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Why I Am Not a Marxist

by Mario Savio

From the panel "The Current Political Situation", FSM 30th Anniversary proceedings, Dec. 3, 1994.

      [Fiddling with his glasses:] It's kind of hard for me to do. This wasn't a problem thirty years ago. But, you know, I have to look at you, because it's a dialogue; I've got to look at the paper; and it's very difficult to do both at once. Maybe I should get bifocals: then I'll feel even more like Benjamin Franklin.

      The assignment I was given was to talk about "spiritual values." Can you believe it? This is because, I guess, I have two aunts who are nuns. And in Italian Catholic families, there's the person who's chosen to be a priest, and I was going to be a priest. As a matter of fact, I wanted to do that, I realized only recently; I really did want to do it. And in fact the talk will be about that, believe it or not.

      And so I'm going to begin by reading a parable from this book, The Spotted Pony, which is a collection of Hanukkah stories. This is the seventh night (is it the seventh now? -- no, I think it's the seventh -- yes, we celebrate it every year, guys, and we have to count up the presents, so... ). I'd like to read this parable because this parable ties in, I think, with remarks that I want to make, and also sums up so clearly and simply (as Brother Albert Einstein said: make it all as simple as possible, but no simpler) -- it sums up the difference, I think, between their values and ours.

Heaven and Hell

      What is heaven like? In heaven, the righteous sit at a great banquet. The table is set with every imaginable delicacy. People in heaven have but to stretch out their arms to take whatever they desire. However, in heaven people's arms do not bend at the elbow.

      What is hell like? In hell, the wicked sit at a great banquet. The table is set with every imaginable delicacy. People in hell have but to stretch out their arms to take whatever they desire. However, in hell people's arms also do not bend at the elbow.

      So what is the difference between heaven and hell? People in heaven feed each other.


      I think in order to do this -- and this isn't my job. I know what my job has been, all these years. This isn't my job. But I'm going to try to do it anyway. And to do it, I'm going to have to tell you something about my background which I have generally not told people about, because that wasn't my job.

      Okay. I'm not Jewish, I was not from a political family -- no Marxists in my family. My father voted for "the man of the hour," Dwight D. Eisenhower, because he thought that the Democrats had been in power too long. But as good working-class people (and I'm from an Italian working-class family, both sides), my parents did vote, very faithfully, for Franklin Roosevelt, time after time after time, because "He was for the working man." And they voted for him. So that's as political as my family got.

      I take it back. There was one member of my family who was a fascist. I don't mean a fascist like Jesse Helms or like -- no, no, this person had a uniform, and a card. Fascista, real fascista -- it's an Italian word. So there were things in my family some of which, maybe, are best not discussed.

      I went to a Catholic college for a year, Manhattan College, run by the Christian Brothers. I did not read Marx, but I did read, during the year before I came here, those people who most immediately formed my political education and helped me to understand what was going on. I read Thucydides and Plato. And those two people actually made the greatest contribution to my thinking, and helped me do things that I did. Strange. I also, that year, read a lot of physics and a lot of mathematics, and from the physics and mathematics I learned something very important: I learned the difference between evidence and opinion. And that's stood me very much in good stead, and it's an education I commend to people.

      Okay. So how can I sum up, very briefly, the kind of perspective I came to the Movement with those many years ago? Well, I can say it this way: it was secularized liberation theology. That's exactly it. I was the person who was going to be a priest in my family. I was influenced by the ferment in the Church around Second Vatican Council, deeply influenced. And I came to the Movement from a perspective of secularized (because I didn't know whether there were spiritual beings -- God, angels, and so forth) liberation theology.

      I call to your attention, there have been movements, important movements,.that have been very influenced by that perspective. And I in particular call to mind the recent Sandinista foreign minister (will somebody tell me his name? -- yes, thank you) Miguel D'Escoto, Father Miguel D'Escoto. And Father Miguel D'Escoto said something I do need to say to you, and that is that no serious political person on the left in the late twentieth century can claim not to have been influenced by Marx and Marxism. Father D'Escoto said this. And so I think that I'd like to get into my remarks by explaining -- because it is relevant to where we are and where we might go -- both why it was important to me to define myself with respect to the Marxists I met, and also why, finally, I didn't turn out to be one.

