Saul Alinksy's American Dream

I recently found a tattered old copy of Saul Alinsky's Reveille for Radicals in a used bookstore. It's underlined and marked up, and it appears to have been passed among several different owners since it was printed in 1969. (The book itself was first published in 1946). It is, of course, the classic handbook for "community organizers," or those seeking to instruct grassroots democracy on how to get what it wants -- or at least the right kinds of people. There were tricks and secret levers and all kinds of hidden methods by which a group of protesters, united into one mind, can achieve their goals, whatever those goals might be. "The system," "the establishment," "the oppressors" -- these were, if nothing, stagnant and half-asleep; once roused, they would be more willing to respond with brute force. But like all heavy punches, such force could be avoided and manipulated. Such was the goal of Alinsky's book.

He took a curious liking to the radicals of the American Founding -- people like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry, who maintained their radicalism until well after the new American establishment formed under the Federalists' Constitution, and who passed it on to the variety of subversives of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

But then he has this bewildering statement: "American radicals are to be found wherever and whenever America moves close to the fulfillment of the American dream. Whenever America's hearts are breaking, there American radicals were and are. America was begun by radicals. America was built by its radicals. The hope and future of America lies with its radicals."

Among the radicals I have met -- or even among the average liberals, and even a few conservatives -- I have heard only scorn for the idea of the "American Dream." It is beyond silly for them; it is a travesty that such a thing should even exist in the American mind. For those who fulfilled that dream, it was the drab, patriarchic, silently oppressive suburban madhouse; for those who lived beneath it, it was a meaningless promise, and pursuing it brought only racism and homophobia. We in modern times know better than to hope for such things by living in this country. Or so I'm told. Nonetheless, there it is, in Alinsky's handbook on how to be a radical. The 1960s is often fresh in the minds of those who lived through it, but it is amazing how many things we forget.

There certainly was something like an "American Dream" for the Founding generation. But it had nothing to do with the equality of outcomes and material conditions that it came to be in the twentieth century -- a thing perfectly unachievable, and destined to leave many people behind. Indeed, the roots of 1950s-style racism, for instance, are very much the outcome of the previous generation of progressives, who felt it their essential duty to engineer a perfect society -- and that called for the sort of biological unanimity that wasn't at all open to other races. But this utopian society could accomplish such a thing by rejecting the proposition of the Founding. As the progressive icon President Woodrow Wilson put it, "The Declaration of Independence did not mention the questions of our day ... It is an eminently practical document, meant for the use of practical men; not a thesis for philosophers, but a whip for tyrants; not a theory of government, but a program of action. Unless we can translate it into the questions of our own day, we are not worthy of it, we are not the sons of the sires who acted in response to its challenge."

The Founders' view of American uniqueness, what the regime truly promised to mankind, was not "useful" at all, nor were they themselves very "practical men" when it came to articulating that that promise. It was, quite simply, the maxim of liberty -- that liberty cannot be achieved without recognizing a certain basic human equality. That was a beacon, an abstract idea, applicable in all times and places; it most certainly was not a house in the suburbs and a white picket fence, at which modern sophisticates sneer.

But we can see how void of purpose modern life became after the deliberate rejection of the Founders' understanding of the regime. It is quite clear in Alinksy's words:

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. The radical is so completely identified with mankind that he personally shares the pain, the injustices, and the sufferings of all his fellow men.

This is, of course, very intense commitment and strong belief and willingness to sacrifice on principle; but there is no substance here, nor any clear vision of what is just or right or beneficial for people.

In short, it is worth emphasizing that Reveille is a "how-to" manual: Alinksy never exactly identified what was good for those partaking of social action. The assumption was that anyone who joined the ranks of radicals was already good, or at last very well-intentioned; no one would become an activist unless the person's heart was already pure. It is based on the classic ethic of pity -- and pity, as we should all know, is found only where it is placed. We feel pity for those we choose to feel pity for. If we choose not to, then there is no pity -- or, as is usually the case, no person.

Much of Alinsky's work grew out of his disgust with the views of standard liberals of his time. Like with Kierkegaard's disgust with the easygoing petit-bourgeois, or Nietzsche's horror at the "last man," Alinksy saw in the average American liberal a halfhearted attempt to feel good about oneself -- claiming "I'm not racist," and "I'm not rich," etc. As he put it: "Liberals protest; radicals rebel. Liberals become indignant; radicals become fighting mad and go into action. Liberals do not modify their personal lives and what they give to a cause is a small part of their lives; radicals give themselves to a cause."

What Alinsky sought to give liberals, or at least those who would accept it, was a personality who did not simply hold proper views, but who really meant it. But once again, it was clear that actualizing those values was vastly more important than analyzing them and ensuring that they were just -- or that they were misplaced pity, for that matter. Such self-examination was pointless when one could simply fight for the values one had chosen -- because the fight itself would make them real enough in due time. For all of Alinsky's "hope in mankind" rhetoric, it was ultimately a concession that might makes right -- the might of an emotion here, and the might of an angry protest there. It was not that radicals protested and fought for what was right; what was right was created by their protest and fighting.

There is a glaring and painful question for radicals both of Alinksy's time and now. Suppose you are a radical, and you fight and fight and shock and protest and terrify the mainstream establishment into submission, or perhaps its own dissolution. You are successful; you pull it off; you achieve everything you want. The question for such radicals is this: Then what? What is "the establishment" when you're done?

