INCONVERSATION

SONG OF OURSELVES
ABBIE HOFFMAN with Abbie Hoffman

Ed.’s note: By the time his first book, Revolution for the Hell of It, was published in the fall of 1968, Abbie Hoffman had already established his reputation as the most theatrical performer among ’60s radicals. In one passage in the book, Hoffman interviewed himself, mixing satirical critique with insights into his own worldview.

Here are some examples of what he said, interspersed with some contemporary interpretation.

—T. Hamm

 

Talking in My Sleep—An Exercise in Self-Criticism

A mythical interview of questions that are asked and answers that are given. Interviews are always going on. Here’s one with myself.

 

Abbie Hoffman visiting the University of Oklahoma to protest the Vietnam War, circa 1969. Photo by Osbornb, flickr.com.

Do you have an ideology?
No. Ideology is a brain disease.

Do you have a movement?
Yes. It’s called Dancing.

Isn’t that a put-on?
No.

Can you explain that?
Suppose we start the questions again.

Okay. Do you have an ideology?
We are for peace, equal rights, and brotherhood.

Now I understand.
I don’t. That was a put-on. I don’t understand what I said.

I’m getting confused.
Well, let’s go on.

To call Hoffman impish would be an understatement. Yet even as he lampoons here the typical interview exchange, and ridicules specifically the attempt to peg him with an ideological label, he shows that he does have a clear set of egalitarian values. As Norman Mailer later observed, Hoffman’s “thousand jokes were to conceal how serious he was…Under his satire beat a hysterical heart.” And it wasn’t just his internal organs that moved quickly. Later in the interview he continued to extol his love for dancing, placing the free-form movements of his generation in opposition to the Arthur Murray fox-trotting “parent culture.”

Are you for anything? Do you have a vision of this new society you talk of?
Yes, we are for a free society.

Could you spell that out?
F-R-E-E.

What do you mean free?
You know what that means. America: the land of the free. Free means you don’t pay, doesn’t it?

Yes, I guess so. Do you mean all the goods and services would be free?
Precisely. That’s what the technological revolution would produce if we let it run unchecked. If we stopped trying to control it.

Who controls it?
The profit incentive, I guess. Property hang-ups. One task we have is to separate the concept of productivity from work. Work is money. Work is postponement of pleasure. Work is always done for someone else: the boss, the kids, the guy next door. Work is competition. Work was linked to productivity to serve the Industrial Revolution. We must separate the two. We must abolish work and all the drudgery it represents.

Who will do what we now call dirty work, like picking up the garbage?
Well, there are a lot of possibilities. There won’t be any dirty work. If you’re involved in a revolution you have a different attitude toward work. All work now is dirty work. Lots of people might dig dealing with garbage. Maybe there won’t be any garbage. Maybe we’ll just let it pile up. Maybe everybody will have a garbage disposal. There are numerous possibilities.

Do you think competition leads to productivity?
Well, I think it did during the Industrial Revolution but it won’t do for the future. Competition also leads to war. Cooperation will be the motivating factor in a free society. I think cooperation is more akin to the human spirit. Competition is grafted on by institutions, by a capitalist economy, by religion, by schools. Every institution I can think of in this country promotes competition.

As with the ideology question, Hoffman’s views regarding cooperation and exchange are all the more timely in light of Occupy. But they also illustrate the degree to which the earlier generation of radicals—living in an era when prosperity was much more widely shared—was able to ask much bigger questions. For example, rather than focus on the lack of employment for debt-saddled college graduates, Hoffman and others could investigate the true meaning of work. And they could imagine utopias. While those impulses remain, in the current moment things seem more dire. But it never hurts to ask questions.

[What should be the main goal of the movement?]
Fun. I think fun and leisure are great. I don’t like the concept of a movement built on sacrifice, dedication, responsibility, anger, frustration, and guilt. All those down things. I would say, look, you want to have more fun, you want to get laid more, you want to turn on with your friends, you want an outlet for your creativity, then get out of school, quit your job. Come on out and help build and defend the society you want. Stop trying to organize everybody but yourself. Begin to live your vision. For example, the other night I was at a benefit for a peace group. Great music, light shows, friends all over the place. It was a good time. Some of the money raised goes to arrange rallies at which speakers give boring political speeches. People think it’s a drag but that’s the sacrifice to get out the politically relevant statement. The point is, nobody listens to politically relevant statements. In Chicago we’ll have a huge free music festival. Everyone already knows our feelings on the issues because we are there. It will have a tremendous impact if we can also project the image that we are having all the fun too. When I say fun, I mean an experience so intense that you actualize your full potential. You become LIFE. LIFE IS FUN. Political irrelevance is more effective than political relevance.

I notice as we get further into the interview that your answers get more linear and longer.
You’re observant. I’m getting tired.

Revolution for the Hell of It (Dial Press, 1968).
Steal This Book (Pirate Editions/Grove Press, 1971).

Positions such as these are why those inclined to give “boring political speeches” have been dismissive of Hoffman over the years. But in his very entertaining recent memoir, Hoffman’s friend Ed Sanders of the Fugs recalls that Hoffman went overboard in Chicago, passing around scoops of honey laced with LSD, causing Sanders to encounter the “galactic spinach.” While a movement based on fun indeed has limits, no youth movement can survive without it. In the Occupy era, General Assemblies can play an essential role, but dancing is important, too.

