From THOM HARTMANN
With any book, one of the most important pieces of that work is its frame or context. In “Rules for Radicals,” Saul Alinsky lays out his largest frame brilliantly in his chapter “The Purpose” when he talks about class distinctions.
“The setting for the drama of change has never varied. Mankind has been and is divided into three parts: the Haves and Have-Nots, and the Have-A-Little, Want Mores.”
Alinsky then includes a social critique worthy of writers from Thomas Hobbes to John Locke to Thomas Malthus to Karl Marx. In many ways, he summarizes the meta-story of most of Charles Dickens’ novels (Dickens’ father had spent time in a debtors prison). For example:
“On the top are the Haves with power, money, food, security, and luxury. They suffocate in their surpluses while the Have-Nots starve. Numerically, the Haves have always been the fewest. The Haves want to keep things as they are and are opposed to change….Politically they are cold and determined to freeze the status quo.
“On the bottom are the world’s Have-Nots. On the world scene, they are by far the greatest numbers. They are chained together by the common misery of poverty, rotten housing, disease, ignorance, political impotence, and despair. When they are employed, their jobs pay the least and they are deprived in all areas basic to human growth. Caged by color, physical or political, they are barred from an opportunity to represent themselves in the politics of life. The Have want to keep; the Have-Nots want to get….Politically, they are a mass of cold ashes of resignation and fatalism, But inside there are glowing embers of hope which can be fanned by the building of means of obtaining power. Once the fever begins the flame will follow areas they have nowhere to go but up.”
In “Rules for Radicals,” Alinsky lays out his famous 13 tactics. The first 11 include: “power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have; never go outside the experience of your people; wherever possible go outside of the experience of the enemy; make the enemy live up to their own book of rules; ridicule is man’s most potent weapon; a good tactic is one your people enjoy; a tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag; keep the pressure on; the threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself; the major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition; and, if you push the negative hard and deep enough it will breakthrough into its counter side.”
In many ways, you could argue that all of Alinsky’s tactics are designed to reach that last threshold of his 11th tactic, because in his worldview the counter side of the negative, the counter side of pressure and sometimes even violence, is nonviolence. He notes this in his commentary on his 11th rule when he observes, “this is based on the principle that every positive has its negative. We have already seen the conversion of the negative into the positive, in Mahatma Gandhi’s development of the tactic of passive resistance.”
Which brings us to his summary, his 12th and 13th rules. Number 12 is, “the price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” Number 13 is, “pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”
All this may seem very formulaic and mechanical, but there is a depth of passion and emotion, of perspective and understanding of the human condition, and of practicality and knowledge of political realities that brings this book to life and makes it a richer and more powerful tool to guide those who seek to produce political or societal change. In fact, as much as the Right loves to demonize Alinsky and try to paint people from the very middle-of-the-road President Barack Obama to activists in the newly reincarnated SDS with a bright red brush of Alinsky radicals, when reading the book and looking at the contemporary political scene, it seems like the Astroturf leaders of the Tea Party movement and the behind the scenes billionaires pushing to end the estate tax by calling it the “death tax” are frankly using Alinsky’s methods more effectively than the left ever has.
Unfortunately, those on the right who use his methods – from Glenn Beck to Dick Armey – lack his moral vision, belief in traditional American values, and commitment to truth. In his chapter “Of Means and Ends,” Alinsky notes how pretty much everybody believes that they are on the right side, although some lack the necessary moral compass. He quotes from George Bernard Shaw’s book “Man and Superman,” when Mendoza said to Tanner, “I am a brigand; I live by robbing the rich.” Tanner replied, “I am a gentleman; I live by robbing the poor. Shake hands.”
But Alinsky holds a fundamental commitment to the power of truth. He writes: “to me ethics is doing what is best for the most. During a conflict with a major corporation I was confronted with the threat of public exposure of a photograph of a motel registration and photographs of my girl and myself. I said, ‘go ahead and give it to the press. I think she’s beautiful and I’ve never claimed to be celibate. Go ahead!’ Alinsky notes, ‘ That ended the threat.’”
He then adds: “almost on the heels of this encounter one of the corporation’s minor executives came to see me. It turned out that he was a secret sympathizer with our side. Going into his briefcase, he said: ‘In there is plenty of proof that so-and-so [a leader of the opposition] prefers boys to girls.’ I said, ‘Thanks, but forget it. I don’t fight that way. I don’t want to see it. Goodbye.’ He protested, ‘but they just tried to hang you on a girl.’ I replied, ‘the fact that they fight that way doesn’t mean I have to do it.’ To me, dragging a person’s private life into this makes it loathsome and nauseous.’ He left.”
“Rules for Radicals” is filled with anecdotes and stories from Alinsky’s battles against right-wing forces and giant corporations particularly throughout the ’60s. Many of these, in addition to being fascinating, are downright inspirational. On the other hand, in this post–Patriot Act nation, where it is now so much harder to challenge corporate power and a bought off and entrenched political class, some of the things he could legally do in the ’60s would today find an activist in prison.
All that said, “Rules for Radicals” is a galvanizing call to arms, a powerful and useful instruction manual (as noted, now used heavily by activists on the right – witness how they took down ACORN), a reminder of the passion and efforts of the last generation on whose shoulders we stand, and an inspiration for all activists who believe in their cause. Read it, share it, and pick up a few extra copies to give to your friends who are complaining that, “we just can’t do anything anymore.”
In reality, there is so much to do. In so many ways to do it. Tag, you’re it.
See also 365 Books Worth Reading: #1 Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals