Wednesday, October 06, 2010


I continue this look at Saul Alinsky’s 1972 book “Rules for Radicals” that – I believe – has exerted and continues to exert a substantial and deforming influence on national politics.

His second chapter is entitled “Means and Ends”.

His first move is to assert that there can never be any general consideration of the classic question “Does the end justify the means?” (p.24) Such a question (I’d call it a Question – it’s that important because of what it’s dealing with) is, he says, “meaningless as it stands”. Rather, he says, “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?’” (p.24)

This is in keeping with the Flattened Marxist vision that there is no Higher Law. BUT then it also follows the Marxist-Leninist trajectory: it winds up making ‘the Revolution’ the Higher Law. Because if a dedicated revolutionary organizer is going to be looking at whether a particular end justifies a particular means, then the Revolution is the ultimate criterion. Does this means further the Revolution or not? And if the contemplated act furthers the Revolution (and that ‘furthers’ is no doubt widely defined) then it’s OK. And more: if it furthers the Revolution, then NOT to do it is a treason to the Revolution (and, of course, to “the masses” on whose behalf the Revolution is being carried out, allegedly, in the first place).

And to introduce this into any politics, but especially into a democratic deliberative politics, is going to have monstrously negative consequences. And I think that can be seen now, in a way that during the 1960s and 1970s might not have been so obvious, given the bright heat-haze of ‘reform’ and ‘change’ and ‘changing the status quo’ that blurred the vision of so many back then. By the 1980s and subsequently, I think, Alinsky’s actual prescriptions were formally forgotten, but only because they had become so thoroughly imbibed by the elites that they existed as ‘common knowledge’ that they ‘just knew’ because ‘everybody knows that’.

‘Reasons of state’ had always been a lethal threat to ethics in civic affairs, at least since the days of Machiavelli, who essentially warned – being a ‘realist’ – that any leader who took ‘the high road’ to governance and diplomacy was going to be beaten by any opponent who was willing to take ‘the low road’. If you took the ‘high road’ and held yourself to standards of action that could be judged ‘virtuous’ by ‘God’ or any such Higher Judge, then you were going to get taken to the cleaners; therefore the most ‘realistic’ course of action was to get down low … and, optimally, to get down lowest and get there first. Just to make sure.

The Christian vision of life had always been that humans are simultaneously possessed of a spiritual capacity (localized in the ‘soul’) to follow God’s and Christ’s teaching, but then also of a tendency not only to incompleteness and lack of perfection in developing and exercising that capacity, but an actual tendency to act against God’s ways (which, in the Christian vision, would also be to act against one’s own best and most genuine self and its possibilities).

Thus in the Christian vision, ‘Ideals’ were very ‘realistic’, because sin was as real as soul and humans needed to compensate for that tendency – like the captain of a ship that had a flaw when it came from the builder’s yard.

But Machiavelli took the position that while this might work for individuals, yet in matters of governing principalities or the nascent nation-states, the stakes were simply too high; Ideals were something that princes and leaders could not afford, since – even if they themselves were virtuous – the humans they were dealing with, other princes and leaders, might well choose this occasion to take a short-cut in order to win by doing something ‘un-virtuous’ (or, as the Victorian diplomats might say, ‘ungentlemanly’).

So at least in the matter of statecraft a prince couldn’t afford to be idealistic and virtuous. It was a sad situation, Machiavelli felt, and not one that he liked, but that was the way things were and if you as a prince were to ignore the possibility of another prince’s lack of ‘virtue’ in the conduct of Great Affairs wasn’t going to do you or your people any good – and would probably get a lot of them, and possibly yourself, killed.

Now it’s no coincidence that the growing realm of ‘business’ – the way of ‘merchants’ – was already working on that assumption in Machiavelli’s time (and has only increased since then). You weren’t going to make a lot of money if you were a ‘nice’ guy; in matters financial, you had to be ‘sharp’ in all senses of the word.

You might say that Machiavelli was simply trying to apply to princes what had already been established as a Modus Operandi among the merchant class. The figure of the Prince in Machiavelli’s time was still encased in the Medieval idea that the King or Sovereign was not just a human exercising a job or office, but was the Anointed of God who would live the most perfect Christian life, thus being not only ruler politically but also spiritual exemplar to his people.

Things, Machiavelli saw, were getting wayyyy too complicated for such old-fashioned pieties. His ‘modern’ Prince had to be much more a fox and a wolf than a sheep, even an Anointed sheep.

