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"live This Book" A Primer For Activists

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"Live This Book" A Primer for Activists

by Eric Jackson

"Live This Book: Abbie Hoffman's Philosophy for a Free and Green America," by Theodore L. Becker and Anthony L. Dodson, The Noble Press, Chicago 1991, 117 pages. Available in paperback for $8.98.

In this short book, a graduate student and a professor assess the late Abbie Hoffman's legacy as a political philosopher. The authors quote extensively from the prodigious writings of Hoffman's political lifetime, and highlight main points with enlarged bold "teasers." They largely avoid the jargon of academic political scientists and philosophers, and of the American left, in favor of prose that "uninitiated" readers will understand. Though this book lacks the extensive graphics of Abbie's works, the late activist would have approved of its easily readable style.

Hoffman is principally analyzed in the context of American political thought. The authors compare him as a social satirist with Mark Twain, Will Rogers and Charlie Chaplin. As a defense of individual liberty and responsibility, Hoffman's thinking is put into an American current which includes the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and John Dewey, but it is distinguished as a leftist, communal philosophy. Abbie Hoffman's unique contributions as a political strategist and media manipulator are explored, as is the "green" side of his politics.

This work makes a good companion piece to Hoffman's early 1980s autobiographical "Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture," which is also an important book, or the recent posthumous "Best of Abbie Hoffman" anthology. Why? Because Abbie Hoffman was one of the most effective leftist activists of his time and place, and the best answers to the question "What is to be done?" come from home-grown experience and the ideas that flow from it. For the young American radical trying to orient his or her world view, "Live This Book" and Abbie's autobiography are more useful than any rehash of another country's revolution.

That, of course, is disputed. I remember a Maoist sneering at Abbie (at a Michigan speaking engagement in 1970) that "our revolution isn't for the hell of it." (This was a disparaging reference to the title of Abbie's book "Revolution For The Heil Of It," which federal prosecutors were then using to "prove" a criminal intent to riot at the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention.) Abbie's sober response dealt with how to move American society, exposing the weaknesses of imported dogmas and their dour cultist proponents, and the strengths of our own society's radical traditions. A few days later, when Abbie was found guilty on riot charges, his supporters fought in the streets, and the same Maoist denounced them for doing so. A few weeks later, when Nixon invaded Cambodia, Abbie and the Yippies mobilized far more people for militant demonstrations than more orthodox leftists could muster.

These experiences are especially relevant today, when after the collapse of the Soviet bloc American leftists are reassessing their politics, and some are urging new orthodoxies that pay more attention to what Mao said, or Trotsky said, or what Stalin did or did not do. As "Live This Book" reminds us, Abbie said: "The cultism of the left often appears as three people, two of whom plot to kick the third out... Deviate from the manners or the vocabulary of the party line and out you go. That's sick to me and self-defeating."

Abbie Hoffman, a legendary wit, was often dismissed as less than serious. Yet before he was the "clown prince of the Yippies," he was a civil rights worker, and afterwards he was a sophisticated environmental activist. This book approvingly quotes Abbie on the subject "There's no incongruity in conducting serious business and having fun." Leave it to both leftist dogmatists and those who hold power in society to criticize Abbie's theory that politics is like chicken soup, in that if it isn't stirred up, a greasy scum rises to the top. The rest of us can appreciate important truth effectively presented. "Live This Book" explores the utility of such wit.

Becker and Dodson explain changes that Abbie Hoffman underwent (particularly about feminism) and some of the limits and contradictions of his politics. They identify those of Hoffman's ideas which they consider key for activism of the 1990s, particularly for the green movement. As a concise summary of the philosophy of one of the major American dissidents of our time, "Live This Book" is a "must read" for activists fighting on many different fronts. 


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