Legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky inspired a generation of activists and politicians with Reveille for Radicals , the original handbook for social change. Alinsky writes both practically and philosophically, never wavering from his belief that the American dream can only be achieved by an active democratic citizenship. First published in 1946 and updated in 1969 with a new introduction and afterword, this classic volume is a bold call to action that still resonates today.
Saul David Alinsky was an American community organizer and writer. He is generally considered to be the founder of modern community organizing. His organizing skills were focused on improving the living conditions of poor communities across North America.
I actually have the 1969 version of the 1946 book, with an updated introduction and afterward by Alinsky. As Alinsky himself notes in his '69 introduction, he was full of much more piss and vinegar in this work than in his later Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. He plainly states his own ideology in Reveille, which he tries to avoid doing in Rules. Alinsky distinguishes his "radical" ideology from the liberal, the communist, the religious, and the conservative.
"What is the American radical? The radical is that unique person who actually believes what he says. He is that person to whom the common good is the greatest personal value. He is that person who genuinely and completely believes in mankind... He wants a world in which the worth of the individual is recognized. He wants the creation of a kind of society where all of man's potentialities could be realized: a world where man could live in dignity, security, happiness, and peace--a world based on a morality of mankind" (p 15).
Of course, anyone claiming the "common good" is the worst form of terrorist, as there is no such thing as a "common good" and those who invoke the term are usually imposing their will on a segment of society. Take for instance, the "common good" of the tens of millions of Germans in the Nazi regime who required the extermination of the 400,000 or so German Jews for the "common good." All manner of horror can be so justified and often is. Individual liberty cannot be permitted to interfere with the "common good," after all.
Alinsky envisions the future world as one without "economic injustice, insecurity, unequal opportunity, prejudice, bigotry, imperialism..." (p 25). He hopes "for a future where the means of economic production will be owned by all of the people instead of just a comparative handful" (p 25). Never mind that "all the people" can't own a single refrigerator, much less the means of production. After all, everyone would be eager to eat from the fridge, but who would run to the store to restock it, only to have the locusts descend again even before the caretaker had a chance to eat from it? Then there's the problem of who will clean up the spills... Equality of opportunity, which Alinsky claims to desire, is quite at odds with equality of outcomes, which Alinsky not only claims to desire but actively supported through his community organizing, as the latter results in the seizure of one person's fruit of his/her labor, obtained through opportunity, and sharing it with another who did not use the same opportunity to the same productiveness. Overall, one can clearly see Alinsky's utopianism in his vision for a future completely disconnected from any of man's real experience.
His critique of labor unions is quite good and well worth reading, very similar to that found in The Road to Serfdom. Alinsky points out the open racism practiced by organized labor up through World War II, again in a way echoed by Thomas Sowell and other contemporary authors looking back. Also Alinsky's critique of "Uncle Tough Talk" self-appointed civil rights leaders and white guilt/self-flagellation are spot on, not unlike that given by Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell in their own works.
Alinsky should be praised for outlining his assumptions (p 39-40), a rare quality in many: 1) Atomic weapons will end war (obviously disproven since 1946). 2) Democracy is the most efficient means of man to realize his potential. (hear hear!) 3) Partial democracy is to blame for human suffering. 4) The gulf between man's morals and his practices leads to irrational behavior. (Whose morals? This could be why Alinsky's, and everyone else's, utopianism never bears fruit in the real world.) 5) Man must achieve faith in himself, his fellow man, and his future. 6) There must be no injustice, however small (again, how does this fit with confiscating one man's goods to give to another, who may not have the same talents or have worked as hard? Does he mean criminal justice--unlikely--or some kind of user-defined "social" justice?). 7) Man must be spiritual not materialistic (yet Alinsky uses Marxist analysis of class conflict and focuses on economic issues in his practice). 8) Focus on causes and not end products. (the latter lends itself to empirical approaches with more certainty) 9) Man's obligations as well as man's rights. (indeed!)
In the first portion of Reveille, Alinsky is far more limited in his latitude for the organizer (agitator) to influence the agenda of the people's organizations he/she organizes than he is in his later work, Rules for Radicals. Indeed, in the latter he is as open as he is cynical about the way the organizer manipulates the crowd to follow the agenda the organizer has in mind. He even expresses his own exasperation with the masses of people in the later work, while professing an almost blind faith in people power in Reveille. Alinsky notes that the organizer must limit himself to "general issues of the kind that all people support, such as medical care, full employment, good housing, good schools, equal opportunities, and above all the opportunity to create their own program" (p 54). Again, it must be noted that creating a "right" to other people's property (via "rights" to housing, medicine, schools, food, etc.) means giving a right to trespass, steal, and indenture service from those whose labor should be also paid. This hardly reflects a commitment to equal opportunity for those who have used their opportunity to become doctors, teachers, research new medicines, build schools, houses, hospitals, grow/raise food, etc. Later in Reveille, as Alinsky gives concrete examples of community organizing (Muddy Flats and the others), he admits that the organizer manipulates the people into carrying out the organizer's agenda, and gives instructions as to how this is accomplished. However, he makes this fit with his elsewhere-stated idealism by noting that people can only be manipulated for their own good by people who love them, otherwise the trick won't work...
Alinsky displays a penetrating understanding of how communities function. He especially appreciates the gap between elites who consider themselves, and often appoint themselves, as leaders of communities, and those who are naturally looked up to by groups of people within the community in the day-to-day. His construct of "Mr. But" as the well-intentioned, soft-spoken everyday hypocrite is also well-done. In his more practical examples of organizing, Alinsky displays his understanding of individual motivations, group dynamics, and how to manipulate people to your will. While his utopianism carries the day with him into wishing for a world without selfishness, he is quite practical about employing people's self-interest to get them to do good, not unlike a classical Liberal. The fact that Alinsky thinks that selfishness is a product of culture and not innate to man indicates that he never had any children, as any parent can tell that toddlers have "No mine!" down well, while sharing is the behavior that must be learned.
Alinsky in places also naively indicates that if only the poor man could better his material conditions, so would his moral character improve. Yet in other places he indicates (and quite correctly, in at least some instances) what rascals so many of the rich and powerful are. In this assessment of the poor character of those in comfortable material surroundings he echos GK Chesterton, though unlike Chesterton, Alinsky holds fast to his faith in the positive spiritual and moral benefits that will inevitably accrue to the poor contingent upon the improvement of their lot, even in spite of his own observations to the contrary. Another triumph of hope over experience.
In the updated afterward, Alinsky expresses the same kind of practical point of view he uses in Rules. He emphasizes the importance of starting with the world the way it is. Given the choice of reading only one, I would suggest Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals over this read precisely because Alinsky's practical advice is grounded in deep experience and insightful understanding, while his aims and ideology seem to be a bit more disconnected from reality and therefore less useful to others.
The original community organizing text. This book, originally published in 1946, sharply contrasts with today's reality, where unions lack power and some of the only groups making political demands are lobbying groups for corporations. Regardless, the undying belief in average people and their ability to change their own lives if given the tools to do so is refreshing and hopeful. I feel like I'll be looking back to this book for guidance in the future.
Lots of people read this back when it was first published, a million years ago. But it should be required reading for anyone trying to find their way out of the multinational corporate capitalist maze we currently find ourselves in. Particularly for anyone in the Occupy Movement. Saul Alinsky was a freakin' brilliant community organizer who had incredible results in the Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago, which he then replicated in various places all over the country. The cry for people- first justice that he sounds from the very beginning of the book is just as relevant, if not more relevant, today as it was in the mid 20th century when the book was first written. It is a complete package, giving theoretical grounding and practical advice for creating a world that is focused on meeting human needs and not on creating profits for the few at the expense of everyone else. This is excellent. I highly encourage anyone and everyone to read it.
Read for my Community Organizing Class. Really interesting thoughts and ideas, leads to really great discussion about Alinsky's ideas featured in the book. Reading this now, with so much political turmoil in the world was especially hard hitting, as Alinsky's ideas from the 1940's still apply to today.
As you are captured in the first few pages you will continue to be as you progress through each and every page expertly laying out timeless descriptions and examples of the human condition.
"Do you like Catholics, Irish, Italians, Jews, Poles, Mexicans, Negroes, and Chinese? Do you regard them with the warm feeling of fellow human beings-or with a cold contempt symbolized in Papists, Michks, Wops, Kikes, Hunkies, Greasers, Niggers, and Chinks? If you are one of those who think of people in these derogatory terms, then you don't like people."
Perhaps another example of what I would require as mandatory reading if I ran the school systems. Where are the writers now that can speak the truth to engage us without fear of their house being burned to the ground, ostracized and a jobless existence for even asking a question. So, then where are the organizations, or courts that support the expression of the individual that was purchased long ago with the blood, where are the Thomas Paine and Thomas Jeffersons. Oh yes, masses of Mr. But s have pulled their statutes to the ground. To label them as ignorant is an understatement, as I hear the media call them freedom fighters for justice I vomit the disgust of ignorance.