So this falling-off from ‘virtue’ flowed from a falling-off from any sense of there being a reliable Higher Law that would enforce itself reliably on all ‘players’. Since it was clear that in this world God apparently let a lot of tares grow up with the wheat, then you couldn’t rely on Him as a quick and decisive Referee who would instantly throw a flag or blow the whistle if somebody decided to take a short-cut in order to score.

Rather than old-fashioned ‘virtue’, Machiavelli wanted the Prince to display ‘virtu’, an Italian word that Machiavelli conceived in the sense of ‘manliness’, the ‘courage’ to go beyond old-fashioned virtue and really get things done.

And so it has become.

You might consider it as a race-to-the-bottom, that Machiavelli broke down a wall that in Medieval Christendom had been put in place to instill in human leaders the sense of doing-the-right-thing that would simultaneously i) assure the integrity of the individual leader, ii) give good example to his (or her, if a queen or such) people, and iii) compensate for the very real fact that Jesus apparently meant what He said when He mentioned the wheat being allowed to grow up with the tares until the Harvest.

In the absence of any sense of a reliably efficacious Higher Law that could and would referee the great human game up close and personal and immediately, princes, merchants, and after a while individual folks themselves began to move away from any working respect for a Higher Law. Nobody since then has been free from this dynamic.

Marx – familiar with the government of one of the last Anointed Princes, the Russian Czar – and seeing how traditional ethics and religion seemed not only unable to prevent the Industrial Age’s truly monstrous use of human beings but actually were deployed to justify it all, pretty much decided that Higher Law and Higher Things were at the very least of no help to the struggling masses and, at most, were illusions of a particularly lethal kind.

The hell with ethics and religion, he said (for all practical purposes).

And getting rid of Things Higher, he then sought to fill the vacuum with Something Earthly, but Something so tremendously well-intentioned and so genuinely concerned to achieve such a Great and Good Thing (the liberation of the masses and the achievement of the workers’ paradise, say for example) that it be its own justification, and would not need to look up or down or across in human existence for its validation.

But Marx was a theorist. He spent a lot of time in libraries and wrote books.

Lenin was a man of action and intended to put Marx’s theories to work. And to succeed in that great task. And he was therefore willing and considered himself justified in moving any earthly furniture that needed to be re-arranged (or gotten rid of) in order to build what had to be built. Alas, in the vision of the Revolution as Lenin conceived it, individual flesh-and-blood human beings were as much furniture as the wooden kind was.

Alinsky learned a lot from studying Marx and realized how bloody Lenin could be.

After reading him, it seems to me that he that he thought he could take the Vision of Marx and the Technique of Lenin and ‘baptize’ them by removing the physical violence and Terror and simply turning the dynamics of revolutionary-organizing loose in American politics.

But too much remained: the Flatness of the world that Marx reduced to the material plane and to economics; the never-ending suspicion of others who had ‘more’ material goods than you did; and the awful alone-ness of human beings as individuals and groups: if you were hard put to make it through life when the Haves were keeping you down, how much more so when there was no other Help except whatever you could accomplish on your own?

“The man of action views the issue of means and ends in pragmatic and strategic terms – he has no other problem”. (p.24) Meaning he need not trouble himself about any ‘problem’ with Things Higher. For Alinsky, ‘real men’ – you might say – didn’t let themselves be obstructed by Things Higher; they were ‘realistic’.

But then, is it an accurate reflection of the reality of the human being that the human being is a thing of only one dimension? Is it an accurate reflection of this human existence and the world it creates that is mono-dimensional? Surely if THAT assumption is inaccurate, then ‘realism’ goes out the window; the approach would be hugely not-realistic from the get-go.

“To say that corrupt means corrupt the ends is to believe in the immaculate conception of ends and principles”. (p.24) This is a cutesy way of embracing Machiavelli: since you can’t rely on Virtue to be embraced by everybody, then you’re a fool to allow yourself to be hemmed in by considerations of Virtue. Since you can’t rely on everybody taking the high road, then you’re a fool to weaken your chances by not taking that short-cut along the low-road. Since you can’t rely on everybody believing in Higher Things to the extent that they will follow the Higher Way, then maybe there is no Higher Way for any practical purposes in this life.

And if there is no Higher Anything for any practical purposes, then why waste time and energy believing in any Higher Anything at all?

It could be countered, from a Christian viewpoint at least, that such a conclusion is highly impractical and unrealistic: if Christ was right, then human beings are very much involved with Higher Things – and a Higher Person – and have a Higher dimension themselves. And therefore Christ’s ‘practicality’ was far more acute – ruthless, indeed – since it took into consideration all of the dynamic realities of the human being, and not just the ones that appeared to the naked eye. Christ too could suggest that Things Are Not What They Seem To Be.