Kevin Walker, Ph.D., is a recent graduate of Claremont Graduate University in Los Angeles.
I recently found a tattered old copy of Saul Alinsky's Reveille for Radicals in a used bookstore. It's underlined and marked up, and it appears to have been passed among several different owners since it was printed in 1969. (The book itself was first published in 1946). It is, of course, the classic handbook for "community organizers," or those seeking to instruct grassroots democracy on how to get what it wants -- or at least the right kinds of people. There were tricks and secret levers and all kinds of hidden methods by which a group of protesters, united into one mind, can achieve their goals, whatever those goals might be. "The system," "the establishment," "the oppressors" -- these were, if nothing, stagnant and half-asleep; once roused, they would be more willing to respond with brute force. But like all heavy punches, such force could be avoided and manipulated. Such was the goal of Alinsky's book.

He took a curious liking to the radicals of the American Founding -- people like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry, who maintained their radicalism until well after the new American establishment formed under the Federalists' Constitution, and who passed it on to the variety of subversives of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

But then he has this bewildering statement: "American radicals are to be found wherever and whenever America moves close to the fulfillment of the American dream. Whenever America's hearts are breaking, there American radicals were and are. America was begun by radicals. America was built by its radicals. The hope and future of America lies with its radicals."

Among the radicals I have met -- or even among the average liberals, and even a few conservatives -- I have heard only scorn for the idea of the "American Dream." It is beyond silly for them; it is a travesty that such a thing should even exist in the American mind. For those who fulfilled that dream, it was the drab, patriarchic, silently oppressive suburban madhouse; for those who lived beneath it, it was a meaningless promise, and pursuing it brought only racism and homophobia. We in modern times know better than to hope for such things by living in this country. Or so I'm told. Nonetheless, there it is, in Alinsky's handbook on how to be a radical. The 1960s is often fresh in the minds of those who lived through it, but it is amazing how many things we forget.

There certainly was something like an "American Dream" for the Founding generation. But it had nothing to do with the equality of outcomes and material conditions that it came to be in the twentieth century -- a thing perfectly unachievable, and destined to leave many people behind. Indeed, the roots of 1950s-style racism, for instance, are very much the outcome of the previous generation of progressives, who felt it their essential duty to engineer a perfect society -- and that called for the sort of biological unanimity that wasn't at all open to other races. But this utopian society could accomplish such a thing by rejecting the proposition of the Founding. As the progressive icon President Woodrow Wilson put it, "The Declaration of Independence did not mention the questions of our day ... It is an eminently practical document, meant for the use of practical men; not a thesis for philosophers, but a whip for tyrants; not a theory of government, but a program of action. Unless we can translate it into the questions of our own day, we are not worthy of it, we are not the sons of the sires who acted in response to its challenge."

The Founders' view of American uniqueness, what the regime truly promised to mankind, was not "useful" at all, nor were they themselves very "practical men" when it came to articulating that that promise. It was, quite simply, the maxim of liberty -- that liberty cannot be achieved without recognizing a certain basic human equality. That was a beacon, an abstract idea, applicable in all times and places; it most certainly was not a house in the suburbs and a white picket fence, at which modern sophisticates sneer.

But we can see how void of purpose modern life became after the deliberate rejection of the Founders' understanding of the regime. It is quite clear in Alinksy's words:

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. The radical is so completely identified with mankind that he personally shares the pain, the injustices, and the sufferings of all his fellow men.

This is, of course, very intense commitment and strong belief and willingness to sacrifice on principle; but there is no substance here, nor any clear vision of what is just or right or beneficial for people.

In short, it is worth emphasizing that Reveille is a "how-to" manual: Alinksy never exactly identified what was good for those partaking of social action. The assumption was that anyone who joined the ranks of radicals was already good, or at last very well-intentioned; no one would become an activist unless the person's heart was already pure. It is based on the classic ethic of pity -- and pity, as we should all know, is found only where it is placed. We feel pity for those we choose to feel pity for. If we choose not to, then there is no pity -- or, as is usually the case, no person.

Much of Alinsky's work grew out of his disgust with the views of standard liberals of his time. Like with Kierkegaard's disgust with the easygoing petit-bourgeois, or Nietzsche's horror at the "last man," Alinksy saw in the average American liberal a halfhearted attempt to feel good about oneself -- claiming "I'm not racist," and "I'm not rich," etc. As he put it: "Liberals protest; radicals rebel. Liberals become indignant; radicals become fighting mad and go into action. Liberals do not modify their personal lives and what they give to a cause is a small part of their lives; radicals give themselves to a cause."

What Alinsky sought to give liberals, or at least those who would accept it, was a personality who did not simply hold proper views, but who really meant it. But once again, it was clear that actualizing those values was vastly more important than analyzing them and ensuring that they were just -- or that they were misplaced pity, for that matter. Such self-examination was pointless when one could simply fight for the values one had chosen -- because the fight itself would make them real enough in due time. For all of Alinsky's "hope in mankind" rhetoric, it was ultimately a concession that might makes right -- the might of an emotion here, and the might of an angry protest there. It was not that radicals protested and fought for what was right; what was right was created by their protest and fighting.

There is a glaring and painful question for radicals both of Alinksy's time and now. Suppose you are a radical, and you fight and fight and shock and protest and terrify the mainstream establishment into submission, or perhaps its own dissolution. You are successful; you pull it off; you achieve everything you want. The question for such radicals is this: Then what? What is "the establishment" when you're done?

Kevin Walker, Ph.D., is a recent graduate of Claremont Graduate University in Los Angeles.