As I have been saying, I have finally gotten around in my life to reading Saul Alinsky’s 1971 book “Rule for Radicals”. (He was born in 1909 and died in 1972.)
I have to tell you now: it’s been a huge revelation. I say this especially with reference to my abiding interest in connecting-dots in American affairs.
It’s a shortish-book (196 pages in my copy)*, but well-worth the read.
I think that all things considered my best course of action here is to simply move along in the text, making comments (of the dot-connecting kind) as I go. I am not reviewing the book nor am I analyzing it formally. Rather I am going to connect what I see as dots that help explain a great deal of what has happened to Us politically, culturally, socially, and thus fundamentally in the past biblical 40 years.
While the text is simple enough to read (he aimed it at general readers and as a “practical primer for realistic radicals”), it is dense with by-the-by thoughts and beliefs that, when I look at them in light of the history and experiences of all these years, yield a treasure-trove of insight into why things have happened (and, I think, have turned out as they have).
This format of this Post is not an essay or book review but rather a sequence of observations. Nobody is paying me to do it and so the more formal formats aren’t practical since they require a great deal of organization. But Alinsky went to the trouble of organizing his book, so a set of sequential reflections should yield enough coherence for you to get the gist of what’s going on.
So let’s get to it.
As I mentioned, the subtitle is “A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals”. Alinsky isn’t trying to be an ideologue or a dogmatist here; he simply wants to train organizers who will take the world as it is and take people as they are (as Alinsky sees them) and competently deploy the Technique of organizing to help those people help themselves. But as will become evident, Alinsky’s presumptions about the world and about people will form their own type of strait-jacket, and – it must not be forgotten – the broad impact of his entire approach upon American advocacy and (through the embrace of those advocates by the vote-addled Dems and later the Republicans) the entire warp and woof of the nation’s politics as well as its policies.
Alinsky, therefore, is one of the more – one of the most – significant shaping elements behind and beneath American politics as it has become today.
He notes in the Prologue (p.xiii) that as he looks around in 1971 the “young protagonists” of “the revolutionary force” “have no illusions about the system, but plenty of illusions about the way to change our world”. He assumes, and not without reason, that there exists “the system”. That term is his version of ‘the Establishment’ that was Boomer short-hand for EVERYTHING in authority that existed around them, administered by ‘grown-ups’ who had, as evidenced by Jim Crow and Vietnam, made a mess of it all.
He will write this book to teach them to lose those illusions in order to more effectively change the world.
But he has only that one single constricting conceptual lens of looking at the country, the nation, the polity: it is a “system” in essence, an almost mechanical thing, designed for transmitting ‘power’. He gets this mechanistic vision in no small part from Lenin, and it is also reminiscent of Freud’s rather hydraulic conception of the human self.
He is the Technician who will teach the Technique whereby that ‘power’ can be grasped by the Have-Nots, taken from the Haves, through the efforts of the ‘organizers’ he seeks to train.
He has to write this book, he says, because “my fellow radicals [from the 1930s, the ‘Old Left’], who were supposed to pass on the torch of experience of experience and insights to a new generation, just were not there” (p. xiv) by the 1960s: age and the friction of the anti-communist tensions of the early postwar era had worn them down and away.
It is no wonder, he then reflects, that about the young (of the 1960s) that when they beheld the society around them “it was all, in their words, ‘materialistic, decadent, bourgeois in its values, bankrupt and violent’”. (p.xiv) He joins them in this stereotypically narrow assessment; and this isn’t surprising since he has long clung to his own narrow mechanistic assessment from his own youth. If he is therefore going to be an ‘older’ influence on the young, he is not going to be a more ‘mature’ one, since he shares with them the youthfully impatient and simplistic narrowness of first and surface impressions, un-tempered by nuance, subtlety, or wider and larger experience.
In this sense, his is a ‘youthy’ vision that will not so much ‘teach’ the young and enlarge their vision (and their emotional as well as conceptual ability to comprehend life and events) but rather accept them in their misconceptions, and then try to shape and channel their vast if unfocussed energies along the channels available in that far too simplistic core vision.
