Conflict and Controversy: The Genius of Saul Alinksy II

So the first post on Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals looks at the big picture, the discussion of the political moment, of ends and means, of how we use words in our Struggle. This is the more practical section of the book, the programme that Alinsky helped build in cities across the country. Much of this practical approach is embedded in community organizing so deeply it is strange to see it written here like this, making it perhaps the most influential aspect of his work. Though ultimately I think that award maybe goes to his ‘non-ideological’ stance that needs to be reckoned with.

Above all there is this specific, privileged role of the organizer, having been one in the US, having attempted similar work in the UK without anyone in this role, I am inclined to give this idea some real credit. I think it is needed, though not quite along these lines.

The Education of an Organizer

The building of many mass power organizations to merge into a national popular power force cannot come without many organizers. (63)

I agree. Also with the below:

The education of an organizer requires frequent long conferences on organizational problems, analysis of power patterns, communication, conflict tactics, the education and development of community leaders, and the methods of introduction of new issues. (64)

And of course, always this:

Everything becomes a learning experience. (64)

The incredibly male, macho, no-balance-whatsoever thing however, that is both bullshit and instructive of a certain mentality that needs to be reckoned with.

The marriage record of organizers is with rare exception disastrous. Further, the tensions, the hours, the home situation, and the opportunities, do not argue for fidelity. (65)

If we move beyond traditional romance and family models that could be okay of course, as long it’s all mutual respect and not the organizer taking advantage of lots of young women or men. This kind of hyper-male organizing role kind of encourages that though, so I dunno.

I like that there is some discussion of the contrast with the old model of CIO organizing in the 1930s (now all but forgotten), where 10% of the meetings covered immediate problems, the rest expanded upon Spanish Civil War, problems around the nation etc. Maybe it’s good that ratio changed around a bit though.

I do really like Saul Alinsky’s list of the characteristics of a good organizer (again, not the relentless maleness, though in this model it would be very hard for a woman to play this role ever given the higher likelihood of her playing some caring roles in addition):

Curiosity: He is driven by a compulsive curiosity that knows no limits…life for him is a search for a patterns… (72)

Irreverence: Curiosity and irreverence go together. Curiosity cannot exist without the other. …He detests dogma, defies any finite definition of morality, rebels against any repression of a free, ope search for ideas… (73)

Imagination.

A sense of humor.

A bit of a blurred vision of a better world. (this allows others to contribute and build — I very much like this idea)

An organized personality. (Has to work flexibly, be organised amongst disorganization, able to manage multiple issues and people)

A well-integrated political schizoid. (Can’t be a true believer because they can’t operate politically enough, but after committing to an issue must commit 100%)

Ego. (Confidence in one’s ability to do what must be done).

A free and open mind, and political relativity.

Communication

A whole chapter on this, and small wonder.

One can lack any of the qualities of an organizer–with one exception… (81)

And now we get to some of the nitty gritty, the process from the ground up — there isn’t honestly too much step-by-step in here. But what little there is can be found here, ‘In the Beginning’:

In the beginning the incoming organizer must establish his identity…get his license to operate.  He must have a reason for being there–a reason acceptable to the people. (8)

I loved how Alinsky’s preference was to get the people in power to hate him, get the press to vilify him — then everyday people knew he was on their side. The genius of conflict as I say.

I liked too his flexibility — though again, it would work so much better combined with a conscious conscienticization (see Myles Horton’s analysis of Alinsky style organizing). It is only after you win that you figure out what you want. This is where the organizer has to really have trust, silence that inner doubt and lack of faith in people. (Alinsky admits there might possibly be some doubts among you.)

Then we are back to superman:

From the moment the organizer enters a community he lives, dreams, eats, breathes, sleeps only one thing and that is to build the mass power base of what he calls the army. Until he had developed that mas power base, he confronts no major issues. (113)

But there is an element of single-mindedness needed, and this — this is true:

Change comes from power, and power comes from organization. In order to act, people must get together. (113)

There’s some interesting stuff about disrupting existing organization and patterns in communities that I’ve separated out into a third post because I found it that interesting, but sometimes people need to shake their own ways of being in the world up. Above all you have to overcome apathy, and you do that by picking specific, winnable battles to show that people can win. This is a cornerstone of American community organizing really. Alinksy writes:

…in any community, regardless of how poor, people may have serious problems–but they do not have issues, they have a bad scene. An issue is something you can do something about, but as long as you feel powerless and unable to do anything about it, all you have is  a bad scene. The people resign themselves to a rationalization: it’s that kind of world… (119)

You can’t tackle problems all at once, you have to break it up into issues, the question spawning vast arguments and trainings and some writing is how yo do that effectively so that you are still tackling the big problems.

