I’ve read Rules for Radicals before. Years ago.
This time, I read it differently. I powered through it in a couple of sittings, but I found myself analyzing the text as I read, far more deeply than I have in the past. I took notes on almost every page. I highlighted and underlined. I dog-eared.
I read it for the first time as a bit of not-extraordinarily-relevant education. I was still at the time, of course, mired in leftism.
I don’t think that’s why I see this book so differently now than I did then.
I remember that even as an Obama supporter, I found Saul Alinsky to be quite a repulsive individual, concerned only with winning, even if it meant doing bad things.
(Keep in mind, of course, that Barack Obama is the most prominent contemporary Alinsky acolyte, with the possible exception of Hillary Rodham Clinton.)
I won’t attempt to summarize Rules for Radicals here. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written on every facet of Alinsky and his works, most of them far more eloquent than anything I would come up with.
That, and I already hear my son playing around in his bed, so he’s probably going to wake up soon.
So here’s one theme for today: Saul Alinsky understands the necessity of self-reflection and self criticism.
In the spirit of this concept, I will acknowledge that one of my biggest weaknesses as a commentator is how difficult I find it to utilize brevity.
So, add that to the nap situation, and I can turn this negative into a positive advantage for this article. Or, to put it into Alinsky’s frame, “If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside”.
Though this is referring to a tactic that will be used to attack the enemy, I think it makes my point.
Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals is an incredibly valuable book. I just see the truths within it as having an entirely different utility than Alinsky did.
I’m not talking about politics. I’m not talking about segments of the right who wish to use the lessons that the left has taken to heart for decades against them, necessarily.
Rules for Radicals, and especially its concepts of relativism and observations of power dynamics, has further ignited my largest inner debate: principles or pragmatism?
Ends and means.
I’ve written about this struggle multiple times – most of them linked in this article that may be enjoyable if you like the one you are reading now. I think about it more than I can admit. It’s kind of the crux of it all, isn’t it? Who am I? What are the principles by which I will live? Will I change them? How much?
My friend Josh Carter gets in on the action a lot, too. We’ve debated this back and forth and I always enjoy his insights.
One Alinsky passage stood out to me.
The mental shadow boxing on the subject of means and ends is typical of those who are the observers and not the actors in the battlefields of life. In The Yogi and the Commissar, Koestler begins with the basic fallacy of an arbitrary demarcation between expediency and morality; between the Yogi for whom the end never justifies the means and the Commissar for whom the end always justifies the means. Koestler attempts to extricate himself from this self-constructed strait jacket by proposing that the end justifies the means only within narrow limits. Here Koestler, even in an academic confrontation with action, was compelled to take the first step in the course of compromise on the road to action and power. How “narrow” the limits and who defines the “narrow” limits opens the door to the premises discussed here. [Emphasis mine]
That first bolded sentence, right there, explains the difference between my first and recent readings of Alinsky. Once, I was on the sidelines. It was far easier to be the Yogi. Now, in my little space of action, it’s easier to be the Commissary.
And that last sentence?
Terrifying, because Alinsky is right.
If you give an inch on principles, you risk becoming an Alinskyite.
But here’s where I break with Alinsky.
A true Alinskyite sees the universal deviance from our own principles in some contexts as something that should be exploited.
I see it as something to be contained. A reminder that the inherent hypocrisy of Man does not exclude me. A reminder that every day, I will face these questions, and every night, I will fall asleep with no perfect answer to them. Rules For Radicals is a brilliant examination of uncomfortable things, and how careful we must be to quell our worst natures.