He quickly strikes an appealing note of moral urgency: “Today’s generation is desperately trying to make some sense out of their lives and out of the world”. (p.xiv) This comment sounds the Tone of the Boomer Sixties: the urgency of desperation and yet the heady grandiosity of being concerned about Big Things.
But the Boomery young were ‘desperate’ because they had – in the dense kinetic force-field generated by their own numbers and in the absence of their elders’ confidence in their own handling of life and events – become completely enamored of their own first construals of self, life, and world. And they had rejected, almost without effort, any prior meaning-systems that might give them some grip on discovering coherence in themselves and their world. In a sense they were like the kids in Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”, left to their own devices with no adult supervision.
And along comes Alinsky (and others like him) who possess the status of ‘adults’, trailing wispy clouds of History, but who can appeal to them in large part because those chronological adults themselves share the same youthy reductionism and sense of self-important urgency left over from their own early experiences in the (so often) Marxist 1930s.
So the ‘desperation’ and ‘urgency’ that fueled the Boomers were in part self-generated: through rejecting or rather thoughtlessly ignoring any of the existing structures of meaning (having in many cases drawn far too many conclusions far too soon), the Boomers created an actual vacuum in Meaning, which then created the ominous vortex of Emptiness against which they so agitatedly had to ‘struggle’.
In the nation’s impressive if labored efforts to advance further along the lines of its Founding Ideals, in the imperfection and ‘dukkha’ that they began to sense all around them (as all humans of any generation should begin to sense), the Boomers became overwhelmed and later intoxicated by it all, concluding far too quickly that Nothing Was On The Level. When Alinsky (among others) comes along, formed in his own youth by that same impulse gleaned from Marx and Lenin as they looked at capitalism and the polity of Czarist Russia, the Boomers were not so much ‘educated’ as merely ‘validated’.
Alinsky had himself – as We shall see here – concluded that Nothing Was On The Level in his own youth, and so did not offer a Larger or more comprehensive vision to complement (and balance) the Boomers’ own youthy and agitated impressions. Instead he seeks in this book merely to provide them with a Technique for operating in that narrow ‘world’.
He succeeded all too well – as We shall see – and in so doing, I think, sent much of that entire generation’s efforts spinning along a narrow track.
The America that Alinsky limns (p.xiv) – adults living constricted lives, helped by tranquilizers; materialistic and constricted to the pathetic goals of a secure, steady, well-paying job [read this in the America of 2010!]; adults trapped in “long-term endurance marriages” aided by alcohol, and suffering from high-blood pressure and all the ‘diseases of civilization’; “the almost unbelievable idiocy of our political leadership”; a mass media that “daily revealed society’s innate hypocrisy” – is a lurid America, seen through a youthy and un-tempered (not to say intemperate) lens.
Note especially the quintessentially revealing bit about “society’s innate hypocrisy”: a matured, adult comprehension would realize that it is in the nature of human beings to retain inner lives that cannot be easily and widely shared, yet still remain responsible for existing in some degree of harmony with other human beings who are simultaneously ‘others’ but also – in their own privacies – like unto themselves.
In THAT sense, no human being in any human society can live a completely transparent life (we are not transparent creatures, even physically, like some of the simpler deep-sea life forms) and to some extent each human being reserves something of interiority from all others even in his/her own society. This utterly essential limit on ‘total openness’ is not the same as “hypocrisy”, except to an insufficiently informed and insufficiently formed youthy sensibility that draws ultimate conclusions far too quickly and far too early.
But again, Alinsky shares that same youthy tendency and sensibility. He has matured only his Technique, not his Vision or his capacity to see more Largely than he did as a youth.
I also wonder if the Boomers saw all this on their own or whether they picked it up in no small part from Alinsky and what there was left of his generation: you have to have been around for a while to come up with so comprehensive (if not deep) a shopping-list of society’s ills and weaknesses.
He has, however, himself latched onto the factoidally accurate thought that you can never in life “get it all together” and that “all values and factors are relative, fluid, and changing, and that it will be possible to ‘get it all together’ only relatively”. (p.xv) It’s true as far as it goes, but it hardly goes very far at all. Alinsky limns a water-world of total fluidity and (as Kevin Costner demonstrated with that movie some years ago) humans can’t accomplish much in a totally ‘fluid’ world.
