Rules For Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer, by Saul Alinsky
This is the sort of book I would be expected to hate and tear into based on my own political worldview. Yet I did not find that to be the case. To be sure, there is much I found to disagree with here, but that is to be expected in a great many books where one reads material that is highly influenced by a worldview. What I found most striking about this book is that the author is far more knowledgeable and insightful, and therefore dangerous, than the many low-level socialist activists that I happen to know in person or on social media (or both). What is most striking about this work is how little contemporary leftist activists have actually read and understood this book and the approach of its author to creating leftist social change. I also found it rather striking that with fewer changes than one might expect, a postmillennial Christian activist would be able to use much of this material for good rather than for the evil ends that the author himself used these techniques for. It also helps that I am somewhat familiar with this book’s influence on rightist radicals with whom my sympathies are greater than with the author .
This book is a bit less than 200 pages long and it provides a primer that remains important for contemporary radicals. The author begins with a prologue and then discusses the purpose of the book in giving insight to others who want to rise above the low level of insight of leftist activists and organizers. After that the author talks about means and ends, viewing it as a case-by-case decision rather than wholeheartedly rejecting bad means for supposedly good ends. There is a discussion about words and the need for activists to avoid language that is recognized as leftist code and therefore rejected automatically by one’s audience. The author then turns his attention to the education of the organizer and how contemporary leftists are far less adept than their predecessors when it comes to relating to others. The author stresses the vital importance of communication in winning approval and respect by others outside of one’s leftist bubble. There is a look at the pragmatics of seeking to begin the process of change given existing societal conditions as well as a look at tactics and the importance of proxies. The author ends, as might be expected with a look at the way ahead for leftists.
By and large the author does demonstrate himself to be a pragmatist. If he talks about himself too much, he does comment thoughtfully on the low quality of the sort of community organizers and activists that exist on the left and their total inability to relate to audiences outside of their narrow focus or even to engage in the sort of communication that encourages dialogue rather than shutting down people through the use of obvious leftist language that people tune out automatically. The lessons discussed in this book about addressing the concerns of people and taking them seriously and treating them with respect and as potential allies are in fact worthwhile approaches to follow for anyone who desires to see actual change. The author recognizes the reluctance that people have to change and how this is a persistent danger to those who are in the business of agitating for change in society. As a pragmatist and realist myself when it comes to matters of policy and diplomacy, this book is one I can respect even with my disagreements. Moreover, the author also subtly points out that radicalism validates the radicalism of the response and that this is what many activists themselves aim at to weaken America’s constitutional rule.
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