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Can the Left Rise Again?

To those who would argue that Alinsky proposes merely to give his clients the illusion of deciding for themselves he can reply that it is only by means of this illusion, artfully encouraged in the initial stages of organization, that exploited people overcome the habit of deference and feelings of helplessness engendered by the vastness and impenetrability of modern society.

It may be further objected that the poor ought to furnish their own leadership from the beginning. Why should they rely on outside organizers at all? Shouldn’t they oppose to their oppressors not the slick expertise of the organizer but the strength and dignity of their own ways? These objections, in Alinsky’s view, betray the middle-class reformer’s inclination to romanticize the poor, although he realizes that poor people themselves may seize on these ideas in order to explain their own inaction. He sees the poor—like all people—as normally lazy and uncurious even about their own oppression, preferring the safety of known misery to the uncertainty of action. At the same time they are embarrassed by their failure to act, especially in the presence of an organizer, and appeal to middle-class rhetoric about “cultural identity” in order to excuse it. A conversation between Alinsky and a group of Canadian Indians shows how this self-deception works.

Indians: Well, we can’t organize.

[Alinsky:] Why not?

Indians: Because that’s a white man’s way of doing things…. You see, if we organize, that means getting out and fighting the way you are telling us to do and that would mean that we would be corrupted by the white man’s culture and lose our own values.

Alinsky comments:

It was quite obvious what was happening since I could see from the way the Indians were looking at each other they were thinking: “So we invite this white organizer from south of the border to come up here and he tells us to get organized…. What must be going through his mind is: ‘What’s wrong with you Indians that you have been sitting around here for a couple of hundred years now and you haven’t organized to do these things?’ ”

Because the new left so often ignores such self-deception or unwittingly encourages it, Alinsky impatiently condemns much of the radicalism of the Sixties. The new left, he says, valued the purity of its principles more than practical results. Instead of taking the poor as they are, it romanticized and at the same time patronized them. It spoke in abstractions about the class struggle, instead of confronting the immediate issues that matter to the poor: jobs, inflation, discrimination, violence in the streets. “If the real radical finds that having long hair sets up psychological barriers to communication and organization, he cuts his hair.”

These criticisms accurately expose many of the weaknesses of the new left, but they do not necessarily leave us with a workable alternative. For one thing, Alinsky exaggerates the effectiveness of his own methods. He speaks of “bringing to heel” one of the Chicago department stores and of engineering the “downfall” of Eastman Kodak, when all he means is that these companies made certain concessions to organized pressure from blacks. Alinsky’s habit of setting himself limited objectives causes him to overestimate the importance of their achievement.

No doubt it is tactically necessary for the organizer “to convert the plight into a problem,” but the problem should not be allowed to obscure the underlying plight. To personalize the adversary, as Alinsky urges again and again, is, moreover, to regress to a more primitive level of political awareness. It is important to insist on the concrete as against empty slogans and abstractions, but this does not mean that every general question can be dissolved in a discussion of tactics.

Although Alinsky’s organization has often concerned itself indirectly with job discrimination and other matters pertaining to people’s work, it is mainly concerned with citizens and consumers. Currently Alinsky is attempting to organize middle-class stockholders to use their proxies against corporate policies that lead to pollution and despoliation of the environment. In Rochester Alinsky persuaded Kodak stockholders to assign their proxies to FIGHT or to come to stockholders’ meetings and vote against Eastman’s discriminatory hiring policies. He now argues that this tactic should be used on a wider scale. “The way of proxy participation,” he believes, “could mean the democratization of corporate America”—nothing short of a “revolution.” A more “revolutionary” strategy, however, would attempt to put the corporations under the control not of the stockholders, but of those who work in them. The community organizer thinks of his constituents almost automatically as consumers. This is at once his strength and his weakness.

In Reveille for Radicals, written in 1946, Alinsky attacked the labor unions for dealing with the worker only as a worker, instead of keeping “clearly in mind the obvious and true picture of the worker who votes, rents, consumes, breeds, and participates in every avenue of what we call life.” Whatever was fruitful in Alinsky’s subsequent career sprang from this initial insight. At the same time, the shift from union politics to community organizing precluded the possibility of describing industrial society in class terms. Alinsky had to reject a socialist orientation in favor of neo-populism—the “people” against the “tycoons.”