Why are you writing [a book]?
Well, ’cause I have no idea how to make a movie. It has some parts I like, but the book form is difficult, and I write on the run. There is also the time gap. You know, months of delay before it comes out. By then it’s a whole new ballgame. As far as the medium of print is concerned, I would say I like free street leaflets the best.

Which medium do you like best of all?
Making love.

Anything else?
Well, I like to experience pleasure, to have fun, I enjoy blowing people’s minds. You know, walking up to somebody and saying, “Would you hold this dollar for me while I go in that store and steal something?” The crazier the better. I like being crazy. Letting go. Losing control. Just doing what pops into my mind. I trust my impulses. I find the less I try to think through a situation, the better it comes off.

I’ve seen things you’ve written under other names. Is that part of the put-on?
I do that a lot. It is fun because I really get pleasure in doing the act or helping to see it come off. Using false names or other people’s names makes sense to me. I’m not so sure about it now. You get known. As soon as you do anything in this country you become a celebrity. It’s not really the same as being a leader. You can only stimulate actions. Stopping them or controlling them is something leaders can do. I’m not a leader. Nobody is under my command. I haven’t the vaguest idea how to stop a demonstration, say, except to go home. I’m not really interested in stopping anything, so I’m not a leader. But this celebrity thing has certain problems. Using false names just tends to increase the myth after a while. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. If I can get away with it, I do.

Will you use a false name on the book?
If I can get away with it.

Isn’t this celebrity or star system alien to your visions of a new society?
Most definitely. I find as you get more and more well known you get less personal freedom. You spend more time doing other people’s things than your own. You know, people calling you in the middle of the night with their problems. Imagine this scene: You are trying to steal some groceries and some old lady comes up and says how much she likes what you are doing. That’s why I use disguises, so I can keep in shape by having to hustle without the myth. The day I can’t shoplift, panhandle, or pass out leaflets on my own is the day I’ll retire. The myth, like everything else, is free. Anybody can claim he is it and use it to hustle.

Here Hoffman is outlining the basic theme of his most famous work, Steal This Book (1971). He’s also foretelling his fugitive life in the mid-late ’70s, when he fled a charge for selling cocaine in Manhattan. With a little bit of plastic surgery, he reinvented himself as Barry Freed, an environmental activist fighting to save the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York. In 1979, Freed famously shook hands with an unwitting Sen. Daniel Moynihan and received a telegram from Gov. Hugh Carey praising him for his “keen public service.” Hoffman’s brother Jack also recalled that during the same period, the two would attend New England Patriots games, to which the family had season tickets. People all around would give Hoffman the thumbs-up. The ’70s was a much different era than today. 

Being understood is not your goal?
Of course not. The only way you can understand is to join, to become involved. Our goal is to remain a mystery. Pure theater. Free, with no boundaries but your own. Throwing money onto the floor of the Stock Exchange is pure information. It needs no explanation. It says more than thousands of anticapitalist tracts and essays. It’s so obvious that I hesitate to discuss it, since everybody reading this already has an image of what happened there. I respect their images. Anything I said would come on like expertise. “Now, this is what really happened.” In point of fact, nothing happened. Neither we nor the Stock Exchange exist. We are both rumors. That’s it. That’s what happened that day. Two different rumors collided.

Can you think of any people in theater that influence you?
W.C. Fields, Ernie Kovacs, Che Guevara, Antonin Artaud, Alfred Hitchcock, Lenny Bruce, the Marx Brothers—probably the Beatles have the most influence. I think they have the perfect model for the new family. They have unlimited creativity. They are a continual process, always changing, always burying the old Beatles, always dropping out.

What do you think of death?
Well, I must say I have no fear of death. I faced it once about two years ago on an internal level. This is hard to explain. I’ve actually faced the risk of death a number of times but this one time I actually became paranoid. I was overcome with anxiety. It was unclear what was going on. I overcame that state purely on a mind level and realized that I had the power in me not to become paranoid. It’s the paranoia, the living in constant fear of death, that is the real bad trip, not the death itself. I will be surprised if I get a chance to live out my life. Gleefully surprised, but surprised none the less.

Isn’t that sort of gloomy?
No! Not really. You can’t deny there is a tremendous amount of violence in this country. People who are engaged daily in radical social change are always exposed to that violence. I would rather die fighting for change than surrender. Death in a physical sense is just not seen as the worst of all possible things.

What is?
I don’t know. Going to jail. Surrendering…Maybe nothing is really bad, since I’m convinced that we will win the future.

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1980, Hoffman committed suicide in 1989. According to his friend and biographer Jonah Raskin, Hoffman’s self-destructive lifestyle—too many drugs, narcotic and prescription—certainly contributed to his depression. But Raskin also argues that “Abbie was destroyed by his abiding desire to fit in and be accepted by the establishment.” For example, throughout the ’80s Hoffman continually sought a pardon for his cocaine trafficking conviction, an action which struck Raskin as a far cry from throwing dollar bills on the floor of the stock exchange or trying to levitate the Pentagon. Such is the plight of many outcasts, no matter how radical they are. His personal torments aside, Hoffman’s public life was very entertaining, and well worth remembering.

Contributors

Theodore Hamm

Abbie Hoffman

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