Conflict and Controversy: The Genius of Saul Alinksy I

Don’t get me wrong, I have a hardcore critique of Saul Alinsky, but I forgot just how good and smart and hell of committed he was — Rules for Radicals is an important thing to read I think. There is still a lot of room for some of these old school tactics and organizing basics, though maybe not so much for the super-hero profligate organizer and thank god we have some a long way in thinking about intersections of class, race, gender and sexuality…

But damn, is he still a lightening rod for right-wing vitriol or what. My internet search for images turned up some fairly crazy shit. Do we care if he slept with Hilary Clinton? No.

But anyway, I had forgotten just how much Alinsky’s work speaks to its times–it speaks to ours as well of course, but in such a different way. Makes me nostalgic for times I never got to live really, written in 1971, it opens:

The revolutionary force today has two targets, moral as well as material. Its young protagonists are one moment reminiscent of the idealistic early Christians, yet they also urge violence and cry, “Burn the system down!” They have no illusions about the system, but plenty of illusions about the way to change our world. it is this point that I have written this book. these words are written in desperation, partly because it is what they do and will do that will give meaning to what I and the radicals of my generation have done with their lives.

They are now the vanguard, and they had to start almost from scratch. Few of us survived the Joe McCarthy holocaust of the early 1950s and of those there were even fewer whose understandings and insights had developed beyond the dialectical materialism of orthodox Marxism. My fellow radicals who were supposed to pass on the torch of experience and insights to a new generation were just not there. (xii-xiv)

This is perhaps the tragedy of the McCarthy period —  Alinsky himself owes a whole lot to the organizers of the 1930s when he got his start. But the history of struggle in the UK has actually convinced me that it was perhaps not entirely a bad thing to be allowed to reinvent ourselves from the bottom up. But that’s a whole other argument. For now, Rules for Radicals. This first post looks at the big picture, the second looks at the nitty gritty.

The Purpose

What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away. (1)

Sweet enough, right? He quotes from the Spanish Civil War — better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. Nothing more true in life or death, but of course, it was Zapata who said that. The Mexican Civil War did come first, but never mind.

Alinsky always claimed he was steadfastly non-ideological. The more I read about the communist party in the US, their show trials  (I can think of nothing I’d hate more), the great move as dictated by Russia away from what brilliant neighbourhood and tenant and anti-racism organising they did sponsor to the popular front and all of that followed by Stalin and Hungary and…well. I can’t rightly blame him. None of that history sits well with me and he lived it blow by blow.  It’s left its mark, he writes:

We have permitted a suicidal situation to unfold wherein revolution and communism have become one. These pages are committed to splitting this political atom… (9)

and also

This is not an ideological book except insofar as argument for change, rather than for the status quo, can be called an ideology; and different times will construct their own solution and symbol of salvation… I detest and fear dogma. I know that all revolutions must have ideologies to spur them on. (4)

I question this definition of ideology, but like this practical adaptability. Seems like Marx would have wanted it more that way. In truth, this reads something like Clausewitz or Sun Tzu’s Art of War. This is about tactics and strategy (never enough on the long game).

Radicals must be resilient, adaptable to shifting political circumstances, and sensitive enough to the process of action and reaction to avoid being trapped by their own tactics and forced to travel a road not of their choosing. In short, radicals must have a degree of control over the flow of events. (6-7)

Funny how Alinsky becomes the perfect postmodernist. I never see him credited though. I do like his list of characteristic belonging to an organizer, it’s repeated several times.

An organizer…does not have a fixed truth–truth to him is relative and changing, everything to him is relative and changing. He is a political relativist. … Irreverence, essential to questioning, is requisite. Curiosity becomes compulsive. His most frequent word is “why?” … To the extent that he is free from the shackles of dogma, he can respond to the realities of the widely different situations our society presents. In the end he has one conviction–a belief that if people have the power to act, in the long run they will, most of the time, reach the right decisions. (11)

I don’t think all is relative, but building on such community organizing as one strand of work in combination with a revolutionary process of conscientização as outlined by Freire or Horton will get us where we need to go I think. Horton knew Alinksy, discussed some of these issues, you can read more here.

The world operates on multiple levels, you bring in a deeper understanding of hegemony, of intersectionality, of micro-power then you start seeing a very different picture than that painted by Alinsky. But much of the world does actually operate on this basic level, and these kinds of tactics are often most useful.

It is painful to accept fully the simple fact that one begins from where one is, that one must break free of the web of illusions one spins about life. Most of us view the world not as it is but as we would like it to be.

