Writer and activist Abbie Hoffman (1936-1989) was best known for his anti-war protests as a leader of the Youth International Party in the 1960s.
Abbie Hoffman was born November 30, 1936, in Worcester, Massachusetts, and educated at Brandeis University (B.A., 1959) and the University of California, Berkeley (M.A., 1960). Like so many other activists of the 1960s, Hoffman was radicalized by participating in the civil rights movement. Among other activities, he founded a store—Liberty House—to sell products manufactured by co-operatives of poor people in Mississippi. In mid-decade he turned his attention to the war in Vietnam, which heated up just when Black Power was driving whites out of black freedom organizations. Hoffman's unique contribution, with Jerry Rubin, was to unite political activism with the emergent counter-culture. As a rule the two movements were antithetical, politics drawing young men and women into public affairs, the counter-culture attracting others to the private pleasures of rock music, drugs, indigency, and liberated sex.
Hoffman made activism glamorous, so to speak, by staging such media events as throwing money onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and wearing an American flag shirt on television. Hoffman's theory was that by ridiculing the symbols of authority one weakened its power as well. Deprived of legitimacy, Wall Street and Washington might wither away, or perhaps they would become so frail as to be easily overthrown. These hopes appear more unlikely in retrospect than they did at the time, when authority seemed discredited and many young people believed that the revolution was at hand.
Hoffman's Youth International Party, formed in 1968, was not so much an organization as a way of life. It enabled counter-culturists, known as hippies in their passive state, to express themselves politically without having to elect officers, pay dues, attend meetings, or perform any of the tiresome work associated with real parties. The yippies, as Hoffman's followers were called, assembled at irregular intervals to hold Festivals of Life. These gatherings featured rock music, guerrilla theater, poetry reading, obscene language, and other activities meant to delight the young and aggravate the old.
Their most publicized effort took place at the Democratic National Convention of 1968. In cooperation with the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam some 2, 500 yippies danced, sang, smoked marijuana, and advertised the virtues of their own candidate for president, a live pig named Pigasus. Poet Allen Ginsberg chanted mantras for peace. Hoffman inscribed dirty words on his forehead. All this inflamed Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, whose police attacked the yippies with clubs and tear gas, then arrested many for having provoked uniformed officers to riot. The result was a famous trial when eight demonstration leaders—including Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden of Students for a Democratic Society, and Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers—were indicted for conspiring to incite these riots. Most of the defendants abused and ridiculed Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation), destroying his composure. He had Seale bound and gagged, then declared a mistrial in Seale's case. The other seven were found guilty of various offenses, but as the trial had been a farce their convictions were not sustained.
This was the height of Hoffman's celebrity. With the war in Vietnam winding down and the turbulent 1960s giving way to quieter times Hoffman found himself at loose ends. On August 28, 1973, he was arrested for possession of a large quantity of cocaine. Claiming to have been framed, Hoffman jumped bail and went underground. The next seven years were busy and productive ones for Hoffman, whom the police could not seem to find even though he granted interviews to national magazines, served as travel editor of Crawdaddy magazine, and published two books and some 35 articles. In 1980 he surfaced and disclosed that he had been living for the previous four years in Thousand Islands, New York, under the name of Barry Freed. As environmental activist "Freed, " minus the long hair and beard of his yippie days, he had appeared on local television and radio, been commended by the governor of New York, testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, and been appointed to a federal water resources commission. After serving a year in jail Hoffman returned to Thousand Islands where, as Barry Freed, he continued to campaign for the environment between engagements as a speaker on college campuses.
Hoffman's place in history will depend upon how much weight is given to his activities in the 1960s. Besides providing the young with a good deal of entertainment, Hoffman wrote extensively on behalf of social change. His Revolution for the Hell of It (1968) more or less seriously advocated transforming society by means of psychedelic drugs, rock bands, sexual freedom, communes, and the like. Similar themes informed many of his other books, which collectively sold over three million copies. He also figured in some of the most important events of the period. These included not only the Chicago demonstrations in 1968, but the earlier March on the Pentagon, October 21, 1967. At that event some 75, 000 demonstrators gathered in Washington, many following Hoffman's lead in attempting to levitate the great military headquarters building. Whether Hoffman's efforts did anything to shorten the war is doubtful. The methods he employed, though they generated an immense volume of publicity, were short-lived, as were the theories he advocated in connection with them. Yet, whatever the lasting results, if any, of his stunts, Hoffman is likely to be remembered as one of the boldest and most imaginative spokesmen for the counter-culture in its days of glory.
Although there is some controversy concerning Hoffman's death in 1989, it seems certain that he killed himself with a lethal combination of 150 pheno-barbital pills and alcohol.
Among Hoffman's own books are: Revolution for the Hell of It, New York: Dial Press, Inc., (1968); (with Jerry Rubin and Ed Sanders), Vote! (1972); (with Anita Hoffman), To America with Love: Letters from the Underground, Stonehill Publishing, Inc., (1976); and Square Dancing in the Ice Age (1982). Woodstock Nation: A Talk-Rock Album New York: Random House (1969.) There are several biographies of Abbie Hoffman, in varying degrees of quality. Hoffman wrote his autobiography, Soon to be a Major Motion Picture, New York: Berkley Books, (1980), the year he surrendered to federal authorities.
Since Hoffman's death a great many books have appeared which explore the details of his life and his socio-political views and actions. There is even an Abbie Hoffman website on the Internet which contains reviews of his books and discussions of his life and political actions. There is also a copy of Steal This Book, New York: Private Editions, Inc., (1971), which may be down-loaded. The original volume was self-published, rocketed to the best seller list and sold more than one-quarter million copies at $1.95, the original volumes must all be in private hands as no copies seem to exist in libraries, and book dealers are asking $100.00 per copy if they have one.
Abbie Hoffman's place in history may be that of a political prankster; however, many current volumes are discussing him seriously as a political activist, for example, David DeLeon's Leaders from the 1960s: A Biographical Sourcebook of American Activists, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, (1994); Marty Jezer's Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press (1992); Jack Hoffman and Daniel Simon's Run Run Run: The Lives of Abbie Hoffman, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons (1994); Theodore L. Becker and Anthony L. Dodson's Live This Book: Abbie Hoffman's Philosophy for a Free and Green America, Chicago: The Noble Press, Inc. (1991); and Jonah Ruskin's For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman, University of California Press (1996). □