The Work Begins
Hello, Angry Black Book Chatters! After last week’s stimulating conversation around the Prologue to Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, it’s clear there’s a real hunger to dig into the text.
Without further ado, here’s an overview of the first chapter, The Purpose.
WHAT FOLLOWS IS for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.
Dogma and Ideology, Evolution and Revolution
The part of Rules for Radicals that the Alinsky-as-boogeyman contingent always ignores is his up-front rejection of dogmas. He does a brilliant job of articulating why communism has succeeded as an organizing principle while ultimately failing the people on whose behalf it claims to work. And particularly in the context of a relatively free and open democratic society, why there is simply no appetite for what most people think of when they think of “revolution”.
The significant changes in history have been made by revolutions. There are people who say that it is not revolution, but evolution, that brings about change — but evolution is simply the term used by nonparticipants to denote a particular sequence of revolutions as they synthesized into a specific major social change.
Thus we look back at our own American Revolution and celebrate their insurrection and waging of guerrilla warfare against an imperialist occupying army, even as we recoil in horror when comparable revolutions play out elsewhere in our time.
As The Beatles so succinctly summarized Alinsky’s outlook:
But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.
What Alinsky argues for instead is an ideology of Change, a pragmatic, reality-based principle of organizing people to achieve change firmly rooted in the world-historical moment in which they reside. Of this realistic radical organizer, he writes:
In the end he has one conviction, a belief that if people have the power to act, in the long run they will, most of the time, reach the right decisions. The alternative to this would be rule by the elite, either a dictatorship or some form of a political aristocracy.
Again, he reiterates the call in the Prologue to engage with the world as it is, and the rules by which it operates, in order to achieve revolutions that feel to the general public like natural evolutions.
Political realists see the world as it is: an arena of power politics moved primarily by perceived immediate self-interests, where morality is rhetorical rationale for expedient action and self-interest.
The Haves, the Have-Nots, and the Have-a-Little, Want Mores
Instead of rigid dogmatic classes, Alinsky puts forth a vocabulary more in keeping with the experience of American life. He sees us as a nation of Haves, Have-Nots, and the Have-a-Little, Want Mores. Most Americans fall into the final category, aspire to join the first, and dread becoming one of the second so much that they strive to separate from the less-fortunate and find rationalizations for why “those people” are Have-Nots.
Those of us who wish to bring about change in the US need to find ways to sell its benefits to the vast middle, to persuade them that the change we seek is not revolutionary, but evolutionary — that it is simply a logical next step that builds on values we already share and principles around which we can all rally.
Alinsky makes the case that his vision for how to understand organizing for change works in all cultures at all times, and in 1971, he shared this tantalizing, but then almost unimaginable vision.
If it were possible for the Have-Nots of the world to recognize and accept the idea that revolution did not inevitably mean hate and war, cold or hot, from the United States, that alone would be a great revolution in world politics and the future of man. This is a major reason for my attempt to provide a revolutionary handbook not cast in a communist or capitalist mold, but as a manual for the Have-Nots of the world regardless of the color of their skins or their politics.
When you look at how US foreign policy has changed in the Obama Era, you realize how truly revolutionary it is. At the time Alinsky was writing and for decades thereafter, the US was busily propping up dictators and providing material aid and comfort to those who were brutally repressing their own people. But Obama’s first international speech as President was to a group of college students in Egypt, where he sent signals that the US would support democratic uprisings against coercive authority. And when they did rise up across the Arab world, the US stood with them to remarkable effect.
And while I am writing this post, the US is taking the lead at the UN against the regime in Syria, while the former Soviet Union and still-Communist China are defending it. I think Alinsky would approve.
There Is Only the Struggle
Alinsky has some bad news for anyone who thinks that there’s a finish line in the struggle for justice. This is a lesson that liberals never seem to learn. We think that getting a piece of legislation passed over the obstructionism of the Right, or a favorable Supreme Court ruling, means that the battle is over and we can move on to other priorities.
For every revolution there is a counter-revolution. The forces we defeat today do not go away; instead their resolve is strengthened to undo whatever it is that we have accomplished. Republicans understand this. For decades, they have organized against Roe v. Wade to great effect and have mounted challenges, nibbled around its edges, and pushed legislation designed to spur litigation that has the potential to overturn it.
The moment more-universal health care, a central plank of the Democratic platform for decades, was achieved via the Affordable Care Act, the Republicans declared themselves its sworn enemy, and have challenged it legislatively, by executive order of state governors, and in the courts.
This always seems to catch us by surprise, even though the reverse is equally true for us. It was the defeat of the Clintons’ campaign for healthcare reform that intensified our organizing and activism to bring it about this time. But anticipating the counter-revolution allows us to minimize its effectiveness, and reduce the degree to which we step back after each forward move.
The pursuit of happiness is neverending; happiness lies in the pursuit.
The Low Road to Morality
Alinsky ultimately argues in this chapter that appeals to “the better angels of our nature” will always fall short. Paradoxically, what is needed instead to precipitate real change is to help the Have-a-Little, Want Mores understand how it is in their own selfish interest to support increasing justice and and equality for the Have-Nots.
A major revolution to be won in the immediate future is the dissipation of man’s illusion that his own welfare can be separate from that of all others. As long as man is shackled to this myth, so long will the human spirit languish. Concern for our private, material well-being with disregard for the well-being of others is immoral according to the precepts of our Judaeo-Christian civilization, but worse, it is stupidity worthy of the lower animals. It is man’s foot still dragging in the primeval slime of his beginnings, in ignorance and mere animal cunning. But those who know the interdependence of man to be his major strength in the struggle out of the muck have not been wise in their exhortations and moral pronouncements that man is his brother’s keeper. On that score the record of the past centuries has been a disaster, for it was wrong to assume that man would pursue morality on a level higher than his day-to-day living demanded; it was a disservice to the future to separate morality from man’s daily desires and elevate it to a plane of altruism and self-sacrifice. The fact is that it is not man’s “better nature” but his self-interest that demands that he be his brother’s keeper. We now live in a world where no man can have a loaf of bread while his neighbor has none. If he does not share his bread, he dare not sleep, for his neighbor will kill him. To eat and sleep in safety man must do the right thing, if for seemingly the wrong reasons, and be in practice his brother’s keeper.
I believe that man is about to learn that the most practical life is the moral life and that the moral life is the only road to survival. He is beginning to learn that he will either share part of his material wealth or lose all of it; that he will respect and learn to live with other political ideologies if he wants civilization to go on. This is the kind of argument that man’s actual experience equips him to understand and accept. This is the low road to morality. There is no other.
In light of Alinsky’s perspective, how would you persuade a person with employer-provided health insurance to support the Affordable Care Act and the individual mandate?
What does being a Progressive mean to you? How can Organizers and Activists both call themselves Progressives and yet have such different ways of operating in the world?