Steal this Book

pub. 1971 Abbie Hoffman
308 pages

At some point in the early 2000s, I stumbled onto a digital copy of Steal this Book and was appropriately scandalized. Because of the unique religious subculture in which I was raised, most of the TV I’d seen had been 1950s comedies, and the music ranged from the Crew Cuts to the Youngbloods and the Rolling Stones — with the curious effect that I admired both the cozy wholesomeness of the one, and the earnest ideals of the other. Nevermind that the hippies and rockers were in rebellion against the squares! It was Abbie Hoffman’s book that split the veil and made me realize how real, raw, and problematic the unrest really was.

Every time I read this book (and I’ve returned to it at least thrice in the last twenty years), I come away liking its author and his message less and less. My most recent, and probably last return to Hoffman, came from my recent encounter with counter-economics: I wanted to revisit Steal this Book to check it for possible connections to countereconomic thought. There are practically none, because Hoffman isn’t trying to drop out of society to do his own thing; instead, he seeks to take from it and offer nothing to it save his ranting condemnation of the people sustaining him. Perhaps a quarter of what Hoffman advocates is tolerable, in offering advice and resources for people wanting to unplug from the rat race and pursue a life of authenticity and value; there’s information on how to eat frugally, for instance, advice on potential hazards in communal living, and so forth. (There’s also a list of addresses to be sent the strangest things for free, like pictures of the Astrodome.) Most of the book, however, advocates self-righteous parasitism and aggression, with tricks used to steal food, clothing, goods alongside the promotion of outright violence (protests attacking people, destruction of property, how to best attack police, skyjacking, etc). Hoffman asserts and assumes the worst of his designated enemies and declares that not stealing, etc. from them is wrong. He has such a contempt for meaningful labor that even drug dealing is too much like work for him. He appears, from his own writings, to be inwardly bankrupt. and contemptible.

There is historical interest in this title, however, from the mood of the years its captures — the enormous unrest of the late sixties and early seventies — and the hints of what’s to come. Hoffman mentions that he’s heard of little machines that can be use with your phone to allow for free calls, but he doesn’t know a source for them. “The Secrets of the Little Blue Box” wouldn’t be published for a few months yet, and phone phreaking was still very covert. Hoffman’s philosophy of life has its quirks; he repeatedly advocates that his followers be armed and know how to shoot responsibly, and urges them to avoid hard drugs like speed and heroin. He’s mostly predictable, though, and at this point it sounds like he’s just throwing out meaningless cliches and rebelling for the sake of it.

This will be first of three titles in a series on the sixties: coming up are two opposing perspectives on the upheaval.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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3 Responses to Steal this Book

  1. Sharon Barrow Wilfong says:

    I wonder if people like Abby Hoffman care about anything other than saying or writing according to the zeitgeist of the time. It’s interesting to me how the rebels against authority of the sixties and seventies are now the ones in authority in politics and also in the universities. The state run U’s have largely blackballed any professor not marching in lockstep to Marxism.
    Now that the rebels are the authority they’ve imposed a cancel culture that doesn’t tolerate any opinion or belief In disagreement with their own. Because, of course, we can’t tolerate intolerance and anything opposing the far left is intolerant, right?

    • I don’t think he did. Ayn Rand had a withering critique of Hoffman’s kind that included a lack of a coherent message arguing concrete facts. In her view, many were protesting simply to do something — with no real explanation for what they wanted.

      The far left is VERY intolerant, and has been from the Leninists forward. Stridency attracts followers…many gravitate toward the strongest opinions, the loudest voices, and at any rate we all love someone to hate.

      • Sharon Barrow Wilfong says:

        I am reading a very interesting book that was published in 1961 by a US correspondent who lived in the Soviet Union in the 50s. Her reports of their media’s anti-American rhetoric was alarming in that today’s anti-American rhetoric by liberals in our own country is exactly the same.

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