This continues my look at Saul Alinsky’s 1971 book “Rules for Radicals”.*
This Post will deal with his Chapter (they are not numbered in his book) entitled “The Purpose”.
He starts with a quotation from the Bible, more specifically the Book of Job (7:1): “The life of man on earth is a warfare …” (p.3) Which is odd. The text of Job actually describes the experience of living a human life in relationship to God as being a condition of servitude, of being a “hireling”: you really aren’t the boss of you, God is the boss of you, and there’s no nice way (his friends had been trying hard to do this) of avoiding that rock-real fact.
The closest you can get to anything ‘military’ is the concept of being forced to do military service, which reinforces Job’s point about being in a condition of subordination to God. But “warfare” is certainly not in it.
But “warfare” is certainly in Alinsky’s vision. As it was in the Marxist vision of society as being a perpetual warfare between classes, between – as Alinsky terms them – the Haves and the Have-Nots.
I’m not sure why Alinsky even bothered with quoting from the Bible, he not having a high opinion of organized religion and any sort of Beyond. Possibly he simply wanted to clothe his ideas in at least some of the status of a widely-respected source. But certainly he has not read the text; and – more ominously – the text is twisted in a way that serves his overall vision and purpose of reinforcing the fact that human life is a ‘war’.
But a ‘war’, then, against what or whom?
And this, of course, gets Us back not only to Marx’s ‘class war’ but also to the American mutation, Identity Politics. Because the way Identity Politics has developed here, you can’t simply ‘have’ an Identity-group; no, that group is actually in large part defined by its oh-so-necessary ‘oppressive-enemy’, against whom the Identity must wage eternal struggle for ‘power’ over its own agenda, it own ‘life’, its … whatever. So you wind up, going the Identity Politics route, with a ‘war’.
And since the Dems raised up a whole bunch of Identities, and kept on doing so, then you are going to have a whole bunch of Citizens designated as ‘enemies’ and whole bunches of Citizens designated as the particular assigned ‘enemy’ of this or that or another Identity.
This is not democratic deliberative politics as it appears in any civics book (at least not in 1971). The Identity is not primarily concerned for the common-weal since the ‘identity’ of being ‘American’ is in the Identity Politics schematic secondary – at best – to being a member of one’s particular Identity-group. Generations have now been raised with the idea that ‘you are a man, and I am a woman [or vice-versa] and that-fact-has-consequences’ rather than the idea that ‘you and I are both Americans’ and THAT-fact-has-consequences’.
Even after 9-11, the only common ground of ‘American-ness’ that was still available was that all Americans had been ‘victims’ of the attack.
But, as he will clearly explain further on, if something is done in a good cause then to raise objections about its ‘truthfulness’ is mere bickering over an abstraction that is itself probably designed to distract from the oppression that it is trying to cover-up. Oy.
“Warfare” suits his purposes and so it is where it is.
And the first paragraph of the text in this Chapter says it: “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”. (p.3)
And you have to factor in that there are now many different flavors of Have-Nots, each corresponding to an Identity, each Identity with its own organized professional Advocacy, each Advocacy with its own agenda, and each and all of them seeking to exert whatever pressure it takes to make sure they get what they want. Each Identity is a Have-Not in its own chosen way, and each Identity is justified in doing whatever it takes to get what it wants. Get THAT ground-rule established and Alinsky will be happy.
Thus We find the country today divided in all sorts of criss-cross patterns into all sorts of Have-Nots, and each of those groups of Have-Nots is suffering a particular ‘oppression’ and must therefore get organized. Organized, of course, to take the ‘Having’ power from those who Have the power and give it to those who at the moment Have-It-Not.
And it’s a zero-sum game, in that crudely mechanical or hydraulic economy underlying both Marx and Freud: there is just so much ‘power’ and if you have a bunch and I want a bunch then you are going to have to lose a bunch of your bunch.
Interestingly, Alinsky sees politics as proceeding not only by ‘war’ and as ‘war’ but also envisions that any organized group trying to bring pressure is therefore working for a legitimate, workable, and ultimately worthwhile ‘change’. If you can usefully organize toward the ‘change’ that you want, or at least organize folks to ‘pressure’ for the change that THEY want, then let the ‘wars’ begin; whether the ‘change’ will benefit the country or the polity or the common-weal, in the long as well as the short run … well, Alinsky has already assumed that ‘change’ is a good thing for whomever demands it and exerts pressure to get it (so long as the demanding is done by some form of Have-Not).
“The significant changes in history have been made by revolutions.” Perhaps, but I’m not convinced. Actually, what I think is going on with Alinsky is a version of the Pentagon Problem: if all you’ve got is a hammer, than everything you see will be a nail. If – in Alinsky’s case – all you’ve got is Change, then everything will need to be a revolution. Because if ‘some’ Change is good, then more Change is better, and lotsa Change is best. And all-change all the time is about as close to Perfection as Alinsky can see.
But in the first place, ‘Change’ isn’t always good ‘just because’ or just because it is what it is. Change can be for the better or for the worse, and if one problem for humans is remaining alert to the possibility of or need for Change, another problem immediately behind that one is to figure out if a particular change is going to work out to be better or worse for you.
But for Alinsky – and for vote-addled pols in the late Sixties desperate to get their boards back on a wave, ANY wave – Change was good just because it was change.
For the pols it was a matter of having a losing game on the board so the best thing to do was to overturn the board and see if you’d have better luck next time.