But it has been the destiny of humans, and not just in the Modern West, to have to come to grips with all the Tares among the Wheat. And so the Tares have actually had a rather large – if negative –influence on the shape of human history and on the shape of human behaviors. And behaviors shape the self.

And here We are.

“The real arena is corrupt and bloody. Life is a corrupting process from the time a child learns to play his mother off against his father in the politics of when to go to bed; he who fears corruption fears life.” (pp.24-5)

He’s right about that corrupt and bloody aspect of life. Although he concludes that since there is so much blood and corruption, then that’s all there is to life. And to being human. And if you want to accept that vision as ‘total’ then you’ve condemned yourself to a Hobbesian darkness, flame-stabbed and blood-red.

And yes, kids so demonstrate that craftiness that all humans are born with – although it takes, say, a genuine spiritual up-bringing to educate that craftiness into decency and respect for others. The more kids lack that in the family, the less the culture of their society reinforces it, then the more kids will simply join the ranks of the spiritually and humanly un-evolved, and their behaviors as they go through life will continue the cycle of darkness.

And if you fear corruption, does that mean that you must embrace it? Is that going to do you or “life” any good?

Alinsky considers himself a realist for facing the frak. I think it’s called ‘embracing the suck’ as American troops now say on their frontier duties in the Greater Southwest Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. But you can see now, I think, what happens to troops who spend long amounts of time under the pressure of bloody events, when they simply ‘embrace’ all that: they become that.

And so will American politics as it descends into a divisive and sempiternal ‘war’ of Haves and Have-Nots. And so it has come about.

“Action” is what you do to achieve “mass salvation”; any concerns for “personal salvation” is merely selfish. (p.25) So, it appears, anybody concerned for their personal salvation is merely “selfish”. There is more than a hint here of the ominous ‘morality’ urged upon dedicated members of, say, the SS: that you must abandon personal qualms (derived from a Christian up-bringing, but even also from a natural human moral sense, one that not only shrinks from acts of great violence against others, but also from the violent consequences of that action to one’s own self).

“The men who pile up heaps of discussion and literature on the ethics of means and ends – which with rare exception is conspicuous for its sterility – rarely write about their own experiences in the perpetual struggle of life and change.” (p.25) Might as well burn their books, no? And since they themselves, having left the writing desk and ‘gone outside’ may engage in some failures in their own ideals, then they are nothing more than frauds: THIS is a juvenile take, adolescent in its oversimplification, on the admittedly dark complexities of conducting a human life.

In that regard, I can’t help recalling an episode of the TV series “House, M.D.” : House has discovered that his friend and colleague Dr. Wilson, whose character is always the balanced and ‘professional’ foil to House’s impetuous behavior, has been sleeping in a consensual relationship with a female patient. At the end of the episode Wilson’s character says to House: “Just because you can’t always live up to them, it doesn’t mean that ideals don’t exist”. (Or words to that effect; I’m working from memory here.) **

But that’s not for Alinsky. And I respect that he’s sensitive to a lot of blood and corruption, and that a lot of it exists out there. But I’m not sure his solution or response is the way to go. In 1900 American forces found themselves faced with the Philippine Insurrection: the U.S. had liberated Cuba by seeking and winning a war against the decrepit Spanish Empire; as part of the treaty that ended hostilities Spain’s Pacific possession, the Philippines, was ‘purchased’ by the U.S. for some millions of dollars; the Filipinos had imagined that the American troops that had been sent to those islands at the outbreak of hostilities were there to ‘liberate’ them just as Cuba had been liberated; Washington had no such intentions, very much needing a foothold in the Pacific for its navy and for expanding the markets to China (the Depression of 1893 had terrified Washington into realizing how much the U.S. had to find markets for all the goods it could produce); the Filipinos realized that they were not being liberated but rather being taken-over or occupied; being the underdogs and not possessing a modern army, they fought ‘jungle-style’; the Americans decided that since they weren’t fighting a ‘civilized’ opponent then they had to fight in an uncivilized way themselves. It was a nasty affair all around.***

And this is how Alinsky imagine life should always proceed? That if you are faced with barbarity (let alone asking why you are faced with it) then ‘real men’ go and get barbarous themselves. Where will THAT end?

