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LIFE

Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman - looking back at a rebel's guide

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 January, 2015, 10:41pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 January, 2015, 11:07am

Steal This Book
by Abbie Hoffman
Pirate Editions

A social activist in the US in the late 1960s, Abbie Hoffman co-founded the Youth International Party - a radical offshoot of countercultural and anti-war movements - in 1967. With street theatre and pranks (the group put forward a pig as a candidate for the presidency in 1968), the "Yippies" were sometimes ridiculed as "Groucho Marxists".

In Steal This Book, Hoffman rages against everything from false advertising and greedy corporations to unscrupulous politicians and uncaring landlords. Nothing wrong there and still relevant, the world over, in 2015. He has, however, also been described as a self-serving media junkie and a distorted, fairground-arcade mirror of the politicised zeitgeist of the times.

Reading his text more than four decades later, it's difficult to ascertain - when Hoffman urges his flower-children followers "to steal from the robber barons who own the castles of capitalism" - what's heartfelt revolutionary zeal, what's tongue-in-cheek mischief-making, and what's downright irresponsible.

The book is divided into three key sections: Survive!, Fight! and Liberate! The first is literally a layman's guide to stealing stuff and includes chapters on how to filch free food, clothing, furniture, transportation, housing, education, medical care and more. Hoffman argues that if a social system is biased and corrupt, it is morally right to undermine that system. Most of his suggestions are obvious (shoplift, cheat, con people into feeling sorry for you and then exploit their sympathy, and so on).

Things get darker in the Fight! section: as well as relatively innocuous tips on how to start an underground magazine, grow cannabis, live in a commune and even obtain a free buffalo from the US Department of the Interior, it also includes advice on how to make bombs. Under the headline "Knife fighting", Hoffman (who refers to the police as "pigs") writes: "Remembering that today's pig is tomorrow's bacon, it's good to know a few handy slicing tips."

Third section Liberate! is essentially a step-by-step guide for freeloaders, a "sort of a quick 'US on no dollars a day'."

Steal This Book was rejected by more than 30 publishers; Hoffman finally set up Pirate Editions to print it. Ironically, he sold more than 250,000 copies in the year of its release. "It's embarrassing," Hoffman said, "when you try to overthrow the government and you wind up on the bestseller's list."