      When I came to the Berkeley campus, I became involved with the Civil Rights Movement because it was just. Because the one moral principle that I took from my previous education was this: resist evil. And people persuaded me that there was evil to resist, that they were doing it, so that was the thing to do, given my previous religious education. I looked around, hooked up with people, and I found that the closer I got to people, the more people tried to persuade me that I should become a Marxist. It was not high pressure, guys; it was very loving. Especially, by the way, from the C.P. [Communist Party] people, who had a reputation for being unusually loving. It was very, very loving and very kind, and people who were their political enemies actually condemned them for being manipulative because they were, in this inclusive sense, loving. It's really true. I want you to understand.

      But I wasn't buying. Because every time someone approached me that way, I would remember Brother Abdon Lewis -- Brother Abdon Lewis at Manhattan College, a Christian Brother, who would be saying to me, in just this way, "But, Mario, you need to get down on your knees; you are not humble enough. If you will just pray, you will believe." And I have to tell you, not with any disrespect for the people who helped me (I mean the Marxists who helped me): I did see Brother Lewis there too, and I wasn't prepared to do that.

      Why was it important to define one's position with respect to Marx? First of all, because Marx is a poet. Even when I was very young, I heard, I remembered, I could not forget: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." It could come out of the Bible, it is so beautiful. And someone says, it did come out of the Bible, and of course, Marx must have known his Bible. Those are burning words. Those words are in my soul. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. And one other thing -- again, Marx as poet, burning words that remain in my soul, from the opening passage of "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon." People will remember these words (and I may have mangled them somewhat, and someone will correct me): "The experience of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living." There's more; but that's the poetry. That's Marx rising to a pitch of poetry which is unusual in political writers. I want to repeat it, it's so beautiful. (I may have mangled it, but it's in essence that.) "The experience of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living." So it's hard not to be attracted to Marx if you have even a little feeling for poetry.

      Second thing: it was quite plain to me that the imperatives of the Black Liberation struggle led to socialist conclusions -- I don't say Marxist ones, but let me tell you what I mean. For me, at that time -- and I still think it's true -- here's how it goes. Suppose the people at the bottom of the stack want to be treated like everyone else, like real people. Now, there's a number of things you can do there. Of course, you can just shoot them. I mean, if they really get sort of vociferous, uppity, you can just find some way to suppress them. There are other possibilities. Someone further above, some group further above, will say, "Reasonable. We'll change places with you." You see, that doesn't really seem like it's going to happen. I could see that. Without much ideology, I could see that. Well then, you see, if you don't get rid of them, and you don't change places, then you have to think about eliminating the hierarchy. Right? You see, you can hardly think in any other terms. It's logical. It is very, very logical. I saw that then, and that moved me toward feeling I ought to check this out a little bit further.

      Third thing: the most effective people in this struggle to resist evil whom I encountered were almost always Marxists, of one kind or another. That was telling. Many of them knew a lot more than I did, and were a lot smarter at strategizing what to do next. I like to be told where to go and what to do. (It's true.) So that was very, very impressive.

      Unfortunately, because I did have a Catholic background, I had read Milovan Djilas's book The New Class the year it was translated. You may not like it, but you have to come to terms with it, okay? And so I was not such easy bait for this. It was attractive for the reasons I've stated. But it was something I couldn't quite go along with because, well, I'm not anywhere near a match for the people who put together those revolutions, and look where they ended up. I was aware of that.

      Even so, I felt it was important to examine Marxism. And I'm not talking about Leninism, it's a subtler discussion; I'm not talking about Communism, it's a dead issue. I'm talking about Marxism. I felt it important to examine Marxism, and these are the two things it seemed to offer, finally. One: confidence. We can win because we will win. Okay? It's a question of how long it'll take, perhaps. Confidence. Second: strategy. That is, if the process of immiseration will result in the working class achieving an ever-deepening oppositional consciousness, then you have a basic strategy -- namely, you can help them do it more quickly. But they're going to do it. The process of immiseration will bring that about.

      Unfortunately, there were some problems. This process that would imbue you with confidence and would lead you to a strategy was based upon a kind of -- I don't say deterministic inevitability, but a kind of at least strongly probabilistic inevitability about the development of society. Marx, even at his most poetic -- that is, Marxism, even at its most poetic, is a kind of economism. There's no doubt about it. I don't mean it's simplistic economism, but -- a technologism, at least. The idea that there is, if not an inevitability, certainly a high degree of probability that the workings of the political economy will result in the kind of deepened oppositional consciousness, mostly due to this process of immiseration, and that one has something to work with then. One can help it along.

