If you Google “Saul Alinsky,” many contemporary references come from right-wing commentators decrying him as an evil man with a wicked agenda, opinions I find to be simultaneously overheated and lacking in the type of insight needed to condemn what deserves condemnation.
For, as I’ve come to realize while writing this week’s series, Rules for Radicals represents something that has done at least as much damage as has pure evil over the centuries: a philosophy that counts on anyone picking it up being as wise and good as its creator.
Perhaps it’s because I share beliefs with many a Community Organizer with regard to issues like labor and civil rights, or because I can appreciate the challenges involved with organizing the disempowered to fight for themselves that I don’t find the causes Alinsky chose to support all that troubling. But as noted in this piece, an ideology that eliminates moral judgment regarding the type of means needed to achieve certain ends invites calamity, with the BDS “movement” serving as Exhibit A for where such a philosophical choice must inevitably lead.
This piece maps out how a political approach dedicated to empowering communities ended up creating a monster that devours those communities for its own selfish gain. And if you follow and accept that analysis, a final question remains of whether we should simply reject Rules for Radicals out of hand as a toxic approach to politics, or find something within it that can still guide our own actions.
Personally, I find many of the techniques Alinsky outlines as bristling with keen insight regarding human nature and group psychology. Power does indeed derive as much (if not more) from people than from money, and I can appreciate the need to cultivate a community to make its own choices (even if it doesn’t always end up making the best ones) vs. showing up and telling others what to do.
You’ve seen this play out in the fight against BDS where the power of student groups battling against (and for) divestment derives more from the energy, drive and talent of people, rather than from millions flowing into the coffers of either set of partisans. And I would say that the strategy chosen by the wider Jewish community to allow students on the ground to set the agenda has been one of the reasons for our overall success (even if such trust means we have to live with the occasional defeat).
Throwing your opponent off balance (Rule #3), making them live by their own playbook (Rule #4), leveraging ridicule (Rule #5) and doing things your supporters enjoy (Rule #6) are all tactics you will find supported or implemented on this site. And I can even see the benefits of tactics that involve personalization and polarization of political difference, although those approaches are the most vulnerable to corruption without making a critical modification to Alinskian philosophy.
That modification entails a wholesale rejection of his notion that means not be subject to moral criticism even if such a move requires acceptance of a certain level of inconsistency (legitimately criticized as hypocrisy) in political discourse. For if our ideology allows us to turn another human being (or group of human beings) into “mere means” to achieve our ends, it’s just a matter of time before we become corrupted or those following our lead begin to harm others in the name of a goal that disgusts us.
So the good news is that every choice of tactics (which can include any and all of the powerful and effective techniques outlined in Rules for Radicals) represent legitimate political choices. But before some “great idea” on how to achieve victory against our foes can be put into practice, we must first ask ourselves a simple question (and answer it honestly), namely: “Does such a tactic in any way use others (notably those not directly involved in the debate or conflict we are engaged in) as “mere means” to achieve our ends?” If the answer is “Yes,” such a tactic MUST BE REJECTED.
Before you complain that such a move would neuter one side in a conflict, requiring us to not do anything that would hurt anyone else’s feelings, keep in mind that this “mere means” test still leaves plenty of arrows in our political quiver.
Most importantly, it does not require us to limit ourselves in any significant way when we direct political action against those with whom we are in conflict. The campaign of ridicule you’ve seen in Brighton, for example, or efforts to mock and expose the boycotters as a bunch of dishonest, ridiculous losers is fair game in the fight against BDS. And handing them another defeat in this student council or that food coop is doubly allowed according to these New Rules for Radicals since such an effort would prevent innocents from being used as mere means by the BDSers while also supporting our campaign to brand them as a bunch of losers. Tormenting them when they show up at someone else’s place of work to protest this or that product is thus fair game, while showing up at their place of work to protest their political activity is not.
The key to Alinskian political methodology is creativity, imagination, aggressiveness and trust in your supporters – all virtues in politics (especially in an age when so much political action seems to have devolved into an undifferentiated blob of shouting, petitioning and tweeting). So if we simply apply the “mere means” test to how we decided to apply The Rules, we can achieve success without selling our souls.
Until this week, I’ve never been able to articulate why the notion of “turning the tables” on our opponents and getting some civil society group to which we belong to condemn Israel’s enemies for their real (vs. imagined) crimes filled me with such revulsion. But having analyzed the de-evolution of Rules for Radicals from a handbook of community empowerment to a toolkit for community destruction, it is now clear why using others to get what you want can never be considered a legitimate choice.
Playing by this set of rules might put us at a disadvantage when fighting against a global de-legitimization campaign that plays by no such rule (or any rules whatsoever). But if you look at the success of a Jewish state which has tried to maintain its humanity (even in the midst of perpetual existential struggles) compared to the degeneration of societies that for decades have tried in vain to gain victory over Israel “by any means necessary,” it’s easy to see where political toxins lay. And our continued success will rely on not letting those poisons enter or bloodstream, no matter how tempting it might be to fight fire with fire.