Rules for Radicals – 3

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Rules for Radicals

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While the most vociferous critics of Saul Alinsky and his work tend to focus on the tactics he recommends in Chapter 7 of Rules for Radicals (a list which is frequently confused for the rules themselves), the keystone flaw in Alinsky’s political theory can actually be found a hundred pages earlier in a chapter entitled “Of Means and Ends.”

In this chapter (#2 if you’re interested), Alinski presents an argument as to why our assumptions of means never justifying ends is not just unwarranted, but  serves as part of the power structure the “Haves” use to keep the Have-Nots” in line.

His argument begins by pointing out that those in power invariably gain their position through some type of political competition or conflict.  And, by definition, anyone who wins such a conflict must have used the means necessary to obtain victory.

He then goes on to point out that those who achieve their ends invariably try to outlaw or declare immoral the very techniques and tactics (i.e., the means) they just used to win power, making “ends-never-justifying-means” morality both politically self-serving and hypocritical.

History is replete with examples of just such hypocrisy (or “inconsistency” if you’re feeling more generous).  When it came time for the Massachusetts militia to put down a farmer’s revolt (Shay’s Rebellion) against the just-formed US government, there was radical revolutionary Samuel Adams explaining why the very tactics he demanded be used against British tyranny were illegitimate when directed towards the government he helped bring into being.  And who were we to complain about Vietcong guerrilla tactics, given how much unconventional warfare forms the basis of America’s own foundation story?

But while this argument is convincing, even compelling (since it taps into most people’s intense dislike for inconsistency in word vs. deed), it misses a subtle but vital distinction between a political movement that acts against its own principles to achieve victory (and then covers up that fact by either outlawing or declaring immoral what they just did) and a political movement that chooses from the outset to use whatever means are necessary to accomplish their ultimate goal.

In theory this latter group is less vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy since they never claimed any intention of acting by a code, only that they would do what was necessary to get to an end point so valuable that it would easily justify the cost of getting there.  But if hypocrisy is the compliment vice plays to virtue, a group unwilling to subject their means to any moral test beyond effectiveness stands a much better chance of using other people as “mere means” to achieve their ends.  And while the philosophical point I’m trying to make might seem subtle, in the real world this distinction determines whether your post-revolutionary society will be led by George Washington or Josef Stalin.

The notion that using people as “mere means” cannot be justified under any circumstances is part of an ethical canon articulated by the Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant (although the principle can be traced back to much earlier work, such as Christ’s Golden Rule).  Which means that Alinsky’s pragmatic rejection of this principle represents rejection of a cornerstone of Western ethical thought.

And to see whether such rejection is justified, I’d like to get back to that example I used yesterday regarding Alinsky’s storming of a medical office to demand a clinic be built in the community he was organizing, a goal that could have been achieved just as easily through a polite request.

But in this case, Alinsky had a different end in mind: giving the community he was organizing an opportunity to feel successful so as to help move them along the path of confident self-empowerment.  And if the medical organization (or, more specifically, the hapless woman who happened to take the meeting with Alinsky and his group) had to serve as a mere means to achieve that end, by Alinsky’s means-vs-ends analysis, this was just fine.  No doubt there was also a lower-case-p pragmatic step involved which calculated that, since this tactic would not prevent the clinic from coming to town, then no practical harm was done (even if the choice of tactics did reduce someone else to “mere means.”)

But stop and think about that organization for a moment which I presume existed to provide medical services to the poor – a mission just as worthy and noble as any of the ones Alinsky subscribed to.  Couldn’t they just as easily justify “playing” the community that had just stormed their office to achieve a different end, one that might not have anything to do with the group Alinsky was trying to empower?

Going further, what’s to stop anyone – including contemporary right-wing critics of Rules for Radicals – from using all of the methods and tactics found therein in ways that use other people to achieve a set of ends to which most followers of Alinsky would find appalling?

I suppose people who see themselves as part of the Community Organizing tradition could set themselves up as arbiters over who can or cannot be considered appropriate ethical users of these tactics.  But that would place them in the same tradition as those they criticize as hypocrites for having one set of rules for themselves and another for those with whom they disagree.

And if you’re getting tired of so  many hypotheticals, let’s talk about a movement that that has assigned itself the right to use any means necessary – including actions that stand 100% chance of subverting, damaging and thus disempowering the very communities Alinsky dedicated his life to support – in order to achieve their own destructive and militant ends.  If you’re reading this blog, you can guess who I’m talking about.  And it is to this subject that I will turn to next.

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One Response to Rules for Radicals – 3

  1. Fred Milton Olsen June 5, 2014 at 1:28 pm #

    A very good series with some pithy and worthwhile insights.

    You wrote–“I suppose people who see themselves as part of the Community Organizing tradition could set themselves up as arbiters over who can or cannot be considered appropriate ethical users of these tactics. But that would place them in the same tradition as those they criticize as hypocrites for having one set of rules for themselves and another for those with whom they disagree.”

    Over 40 years of adult life, I have seen this happen again and again. It’s taken a lot of my desire to be a “joiner” out of me.

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