Home > Alinsky, General > The Alinsky Tactics – Rule by Rule Part 1: Background

The Alinsky Tactics – Rule by Rule Part 1: Background

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A short note: the background and the first rule are definitely the driest part of our total discussion, and perhaps the least useful. However, it sets the critical framework, which will enable you to understand the rest. In essence – this is the vegetable portion. Dessert comes later.

There are a lot of misconceptions about Saul Alinsky and his now famous Rules for Radicals. The way in which his ‘rules’ are applied in large part today constitutes a bastardization of his original intent, and many of those using his rules are precisely what Alinsky swore he would never be-namely, ideologues.

To truly understand his tactics it is necessary for us to understand at least a little about the man himself. Alinsky (1909-1972) cut his teeth in the rough and tumble 1930’s in Chicago. Coming of age during the Great Depression shaped a great deal of his thinking as it did for so many of those who lived through this most traumatic of times in American history.

By 1939 he had begun to work with Labor to right what he saw as injustices in the ‘back of the yards’ in Chicago made famous by his predecessor Upton Sinclair. Having worked across the nation for the labor movement, he turned his sights on the black, ghetto communities in the 1950’s. Other than his allegiance to labor, he never sought solidarity with any political or religious group, feeling that his independence of thought would be compromised were he to join such organizations with their rigid dogmas.[3]

The original intentions of Alinsky were quite laudable. He saw injustices, and indeed there were many injustices to be sure, and he sought to right them. He saw downtrodden workers and oppressed people, and sought to bring about a social justice with them and for them. Few would have a problem with such goals. I certainly see them as admirable. But as usual in life, things are not quite so simple. What started as a crusade to help the less fortunate somehow morphed into a strategic battle plan to turn the conditions of wealth and poverty upside down, and in the process Alinsky lost sight of any value in the morality of the means involved, and instead espoused only that the ends were worthy of consideration no matter how horrible the process might become .[3]

Many have called him an avowed Marxist or communist, but such characterizations are neither completely accurate, nor are they fully explanatory of the nature of the man and his methods. At times he could wax patriotic in the vein of a Thomas Paine, and just as easily he could seek the overthrow of the Government and the ascension of the underclass to power by any means necessary. Alinsky stated that his philosophy was beyond mere Marxism, but that he sought similar ends is irrefutable.[1]

Karl Marx had delineated in Das Kapital his belief that all capitalist societies would necessarily devolve into a society in which the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ would eventually widen to such an extent that the underclass would rise up and seize power, whether by peaceful means or through bloody revolution.[6] Marx saw capitalism as unsustainable because of the constant need for profit. Profit was the evil at the heart of capitalism that would eventually become its undoing. As capitalists (very much a derogatory term as used by Marx) sought ever larger profits it would require them to abuse the working class in order to squeeze out these profits, and finally the entire situation would become so untenable that the working class would rise up and take control.[2]

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

The thesis of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto (1848) can be summed up in this excerpt at the beginning or their document under the heading of Bourgeoisie and Proletarians:

“Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes”.[5]

The manifesto lays out their view of economic history and its future and ends with a dramatic flair with the following words:

“The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!”[5]

While Alinsky would seek not to be pigeonholed, it is clear that his belief system was well in line with Marx and Engels and egregiously disconnected with the philosophies of Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. Smith in particular with his release of On the Wealth of Nations in 1776 had set the groundwork for the economic philosophy of the United States, and that philosophy has prevailed with varying degrees of modification ever since.[4]

So then, Alinsky who is looked upon as the father of community organizers, would certainly recoil in horror from the concept of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ for the invisible hand of the market left too many broken under the wheels of progress and neglected by the state. Instead Alinsky would be far closer to Marxism in philosophy, and in fact, his Rules for Radicals constitute nothing less than a handbook for the proletariat to overthrow the bourgeoisie. Alinsky proposed that in order to change the system it would be necessary to agitate and shake up the prevailing patterns until people felt frustrated and hopeless. It was then that, “They won’t act for change but won’t strongly oppose those who do.”[1]

I apologize if the above is arcane and/or obvious common knowledge to the reader, but without a basic understanding of these concepts it is impossible to truly understand Alinsky’s rules. In fact, I would encourage even those who feel they know Marxist and communist philosophies to refresh themselves in the history of economic thought.

Finally, any true understanding of Alinsky requires an understanding of the United States in the 1960’s, and the tumultuous battle for the minds of young Americans that took place during those years. Volumes have been written on the 1960’s in America and so it is beyond our scope here to delve deeply into it, but there are a few pertinent observations that will shed some valuable light and add some important context to Alinsky and his methods.

The single biggest movement of the 1960’s was the anti-war movement. Without an understanding of the magnitude of the divide in America over the war in Viet Nam it would be quite impossible to truly understand Alinsky and his methods.

The anti-war movement and the concomitant hippie and yippie revolutions defined the late 60’s and early 70’s in this country. Modern progressives are still caught up in this tug of war today, often oblivious to the fact that it was a Democratic President who expanded the role of Government like no other President other than Franklin Roosevelt, and that it was this same Democratic President who was at the heart of the escalation of the Viet Nam conflict. Many see Lyndon Johnson’s contribution as providing for the otherwise forgotten Americans, the poor and minorities, and they completely erase from their minds that Johnson was the single person most responsible for the scale of the Viet Nam war.

Remember that people like Bill Ayers and his notorious ‘weathermen’ were on the violent fringe of the anti-war movement – a fringe, incidentally, that Saul Alinsky did not identify with. So there was this amalgam of movements and philosophies fighting for primacy amidst the passion and despair surrounding an unpopular war and an increasingly unpopular Government. It is against this background that we must examine Saul Alinsky and his Rules for Radicals.

Go to Part Two
Go to Part Three

Works Cited

[1] Alinsky, Saul Rules for Radicals. Toronto: Vintage Publishing 1971

[2] Cohen, G.A. Karl Marx’s Theory of History A Defence Princeton: Princeton University Press 1978

[3] Horwitt, Sanford D. Let Them Call Me Rebel Saul Alinsky His Life and Legacy Toronto: Vintage Publishing 1992

[4] Kronenwetter, Michael Capitalism vs. Socialism New York: Franklin Watts 1986

[5] THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO. Available at: http://www.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/classics/manifesto.html [Accessed September 18, 2009].

[6] Marx, Karl Das Kapital New York: Grove Press, 2006

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  3. ptrkL
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  4. ptrkL
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  5. shannon
    September 22, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    this is so confusing! i am trying to understand! it all seems to contradict itself. i don’t care if capitalism is right or wrong, best idea or not. i just care to keep it and keep my country, the United States of America. we didn’t fight to be socialist, we fought against it, to be free! y does it matter how the money flows? whatever direction it goes, it’s never coming back,cuz it always runs out when it’s over spent or over used 4 power. right? freedom under God is the power, not money. that’s what i don’t think any of these men get.

  6. July 1, 2010 at 4:28 am

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