The most unethical of all means is the non-use of any means.
– Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals
At the end of January 2017, the chilling term “alternative facts” entered the public lexicon. For a brief moment, reading humans around the world collectively remembered a literary dystopia that looked uncomfortably prescient. George Orwell’s 1984 rose to renewed prominence in Amazon’s bestseller list.
Now in the first weeks of March, 1984 has fallen out of the top twenty. In its place, Portraits of Courage by another clown of a president for whom, at this moment, we would trade this entire administration plus vital organs and firstborn children to have back in office. Also up on the list? The Five Love Languages. In the midst of rising fascism, romance still drives the bus.
I wish another classic read would pop to the top. While 1984 helps us snap so many cruelties and absurdities into narrative shape, we need words that takes us from understanding to movement. We need a map.
In the field of action, the first question that arises in the determination of means to be employed for particular ends is what means are available. This requires an assessment of whatever strengths or resources are present and can be used.
Saul Alinsky’s 1971 call to action walks onto the scene scrubbed of age. Okay, maybe half scrubbed. His references to yippies and the Vietnam war date him as much as the absence of Arab Spring and Occupy movement. Unapologetically a man’s man, he wraps critical and timely insights inside male proxies for human experience: “A major revolution to be won in the future is the dissipation of man’s illusion that his own welfare can be separate from that of all others.” Perhaps understandable in 1871 but not in the explosive middle of the 20th century when Alinsky’s hard lean to the left would have had him bumping elbows with Gloria Steinem. In his determination to list every single white male revolutionary in world history to the exclusion of everyone else, the dude clearly has cataracts blurring his social change vision. Yes, the book has its problems.
All of that said, the rules part of Rules for Radicals belongs to Now. It lives inside a long progressive tension between flashpoint activism and steady community organizing at the grassroots level.
I hope that these pages will contribute to the education of the radicals of today, and to the conversion of hot, emotional, impulsive actions that are impotent and frustrating to actions that will be calculated, purposeful, and effective.
The past few months have turned up the heat, calling up a sense of urgency about doing “the work.” We recognize more than ever that not only in theory but in practical reality, individual destiny — even survival — is bound up with that of our neighbors. We want more than understanding history, more than moving in it. We want to moving it. The question is, how?
Change comes from power, and power comes from organization. In order to act, people must get together.
A style of energy and directness make Rules a quick read. For those of us looking for a focus for our rising activism, we could do worse than kicking Alinsky up on Amazon’s list.