Tag Archives: tactics

Michel de Certeau on Strategy and Tactics

I finally got around to reading all of de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. I had, of course, before read all that stuff about walking, but there is so much more here for the literary and philosophical geographer. I might have liked the chapter on tactics best of all, even if I disagree with it. I have been thinking about strategy and tactics for the past few weeks, it’s one of the things community organizing is all about, but I was reading this particular book for another project entirely. Interesting. I’ve kept some of his headings because I quite love the breadth of what he writes about, and though I’ve found even of interest for two, maybe three blogs here, I am fairly sure there will be more when I read it again. There are some pieces from the intro in this, blog 1, but it is mostly chapter 3.

This is one of my favourite quotes:

As unrecognized producers, poets of their own acts, silent discoverers of their own paths in the jungle of functionalist rationality, consumers produce through their signifying practices something that might be considered similar to the “wandering lines” drawn by autistic children…”indirect” or “errant” trajectories obeying their own logic. (xviii)

Though I’d prefer my poetry emerged through something other that my consumption. I kind of like to sit and stare and these sentences that at first sound so good, but then sometimes lose sense as you think about them. Wisps of smoke. The strategy and tactics I found much more clear:

I call a “strategy” the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an “environment.” (xix)

Not entirely sure about the environment, mostly disagree with strategy as belonging only to such subjects of will and power and wonder what it means to place a city itself into that category, but interesting.

Chapter 3 “Making Do”: Uses and Tactics

Thus a North African living in Paris or Roubaix [France] insinuates into the system imposed on him by the construction of a low—income housing development or of the French language the ways of “dwelling” (in a house or in a language) peculiar to his native Kabylia. He superimposes them and, by that combination, creates for himself a space in which he can find ways of using the constraining order of the place or of the language. Without leaving the place where he has no choice but to live and which lays down its law for him, he establishes within it a degree of plurality and creativity. By an art of being in between, he draws unexpected results from his situation.

These modes of use–or rather re-use–multiply with the extension of acculturation phenomena…of transiting toward an identification of a person by the place in which he lives or works. That does not prevent them from corresponding to a very ancient art of “making do.” I give them the name of uses, even though the word most often designates stereotyped procedures accepted and reproduced by a group, its “ways and customs.” (30)

I love this, both in how it understands the ways in which we inhabit space by making it our own, the ways that that subverts and transforms space, and that a similar process should happen in language. Because of course, you see it everywhere and most places I have lived, this in-between has become a vibrant new place and new way of speaking both.

But on to a deeper explanation of the already stated view of strategy:

A distinction between strategies and tactics appears to provide a more adequate initial schema. I call a strategy the calculation (or manipulation) or power relationships that becomes possible as soon as a subject with will and power (a business, an army, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated. It postulates a place that can be delimited as its own and serve as the base from which relations with an exteriority composed of targets or threats (customers or competitors, enemies, the country sur­rounding the city, objectives and objects of research, etc.) can be man­aged. As in management, every “strategic” rationalization seeks first of all to distinguish its “own” place, that is, the place of its own power and will, from an “environment.”

I love how this manipulation of power is always in a place, always tied to a geography and a here as opposed to a there. But how does a city exert this? I am still pondering that. I cannot tell where agency lies, and that bothers me. It is too vague. But interesting. De Certeau continues about the difference between the two along different axes: That of time, that of sight, that of knowing:

The establishment of a break between a place appropriated as one’s own and its other is accompanied by important effects, some of which we must immediately note:

(I) The “proper” is a triumph of place over time. It allows one to capitalize acquired advantages, to prepare future expansions, and thus to give oneself a certain independence with respect to the variability of circumstances. It is a mastery of time through the foundation of an autonomous place.

These past few weeks — time has mastered me rather than the other way round. It makes sense to think of power as its master, interesting that it (might be) through place.

(2) It is also a mastery of places through sight. The division of space makes possible a panoptic practice proceeding from a place whence the eye can transform foreign forces into objects that can be observed and measured, and thus control and “include” them within its scope of vision. To be able to see (far into the distance) is also to be able to predict, to run ahead of time by reading a space.

The ability to see gives more control over time, more control over space…

(3) It would be legitimate to define the power of knowledge by this ability to transform the uncertainties of history into readable spaces. But it would be more correct to recognize in these “strategies” a specific type of knowledge, one sustained and determined by the power to provide oneself with one’s own place. Thus military or scientific strategies have always been inaugurated through the constitution of their “own” areas (autonomous cities, “neutral” or “independent” institutions, laboratories pursuing “disinterested” research, etc.). In other words, a certain power is the precondition of this knowledge and not merely its effect or its attribute. It makes this knowledge possible and at the same time determines its characteristics. It produces itself in and through this knowledge.

Transforming history into a readable ‘space’…another magician’s trick. I am not sold, but oddly fascinated of this way he has of assuming we create spaces through words. This slippage between physical and abstract space intrigues.

I am troubled by ‘masters’ owning space, thereby strategies, while the rest of us are without center, reduced to tactics.

