Jezer in Z Magazine. "His mentor, instead, was Abraham Maslow, a founder of humanist psychology, who counseled that conformity was not necessarily a sign of social adjustment, and that rebellion against an unjust society was a psychological good. Maslow's theories about self-actualization and human potential, and his belief that love and creativity were basic human drives, provided Abbie with an intellectual rationale. Maslovian theory laid a solid foundation for launching the optimism of the 1960's," Abbie wrote in his autobiography. "Existential, altruistic, and up-beat, his teachings became my personal code."
Abbie's speeches were great to behold. "Abbie used obscenity to expose the topsy-turvy moral universe of American society during the Vietnam era," writes Jezer. "What was evil? What was hypocrisy? The authorities, and many older Americans, were shocked by Abbie's language; but many of them supported a policy that involved bombing civilians, torching peasant villages, and napalming children."
There was sometime between Abbie's going underground (after a set-up drug bust in 1973) and his re-emergence in 1980, a certain maturing of political vision. For instance, in the 60's, Abbie would tell screaming student audiences, "We want a society of leisure, a society of creative artists in which we're free to do whatever we want, in which we enjoy what we're doing. If you enjoy it, it's not work." Abbie was announcing the emergence of a post-scarcity society, "run by machines of loving grace," years before Cyberpunk. In the 1980's Abbie, a popular speaker on the campus lecture circuit, was talking about South Africa, Central America, the need for socialized medicine and protecting the environment.
"Alternative politics are not (now) relevant," Abbie said reflecting on the difference between then and now, "because the country has changed in basic ways...the country is more tolerant of different points of view. And it's easier to organize 'workers' now than in the days of 'hippies vs. hardhats'...A politics built around drugs, or dress, or diet, or even sex, race, or age is not necessary because there is a chance to reach all Americans now."
An appreciation of an underrated aspect of Abbie Hoffman - his political philosophy - was recently published, called LIVE THIS BOOK by Theodore L. Becker and Anthony L. Dodson, with introduction by Abbie's brother Jack (Noble Press). A highly readable and engaging book, though in the author's comparison of Abbie with such historic "satirists" as Mark Twain, Will Rogers and Charlie Chaplin, I wonder why they failed to mention Lenny Bruce, who was a great inspiration for Abbie, as opposed to the aforementioned, relative cop-outs. Very interesting, later in the book, was the author's discussion of Abbie's work in the 80's as an environmental organizer, and how he rated as a "Green." "Perhaps the biggest disparity between Hoffman, the Green philosophy and the various and sundry parts of the transformational movement comes in the explicit value Hoffman places on personal liberty and the role of the individual in transformational politics," the authors write. "One might imply a value of individualism from the Green advocacy of 'respect for diversity, grassroots democracy' and consensual politics, but not much. Their focus is narrowed to specific issues like racial or gender fairness, or ecological balance. Individualism is at best a marginal concern. The rest of the transformational movement pays scant attention to it as well. For Hoffman, though, it was the very heart of the matter, the wellspring of his thinking. It was a new slant on good old American individualism, to be sure, but an elaboration and improvement on American individualism nevertheless."
Abbie's major literary output of the late 60's/early 70's, REVOLUTION FOR THE HELL OF IT, WOODSTOCK NATION and STEAL THIS BOOK (as well as more recent writing, like his article for PARADE, "How to Fight City Hall," with great tips for organizers) has been collected into a volume THE BEST OF ABBIE HOFFMAN (publishers Group West, 1990).
Many of the reprinted STEAL THIS BOOK chapters, such as on Pirate Radio and underground publishing-remain as fresh and useful as ever. For a from-the-frontline perspective on how Entrenched Power works to perpetuate war, poverty, racism, censorship, and itself in this society--and Abbie's own struggles fighting these powers, check out his autobiography SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE (Putnam, 1980).