The Groucho Marxist
Abbie Hoffman's antics owed less to the high theories of Antonin Artaud than to a low tradition of Jewish dadaism
By JONATHAN RIEDER
For the Hell of It
Back in 1967, when Abbie Hoffman and his band of Yippie pranksters applied for a permit to levitate the Pentagon, the official allowed only a modest 10-foot rise. No wonder so many people cannot get a fix on the 60's: the sheer volume of silliness at large makes the decade an easy mark for satire. For middle-aging moms and dads whose drug of choice now is Rogaine, nostalgia for a time of intensity is an obvious temptation. Meanwhile, the right has hysterically transmuted the decade into ''the fall.'' Actually, the 60's were already slipping into the delusional realm as they unfolded, when college students were nervy enough to sit around arguing whether to assign the lead role in the imminent revolution to blacks, hippies, ''the workers'' -- or themselves.
Despite the author's partisan zeal and some lapses into romance, ''For the Hell of It,'' Jonah Raskin's biography of Abbie Hoffman, pleases precisely because it does not evade the ambiguities of that wild time. For a cynical age, Mr. Raskin evokes some of its innocent pleasures: great rock-and-roll, movements against injustice, exuberant sex. Hoffman was less a cause of these things than their maniacal publicist, from his work with Friends of S.N.C.C. through his madcap antics to his critique of a work- and money-obsessed culture in books like ''Revolution for the Hell of It'' and ''Woodstock Nation.'' In grasping the discontents of middle-class life, Hoffman was on to something that no embarrassed rereading of Alan Watts, R. D. Laing and Norman O. Brown can fully dispel.
One would not have expected Mr. Raskin, the chairman of the communications studies department at Sonoma State University, to tell this story in such a basically unsentimental fashion. He himself got caught up in the enthusiasms of the time. In the 60's, he was a socialist of the straight, academic sort, but the Dionysian spirit of the counterculture beckoned. Before long, he was a courier for the Weather Underground, minister of education for the Youth International Party and Hoffman's comrade in adventure. At times Mr. Raskin is a bit breathless about Abbie as ''the quintessential spirit of the 60's.'' (Not Martin Luther King Jr.? Robert F. Kennedy? George Wallace?) He inflates the importance of the counterculture. And he never fully conveys the complex relations among the political left, the counterculture, liberalism and Middle America. Hoffman was all too often a fabulist and confidence man, but Mr. Raskin occasionally portrays him as a grand historical personage: here he is consulting Camus, synthesizing Marcuse, mulling Maslow. As egotistical as Hoffman was, even he might have balked at this self-serious portrait.
Still, the thicket of information about Hoffman's life and milieu more than compensates for what the book lacks in analytic ambitions. In the process, Mr. Raskin provides not just a finely detailed story about an engaging, if flawed, character but the valuable materials for larger lessons.
Hoffman was a Groucho Marxist -- wasn't that one of his own lines? His most famous spectacle, during the conspiracy trial for inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, was his most spectacular, before he went underground in 1974 after being arrested for cocaine dealing. Hoffman wreaked havoc on the rules of procedure. He told the court that Hoffman was his ''slave name''; Shapoznikoff (the family name of his grandparents) was his ''real name.'' He needled the judge, unfortunately named (Julius) Hoffman, mercilessly, sometimes in Yiddish to boot.
Running amok was always Hoffman's forte, and in doing so he owed less to the high theories of Antonin Artaud than to a low tradition of Jewish dadaism whose brilliant warriors -- not just the Marx Brothers and Lenny Bruce but also Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks -- were determined to overturn middle-class rationality. Hoffman remained that cocky, charming, wisecracking bad boy in the back row in homeroom. He never quite stopped manipulating his rowdy persona, which gave him a certain dangerous-sexy cachet during his student days at Brandeis College, where he paraded about campus in a disreputable leather jacket whose rips hinted at knife fights past. None of this was artless. Early on, Hoffman was a restless conjurer of images, mainly of himself.
In Hoffman's case, the political often was personal. There was a manic quality (in a clinical sense, it turns out) to his overspilling charm. Mr. Raskin shows that his taunting of authorities, like his charged battle against Judge Hoffman, fused with his struggle against his overbearing father: ''When he urged kids to dismantle the 'parent culture,' burn down their parents' homes . . . and 'kill parents,' he was magnifying and projecting the anger that had its origins in his own turbulent boyhood.'' Born in 1936, Hoffman was a product of lower-middle-class Worcester, Mass.; his father beat him but could never still his defiant resolve. Despite a brief stint as the dutiful bar mitzvah boy, he became a teen-age rebel with an immense hunger for attention; he managed to get thrown out of school, to steal cars, to rumble with gangs, to flee to the poolroom. He was, in his own rendering, ''the ultimate in Jewish nightmares.'' However much it jibed with the culture of celebrity (on which Hoffman was always parasitic), his unbounded narcissism had other consequences. Mr. Raskin writes, ''I wasn't sure when he was acting, when he was for real and when he was acting for real.'' Most likely Hoffman couldn't tell either. He was a liar who told tall tales of his civil rights escapades in Mississippi. Despite hippie talk of love, Hoffman had a determined incapacity for intimacy: he neglected his three children and emotionally starved his lovers and wives.
Until his suicide in 1989, while fighting the demon of manic depression, Hoffman remained unreconstructed: ''I regret nothing. We ended legal segregation. . . . We ended the idea that you can send a million soldiers 10,000 miles away to fight in a war that people do not support. We ended the idea that women are second-class citizens.'' The hubris of this ''we'' not only blurred distinctions; it was also a free ride on the labor of others. The civil rights movement's sense of drama was grounded not in playful ironies but in moral seriousness and sustained organizing. Hoffman's theatrics, like the counterculture more generally, could not take credit for the advances he claimed. Whatever the joys of preaching ''kick out the jams,'' of painting obscenities on your forehead or of getting wrecked on drugs, none of this was politics, all manifestoes aside. But then Hoffman had already begun to suspect this, and more, even before the 60's ended. The violent anxieties he and the others were churning up in Middle America -- to what end? -- helped fuel the backlash of Wallace and Agnew and Nixon. The moral irresponsibility of Hoffman and others was immense in this larger sense, but more concretely too. In Chicago, he really did conspire, at least to put innocents and the movement at risk. In the end, Hoffman never had the guts or insight to admit what Carl Oglesby, a former S.D.S. leader quoted by Mr. Raskin, did 20 years later: Chicago in 1968 had been ''horrifying,'' a fatal error in which the left made itself, not the war in Vietnam, the focus of public debate.
Ultimately, ''For the Hell of It'' chronicles, perhaps unwittingly, the self-destructive implosion of both the ascetic and ecstatic wings of the New Left. The early spirit of humanistic dissent gave way to nihilistic bravado, hatred of the United States and its traditions, a relentless Leninism with variously shifting vanguards -- worker, psychedelic, rock-and-roll, minority and student -- all of which had given up on the people. One should not overstate the case; the provocations on the right were great. The endless war and the forces of mean reaction and shameful racism all had something to do with this radicalizing turn. But something else emerges from Mr. Raskin's telling: the New Left also has much to answer for, less to the right, which flourished on its excesses, than to the democratic and liberal left, whose promise it betrayed.
Jonathan Rieder, the chairman of the sociology department at Barnard College, is co-editor of Common Quest: The Magazine of Black-Jewish Relations.
© 2012 Jonah Raskin