He continues against those who think and write about “ethics of means and ends”: “They are strangers, moreover, to the burdens and problems of operational responsibility and the unceasing pressure for immediate decisions. They are passionately committed to a mystical objectivity where passions are suspect. They assume a nonexistent situation where men dispassionately, and with reason, draw and devise means and ends as if studying a navigational chart on land”. (p.25)

By this point, Alinsky (like Lenin before him) has given so much away to the darknesses of human existence that he can’t imagine how any responsible man of action could in good conscience (so to speak) legitimately neglect ‘the low road’. (And does any of this sound familiar from the days of Bush-Cheney and the run-up to the Iraq War?). He draws an almost cartoonish pair of alternatives: you can either be some bloodless philosopher in an ivory tower or you can go out and do whatever it takes to accomplish some good in the world. Again with the adolescent oversimplification.

But that’s what American politics has become now, no?

He uses the curious image from the realm of ship-command: those cartoon-philosophers are like people who study navigational charts on land (in other words, without actually being faced with the frightening challenges of sailing a ship at sea, perhaps on a dark and stormy night, responsible for the lives of crew and passengers). But precisely there I ask if the at-sea image is apt to stand-in for conducting a deliberative democratic politics: it is precisely in a democratic deliberative politics that everybody concerned comes together and deliberates, and communicates to elected representatives who are themselves maturely deliberating.

And if you say, with some accuracy, that that’s not how American politics ‘really works’, then things go back to the question about how much Alinsky and Identity Politics have contributed to a debasement of American politics.

In the face of the perennial human failure to live up fully to its Ideals and potentials, Alinsky (and many before him) says that Ideals and potentials are therefore fraudulent and illusory and everybody should just forget about them and get down to getting as dirty as they have to.

After a while, everybody is going to be so deformed by getting dirty on that low-road that the entire polity becomes a pig-pen, it seems to me. And with some mighty feral pigs.

Alinsky thinks that the “means-and-ends moralists” are, in the final analysis, merely “allies of the Haves”, whether they know it or not, whether they want to be or not. (p.25) I think that he’s right that once you’ve got a bit of financial security (a university tenure, say) then you may very well lose touch with the needs of the economic Have-Nots.

But to go and assert that therefore the whole Ideals-and-ethics thing has to be thrown-away and everybody head for the low-road … I can’t see that as being a mature or an ultimately beneficial or a genuinely ‘realistic’ approach. Nor, for that matter, an approach suitable to genuine adults (as opposed to the cartoon figures of ‘real men’ that so many of the elites, including apparently Alinsky, hide behind).

He even goes as far as to quote the respected Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain: “the fear of soiling ourselves by entering the context of history is not virtue, but a way of escaping virtue”. Like his quotations of Lincoln and the Book of Job, you have to ask yourself why so dedicated a this-worldly revolutionary even bothers, but there it is.

He’s quoting Maritain’s 1951 “Man and the State”. Just before the bit that Alinsky quotes, Maritain enumerates all the ways that modern governments take what Alinsky would call the low-road (and the list, from 1951, is sobering reading for anybody familiar with American foreign policy in the last decade). They are among the many ways, says Maritain, that “… the pessimists of Machiavellianism turn to the advantage of political amorality”****

So Alinsky, heir of Machiavelli through Marx and Lenin (although he wants to put both that Italian and the two Russians and himself in the service of ‘the masses’), quotes just the snippet from a noted Catholic philosopher who is precisely rejecting Machiavelli and the tradition that has flowed (downhill) from him.

The Catholic position, especially in Thomas Aquinas, (which is the position against which Machiavelli developed his thought) is that the supernatural realm and its virtues are not only Higher than the natural realm (human life and history and events) BUT rather that the supernatural realm ACTUALLY INTERACTS WITH the natural realm, ‘informing’ it and thereby shaping it.

THIS, you can see, is a hugely dynamic and dramatic element of existence, and if it’s true then Alinsky and Company’s take on what is ‘real’ is hugely inadequate, insufficient, and precisely unreal.

If the Higher Realm is in continuous dynamic interaction with the Human Realm (if I can call this [lace of existence by that name for ease of reference) then there is huge cause (Cause, you might say) for Hope, and a motivation for continuing to pursue what I have been calling ideals and the Ideal. Because the Higher Realm Beyond the Human Realm is continuously working (though beyond the radar of the merely physical senses) to bring Humanity closer or ‘higher’ to its genuine potentials.

Marx and Lenin and Alinsky and countless others couldn’t see that the Higher Realm was having much good effect; and I don’t for a moment deny the oceans of suffering caused by all the afflictions that bethump the Have-Nots. Nor do I dismiss any of them for what sensitivity they genuinely and accurately felt for the Have-Nots.