Surely shouldn't those ignorant rioters be told they are hundreds of years late, that if they really do love all people that they can go to Africa, China, South America anywhere else in the world where violence, anarchy, slavery still exist to continue with their fascism.
The book timeless shows the truth of fellow man how to structure real change and how to avoid personal responsibility for anything and move from one fight to the next. When you are finished with the book you will go back and read it again which I always seem to do and this one I know won't be long on the shelf as I try to lend it to friends so we can discuss the contents and maybe discuss the last few pages which is how to set up the Non-profit business structure to return the focus of all peoples on the democratic way of life or anything you desire to manipulate the peoples toward.
Alinsky’s infamous Rules for Radicals has sat on my reading list gathering dust for years now, and I figured it was about time to give it its day in the sun. But first came his first RoR, because—doesn’t ideological evolution also fascinate you?
A brief accounting of Reveille’s two poles will suffice for my review:
Positives Skin in the game. If nothing else, Alinsky put his money where his mouth was and his feet on the ground, elevating him above the all-talk-no-walk babblers who continue to populate American institutions of power—this bare fact charges his words with a gravitas they would otherwise lack.
Skewering of liberals. Since the postwar era, astonishingly little has changed in the MO of self-identified liberals. If anything, their pathologies have metastasized. What are examples? Righteous moralizing with no conception of moral philosophy; prescriptive programs with total disregard for holistic impact; refusal to empathize, much less communicate, with outgroups; lack of statistical training; unbelievably impoverished models of causality; thoroughgoing ahistoricism; unquestioning adherence to media “experts”; circlejerking; affinity for legalistic bureaucracy; vulgar materialism; consumerism; credentialism; NIMBYism; ignorance of incentive systems; horrid aesthetics, rank pretension and general hypocrisy.
Understanding of incentive systems. Alinsky’s years of fieldwork enabled him to map the motivational terrain of both organizations and individuals from the bottom up. He emphasizes—in my view correctly—the influence of environmental (sociocultural) embedding on individual psychology and builds from there, illuminating for instance the proximately symbiotic but ultimately parasitic (because it barred, in his view, social progress) dynamic between employers and labor unions.
Conviction of creed. Once in a while it’s refreshing to read material whose author deeply believes it.
Negatives Excess of faith. To his credit, Alinsky explicitly acknowledges the ideals for which he fought as stemming from his “democratic faith,” however it is just that—a faith—and at that a blind one, because like any checkbox true believer he never clarifies how its ends will come about or just in what it consists, nor permits even the most levelheaded critiques (such as democracy being the “tyranny of the majority”) any airtime—a move polemical and altogether, don’t you agree, undemocratic. Alinsky’s second faith is a faith in the masses, a sort of universalism, here the idea that if we could all just get together and hash out our differences (with great and sustained effort), the world would solve itself. What I consider its fatal critique lies in how the gigantic space of possible minds inevitably engenders fundamentally irreconcilable value differences whose ultimate resolution, if such a settlement can be achieved, lies most probably in no house of coffee (it being neither expedient nor perhaps in the last analysis desirable to sit a graphic designer, a jihadi militant, and a Papuan tribesman over roasted beans and have discourse) or court of law (imagine our beloved subjects concurring on terms of adjudication), but on the battlefield, written in blood, as it always has been and continues to be.
Overextension of authority. From page 79: “No clique, or caste, power group or benevolent administration can have the people’s interest at heart as much as the people themselves.” Two points. The first: these organizations too were and are made of people, and the second: Alinsky cannot claim to speak for “the people,” only, at best, a people—but even then it would be wrong to presume their monolithic character, or to assume that democratic solutions are better, or even good, or anything other than, well, democratic.
Progressive bias. While it is no doubt insipid of me to point at a zebra and say it has stripes, some force of will impels me to make a couple more corrections. One. Even if we grant that all occasions of great humanistic progress (loaded terms, I know) have been instigated by those of a Radical nature, it does not follow that all Radical action (however good its intent) leads to progress, and as such Alinsky’s false equivalence between the American Revolution and potential Communist uprisings becomes, even without the clarity of hindsight, obvious. Two. Though it has proven so in the U.S., conservatism is not inherently regressive; the philosophy at its core is about preserving things worth preserving—rituals, traditions, ways of life—and preventing their extinction; what those things are (or ought to be) is a separate question. For me it is our natural environment; and you may picture reforestation as a conservative act that nevertheless entails growth and progress.
