Alinsky’s main idea is that American society divided into Haves, Have Little Want Mores (middle class), and Have-Nots. He was firmly on the side of Have-Nots and sought to empower Have-Nots to transfer resources from Haves to themselves. The book is philosophical, moral, and practical discussion on why the revolution should occur and how to promote it using opportunities presented by democratic character of society. Alinsky does not see this democratic character as absolute and he does not attempt to hide that. He believes that as soon as Have-Nots took power any moral and democratic niceties should not bind them.
The biggest part of book is dedicated to practical themes of preparing organizers (they used to be called revolutionaries) and how to organize masses to achieve objectives: mainly resource transfer from Haves and Middle class to Have-Nots. Alinsky, however believes that Have-Nots could not achieve power without attracting a significant part of middle class and he convinced it is possible by discrediting American dream of material prosperity in the eyes of young members of middle class and giving them better alternatives which he does not bother to specify. As practical guide to political fight it is product of long end effective career of practitioner and it provides wonderful examples of raising rubble and antagonizing groups of society against each other.
Saul Alinsky considers himself a part of revolutionary force and sees its targets as both moral and material. His hope resides in the young generation of American society (baby boomers at the time) who mainly came from the middle class background but reject similar middle class life for themselves because they saw its devastating effect on quality of life of their parents. His objective in this book is to provide this young revolutionary generation with meaning of life and tools to achieve this meaning by using democracy and organizing individuals who are not happy with existing arrangements into active force to change these arrangements.
This book is written for Have-Nots and designed as instruction on how to take power from Haves. Saul compares it with Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, the book that could be considered an instruction for Haves on how to keep their power. The way to achieve power for Have-nots is revolution. Alinsky sees history as sequence of revolutions and inevitable counterrevolutions, making two steps forward then step back. So his objective is to make revolutionary steps ahead longer and counterrevolutionary steps back shorter.
Alinsky keeps stressing his division of society into trinity of Haves, Have-Nots, and Have-a-little Want Mores. From the last group should come great leaders of revolution who will stir up frustrated and mentally weak Have-Nots and organize them into movement that will disposes Haves. However majority of this middle group will remain inactive due to their internal conflict of having too little to support Haves and too much to support Have-Nots. Alinsky perceives this revolution as moral imperative and as necessary in everybody’s interests including Haves because a man who has a loaf of bread and does not want to share with hungry is going to be killed by hungry to get his bread. Alinsky wants to take bread from Haves without killing.
Of Means and Ends
This chapter is somewhat long and detailed discussion on question “Does the means justify the ends?” Generally Alinsky’s answer is YES, but with a caveat: “Does this particular end justify these particular means?” Actually his view is quite interesting because he views the whole human life as a story of means and ends so he comes up with a set of rules for ethics of ends and means:
- Concern with ethics of means varies inversely with personal interest in and/or distance from conflict.
- The judgment of ethics of means directly depends on politics of person making this judgment.
- In the war ends justifies almost any means. The only reason to comply with any rules whatsoever is possibility of retaliation in kind.
- Any judgment about ethics of ends and means must be made in context of time when it occurred not in abstract.
- Concern for ethics increases with number of means available and vice versa.
- The less important the end to be desires, the more one can engage in ethical evaluation of means.
- Generally success or failure to achieve ends is determinant of ethics of means. The point with allusion to American Revolution: There is no such thing as successful traitor because if one succeeds he becomes a founding father.
- The morality of means depends on these means being deployed at the time of imminent victory or imminent defeat. Here Alinsky goes into condemnation of American use of nuclear weapons.
- Opposition automatically judges any effective means as being unethical.
- One does what he can with what he has and clothe it with moral garments.
- The Goals must be phrased in general terms like “Common Welfare” or “Bread and Peace”
Interestingly enough at the end of this chapter Alinsky find it necessary to declare his own means in the most elevated terms as “Free and Open society anchored in complex of high values that include the basic morals of all organized religions.” In his view Democracy is not the end, but political means to the ends of preciousness of human life, freedom, equality, justice, peace, and right to dissent.