For Alinsky, more conscientious than the pols and more of a thinker (though that was a low bar, given the competition), the justification was that Nothing Was On The Level and that the Whole of Everything consisted of the Haves extorting the Have-Nots. Which was very close to Lenin’s ultimate reduction of all Life, History, and Politics to the One Question: ‘Who is doing What to Whom?’.
And you can make a case for that Question being always one of the most important for any polity – especially the Citizenry of a democratic republic, to keep in the forefront of their mind.
BUT you can’t simply say that A) all History – like Heraclitus’s river – is simply fluid like water and that B) ALL of human life and history can be reduced to the Extortion Factor. Western Civilization – as imperfectly as any other civilization, and better than some - especially under the influence of Reason and Christianity, tried to manage the Extortive element.
More fundamentally, the fabric of human life, reflecting the fabric of the human self and spirit, is a densely interwoven fabric consisting of much much more than Extortion.
Humans are not reducible to any one aspect of themselves, any more than the proverbial Elephant can be understood as merely a trunk or only a pair of tusks or by a reduction of that entire living being to any other significant aspect of its complex body.
And this reductionist dynamic in Alinsky was imbibed by all the Advocacies and embraced for purely tactical reasons by the pols.
Alinsky quickly goes on to give a historical reference that he sees as justifying his assertions: “ … the spirit of that credo of the Spanish Civil War, ‘Better to die on your feet than to live on your knees’ This means revolution”. (p.3)
Once again, he reduces all of living to ‘war’. He’s a scrapper, Alinsky is – and I’m not dissing him for that. But you can’t take Alinsky and figure that if you follow him ‘totally’ you’ve got a complete handle on Life and History. Or on being a human and conducting a human life in Time.
And as I mentioned before, he says more than he may want to here: ‘civil war’ is precisely what Identity Politics calls for, although in a ‘long, twilight’ sort of way, or at least, without the hot shooting aspect. Sort of a Cold War-Civil War thing is what he’s got going on here. And that’s what We’ve been reduced to for decades now in the nation’s politics.
And while Change may most vividly come about through revolution, Change isn’t the only element in human life or history. Humans may be made up of a lot of water, but they are not purely fluid creatures; there’s a solidity to humans, physiologically speaking. And beyond the material and physical, there are psychological and emotional and mental elements as well as physical. And if you imagine that Plato and others and the Catholic Church are on to something with their vision of humans as consisting of Body, Mind, and Spirit/Soul … well then, when you’ve got a human you’ve got a complex, dynamic reality that exists on several planes of existence and participates in them.
So Alinsky’s reduction of everything to the Material – or to the Fluid – and his reduction of all human motivations to Greed and Extortion, while it continues a tradition most widely established in the Modern era by Marx and then by Communism, doesn’t really come close to a comprehensive, or even adequate, grasp of humans and their life and their social interactions and their history.
Against those who say that humans rely on an ‘evolution’ in growing their affairs rather than on a continuous ‘revolution’, Alinsky retorts that “evolution is simply a term used by nonparticipants to denote a particular sequence of revolutions as they synthesized into a specific major social change”. (pp.3-4)
Notice that he accuses those who don’t agree with him of being “non-participants”, of not being ‘involved’ and perhaps not being ‘concerned’ (remember those iconic terms of the era?).
Notice also that his vision of how historical change comes about in a society is that a whole bunch of ‘revolutions’ proceed simultaneously, and somehow combine to effect a “major social change”. Although Identity Politics has not yet taken full shape in 1971, this is a Theory of Change that justifies such a project. And no doubt the pols figured that they could have their cake and eat it too: develop new demographics; gather lotsa nice new votes; change a losing Game; and garner kudos for being ‘with it’ and ‘cutting edge’, and not fuddy-duddy and ‘Establishment’. What was not to like? Wheeeeeeee!!!!!
But he is not writing an “ideological book” here, he says. BUT THEN immediately, he qualifies that: “… except insofar as argument for change rather than for the status-quo may be called an ideology”. (p.4) He clearly wants the reader to conclude that such an ‘argument’ does NOT constitute an ideology.
But it does. He is taking a consistent position against ANYthing that is already-existing, that is therefore part of the Present and established in the Present; anything that therefore is part of the active circuit-pathing of human energies in society. And conversely, he is taking a consistent position for ANYthing that is going to ‘change’ that status-quo, which presumes that whatever is established is somehow wrong or bad – which flows from his darkly reductionist assumption, built on Marx and Lenin, that all civilization and society are can be described as merely an Extortion Racket run by the Haves against the Have-Nots.
Nor does it help simply to say – as he quickly does – that “different people, in different places, in different situations and different times, will construct their own solutions and symbols of salvation for those times”. (p.4) All this does is to claim that his originally reductionist ideology of Change Always Good Because Status-Quo Always Bad can be applied anywhere, anytime, by anybody.
And I note that he treats “salvation” rather lightly, perhaps conceives of it very lightly: anybody, anywhere, anytime, can “construct” it as easily as they can construct their “solutions” to the Extortion Question. But “salvation” – whether seen as simply a concept or as a dense and powerful reality – is far more complex and dense and freighted, and draws its power precisely from the fact that humans NEED it, but CANNOT CONSTRUCT it on their own. In its full and awesome power, “salvation” draws on a power or Power not of this world, not dependent on humans, but rather Beyond them. BUT by that very fact, capable of reaching in and offering an unquenchable Help to humans toiling thought this Vale of Tears (and Extortion).
And if he actually thinks that by merely constructing the “symbols of salvation” then you’ve got yourself “salvation” … well, nobody ever said Marxism-Leninism really had a solid grasp on the dynamics of the human spirit and the Beyond.
