Paul Krassner Is dead. Of course I’m no believer in any after-life, except I like that theory that what we see as “the afterlife” as reported in near-death encounters is our final dream as a proverbial loop, that second between body and brain death. In that case, one imagines Krassner in the midst of wild group sex, smoking the best weed and drinking the best wine, while the best music in the world plays in the background. At 87, he lived an exemplary and humane life, an oddball among oddballs, a mensch and a yenta, a merry prankster with an AK47.
Krassner was in that small cohort of people who constituted the very threadbare, and perhaps never truly consummated encounter between the sixties-and-beyond counterculture and the radical and revolutionary Left. He travelled in every circle, a founding Yippie who never made an ass of himself with the kind of self righteousness of Abbie Hoffman or the zig-zagging yippie-to-yuppie trajectory of Jerry Rubin. It was Krassner’s real-deal hippy wisdom that encouraged some of the Left to nominate a pig for president in 1968. Get it? As Krassner recounts,
Folk singer Phil Ochs observed, “A demonstration should turn you on, not turn you off.” It was the credo of the Yippies. We were in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention, where a certain competitiveness developed between Yippie leaders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.
Abbie bought a pig as a presidential candidate, but Jerry thought Abbie’s pig wasn’t big enough, mean enough, or ugly enough, so Jerry went out and bought a bigger, meaner, uglier pig, which was released outside City Hall. In the elevator inside, a few cops were chanting, “Oink. Oink.”
The obituaries that have already been written on comrade Krassner (he’d probably make fun of me for saying that!) have done a good job in filling in the facts of his life – starting out at Mad Magazine, doing stand-up along with his mentor Lenny Bruce, all the while running an underground abortion referral service. Founded the satirical magazine the Realist published on and off until quite recently, all of its archives are online and accessible. Indeed I would venture to say that there are almost as many words written by Krassner in that voluminous archive than by Karl Marx on the Marxist Internet Archive. So the focus I’d like to take here is more to understand Krassner in his context and how while neither reducible to nor deducible from his context, he acted as a determining figure. His aesthetic, for better more than worse, permeates the best in North American humour and North American radical politics, not to mention our relationships with sexuality, weed and psychedelics.
Without Krassner and Lenny Bruce and their ilk, steeped in the legendary milieu of Mad Magazine, you wouldn’t have Carlin, Pryor and so on. Yet Krassner was, as the obits all note, an activist above all else, the closest modern analogue would perhaps be Boots Riley. He was there fror the folks who needed abortions that he gladly helped with, he was there for queer liberation. He was there for the antiwar movement and the labour movement. He was there for the sex workers he championed – as workers, not objects – in his seventies writing on porn, he was here for the satirists and writers and cartoonists he championed and cultivated. He was the rare sixties male figure to by all accounts have genuinely decent gender politics. While ambiguous about it, it is not unreasonable to assume that he was bisexual especially if one reads his writing on sexuality as such. Yet he was not a “theorist’, he was a jokerman, his art was his profanity.
So you’ve already been told by all the obits that he was a foundational yippie (he coined the term!) and lifelong peace activist who, as the AP notes, never burnt out and never faded away. In a sense Krassner was one of those Jewish guys who was born old, and just grew into his age, the rabbinical wisdom as cultural memory even if like me, he was Deutscherite to the bone. Yet he was someone who, in satire and in political activity, he groped for – meaning. Not God, not New Age woo woo, but meaning, cultivation of sensibilities, Bildung. Nothing under the sun was alien to him. And he found it and helped create it in the abode of the production and consumption of sex, drugs and rock & roll.
Indeed, Krassner was the first person I ever interviewed and wrote about as a 19 year old student journalist. Having recently been on the Prankster bus in a group with Ken Kesey when they showed up at a Phish concert in Buffalo, and even meeting Mountain Girl on the west coast, meeting Krassner was heady stuff for a young guy. I thought it was such a big deal that he was speaking in Montreal that it seemed almost awkward how nearly empty the space was in which he was doing his schtick, along with the inimitable Wavy Gravy. It occurred to me then that I was onto something that was like a forgotten history, and my writing and theoretical work has largely concerned this forgotten history – the politics of counterculture, what I call the missed encounter.
In the standard narrative of the sixties, the truism, if with some complications, that the hippie milieu was intrinsically connected to Left politics, or moreso that both were a manifestation of the spirit of the age has been somewhat eclipsed, even by some on the Left by a narrative that situates them as discrete and often at loggerheads. While there is much to say (I wrote a dissertation on the matter) on the obscurantism of some hippies and the tailism and/or moralism from some of the Left, this friction occurred within a shared common sense and a shared social experience and there is much more than obscurantism and moralism to engage – as seen in the revival of “Acid Communism”. The narrative, as told from some of the more socially conservative segments of the Left, and even some who should know better, is that counterculture militates against radical politics, that it is inherently a statement of life in capitalist society. Yet, as I wrote a few years back in a critique of A. Nagle, “Counterculture and the avant-garde, to be clear, are products of how everyday life is produced and reproduced within class societies in general, and capitalism in particular. This process echoes the system’s combined and uneven development, its constant search for novelty, the constant destruction and creation of capital, and the near universality of uneven and mixed consciousness. To outright deny any political meaning in counterculture or marginal or antinomian types is profoundly un-materialist”.