Like many radicals of the late Thirties and early Forties, Alinsky rejected the stupidities of American socialism, by that time almost exclusively identified with the Communist party, only to fall into a Deweyite celebration of democracy as process. “The objective is never an end in itself,” he wrote in Reveille. What mattered was “the passionate desire of all human beings to feel that they have personally contributed to the creation and the securing of any objective they desire.” Having divested his movement of any suspicion of “ideology,” having substituted “citizens” for “workers” and interests for classes, and having exalted process over objectives, Alinsky was free to define “participation” itself as the objective of community organization—of politics in general.

Alinsky’s attack on the new left overlooks the degree to which this exaltation of participation, which his own career did so much to identify with American radicalism, not only was a major influence on the early new left ideas of “participatory democracy” and “community organizing” but helped to mislead young radicals and to prepare the way for subsequent disappointments. Instead of providing a historical explanation for those features of the new left that he dislikes—its cult of revolutionary purity, its infatuation with failure, its dogmatism—Alinsky psychologizes about them, characteristically attributing these failings to bourgeois affluence and generational revolt. But the sectarianism of the later new left, as I have already suggested, might better be seen as a consequence of the poverty of its early ideas—and notably of its own obsession with participation as an end in its own right.

For the idea of “participatory democracy,” while it may have served initially as a necessary corrective to the bureaucratic centralism so long associated with parties of the left, rapidly degenerated into political primitivism, the old dream of a primary democracy without factions or parties—in other words, of a political community without politics.

As Robert A. Dahl observes in his new book, the notion that primary democracy is the only pure and acceptable form of democratic authority rests on a pair of fallacies—the belief that small communities can achieve complete independence from the surrounding society, and the belief that they can avoid the development of factions. Since parties and factions make their appearance anyway, the advocates of primary democracy

…seem either naïve or Machiavellian: naïve when they speak of “the people” as if the people were a single, well-defined, harmonious unit, Machiavellian when they use the rhetoric of “power to the people” to conceal their attempts to gain power for their own faction.

This observation, though stated in the form of an abstract principle, provides us with another clue to the degeneration of new left organizations. The early advocates of participatory democracy believed that it was possible to submerge ideological differences in appeals to love and brotherhood. This delusion exposed them to the manipulation of well-disciplined factions such as those which eventually gained control of SDS and destroyed the organization in the course of trying to destroy one another. The experience of the new left shows that a mystique of participation is no substitute for well-defined political ideas and a political program.

For all his tactical realism, Alinsky shares with the early new left a disposition to dismiss ideas and programs as “ideological.” Again and again he tells us that ideas are merely a cloak for self-interest, that action takes precedence over understanding, and that the objective of political action is “never an end in itself” but a means of rousing people “to a higher degree of participation.” No one can deny that the size and complexity of modern societies have given rise to feelings of powerlessness or that apathy has become a political issue in its own right. It is dangerous, however, to equate democracy with participation and to encourage the belief that it is possible for people to take part directly in every decision that “affects their lives.” Efforts to implement these beliefs end by integrating people more securely than ever into structures in which, whether they are controlled by the existing powers or by demagogues of the left, popular control is strictly an illusion.

The mystique of participation has had a profoundly misleading influence on recent American radicalism. It is a symptom of the general malaise of modern culture that watching a play, reading a poem, or getting an education are defined as passive and spectatorial, inherently inferior in the quality of their emotional satisfaction to acting in a play, writing a poem, or simply “living.” The notion that education and “life,” art and “reality,” understanding and action are radically opposed derives ultimately from the opaqueness of the structures in which we live and from a despair of understanding them.

Official propaganda encourages this belief as assiduously as the so-called “counter-culture,” which in this respect (as in many others) merely reflects prevailing values—or, more accurately, takes them more literally than they are taken by the ruling class. Thus although the cult of participation encourages among other things a distrust of professionalism, the institutions of American society continue to be operated by professionals. It is only the left which, both in its politics and in its culture, clings to the illusion that competence is equally distributed among people of good intentions and regards any attempt to uphold professional standards as a betrayal of democracy.

Clearly this criticism does not apply to Saul Alinsky, who is nothing if not a professional; indeed his professionalism accurately defines the limits of his belief in participation as an end in itself. For the left as a whole, however, belief in the intrinsic value of participation has no such limits. Its distrust of professionalism does not rest merely on a healthy disrespect for “experts” or on an awareness of the ways in which the concept of professionalism has been progressively debased (not least in the academic professions, where it has become synonymous with timid pedantry and a pose of “scientific objectivity”). It reflects an intellectual orientation which, pushed to its furthest extreme, scorns not only professionalism but the “work ethic” itself, on the grounds that spontaneous and sensuous enjoyment of life is the only genuine form of participation in its pleasures, while submission to a discipline is inherently “alienating.”

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