But they came to the conclusion that the pain and suffering in this world comes from somewhere other than human-nature itself. And the pain and suffering don’t come from ‘somewhere else’: they come from the actions of human-beings who are not acting up to their genuine potential as Images of God.

Consider a fire in a wooden chemical factory: you are faced with several different Classes of fire (wood, chemicals, electrical, and quite possibly flammable fuels). So you can’t just throw water on it (it won’t work on the electrical and the fuel and it may actually intensify the chemicals); you can’t just throw sand on it (impractical); and any specific foam will work on some but perhaps not on others of the burning materials).

Marx wanted to reduce all human suffering to one Class of ‘fire’, the Greed of the Haves. But Greed is, and not without reason, only one of what used to be called the ‘capital sins’*****And you don’t have to have a lot of money to give yourself over – even partially – to one or another form of sin.

Marx rightly noted that in an Industrial Capitalism, there are concentrations of wealth that leave many – most – excluded from even a minimal subsistence level. And that has to be a constant concern of governments in capitalist countries.

But the United States is also a democratic capitalism; it is not (yet) the awesomely rigid combination of Industrial Wealth and Aristocratic Authority that faced Marx and Lenin in the form of the late-19th century and early 20th-century Russian imperial polity. (And, as I’ve been saying, if this country IS beginning to resemble that, it is due in no small part to the Identity Politics which Alinsky’s well-intentioned ‘war’ approach helped foist upon the country – because after 40 years of it, Wealth has concentrated more than ever before and everyone else is left behind.)

And in the vision of Thomas Aquinas, the politician, like the princes and kings of yore, must be a bonus vir, a human being well-grounded in both the natural and the supernatural virtues. It takes a Citizenry who are themselves sufficiently familiar with all those virtues to recognize them in a candidate and elect him/her.

This may all sound like gobbledy-gook to Americans raised in the culture that has morphed since all of this was tossed overboard. But if this vision had remained the Ideal toward which the polity was heading (and you can’t impose this by government fiat) then perhaps the country would be in better shape – and Shape – than it is now.

Maritain is trying to say that you cannot retreat into some ‘personal’ search for salvation, abandoning your fellow human beings to their fate. But he isn’t simply speaking about their economic fate; he is speaking from the comprehensive Vision of a multi-dimensioned, multi-planed Reality that includes that Higher Realm. The human aspects of Spirit and Mind require as much care as the Body; the three are not separate, but neither can you just go and declare the Body and the material plane to be the only ‘real’ one and call everything else ‘illusion’.

Which is the mistake or gambit that Marx and Lenin and Alinsky took.

Alinsky is upset that for those types of humans who worry about ethics “their fears of action drive them to refuge in an ethics so divorced from the politics of life that it can apply only to angels, not to men”. (p.26) But what many ethicists are trying to do is not to divorce ethics from politics but to re-establish that ethics must judge politics. And THAT is precisely what Alinsky has surrendered: it is useless to try to tame or judge politics (or politicians).

Rather, he wants to fight fire with fire: if the Haves have exerted the pressure of Wealth to get Power, then the Have-Nots must exert pressure to wrest that Power for themselves. And if the Haves have been low-down, immoral, and ruthless, then the Have-Nots … you can see that the Have-Nots are not going to remain virtuous for very long, if they were to begin with.

But, to Alinsky, if you don’t have a self-interested stake in an issue, then you’re not going to be interested, or at least you’re not going to be interested enough to make anything change. He doesn’t imagine that many people (even in a democracy) are mature and generous enough to take an interest in the common-weal and in the needs of others. And rather than consciousness-raise THAT problem, he’ll simply call the whole common-weal thing a fraudulent and sleazy illusion and organize specific groups to get in touch with their own issues and their own rage and then go into the ‘pressure’ business.

This is a recipe for something other than a functioning, mature, deliberative democracy in which the majority of Citizens seek – as best they may – the commonweal. Which may to some extent explain how We now have less of one than We did before he wrote his book.

That was his First Rule of the Ethics of Means and Ends: “One’s concern with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with one’s personal interest in the issue”.

His Second Rule of the Ethics of Means and Ends is “the judgment of the ethics of means is dependent upon the political position of those sitting in judgment”. (p.26) Which means that one man’s progress is another man’s decay. He uses an ominous example: if you chose to join the French Resistance, then you accepted the necessity for “assassination, terror, property destruction, the bombing of tunnels and trains, kidnapping, and the willingness to sacrifice innocent hostages” for the purpose of defeating the Nazis.