There certainly was meaning to Krassner’s satire. Whether it was to mock Spiro Agnew’s comments that opponents of the Vietnam war were women, he joked that “Spiro Agnew” could be scrambled to “grow a penis”. When that reactionary Walter Disney died, Krassner, publisher of the legendary radical satire magazine the Realist, conceived and commissioned from his former Mad Magazine colleague Wally Wood what was called the Disneyland Memorial Orgy. Upon first glance it is just a funny scene of a vast meadow of all the Disney icons in a wild orgiastic state. Some just watch, like the the lost Boys, Peter Pan and the enigmatic Stromboli masturbating to the site of Tinkerbell about to do some type of performance alongside none other than Jiminy Cricket. Indeed Pinnochio is watching and his nose grows and grows. And over there, the three little pigs are in a row, joyously fucking each other to the delight of the Big Bad Wolf. Over the brook, the Seven Dwarves dote on the dominant Snow White – at least five of them that is. Doc and Dopey have their own thing going on. Yet Mickey Mouse himself is oblivious, while Pluto gives a great big golden shower to an iconic Mickey portrait. Of course Minnie Mouse is in bed with Goofy, with an audience of Morty and Ferdie.
Likewise Huey, Dewey and Louis are on their own, masturbating to the sight of the dwarf scene while Donald Duck shakes his fist and angrily screams at the sky. This is to say that Disney’s iconic male characters are squares, oblivious fools who can’t even tell where they are. They may be angry at the death of the man who gave them voice, their own Gepetto, but they don’t look mournful. In the distance the Disneyland castle stands, gleaming with beams of dollar bills. Krassner’s spirit had brought the world not merely a pornographic profanation of the bastard Disney, but a dialectical critique. It engaged the telos of the charm of Disney characters by portraying them at the height of glorious fun, celebrating the feudal lord’s boss. The castle over the meadow was empty. What would happen in Disneyland with the death of the Lion King Walter? Mickey and Donald, those petit-bourgeois fucks care, but no one else gives a shit. This was class struggle profanation of the highest degree. And that – class struggle profanation – is the height of Krassner’s warm satire.
Krasner’s Groucho-Marxist revolutionary politics were fundamentally rooted in the profundity of satire, in itself a form of immanent critique, as he pointed out, “Satire has a truth embedded in the laughter and it can serve to wake people up from their cultural brainwashing.” Sometimes a truth had to be wrapped up in a joke, but his jokes were not only understandable by way of decoding, like that of Slavoj Zizek in his more tolerable guises, or the high-level wryness of McSweeny’s. And sometimes reality itself is satire, but then satire moves one step ahead. Krassner’s veneration of satire brings to mind the power of a figure like Chaplin breaking the fourth wall in Great Dictator. He saw a real wisdom in figures like Chaplin, and his close friend Groucho Marx, who he famously introduced to LSD. LSD, mushrooms and pot, the whole old fashioned hippy psychedelic ethos was a very large part of Krassner’s life and output, though that “stoner” cliché is part of how the history of his era is misunderstood by both prevailing narratives of the era.
Cinema often gets it right. In the Coen Brothers’ Big Lebowski, the perpetually stoned Dude was once one of the authors of the Port Huron document (the original one!), there was a politics to Krassner’s beliefs around drugs, not dissimilar to the lumpen-proletarian Lebowski gleefully lighting a J in the Big Lebowski’s office. It was a fuck you, I’m not like Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. It was akin to what Abbie Hoffman, in one of his wiser moments pointed out when he that a lot of the generational difference of the sixties was the eclipsing of “alcoholic culture” by “grass culture”. Krassner seemed to imply that cannabis and psychedelics could bring about an epistemological shift not merely on an individual scale. Yet he was never a huckster or a mystic. The late socialist critic Andrew Kopkind writes of asking a comrade if the revolution would be “like acid”. The comrade replied that the revolution is acid. This is not to say that acid itself was the revolution, rather that the psychedelic experience provided tools with which to see the world in its contradictions and fluidity. Consciousness, the theory went, had to be expanded somewhere, and LSD and a few puffs of grass could help with that. “Feed your head”, as Grace Slick says.
Yet LSD was nothing next to the power of satire, that is to say, in a sense, the power of critique. Krassner could be called the Walter Benjamin of the American counterculture, the lost and rediscovered figure, except there is very little that is tragic about Krassner. Yet there is much to be rediscovered, and with the Realist magazine entirely online, this is a project well worth undertaking. Yet I can almost imagine Paul Krassner saying oy gevalt, you want to get all theoretical here, you’re telling people to read my work by telling them to engage with them. And I’d be a proverbial straight man and say back that this is how I talk, you got a problem with that? What are you doing when you discover someone’s writing, are you not engaging with them? No, he’d say, I’m reading them. Don’t forget to pass by that piece of writing that convinced a nation that Lyndon Johnson fucked JFK’s skull on the plane ride back from Dallas. And of course, don’t forget his assistance on Lenny Bruce’s memoir or his later collaborations with Kesey, Ginsberg, Dick Gregory, Terry Southern, and the whole old weird American counterculture.
Read Paul Krassner. Once in a while you get the shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right. It’s fun stuff. He and his generation remind us of the necessity to keep socialism weird.
Here is a GoFundMe for Krassner’s widow and family. Please help if you can.
Jordy Cummings is an editor at Red Wedge. This is the inaugural entry in Jordy’s blog at the Red Wedge website, Tinpot Beria. Jordy would like to thank the rapscallion hack James Heartfield for the name.