Yippies Founder Abbie Hoffman Would Be 75 Today
Abbie Hoffman, the controversial prankster and leftist radical, would be 75 years old today.
Abbie Hoffman, the radical prankster and leftist agitator, would be 75 years old today, well past the age at which people can no longer be trusted, according to Hoffman—which was 30 years old.
Let us use Hoffman’s birthday as a lens through which to view his subversive, radical politics.
Of all the countercultural figures of the ’60s, only Jerry Rubin, various of the Black Panthers and rock idols such John Lennon and David Crosby glow so brightly as radicals in the dark years that have enveloped civilization since those heady days. Hoffman was, admittedly, a great prankster and quick, satirical wit. His bid to levitate the Pentagon is perhaps his most defining symbolic gesture.
But Hoffman was also a matchless self-promoter, like his friend and fellow Yippies founder Jerry Rubin. One might argue that Hoffman saw in the countercultural ’60s his opening for fame—a way to imprint his personality into the history books. The path was to be heard as a political voice, perhaps not out of some selfless egalitarian impulse, but the way a novelist desires his or her name to echo through through the centuries.
Granted, Hoffman never did capitalize on his name and become rich like Jerry Rubin, who transformed himself into a venture capitalist, but he did get a disproportionate amount of credit for the socio-political and economic movement of the counterculture.
The truth is, the undercurrent had already been established several decades before by the Dadaists and Surrealists in Europe, which filtered over into America no doubt by way of the Beat Generation which glorified youth, velocity and a beatific variant of individualist anarchism. Then there is, of course, the rich radical history in America embodied in the Wobblies, for example, and the events at Haymarket Square, where anarchists and communists fought for the eight-hour work day, which ended in a bloodbath and suspicions of agent provocateurs sent by east coast industrialists.
And the methods that Hoffman would later utilize and eventually publish in the book “Steal This Book” were, in fact, created by a group in San Francisco known as the Diggers, which was begun around 1965. One of the principle members of the Diggers, Emmett Grogan, a luminary within the Diggers (alongside San Francisco Mime Troupe member Peter Coyote), who was widly influential but shunned the spotlight, found Hoffman’s thirst for renown troubling, and later chastised the Yippie for publishing the Digger’s anarchist tricks in “Steal This Book.”
Grogan wrote of Hoffman in his autobiography “Ringolevio: A Life Played For Keeps,” that “the guy must fall asleep with fantastic dreams of grandeur every night.” Grogan details how he accepted Hoffman but kept his distance from the man, and that this decision was undoubtedly a “blunder.”
Grogan valued anonymity (which is why most still have not heard of him), while Hoffman valued publicity.
One could argue that both methods ultimately worked; that Grogan’s anonymous free society did great things in San Francisco, as well as the other places it spread to on the West Coast under the Free Family, and that Hoffman’s publicity prankster tactics were effective, too. However, it was this publicity, along with drugs, that ultimately led to the reactionary politics of both Nixon and Reagan and the eventual disintegration of a strong American left.
Hoffman, to my mind, while certainly entertaining and interesting in his radical pranksterism, is thus a cautionary tale for anyone with a strong inclination toward leftist politics. Voina (“War,” in English), the anarcho-surrealist art collective out of Russia, is perhaps a better example of sincere pranksters who fearlessly court death in pursuit of their art—art meant to illuminate and inspire the populace.
In the final analysis, there of course must be luminaries, but you shall know them by their sincerity. Read Emmett Grogan’s book to learn how to spot the self-aggrandizing types such as Abbie Hoffman.
Below is a video of Abbie Hoffman talking guerrilla theater tactics before the 1968 Republican Convention protest, as well as a video of Peter Coyote talking about the Free Store created by Emmett Grogan and the Diggers. Both should serve to illustrate the different aims of the Diggers and Yippies.