Born November 30, 1936
Died early April, 1989
Bucks County, Pennsylvania
Political activist and writer
During the troubled 1960s and into the 1970s, few people challenged authority more defiantly or urged radical social change more strongly than activist Abbie Hoffman. A dedicated political organizer, Hoffman was also a prankster who knew how to use the media to bring his causes to national attention. He was arrested fifty-three times during his days as an activist. Hoffman used his comic personality and outrageous antics to lighten up serious political discussion. He used his sharp political intelligence to encourage social awareness in rebellious youth. Conservatives and less extreme radicals were often irritated by Hoffman's outrageous behavior and thought he was being disrespectful. However, he viewed himself as a "cultural revolutionary." Throughout his life, he worked in his own way to create what he believed would be a better society.
"Revolution is not something fixed in ideology, nor is it something fashioned to a particular decade. It is a perpetual process embedded in the human spirit."
A small town boy
Hoffman was born Abbott Howard Hoffman on November 30, 1936, in the town of Worcester, Massachusetts. His father, John, had come to the United States as a baby when his parents emigrated from Russia. Settling in Massachusetts, John's father worked as a street peddler, selling fruit and vegetables from a truck. When John grew up he married Florence Shanberg, who also came from a poor working-class family. Her father was a junk dealer, while her mother sewed clothes in a sweatshop, a factory where workers were paid slight wages for long, hard hours of work.
By the time young Abbie was born, the family had climbed to the middle class. John ran a medical supply company. Florence no longer worked outside the home because John did not want her to do so. Both the Hoffmans and the Shanbergs were close, and Abbie grew up surrounded by a large, extended family.
The Hoffmans were Jewish. Growing up during the 1940s in a town with a small Jewish community, Abbie learned what it was like to be on the receiving end of prejudice. His experiences with anti-Jewish attitudes influenced his later decision to fight prejudice and other forms of oppression. During his childhood, Abbie and his brother Jack often got into fistfights with Catholic boys in the neighborhood who taunted or attacked them.
Abbie showed signs of mischief and rebellion from early childhood. He fought constantly with his strict father and frequently got into trouble for neighborhood pranks. He was an excellent athlete and became a championship tennis player. Yet, he also delighted in playing poker and pool with the neighborhood kids, enjoying the role of the tough rebel. Hoffman was loud, charming, and conceited. He had a knack for making people laugh.
In school, Hoffman was a quick and intelligent student. However, he seldom worked hard and was frequently in trouble for talking back to teachers. He read a lot and was fond of bringing up controversial subjects in class. He was expelled from high school when he hit a teacher who objected to a paper he wrote defending atheism, the belief that there is no God.
Introduction to radical politics
In his dramatic way, Hoffman made the most of being kicked out of high school. However, after a short time of hanging out in the neighborhood, he quietly finished his high school years at a private boarding school. In 1955, he went on to college at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Even in the repressive anti-communist climate of the 1950s, Brandeis had many politically radical professors. Hoffman began to learn about social and political activism.
He also began to study a new type of psychology, called "humanistic psychology." Humanistic psychologists, like Hoffman's teacher Abraham Maslow (1908–1970), were beginning to change their view of the individual's place in society. Rather than assuming that a healthy individual should work to fit into society, they said that sometimes society might be wrong or unjust and that rebelling against that injustice could be a healthy activity. These new ideas were exciting to Hoffman and influenced him to choose psychology as his major.
As he studied these new ideas, Hoffman was also introduced to a new lifestyle. It was a rebellious style that many people called "Beatnik" or "bohemian." The bohemians wore black clothes, listened to jazz and folk music, and urged a relaxed, open lifestyle, free from society's rules. The rebellious, bohemian way of life appealed to many college students, and Hoffman was among them.
