Mario Savio, New Leftist? An Exchange [Updated]

Mario Savio, New Leftist? An Exchange [Updated]

To the editor:

Jonah Raskin’s review of my collection of Mario Savio’s speeches and writings from 1964, The Essential Mario Savio, demonstrates that he does not understand even the fundamentals of Savio’s political history. Raskin’s argument that Savio did not support the antiwar movement is absurd. Savio spoke at Berkeley’s massive teach-in against the Vietnam war in May 1965; he was arrested at a sit-in against the Naval ROTC at Cal in 1966; and he ran as an antiwar candidate for the California state legislature on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket.

Raskin seems to forget that LBJ’s major escalation of the war occurred in 1965, while my book on Savio the student activist ends in December 1964. So Raskin is wrong to see Mario’s failure to dwell on Vietnam during Freedom Summer 1964 as some sign of a lack of interest in Vietnam. And Mario, as was true of most Mississppi Freedom Summer volunteers, had his hands full dealing with Jim Crow, the KKK, and the voting rights struggle, and could hardly be expected to focus on foreign policy. Actually, Savio did mention the Tonkin Gulf incident during a speech he gave in the first FSM sit-in on September 30, 1964, and in doing so placed himself ahead of the curve since the war had yet to emerge as a major issue on campus. (SDS’s first mass antiwar march on Washington did not even occur until the spring semester of 1965.)

Readers looking for a corrective to Raskin’s misreading of Savio’s relationship to the antiwar movement can consult Freedom’s Orator—my biography of Savio—or just watch the FSM segment of Mark Kitchell’s documentary film Berkeley in the Sixties. In that film, one FSM veteran recalls that she first learned about the Vietnam war during one of the last FSM rallies, in which Savio explained that students could not end their activism now that they’d won free speech because “we have a war to stop.”

Raskin’s argument that Savio did not consider himself part of the New Left is also wrong. Savio saw himself as having played a role in helping to invent the political discourse of the early New Left. Savio spoke of that role with pride in a 1985 speech he gave on “The Free Speech Movement and the Rhetoric of the Student Movement of the 1960s” at SUNY New Paltz. Yes, he reflected critically on some of the confrontational rhetoric of the late 60s, but so did many other New Left activists.

—Robert Cohen 

Jonah Raskin responds

I am not surprised at Robby Cohen’s heated response to my review-essay on his book. I stand by my comment that “In Mississippi in 1964, [Savio] saw good and evil and ‘the hand of God working in the world.’ Apparently he didn’t see God in the anti-war movement.” I would point out that Savio’s second wife Lynne Hollander Savio explains in the epilogue to The Essential Mario Savio that after the FSM he “withdrew from almost all active political participation” and that he was “uncomfortable with the rhetoric of the Left during the late 1960s and the 1970s.” Lynne’s view accurately reflects Savio’s distance from the New Left and from the radicals who followed him.

The historical and the biographical record both show that the civil rights movement meant more to Savio than the anti-war movement. Vietnam did not prompt the same intense moral fervor that Mississippi did. When I knew Mario in the 1990s—we both taught at Sonoma State University—we talked about the protests of the 1960s and about the Yippies, SDS, and  the anti-war protests. Mario explained to me that he didn’t feel the same kinds of emotional attachments to the anti-war movement that he felt for the civil rights movement. He didn’t, he said, have the vocabulary that he wanted to have, that he would have liked to have had to give his all. Vietnam seemed, he said, geographically remote and also at several removes from his heart. In a public talk that Savio gave at SSU in 1993, he explained that he wanted to “create distance on the historical figure Mario Savio.” In this talk he also said that he “had a real problem moving from the FSM to anti-war action, in part because Vietnam seemed so far away.” I offer this quotation in my essay “Mario Savio’s Second Act,” which Robert Cohen and Reggie Zelnik included in their book The Free Speech Movement: Reflection on Berkeley in the 1960s. One way Mario aimed to distance himself was that he began to call himself Mario E. Savio. It was symbolic and also significant.

Robert Cohen seems to be far too attached—for his own good as a historian—to his emotional connection to Savio and to his investment in an image he has created. I don’t think it helps history to turn Savio into someone he was not. Mario had a sweetness, a vulnerability, and a sense of self-doubt that was rare in the New Left that I knew. His Catholicism shaped him profoundly; he was of the world and yet not of it.

 —Jonah Raskin

UPDATE: Lynne Hollander Savio responds

It is puzzling that Jonah Raskin’s “review” of The Essential Mario Savio and follow-up comments should seek to separate Mario from the anti-Vietnam war movement and from the New Left, with which his name is always, and, in my view, quite rightly associated.

