Saturday, November 03, 2007

Saul Alinsky's "ideology of change"

[Continuing my reflections on Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals]

When the late Saul Alinsky wrote Rules for Radicals in 1971, most existing handbooks for revolution were largely bogged down in communist rhetoric. And Alinsky admirably committed his book to “splitting this political atom, separating this exclusive identification of communism with revolution.” But in doing so, I think he made a mistake in dismissing ideology altogether.

“An organizer working for and in an open society is in an ideological dilemma,” Alinsky wrote. “[H]e does not have a fixed truth — truth to him is relative and changing; everything to him is relative and changing. He is a political relativist.” Alinsky’s “free-society organizer” is “loose, resilient, fluid, and on the move in a society which is itself in a state of constant change.” Anticipating the likely charge that such an activist is “rudderless,” Alinsky explained that the effective revolutionary has only one conviction — “a belief that if people have the power to act, in the long run they will, most of the time, reach the right decisions.” But without guiding principles or goals of any sort, how do you know when “right decisions” have been made? Alinsky doesn’t really address this.

Likewise, by embracing a wishy-washy, directionless “ideology of change,” Alinsky had no use for political consistency. After all, how can you be consistent when your only “good” is change for the sake of change? “In the politics of human life,” Alinsky wrote, “consistency is not a virtue. To be consistent means, according to the Oxford Universal Dictionary, ‘standing still or not moving.’ Men must change with the times or die.” In other words, keep moving, keep changing, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll eventually fall into something that works. But in Alinsky’s world, even if you finally create a workable, free society, you’ve got to keep moving and changing anyway. If you don’t, like a shark, you’ll die.

I think Saul Alinsky’s “ideology of change” is nonsense. In fact, I’m not sure he really believed it. More likely, he leaned on it to make Rules for Radicals acceptable to the broadest range of activists. But even with the book’s philosophical problems, there’s still much of value in it. I’ll have further thoughts to share in the next week.

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