Steal This Book Review

Steal This Book, by Abbie Hoffman. Pirate Editions/Grove Press. 1971

If you are looking for an in-depth collection of arguments about the evils of the current system, this is not the book you are looking for. In fact it assumes in the intro that readers have already reached their ideological conclusions and are prepared to act on them. Instead, Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book is a sort of survival guide for young radicals in the post-sixties era. Its content could have easily doubled as both a Boy Scout Handbook for young rebels trying to fight the system, and for petty thieves and con artist looking to cop as much free loot as possible. Indeed, Hoffman makes it clear that he envisions substantial overlap between these categories. In Steal This Book, Hoffman shares strategies for such activities as ripping off restaurants, banks, airlines and grocery stores, as well buying illegal drugs, making bombs, arming oneself, and setting up underground newspapers and radio stations.

While Hoffman instructs readers to try his suggestions themselves, much of the advice given here has become obsolete since the book’s release in 1971. While advanced security measures have made a lot of the petty theft more risky, the internet has completely changed the game for things like underground communication and movement building. As such, the book lends itself to being more of a historical interest piece, or fuel for New Left nostalgia, rather than an modern activist’s guide. Ironically, Hoffman, if he were alive, would probably be pleased to know that the internet has made “stealing” (or more accurately copying) this book easier than ever before.

Abbie Hoffman was a founding member of a the Youth International Party, also known as the Yippies, which were a radical counter cultural New Left movement known for their use of street theater and political pranks. Prior to this, Hoffman was involved in the civil rights movement as part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, as well as the free-speech movement and opposition to the Vietnam war. He was convicted of conspiring to start a riot through anti-war protests at the 1968 Democratic convention as part of the Chicago Eight, though his conviction was overturned on appeal.

Hoffman spent much of the seventies in hiding, after being charged with intent to sell a suitcase full of cocaine (which he maintained was planted in his office by police). He returned to visibility in the 1980s, when he became a vocal critic of the CIA and one of the biggest promoters of the “October Surprise,” which alleged members of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign team plotted with the Iranian government to delay the release of the American hostages until after the election.  Hoffman’s death in 1989 was ruled a suicide.

Steal This Book was written primarily by Hoffman in 1970 while he was serving time in jail. He notes that he worked with multiple collaborators and that he and others he knows have tested the advice he provides in the book first-hand. Hoffman also notes that the book was rejected by numerous publishers despite its potential for commercial success, and blames intelligence community intervention for this. As noted above, Hoffman spends very little time in Steal This Book exploring the justifications for the actions he advocates, but instead assumes the reader is “ideologically set” to take the types of actions he outlines.

He describes his readers as part of a new nation, which he sometimes refers to as the “Woodstock Nation” which he sees in opposition to “The Pig Empire” or “Amerika” which he describes as the prevailing system of “corporate feudalism.” Hoffman unambiguously presents big government and big business as being partners in crime, which is a refreshing alternative the overly common assumption, found among the mainstream right, that the two are somehow antagonistic forces. The book was written during the era of the Cold War, post-war Keynesianism, the Vietnam War, an increasingly visible military industrial complex, and government suppression of civil rights and anti-war groups through covert (and often illegal) COINTELPRO tactics. In such an environment, it would be easy to feel that the state, big business and law enforcement all serve the same malicious establishment.

Granting this assumption, Hoffman declares that it is not only moral to steal from the “Pig Empire,” but immoral not to do so.  He advises that stealing from a sympathetic “Brother and Sister” is evil, thereby setting up the basic moral code of the book, which Hoffman summarizes “Community within our Nation, chaos in theirs.” He also notes that this book can be used as proof of the violent nature of his movement, but states that he does not feel laws created to serve elites should be followed. That said Hoffman makes it clear that he does not want his readers to martyr themselves for the cause, and fittingly he titles the first section of the book “Survive.”

In this section, Hoffman spells out ways to live largely for free. Here many left-libertarian readers will part with Hoffman, as his advocacy does not focus so much on building a self-sufficient alternative system in the shell of the old, but on living by stealing from the old system. The fact his advocates stealing from (or simply using) the Welfare State (and by extension the tax-payers, as well as those who really need the money) is sure to clash with the ideals of some libertarian readers. However such readers may find solace in his advocacy of tax avoidance, stating “it’s not your government, so why submit to its taxation if you feel you do not have representation.”