No one would—and no one does—dispute the fact that Mario Savio was more emotionally and more actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement than he was in the movement against the war. He had seen for himself the discrimination against African Americans in the north and the even worse oppression in Mississippi; he had worked, lived with, and been beaten up with African Americans. Perhaps most importantly, the moral purity of the cause and the morality of the tactics being used resonated with his character.

However, it is a distortion of Mario’s positions to suggest that he was not “anti-war” and “anti-imperialism” or that he did not see himself as part of the anti-war movement. In “Beyond the Cold War,” a piece published in the Daily Californian on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the FSM in 1984 (reprinted in Cohen’s Freedom’s Orator), Savio wrote: “The student movement of the 1960s was largely a response of white youth to two great events . . .the burgeoning civil rights movement and . . .the U.S. colonial war in Vietnam,” and went on to describe the lesson of each as the need to end the U.S. devotion to capitalism and its equating of capitalism with democracy.. Mario certainly was, as he describes himself, in one draft of this essay, “only a minor participant . . .a loyal foot-soldier” in the anti-war movement, for a variety of both political and personal reasons. As I wrote in the epilogure to The Essential Mario Savio, “he was tired, he disliked being a celebrity, and was uncomfortable with the rhetoric of the Left during the late 1960s and the 1970s” (which was increasingly ideological, and, in his view, not concerned enough with democratic values). “Perhaps more critically he was beset by health problems and family difficulties and had to struggle to make a living” (emphasis mine). Cohen’s chapter “Descending from Leadership” in Freedom’s Orator has a very full and nuanced discussion of Savio’s political and stylistic differences with the anti-war movement and the radical politics and rhetoric of the late sixties and seventies, as well as of the personal difficulties that affected his participation; Raskin’s account of his conversations with Mario at SSU fullly supports that analysis, rather than contradicting it.

Whether or not Mario ever specifically described himself as part of the New Left is irrelevant; he very frequently, in speeches, writings and conversation, identified himself as part of “the movement,” by which he meant the student activism that started with Greensboro, North Carolina and the anti-HUAC demonstrations in San Francisco in 1960 and spread across the country, in struggles not only for civil rights but also for participatory democracy, free speech, women’s liberation, and, of course, U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Its predominant ongoing national organizations were SNCC and SDS; at Berkeley, SLATE, the campus political party, was the main “New Left” group, uniting students from a broad spectrum of what might now be termed “progressive” groups by advocating political and social causes and activities that all could support. The term “New Left” was popularized by C. Wright Mills in 1960 and used by Tom Hayden in his “Letter to the New (Young) Left” in 1961; its “manifesto” was the Port Huron statement issued by the SDS founding convention of 1962 (and largely written by Hayden). Most of us who considered ourselves part of “the movement” also considered ourselves part of “the New Left”—that is, the non-sectarian, non-ideological, democratic (but anti- “anti-communist”) left that emerged post-1960. The terms were synonymous.

Raskin seems to believe, however, that the New Left only began with the factionalized, sectarian, bitter, and often violent years of the late ‘60s, completely discounting the first half of the decade. But Mario, in several oral histories and in his unpublished memoir, describes how he was drawn to UC Berkeley by reading the pioneering history of Cal’s New Left, Studentthe Political Activity of the Berkeley Students by David Horowitz, which recounts the story of the growth of SLATE , the anti-HUAC protests of 1960, and other dissident political activity at Berkeley in the late Fifties and early Sixties.

In 1967, in a letter from Santa Rita jail, Mario expressed uncertainty about what direction his political activity should take when he resumed it (which he did not do until 1980). He saw the movement fragmenting into ideological groups, on the one hand, and the counterculture on the other, and felt that “neither direction is quite mine.” Speaking at SUNY New Paltz in 1985, on a speaking tour opposing the Contra war, Mario expressed unhappiness with “the rhetoric of opposition and disruption” that was prevalent post-1965, as opposed to “the rhetoric of communication” of the early 1960s, calling it ” less sweet.” But he added, “I mean there is no other way it could be otherwise. It’s an attack. . . .That’s what was needed because the war had to be stopped.” And in 1995, in a draft for his unfinished memoir, Savio wrote that those writing critically about the New Left “should not in retrospect presume to tell us how crazy we were—without also saying who and what made us crazy.” The pronouns are important!

Those interested in Savio’s political development during the last two decades of his life should refer to the speeches and writings in the appendix of Freedom’s Orator, particularly “Their Values and Ours,”a talk delivered at the FSM thirtieth anniversary in 1994, explaining Mario’s difficulties with Marxism and his simultaneous agreement with the expression “Socialism or Barbarism” and urging a more “spiritual” politics that communicated the importance of moral values.

—Lynne Hollander Savio
December 8, 2014