There is one word that is repeated over and over in this book that is often not found elsewhere — respect. This is all important, I don’t think anyone who hasn’t grown up poor or working-class really understands how this must be constantly defended, and how it is constantly withdrawn.

If you respect the dignity of the individual you are working with, than his desires, not yours; his values, not yours; his ways of working and fighting, not yours; his choice of leadership, not yours; his programs, not yours, are important and must be followed… (122)

…when we respect the dignity of the people, that they cannot be dined the elementary right to participate fully in the solutions to their own problems. … Denial of the opportunity for participation is the denial of human dignity and democracy. It will not work.  (123)

For those two sentence alone this book would be worth it. And all those (to me) slightly cringeworthy stories that Alinsky tells about being straight with people around issues of class, race or culture, I am sure they only worked at the time because they were told after this respect had been established. I wouldn’t recommend establishing it quite this way anymore though.

Tactics

More rules! Tactics are all important, and these are quite brilliant and worth thinking through:

  1. Power is not only what you have but the enemy thinks you have.

  2. Never go outside the experience of your people.

  3. Whenever possible go outside the experience of the enemy. (127)

  4. Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.

  5. Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.

  6. A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.

  7. A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.

  8. Keep the pressure on, which different tactics and actions (128)

  9. The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself

  10. The major premise for tactics is the development if operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.

  11. If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside (129)

  12. The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative

  13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. (130)

In this country the left has almost no fucking tactics at all, which has made me appreciate them all the more. Thinking this way becomes a habit, it is confusing when people see none of this.

Having a target also seemed so obvious to me. Apparently that isn’t obvious either.

Obviously there is no point to tactics unless one has a target upon which to center the attacks. (131)

One criteria is vulnerability, I like the point he made about how John L Lewis, organizing great, never attacked GM or Ford, but Alfred “Icewater-In-His-Veins” Sloan or “Bloodied Hands” Tom Girdler.

I liked Alinsky’s three additional points

  • The real action is in the enemy’s reaction

  • The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength

  • Tactics, like organization, like life, require that you move with the action (136)

A little organizing jujitsu. Seems simple, but hard to do and the UK has proven none of these are obvious.

There’s some subtlety here too. Alinsky notes the importance of understanding the competition amongst the haves, their drive to make money to one-up each other that lead them to their own forms of destruction. He emphasises capitalising on that. Some academics seem only now to be recognizing the non-monolithic nature of things like government, the capitalist class and etc.

A pretty cool side note: how useful jail time is (make sure it is only a few days or you’ll miss all the action) to recoup and have space and quiet to think about where you are, what comes next, update your tactics.

Timing is to tactics what it is to everything in life–the difference between success and failure. (158)

And again, flexibility is the key. As it is to everything in Alinsky style:

Accident, unpredictable reactions to your own actions, necessity, and improvisation dictate the direction and nature of tactics.  (165)

The Way Ahead

Organization for action will now and in the decade ahead center upon America’s white middle class. That is where the power is. (184)

See, this is where we diverge again. Though I wouldn’t be too sad if this suggestion had actually happened:

Middle-class organizers should put their class backgrounds to good use…

He’s right though, if they didn’t move to be with us, they were against us.

His final paragraph.

The great American dream that reached out to the stars has been lost to the stripes. We have forgotten where we came from, we don’t know where we are, and we fear where we may be going. … We must believe that it is darkness before the dawn of a beautiful new world; we will see when we believe it. Afraid, we turn from the glorious adventure of the pursuit of happiness to a pursuit of an illusionary security in an ordered, stratified, striped society. Our way of life is symbolized to the world by the stripes of military force. At home we have made a mockery of being our brother’s keeper by being his jail keeper. When Americans can no longer see the stars, the times are tragic. We must believe that it is the darkness before the dawn of a beautiful new world; we will see it when we believe it. (196)

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

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