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Books Rules for Radicals

By Bill Beckett

196 pages, $6.95.

"RUBBING raw the sores of discontent" is one of Saul Alinsky's first tactics in organizing mass movements. As a professional radical and agitator. Alinsky has spent the last thirty years building popular bases of power. He has gone into communities, pointing out the causes of the problems that bear down on the people who have invited him in, inciting and directing anger against those causes, building popular movements, and working out tactics the movements can use to win power, and gain some real measure of control over community life. Over and over. Alinsky has made his method work: his localized revolutions have taken the power they were after. His book is, among other things, a handbook in what he calls (with characteristic immodesty) the Alinsky method: " The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away."

In organizing Chicago's "Back of the Yards" neighborhood (Upton Sinclair's Jungle ) in the late '30? and more recently, in organizing the black ghetto of Woodlawn in Chicago, the ghetto of Rochester, N. Y., Chicano groups in Southern California, or Indians in Canada. Alinsky and the staff of his Industrial Areas Foundation have worked repeatedly for the same ends. His commitment is to "a free and open society." a society based on values like "freedom, equality, justice, peace," "a deep concern for the preciousness of human life" and the right to dissent: a society where people will realize that "morality is the only road to survival." a society where everyone will realize that no man can have a whole loaf of bread while his neighbor has none. Democracy is a means to those ends, and Alinsky's tactics are used to create democracy.

With these ends in mind, he dismisses the idea that anyone who tries to defend the present distribution of political-economic power in America can support Alinsky's ends in any other than a personal fantasy world. And with frequent glances over his shoulder at history, he dismisses the idea that any ideology holds the key to successful revolution, and the idea that any successful revolution can possibly hold the key to paradise. At the heart of Alinsky's theory of political and social change is his utter rejection of belief in apocalypse. He no more believes that radical action can bring eventual salvation to the whole world than he believes that a world without radical change will suddenly end.

One of Alinsky's goals in Rules for Radicals is to change a popular identification of revolution with communism. His postulate is that all groups-the "Haves" with power, the "Have-Nots" without power, and he "Have-a-Little. Want More's," the middle class in between-act according to their feelings of self-interest, and work out moral reasons to fit their actions. Alinsky is no political theorist, and his analysis of human motivation, on paper, is limited. But his understanding of how to use this basis of motivation to reach his own ends is born out of putting a few postulates of human motivation to work. Where he has put them to work, the "Have-Nots" have often won out over the "Haves."

"To me," writes Alinsky, "ethics is doing what is best for the most." Ethics are the systems by which a particular act or tactic is judged "moral" or "immoral." and Alinsky's many critics have so regularly attacked the means he uses to win change, even when they claim to agree with the changes he is fighting for, that he has repeatedly been constrained to defend his ethics. His defense of his own ethical relativism in Rules for Radicals comes almost incidentally along with a chapter that examines how systems of ethics actually work in politics, a chapter called "Of Means and Ends." The defense proves, as the work of his life suggests, that Alinsky is one of the most moral men in America today, because he can sacrifice his own morality for the morality of a movement. His morality is not of personal conscience, but of conscience toward everyone whose life he can possibly affect. Being able to avoid "dirty" pressure tactics is the moral luxury of those who stand by and watch: Alinsky is willing to plunge his hands into messes that most of us wouldn't touch, and his willingness to dirty his hands in "corruption" is willingness to sacrifice himself for what he very accurately calls "mass salvation."

Some of Alinsky's "rules of the ethics of means and ends" are absolutes of cynicism; they're all eminently reasonable. The ninth and tenth rules are good examples: "any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical." and "you do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral arguments." They are equally true observations on how battles are waged in the pits of political conflicts and as prescriptions for how to keep a movement going when one set of self-interests comes up hard against another set: Alinsky's rules, however unpleasant, are the only rules of the game. His point in making them so uncompromising is that in situations where "what is best for most" is being opposed-by racism, by unresponsive government, by corrupt local administrations, by corporations, or only by the inertia of the present order-there's often no room for compromise: the choice becomes one of either giving up a moral end or embracing an "immoral" means to win it.

ALINSKY'S unique ability to win concrete demands from a powerful opposition may have as much to do with his personal talents for communication, organization, and spontaneous formulation of the right tactic for the particular time and place, as it has to do with any of the principles he lays down in his book. His own experience in training organizers at the Industrial Areas Foundation Training Institute-among them Black Panthers, Catholic priests, middle-class community workers, militant Indians, and student radicals-has been less successful than he hoped when he opened the school. He has had more success in organizing than in training organizers. His most famous student, Cesar Chavez, seems to be an exception to the rule. As for Alinsky's tactics: they are at times notoriously unorthodox. He once forced the city administration of Chicago to live up to its commitments to the Woodlawn ghetto community organization by threatening to have his people occupy all the toilets and urinals in O'Hare Airport.

Alinsky now plans to start using his energies to organize the middle class rather than concentrating only on the poor minorities who, even united into a single movement, would still be a minority in this country. His tactic, one he discovered in his battle with the paternalistic Kodak Corporation in Rochester, will be a nationwide coalition of middle-class stockholders who will use their stock proxies collectively for corporate and (indirectly) government responsibility on political and social-issues. (It's similar to Ralph Nader's "Campaign GM," but on the scale of a mass-movement.) As a revolutionary tactic, the plan looks doubtful: it presupposes that corporation management can be forced into cutting their profits and making drastic changes of policies by stockholders who are willing to swallow cuts in their dividends. But there is no question that such a movement would be in the interests of "the many." But Alinsky's Rules for Radicals demonstrates that if anyone can organize a movement to turn the arrogant power of America's corporations over to the people, he is the man most likely to do it.

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