I recall the British historian E.H. Carr saying somewhere that just because a mountain seems to take a different shape depending on your distance from it and your perspective, that does not at all mean that the mountain itself has no objective shape of its own, or that it can have an infinite number of shapes. And Carr himself reflects the ancient Eastern analogy of the Six Blind Men and the Elephant: the fact that each perceives a vastly different part of the Elephant (root-like trunk, hard and pointy tusks, huge and thin ears, tree-like legs, house-like body, snake-like tail) doesn’t mean that the Elephant itself has either a myriad of shapes or has no shape of its own (or – the Postmodern conclusion – that the Elephant doesn’t actually exist at all).
Immediately, Alinsky follows that up with the observation that “In the past ‘the world’, whether in its physical or its intellectual terms, was much smaller, simpler, and more orderly. It inspired credibility. Today everything is so complex as to be incomprehensible.” (p.xv) Again, Alinsky uses his status as a knowledgeable grown-up to affirm what is to large extent an immature first-impression of that “booming, buzzing confusion” (Henry James’s term) that humans call Life.
If the world was indeed ‘smaller, simpler, and more orderly’ to Ancients or Medievals (and I’m not so sure that it was) it was also made thus by their evolved Frames of Meaning. And those Frames reached both deep into the dark, but blood-bright beating heart of human existence and high into the Beyond of a Higher Dimension. To Alinsky – again reflecting his own this-worldly, materialist and reductionist Marxist-Leninist youth – these Frames of Meaning (religion not the least of them) are pretty much illusions that not only no longer ‘work’, but that were illusory in the first place (so good riddance to them). Marx’s religion-as-opium is densely present in all of this.
This Flattening effect, and this Flattened world, is what Alinsky passes on to youth who are by the workings of their inexperience already dwelling in a ‘world’ that is limited to appearances and surfaces, and thus for the moment Flat. Alinsky will lock them into that Flatness, trapping them. And – as chemistry demonstrates – the more energies are compressed into an increasingly smaller space, the more intense and heated and agitated their activity and behavior.
Twenty years later, under the influence of French Deconstructionism (itself Marxist influenced) Postmodernism would erect this youthy incompleteness into a Philosophy and a political Plan. And as embraced by the Advocacies of the Identities, which were themselves eagerly embraced and validated and ‘valorized’ by the politicians for their own purposes, Postmodernism would harden this incompleteness into a Flattened ‘new normal’ – and Our national politics would reflect the fluid, watery, yet heated and frenzied agitation of human spirits compressed into far too ‘small’ a conception of Life and Being.
And here We are.
Alinsky then presses on to validate the too-quick conclusions that the Boomer generation makes about life – while also helping to give those errant conclusions Shape and the Authority of Accuracy: “Today’s generation faces all this and says ‘I don’t want to spend my life the way my family and their friends have. I want to do something, to create, to be me, to ‘do my own thing’ to live. The older generation doesn’t understand and, worse, doesn’t want to.”
A lot of things dwell beneath the surfaces of this statement.
First, as is the tendency with all teens, the Boomers needed to and did indeed reject their parents’ ways and habits. That goes with the territory of being ‘young’ and adolescent. Ideally, the young grow beyond that, with guidance, and progress to a more mature, complex, nuanced, and subtle appreciation and grasp of what was ‘good’ in the grown-up way of going about life. Included in that is the competence to distinguish between less vital and more changeable ‘styles’ and ‘fashions’ and the far more vital and indispensable fundamentals: the difference, say, between wanting to change the color of the airline’s uniforms or maybe even the FAA rules about how to keep order in the skies and the lunatic insistence upon defying the very laws of aerodynamics by claiming the ‘total autonomy’ to fly an aircraft with the engines in reverse.
Of course, in a ‘totally fluid’ and utterly ‘relativistic’ world, such a distinction would make no sense. Which is itself an indication of just how much Alinsky went off the rails in offering to ‘teach’ and guide the new generation.
