For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman
By Jonah Raskin
University of California Press, 1996. 315 pp., $45 (hb)
Review by Phil Shannon
High up the league ladder of US '60s icons is Abbie Hoffman. Co-star, with Jerry Rubin, of the “Yippies” and their anarchic street theatre of protest, he is memorable for his New Testament-like parables pitting innocence and virtue against the hypocrites, money-changers and Roman might of corporate America.
Hoffman disrupted trading on the New York Stock Exchange by throwing dollar bills onto the trading floor; he nominated a pig for president; he inspired a hippie “Festival of Life” at the Democratic Party “Convention of Death” in Chicago (which was bloodily truncheoned by Mayor Daley's cops); he was a target of the truncheons (beaten unconscious) at the Massacre of the Innocents, when cops attacked a hippie celebration at New York's Grand Central Station; and he was a star of the courtroom drama of the Chicago Eight, the eight '60s radicals framed in the Chicago Conspiracy Trial.
Jonah Raskin, former Yippie, is the latest to tackle a biography of Hoffman, who was warily tolerated by the left and loathed by the right as the great '60s insurgency of hippies and revolutionary socialists startled and alarmed the cozy world of corporate calm and suburban slumber.
Born in 1936, Hoffman was dissatisfied with his parents' conservative world and graduated from a '50s juvenile delinquency into political protest at the University of California in Berkeley.
Clark Kerr, university president, had declared in 1960, “The employers will love this generation. They aren't going to press many grievances. They are going to be very easy to handle. There aren't going to be any riots.” How wrong can a guy get! Very, if class-of-'60 Hoffman had anything to do with it -- which he did, big time.
A civil rights activist in the early '60s, Hoffman took his first LSD trip in 1965 and discovered the hippies and anarchist outfits such as the Diggers. “Organise your own head, not other people”, shouted the Diggers as they disrupted Students for a Democratic Society meetings in a display of anarchist purity and irrelevance.
“Too much analysis, too much intellectualising”, chimed in Hoffman, dressed as a cowboy and waving a cap-gun as he disrupted an anti-Vietnam War meeting.
Placing feelings above analysis, LSD and mysticism above program and demands, and the media stunt above the mass mobilisation, Hoffman founded the Youth International Party (Yippies), a “roving anarchist theatre group”, a non-organisation of individualists.
John Lennon was one of their most famous recruits. The radical feminist Robin Morgan was one of the Yippies who pulled out in disgust at the elitist, egoist and chauvinist style of the Yippies.
Hoffman and the Yippies blasted forth the cry of havoc, mayhem and confrontation from their trumpets to blow down the walls of the military-industrial Jerusalem. It was an attempt “to rewrite the stuffy textbook of revolution”, but with children's crayons rather than the pen of political analysis.
Energy, creativity and a talent for publicity allowed the Yippies to steal some of the thunder of the growing mass movement against the Vietnam War. The Yippies didn't manage to levitate the Pentagon, but hippies did place flowers in the gun barrels of the soldiers.
The “hippie happening” in New York's Grand Central Station, a “tribal celebration of the spring equinox”, which, like many Yippie actions, had no political demands, was smashed by truncheons, but this did not deter Hoffman from proposing a similar pointless confrontation with authority at the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968.
The brilliant propaganda of nominating Pigasus the Pig for president (Mayor Daley's cops were all pigs, Hubert Humphrey, the successful Democrat nominee for President, was “pig as all hell”) could not redeem the small turnout of around 10,000, many frightened off by Hoffman's irresponsible talking up of violence. Those who did turn up sampled all the wares of the 23,000 cops, National Guard and soldiers -- rifle butts, clubs, tear gas and mace.
Chicago was a demonstration of the brutality and repression of US capitalism, a domestic Vietnam which did revolutionise many hippies and supporters of the so-called “doves” in the Democratic Party.
The cost was high, however, and when Hoffman pooh-poohed the enormous half million-strong demonstration in Washington in November 1969 as mere “commuter protest” with not enough violence, his elitist and substitutionist aversion to the politics of mass mobilisation was made clear.
Hoffman's curtain call was the Chicago Conspiracy Trial, masterminded by J. Edgar Hoover to curtail the New Left, when Hoffman and seven other activists were charged with conspiracy to foment civil disorder in Chicago.
Hoffman turned the court into theatre, for example by wearing a judge's robes over a cop's uniform to symbolise that the capitalist judicial system was about punishment and political repression rather than justice.
Hoffman's symbolic low point was at Woodstock, where the relative weakness of the political radicals in the counter-culture was revealed. During a set by the Who, Hoffman attempted to speak on stage about police harassment of marijuana users but he was attacked and knocked from the stage by a member of the band.
Hoffman's star had been all but extinguished when the Yippie splinter group, the Zippies (“never trust anyone over 30”), took to heart Hoffman's principle that generational and not class conflict is the engine of history, and turned on the thirtyish Hoffman and Rubin.
Arrested for smuggling and selling cocaine in 1973, Hoffman went underground, resurfacing in 1980. Although he flashed on and off the political scene -- saving a river here, protesting against intervention in Nicaragua and CIA recruitment at universities there, he suffered from clinical depression.
Hoffman the Yippie also found little satisfaction in the Yuppie lifestyle. Once banned from public activities in 20 US states, Hoffman was pulling in $100,000 a year from the US lecture circuit in the '80s, and he also traded in oil stock. This only added to his chronic nostalgia for personal fame and the '60s, and Abbie Hoffman died from a drug overdose in 1989.
All protest and no play makes politics a very dull affair, and Hoffman's energy and genius for theatre did make a positive contribution to the left-wing politics of the '60s. Hoffman wanted his “Woodstock Nation” of peace, love and happiness, wanted it now, and thought he had found a shortcut to it through cultural revolution, flower power and drugs, or crashing head first through police truncheons.
But there are no shortcuts past corporate and state power other than through working class-based mass political activity, democratic organisation and socialist politics. Hoffman wrote off unions and Marxism; he was a celebrity rather than an accountable leader of an organised movement; and his fetishising of the tactic of increasing militancy into an all-purpose principle was not, and is not, the test of revolutionary commitment.
Current political struggles and future insurgencies will throw up further Abbie Hoffmans, who hate capitalism but don't have much of an idea about how to end it.
If the capitalist state overestimated the threat posed by Hoffman and the Yippies, the left shouldn't similarly overestimate their political value, although we can cherish the powerful images and parables that Hoffman created in the struggle between freedom and repression.