Rules for Radicals, Part I

1 02 2010

I spent all of last night reading Saul D. Alinsky’s handbook of community organizing, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals.

For many of you, your only exposure to the text is via conservative talk show hosts who are correct in  pointing out the left’s almost to-the-letter adherence to the so-called “Alinsky Method,” which outlines a realistic (and clearly, highly effective) road to harnessing public energy to advance a cause.

The immediate cause of my reading of the text was a book review for an upcoming issue of the Michigan Review, but I found much to admire in the majority of Alinsky’s teachings.  I had a lot to say about the work, and since my book review was to be around 650 words, I didn’t have enough room to get it all out there.

For tonight, here’s the review.  Tomorrow, hopefully, I’ll be able to share the rest of my thoughts, which were maybe a bit less suited to a serious publication.

Groovy baby.

I had initially planned on reading Saul D. Alinsky’s notorious 1971 book, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals as an exercise in self-punishment.  I’d sit down with the text over the course of a few evenings, stoically suffering through the master community organizer’s leftist rants and endless tales of sit-ins and confrontations with The Establishment.  Then, I’d write a scathing review that managed to work in some heavy-handed references to the current Administration and their apparent use of the so-called “Alinsky Method.”

I had it all planned out.  It was going to be easy.  And then—surprisingly—I was caught off guard by what I read.  No, not because I was shocked or outraged, as I would have expected—but rather because I found myself agreeing with a man whose ideology was apparently the polar opposite of mine.  The late Saul Alinsky spent his entire life rallying the poor, downtrodden underclass towards…well, towards whatever they seemed to need to be organized towards, and unlike most professional agitators, he carefully and systematically examined and documented what he learned about building mass movements.

Yes, elements of Rules for Radicals are dated—the Vietnam War and other US military adventures of the era keep popping up as key points of contention—and no, Alinsky’s ideology is not completely absent from the book’s pages.  Over the course of his life, he claimed to reject all concrete ideologies and movements and denied that he was a Marxist, but it is obvious from the book’s title alone that Alinsky was no moderate.  In his mind, greedy, capitalist, war-mongering corporations form the biggest threat to the freedom of Americans, and an entire chapter is devoted to exerting influence on these soulless, evil entities by exerting shareholders’ voting rights (I feel it is important to note that though the effectiveness of this method is relatively unproven, it is completely legal and potentially brilliant).

Fortunately, the detailed discussion of shareholder muscle-flexing is the most specific such example in the text.  The beauty of the methods that Alinsky outlines in Rules for Radicals is that they are basically apolitical; they could be used by a radical libertarian as easily as by, say, a radical leftist community organizer that would one day grow up to be President.  A motivated, passionate individual could substitute “Big Government” for “Big Corporations” into the Alinsky equation with no loss of potency.

This is largely because Alinsky recognized that to be effective, a successful community organizer could not be tied down by rigid adherence to specific tactics.  Refreshingly, he rejects the bloodlust and violence of various radical left-wing groups like the Weather Underground, and there is nary a tribute to Ché Guevara—but more unexpectedly, he by and large dismisses popular demonstrations like sit-ins as hokey relics of the past.  The key, you see, is to be adaptable and unpredictable, provoking one’s opponents and letting them stumble over their own weight.

Today, with bureaucracy bloated beyond anything even Alinsky himself could have imagined and citizens’ respect for government at historic lows, a young revolutionary might soon stumble upon a copy of Rules for Radicals and be inspired to work towards a freer, more prosperous society defined by the absence of state control over our daily lives.  Put your prejudices aside and pick up the book; there’s a lot to be learned from it, and who knows—that revolutionary organizer might end up being you.



One response

15 02 2010
Ellen Varney

Pertaining to Rules for Radicals, Part 1 (2-1-’10):
Insightful commentary, Graham.

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