In addition to which Alinsky added in 1971 a thought to which every Boomer adolescent could relate, BUT which also ominously mirrored revolutionary impatience with opposition or even simply doubt, hesitation, and further questioning: “The older generation doesn’t understand and, worse, doesn’t want to”. Now in the revolutionary scenario, as it played out in Russia and in Fascist Germany, no ‘opposition’ could be entertained or tolerated since the Revolution (Russia) or the Reich (Germany) already was in full possession of all the truth that the country and the people needed to know. Thus anybody who objected or even doubted was an ‘enemy’ of the Revolution or the Reich (or both) and, come to think of it, of the Leader too (Lenin or Stalin, Hitler or Mussolini).
While you couldn’t say that adolescent authority issues with parents is at core a political issue (more of a human psychology and family dynamics issue), yet it is the genius (so to speak) of Alinsky that he ties the two in together for the Boomer generation: the grownups don’t know and they don’t want to know. At which point – almost in a whackulous imitation of a John Wayne character – the Boomer must say ‘Well, then, it’s up to me’ (or, more accurately, the Boomers as a group must say ‘Well, then, it’s up to us’).
Now put this dynamic, for example, into the ‘gender revolution’ and ‘gender war’ context and you’re calling for all ‘women’ to tolerate absolutely NONE of whatever the Male says because it’s just a form of Have/Patriarchy extortion hiding under the sleazy illusions of Tradition, Common-good, Prudence, or whatever.
I also see the beginnings of the dynamics of Identity Politics in that distinction between the young and “their parents and their friends”. By 1971 the second phase of the Black Civil Rights Movement was well-underway; Martin Luther King’s unitive approach was abandoned for a Separatist and Black Power approach, dividing the Black from ‘honky’ and so forth. Alinsky moves this dynamic into the heart of the generational community with the Family itself; and to introduce such a corrosive dynamic into so vital a human institution for the formation of the young of the species was, I would say, hugely wrong-headed and gravid with the potential for profound “mischief” (as the Framers might put it).
Of course, Alinsky’s own youth was spent intellectually with the never-the-twain-shall-meet distinction between ‘classes’ in the Marxist schematic conception of core human societal dynamics. Applying that to the Family was far more complicated and perhaps lethally unworkable if the country were to maintain a stable and functioning base for continuing to replenish a mature and competent society.
And this was BEFORE radical-feminist thought then ratcheted the mischief up exponentially by declaring the Family to be ‘oppressive’ and something akin to Dachau (Betty Friedan) or Auschwitz (Alice Miller). Or – as the Victimology movement would declare in the later 1970s and the 1980s – the Family was the largest violent-crime site in the country.
And the Marxist insight into class, refined (so to speak) by Leninist praxis, also required an abiding ‘suspicion’ of the ‘working class’ for the ‘possessing class’; there was and had to be, in the Marxist-Leninist class theory, an eternal ‘presumption of guilt’ by the working class against the possessing class.
Translated into the Family, as Alinsky intimates here, this dynamic of mistrust and suspicion is lethal, indeed fatal. The possibility for a formation in the ability to love and to trust is utterly undermined. And while THAT result is just fine with a Marxist-Leninist, it is shockingly repugnant to any humanist or religiously-grounded Vision of human life and society (the Catholic Church, possessing the most comprehensive Vision, most of all).
(And, of course, by the later 1970s, radical feminist thought is insisting that this same dynamic of suspicion and presumption-of-guilt is to be vigilantly and robustly deployed by one gender (the female) against the other (the male) – which meant the introduction of a form of conceptual and political civil-war within the American Citizenry and within the polity itself. And all the other Identities would adopt this same approach, enshrined in the ‘Minority-Majority’ distinction that was also, alas, embraced by the politicians, who then placed the full power of the government authority behind it.)
Alinsky doesn’t stop there. “If the young were now writing our Declaration of Independence, they would begin, ‘When in the course of inhuman events …’”. (p.xvii) Again, Alinsky takes the imperfectly-realized Ideals as total and immediate proof that a) no Ideals are valid and that b) every failure to fully realize one’s Ideals is the result of ‘hypocrisy’ and is somehow intentional.
Which is a lethal dynamic to introduce into any nation’s core traditions and beliefs, let alone introducing such a dynamic into the politics and polity of a Constitutional democratic Republic that is grounded on the mature competence and the political confidence of The People in the essential value and workability of their form of government. As, I would say, is now ominously obvious 30 years down the road in 2010.