      Then you look out at the world. Marxism had been in existence a long time. What did we have? We had in the world two camps, both armed with nuclear weapons. We had had the experience of Nazism in the country that so many Marxists had believed would be the first country, the country to lead the western proletariat to success. Nazism giving rise to what? Nazism: it's not just exotic fascism. Nazism is to fascism as psychosis is to deep character disorder. We're talking about people who incinerated people. I have to tell you that, though I am not a Jew, those pictures had a deeper impact on me than anything else I ever, ever saw. Pictures of heaps of bodies. For me as a kid growing up, it was like some secret pictures you might find, say, in your uncle's drawer that show that he's really a child molester or something. This is heavy-duty, for a society to have this kind of experience.

      Well, this leads you to think that with all that scientific understanding of society, if the successor state to capitalism in Germany could be this bizarre psychotic society, then we don't have a really effective predictive theory. That's very, very serious, guys.

      I discussed, I remember, this kind of issue, though not in such graphic terms, with Hal Draper. Remember Hal Draper? (And bless his soul, I'm glad we had him.) And I remember Hal calling to my attention the historical writings of Marx and saying, "Look, it's so good," and I said, "What about the economics?" and he said, "Well, he's not as good as an economist." That's a very serious admission for a Marxist, is it not? Hal was honest about that, and you see, it was then hard for me to go along.

      And I, unfortunately, in the midst of all that turmoil was also a student -- I read the "protestants." That is, I read Eduard Bernstein, would you believe. I wanted to see what all the brouhaha was about. And I tell you, none of the comrades were suggesting that I read Bernstein. But I read Bernstein. And although, if I had been there to contend with him in meetings, I would have been on the other side, nevertheless he seemed to be somewhat better an economist, in many ways, than some of the Marxists that I also was coming into contact with.

      And here's an interesting thing. Bernstein maintained, rightly or wrongly, that over the long run capitalism actually tends to differentiate the middle strata of society, so that there is a characteristic capitalist middle class -- or middle strata, if you will -- which is developed, which actually produces a condition of homeostasis. In other words, it is the very opposite of immiseration. So you look out at society and boy, it looks that way in a lot of ways. And in fact -- and here is, I think, the critical point -- one thing that the Marxists insist you believe is that capital treats workers differently from other commodities. But this hierarchy, this (if you will) ladder of differential payment, means that capitalism is treating workers in some ways exactly like other commodities. It's exactly what you observe in the case of land and all those other things -- namely, that the more productive gets more capital and the less productive gets less capital invested in it, by and large. That meant to me that the horror of capitalism was that it was not as good at producing a counter- consciousness as the Marxists needed to believe in order to sustain the confidence that they felt. The real operation of capitalism was such as to reduce people to the conditions of commodities precisely as other commodities were reduced, accepted, and dealt with -- namely, a gradation. You go to the supermarket, what do you find? You find it's Prime, Choice, or whatever. And that is what capitalism was doing to people. And that was much harder to fight because people would not end up in one boat against the class enemy.(1)

      Okay. Let me say, we could see that our society was unstable. But unstable systems don't necessarily become nicer; they can become simply more stable. If you displace a system in equilibrium from equilibrium, something will happen; if time is involved, it may move. It may move to another state of equilibrium. It may go completely haywire. It's not just chaos theory that tells us that; Newton knew it. It's possible for systems to go haywire if they are in disequilibrium, even very, very close to equilibrium.

      Keynes felt that it was possible for the system to achieve equilibrium with much less than full employment. Equilibrium -- not just economic, but political-economic equilibrium. But let's say that it's really unstable. If it's really unstable, it'll change. But all we know then is that there will be a successor society. And this stuck with me, and it was a killer. Because the successor society obviously needed to be more collective, but how? It could be authoritarian collective; that's what we'd seen in so many places. If in fact the process of evolution of the society did not provide the opportunity for the development of a counter-consciousness adequate to change the society, then we might end up with stability under disastrous circumstances.