By contrast with a strategy (whose successive shapes introduce a certain play into this formal schema and whose link with a particular historical configuration of rationality should also be clarified), a tactic is a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus. No delimitation of an exteriority, then, provides it with the condition necessary for autonomy. The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power.

I have trouble moving between physical and abstract space here, trouble working out where we actually stand. But stand we do, I will defend our ability to have strategy, even on someone else turf.

It does not have the means to keep to itself, at a distance, in a position of withdrawal, foresight, and self-collection: it is a maneuver “within the enemy’s field of vision,” as von Bülow put it, and within enemy territory.

Doesn’t it?

It does not, therefore, have the options of planning general strategy and viewing the adversary as a whole within a district, visible, and objectifiable space.


It operates in isolated actions, blow by blow. It takes advantage of “opportunities” and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its own position, and plan raids. What it wins it cannot keep. This nowhere gives a tactic mobility, to be sure, but a mobility that must accept the chance offerings of the moment, and seize on the wing the possibilities that offer themselves at any given moment. It must vigilantly make use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the proprietary powers. It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected. It is a guileful ruse.

We can keep wins. We can gain ground. It does not mean that we should not search for cracks or go poaching.

In short, a tactic is an art of the weak.

Maybe this is what is wrong with the British left.

Clausewitz noted this fact in discussing deception in his treatise On War. The more a power grows, the less it can allow itself to mobilize part of its means in the service of deception: it is dangerous to deploy large forces for the sake of appearances; this sort of “demonstration” is generally useless and “the gravity of bitter necessity makes direct action so urgent that it leaves no room for this sort of game.” One deploys his forces, one does not take chances with feints. Power is bound by its very visibility. In contrast, trickery is possible for the weak, and often it is his only possibility, as a “last resort”: “The weaker the forces at the disposition of the strategist, the more the strategist will be able to use deception.” I translate: the more the strategy is transformed into tactics. (36-37)

I am strangely drawn to reading Clausewitz, von Bulow. I am all for trickery. But that’s not going to win a fight. Nor will tactics. For all his exploration which at least acknowledges this form of resistance where many do not, de Certeau doesn’t really promise much. He yields a great deal to the enemy from the very beginning.

Lacking its own place, lacking a view of the whole, limited by the blindness (which may lead to perspicacity) resulting from combat at close quarters, limited by the possibilities of the moment, a tactic is determined by the absence of power just as a strategy is organized by the postulation of power. (38)

It’s also a strangely evanescent, individual sort of thing, this tactic. I wonder if it is precisely because he makes this distinction:

strategies pin their hopes on the resistance that the estab­lishment of a place offers to the erosion of time; tactics on a clever utilization of time, of the opportunities it presents and also of the play that it introduces into the foundations of power. Even if the methods practiced by the everyday art of war never present themselves in such a clear form, it nevertheless remains the case that the two ways of acting can be distinguished according to whether they bet on place or on time. (38-39)

Many communities are trapped in place, or part of a place and identify with a place and will never leave a place. This collective identity and its connection to a neighborhood or piece of earth is where strength comes from, this is what drives them to make a stand. They cannot not bet on place, they cannot or will not just pick up and move. What then? The difference between Algerian’s ‘making do’ in Paris as opposed to those fighting occupation in Kabylia perhaps.

So given I reject my banishment to the use of tactics only, where does that leave me? Us? Because I am not fighting alone. Turned on its head this means we do need our own places, time and space both to think, to plan. To come together. A place on the heights, to see far. One that draws strength from how this place is transformed by our own culture and value and ways of being in the world. That creates the room for these possibilities, that celebrates hybridity and flexibility while drawing on history and tradition that stand in opposition to capitalism. Somewhere not easily seen (but do those in power ever truly see us?). Somewhere we can move quickly and take advantage of the moment, but in ways that lead us to the transformations we seek. Strategically.



Organizing Manual from Daniel Hunter: A Movement to End the New Jim Crow

The organizing guide to Daniel Hunter’s Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow contains a note on the copyright page that this emerged from conversations with Daryl Atkinson, Chris Moore-Backman, Michelle Alexander and Dr Vincent Harding, makes me so wish I had been a fly on that wall. Daniel Hunter is an organizer and strategist with Training for Change, and James Lawson gives it a brief preface. It is short and sweet and tries to answer the question of what to do with the realities described by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, how do we build a movement to end it?

Hunter starts each chapter with a story that holds a lesson. Nice. Every chapter is filled with clear headings and clear points. Every chapter ends with next steps that summarise the main points and gives you the questions you need to be asking yourself. This makes it easy.

I. Roles in Movement Building

It starts out debunking some myths about movement, which I really like.

Myth: Movements are like a lit match.

The myth that movements “Suddenly appear” misses the critical process of building up networks ready to act and ways to communicate broadly. The myth ignores the necessary tasks of leadership building and visioning. While sparks are important, without those critical pieces, movements will not tun into a fire. (6)

Myth: Movements are built by heroic figurehead leaders (6)

Myth: Movement require complete internal unity (7)

Myth: Movements succeed if they mobilize large, mass actions.