“The young react to their chaotic world in different ways.” (p.xvii) I say again that part of that ‘chaos’ is due to the powerful and molten maturational dynamics of the adolescent young themselves. And then add to that the ‘chaos’ induced by the Flattened and hardly humanly sufficient Frame of Meaning offered by the Marxist-Leninist schematic, here being pushed upon the young by Alinsky as if it were an adequate alternative to the fundaments of the society, culture and civilization into which they have been born.
It is a matter of great historical import to then look at the Sixties and try to get a clearer grasp of the Chicken-and-Egg problem: to what extent the ‘chaos’ within the young interacted with or caused the ‘chaos’ in the ‘many revolutions all at the same time’ which this country embarked upon (in an ominous imitation of Mao’s Hundred-Flowers gambit of the 1950s and his subsequent Cultural Revolution of the 1960s – both of which, by the by, were monstrously frakkulent failures with hugely damaging human and societal and political consequences, especially the Cultural Revolution).
Interestingly, Alinsky does not support “romantic violence” such as was embraced by the Weathermen. (p.xvii) He wants cold, clear, realistic, pragmatic ‘organizing’ of the Have-Nots so that they can use their political institutions to wrest ‘power’ from the ‘Haves’. While this may seem to be ‘democratic’ and was certainly spun as such by Alinsky-ites and ‘liberal’ politicians, the underlying Marxist-Leninist dynamics of suspicion and hostility are clear. And indeed they are constitutive of the ‘realistic’ approach that Alinsky claims to possess. Whether those dynamics could be ‘baptized’ by being placed in the service of Have-Nots, and whether those dynamics could be deployed in the American democratic polity without corrupting and corroding it … well, that’s going to be the big question as you look at Alinsky’s vision.
Especially since his vision became the vision of the ‘elites’ and the Beltway as those elements were in the early formative stages that led to the established mutations that currently hold sway.
Remember, he says, “that we are talking about revolution, not revelation”. (p.xviii) Grant some indulgence for the very Sixties-ish fondness for the cutesy turn of phrase. He’s stil trying to teach that there are no pre-existing guidelines or rules (except, of course, his own) which can be allowed to constrain the Great Work of helping the Have-Nots in their wrestling-match (or struggle, or war) against the Haves. There is, he says – in the accents of Deconstruction and Postmodernism – no Higher Law to which the revolutionary organizer must answer or by which the revolutionary organizer can be bound.
This stunningly and profoundly potent assertion will be taken up by all subsequent ‘advocates’ and organized ‘Advocacies’ from the early 1970s onward; and – with the inevitability of that human nature which fuels human history – then migrated to the Right and the Government Authority – which by the 2000s was officially declaring that either there was no Higher Law (when it was supporting the demands of its domestic Advocacies) or that it was the sole earthly Deputy empowered by that Higher Law (when it was looking to justify its foreign military misadventures).
Organization by committed and properly educated ‘organizers’ is essential, he says, because – quoting from Dostoyevsky – “taking a new step is what people fear most”. (p.xix)
This is a reality that seems to be grounded in a self-protective tendency evolved within the human species: as if to protect human societies from the excessive influences of the remarkably vivid human imagination, within any random group of humans there will be statistically a larger number who are temperamentally predisposed NOT to go off and embrace new and different ‘ways’.
And then over and above this there are far more humans who may well use their mental abilities to assess ‘new and different ways’ from the standpoint of workability, costs and consequence, relevant prior experiences, and of ‘prudence’ generally.
And there is a proportion in any group who simply cling to the established ways almost viscerally and will neither wish to contemplate change nor be rationally persuaded to embrace change.
To the committed revolutionary organizer all of this complexity is collapsed into the simple category of ‘obstruction’.
Though it is to Alinsky’s credit that he recommends that the organizer work tirelessly to bring his/her Have-Nots to some sort of personal reconciliation with the benefits of changing the “status quo” (who can forget that overused and infinitely malleable diagnostic term back in the Sixties?).
Have-nots, Alinsky notes and not inaccurately, will get so used-to being helpless that they won’t even conceive of being able to change that ‘status-quo’.