His book here will not spout “dogma” because “I detest and fear dogma … dogma is the enemy of human freedom”. (p.4) Nice, classic Sixties, classic Boomer, but No.
‘Dogma’ is the codified wisdom accumulated by a society or culture, secular or religious. It attempts to preserve, for the assistance and use of future generations as well as or the present generation, the distillation of the cumulative knowledge and/or tradition of society.
It has been very much the fashion since the Sixties to claim that ‘dogma’ simply enshrines old mistakes and illusions and in that sense is the enemy of the freedom of any given generation to make own way and shape its own structures.
BUT this implies that every human generation starts from scratch. And the species would never have gotten very far if that were the usual method of proceeding.
Yet I’d also draw an example of my own: take an airline pilot – it is ‘dogmatic’ that you cannot fly an aircraft in reverse; it must never be done because the act cannot be achieved successfully. Is an airline pilot who considers him (or her-) self ‘free’ from that dogma really ‘free’? S/he is going to get a lot of people and expensive equipment frakked verrrrry quickly and for no good reason.
Yes, it can be quickly retorted that my example won’t work because a genuinely and completely proven scientific law is not ‘dogma’ but rather ‘scientific law’; whereas ‘dogma’ refers to collections of imagined mental constructs that cannot be proven scientifically and therefore can be changed like play-dough by anybody who comes along afterwards. And that therefore the attempt to preserve and respect the authority of ‘dogma’ is merely some fraudulent attempt to give solidity and validity to what are really a collection of somebody else’s or some earlier generations’ illusions or imaginings or daydreams or nightmares. OR, as I’m sure Alinsky would want to add here, some earlier generations’ established schemes for Extorting by the Haves from the Have-Nots.
But I would respond that A) if entire generations of humans in a group – especially a large group like a society or culture – have come to understand themselves, each other, their world, their lives, and perhaps the Beyond through the structuring lens of a body of dogma, then you don’t want to – and actually can’t – change all that dogma, or declare it all ‘illusion and opium’, without really really serious and harmful consequences.
NOR is it enough to say that such negative consequences are ‘acceptable losses’ because it’s all in the Great and Good Cause of ‘liberating’ them (and can you say Iraq War?). Because if you are going to destroy the culture in order to liberate it, then you are right back there and down there with the Vietnam-era Pentagoons.
Sometimes, even if you are convinced that you are right, you just can’t go and blow something up in order to replace it – some things take time. If you want to change the structural components, say, of a skyscraper that is occupied, or a ship at sea bearing passengers, or an airliner full of passengers that is airborne.
Some change takes time, even in a good cause. You can’t drive an ambulance at 150 mph through a city no matter how urgent the emergency (a baby choking, say) that you are going to. **
“The human spirit”, says Alinsky with a touchingly rich sense of human wondrousness, “glows from that small inner light of doubt whether we are right, while those who believe with complete certainty that they possess the right are dark inside and darken the world outside with cruelty, pain, and injustice”. (p.4) Which – since he has already absolved his own approach of being ‘dogmatic’ – allows him to claim the moral high-ground against those who ‘believe’ and are ‘certain’ of their dogmas.
Nice and neat, but insufficient to the complexities of the human reality.
On the most basic matters, humans can’t flourish, perhaps can’t even sustain psychic or even physical existence, without a sense of certainty. If there is no Meaning or Purpose to life, or at least if an individual can’t seem to achieve certainty as to what that Meaning or Purpose might be, then that individual or that society is going to have a very hard time mustering and sustaining the energy and vitality and determination and confidence to stay in business as a living entity.
A ship never maintains – and can never maintain – a simple straight line course; wind, weather, waves all work to push it off course a bit. So while a ship has to make constant minute corrections to compensate for the deranging effect of circumstances upon its Course, yet it maintains that ultimate Course. So, for example, you sail from London and you want to wind up at Singapore: you will be making lots of course-corrections along the way, but you know you want to end up at Singapore and all your small course corrections are made precisely to keep you on that ultimate Course to Singapore.
On lesser matters (and it’s a tricky question discerning just what is Ultimate and what is not-so-Ultimate to humans) a certain amount of flexibility – which is not the same as humility which is not the same as uncertainty – is surely in order. You can be flexible about some things because a change would not deeply and vitally change matters; you can be humble even while you are certain that you know what you are talking about and even that you are certain that you are right.
SOME things might need to be changed even though such change will require substantial re-arrangement in vital matters. BUT then you must still be verrrrry careful so as to minimize damage which might, if not properly managed, create lethal, perhaps fatal, consequences.
Alinsky wasn’t much for patience or prudence in this sort of thing. THAT, precisely, is what made him so popular with youthy Boomers and so attractive to excited, determined ‘advocates’ for this or that. But, as I’ve said elsewhere in Posts, even if you have an important change that needs to be made or mission to accomplish, you can’t just dive right in and start wielding axe and torch (if you are making changes to a hull or airframe in mid-air) or drive the ambulance at 150 mph (if you are on the way to a really big emergency) or go and start dynamiting foundations first thing tomorrow morning (if you are making fundamental structural changes to an occupied skyscraper). THAT is the type of approach embraced in American politics 40 years ago and it has proven to have horrible consequences for the American polity.
The best he will come up with in terms of trying to be a little careful and of trying to place some limits on the speed or extent of change is that to quote – neatly – “America’s founding fathers: ‘For the general welfare’”. (p.4)
But while heart-warmingly patriotic and reassuringly ‘traditional’ this is far too vague and general to function as an effective filter at so profoundly vital a depth of affairs. That’s like telling security guards at the White House that they should ‘only let good people in’. ANYbody can make a case for just about ANYthing as being good ‘for the general welfare’.