…movements don’t win because of singular actions. Movements need ongoing resistance…require sustained pressure. (7)

I like too the understanding that there are different roles in this great struggle to change the world. It’s good to understand where you fit, to know that might change (I might have added that in there, most of us aren’t organisers for all that long), and to respect the others. He gives this minimum of four: helpers, advocates, organizers and rebels, just as a starting point. I also like that he connects each to structural change — that’s really key, and hard to do for a lot of folks. I don’t know why I liked the warning labels best but I did, there’s lots more description.

Helpers — great, but need to understand structural issues, not just personal ones

Advocates important, sometimes take over and take away ‘clients’ power and agency.

Organizers — awesome, might get stuck in a stuffling organization, only try to get what they think is ‘winnable’ even if people want to try for more. That goes for the others too. I really like this line:

‘Organizers understand that shame festers and breeds when people experience something as a personal failing they cannot overcome. (12)

rebels — can become too attached to marginal identity, reduced to simply tactics without an end game, can become self-righteous.

Just to reemphasise that a Key part of movement building is the moment when pople understand not just through eyes of individual responsibility, but larger structural issues.

2: Building Strong Groups

I like how this chapter unpicks the reality behind Rosa Parks, what really happened the day she refused to change her seat, the role of Jo Ann Robinson and the Women’s Political Council, the various people involved not all talking to each other, Robinson’s frustrations and her immediate jump to action regardless of what Dixon or others said. I never knew a lot of this until I read Danielle McGuire. The lessons learned:

Prioritize relationship-building in every way you can , organize one-on-one meetings, recruit people outside your circle. Develop a shared power analysis — I really like his triangle model — there’s a very cool worksheet here to help structure a workshop.

Knock out those damn pillars! Analysing them, thinking this way helps us understand what we can do, gives us back our own power. I often don’t like analogies and metaphors, I’m not sure I like this one but appreciate the point:

Elimate the smog inside of us: Some have likened oppression to smog. Without a choice, we all inhale smog. It is in our body. The toxicity fo oppression is in each and every one of us. It makes us callous to the oppression of others — and even of our own selves. We must detoxify ourselves…create a culture that stands on higher prinicples. (36)

And finally, empower leadership from the oppressed — I write about that all the time. This decentralised method also allows innovation and experimentation, national groups in the spotlight don’t usually have this ability.

Chapter 3: Creating Effective Campaigns

Another awesome drawing on what a campaign actually looks like.

I have to say, I have never met anyone in the UK who would consider anything but the first damn drawing. Until recently hopefully.

You pick a goal — Hunter gives a range of campaign goals that could be considered to chip away at the system explored in The New Jim Crow, like stopping prison construction and reducing incarceration rates, improving prison conditions, ending re-entry barriers and increasing direct services, tackling the contributing structural issues, and fighting for alternatives to incarceration. The structural issues are important, especially as they intersect with deportations, or with issues of race, class and gender. This needs ongoing discussion and education — he suggests a ‘newspaper game’ to collectively build knowledge by pooling articles.

He describes the process for collectively choosing the campaign, the importance of having a target:

The people who can make the changes are usually quite happy to avoid doing so….. Change will not happen… unless the target is faced with direct, persistent pressure. It;s therefore crucial to identify the appropriate target … the person or people who could implement a new policy. (51)

You can see the old Alinsky influence in a lot of this despite the total difference in style, God I miss people who understand picking targets.

I like the continued emphasis on the tensions between picking campaigns that are winnable without losing sight of the revolutionary goal of what he calls ‘storming the castle’, achieving the broader structural change we need. There’s also some good stuff in here about thinking about allies, recognizing where they are in relation to your politics. moving people from opposition to at least neutral positions.

I also like the emphasis on thinking about how to create alternative institutions, what do we actually want, rather than just what we are against. We need to do this way more, as well as continuously build towards deeper change. Hunter writes

effective campaigns are ones that promote and instill new values. To do that, we should look for all available opportunities to represent the highest moral values of humanity in our words and actions, and encourage others to do the same. (60)

Some of us might need a little more humour here, perhaps, but it’s a serious thing.

He also describes the need to make sure you are growing as a campaign, moving and recruiting outside your easy, comfortable circles, that you are self-reflective on your own role, where you fit within oppressive systems and contribute to them. It all seems simple, it is still very far from most people’s practice. And finally — another key point, particularly in differentiating this book from much traditional civil rights organizing as Alexander notes, as well as many organizing in the Alinsky tradition:

It requires that we build a new public consensus that values each and every human being’s worth and dignity–especailly poor people and people of color who are demonized, whether as felons, criminals, or any kind of “other.” (63)

This is not an easy battle, but it is one we must win.

[Hunter, Daniel (2015) Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow. Denver: Veterans of Hope.]




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)


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.


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.


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.]



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.

Upton Sinclair
Alice in Wonderland
de Tocqueville
Henry James
La Rochefoucauld
Founding Fathers (ALL of them)
George Bernard Shaw
Mark Twain
Trotsky writing about Lenin
Bertrand Russell
St Ignatius
Clarence Darrow

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