Rules for Radicals blogged – Part One: Prologue

Saul Alinsky, born in 1909 in Chicago to Russian Jewish parents, is now famous as the father of community organising.  After graduating in archaeology from the University of Chicago, Alinsky started his work in the late 1930s in the Back of the Yards area of his home city, attempting to mobilise this poor working-class area to fight against poverty.  Later, Alinsky would move on to the African-American ghettos of the South Side, and onto other cities – eventually he would found an organisation the Industrial Areas Foundation, which continued his work after his death in 1972 and continues to train community organisers to this day.

I have been curious about Alinsky for a while, and it is for this reason that earlier this year I bought a paperback copy of Rules for Radicals, the book which he wrote in 1971 in order to set out some basic principles and methods for the next generation of community organisers (as it happened, he died the next year).  Alinsky was not a liberal – he came from the pre-McCarthy Old Left.  At the same time, however, some of the basic ideas around community organising are akin to those espoused by the community politics movement within the Liberal Democrats, in the words of the 1970s Eastbourne motion ‘to help organise people in their communities’, going beyond electoral politics to secure Liberal means.  The influence of Alinsky and his school, even if indirect, is clear, and I am indebted to Cllr Iain Brodie-Browne for relating to me how the now-forgotten Young Liberals’ Harle Syke Declaration of 1970 was deliberatley modelled on the Port Huron Statement, the founding text of the American New Left of the 1960s.  The appeal of Rules for Radicals, however, is also that it lays out a practical plan for radical change of the social and political system.  In the age of Coalition, where the Liberal Democrats struggle to gain an inch while often seeming to lose a mile, this can’t help but seem beguiling.  I will be blogging commentary on chapters of Rules for Radicals, hopefully reasonably regularly, starting here with the prologue.

– – – – –

The striking thing about the introductory chapter of Rules is that Alinsky seems genuinely worried and disturbed, but also fundamentally hopeful, about the new generation.  The Baby Boomers, he argues, had seen through the emptiness of post-war prosperity, but they were also possessed by an almost dangerous violent revolutionary fervour.  This optimistic view of a new, anti-materialistic youth was common on the left at this time – Charles Reich’s 1970 bestseller The Greening of America treated the eventual destruction of the corrupt system by the new men and women of ‘Consciousness III’ as an inevitably structural reality.  In reality, the generation coming of age in the 1960s was not as politically radical as either their contemporaries or many romantic accounts of the counterculture would like us to believe – Richard Nixon in fact won a considerable majority of the under-25s in the 1972 presidential election.  Yet even if Alinsky didn’t recognise this, he did appreciate the dangers of futile rage and a conservative backlash.  In Rules, he sympathises with their outrage at the Vietnam War and poverty and injustice in the United States, but he worries that their tactics might be self-indulgent and counterproductive.  ‘These rules’, he cautions, ‘make the difference between being a realistic radical and being a rhetorical one who uses the tired old words and slogans, calls the police “pig” or “white fascist racist” or “motherfucker” and has so stereotyped himself that others react by saying, “Oh, he’s one of those,” and then prompty turn off.’  Anybody who’s ever had dealings with the Socialist Workers’ Party will sympathise.  They might also sympathise with Alinsky’s almost paternal refrain: ‘this is a sad and lonely generation.  It laughs too little, and this, too, is tragic.’

To Alinsky, generating political change is fundamentally about communication.  ‘The real radical’ must sacrifice his own impulses in order to intelligently make the best of his position and not to alienate potential allies. When writing Rules, Alinsky was making plans to organise middle-class whites all over the country, and it is clear that he worries about the new generation and the men and women and their antipathy towards this group who, he emphasises, will move to the right if they are not encouraged to form alliances with the New Left.  ‘To bring on this reformation requires that the organizer work inside the system, among not only the middle class but the 40 per cent of American families… whose incomes range from $5,000 to $10,000 a year.  They cannot be dismissed by labelling them blue collar or hard hat…’ Of course, there were serious reasons for this antipathy – witness, for example, the viciousness of the racist backlash to Martin Luther King’s attempts to desegregate Chicago, Alinsky’s backyard and the city which King said could teach Mississippi how to hate.  In the light of serious generational and class divisions which sundered the New Deal coalition from the late 1960s onwards, Alinsky can seem naive in his belief that an organiser could bring them together.  Nevertheless, in the light of Nixon’s appeal to this group in 1972 and the ‘Reagan Democrats’ of the 1980s, Alinsky’s verdict seems prophetic.  It is also, incidentally, a problem that every Lib Dem campaigners will have faced – how exactly do you appeal to individuals who hold illiberal views in order to create a liberal society, beyond frenetic activity and pointing at things?

More than that, however, Alinsky emphasises the necessity of working within the system.  He denounces those who use political violence as not only counterproductive but argues that they are ‘people who are merely hiding psychosis behind a political mask.’  His argument is not so much one that reveres the political system – although Rules is peppered with admiring references to the Founding Fathers, they are not looked up to so much for their wisdom as for their skill as revolutionaries and propagandists in disrupting the status quo of their times.  Instead the argument is practical – violent action is pointless when the government is the one with the guns (this is something that the Black Panthers were already discovering to their disadvantage).  ‘I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be’: these are the words which epitomise Alinsky’s approach.  His counsel for the dejected young workers for the anti-war candidacy of Eugene McCarthy in 1968 is ‘go home, organize, build power and at the next convention, you be the delegates.’  (Italics his.) 

One can imagine, then, what exactly Alinsky might think of Russell Brand’s angry, vague rhetoric about revolution-through-apathy against the political establishment.  Most of Alinsky’s work was outside the confines of party politics, yet he saw plainly the importance of having the right people in office who could at least be persuaded to do the right thing.  Yet Alinsky offers some words of advice for we Lib Dems as well: ‘it is not enough just to elect your candidates.  You must keep the pressure on.’  Alinsky had the freedom of not being part of a party structure (he never joined the Communist Party, for example), so he could excert more direct pressure from outside without worrying about being counterproductive.  But can we honestly say that we have really, honestly interrogated our leaders and parliamentarians about the decisions they are making on our behalf in government?  Or do we (and now I include all parties) see the election of individual politicians as an end, rather than a means to a wider end?  Alinsky’s rules were designed for a movement, rather than the rigid confines of a political grouping – but is the only way to ‘take and use power’ for the Liberal Democrats to be a movement wider than a few thousand people delivering Focus leaflets?

In any case, the Prologue sets the tone for Rules: impassioned but pragmatic, sometimes to the point of near-banality, and focused on imparting lessons from an Old Left whose members had been largely wiped out by ‘the Joe McCarthy holocaust’ to their young successors.  The next chapter – and my next blog post – addresses the question: what is the purpose of organising a community?