And is Alinsky here being too naïve or is he shrewdly tossing out a prudent-sounding idea to reassure the prudent while knowing it is so vague as to allow ANY ‘change’ that might be demanded? I can never quite be sure with Alinsky.
“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.” (pp.6-7)
He’s going to get into all this much more deeply later in the book, so let me just note here that Alinsky starts to show us his calculating side (and I don’t mean that in the negative sense).
But notice this too: regardless of how Alinsky-ite dynamics were actually driving the many Revolutions of the many Advocacies of the many Identities in this country over the past 40 Biblical years, the American people had been kinda led to believe – not unreasonably – that it was all on-the-level civics-text politics: decent folks had an idea, put the idea out there and up to the legislators, and looked to see how the great deliberative process would turn out.
But Alinsky has no respect for the civics-text brand of politics (nor perhaps for the Norman Rockwell painting of town-meeting politics). He is a street-fighter and a savvy shaper of events; his “radicals” (in later years to be called, more politely, ‘advocates’) are not simply to submit to events but – like the military at war – to shape and control the flow of events, and – also like the military at war – to do whatever it takes to ensure that events end in the desired result.
This type of politics has no place in Norman Rockwell’s town-meeting world, and Alinsky will be the first to admit it. Although Americans didn’t quite catch on back in the Sixties. Nor that instead of one revolution (which would be tough enough for a democratic politics to handle) there would be a whole bunch of revolutions simultaneously. ***
“All societies discourage and penalize ideas and writings that threaten the ruling status-quo.” (p.7)
Yes they do, and to the Boomery or Sixties-Seventies ear that statement might instantly be assumed to communicate an ominous note of premeditated treachery and deliberate, cynical oppression.
But there are plenty of reasons – far less sinister and far more constructive – why this statement of Alinsky’s is true.
First, as he himself notes, “all societies” in human history have displayed this characteristic of channeling the urge to deep and sweeping change. But contrary to Alinsky’s instant (dogmatic?) assumption that this is merely proof of the eternal oppression and extortion of the Have-Nots by the Haves, I submit that no human society can simply rip its foundations out every little old while and still keep functioning with a reliable degree of stability in order to provide for its members.
Have you ever noticed that although modern airliners are hugely capable machines, they rarely execute sharp or ‘large’ turns or changes in altitude? They gently sway into course alterations, they ‘begin descent’, but they don’t ‘dive’ and they don’t make the type of maneuvers you saw Tom Cruise doing in ‘Top Gun’. The planes and pilots could if they had to, but it’s not good for the passengers.
Then too, bomber pilots, famously, had to have a different temperament from fighter pilots. The job of a bomber pilot was not to ‘fight’ but to ‘bomb’ – he had to avoid the distractions of enemy aircraft, get his bomber over the target, hold the craft steady on its final approach in the face of enemy fire, drop the bombs on target and not a moment too early. This takes a certain type of temperament. Whereas a fighter pilot had to be ready at an instant to climb or dive dizzily, get into a fast-moving fight with an enemy fighter (or several) and as soon as he disposed of his enemy to go scooting off after another one and start all over again. And that takes a certain type of temperament.
Those are two very different types of temperament.
In a way, the great American airliner was taken over by Alinsky-ite fighter-pilots in the Sixties. And at this point, the passengers are frazzled into a stupor and – have you noticed yet? – the wings are wobbling, the engines are making rough and ominous noise, and if she seems to bounce a lot it’s because there’s not much fuel left to ballast her. Welcome to your modern American reality. Hope you like peanuts, chips, and un-chilled water. We’re not sure where we’ll be landing, but it most likely will be some distance short of Perfection and probably a lot sooner than had originally been announced. There may be a field but we’ll let you know more when we get things figured out.
We’re a Ford Tri-motor again (google it if you have to).
So all societies have to maintain some consistent Shape that provides a continuous and coherent identity; a structure that is also a vessel for its people. You can’t – as Kevin Costner found out in ‘Waterworld’ – build a human society out of nothing but purely fluid water.
But it is precisely Alinsky’s insight that humanity is much more ‘fluid’ and that any structure or attempt to retain shape and identity is NOTHING MORE THAN an oppressive attempt to maintain the ‘status quo’, and for the advantage of the Haves at the expense of the Have-Nots to boot.
(It strikes me as one example of this concept as it was picked up by this or that group for the purposes of its own agenda, that Family – one of the most vital and traditional Structures-and-Vessels for both adults who are married and the children who rely on them for the long human maturing period – is considered mostly just oppressive by current cutting-edge thought, and that children are imagined to be so plastic, fluid, and resilient that they are not harmed by the disruption of their Family structure-vessel through divorce or by non-marriage in the first place.)
Thus the Beltway’s lusty civilizational re-arranging this past Biblical 40 years, on the blithe assumption that you can twist the Great American Thing around like play-dough day-in and day-out and nothing much bad will result. Which is as much a fairy-tale level of analysis as is the assumption that you can kill the Goose and still rely on a steady and continued supply of Golden Eggs.
It’s easy to sacralize revolutions of the past, says Alinsky – but the Haves in any era will come up with plenty of reasons why there shouldn’t be a revolution right now. (p.7) Which gets his whiskers twitchy and makes him want to go out and organize a few just because.