But for Alinsky, changing that ‘status-quo’ is THE Good to be achieved. Taking power from the Haves is the ultimate and core ‘change’, and it must be an eternal struggle, very much – I would say – in the sense of JFK’s “long twilight struggle” as he limned it in his Inauguration speech in January, 1961. But where JFK issued that call in order to unite an America and Americans against the totalitarian ideology embodied most powerfully in the Soviet regime, Alinsky issues that call to divide the American people into the sheep of the Have-Nots against the goats of the Haves.
And where Alinsky in 1971 mostly refers to matters of political power being wrested from economic Haves, other Advocacies with other schematics of division quickly adopted his Technique for their own purposes: thus, to use the most significant example, the radical-feminist Advocacy quickly began casting American civic life as a struggle between the oppressive and violent and evil Male Haves and the oppressed but good Female Have-Nots.
And you can see now where that went.
But within his Technique, Alinsky displays no small mastery. “Our youth are impatient with the preliminaries that are essential to purposeful action”, he says, and with no small accuracy. (p.xv) Alinsky is not somebody who would simply go out to the quad on a nice spring afternoon at lunch-time, and use a bullhorn to exhort any students passing by to go and burn down the ROTC building.
He would want organizers to carefully learn their trade, and then raise the consciousness of the Have-Nots, and then let those now-enlightened and empowered Have-Nots figure among themselves how best to work “within the system” to get what they want (which is and must always in some way be, to wrest Power from the Haves).
It is for that reason and in support of that Method of Operation that he asserts “revolution must always be preceded by reformation”. (p.xvi) By that he means that the Have-Nots themselves must be ‘reformed’, must lose the helplessness and hopelessness that has made them passive and accepting of their domination and exploitation by the Haves, so that they themselves can then devise the best way to wrest at least some Power from the Haves. There are echoes of Martin Luther in that ‘reformation’ phrasing, but since Marxism-Leninism and indeed Communism itself was for all purposes a religion-without-God (although under Stalin it became a religion-with-a-god), then the ‘reformation’ trope is not inapt.
But so then, says Alinsky – again not illogically – that in order to effect that ‘reformation’ “a revolutionary organizer must shake up the prevailing patterns of their lives: agitate, CREATE DISENCHANTMENT AND DISCONTENT with the current values …”. [caps mine] (p.xvii) Now if the process of wresting-Power is going to go on almost forever, then you are going to have to keep up a constant agitation and discontentment, if not among the exact same group of Have-Nots all the time, then at least among some fresh group of Have-Nots.
AND THEN if you are going to have in your society a whole bunch of ‘revolutions’ simultaneously, you have to have a society and culture constantly kept in a molten state along numerous different axes of fault-lines. Because each Identity (being by definition a Have-Not) will a) need to identify its ‘enemy Haves’ (the disabled vs. the abled, the black vs. the white, the feminist vs. the male … and so on and so forth). And b) will have to sustain an ongoing and possibly sempiternal ‘war’ or ‘struggle’ against those specific Haves.
The whole society dynamic is not simply then one of robust and competing interests all united in a fundamental unity as to the nature of the society and culture and dedicated to some sense of the common-weal. Rather you get a bunch of frenzied animals of different species locked in a cage, locked in struggle with each other. It is a Hobbesian world.
But as Alinsky shall point out later in the book, the idea of a ‘common-weal’ is as much of an opiate as ‘religion’; Ideals are simply opiates employed by the Haves to continue oppressing and extorting the Have-Nots. As he will say with ominous clarity: the “low-road” to politics is the ONLY road.
And here We are today, after so much of Alinsky was absorbed into the Democratic Party (in 1972, I’d say) and then into the Republicans, and all the while force-fed into the national bloodstream. I think that to no small extent Our national politics is now suffering from a case of blood-poisoning. Which is a problem Obama now faces, is somehow trying to solve, but DARES NOT ADMIT EXISTS IN THE FIRST PLACE. And how could he – or any President, perhaps, short of a Lincoln or and FDR – make such a devastating admission: that the Beltway has poisoned, perhaps fatally, the national political health?
The organizer’s work is never done because once people are ‘organized’ they must be goaded to continuously “keep the pressure on” (p.xxiii), they must continuously exert this (deforming, I’d say) pressure in order to expand the ‘power’ they’ve gained but also to counteract the eternal counter-pull of the Haves to get their power back.
