Working within the system vs. revolutionary change

Saul Alinsky

Saul Alinsky organized Back of the Yards in Chicago in the 1930’s, which brought together poor East Europeans who worked at the meat packing plants into a genuine force. Their lives got better. In doing so, Alinsky also invented community organizing. He started other groups, one of which was in East L.A. In 1952 that group recruited a young farm worker named Cesar Chavez to become an organizer. More than once in Chicago he faced down the formidable Mayor Daley. He got results.

He was radical but not socialist. In the an interview with Playboy in 1972 he discusses one of the oldest debates within Left politics – organizing within the system to make incremental changes vs. working towards revolutionary change.

PLAYBOY: Spokesmen for the New Left contend that this process of accommodation renders piecemeal reforms meaningless, and that the overthrow and replacement of the system itself is the only means of ensuring meaningful social progress. How would you answer them?

ALINSKY: That kind of rhetoric explains why there’s nothing left of the New Left. It would be great if the whole system would just disappear overnight, but it won’t, and the kids on the New Left sure as hell aren’t going to overthrow it. Radicals in the United States don’t have the strength to confront a local police force in armed struggle, much less the Army, Navy and Air Force; it’s just idiocy for the Panthers to talk about all power growing from the barrel of a gun when the other side has all the guns.

America isn’t Russia in 1917 or China in 1946, and any violent head-on collision with the power structure will only ensure the mass suicide of the left and the probable triumph of domestic fascism. So you’re not going to get instant nirvana — or any nirvana, for that matter — and you’ve got to ask yourself, “Short of that, what the hell can I do?” The only answer is to build up local power bases that can merge into a national power movement that will ultimately realize your goals.

Such power bases need to be community-based with wide support. A Left group that tries to grow simply by playing to the fringe will grow little if at all and won’t have the broad-based support necessary to create mass change.

Every major revolutionary movement in history has gone through the same process of corruption, proceeding from virginal purity to seduction to decadence.

Look at the Christian church as it evolved from the days of the martyrs to a giant holding company, or the way the Russian Revolution degenerated into a morass of bureaucracy and oppression as the new class of state managers replaced the feudal landowners as the reigning power elite. Look at our American Revolution; there wasn’t anybody more dedicated to the right of revolution than Sam Adams, leader of the Sons of Liberty, the radical wing of the revolution. But once we won the fight, you couldn’t find a worse dictatorial reactionary than Adams; he insisted that every single leader of Shays’ Rebellion be executed as a warning to the masses. He had the right to revolt, but nobody had the right to revolt against him.

Take Gandhi, even; within ten months of India’s independence, he acquiesced in the law making passive resistance a felony, and he abandoned his nonviolent principles to support the military occupation of Kashmir. Over and over again, the firebrand revolutionary freedom fighter is the first to destroy the rights and even the lives of the next generation of rebels.

But recognizing this isn’t cause for despair. History is like a relay race of revolutions; the torch of idealism is carried by one group of revolutionaries until it too becomes an establishment, and then the torch is snatched up and carried on the next leg of the race by a new generation of revolutionaries.

I knew when I left Back of the Yards in 1940 that I hadn’t created a utopia, but people were standing straight for the first time in their lives, and that was enough for me.

And finally, from his classic book, Rules for Radicals

There’s another reason for working inside the system. Dostoevsky 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.

To bring on this reformation requires that the organizer work inside the system, among not only the middle class but the 40 per cent of American families – more than seventy million people – whose income range from $5,000 to $10,000 a year [in 1971]. They cannot be dismissed by labeling them blue collar or hard hat. They will not continue to be relatively passive and slightly challenging. If we fail to communicate with them, if we don’t encourage them to form alliances with us, they will move to the right. Maybe they will anyway, but let’s not let it happen by default.

Prophetic words indeed. The Left did ignore the blue collar working class, and it did, by and large, go to the Right by default, something which has culminated with eight years of Bush. Now many of them may well be looking for new political directions. The Left can attract them but it needs to try. Being dismissive or worse, openly contemptuous, of working class whites – stuff you hear way too much in some Left circles – is surely not the way. Forming alliances and helping them start their own organizations is.