Thursday, July 1, 2010

Alinsky, Gandhi, King, and Jesus

One of the reasons that community organizing schtuff appeals so much to progressive Christians is that it reminds us of the great and noble movements of the 20th century. We recall Gandhi's radical call to the people of India to peacefully liberate themselves through nonviolence. We recall Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and how he applied those same nonviolent techniques during the civil rights movement. In those memories, Christian communities find significant inspiration. Both of those movements were defined by an ethic that is fundamentally sympatico with the central teachings of Jesus.

Whether you describe it as nonviolence or satyagraha or "soul force," the assumption of those movements was that violence begets violence. The only way for a powerless community to liberate itself from oppression was to abandon the violence that underlies all oppression. Instead of violence, the communities would aggressively apply nonviolence. That didn't mean inaction, but rather direct action that intentionally assumed that the opposing side was human, and capable of grace if confronted by grace. It's the whole "loving your enemies" thing, applied to the challenge of injustice.

As Rules for Radicals was written in 1971, I was curious to see just how Alinsky would deal with nonviolence as a central ethic for transformative community organizing. The answer was interesting. In his recounting of the movement for Indian independence and the civil rights movement, Alinsky makes it clear that he views nonviolence as a tactic, and not an ethic.

This is unsurprising. When he uses the words "morals" or "morality" in Rules for Radicals, he almost invariably "puts them in quotes." Ethics are, for Alinsky, imaginary things. If a moral code helps you effectuate change and articulate power in a community, then great. Stick with that moral code. If that moral code gets in the way of your goal, then to hell with it. All that matters is what works to move you closer to your goal of change.

From that worldview, Alinsky argues that when Gandhi used nonviolence, he only did so because it was a tactic that had a chance of working. Had the Indian people been able to throw off British rule with force of arms, then Gandhi would have told them to take up their rifles. Or so Alinsky suggests.

Similarly, the use of nonviolence by the civil rights movement was just a tactic that matched the needs at the time. If African Americans had the numbers and the clout to rise up in violent revolution and succeed, then they would have. He suggests, looking at where race relations were in 1971, that eventually such a path might be taken. By Any Means Necessary, as some used to say.

There is some truth in Alinsky's assessment of nonviolence. As he points out, nonviolence only works as a political instrument if your opposition is willing to accept a shared humanity. Nonviolent resistance would have worked rather badly against the Nazis. Then again, it did prove itself rather impressively in Imperial Rome during the first and second centuries.

Yet by claiming that nonviolence is just a tool in the organizer's toolbox, a tactic to be whipped out or packed away depending on the circumstance, Alinsky shows he really doesn't quite understand it. To successfully practice nonviolence, it has to be a defining ethic, both the ultimate goal and the value that suffuses and defines every moment of life.

Particularly the hard ones.


  1. I am curious as to whether or not Alinsky was an atheist. Do you know if he was? It would explain his inability to pin down an ethic or moral code so to speak for his "radical" schtick. I'm finding his dishonest tactics (the ones you've laid out) to be off putting.

  2. Great cartoon by the way. ;o)

  3. @Jonathan. I also find off-putting Alisnky's cynicism regarding morality (at least as David describes it -- I've never read him myself, and I'm sure I trust this interpretation at face value).

    But I also find your insinuation that his lack of morality is an atheist thing off-putting. Atheism does not "explain" a lack of morals unless you are bigoted against atheists. Morality is not derived from faith in a deity.

    @David. But I'm also curious, David, to know what you think Alinski's motives were, if they were not based on some thirst for justice, which I would think is founded in morality. Do you think he just wanted to accrue power for his own selfish reasons? Or did he want to achieve a more just society?

    Personally, I tend to agree with him. Unless non-violence is pragmatically effective achieving justice, then it is, in fact, not moral. It's a indulgence in one's own piety at the expense of justice -- a kind of selfish lusting after the treasures of heaven and an abdication of your responsibility to your fellow humans.

  4. @ Jonathan and Browning: I think Alinsky could best be described as secular and humanist. For practical purposes, one could describe him as an atheist, although not in the sense that he overtly opposed theism.

    His ethical emphasis, where he articulates it, is stated as "the general welfare" or "the dignity of human beings." That ethic is radically oriented towards providing collective power to the powerless. Where he encounters human beings in power or who benefit from power structures, their dignity is of less importance. He is more than happy to lie to them or about them if it appears useful.

    @ Browning: Glad to have you back, frater! My sense of Alinsky is that his motivation comes from a deep desire for justice, meaning the balancing of individual and collective interests within a sociopolitical system. It's not an ignoble end. It's just that reading him, I can't help but note that he feels a whole bunch like a leftist Karl Rove.

  5. @Browning- I don't think Mr. Alinksy has no morals. I have no doubt that Alinsky and other non-believers have an idea or knowledge of morals by which they live and frame their interaction with others. I merely noted that he seemed to have difficulty being consistent vis vis an "inability to pin down an ethic or moral code". For instance, his use of deceit and subterfuge as being legitimate "means to an end".

    Obviously, I think theism, in particular Christianity, offers a very consistent moral code wheras Alinsky's, and that of atheism, is very inconsistent.

    As to my being bigoted towards atheists, not at all. I know a few and count them as friends. Believe it or not, I have quite a few bookshelves filled with wonderful books written by agnostics and atheists alike. Lovecraft, Asimov, and Clarke just to name a few.

    As an aside, you and the good Reverend are former college pals? I've always been curious about the relationship.

  6. @Jonathan. Rev. Dave and I were fraters at the same counter-cultural frat-house in the Eighties. We reconnected through Facebook a year or so ago, and I started following his blog when I realized that we have a mutual interest, pro and con, in some of my atheist heroes.

    I'm sorry if I overstated your disdain for Alinki's morals. I believe that your comment probably doesn't sound bigoted to you, but supposed our mutual friend Trevor had said, "Ah, I see that Alinsky is Jewish. Perhaps that would explain some his difficulty with ethics." You see what I mean? "What!? I have a few Jewish friends myself! I loved Fiddler on the Roof!"

    I would agree that one cannot derive a consistent moral code from atheism. But the same is true of theism in general, and even Christianity (unless you resort to a "no true Scotsman" argument). In my experience, Christians have a wide variety of ethical codes. They emphasize, or ignore, the parts of the Christian tradition that fit, or fail to fit, the ethics that they have arrived at for a variety of reasons. I'm sure you know Christians whose ethics you find less than perfect. (I know I do. Looking at you, Ratzinger.) And I'm sure you know some Christians who would say the same of your ethics.

  7. @ Browning: "Counter-cultural frat house?" Hmmm. I've taken to just describing Gamma Omicron as my "outlaw fraternity." Six of one, half dozen of the other, I guess. ;)