Culture Wars/Current Controversies

The Cult of the Individual: The Origins of the Nihilistic Left

Mario Savio at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Hall

When Mario Savio introduced the Free Speech Movement to the world with his famous speech on UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza in 1964, he started off with a few unexceptional remarks before getting to the famous part about putting “your bodies upon the gears” of the American corporate machine. Here’s part of what he said:

I’d like to say — like to say one other thing about a union problem. Upstairs you may have noticed they’re ready on the 2nd floor of Sproul Hall, Locals 40 and 127 of the Painters Union are painting the inside of the 2nd floor of Sproul Hall. Now, apparently that action had been planned some time in the past. I’ve tried to contact those unions. Unfortunately — and [it] tears my heart out — they’re as bureaucratized as the Administration. It’s difficult to get through to anyone in authority there. Very sad. We’re still — we’re still making an attempt. Those people up there have no desire to interfere with what we’re doing. I would ask that they be considered and that they not be heckled in any way. And I think that, you know, while there’s unfortunately no sense of — no sense of solidarity at this point between unions and students, there at least need be no, you know, excessively hard feelings between the two groups.

You can tell why that part of his speech didn’t make it into the history books. But it’s actually just as historically significant, in my opinion, as what followed. It captures precisely what was happening at that moment within America’s political left — namely, the split between the individualistic, libertarian New Left and the class-based, materialist old left. It’s a split that’s only grown more pronounced.

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