But I agree with him that there is an eternal human tendency to Greed, and in an organized society, to organized Greed. And that folks have to organize themselves to avoid being Extorted. (Who can forget “The Seven Samurai” that Kurosawa filmed in 1954? Under attack by a gang of bandits who want to come by periodically to steal food, villagers enlist the help of seven decent, unemployed samurai to drive the bandits off for good. The samurai are even more lethally competent with weapons than the bandits and drive them off. At which point, looking around at the peace and quiet and stability of a well-functioning village life, the samurai offer to stay on in case other bandits might show up. And the villagers – with the sober and shrewd wisdom of peasants who know that when stuff flows downhill it’s going to be them at the bottom of that hill – reflect a moment and politely decline, and ask the samurai to leave. … And the samurai do.) This is – but then very much is not – Alinsky’s idea of how things work.
And of course, there’s the rarely-stated fact that today’s Extorted may be tomorrow’s Haves. Alinsky himself will note that the early-20th-century immigrant tenement laborers whom he helped organize when he was a young man had, by the 1950s and 1960s, become part of the ‘status quo’ Haves.
But then, if all you have to do to become a Greedy and Extorting Have is to succeed in making a decent living, then Alinsky’s vision calls for permanent and never-ending ‘civil war’: as soon as anybody succeeds in getting a few bucks, they become the oppressive and extorting Haves. But then too, the Beltway has now solved this part of the theoretical problem: nobody but a few Correct Elites are going to be making lotsa money any more, along with the Corporate and Wealthy who – Alinsky be damned – are now more firmly entrenched on top, and rent, lease or own more pols, than they did when Alinsky sat down to write his book.
And then too: most of the Advocacies did not press their revolutions for the age-old purposes of ending financial extortion by the Haves. Patriarchy’s Haves had power and status, White Haves had their race, Immigrant Have-Nots had to face the fact they were ‘different’, and Adult Haves had their experience and the authority over the youthy Have-Nots that goes with it. While all these revolutions were playing out, with accompanying melodrama of good-vs-evil, the genuine and ancient demons that catalyzed Alinsky’s outrage in his youth returned.
He makes a good point: “Today communism is synonymous with revolution while capitalism is synonymous with the status quo” (p.9)
BUT it’s an inadequate analysis. The United States is a bastion of democracy as well capitalism. Alinsky tended to focus – his Marxist formation no doubt played a role – on that ‘capitalism’ aspect, while dismissing the ‘democracy’ element as being for all practical purposes a sham: capitalist Wealth undermined whatever dynamics of genuine democracy might actually try to function in America.
I think it was a consequence of this dismissal of any American claim to being a legitimate democracy that made it so easy for Alinsky-ites to deliberately deploy with something approaching a clear conscience the dynamics of communist organization and agitation against the American polity in the Sixties and since then: since Capitalism and its extortive and oppressive Haves had basically reproduced in America the society of Czarist Russia, then it was perfectly legitimate to deploy the ‘liberating’ tactics developed by the Communists to overthrow that oppressive and extortive culture. (And of course this economic element could be easily replaced by, say, a gender element or what-have-you.)
He brassily announces that “revolution has always advanced with an ideological spear just as the status-quo has inscribed its ideology upon its shield”. (p.10) Again, for anybody who is concerned not for ‘politics as usual’ but for anything approaching the deliberative democratic politics of the civics-texts, this man was not going to be an ally. His first concern for such a person would be to figure if they were a Have or a Have-Not … one of the first of the instantly divisive sheep-and-goats dynamics that both looked back to early Communism and forward to Identity Politics.
“There is no dispassionate objectivity”, he continues. (p.10) This looks back to the revolutionary conceits of the early Communists: since the revolution already has the inside dope on History and how society works, then there’s no need to respectfully listen to anybody else or objectively consider their position; nor do you need to let their tainted and deluded ‘objectivity’ judge your own absolutely accurate and complete revolutionary wisdom. But it also looks forward to the radical-feminist assertion that ‘objectivity’ is a ‘male’ thing, a tool of ‘patriarchal oppression’, an ‘abstraction’ that snuffs out the life of the female ‘story’ and that holds in subordination the female ability to intuit and emote and come thereby to a more profound and accurate (and peaceful, and sensitive, and fill-in-the-blank) knowledge.
And he wraps this thought up with a quotation – nicely traditional again – from Abe Lincoln (who made it, he notes with curiously objective precision, on May 19, 1856): “’Revolutions do not go backward.’”
The quotation is from what is known as Lincoln’s “Lost Speech” to the Republican State Convention in Bloomington, Illinois (on May 29th). It is now thought that there is no record of the speech NOT because it was so enchanting and engaging that reporters failed to take any notes, but rather because Lincoln deemed it far too assertive and strong in its anti-slavery sentiments for the voters down in Southern Illinois and needed it to be not-reported verbatim.
At any rate, Lincoln was warning that the American Revolution could not be reversed nor could the South – if it sought, as it was threatening, to make a Second American Revolution – reverse the First by formally erecting the institution of slavery. That might be a Confederate Revolution, but it could not rightly be termed an American Revolution (as if there could be a second one of those, and History records Lincoln’s ultimate position on that question).
It strikes me that you would have to ask yourself if Alinsky’s revolutions were forward-looking, PRO-gressive in the formal sense of the term, or backward-looking and thus RE-gressive. By introducing Soviet and Communist techniques and tactics into the American political system in the 1960s, was Alinsky bringing forth an American future or dragging back a Communist past? (In the 1920s and early 1930s, in Alinsky’s very active youth, Communism – even in America – was considered by many to be the wave of the future.)