      And so, having begun with the notion of either/or thinking, heaven or hell, I commend to you what was very important to me: a saying, a quote, that should have been Rosa Luxemburg's quote (Reggie tells me it may have been Barbusse -- I don't know -- it should have been Rosa's quote, okay?). And what it is, in brief, is this: "Socialism or barbarism." "Socialism or barbarism" does not give you the same kind of optimism about what is going to happen. Right? We are moving right now in a direction which one could call creeping barbarism. But if we do not have the benefit of belief that in the end we win, then we have to be prepared on the basis of our moral insight to struggle even if we do not know that we are going to win.

      I would like to conclude by bringing back the idea of the spiritual. One of the weaknesses of the Marxist tradition, which has been somewhat corrected late in the game, is to underestimate the importance of spiritual values. By spiritual values, I mean where we as a community can feel something deeper than we are: not that we as a community feel God is on our side, but in some sense that we're on their side. Some sense of looking down into the heart of things and being able to perceive which way is just, which way is not just. And that's what we have to convey to people. Not the message of immiseration -- only temporarily does that work -- but the message of commiseration.(2) Not everyone for himself, but all of us for the community. And that means that we have a very hard task. We need to educate on the basis of moral values, of what justice is.

      But, guys, people we would not expect to be on our side are. And I would like to conclude with reading to you an article -- brief! brief! -- from yesterday's Chronicle:

Archbishop Urges Circumventing Proposition 187

      [We don't want to be to the right of the archbishop, yes?~l

      Denouncing Proposition 187 as "a great wound to humanity," Archbishop John Quinn is urging Catholic clergy, hospitals, and schools to defend California's foreign-born population whether they are here legally or not.

      [That's the Archbishop! I don't go to their meetings, guys, I haven't done it in a very long time. I'm not a mole for the Archbishop; nothing like it.l

      In a pastoral letter this week to the 340,000 Catholics of the West Bay archdiocese, which includes Marin, San Mateo, and San Francisco counties, the prelate wrote: "A fruit of this growing hardness of heart" --

      [We need to talk in that language]!

-- "is the fear and humiliation in which so many immigrants amongst us are living. Sick people, women, children are frightened to seek medical help, and some have died."

      [Some have died, past tense.]

"Schools report drops in attendance by immigrant children because they are afraid."

      [And he's not a Johnny-come-lately.]

      Before the November election the prelate was one of many prominent California church leaders who spoke out against Proposition 187, which would deny state education, health, and social services to undocumented residents. Catholic Bishop Philip Straling of San Bernardino has called the initiative "woefully unjust," and Quinn said it seems to turn people who "teach, heal, and counsel into informants."

      [Eh? That's the Archbishop!]

      He says, "I ask our Catholic hospitals and clinics" --

      [And it doesn't have to be Catholics, right? It can be the rest of us spiritual beings, okay?]

-- "to be even more attentive to the new and increasingly painful problems of immigrants." Quinn wrote, "I call on Catholic physicians, nurses, and lawyers to be imaginative and forthright in coming to the defense of immigrants. Catholic schools and charities in the archdiocese should be second to none in upholding the rights and dignities of immigrants."

      It goes on. It's good, guys. The Church has stood for lots of bad things; this is not one of them.

      And let me point something out: my last shot. There is probably no other institution in the United States in which there is a heavier representation of righteously working-class people than in those churches, in that Church. We ought to be talking to them as well as to one another. And in the years ahead, if we do it right, our values can -- not will -- can prevail.

      Thank you.


(1) [Footnotes for print:] In a longer statement, I might have elaborated as follows. Pervasive hierarchy appears to distort consciousness so as to overemphasize feelings of resentment, fear, and contempt. This greatly facilitates organizing from the right, which may consist of no more than mobilization on the basis of this given "false consciousness." Real organizing from the left, however, is much more difficult and never a matter of mere mobilization. For it always also requires a degree of genuine moral re-education so as to counter the given hierarchical "false consciousness" and encourage truer feelings of community, human solidarity, and compassion.

(2) Here I let myself get carried away by euphony and etymology. The correct word is, of course, compassion.

Reprinted from Threepenny Review XVI:2, Summer 1995. Edited by Wendy Lesser.

Copyright 1994 by Mario Savio, 1998 by Lynne Hollander. This work may not be reproduced in any medium which is sold, subject to access fee, or supported by advertising or institutional subsidy, without explicit prior consent by the copyright holder. Reproduced here by permission of Lynne Hollander.

  This page last changed 02 December, 2000


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