After he graduated from Brandeis in 1959, Hoffman continued his education, in both psychology and in radical politics. He attended graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley. Although he never received his master's degree, he did participate in several stimulating political actions there. One of these actions was a large protest against the House Un-American Activities Committee, a Congressional committee that investigated people who were alleged to have communist connections. In 1960 he returned to Worcester to take a job in a state mental hospital. He also married Sheila Karklin, his college sweetheart.
New battlegrounds: Vietnam and the American South
Hoffman's personality was characterized by a seemingly endless supply of energy. While working two jobs in Worcester, one as a psychologist and one selling medical supplies for his father, he found time to involve himself in most of the radical political groups in town. He became involved in two major movements: the effort to stop U.S. participation in the Vietnam War (1954–75) and the attempt to improve the status of African Americans.
Southern blacks were involved in a struggle to end racial segregation, the practice of designating separate facilities for whites and for blacks. Many sympathetic northern whites worked to support them. Hoffman worked with Worcester groups that supported African American activists by raising money and publicizing their cause. In the summer of 1965, Hoffman took his father's company car and headed south to Mississippi to work in a more direct way for civil rights. There, he joined voter registration drives to increase black participation in elections. Racist southern whites were threatened by the civil rights movement and especially hated the northern supporters. Hoffman was harassed and even beaten, but these experiences only increased his commitment to political work.
By 1967 many black radicals no longer wanted to work with white activists. Hoffman felt hurt by their decision, especially when the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) asked white members, including Hoffman, to leave. However, he still had plenty of energy for political work, and he turned it to the anti-Vietnam War movement. Around this time, Hoffman published his first book of political philosophy, Revolution for the Hell of It. He and Sheila divorced in 1966, and he married fellow activist Anita Kushner in 1967.
From hippies to Yippies
Always dramatic by nature, Hoffman added an element of theater to the many anti-war demonstrations he helped plan. For example, Hoffman and others formed a "Flower Brigade" and joined a New York City veterans' parade carrying peace signs. For this behavior, they suffered verbal abuse and beatings. Another demonstration involved standing in the visitors' gallery above the New York Stock Exchange and throwing dollar bills down on the trading floor—an action that sent stockbrokers scrambling for the bills. The act was intended to show that stockbrokers were consumed by their desire for money. The action that brought Hoffman into the national spotlight was a playful addition to a large anti-war demonstration at the Pentagon, the central military headquarters in Washington, D.C. Hoffman arranged for a group of witches to attend the demonstration to attempt to use psychic power to lift the building off the ground.
Perhaps Hoffman's best-known political prank occurred during the 1968 Democratic presidential nominating convention in Chicago. Hoffman and friend and political ally Jerry Rubin (1938–1994) planned a Festival of Life to take place in the streets of Chicago during the convention. A new political party, the Youth International Party (YIP), would sponsor the festival. Members of the party would be called Yippies, a variation on the term "Hippies" that was used to refer to rebellious youth in the 1960s. The Yippies would nominate their own candidate, a pig named Pigasus, for president.
Several thousand anti-war demonstrators showed up in Chicago for the Yippies' Festival of Life. The Chicago police, angered by the demonstrators' aggressive and disrespectful attitudes, responded with violence. Demonstrators were chased and beaten by the hundreds. The demonstrations went on for several days, and the police response continued to be aggressive and brutal. By the end, eight of the organizers were arrested and charged with working together to cause a riot. Abbie Hoffman was among them.
The trial of the Chicago Eight, as they were soon called, began in March of 1969. The group became known as the Chicago Seven when one of the defendants was tried separately. Hoffman treated the trial like any other demonstration, turning it into political theater by teasing the judge and playing jokes in the courtroom. In the end, all of the defendants were acquitted. Hoffman had become such a well-known troublemaker that eleven states made laws specifically forbidding him from entering their states. In 1969, he published his second book, The Woodstock Nation: A Talk-Rock Album. This publication was followed in 1971 by Steal This Book, a sort of survival handbook for revolutionaries.