Political realists see the world as it is: an arena of power politics moved primarily by perceived immediate self-interests, were morality is rhetorical rationale for expedient action and self-interest. (12-13)

The strides in community organizing since his time have been incorporating all of this into a broader framework. I had forgotten that Alinksy himself had recognised some of the dangers of his style. He notes that the folks from the back of the yards organized under

equality for all races, job security, and a decent life for all. With their power they fought and won. Today, as part of the middle class, they are also part of our racist, discriminatory culture. (16)

This is the heartbreak, this the thing we have to work to transcend. I think it goes deeper than

It is the universal tale of revolution and reaction. (17)

Moving from how this fails to address race, I think class is more complex too, but this is an interesting way to cut it (and there is always a strategic usefulness in making complex things more simple):

The setting for the drama of change has never varied. Mankind has been and is divided into three parts: the Haves, the Have-Nots, and the Have-a-Little, Want Mores. (18)

We have to reach the second two, he argues. If only everyone knew in their very bones that this was true, how much better the world would be:

A major revolution to be won in the immediate future is the dissipation of man’s illusion that his own welfare can be separate from that of all other’s. (23)

For Alinksy, even so, it all comes down to self-interest. I think this works for some, not all — I don’t think the low road is ever to be found in the great swells of movement and sacrifice that rise from time to time. To not see beyond it feels like a weakness, but this remains a good point for some people among us, and after all, what else is Keynsian economics really?:

I believe that man is about to learn that the most practical life is the moral life and that the moral life is the only road to survival. He is beginning to learn that he will either share part of his material wealth or lose all of it; that he will respect and learn to live with other political ideologies if he wants civilization to go on. This is the kind of argument that man’s actual experience equips him to understand and accept. This is the low road to morality. There is no other. (23)

Of Means and Ends

I find it funny that Alinsky would have seen eye to eye with Trotsky as well as Bismarck on this. We don’t really have fights about this any more in the US or the UK, do we? Except perhaps in the very smallest of groups. This seems so dated, but I realise only because we have given up on revolution in a way, and for all Alinsky’s faults he hadn’t.

That perennial question, “Does the end justify the means?” is meaningless as it stands; the real and only question regarding the ethics of means and ends is, and always has been, “Does this particular end justify this particular means?”

He goes on to quote Goethe — at the end I have collected a list of all the literature Alinsky quotes, and I swear it will surprise you.

The practical revolutionary will understand Goethe’s “conscience is the virtue of observers and not of agents of action”… (25)

I haven’t thought about means and ends for a long time, but this is challenging, and I think true. I think about Palestinians fighting and fighting for any recognition of their rights, and decades of nothing and I think so much of this holds true.

The most unethical of all means is the non-use of any means… (26)

As do Alinsky’s eleven rules for the ethics of means and ends (he promised us rules in the title, and he always delivers. He also uses a lot of italics):

  1. one’s concerns with the ethics of ends and means varies inversely with one’s personal interest in the issue.
  2. the judgement of the ethics of means is dependent upon the political position of those sitting in judgment. (26)
  3. in war the end justifies almost any means. (29)
  4. judgment must be made in the context of the times in which the action occurred and not from any other chronological vantage point. (30)
  5. concern with ethics increases with the number of means available and vice versa.
  6. the less important the end to be desired, the more one can afford to engage in ethical evaluations of means.
  7. generally success or failure is a mighty determinant of ethics.
  8. the morality of a means depends upon whether the means is being employed at a time of imminent defeat or imminent victory. (34)
  9. any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical. (35)
  10. you do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral arguments.
  11. goals must be phrased in general terms like “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” “Of the Common Welfare,” “Pursuit of Happiness,” or “Bread and Peace.” (45)

This is a philosophical question most current discussions of community organizing aren’t entering into at all, and maybe we should. Similarly, Alinksy devotes a whole chapter to how we use certain words, and the battle over them that needs to take place.

A Word About Words

He talks about words that are ‘loaded with popular opprobrium’ … words prevalent in the language of politics, words like power, self-interest, compromise, and conflict. (48) This isn’t Voloshinov getting into how we fight for meanings in the most awesome of ways, but it is a level of awareness of how our use or avoidance of certain words shapes our movement. For that very reason I don’t know that I agree with all of his analysis of these words, but I love that he includes this argument with the prominence of a chapter.

Power is a good word though. This may be a bit simplistic in its analysis, but worth thinking about.

Striving to avoid the force, vigor, and simplicity of the word “power,” we soon become averse to thinking in vigorous, simple, honest terms. We strive to invent sterilized synonyms, cleansed of the opprobrium of the word power–but the new words mean something different, so they tranquilize us, begin to shepherd our mental processes off the main, conflict-ridden, grimy, and realistic power-paved highway of life. (50)

Disagreeing with his analysis of self-interest, I rather disagree with this, though I love the style of that last sentence. But the idea that how we speak truth to power is as much about the form as the content (I know, I know, you shouldn’t separate them) is important, and is often lost. I like this too:

To know power and not fear it is essential to its constructive use and control. (53)

The next post is on the nitty gritty of being an organizer and actually digging into the process of community organizing.

But first, a look at the books and authors that Alinsky draws from. I don’t know when this man had time to read, but he was no small-time intellectual.

Machiavelli
Bible
Upton Sinclair
Whitehead
Alice in Wonderland
de Tocqueville
Goethe
Henry James
La Rochefoucauld
Founding Fathers (ALL of them)
George Bernard Shaw
Lincoln
Mark Twain
Trotsky writing about Lenin
Gandhi
Rousseau
Whitman
Koestler
Bertrand Russell
Nietzsche
Pascal
St Ignatius
Freud
Clarence Darrow
Thoreau
Shakespeare

[Alinsky, Saul ([1971] 1989) Rules for Radicals: A pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York: Vintage Books.]

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