The famous community organizer was no statist. Indeed, his book
anticipated the Tea Party movement by 30 years.
Charles W. Kadlec
Rules for Radicals is best known as the handbook for anyone who wants
to understand the techniques used by successful community organizers
from the time of its author, Saul Alinsky, to President Barack Obama.
In addition, it gives insight into the philosophy of a man who we can
say lived in liberty, and in so doing, anticipated 30 years ago the
Tea Party movement of today.
Alinsky was the most successful community organizer of the 20th
century. He gained notoriety in the 1930s with his organization of
the Back of the Yards area in Chicago (Upton Sinclair's Jungle).
President Obama, who studied and taught many of Alinsky's "rules"
during his days as a community organizer in Chicago, has used many
tactics found in the pages of Alinsky's book. For example, although
candidate Obama promised to usher in an era of bipartisan
cooperation, in his actual efforts to win legislative victories and
political debates he frequently chooses to use Alinsky's 13th, and
probably most famous, rule: "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize
it, and polarize it."
The causes that Alinsky supported made him a leftist in his time.
When he supported the rights of workers to organize unions in the
1930s, he was viewed by many as a communist, even though he had
repeatedly condemned communism and communists in deed and in his
writings. His support of civil rights and expanding economic
opportunity for blacks, and his opposition to the Vietnam War, also
aligned him with the liberal causes of the 1960s. Yet, unlike many of
his contemporaries on the left, he considered government generally
inept if not corrupt. He was an early and prescient critic of the
"War on Poverty," when in 1964 he called it "a prize piece of
political pornography." What is fascinating is that his emphatic
claim that he and this book are non-ideological is essentially true.
The book is focused on the pragmatic aspects of organizing and
empowering the "Have Nots" without reference to any political ideology per se.
What makes Alinsky a radical--and someone who lived in liberty--is
his embrace of the precepts of the American Revolution. Alinsky's
central conviction is a belief "that if people have the power to act,
in the long run they will, most of the time, reach the right
decisions." His credo: "Believing in people, the radical has the job
of organizing them so that they will have the power and opportunity
to best meet each unforeseeable future crisis as they move ahead in
their eternal search for those values of equality, justice, freedom,
peace, a deep concern for the preciousness of human life, and all
those rights and values propounded by Judeo-Christianity and the
democratic political tradition."
Alinsky, however, is no more a romantic than the Founding Fathers. He
embraces the complexity and contradictions that are constitutive of
our humanity. He makes clear that the community organizer first and
foremost is engaging in a game of power. And, the purpose of
organizing the community is to gain power. To achieve this goal, the
organizer must first and foremost accept the world as it is.
Next, he must communicate with the community by speaking in terms of
what that community knows to be true from their experience. For
example, he criticizes the leaders of the antiwar movement for their
vulgar speech, pointing out that such actions could only reduce the
ability to gain power by organizing the middle class to oppose the
Vietnam War. And, finally, the community organizer must accept that
human activity is driven by self-interest.
Alinsky understands and accepts that the "Have Nots" are resigned to
their lack of power, while the "Have a Little, Want Mores" are afraid
of change, fearful that they may lose what they have. And, finally,
he respects the power of the "Haves," whether they are part of the
political or corporate establishment. But then, by giving specific
tactics and examples, he provides what the title of the book
promises: a basic set of rules that provide a framework for
successfully organizing and empowering the Have Nots.
What makes the book timeless is that it is not a cook book with a
prescription for what to do, but a set of distinctions and principles
that can help an activist invent the next step in his or her pursuit
of change. As such this book is a must-read for anyone who aspires to
organize a community or to be an astute observer of the game of politics.
Because of Alinsky's support of causes associated with the Left, the
biggest surprise of the book is his central belief in the primacy of
the individual. Because humans by their very nature sustain their
lives within a web of interdependence with other humans, it is in our
self-interest to recognize that we are our brother's keepers, says Alinsky.
However, in fulfilling that imperative, Alinsky does not speak of
using the coercive power of government to impose such a vision.
Rather, he worked his entire life to create voluntary organizations
to address the social issues of his time. He writes: "To give people
help, while denying them a significant part in the action,
contributes nothing to the development of the individual. In the
deepest sense it is not giving but taking--taking their dignity.
Denial of the opportunity for participation is the denial of human
dignity and democracy. It will not work."
By "walking his talk," by showing and inspiring individuals to form
voluntary organizations to right the wrongs of their respective
communities, Alinsky is channeling Alexis de Toqueville. "One hundred
and thirty-five years ago," writes Alinsky, "Toqueville gravely
warned that unless individual citizens were regularly involved in the
action of governing themselves, self-government would pass from the
scene." Whether or not you agree with the causes he supported,
Alinsky is a man that should be admired for showing people how to
live in liberty.
His vision at the time of the writing of the book, 1971, one year
before he died, was to organize the "white middle class" that he saw
had given up its power by sinking into a state of resignation and
nonparticipation in the life of a citizen. If he were alive today, it
is reasonable to imagine that Alinsky would embrace the Tea Party
movement as the awakening of the middle class. Based on his credo,
and his belief that denying individuals a significant part in the
action steals their dignity, I can also imagine that he would support
the call for more limited government and the repeal of ObamaCare.
But he would not stop there. He also would be working to invent a way
for the Tea Party to direct its energy toward creating new, voluntary
civic organizations to address our pressing social concerns,
including providing medical care to all Americans and resolving the
issue of illegal immigrants. I imagine he would do so by challenging
us to live up to the founding principles of the United States,
including the primacy of the dignity of the individual, while
reminding us that we are our brother's keepers. And, through it all,
he would never waver in his belief in the premise of the American
Revolution: that a free people can be trusted to rule themselves.
In his prologue, Alinsky states the proposition thusly: "The spirit
of democracy is the idea of importance and worth in the individual,
and faith in the kind of world where the individual can achieve as
much of his potential as possible." To this day, this principle makes
the American experiment the most radical of all in the political
organization of a society.
Charles W.Kadlec is a seasoned observer of the political economy and
founder of the Community of Liberty. He can be reached at