The same thing, as I have said on this site before, might be asked of the radical-feminist revolution in its often successful efforts - under the deceptive spin of ‘reform’ and ‘progress’ – to pull American and Western law, politics and praxis away from a hard-won grounding in objective reason and into the pre-Modern ethos of emotion and imagination and ‘story’.
Alinsky then lists the qualities of an “organizer”: “He does not have a fixed truth – truth to him is relative and changing … he is a political relativist … he is ever on the hunt for the causes of man’s plight and the general propositions that help make some sense out of man’s irrational world … irreverence, essential to questioning, is a requisite … curiosity becomes compulsive … his most frequent word is ‘why?’”. (p.11)
Notice again that the idea that there is no fixed truth becomes part of the injecta that Alinsky will push into the American political bloodstream, just as French Deconstructionism will do so later in the decade, having arrived from a different direction but having drunk deeply of the same Marxist source. The political relativism is not the problem. But it would take a particularly mature organizer to personally retain a certainty in fixed and objective truth while dedicating his life professionally to the proposition that there is no such thing.
Perhaps Alinsky is only referring here to that ‘political truth’ but even if that’s true it’s a hardly possible distinction to make or maintain.
Alinsky also gives voice to this grossly inaccurate but typical Boomer belief that in order to question something one must be irreverent. This presumption reflects, again as so often, a remarkably shallow appreciation of human practice. The truly reverent person – pius in the Latin – can and must look questioningly at the object of his reverence in order to purify his own perceptions and, if the object of his reverence be in some way human-sourced, to ensure that it continues to perform in such a way as to be worthy of reverence. You don’t have to be an in-your-face or cynical adolescent in order to ‘question’. And, in fact, that the type of questions you wind up with from such types usually isn’t going to be too illuminating.
Alinsky then asks, aptly enough: “Is the organizer then rudderless?” (p.11)
No, he says, because the organizer “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”. (p.11) If this isn’t true, then the American democratic republic is wrongly-conceived and will never work. And it’s to Alinsky’s credit that he believes in the ability of the people to reach the right decisions.
BUT given that he also locks the people into his own narrowly-conceived worldview, where their only options are to act against the Haves or remain passive and inert, then what scope does he give the freedom he believes they deserve? And the main thing an organizer will seek to achieve, because the main thing the organizer has been taught, is that there are only Haves and Have-Nots and that Nothing Is On The Level.
Again, Alinsky appears to be very pragmatic, non-ideological and non-dogmatic by insisting that “the basic requirement for the understanding of the politics of change is to recognize the world as it is”. (p.12)
BUT his insistence that the world is for all practical purposes fundamentally divided up into Haves and Have-Nots and that the life is basically a “warfare” (that odd misquote of Job with which he leads off this chapter) has already established a fundamental dogmatic assumption at the very outset. And one with profound – and lethal – consequences. Especially when deployed in a deliberative democratic polity.
If it appears that American politics hasn’t ‘worked’ very well for Us these past 40 years, it may well be because the Alinsky Approach and the Alinsky Vision had been adopted by so much of the ‘elite’ and the Advocacies and the politicians. And that Alinsky material represented a ‘politics’ that had started out not as a ‘politics’ at all, but merely as a wedge by which an existing government and polity (originally, the Russian Czarist autocracy faced by Marx and then Lenin) could and would be overthrown.
Alinsky tried to deploy that Technique here, but – as he thought – in the service of democratic liberation. But a WAR-POLITICS – if I may – may be far too volatile an animal to be harnessed for good to a democratic politics; the beast – a war-horse – is designed for Victory through destruction, for conquering, and not for the quotidian chores of a delivery dray.
Worse, Alinsky then advances his already lethal thought: “Political realists see the world as it is: an arena of power politics moved primarily by perceived and immediate self-interests, where morality is rhetorical rationale for expedient action and self-interest.”. (pp.12-3)
In the first place, ‘power politics’ includes that toxic dose of ‘warfare’ between the only two classes into which Alinsky divides the Citizenry, the Haves and the Have-Nots. And as noted above, this ‘warfare’ is capable of quickly and insidiously slipping into a ‘zero-zum game’ as well as injects the ‘take no prisoners’ and ‘total victory’ conceptions (and emotions) that are a part of the definition and understanding of modern war.
In the second place, “morality” is reduced to the status of a “rhetorical” ploy – and worse, a deceitful ploy, an illusion embraced by the Haves, like an opiate, to dull the ‘edge’ of the Have-Nots’ awareness of just how they are being oppressed and extorted.
And THIS is a lethal and profound change that he injects into American reality. Because on top of being a wrong-headed (perhaps even antithetical) gambit by which to understand the fundamental America Vision of how Our polity works, this gambit in a single swipe undermines the validity of Morality.
You may respond that Alinsky uses “morality” with a small-m, but I will say that he intends – and his text understands – the concept in the sense of the capital-M. That is to say, Alinsky – true to his materialist and reductionist Marxist background – has no use whatsoever for ‘capital-letter concepts’ except to expose them as being illusory tools and weapons of the Haves.
AND THEN you have to take into account that this thought of Alinsky’s blends into the toxic stream of French Deconstructionism as it was force-pumped into the American scene starting – by amazing coincidence – in the early Seventies. In fact, since the original French Theory of Deconstructionism was primarily a literary theory used for approaching literary texts in university humanities courses, it may well be that Alinsky’s kindred political assault provided an easy pathway by which eager ‘Advocacies’ could translate that Deconstruction from the classroom consideration of books to the entire fundament of Western civilization, culture, and of the dynamics of the American democratic polity as well.