But does he imagine then that in a democratic polity the Have-Nots are as tyrannically and brutally governed as the French were by the Nazis? Does he mean to replace the Citizenry engaged in a politics of the common-weal with some self-chosen Resistance fighters who consider everybody else either Nazi Haves or traitorous collaborators? Is THIS vision going to work in a democratic polity? You’ve got at least 35 years worth of American politics from which to draw your conclusions.

And of course, this whole approach presumes that Haves are irrevocably and totally opposed to Have-Nots so that therefore Have-Nots must remain irrevocably and totally opposed to Haves. There can be no compromise and there can be no sufficient ‘change’ effected by democratic political process; only by the politics of pressure, which requires both permanent ‘rage’ and permanent ‘war’.

He then uses the example of the Declaration of Independence: to Americans a declaration of rights, to the British Crown a declaration of war, deceitful in its selfish and self-serving omission of all the benefits the colonies had derived from the Motherland. (p.27) So, he sees, the colonists saw it one way and the Crown another.

But then he notes that Jefferson and Franklin “were honorable men” but knew exactly what they were doing, what they HAD to do, in order to create space for America: they had to take the low-road and manipulatively and selectively craft a document NOT bound by Truth or Integrity but rather effectively shaped for the purpose of defusing objections, attracting support for their objective, and generally ‘spinning’ their actions as a Good Thing. As “a declaration of war”, Alinsky says, the Declaration had to be what it was and is. (p.28)

It’s a shrewd analysis – too shrewd and darkling for textbook histories or popular historians. Which is a pity – because it would offer students early in their lives (preparing to take up their role as Citizens in a deliberative democratic-republic polity) the opportunity to see just how much ‘sin’ or ‘muck’ in involved in Our own history. It would be a good lesson in a certain sober humility. If there ever was an example of how any great action involves some amount of sin or muck, this would be it.

But in the vision of Aquinas, at least the dynamic interaction of the Higher and the Human Realms (meaning the Human seeking to be open to the inspirations of the Higher) would be possible. That is not the case in Alinsky’s world, where the continuing trafficking of the Have-Nots along the ‘low road’ must go on forever. Generating an equally ‘low road’ response from the Haves, of course. And the beat will go on. And the polity and people will stagger on. Until the whole show collapses from the political incoherence caused by its own internal ‘war’ or is taken over by some more coherent and confident polity.

His Third Rule of the Ethics of Means and Ends is that “in war the end justifies almost any means”. (p.29) I’ve discussed this already in the previous Posts on Alinsky: this is not a good thing, and surely not for introduction into a democratic – and civilian – polity. I can sense here an opening toward a militarization of the citizens, and from the Left. After 35 or more years of ‘wars’ reaching into the most private and personal sites of social and familial life, who could really object to a war or two overseas? After decades where the media had mostly fed a happy-face mush about ‘progress’ and ‘change’, who could have imagined any longer that ‘war’ was a bad thing and that it could – usually did – have baaaad outcomes?

He uses the example of Lincoln suspending the right of Habeas Corpus in the Civil War. But that was during THE CIVIL WAR, not during the normal course of events. And it is in Alinsky’s vision precisely during the ‘normal course of events’ that America must be at war – the Have-Nots against the Haves. Always with the extreme examples is Alinsky, but this I think stems from the fact that Alinsky’s world is a world ‘in extremis’, always on the verge of the most awful trouble.

The day-to-day conducting of the affairs of a democratic polity – ‘peacetime’ as you might say – is not where he comfortably dwells. He must be about Great Things and small-stuff is merely a sign of small-souled, small-minded, small-visioned folk. But this is no recipe for conducting a polity – or a human life. Not even a ship captain seeks purposely to keep his ship in the middle of the nearest available storm; he can pursue his course in less risky ways, and not be considered a coward or shirker for doing so; a certain amount of fear is healthy in the face of the awesome dangers of a great storm at sea … or in the face of a polity constantly at war with itself.

His Fourth Rule of the Ethics of Means and Ends is that “judgment must be made in the context of the times in which the action occurred and not from any other chronological vantage point”. (p.30) He uses the example of Sam Adams, a leading fomenter of revolution in Boston town, who was faced with the shocking deathbed statement by one of those townsmen shot by the British guards in the Boston Massacre, to the effect that the townsmen really had started the thing and the guards had merely fired in self-defense.

