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  • Freedom's Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s
  • Blake Slonecker
Freedom's Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s Robert Cohen New York: Oxford University Press, 2009; 512 pages. $34.95, ISBN 9780195182934

When Mario Savio first encountered Marx's maxim, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs," he was struck not by its radical economic implications, but by how easily the line might have been culled from Christ's Sermon on the Mount. For a man who never embraced Marxism and who spent much of his adult life rejecting his childhood Catholicism, Savio's entwinement of Marx and Christ is surprising. But it is precisely that pastiche of disparate ideologies that formed Savio's independent radicalism.

Savio's aversion to dogmatism—whether religious or secular—forms the dominant theme of Robert Cohen's exhaustive biography of the avatar of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement (FSM). Sandwiching a lengthy treatment of the FSM between shorter sections about Savio's pre-1964 radicalization and post-1965 struggles, Freedom's Orator filters the FSM through Savio's "passionate yet logical, accessible, democratic, and at times poetic oratory" (3). Cohen reveals a man who reluctantly accepted fame because it promised to empower others. Although Freedom's Orator belongs on a short shelf of essential FSM histories, Savio's later obscurity disarms Cohen's attempt to explore "the radical legacy of the 1960s."

Savio had already been walking the path of radical democracy when the FSM forever changed his life. By 1964, he had developed a "secularized liberation theology" influenced by the Catholic left, assisted the poor in Taxco, Mexico, and participated in Oakland's Sheraton Palace sit-in (6). Savio's experience as a Freedom Summer volunteer in Mississippi only reinforced his inchoate belief in the power of community organizing and nonviolent civil disobedience. Also in Mississippi, Bob Moses provided Savio with a leadership model that highlighted moral action and community empowerment.

Savio enlisted those forces when he returned to Berkeley and discovered that the University of California administration had eliminated the free speech area on the Bancroft strip. Because the FSM hinged on constitutional liberties, the movement matched Savio's distinctive intellect. Savio studied physics, read philosophy, understood American intellectual history, and maintained [End Page 142] an eclectic religious literacy. Such influences were sometimes explicit—he waxed poetic about Herodotus from atop a police car. But more oft en his intellectual undergirding remained implicit. Observers have identified hints of Thoreau, Whitman, Gandhi, Tolstoy, Chaplin, King, Marcuse, Mills, and Camus in his legendary "Bodies Upon the Gears" speech, despite Savio mentioning none of them (179). But Cohen argues that intellectualism always remained secondary to Savio, who aspired to an egalitarian relationship with the audience.

Such "hyperdemocracy" represented Savio's political ideal, which became especially apparent at the nadir of FSM protest. When Savio stepped to the microphone near Sproul Hall midway through that chaotic autumn, FSM leaders remained divided about the wisdom of a planned sit-in. With police descending on campus, Savio and other FSM leaders debated the merits of the sit-in before a confused crowd. Drawing on the Freedom Summer leadership of Bob Moses, Savio saw honest debate as the only moral method of confronting students with the violent implications of a police bust. That sit-in failed, but it represented the democratic apex of a wildly successful movement.

Nevertheless, the FSM became entwined with the identity of its leader. That fact roiled Savio, who shrank from such attention and worried that his publicity distracted from the FSM's democratic reality. The consequences of fame partially accounted for Savio's descent from FSM leadership and lack of activism after 1965. But Cohen—like Savio himself—struggles to explain these developments. As early as 1965, Cohen indicates, Savio became "uncomfortable with the ‘abstract quality' of the movement's increasingly Marxified discourse" (244). The specter of fringe Marxist-inspired violence looms over Cohen's final chapters. But Savio's worries about Marxist dogma shrouded the fact that widespread Marxist radicalization remained at least two years away. That makes Savio's descent from New Left leadership even more baffling...


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pp. 142-144
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