This promises – and anybody can see it now – a permanent ‘war politics’. NOTE THIS: long before the Beltway embarked on its actual permanent-war policy under Bush-Cheney, Alinsky’s plan – adopted whole-hog by the ‘progressive Left’ – promised and delivered a permanent condition of ‘politics at war’ on the domestic scene. Under the moniker of Identity Politics generations have now been raised to the lethal idea that such a poisonous political atmosphere is ‘normal’.
Summing up his Prologue Alinsky warns that the “great dangers always accompany great opportunities” and “the possibility of destruction is always implicit in the act of creation”. (p.xxiv) This was far more accurate a warning than even he wanted to admit; in the event, it was largely ignored by its subsequent adherents and proponents.
But he puts his finger on a very real point: “The greatest enemy of individual freedom is the individual himself” (Alinsky was writing before feministical Correctness, you can see). (p.xxiv) Because, he continues, “from the beginning the weakness as well as the strength of the democratic ideal has been the people”.
In support of that, he quotes DeTocqueville who said that democracy wouldn’t work and couldn’t be sustained “unless individual citizens were regularly involved in the action of governing themselves” then “self-government would pass from the scene”. (p.xxv)
But this requires that while, or even before, Citizens are governing their own polity by participating robustly in a democratic politics (about which Alinsky has a dark and sinister view, as you have seen), they first must govern their own selves: each individual Citizen must – if I may – Master&Command him /herself.
THIS is precisely the concern of Western civilization, especially under the aegis of that comprehensively formed (if imperfectly communicated and even more imperfectly appreciated) Catholic Vision for Culture and Society: the dignity of the individual includes the responsibility that lies with each individual to achieve a certain self-mastery (in cooperation with and with the assistance of God's Grace and Providence).
Alinsky himself, Marxist-formed, was interested only in organizing individual citizens into pressure-groups that could exert counter-pressure politically against the Haves. He gave little enough thought to the content or shape of individual freedom. Later, Postmodernist ‘thought’ – acting synergistically with Boomer excitements – left the actual Shape and Content of a Self up to each ‘totally autonomous’ individual, including the freedom (so-called) to decline the responsibility for achieving any self-mastery at all.
Does a pilot have ‘total autonomy’ over the plane such that he could decide to fly it backwards? Or sail it in the ocean like a ship? Or take it for a spin along the highway? These questions make no sense in a Postmodernist vision because it is precisely assumed that there is UTTERLY NO PRE-EXISTING LIMITING SHAPE TO THE HUMAN SELF WHATSOEVER. Which, I think, is the essence of madness erected into a Plan. And, at this point and for some decades now, into a national policy.
He concludes the Prologue by exhorting readers not to live lives of “dependency”, willing to have their lives “defined by others” (p.xxvi) But he does not limit that exhortation to the political realm – and I don’t think that was an accident. A Marxist materialist, inhabiting a Flattned but darkling world consisting of only the Material dimension, suspicious of Ideals and abstractions that have no palpable physical reality, ever ready to find that such ‘opiates’ were nothing more than tools by which the Haves oppress and extort the Have-Nots, and uninterested in the realm of the non-material or the ‘spirit’ (as well as the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘religious’), he offers nothing in the way of preparing oneself to operate in any ‘reality’ that includes those dimensions.
Or rather, he implies clearly that those dimensions are essentially secondary, if not mostly irrelevant, except as potentially dangerous illusions.
His clear-eyed disenchantment with those non-Material dimensions helped dis-enchant American life and politics. But also contributed greatly to un-Grounding them from any Larger Reality.
His thought is still active today – and has now been imbibed by generations of the ‘elite’ including not only many many ‘thinkers’ and ‘intellectuals’, but also legislators, jurists, and politicians generally, who now carry on their activities without even realizing what profound consequences lie buried but tectonically active in their system of presumptions and assumptions not only about the nature of the American polity but about Life and Human Being itself.
Thus his ongoing importance, as I see it.
I will continue quickly to Post about the remaining chapters of his short but potent book.
*My copy is the paperback Vintage Books/Random House edition that reprints the original 1971 edition. The ISBN is 0-679-72113-4. All my quotations and page references will be taken from this edition.
Labels: Saul Alinsky