What could Adams do in such a situation? He had to deride the dying man, one Patrick Carr, as “an Irish papist” (and, most folks at the time would have presumed, a drunk). Was it ethical? No. Did it help bring about the United States? Yes.

And from that what lesson should be drawn? That you can do unethical things if there’s a chance that they might bring about a larger good? (Nobody at the time knew for sure that the United States was going to come about.)

“In the politics of human life, consistency is not a virtue.” (p.31) But what is a virtue then? If you can are only guided by the fact that you want to wrest Power from the Haves, is that enough of a virtue to see you through life as an individual? Is it enough for a country to guide and Shape itself?

The Fifth Rule of the Ethics of Means and Ends is “that concern with ethics increases with the number of means available and vice versa”. (p.32) Which means that if you only have one Means available, if “you lack the luxury of choice” among Means, then that’s the one you’ve got to use. And you can’t go confusing and obstructing yourself by wondering if it’s going to be ethical.

Luxury is something for Haves. If you’re a Have-Not you have to make do. But it’s too easy, I’d say, for humans to decide that they only have one choice. As is said famously about the Pentagon, it always sees nails since it has a hammer within easy reach. Why try anything that will require more exertion? Hitler didn’t think he had a choice. The German generals at the outset of World War 1 didn’t think they had a choice: faced with the prospect of war on two fronts, they had no choice but to invade innocent countries like Belgium – and use Terror against the civilian population liberally – in order to get the job done in the West quickly enough to turn and face the Russian threat to the East. And, come to think of it, the American military in the Philippines in 1900 didn’t see itself as having a choice either: barbarity had to be faced with barbarity (negotiating with the Filipino freedom-fighters/insurgents – depending on your point of view – wasn’t an option, apparently).

The Sixth Rule of the Ethics of Means and Ends is “that the less important the end to be desired, the more one can afford to engage in ethical evaluations of means”. (p.34) Meaning that in order to avoid ethical stuff, you really have to have a verrrry important concern. But who doesn’t? Who can’t convince him/herself that THIS concern of mine/ours is Important? (Nowhere that I’ve found does the Alinsky-ite organizer have to spend a lot of time cooling down the folks s/he has whipped up.)

The Seventh Rule of the Ethics of Means and Ends is “that generally success or failure is a mighty determinant of ethics”. (p.34) Meaning that the history is written by the victors. As Hitler said to his generals, in regard to the upcoming Holocaust: “Who remembers the Armenians today?” And had he won the war, the world might have forgotten the Armenian massacres that foreshadowed the Nazi genocide. For that matter, what school-children in the United States today are taught to think of the Philippine Insurrection as anything but a bunch of jungle terrorists who fought the progress and benefits brought by American civilization and occupation? For that matter, can Alinsky pass any judgment on that sad and dark chapter? Perhaps, had he been there, he might have helped organize the Filipinos but he wasn’t there so he doesn’t want to judge. Or perhaps the Filipinos were the Haves (they lived there, after all) and the Americans were the Have-Nots (they were strangers in a strange land).

He asserts that “there can be no such thing as a successful traitor, because if he succeeds he becomes a founding father”. (p.34) Meaning that had America lost its Revolution, the men now known as the Founders would be known as mere traitors to the British Crown. But that would only be in the judgment of a history written by the victors. And what they were really, in essence, would still be – quite possibly – dedicated men who had a dream of human liberty. Had the North lost the Civil War and Lincoln still assassinated, his writings still mark him as one of the most impressive Presidents the country ever had the luck to elect, even though the War had been lost and the Confederacy, now a separate nation, would have been churning out its own official judgment of him in its own history books.

The Eighth Rule of the Ethics of Means and Ends is “that the morality of a means depends upon whether the means is being employed at the time of imminent defeat or imminent victory”. (p.34)

But his own historical example, and his treatment of it, stuns. If America had had the atomic bomb shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack, Americans would have used it and who could say that it wasn’t a good idea? Since there was a great deal of objection at the higher levels of government even when it the Bomb was deployed in 1944, I’m not sure that he is correct. In 1942 the frenzy of the American people might indeed have approved its use – although I doubt they could have imagined its effect – but ‘frenzy’ is no sure guide to ethical behavior.

And he confuses here the actual ethical quality of an act and ethical judgment about it on the part of ‘history’. If Things Are Not What They Seem, then who can be sure about the judgments of ‘history’, especially when those judgments are made by the victors?

