I really didn’t get a feel for Mario Savio, the leader of the University of California’s celebrated Free Speech Movement, during the 1964 struggle. The FSM barely started before I got tossed into the state penitentiary for my activities in it. But I got out of prison in 1968. I joined the Peace & Freedom Party, then a broad left grouping. It gathered enough signatures to get on California’s ballot. Mario wanted to run for office & appeared at a March party candidates’ meeting.
I asked the hopefuls if they were socialists, & whether they thought P&F should call itself socialist. I don’t recall what he said that night. But a week later, at the party convention, Mario handed me his proposed party statement of principles: “Here Lenny. If this is socialism, then I’m a socialist.”
It was co-authored, but the 2 paragraphs below were Mario’s:
“The fundamental decisions which affect people’s lives are economic decisions. The people have power over their economy only when they can make it work to fulfill their needs. But today in America the public institutions of government, by which the people might exercise such power, are the willing servants of an industrial state which, operating through millions of functionaries who are “only doing their jobs,” manages the economy and thereby the lives of the ordinary people in the interests of expanding profit and continued national and world-wide domination.
The main task of the Peace and Freedom Movement is to organize people to begin to gain real and concrete power over the institutions which control their everyday lives. One important way to accomplish this is to project into the electoral arena the voices of people fighting for human dignity, to make it clear that the demand for human dignity is at root a demand for power — and that the people will have this power only when we all can democratically assure that our economy works to fulfill human needs rather than to increase the power and profit of a small minority. The function of Peace and Freedom candidates is to act as the tribunes of Americans who have begun to fight back.”
Well & good. Except that his sweet, chewy words didn’t mention socialism or capitalism. He didn’t understand that the question I asked was 1 that friends & foes would legitimately ask, expecting a clear answer. What Mario was naively trying to tell me was ‘yes. I’m a socialist. But the people aren’t ready for socialism. So I’m sugar-coating it with more acceptable words about democracy.’
People acquire their initial notion of politics from the society around them. In America, politics is summed up by the saying ‘it may be a crooked crap game, but its the only game in town.’ For liberals, principles aren’t things to fight for. They are to be traded. ‘I’ll give up my principles on such & such, & vote your way. In return, you give up your principles on this & that, & vote my way.’ The assumption is that the people aren’t ready for an intelligent program. That will only isolate you. Therefore you must spoon feed ideas to voters, a little at a time.
When you operate with that mentality, you end up with what Mario gave me: “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,” as Macbeth said, “signifying nothing.” People reasonably ask a new party what society will look like if it comes to power. ‘Will the company I work for still be in business? Who will own it? What happens to my pension rights with it?’ If your answer is only that society will be more democratic, you haven’t answered their questions. Worse yet, they will think that either you haven’t any answers, or that you don’t have, as someone said, “the convictions of your courage.”
The classic name for Mario’s type of politics is C. Wright Mills’ “crackpot realism.” Mario’s program was approved by the party, which fell apart after the election in November, as I knew it would. It stayed on the ballot in California for decades. But everyone there knew it was a paper organization, a legal fossil. It recently recertified for the ballot.
I dismissed Mario as a fool. I abandoned P&F shortly after, & didn’t think about him again until 1984. Brad Cleaveland, an FSM leader, put us together. We met in San Francisco, at the UC medical center, & Mario told me his tale. After the FSM, he
“had a child who was born with neurological damage. It freaked me out and eventually I had to be institutionalized. I’ve recovered, and I’m busy studying physics. But I now know that I just have no head for politics. However, since I’m so well known for the FSM, I feel that I have a special obligation not to completely drop out. I accept one or two speaking engagements a year, just so that I won’t demoralize people by dropping out. But I really mean it when I say I don’t understand politics.”
At some point, he had decided to join a ‘left Zionist’ Kibbutz. They told him that they had to reject him. If he was Jewish, they would take him, & assume the expense of taking care of his kid. But experience with gentile enthusiasts had taught them that many came & went. The kibbuts didn’t feel that it could justify the money to their members. He didn’t tell this to denounce them. He told it to me, an anti-Zionist scholar, as an example of his political naivité, that he couldn’t tell a hawk from a handsaw.
In fact, he was too hard on himself. He wasn’t unique. Stokely Carmichael was 2nd only to Martin Luther King in importance during the Black civil rights struggle. Yet the great anti-Zionist told me of his singing Zionist songs, in Hebrew, as a student at Bronx High School of Science. He learned them from white Communists & Socialists. In 1948, Fidel Castro took part in demonstrations demanding that Cuba back creation of the Zionist state.
If I get around to writing my memoir, it will be called ‘The world’s Grouchi est Marxist.’ However, when someone goes through Mario’s suffering, then studies physics — when I can’t do elementary algebra — &then says he doesn’t have a head for politics, he gets all my affection. He was all of 21 when he led the FSM, all of 25 when he came up with that cock & bull program. When we met again in 1984, he was 41. Life taught him how much he didn’t know. He understood that he would never again be a leader. So he succeeded in becoming profoundly modest.
Nowadays, with tens of millions escaping from the Catholic church, we need an ex-Catholic saints calender. Mario would surely be on it.
LENNI BRENNER is the editor of 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis and a contributor to The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He is presently editing Jefferson & Madison on Separation of Church and State: Writings on Religion and Secularism. It will be published by Barricade Books in late October. He can be reached at BrennerL21@aol.com.
FSM @ 40: Free Speech in a Dangerous Time.
A public celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, Oct. 4 to Oct. 10, at UC Berkeley.
The program of 42 events honors the past and focuses on current controversies, presenting the broadest teach-in on civil liberties issues yet in the nation.
A noon panel on Thursday, 10/7, will feature Alex Cockburn, LENNI BRENNER, Jack Heyman, and Michael Rossman on the FSM’s lessons for today.
Atop a police car, symbolic of the police car there, 40 years ago, Tony Serra and ACLUers will dissect the Patriot Act before the main noon rally in Sproul Plaza, on Friday, 10/8.
Besides veterans of the FSM, speakers at various events will include Molly Ivins, Howard Dean, Gavin Newsom, Serra, Jackie Goldberg, the Erowids, leading representatives of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU, MOVE ON, and much more.
See http://www.fsm-a.org/ for details.