Radical Change equals Radical Reformation: The Politics of Saul Alinsky

Over the years I’ve kept a promise to myself, one that through everything has helped me to survive, and not only survive but to actually keep my mind alive and radical. Radical? Do we even know what that means anymore? We like to tout our heritage. Oh, let’s say Thomas Paine. Yes, yes, he was a radical, a man of the enlightenment, a creature who paid the price of his beliefs in a radical democracy. Imprisoned by  Robespierre – who was himself the betrayer of the revolution, Paine barely escaped the fate of the chopping block during the great purge. With the ascendency of Robespierre to the Committee an era of anti-radicalism took charge of the revolution. It was a full-blooded Counter-Enlightenment. Condorcet was outlawed and sentenced to confiscation of his possessions in October 1793, Brissot guillotined on 31 October, Pierre-Louis Manuel following a fortnight later. Olympe de Gouges was guillotined on 3 and Bailly on 12 November. In December, Tom Paine, ‘the most violent of the American democrats’ in Madame de Staël’s words, in whose eyes the ‘principles of the Revolution, which philosophy had first diffused’, were ‘departed from, and philosophy itself rejected’ by the Robespierristes, was first expelled from the Convention and then arrested and imprisoned. Already months before, he had become entirely convinced that the Jacobin government was a tyranny ‘without either principle or authority’. Left in his cell, the United States government made remarkably little effort to extricate him.1

At the end of his life the writer and orator Robert G. Ingersoll wrote:

Thomas Paine had passed the legendary limit of life. One by one most of his old friends and acquaintances had deserted him. Maligned on every side, execrated, shunned and abhorred – his virtues denounced as vices – his services forgotten – his character blackened, he preserved the poise and balance of his soul. He was a victim of the people, but his convictions remained unshaken. He was still a soldier in the army of freedom, and still tried to enlighten and civilize those who were impatiently waiting for his death. Even those who loved their enemies hated him, their friend – the friend of the whole world – with all their hearts. On the 8th of June, 1809, death came – Death, almost his only friend. At his funeral no pomp, no pageantry, no civic procession, no military display. In a carriage, a woman and her son who had lived on the bounty of the dead – on horseback, a Quaker, the humanity of whose heart dominated the creed of his head – and, following on foot, two negroes filled with gratitude – constituted the funeral cortege of Thomas Paine.2

Such was a radical democrat in the enlightenment era. When I grew up there was another radical who I did not discover till later in life. I will hold off from sharing his name till you read one of his most pungent statements:

First , there are no rules for revolution any more than there are rules for love or rules for happiness, but there are rules for radicals who want to change their world; there are certain central concepts of action in human politics that operate regardless of the scene or the time. To know these is basic to a pragmatic attack on the system. These rules make the difference between being a realistic radical and being a rhetorical one who uses the tired old words and slogans, calls the police “pig” or “white fascist racist” or “motherfucker” and has so stereotyped himself that others react by saying, “Oh, he’s one of those,” and then promptly turn off.

This failure of many of our younger activists to understand the art of communication has been disastrous. Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates within the experience of his audience — and gives full respect to the other’s values — would have ruled out attacks on the American flag. The responsible organizer would have known that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations, and he would have conveyed this message to his audience. On another level of communication, humor is essential, for through humor much is accepted that would have been rejected if presented seriously. This is a sad and lonely generation. It laughs too little, and this, too, is tragic.

For the real radical, doing “his thing” is to do the social thing, for and with people. In a world where everything is so interrelated that one feels helpless to know where or how to grab hold and act, defeat sets in; for years there have been people who’ve found society too overwhelming and have withdrawn, concentrated on “doing their own thing.” Generally we have put them into mental hospitals and diagnosed them as schizophrenics. If the real radical finds that having long hair sets up psychological barriers to communication and organization, he cuts his hair. If I were organizing in an orthodox Jewish community I would not walk in there eating a ham sandwich, unless I wanted to be rejected so I could have an excuse to cop out. My “thing,” if I want to organize, is solid communication with the people in the community. Lacking communication I am in reality silent; throughout history silence has been regarded as assent — in this case assent to the system.

The words above are from none other than Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and was based on the basic assumption that to change things one first needs to understand not only what communication is but also, and more important one needs to know how to communicate effectively. Without the ability to break down the barriers that divide us from each other democracy is impossible. Humans have got to start from the ground floor, and that entails a total behavioral change in one’s approach to communication. Being radical isn’t dressing up in black and red and bombing institutions, it isn’t sitting on Wall-Street decrying the power of the system, it’s not even bellowing on in blog after blog about the great struggle, etc. No. It’s about the simple things in our everyday lives. As Alinsky reminds us:

As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be — it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system.