In 1974, Hoffman's public activism was brought to a sudden halt when he was arrested for selling a large amount of cocaine to an undercover police officer. Facing a sentence of fifteen years to life, Hoffman skipped bail and lived in hiding from the law for the next six years. He used his time in hiding to write his autobiography, Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture (1980). He began to work again as an activist for environmental causes, using the assumed name Barry Freed. In 1980, tired of life as a fugitive, Hoffman turned himself in and bargained to have his sentence reduced to eleven months.
After his release from prison, Hoffman tried to continue his activist work. By the 1980s, however, the political atmosphere had changed dramatically. Drug use and revolutionary politics were no longer as popular among young people as they had been in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Hoffman felt that young people of the time had become more self-centered and less concerned about changing society. From 1984 to 1986 Hoffman staged a series of comic debates with former activist Jerry Rubin titled "Yippie versus Yuppie." "Yuppie" was short for "young urban professional." Hoffman was arrested at a few demonstrations, but the fire seemed to have gone out of him. During the 1980s he was diagnosed with manic-depression, a psychological disorder involving intense highs followed by deep depression.
By 1980 he and Anita had divorced, and Hoffman had become romantically involved with Johanna Lawrenson, another left-wing activist. On April 12, 1989, Lawrenson became worried when Hoffman did not answer his phone. She called a friend to check on him. Hoffman was found dead. He had taken an overdose of pills with alcohol. Although most people assumed that he had killed himself, some believed his death was an accident, partly because he left no suicide note.
Steal This Book
The book most closely identified with the outrageous politics of Abbie Hoffman is a funny and brash collection of tips, recipes, and advice for those living outside the law. The book combines instructions for how to make free long distance telephone calls or construct a bomb with thoughts about Hoffman's revolutionary political philosophy. The moral lessons offered by Hoffman are clear, yet clearly non-traditional. "To steal from a brother or a sister is evil," he writes in the introduction. "To not steal from the institutions that are the pillars of the Pig Empire is equally immoral."
Hoffman's political ideas were extremely controversial and offended those who had more conservative beliefs. Even the title of the book was controversial. A book that asked people to steal it was bound to irritate publishers and bookstore owners. In fact, Steal This Book was turned down by thirty publishers before Hoffman and a friend decided to publish it themselves. Even then, many bookstores refused to stock the radical work.
Despite these troubles, Steal This Book became a bestseller in 1971, the year of its publication. From April through November of that year more than 250,000 copies were sold. Within a few years, however, the book went out of print. In the early 2000s it had become a collector's item, with copies selling for as much as $100. In 1990, the New York Times Book Review listed Steal This Book as one of the top ten books stolen from bookstores and libraries. In the early 2000s the book could be "stolen" from the World Wide Web, where it can be found at http://www.tenant.net/Community/steal.
Abbie Hoffman was one of the most unforgettable characters to emerge from the political turmoil of the 1960s. A believer in the energy and power of youth, he was said to be the author of the phrase, "Never trust anyone over thirty." He had four children who often complained that it was difficult to rebel in the Hoffman household because their father praised them for each troublemaking activity. Perhaps one of the most revealing insights into Hoffman's philosophy is the name he and Anita gave their first child. They called him America, they said, because he represented the hope they had for their country. Although Hoffman may have killed himself during a time of depression, his legacy was not despair, but an impish childlike hope for a better future.
For More Information
Hoffman, Abbie. Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture. New York: Berkley Books, 1980.
Hoffman, Abbie. Steal This Book. New York: Pirate Editions, 1971.
Hoffman, Jack, and Daniel Simon. Run, Run, Run: The Lives of Abbie Hoffman. New York: Putnam's, 1994.
Jezer, Marty. Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.
Sloman, Larry. Steal This Dream: Abbie Hoffman and the Countercultural Revolution in America. New York: Doubleday, 1998.
Kunen, James S. "A Troubled Rebel Chooses a Silent Death." People Weekly (May 1, 1989): pp. 100–106.
Steal This Book.http://www.tenant.net/Community/steal (accessed August 2004).