Bob Schwartz

Tag: radical

Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals

Rules for Radicals

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.

Bernie Sanders as John the Baptist

John the Baptist

The Democratic Party is in trouble. Politically, philosophically, spiritually, demographically. Bernie Sanders won’t save the party or win the presidency. But he is setting the scene for the party’s reform and renewal.

John the Baptist was a terrible candidate to lead a religious revolution. He was a wild-eyed radical who seemed to be crazy. His people skills needed work. But his cause found a much better spokesman and leader, who took it to the next level. And then some.

When you think carefully about the party and its recent Presidents and leaders, you look hard for real radical inspiration. Bill Clinton was affable and politically adept, but his was the politics of radical compromise, to the point of digging a rut in the middle of the road that invited neo-conservative disaster and greed. Barack Obama was genuinely inspirational, and has helped the cause of humane Americanism as much as politics would allow. But circumstances and inclination led him to solid pragmatism.

One problem with pragmatism is that it makes a terrible anthem and cause. Another is that it allows all sorts of accommodations that look to the would-be believer like nothing but surrender.

That’s where Bernie Sanders and John the Baptist come together. When the stakes are high, and the troubles are deep, that’s when you have to invoke big visions. That’s what gets people who have fallen into both practical and spiritual malaise to answer the call and start working for real change.

There are few in the Democratic Party willing or able to do this. Whether or not Hillary Clinton wins the nomination or the election, it is not her. If she wins the nomination but loses the election, the party will do some typical superficial soul searching. If she wins both, she may consolidate her power, and the power of the establishment, but the Congress will be even less effective than it is now.

Either way, it is possible that Bernie Sanders is unleashing something bigger than the Clintons or any tepid self-inquiry the party may pretend to engage in. He may not be heir to the spirit of Bobby Kennedy, but he might as well be saying this:

“There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

When Bernie Sanders is done with this election, another Democratic reformer and revolutionary will come along, and another. At that point, if we are lucky, millions of previously unengaged and disappointed people may come to the party dreaming and asking “why not?” And Bernie, like John the Baptist, will have prevailed.