I’ve been reading Saul Alinksy’s seminal ‘Rules for Radicals’ recently – it fits in well with a lot of what i’m involved in at the moment – work, study, politics and so forth. It’s a great book – written much like Sal Kahn’s stuff – more on the back of experience than philosophy, although there is plenty of intelligent analysis of history in there, too. The book itself gained a bit of fame – or perhaps infamy? – when it was credited with winning Obama the White House – at least by Republicans, and that led to a whole slew of quite ugly responses to Rules for Radicals amongst conservative publishers. I haven’t read them, but I think that if you’re whole purpose in writing a book is to justify why another book is wrong, then you’re probably not starting from the strongest place – especially when the other book seems to have the runs on the board.
What do I think of Rules for Radicals? Well, the first term that comes to mind is ‘relative’. To Alinksy, everything is relative. We’ve all heard the saying that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter – it’s a truism, of course – but Alinksy takes it much further than that. He outlines the way that our claims to moral superiority are often based upon the situation we find ourselves in – and the ethical decisions we make are generally dependent upon our ability to make a choice about those ethical decisions, rather than any innate sense of right or wrong. Of course, Alinksy is cynical enough to know that every other country or politician or individual in the world makes these decisions, too – such is the nature of the game of politics.
The other idea that springs to mind is words. There is a great section where Alinsky describes our natural inclination to avoid using certain words – power, ego, self-interest – because they have connotations that we consider to be bad. He rejects this idea, saying that if we accept that then we are surely detouring from reality. Instead, we must embrace these words and use them because of what they represent and all the connotations that come with them. It’s confronting stuff.
Alinksy is also pretty critical of labour union organisers. He suggests that being a labour union organiser means that you are too tied down to a fixed cycle mediated by agreements and contracts. Your skills are too limited to talking and organising about one particular thing, unlike community organisers who must be capable of doing more than one thing – and capable of adapting to change as it happens.