You recall that those Advocacies, the vanguard-elites of the many Revolutions of the Identities, sought to create cultural ‘space’ for their many and various agendas and demands and visions by sweeping away the ‘obstructive abstractions’ of such bedrock principles (and, I would say, Realities) as Tradition, Virtue, Reason, Character, and – of course – Morality (to say nothing of the Beyond and its servants, Religion and Spirituality).
Whereas Machiavelli simply sought to ignore ‘morality’ or ‘Morality’ as being relevant to the game of power, Alinsky – building on the materialistic and reductionist base of Marx and Lenin – seeks to sweep them off the board of human existence altogether, justifying that gambit by assuming (rather dogmatically) that they don’t exist except as illusory and oppressive tools and weapons of the Haves to further their – in his vision – eternal and historically and humanly fundamental war of power over the Have-Nots.
This is a double-whammy: reducing not only politics but human existence to a ‘war’ and in a Flattened monodimensional human ‘Life Space’ with no Vertical aspect and no dimension of the Beyond whatsoever. Alinsky’s vision is worse than “1984”: it is not simply a political dystopia (from a Classical and traditional democratic and Western point of view) but an existential dystopia as well.
But – true to the spirit of the Sixties but also the shrewd packaging of Leninist propaganda – he packages this in a cutesy phrase: “In this world laws are written for the lofty aim of ‘the common good’ and then acted out in life on the basis of the common greed”. (p.13)
AND can you imagine what this assumption, couched as a First Principle, does to the concept of Law and the training – of generations, by this point – of lawyers and jurists? No wonder that by now, and from the Left as well as from the Right, attorneys (and many politicians have legal backgrounds) as well as jurists have demonstrated a frighteningly cavalier approach to ‘Law’ and legislation? Recall the stunningly frakkulent assertion of then-Senator Biden in 1994 about his pet Violence Against Women Act: “It may be a bad law but it sends a great message”. (See my recent Post on Biden).
He shrewdly follows THAT cutesy remark with an even more manipulatively coy historical reference: building on a Dark-Ages comment made to a Pope about the English (‘they are not Angles, but Angels’, referring to the blond and white coloration Mediterranean missionaries found among the residents of Brittania), Alinsky asserts that this is “a world not of angels but of angles”. (p.13) (And again, see my Post on Biden and his own reductionist personal principle that politics is nothing more than the job of closing “the deal”. Biden, by the by, claims to have been “bored” with his professional legal education.)
Also, in a footnote on this page (13) Alinsky mentions that he has trained numbers of seminarians, who were seeking how to wrest ‘power’ from “stuffy, reactionary old pastors” (implying a mostly Catholic setting for this comment). If your mind runs to Matters Religious, consider that in the period following the already complex and fraught Second Vatican Council (concluded in 1965) the Church in the United States was also so fundamentally bethumpt by Alinsky-ite ‘power war’ between the ‘stuffy old Haves’ and the thoroughly ‘modern’ and young Have-Nots. This is a toxic stream within the floody river of ‘liberal’ Catholicism in the United States and has been for 40 years.
But, he intones, “in the world as it is” (meaning as he sees it) there are “no happy endings” and any such beliefs are “fantasy”. Which is so true that it approaches truism. And distracts from the more immediate significance posed by his assertions: that he is reducing the admitted complexity and incompletelness of human affairs into an either-or dilemma of either-fantasy-or-his-power-politics. This is a simplistic but shrewdly constructed false dilemma, designed to force the herd to stampede in his direction.
In the ‘middle’ that he so neatly ignores lies the genuine drama of human history: trying to find, continuously, a balance between the Ideal and the incomplete Present. And humans, being by nature ‘incomplete’ (why else would one strive or seek if not to improve a self or a situation?), so their affairs and history are equally incomplete.
Alinsky – and the politics based on his dogmatic assumptions – sidesteps the genuine mature challenge of humanity-in-history, substituting the more telegenic and immaturely ‘exciting’ melodrama of ‘war’, between the Haves who hold ‘power’ and the Have-Nots who are oppressed by them.
I would say that to reduce human life – individually and communally – to nothing more than a power-struggle in which there can be no Morality except the wresting of ‘power’ is itself an ‘oppression’ of profound proportions.
And, by the way, in Alinsky here I think you can see clearly whence cometh Bush-Cheney’s pious blather about “seeking moral clarity” by insisting that hugely complex issues can be reduced to a ‘wresting of power’ from ‘Evil-doers’, AND – in a frightening coincidence – to do so by ‘war’.
Alinsky’s simplistic attempt to achieve ‘clarity’ about ‘the world as it is’ is achieved by simply sweeping away obstructive principles (such as Morality). Which also, as I said above, fuels the wide and deep Postmodern Deconstruction asserted by the Advocacies of the Revolutions of the Identities and by Identity Politics (from the putative ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ Left).
He builds upon his assertions: “The fact is, that it is not man’s ‘better nature’ but his self-interest that demands that he be his brother’s keeper”. (p.23) Thus he sweeps, among many other bright things, Lincoln’s First and Second Inaugurals off the table of ‘reality’ and into the trash-bin of ‘fantasy’ and ‘illusion’.
It is certainly true that ‘self-interest’ plays a dynamic but also volatile role in human affairs, since it plays such a similar role in the human individual. AND since that individual is tempted by Greed and addled by the anxious quest to assure personal ‘security’ and a certain type of ‘success’, then Yes, you are going to have to be verrrry careful and insightful and disciplined in both the challenge of personal maturing and in the project of building a common life and polity. BUT Alinsky would reduce this profound and fundamental human drama into the simplistic (but so frizzily exciting) melodrama of ‘your pure and innocent good’ and ‘somebody else’s depraved and deliberate evil’.
