Swans Commentary » swans.com June 2, 2008  



Special Convention Fever Issue -- Chicago '68


Whatever Became Of What's-His-Name, The Radical?
Reflections on Rennie Davis, Jerry Rubin, and Abbie Hoffman


by Louis Proyect





(Swans - June 2, 2008)   As a veteran of the American Trotskyist movement, I have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward the Chicago 7 (originally the Chicago 8 until Black Panther Bobby Seale's case was separated from the others). In the late 1960s, there were very sharp differences over strategy and tactics in the antiwar movement pitting the mass demonstration approach of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) against the Debordian spectacle politics of Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and their allies in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Now, forty years after the event, my feelings remain ambivalent even if I no longer have any identification with the SWP. For what they are worth, here are my impressions of the political and personal trajectories of some of the defendants in the Chicago 7 trial, most of whom were my contemporaries.

Perhaps nothing illustrated the self-defeating approach of three of the defendants -- Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Dave Dellinger (who was twenty years older than Hoffman and Rubin) -- than their role at an April 5th, 1969, protest in New York, when the antiwar movement had begun to recruit active duty GIs to the cause. The coalition had invited Dellinger to speak about the Chicago defendants.

During the march, a group of "Crazies," an obscure confrontationist split-off from Rubin and Hoffman's Yippies that some suspected of being agents provocateurs, carried the butchered heads of pigs on a spike with which they taunted cops along the parade route. The march itself was so massive that the Crazies were hardly noticed, except by the cops.

The march terminated with a rally, including a contingent of active-duty GIs at the front of the speakers stand. You have to remember that these soldiers were risking victimization just for being there. During Dellinger's speech, he invited Rubin and Hoffman to the stage and turned over the microphone to them even though the coalition had voted against having them speak. Keep in mind that Rubin and Hoffman had developed an extremely hostile attitude toward mass protests that they thought lacked "balls." Both of them had a macho attitude toward politics that would soon be rendered obsolete by the women's liberation movement. When they debated SWP leader Fred Halstead at SWP headquarters in New York over directions for the antiwar movement, they were accompanied by several women wearing what amounted to Playboy Bunny outfits.

As soon as Rubin and Hoffman took the mike, they began to urge the Crazies and the crowd to attack the few cops that were lined up nearby. The GIs were positioned between the Crazies and the cops and were in danger of being caught up in any violence that ensued. Fortunately, Rubin and Hoffman's harangues fell on deaf ears.

I soldiered on in the Socialist Workers Party until 1978 when I was effectively purged from this sect. I am not sure that my efforts were of all that much use in changing American society, but feel somewhat vindicated for having withstood the kind of pressures that would eventually disorient Jerry Rubin and Rennie Davis, a former SDS leader who shared Hoffman and Rubin's politics but without their flamboyance.

Even as the war in Vietnam still raged, Rennie Davis became an acolyte of Guru Maharaj Ji, the 16-year-old leader of the Divine Light Mission. In November 1973, the Mission organized "Millennium '73," a three-day event at the Houston Astrodome, which they advertised as "the most significant event in human history." For those still consumed with the need to push for an end to the war in Vietnam, it promised "a thousand years of peace for people who want peace." In other words, peace could come to the world when individuals found inner peace.

Nowadays, Davis describes himself as a "venture capitalist" and continues to urge suffering humanity to discover inner peace. An interview with Davis in Forbes magazine described him as a "financial adviser to various CEOs and senior executives from major companies, including Gates Rubber Company, the Manville Corp., HBO, and IBM." He told the magazine:

To me, money is...a psychological construct. One of the great discoveries occurring in the present time involves recent discoveries in physics about the thought-reactive nature of this world. It turns out our entire reality is a psychological construct, and all our experiences, including those involving money, are coming from ourselves. How you feel about wealth and money -- your own perceptions about your own abundance -- shape your experiences of money.

Money as a psychological construct? Maybe somebody should communicate that to the millions of Americans facing foreclosure right now. Nowadays Davis presides over the Foundation for a New Humanity, whose Web site bills it as providing "longevity and regeneration resources and other tools that may assist you to be the change you seek for the world." One of those resources is a peace crystal that is advertised in their online store:

The Magical Pendant To Give Peace A Chance

Peace Crystal Imprinting: A unique technology infuses a range of extraordinary peace frequencies into an elegant crystal matrix. The Peace Crystal can broadcast to the world the internal experience of Peace when the broadcast mode is turned on. The peace frequency is turned on by the mind of the owner in three distinctive bands:

One million frequency

Five million frequency

Ten million frequency

No, this is not satire.

Rubin's trajectory was similar, but he eschewed the spiritual mumbo-jumbo and went directly to the money. When Rubin was deep into his Yippie politics, he made a statement directed against people like me:

What would happen if the white ideological Left took power? The hippie streets would be the first cleaned up by the "socialist" pigs. We'd be forced to get haircuts and shaves every week. We'd have to bathe every night, and we'd go to jail for saying dirty words. Sex, except to produce children for the revolution, would be illegal. Psychedelic drugs would be capital crimes and beer drinking mandatory. Rock dancing would be taboo, and mini-skirts, Hollywood movies and comic books illegal.

