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Mar 07, 2009

Saul Alinsky on Means and Ends

Rules-for-radicals"The practical revolutionary will understand Goethe's "conscience is the virtue of observers and not of agents of action"; in action, one does not always enjoy the luxury of a decision that is consistent with one's individual conscience and the good of mankind.  The choice must always be for the latter.  Action is for mass salvation and not for the individual's personal salvation.  He who sacrifices the mass good for his personal conscience has a peculiar conception of "personal salvation"; he doesn't care enough for people to be "corrupted" for them.

"The men who pile up the heaps of discussion and literature on the ethics of means and ends--which with rare exception is conspicuous for its sterility--rarely write about their own experiences in the perpetual struggle of life and change.  They are strangers, moreover, to the burdens and problems of operational responsibility and the unceasing pressure for immediate decisions.  They are passionately committed to a mystical objectivity where passions are suspect.  They assume a nonexistent situation where men dispassionately and with reason draw and devise means and ends as if studying a navigational chart on land.  They can be recognized by one of two verbal brands: "We agree with the ends but not the means," or "This is not the time."  The means-and-end moralists or non-doers always wind up on their ends without any means."

-- Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals -- A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals

I'm a newcomer to Alinsky's work and am shocked that no one forced me to read this book before now.  There's much in there to learn from and much to argue with.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, some right-side bloggers made a point of showing the Obamas' connection to Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation founded in 1940. Left-side bloggers said, yeah, but that's a good thing.

Locally, Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods) began forming as an IAF affiliate in 2000. On their Accomplishments page they "claim victory" for several accomplishments such as the City Council approving $300k in funding for after-school programs in 2003, and the City Council increasing Parks & Rec funding by $350k in 2004. 

Recently, Durham CAN seems to have recently morphed into (or been enveloped by) Triangle CAN, according to this N&O article about director Ivan Parra, in which Parra comments on the difference between Durham County and Orange County:

“The culture of the towns is different,” Parra agrees when I ask him about Durham and the Chapel Hill/Orange County areas.

“The people in Durham act more out of impulse. The heart is at the center of everything they do,” he says. “In Orange County there’s so much education. People act out of intellect.”

I haven't found any links to a Triangle CAN website, but will be glad to hear from anyone with info or other commentary.

11:37 PM in Destination Durham, Quotables, Triangulations | Permalink


Backlog of blog reading here. Oddly enough, after declaring myself a "Leftist Alinskyite" on Facebook, I'm finally taking the time to get through Rules in toto, rather than just hitting selective essays.

Alinsky's moral relativism is perhaps his most troubling aspect. However, there are underlying lessons, which I think are whole even if I find some of his extrapolations from them problematic. First, no matter what we want the world to look like, we have to start from where the world is now. Second, anyone attempting to make that change must always be pragmatic about it. If you cannot pursue that change morally, you effectively acquiesce to the status quo or to your opposition. Alinsky comes across here as advocating that the ends always justify the means, but he goes into greater detail towards the end of that chapter to discuss which ends justify which means. For my part, I'd take a different tack, and say that practicing distasteful means presents one moral challenge, and acquiescing to distasteful ends produces another moral challenge. The fact that in this case, means are certain and ends are uncertain gives moral preference to practicing just means, but that the morality of the ends must be at least factored in. (Classic extreme example -- you don't believe in killing, but what if you had a clean shot at Hitler in 1941? The ends are overwhelming, but still at that moment uncertain.)

But to get back to canonical Alinsky for a second, his core assertion here is a rather Darwinian and feral view of politics, culture, and change. There are constantly forces working to alter the future, many of which are unscrupulous and detestable. If you plan on opposing these, it's not enough to do so in a way that just makes you feel good but is inherently ineffective. Ideally you can oppose them based on strong principle but effectively too, but things don't always work out that way, so be prepared for the tough moral choice, and don't let it consume you.

Finally, I've been saying to anyone who would listen that understanding Alinsky was absolutely critical to understanding Obama, but the nitwits on the right who call Alinsky a communist need to have "idiot" tattooed on their foreheads. Alinsky is perhaps most notable in history as a radical leftist who also believed in and loved American civil liberties, individualism, and celebrated enlightened self-interest. In the 20s and 30s, he worked with Communists on labor organizing, but split with them very early based on their plans for the state. In Rules, he clearly sets up the communist states of Russia, China, and Cuba against the US, and unhesitatingly sides with the US. (At a time when he didn't have many who agreed with him about this on the radical left.) If it had any sense, the right would look at Obama's moderated Alinskyism and say, well, here's a leftist view that we don't like, but at least it incorporates Burke's pragmatism and Hume and Mill's centrality of individual freedoms. But I suppose this is what the right hates most -- because of that, he's that much more politically effective. It's a strong leftist philosophy that is nonetheless entirely compatible with classic Americanism.

Posted by: Michael Bacon | Apr 3, 2009 10:26:03 PM