The same can be said of his advocacy of stealing from grocery stores (which he partially justifies, by claiming that groceries stores widely over-charge their customers, to the extent that theft will not hurt their bottom line). On a similar note he justifies doing the same to major charities, by claiming they pocket 80 percent of the money they raise. He does little to indicate which for-profit business he feels should be targeted, thus one is likely to conclude massive corporate chains and small time Mom and Pop shops are both fair game. Hoffman seems willing to let the reader decide for herself.  However one has note that stealing from petty retailers who are actually giving the corporate behemoths competition is hardly conducive to creating alternatives.

One also has to question the strategic wisdom of much of what Hoffman advocates here, as stealing from people tends to be a good way to alienate them and a bad way of spreading sympathy to one’s cause. This is especially true in the decades since the 1960s in which the generation gap has become less defined and a wider swath of the population is open to anti-establishment ideals. One could even argue that such tactics may not only be needlessly risky, but also play into the establishment’s hands. The undercover agents who infiltrated New Left groups around this time were known to encourage group members to engage in illegal activities that made them vulnerable to both arrest and negative publicity.

That said, Hoffman does provide a great deal of positive advice that is conducive to voluntary cooperation with others. For instance he goes into detail about asking grocery stores, bakeries, and butcher shops for food items that would otherwise be thrown away. Of course, he is not above advocating using dishonesty to do so.  He also gives the positive advice of setting aside funds for emergencies, hosting free community dinners, and he advocates for liberating women from domestic drudgery.

Hoffman goes on to give advice for buying and selling drugs, as well as growing one’s own cannabis. He notes the biggest risk of buying drugs is having one’s money stolen, and notes that one should stay away from such drugs as speed and heroin. He also encourages drug dealers donating money to “bust trusts” which bail out drug users. Additionally, considerable discussion is given to how readers can defend themselves against law enforcement personnel. Hoffman clearly foresees that conflict between demonstrators and the police will be a continued part of life in America.

Hoffman sees fun and leisure as part of the lifestyle he promotes and much of the book consists of advice for those looking to attending or staging free concerts, gamble in Las Vegas cheaply, or getting free pets. He makes the interesting claim that the US Parks Service gives away free elk and buffalo to those who request them. Additionally there is a major emphasis on starting alternative media outlets like radical newspapers (including ones that cater to military bases) and pirate radio stations.

Perhaps the most contentious parts of the book are places where Hoffman advocates politically motivated property destruction, which he terms “trashing.” He favors targets that have a symbolic association with state violence such as “banks, large corporations, especially those that participate heavily in supporting US armed forces, federal buildings, courthouses, police stations and Selective Service centers.” In one section he suggests locking a decaying fish in side a bank deposit box, essentially forcing the bank to shut down. He states that every instance of such destruction should make an obvious political point, and states that “random violence produces random propaganda results.” He also warns not to harm people while doing this, including nightwatchmen and security guards. Indeed, Hoffman advocates using pay phones to warn people ahead of time when buildings are going to be demolished, to avoid deaths and injuries.

This tactic was used in real life by Hoffman’s sympathizers in the Weather Underground, who led a bombing campaign against banks and government buildings to protest American war making. They used warnings to prevent unintended deaths and issued communiques stating what specifically was protested by the act of property destruction. Some readers may remember that these late sixties and early seventies bombings received new attention as recently as 2008, when then-presidential contender Barack Obama’s acquaintance with former Weather Underground member (turned prominent Chicago academic) Bill Ayers was used to paint the former as a radical leftist. In hindsight Obama has unsurprisingly proved to be anything but.

Hoffman presents himself and his sympathizers as being in a war against American imperialism, a war that likely cost Hoffman his life. Hoffman took a no-holds-barred approach to his activism. A book like this opens up much potential for voluntarists to debate what kinds of tactics are in keeping with the goal of making a freer, more just society. In ways Hoffman’s positions parallel Murray Rothbard’s 1969 essay “Confiscation and the Homestead Principle” which argues that government-owned property as well as that owned by government-funded firms ought to be seen as unowned and free to be liberated or homesteaded by those who use them. Rothbard in this case uses General Dynamics, a major military industrial complex firm as an example, placing his market-oriented ideals closer to Hoffman’s far-left than is often assumed.

This book is a fun read, and provides a heavy dose of late 1960’s radicalism.  While many of the tips and tricks it offers are obsolete, it remains an entertaining work that boldly displays the spirit of the era that created it. In the years following its release, the US government discontinued drafting people to fight in Vietnam, taking away one of the New Left’s unifying issues. Also, a series of financial downturns took a heavy toll on much of the free-wheeling spirit of the sixties. Despite this, the influence of  anti-authoritarianism, as well as its opposition to racism, sexism and imperialist adventurism are still strongly felt today. It is quite a book, and I’m glad I stole it.

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