To start with, I wouldn't have minded if the SWP took power and cleaned up some hippie streets if that was the price that had to be paid for dismantling the military machine and providing health care, education, and housing like Cuba. I am also not sure why mandatory beer drinking is so bad. Not only is a beer a day good for your heart, it also does not fry your brain like LSD. Unfortunately, sects like the SWP were never capable of abusing power in this fashion since their ideological purity and organizational narrow-mindedness prevented them from reaching the masses.

Ever since I left the SWP in 1978, I have been trying to figure out how socialists can get a hearing. To a large extent, I have learned that the Green Party was a vehicle for getting out such a message, even as the misleaders of this once promising formation have done everything they can to corral the masses into voting for Democrats.

Rubin eventually figured out that being a "yippie" was a waste of time, when it was so much more profitable to be a "yuppie." In the 1980s he went on a debating tour with Abbie Hoffman billed as "Yippie versus Yuppie." On July 30, 1980, Rubin wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times titled "Guess Who's Coming to Wall Street," defending his decision to go to work for John Muir and Company, an investment firm that would be sued by clients a year later for shady dealings. He summed up the changes of the past two decades this way:

Politics and rebellion distinguished the '60s. The search for self characterized the '70s. Money and financial interest will capture the passion of the '80s.

Somehow these changes were lost on me as I plodded on trying to keep the spirit of the 1960s alive. If Rennie Davis had pursued a search for self and Jerry Rubin one for the almighty dollar, I kept on in my quixotic quest for human emancipation from capitalist domination.

In the early 1980s, Rubin sponsored networking cocktail parties for "yuppies" that I attended once or twice out of curiosity. I could not resist confronting Rubin and challenged him about becoming the kind of character he railed about in the 1960s. He smiled blandly at me and moved on. For somebody with such a gift of gab, there was not much he could say.

On November 14, 1994, Rubin was hit by a car in Los Angeles, California, and died 14 days later, never having regained consciousness.

Whenever I used to visit an old friend named Laura at her loft in Manhattan in the early 1970s, she used to lecture me how effective Abbie Hoffman was. This meant getting his name and face in Time Magazine, a knack that we Trotskyists certainly lacked.

Whatever ambivalence I felt toward Hoffman, I always found him more appealing as a personality than Davis or Rubin. It helped that he had a sense of humor as can be gleaned from the video that my friend Laura made of him preparing gefilte fish at the Chelsea Hotel in 1973.

Later that year, Hoffman was busted for dealing cocaine and went on the lam for several years after skipping bail. When he resurfaced in 1980, he was known to the world as Barry Freed, an environmental activist involved with the movement to stop pollution on the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York. Unlike Davis and Rubin, the 1960s always remained relevant to Hoffman.

In the late 1980s, he was involved with defending the Sandinista government in Nicaragua against American attempts to overthrow it, a project that I was involved with as well. In November 1986 he and fourteen others were arrested for trespassing at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in a protest against CIA recruitment on campus. During the trial, Hoffman acted as his own attorney and appealed to American traditions of civil disobedience and quoted Thomas Paine: "Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations which preceded it. Man has no property in man, neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow." The jury found Hoffman and the other defendants not guilty on April 15, 1987.

Two years later, Hoffman committed suicide at the age of 52, caused by swallowing 150 Phenobarbital tablets. He had been suffering from bipolar disorder most of his life. One can perhaps speculate on whether the terrible toll that Reaganism was having on the people of Nicaragua and the U.S. might have deepened the depression that he was organically subject to.

History will judge him as having fought the good fight all his life. As I look back at the lives and careers of men like Rennie Davis, Jerry Rubin, and Abbie Hoffman, I cannot help but think of the corrosive power of American capitalism. It disoriented all of them in one way or another. In some ways, it is the power of the system to get inside peoples' heads that is even more difficult to resist than the outright threats of repression present at the Chicago 7 trial. As the capitalist system continues to undermine the kinds of illusions that led Rennie Davis and Jerry Rubin into careers as new age shysters and investment hustlers, it will simultaneously inspire a new generation of fighters like Abbie Hoffman who for all his foibles knew who the enemy was.


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About the Author

Louis Proyect on Swans (with bio).



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This Edition's Internal Links

The Democratic Convention -- Chicago 1968 - Art Shay

Art Shay's Traces Of A Bygone America - Karen Moller

Big Dumpling's Shock And Awe: Mayor Daley's Chicago - Peter Byrne

The Chicago Conspiracy - Irving Wardle

Expats' Chicago: London, 1968 - Charles Marowitz

Three Memories of Chicago 1968 - Michael Doliner

My Mere View Of The Year 1968 - Carol Warner Christen

Norman Mailer, A Noncombatant At The Siege - Peter Byrne

Fragments Of 1968 - Pier Paolo Pasolini (translated by Guido Monte)

Exercises In Nostalgia -- 1968 - Gilles d'Aymery

Then, Now, And Tomorrow - Martin Murie

Letters to the Editor

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Published June 2, 2008