Had the Bomb been available in 1942 “the question of the ethics of the use of the bomb would never have arisen at that time”. (p.35) Since the ethics of fire-bombing were discussed through-out the campaigns of the war in Europe – and probably cost Sir Arthur Harris, the robust proponent of such bombing, further honors after the war – then I’m not sure this is an accurate surmise. And the Bomb (atomic) caused even more stunning damage then the massed dropping of conventional bombs.

But he then asserts that “those who disagree with this assertion have no memory [he’s writing in 1971] of the state of the world at that time … they are either fools or liars or both”. (p.35) Once again, the old revolutionary betrays a markedly violent impatience with those who don’t agree. And again, this is not the mark of a mature democratic politics.

The Ninth Rule of the Ethics of Means and Ends is “that any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical”. (p.35) Perhaps. But again, it’s not first a matter of what the opposition thinks, it’s a matter of what the persons contemplating the use of that means decide: it is, to use an old concept, their souls and their integrity as human beings that is at stake, and whatever consequences accrue as a result of their deploying that means will accrue to them (in – as they used to say – this life and the Next).

Alinsky seems more concerned to convince adherents or potential adherents (and indeed, this is a book aimed at ‘organizers’ who will work in the Alinsky mode) that they can expect this sort of thing as a rhetorical response to whatever change they are trying to effect.

But there’s more to ethics than rhetoric. IF you accept a Higher Realm, or even simply a dimension of integrity as a member of the human community within each human being.

The Tenth Rule of the Ethics of Means and Ends is “that you do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral garments”. (p.36) Can you imagine what it does to a human being, let alone a politician in a democratic polity, to take THIS bit of advice to heart? Morality, itself no more than an illusory fantasy, can be used to contribute to the fact that Things Are Not What They Appear To Be.

For ‘advocates’ in the assorted realms of Identity Politics, this recommendation must have struck an attractive note indeed. And The People would be confronted with a ‘change’ that other Citizens, ostensibly dedicated to the common-weal and possessed of a respect for their fellow Citizens, assured everybody was ‘moral’. When in fact such ‘advocates’ might know very well that it was not; or that it was indeed something very much Other Than What They Made It Appear To Be.

No wonder American politics have become so illusory and seem to be a hall of mirrors.

He uses as one of his examples Lenin, who in the early stages of his return to Russia to foment the what would be the October Revolution (he led his revolution NOT against the Czar, who had already abdicated in the Spring, but against the government of Kerensky, working for the people), ordered his Bolsheviks not to mention violence since they were outnumbered by other Russian factions. Rather, as Alinsky himself paraphrases Lenin, “Since our opponents have more guns that we do, then we shall be for peaceful change and the ballot. When we have guns, then it shall be through the bullet.”

Stunningly, Alinsky ends the paragraph: “And it was.”

This is an example of a decent way to proceed? And organizers and ‘advocates’ (as they are known in the era of Identity Politics)are sent forth into a democratic polity with THIS example shining before them?

He goes on about Gandhi at some length, to the effect, among other things, that Gandhi would never have succeeded under the Nazi Reich or any similar regime, because he would have been shot forthwith at the first squeak about ‘resistance’ of any sort, passive or otherwise. But it says a lot for democracy that he would not be shot. Yet this is the type of polity that Alinsky sees as merely ripe for his Technique of eternal ‘war’.

The Eleventh Rule of the Ethics of Means and Ends is “that goals must be phrased in general terms like ‘Liberty, Equality Fraternity’” or some other catchy and inspiring phrase. (p.45) Again, such profound duplicity and dishonesty, deployed against Citizens by Citizens, and in the name of a common-weal that the deploying Citizens think is illusory in the first place … THIS is a lethal treachery to infuse into a democratic polity. And the fact that after decades of it the Haves are in a hugely increased position of Power has to be one of the most serious consequences of his vision. And the fact that American politics are so queasily deranged now, devoid of any substantive maturity or objectivity or intelligent and mature deliberation … this must be taken into urgent and grave account.

Well, that’s Alinsky and his chapter on the Rules of the Ethics of Means and Ends.

I can’t urge you enough to consider for yourself, to contemplate, what effects they have had on where We are today, and to the extent that Americans still cling to them – knowingly or not, where We are headed tomorrow.


*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.

**And curiously, I have the impression that something very much like this inflames elite and Correct attitudes (so deeply imbued with Alinsky whether they know it or not) against the Catholic Church and, more conveniently, against its priests.

***I can’t help thinking that the Beltway cry of the day might have been: Anybody can go to Cuba – real men go to the Philippines.

****Maritain, Jacques. “Man and the State”. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 1951. Page 62.

*****Pride, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth being the others in the stable.

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