This week marks the 100th birthday of Saul Alinsky, a political genius known as the founder of community organizing and the author of late 60′s/1970′s Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals. Are you celebrating?
Oh, you didn’t know it was his birthday?
It’s alright, because I didn’t either until I came across the news in the right-wing blogosphere. If you’re familiar with my work, you’ll find I source the neoconservative outlets as much, if not more often than the liberal press. The ideological and structural filters that prevent certain reporting within the liberal media’s elite parameters often became too frustrating. It’s not as though I try to keep an open mind or anything.
via the Free Republic:
That’s right, everyone’s favorite commie and the father of modern street agitation turns one hundred today… January 30th 2009. I’ll pause for a second so we can truly appreciate our circumstance here in the United States of America.
We have a Marxist President. We have a Supreme Court that has established itself as a secular tribunal. And our Congress makes the dudes hanging out at Starbucks look like Senior Fellows at The Heritage Foundation!
The notion that Alinsky was a communist or a Marxist is absolutely absurd, given his statements in Rules for Radicals—a book with which I became intimately familiar my senior year in high school. However, this labeling of who Alinsky was is a prevalent misunderstanding that’s been pervaded by not just the conservative media, but the entire press in general.
My own understanding of his work reminds me of Marx’s scholarship in the sense that one can perceive it in two fundamentally different ways. One conception of Alinsky’s teachings is not only applicable to building political power and creating social change, but invaluable (and massively underrated) socioeconomic analysis of modern society. The other, sort of like the ‘orthodox’ conception of Marx that feeds opportunistic and authoritarian vanguardism, is indeed quite dangerous.
Take this quote, for example, from Rules for Radicals:
“…to the organizer, compromise is a key and beautiful word. It is always present in the pragmatics of operation. It is making a deal, getting that vital breather, usually the victory. If you start with nothing, demand 100 percent, compromise for 30 percent, you’re 30 percent ahead.”
Compromise is a central theme in Alinsky’s work, but requires some deep exploring. The context in which compromise arises is within a reveling discussion of values; thus, the premise behind compromising is abstractly starting with a set of values consistent with Alinsky’s.
So when Hillary Clinton, a notable example because she studied Alinsky in depth during her time at Yale, justifies her position on things like welfare reform and healthcare reform based on Alinsky’s pragmatic rule of compromise, she has to be careful. She has to take into account two things: is she “demanding 100 percent” before compromising for 30%? And more importantly, is the starting 100 percent founded entirely on the same values of Alinsky, who very carefully defined them in the first 1/3 of Rules for Radicals? President Obama, of course, also must be held accountable to such questions on issues like financial reform.
But if there’s one thing about Alinsky that isn’t conceptually controversial, it’s his remarkable social analysis on a personal level. As an organizer in my community, I was fortunate to have immense resources courtesy of my position within Organizing for America. But no amount of personnel or technical support could give me the mental strength to stay strong, to stay inspired, and stay committed. To just “stay” can be the most difficult thing in the world to an organizer. It is truly a test of one’s humanity to believe that social change is possible when the requisite is the most difficult thing in the world to construct: community.
Alinsky’s knack for building power at a community level, I believe, came directly from his ability to build power inside of himself. Forty years after his passing, let’s be fortunate that he documented this intensely personal tactic of self-renewal for future generations.
“Once you accept your own death, all of a sudden you’re free to live. You no longer care about your reputation. You no longer care except so far as your life can be used tactically to promote a cause you believe in.”