A Word About Words
This chapter is about 5 key words of politics:
POWER: It is a key for Alinsky because “life without power is death” so he is looking for power to use it constructively in achieving his goals
SELF-INTEREST: Alinsky seems to go against negativity of the term and links it to question of morality. In short, whatever is in our self-interest we find ways to consider moral and visa versa. He also seems to believe that in some cases like when white students fighting for civil rights, they demonstrate “wondrous quality of man” to overcome “natural dams of survival and self-interest”
COMPROMISE: For Alinsky it is a wonderful world because he sees it as a temporary rest stop while moving in direction of his objectives. However his understanding of compromise does not include notion of retreat.
EGO: This is a key quality for organizer and is different from ego of leader or egoism of regular people. The ego of organizer is fed by ability to transfer Have-nots into united group with mass ego capable to fights for whatever it wants. In this case organizer is supreme creator of this new entity of the mass.
CONFLICT: This is an essential core of free and democratic society. Alinsky calls it “the harmony of dissonance”
The Education of an Organizer
This chapter is detailed review of methods used to educate organizers. The key methods are merging with the group, internalize their goals and attitudes, and test any concepts by real life experiences. The quality necessary for good organizer Alinsky defines as: Curiosity, Irreverence, Imagination, Sense of humor, somewhat Blurred vision of the better world, Organized personality, Well integrated political schizoid, Oversized Ego, Free and open mind, and Political relativity.
Ability to communicate effectively is indispensible. Without it organizer does not exists. It includes ability to understand life experience of other people and bring communication message within this experience. Another important rule is to arrange message in such way that people would believe that they come to it on their own. Instead of transmission of ideas they should be patiently nudged so they would come with feeling of ownership even if the feeling were false.
In the Beginning
This chapter is about methodology of organizer’s action. Specifically it is about initial process of establishing his identity and value for the group.
Here Alinsky again uses his marvelously well organized mind and comes up with tactical rules for organizers:
- Power is not only what you have, but what your enemy thinks you have
- Never go outside experience of your people
- Wherever is possible go outside experience of your enemy
- Make enemy to live up to their own book of rules
- Ridicule is most potent weapon
- A good tactic is the one your people enjoy
- A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.
- Keep the pressure on
- The thread is usually more terrifying than the thing itself
- If you push negative hard and deep enough it will break through its counter side
- The price of successful attack is a constructive alternative
- Pick the target, freeze it and personalize it
The Genesis of Tactic Proxy
The point of this chapter is to stress that rules are just a compilation of effective methods not really “how to manual”. The key for success is improvisation and constant pragmatic adjustments to real life situation. As example story of development of proxy fights tactic is provided.
The Way Ahead
Alinsky sees way ahead in organizing American middle class and especially its young members – student for action to destroy existing political order of America. The way to do it is to use insecurity of middle class and increasing difficulty to achieve traditional American value of prosperity in order to generate hate and enmity to upper classes that already achieved such prosperity and eventually substitute traditional value of prosperity with the value of denying prosperity to others. He seems to consider this the way to a beautiful world without poverty, discrimination, and all other ills of American society.
MY TAKE ON IT:
Alinsky explicitly rejects both communism and capitalism, but does not provide any vision for future structure of society where Have-Nots have power. His stated objective is to teach how to organize Have-nots for power and how to use this power for more equitable distribution of means of life for all people. No word however on where these means of life would come from. He believes that the future is organizing of middle class to join poor in massive robbery of existing wealth, but significant bulk of wealth belongs to middle class so somehow he misses impossibility of long term robbery of middle class by middle class.
However his tactics are brilliant, not that much as tool for achieving something for the poor, but as political tools to achieve power in democracy by using misconceptions inherent in world views of young people on early stages of their live when indoctrination provided by schools and universities is not yet overridden by real life experiences. Alinsky’s spiritual grandchildren who organized Obama’s complain created a glowing example of successful use of his ideas. Too bad that political power in democracy has quite short shelf live if not supported by substantial improvement of quality of life. The quality of life as it changed under Obama stinks, which spells doom and gloom to the Party of Bureaucracy – Democrats as soon as their adversaries – Republican start using Alinsky’s rules with full power. If republicans find in themselves an ability to redesign themselves from the Party of Plutocracy into Party of Middle Class, the prosperity would come back and at the level unimaginable today.