Notice he does not say we should destroy the system to change it. No. He says we should start with what is right in front of our noses and begin there working in the midst of the ruins of democracy. We have no other choice. This is our home, our earth, our habitat. If we destroy it what then? Yet, there is another reason:

There’s another reason for working inside the system. Dostoevski said that taking a new step is what people fear most. Any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people. They must feel so frustrated, so defeated, so lost, so futureless in the prevailing system that they are willing to let go of the past and chance the future. This acceptance is the reformation essential to any revolution.

And, yet, we live in a time when people demand change now, as if the only thing viable were a year of living dangerously, of entering some apocalyptic pact or revolutionary moment of pure violence that would forever change the world. But is this really what we want and need? –

Our youth are impatient with the preliminaries that are essential to purposeful action. Effective organization is thwarted by the desire for instant and dramatic change, or as I have phrased it elsewhere the demand for revelation rather than revolution.

There are those that would say: What’s the point of working within the system? How has change ever come about from within a failing system? Wouldn’t it be better just to lay it to death, slay the system and start from the beginning? –

What is the alternative to working “inside” the system? A mess of rhetorical garbage about “Burn the system down!” Yippie yells of “Do it!” or “Do your thing.” What else? Bombs? Sniping? Silence when police are killed and screams of “murdering fascist pigs” when others are killed? Attacking and baiting the police? Public suicide? “Power comes out of the barrel of a gun!” is an absurd rallying cry when the other side has all the guns. Lenin was a pragmatist; when he returned to what was then Petrograd from exile, he said that the Bolsheviks stood for getting power through the ballot but would reconsider after they got the guns! Militant mouthings? Spouting quotes from Mao, Castro, and Che Guevara, which are as germane to our highly technological, computerized, cybernetic, nuclear-powered, mass media society as a stagecoach on a jet runway at Kennedy airport?

The point of starting with the system is simple: there is no other place to start from except political lunacy. It is most important for those of us who want revolutionary change to understand that revolution must be preceded by reformation. To assume that a political revolution can survive without the supporting base of a popular reformation is to ask for the impossible in politics.(ibid.)

Did you understand that? No revolution can hope to survive unless there is a strong base of popular support organized around a set of reforms based on a knowledge and understanding of the current ills and malpractices of the current system. Without reformation no revolution will succeed.

Men don’t like to step abruptly out of the security of familiar experience; they need a bridge to cross from their own experience to a new way. A revolutionary organizer must shake up the prevailing patterns of their lives— agitate, create disenchantment and discontent with the current values, to produce, if not a passion for change, at least a passive, affirmative, non-challenging climate. “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced,” John Adams wrote. “The Revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people … This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.” A revolution without a prior reformation would collapse or become a totalitarian tyranny. A reformation means that masses of our people have reached the point of disillusionment with past ways and values. They don’t know what will work but they do know that the prevailing system is self-defeating, frustrating, and hopeless. They won’t act for change but won’t strongly oppose those who do. The time is then ripe for revolution.(ibid.)

A revolution of the Mind rather than of brute fact is the order of the day when one wants radical change permanent and lasting.


1. Israel, Jonathan (2011-08-11). Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790 (pp. 947-948). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Paine, Thomas (2008). Works of Thomas Paine. MobileReference. Retrieved November 22, 2013.
3. Alinsky, Saul (2010-06-22). Rules for Radicals (Vintage) (Kindle Locations 87-91). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

4 thoughts on “Radical Change equals Radical Reformation: The Politics of Saul Alinsky

  1. That is a great piece. You articulate an important but difficult understanding.

    Revolution of Mind is key. That was what I kept noticing about the writings of the early modern revolutionary era. Debate was often focused on human nature. Not just what people thought about, but how they thought about it and also who was doing the thinking.

    What made this revolutionary was the notion that the poor, slaves, etc even had minds that those in power should be concerned about. Many revolutionaries at that time seemed to realize that understanding, among all people, had to change before society and politics could change. That was a profound insight.

    I’ve never read Alinsky. The quotations you shared caught my interest. He is now on my reading list.


    • And, if you think about it: Thomas Paine pretty much singlehandedly pamphleteered to the masses the message for a radical democracy… without Paine I doubt the Revolution would have ever taken root in the popular mind. Most of the rest of the founding fathers, blah blah blah were themselves part of the elite establishment so had neither the inclination nor the mindset to communicate to the masses. And, even what little we read of Jefferson, etc. would have been received with little or no effect. It was Paine in your face style, the agitator, instigator, the belligerent empowerment of the people, the common man that yoked the revolution in the popular mind. Not the elite… what happened later was the closure of democracy behind closed doors and the agreement of thieves to divvy up the American pie… from the word get go America after the revolution was in the hands of the bankers and the politicians: both elites … rather than the people.


  2. Pingback: The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinksy & His Legacy pt1/6 | synthetic_zero

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