Repetitiveness. Whip the horse too many times and it stops neighing, I’m only here for the music.
Quotables “Radio stations and many hotel lobbies that use phonograph turntables are forced by the union to hire and pay a member of the union to ‘serve as record changer.’” [p.39]
“If people are organized with a dream of the future ahead of them, the actual planning that takes place in organizing and the hopes and the fears for the future give them just as much of an inner satisfaction as does their actual achievement.” [p.73]
“These Liberals cannot and never will be able to understand the feelings of the rank-and-file people fighting in their own People’s Organization any more than one who has never gone through combat action can fully grasp what combat means.” [p.155]
“It seems as though a good part of our knowledge and what we may refer to as our own philosophy and attitudes are not things that we carefully and laboriously think through but are the rationalizations or self-justifications of acts which we have already committed.” [p.187-88]
how to organize. how organizing for social justice is a lot like organizing for tammany hall. how alinsky is a kook. it has been said, but Alinsky is like a neo-post-Thomas-Paine. he writes about the radical in a very common sense way.
Written 20 years before "Rules for Radicals," and it seems about 40 years more dated. Mostly good for a sort of snapshot of the labor organization movement just after WWII and the beginnings of Alinsky's political thought.
I read this book because my sister bought it for me for Christmas, and because my wife used to be engaged in an Alinsky-like program of social organization, and she was apparently very effective in this role.
Alinsky's bon mots were sharp. "The radical is that unique person who actually believes what he says."
"A war is not an intellectual debate, and in the war against social evils there are no rules of fair play. In this sense all wars are the same. Rules of fair play are regulations upon which both sides are in mutual agreement. When you have war, it means that neither side can agree on anything. The minimum agreements of decency that either side may display stem not from decency but from fear. Prisoners are treated according to certain minimum standards and both sides hesitate to use certain inhuman weapons simply because of fear of reprisal."
It was very interesting to me how much about his philosophy still rang true today, such as his views on liberals: "Liberals utter bold words at meetings; they strut, grimace belligerently, and then issue a weasel-worded statement 'which has tremendous implications, if read between the lines.' They endlessly pass resolutions and endlessly do nothing. They sit calmly, dispassionately, studying the issue; judging both sides; they sit and sit still." Much of what he wrote about does not seem to apply, especially as our society is even more fractured and individualistic today than it was in 1946.
I could not take Alinsky seriously because his faith in America is so clearly based in denial. His central premise -- that organizers must like and have faith in The People -- is completely undercut by his worship of Thomas Jefferson, a major slave owner. It is deep denial to claim that Jefferson loved all People, when he believed himself to be the owner of human beings. Alinsky celebrates Thomas Paine and Jefferson; he seems to distance himself from Communists with his patriotism.
Alinsky does not ever really outline how a People's Organization comes into being, or how often it meets, or what it does. The point seems to be that this is small-d democracy, where people who usually do not share their opinions have a voice in their community. My big quarrel with this is what to do about the fact that 70% of white people are consistently on the side of racism, oppression, etc? He talks about popular education but I am still curious how this would look.
I'm pretty ignorant about this, but it seems to me that a lot of political organizations created in the Trump era are more in the style of one-issue affinity groups, where people who are already totally aligned get together to move fast. I'm curious who is still doing Alinsky-style work. It seems like it would be a good fit for climate work at the local level.
I bought this book to investigate my suspicion that a more confrontative "us vs them" approach might be better than a more careful judgement of the available options and what the best strategy is. Intuitively I prefer the latter version and despise the former because its so-called solutions are just so poorly thought out. However, the former "brute force" approach may be more effective than the latter and I am trying to investigate this hypothesis. Major examples of this are the radical pro-trans/critical race theory movement and the less radical but still not completely thought out Fridays for Future. Both movements may have accomplished more than the boring rational approaches. And since I believe that outcomes matter more than fundamentalist objections, I may overcome my antipathy. Believing the author to be a proponent of this approach, I turned to this book.
Which kinda missed the point. The original book (minus the fore- and afterword) is boring centre-left in a lot of ways: Alinski is explicitly against enforcing top-down changes and some of his statements seem tailormade to attack the modern progressive left. His approach is based on bringing people together and letting the results follow from their actions and choices - not his policy ideas that they are supposed to promote. This approach seems great for union or neighborhood struggle, but unsuitable for more abstract and large-scale problems like climate change. Overall, it simply wasn't the ruthless radical strategy I had expected.
