Saul Alinsky, author of Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (1971), is a currently infamous architect of political change, demonized but also mostly unread.
His infamy comes from the revelation that Barack Obama had used Alinsky’s work as a sourcebook for community organizing back in Chicago. That was enough for conservative Obama haters, who took this as just one more sign of Obama’s anti-Americanism. Most of them had never read Alinsky, but were sure he was some sort of scary Commie/enemy of the state type, who in the right kind of America belonged in jail—if he hadn’t already been dead.
Rules for Radicals is none of that. It is instead an articulate and sensible outline for making political change—not by rejecting or blowing up the system or the establishment, but by first accepting the way things and people are and working from there.
As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be — it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system.
Anything else, Alinsky says, alienates people by going outside their experience. Which is why, for example, he was so opposed to the tactic of burning the American flag as a form of protest.
This failure of many of our younger activists to understand the art of communication has been disastrous. Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates within the experience of his audience — and gives full respect to the other’s values — would have ruled out attacks on the American flag. The responsible organizer would have known that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations, and he would have conveyed this message to his audience.
Alinsky cites many political thinkers, giving special attention to the virtues and vices of those behind the American Revolution. Sam Adams, for example, made the case for revolution against the British, but once he was part of the established new regime, opposed rebellions within the new American democracy. This, Alinsky says, is a typical pattern.
Writing in 1971, after decades as an organizer, Alinsky hoped to guide a new generation of young radicals who seemed passionate but relatively rudderless. He laid out the practical lessons of his experience, especially the distinction between the rhetorical radical and the pragmatic radical.
This is the promise and the danger of what Alinsky saw at the time, and in a certain light, might still see today:
The “silent majority,” now, are hurt, bitter, suspicious, feeling rejected and at bay. This sick condition in many ways is as explosive as the current race crisis. Their fears and frustrations at their helplessness are mounting to a point of a political paranoia which can demonize people to turn to the law of survival in the narrowest sense. These emotions can go either to the far right of totalitarianism or forward to Act II of the American Revolution.