This is a Hobbesian vision that creates a Hobbesian world. And thus Alinsky shares in the same dysphoric and acidly violent self-stampede that so addled Hobbes that in the 17th century that thinker was willing to accept, even to demand, “Leviathan” – some earthly godling that would rule everybody’s lives so as to crush disorder, regardless of any ill consequences to human liberty and human creativity and (in the Christian and Catholic vision) to Humanity’s life-shaping task of Shaping individual and common life according to the Ideals of what Humanity – when refined after arduous effort – can, however imperfectly, achieve.
All of this was wayyyyy too much thinking to the eager and darkling revolutionaries and ‘organizers’ of the Alinsky-ite tradition. Alinsky’s ‘world’ was no place for mature adults as conceived by the tradition of Western civilization. And they did not remain in that tradition very long.
And here We are today, with Our modern American reality.
And yet, in concluding this chapter, Alinsky tries to assure himself that he’s doing the right thing here.
“I believe that man is about to learn that the most practical life is the moral lifeand that the moral life is the only road to survival.” (p.23) Well-said and bravely spoken! But he has already defined ‘morality’ as being an illusion EXCEPT FOR his own version of morality, which is that eternal war of power between the Haves and the Have-Nots. Morality for Alinsky consists in embracing that ‘war’ and waging it in season and out of season. (And again, you can look ahead 30 awful years to Bush claiming with utter self-assurance that the only ‘moral’ thing to do is to wage war …)
He concludes that this ‘morality’ of his constitutes “the low road to morality”. (p.23) BUT THEN he instantly asserts “There is no other [road]”. It’s an unending ‘war’ over ‘power’ or it’s nothing; Alinsky’s way or the highway. Eternal ‘war’ (and civil war) or an immoral passive acceptance of one’s position as a Have-Not. And that’s it – in Alinsky’s take on things.
There is no ‘high road’ to morality (or to politics). It’s all ‘war’ or it’s no ‘real’ political activity at all.
And in that implication I think you can see how American politics has become so profoundly and ominously deranged. And also how the Beltway – Democratic or Republican controlled – can have gotten Us into the awful situations, domestic and foreign, through which the nation has been so awfully reduced, not only in actual ‘power’ but also in the integrity and strength of its Ideals.
*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.
**For a while in the Sixties and Seventies certain groups considered it a great and cruel failure on the part of the Allies that although they knew about the Nazi concentration camps they did not ‘bomb’ them. This, insisted many with almost no knowledge of the military realities, proved that the immensely powerful Allies didn’t really care about the helpless and suffering inmates of the camps.
But i) flying a large formation of British or American bombers (the Soviets were never keen to help) from bases in England to Poland or eastern Germany would have been physically impossible, let alone hugely costly in terms of crews and planes lost to Luftwaffe and anti-aircraft action on the attack or return legs of the flight; ii) the big planes flew so high that they could not precision-bomb the ‘Nazi garrison’ sections of the camp without also destroying the inmate sections, especially since iii) the two sections were not often separated by more than wire or fences; iv) even if ideally you could bomb just the Nazi guards and thus leave the inmates alive and in control of what was left of the camp, what then would the ‘liberated’ inmates do? They were deep in Nazi territory, probably physically rather weak and with no means of subsistence or escape, NOR of defense should the Nazis then send military units to re-establish the camp control; v) if they were really determined (and the Nazis were known for their determination) they could have moved the camps or – from their point of view more convenient – simply executed all the inmates then and there.
So, really, what could you realistically expect to accomplish by mounting such a series or campaign of air-raids on the camps?
It was much in the spirit of Alinsky’s Approach to claim that the Allies were simply and totally treacherously uncaring (acting as dominant Haves) about the plight of the camp captives (cast as the powerless Have-Nots) … here were the Allies sitting on top of all these huge fleets of bombers and yet the camps remained un-bombed. Surely, in the Alinsky vision, this could only be due to the treachery of the Haves against the Have-Nots.
Yet the military problems with ‘bombing the camps’ were huge and ultimately impossible to resolve.
I take this much time with this example because I think it speaks deeply to the entire ‘revolution’ problem introduced into American politics by the Boomers under the tutelage of such as Alinsky in the 1960s; a problem that still remains active, and is certainly enshrined in many laws, policies, and overall ‘philosophical outlooks’ even now.
***I have mostly imagined this multiplicity of simultaneous Revolutions in the late Sixties and early Seventies to be primarily a natural consequence of the vote-addled Democrats needing to raise up a whole new array of ‘demographic groups’ as quickly as possible. I still hold that.
I notice now though that this simultaneous mass attack of revolutions served another purpose as well: the large number of deep and profoundly challenging revolutions, each with deep and challenging demands based on frequently unusual or dubious grounds, prevented the public from focusing carefully on any one revolution’s agenda or demands in order to examine them and deliberate on them. In a way it was like Blitzkrieg: the massed simultaneous assault by different modes (armor, air, motorized infantry, special forces troops) of force operating in conjunction and approaching simultaneously from different points of the compass … overwhelmed the unsuspecting public’s ability to perform its analysis and deliberations.
This may not have been planned, but events certainly turned out in such a way that a Citizenry raised on civics-book democracy was as unprepared for Alinsky-ite political Blitzkrieg as the Polish Army was for the Hitlerite military Blitzkrieg. I am NOT implying that the Identities are historically equal to Nazis; I AM observing that the same dynamics of overwhelming an unprepared and unsuspecting targeted group were deployed.