The fore- and afterword are a bit more radical, at one point expressing open disdain for thinking before acting out one's passion, but that is pretty much it.
I really think he meant well at this point in his life. There's a lot in here about the human condition, left in a very fragile state when this was written (1946, right after the bombs were dropped). Some great stuff about bias, all men being created equal, individual freedom, etc...
But it ultimately led to Rules for Radicals, which is mostly trash written by an old troll on his death bed, trying to start some sh** he would never have to witness. And if that offends you, you're probably one of the lemmings who reads the 13 rules on twitter then ignores or skips all the parts of the book that disagree with your own existing biases; then thinks they're some radical revolutionary making a difference.
The worst of the worst trolls on both sides of the aisle have studied and absolutely mastered his "Rules for Being a F***ing A**hole", as I prefer to call it.
Just remember: Not 20 years ago, the damn TEA PARTY was handing out his books pretending he's on their side. They, like newer fans, were trying to divide and destroy. Now a bunch of commies are doing the same (call them whatever you want). Point is, Alinsky was not a commie, or a conservative or a liberal, he hated them all and wanted all sides to fight each other.
Divisiveness was his only platform. He would have fit right in on Twitter, with the blue checkmarked losers who suck up your most valuable resource, your attention, and whine all day there for likes.
Democracy is a team sport! This well-written book draws on the author’s experience organizing communities in Chicago. Alinsky stresses the importance of obtaining buy-in from the various and disparate groups within a community, such as churches and labor unions, in order to effectively give the people a voice. His warning that democracy dies when people become apathetic and participate no further than voting is especially relevant today. Written in the 40s, with foreword and afterword added in 1969, the book offers the modern reader an interesting combination of contrasts and haunting familiarities. His critique of the Boomers in their radical heyday as tuned-out hippies and masochistic activists is sad, and probably on-point.
The main takeaway is, if you want to change the world, help those around you. This bottom-up approach seems so foreign today, when we are perilously close to looking for a king to do everything for us.
Fifteenth book of the year. Written by the somewhat shady, yet highly influential Chicago-based radical community organizer Saul Alinsky during periods of incarceration throughout the 1940's, it's a series of case studies and raw critiques on the building and operation of People's Movements. Ya' may remember Ben Carson name dropping Alinsky once or twice during this years presidential campaign, referencing how he dedicated his most known work, Rules For Radicals, to the original radical, Lucifer, a work Hilary was apparently inspired greatly by - conservatives had a field day with that. I'm not gonna sit here and claim to be an acolyte of the guy now, but I did find a lot of his observations on social issues and organizing to be extremely insightful. Will be tracking down more of his other works in the near future.
Reveille for Radicals is a passionate attempt by one of the 20th century's great community organizers to synthesize what he had learned over the course of years of practice. Alinsky's unique combination of fiery optimism and moral relativism still stands out as a unique voice in a time in which the latter is usually paired with cool cynicism. Also, Alinsky's insights into Chicago's Back of the Yards gave Jane Jacobs some of the fodder for her thoughts on social networks, political efficacy, and the role of the built environment for The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
However, if you're looking for a handbook for community organizers, Alinsky's later Rules for Radicals covers much of the same ground with greater clarity of thought and a larger roster of examples.
"The younger generation must soon swing into action. Action is purposeful, deliberate, designed not as an end in itself but to generate new action in developing a program. Breathers of compromises are an essential to the pragmatic social changer. The approach of so much of the present younger generation is so fractured with "confrontations" and crises as ends in themselves, that their activities are not actions but discharge of energy which, like a fireworks spectacle, briefly lights up the skies and then vanishes into the void."
Saul Alinsky saw right through our performative activism already in 1969
You really need to read this! Anyone in the humanities could at least appreciate this book maybe even agree with most of its points. I didn’t expect it to be interesting from the perspective of those in psychology,anthropology,sociology,etc. if you study how people think and group dynamics I believe you could get something from this. Think of what it’s asking. How does one entice an individual to join a people’s organization? There’s a variety of reasons! It forces the reader to ask what are you doing for your political future and that of your children?
A surprisingly engaging read from a book with an opaque title by an author I’d never heard of before - a major U.S. community organizer from the mid-20th century. Learned some practical theory on democracy, power, compromise, and organizing, and enjoyed getting a glimpse into Alinsky’s vision of what was behind the “People’s Organizations” he worked to create.
There are some great quotes from third party sources, but otherwise this piece is repetitive and droll. It was written for its time and has references to recent events, that minus some historical context is laborious reading.