It’s ironic that 40+ years after Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals was published, its author is still characterized by some as a closet Commie or anarchist bomb-thrower, given that Alinsky was trying to provide those radicalized to fight the status quo an alternative to joining Marxist movements he knew to deliver only sterile misery. And with regard to bomb-throwing, the only thing he held in contempt more than the “Haves” he battled against were those self-infatuated fabulists who thought they were accomplishing something by giving cops the finger.
It’s no accident that the subtitle for Rules for Radicals is “A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals” since his political thinking is intimately tied up with the Pragmatic School of philosophy I mentioned last time.
And by “pragmatic,” I don’t just mean “practical.” For according to the cornerstone principle of Pragmatism (the so-called “Pragmatist Maxim”), reality itself is defined, and thus changeable, by human action in the real world.
I know I promised to not delve into too many philosophical nuts and bolts, but it’s worth stopping for a moment to consider a canonical example of Pragmatic thinking: why a knife should be considered sharp. According to the Pragmatist, the knife is sharp NOT because it possesses (or partakes in) some metaphysical form of “sharpness,” nor because the notion of sharpness can be measured imperially (through some combination of blade width and hardness, for example). Rather, a knife is sharp because any rational person seeing one sitting next to a stick of butter would use the knife to cut the butter, rather than vice versa. And an irrational person who tried to do the opposite would necessarily fail.
I thought of this notion of man creating meaning while reading a passage in Rules for Radicals in which Alinsky described a rally he struggled to organize which (due to competing schedules of those involved) fell on July 14. It was only after a reporter asked him why he scheduled the event on Bastille Day that he quickly embraced the coincidence, declaring the choice of date to be fraught with meaning. So just as the knife is sharp because people use it to cut, a rally that happened to be scheduled for July 14th became a Bastille Day event (with all the meaning that implies) because a human being (in this case Alinsky) made it so.
Today, most people think of these dozen recommendations for radical action as constituting the Alpha and Omega of Alinsky’s Rules (despite the fact that these are tactics he outlines within a broader discussion of goals and strategy). And while some of them might seem troublesome (especially with regard to polarizing and personalizing political debate), you need to keep in mind that these tactics all had a pragmatic goal in mind: to transform communities that thought themselves powerless and alone into effective advocates for their own needs, confident in their own power to take on the powers that be.
This is the reason Tactic 2 (“Never go outside the expertise of your people”) is so vital, since one of those sub-cultures I mentioned last time needs to feel (accurately) that they are driving their own fate. So even if a smart-alecky community organizer knows what’s best for a community they are trying to organize (and has access to experts who know more about the issue than does anyone within the community), the successful organizer will defer to the knowledge and experience and needs of the people they are helping, lest they alienate the members of that community or (even worse) make them dependent on someone outside their own group.
Even the much maligned rule (or tactic) 12, the one which says “Pick a target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it” has pragmatic purposes, starting with the need to hold someone accountable, especially in our slippery bureaucratic age when every sin can be endlessly round-robined to someone else. Which is why it is the Mayor, for example, who must be selected and “frozen,” preventing him from blaming the toxic waste dump being built in a poor neighborhood on this committee, that board or some other ill-defined, unaccountable entity (up to and including “The System”).
Grounding the enemy in flesh-and-blood also fills a psychological need to have conflict defined in terms of human beings, rather than abstractions (which is why The Hunger Games needed a President Snow to give the dystopia being battled against a human face). And even polarization can be seen as useful for the one goal Alinsky valued above all others: creating communities whose belief in their own power created genuine power.
Another anecdote from Rules illustrates this last point. In it, Alinsky had discovered that a medical organization was ready to set up a desperately needed clinic in a neighborhood where a community he was organizing was located. But rather than simply sending them an invitation, he instead marched his group into the offices of the medical organization to make demands, pound tables and not let anyone else get a word in edgewise until a commitment to set up the clinic was extracted.
One can almost hear the chuckles arising from the author when he describes this incident, as well as his pride in using an easily achievable victory (in this case, “forcing” a concession from someone who was already on your side) to create a sense of empowerment for people desperate to feel like they could do anything they set their mind to.
I’m guessing that most readers are a bit more troubled by this anecdote than the previous one regarding the Bastille Day rally, even if you’re not sure why. And I’m going to ask you to hold onto that feeling and roll it around in your heads for a while since within it you will find the tragic flaw in the Rules for Radicals approach to politics, a flaw I will begin to outline next time.