The Best of Abbie Hoffman
By Abbie Hoffman
Edited by Daniel Simon
New York: Four Walls Eight Windows
Reviewed by Craig Brittain
Twenty years after the Vietnam War, it is hard to remember the sheer craziness of the time. Not only were thousands dying in a disgusting war, but practically every intellectual in the United States was declaring her/himself a left-wing revolutionary; the New York Review of Books published detailed instructions on how to make Molotov cocktails on its front cover; campuses were in chaos everywhere; President Johnson was seriously considering Operation Dragnet, a plan to lock dissenters up in concentration camps (1 million federal internal security warrants were waiting to be used if need be). It was a time when "anyone who couldn't run fast enough was beaten and arrested" (Berkeley Barb, September '67) and when even the official reports were reluctantly describing peace demonstrations as "police riots"!
It is in this context that The Best of Abbie Hoffman should be read. He was undoubtedly the most prominent of the student radicals, an organiser of the Youth Interpol Party (Yippies) and one of the Chicago 7. To the end of his life he remained a radical. (When he died in 1989, while this book was in preparation, he was involved in organising the first national student conference since the '70s and protesting against CIA recruitment on campuses).
This book is divided into four parts; the first three sections are from his three most well-known books — Revolution for the hell of it (1968), Woodstock Nation (1969), and Steal this Book (1971).
They were written in the heat of the moment, in some cases on the run. The intention was to get people out on the streets; they are not carefully reasoned polemics, but are full of the exuberance and optimism and zany humour for which he was famous.
Anyone who could conceive of such projects as the "exorcism" of the Pentagon (having hundreds of people link arms around it to drive out the evil spirits) or throwing handfuls of dollar bills from the gallery of the New York Stock Exchange to make a statement about the nature of capitalism, had a grasp of the symbolic which verged on genius.
As the civil rights lawyer William Kunstler said of him, he used humour and ridicule as highly effective political weapons. As Abbie himself put it: "It's all so easy. All you need is a little bit of nerve and a willingness to be considered an embarrassment. Then you just, keep on pushing ... "
How much influence his books had at the time, God knows, but they obviously needled the authorities (and they did sell almost 3 million copies). As much as anything they were meant to test the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech, something which was definitely under threat at the time.
Steal this Book is still a landmark in this regard; a revolutionaries' how-to-do-it manual, it pushes freedom of speech to the limit, telling you everything from how to rip off to get free meals, all on the principle that capitalism is legitimised theft anyway — it's just a question of who's stealing from whom.
In style they are part autobiography, part Yippie manifesto and part revolutionary manual, and they raise fundamental issues for radical groups past and present: questions about the democratic process, about civil disobedience, about the use of violence.
Not that he was always right. No sane person these days would support terrorist groups like the Weather Underground. (Although, to be fair to Abbie, while he sympathised with the individuals involved, he didn't agree with their dogmatism or their tactics.) And it's quite likely that an enormous amount of damage was done by the New Left's refusal to support Eugene McCarthy's presidential nomination — the result was Richard Nixon.
But much was achieved too: the legacy of the '60s is that we now know that protests can work, that, when necessary, citizens can take on the powers that be — and win.
Sadly, the book ends abruptly, with Abbie's suicide in April 1989. Easily the best writing is contained in the last section, in the articles written in the '80s on such topics as the history of student activism, the prison system, drugs and, best of all, a piece on the successful campaign to save the St Lawrence river from the destruction of the US Army Corps of Engineers.
Had he lived he might have been another I.F. Stone, a radical journalist prepared to take on the high and mighty, and he would surely have been involved in many, many more campaigns. He was one of the few '60s radicals who didn't sell out: whether it was opposing US involvement in Vietnam or Latin America, protesting against compulsory urine tests to identify drug users, organising local groups, or protesting against the CIA recruiting on college campuses, he was always fighting for the rights of individuals and communities against a system which he saw as being out to kill everything good and decent and free and fun-loving on the planet.
While this collection is worth getting and reading, his best book is his autobiography, Soon to be a Major Motion Picture (Putnam, 1982), which is unfortunately out of print. In it he summed up his philosophy:
"In organising a movement around art we not only allowed people to participate without a sense of guilt but also with a sense of enjoyment. The use of fun in struggle was a new notion ... There's no incongruity in conducting serious business and having fun. This pissed off the straight left no end ... One of the worst mistakes any revolution can make is to become boring. It leads to rituals as opposed to games, cults as opposed to community and denial of human rights as opposed to freedom."