Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer.—Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals
If you’ve ever been involved in community organizing, you’ve been influenced by Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. If you have helped on a neighborhood clean-up, a community day of volunteering, registered people to vote or driven them to the polls, participated in Neighborhood Watch or shown up for a City Council meeting to speak your mind on a new tax, carried a sign at rally protesting racism or protesting police violence, you’ve been part of Alinsky’s vision of empowerment for the marginalized: how to get political power and use it. He spoke about the “the whys and wherefores of life as it is lived, the world as it is, not our wished-for fantasy of the world as it should be.”
Most people have never read Alinsky, whose 1972 book was published shortly before he died, and only know about him because he is a favorite whipping-boy of the Right. Since President Obama served as a community organizer in his youth and his wife was a National Service member as a VISTA, the Right has sought for years to tie them to the “radical ideas” of Alinsky, who counseled would-be organizers to find out what poor people were passionate about, light a fire under it and fan the flames.
Last night, in his address to the RNC, former Presidential-aspirant-turned-Trump-acolyte Dr. Ben Carson linked Hillary Clinton to Alinsky, and, using his quote above, to Old Snatch, the original rebel.
Now, one of the things that I have learned about Hillary Clinton is that one of her heroes, her mentors was Saul Alinsky. And her senior thesis was about Saul Alinsky. This was someone she greatly admired and let me tell you something about Saul Alinsky. He wrote a book called Rules for Radicals. It acknowledges Lucifer, the original radical who gained his own kingdom. Now think about that. This is our nation where our founding document, the Declaration of Independence talks about certain inalienable rights that come from our creator, a nation where our Pledge of Allegiance says we are ‘One nation under God.’ This is a nation where every coin in our pockets and every bill in our wallet says, ‘In God We Trust.’ So are we willing to elect someone as president who has as their role model somebody who acknowledges Lucifer? Think about that.
As it turns out, a closer reading of Alinsky’s life and work show a man who was not very friendly to Left, mostly because it never really got anything done. In a 2012 article in Salon, Thomas Sugre wrote:
In the 1930s, Alinsky had little patience for the bona fide socialists and card-carrying Communists who were prominent advocates of labor and civil rights. He repudiated Marxism then. By the 1960s — his moment of greatest influence — Alinsky was even harsher in his criticism of the New Left. He viewed activists in Students for a Democratic Society as naive and impractical and denounced the tactics of their erstwhile comrades on the militant fringe, like the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground as doomed to failure for their violent tactics and unwillingness to compromise. Alinsky loathed dogmatism of all varieties.
But Alinsky also had little patience for mainstream liberals and European social democrats. He argued that the technocratic style of government by experts and bureaucrats was out of touch with “the people.” Before it became fashionable, he argued for citizen participation in politics and the devolution of power downward, away from Washington and into the hands of ordinary citizens. Though he was a secular Jew, Alinsky forged his closest alliance with Catholic advocates of social justice, whose views at the time could not be described in the easy binary of left versus right. If any political view appealed to Alinsky, it was the Catholic doctrine of “subsidiarity,” namely leaving governance to the smallest possible unit: the community. Alinsky counted among his closest friends the Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain (whose doctrine of personalism was one of the strongest influences on the young Polish cleric Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II).
In other words, Alinsky was a not-very-radical lower-case-“D” democrat. He actually believed in the power of people at the bottom to create change at the top. His sympathy for the Devil was in the effectiveness of the Fallen Morningstar to mount a rebellion against the God of Israel. Outside the hermetically sealed environment of the modern GOP, Alinsky is seen as an idealist, who valued political compromise as the key to getting things done. He wrote: “If you start with nothing, demand 100 percent, then compromise for 30 percent, you’re 30 percent ahead.”
I supppose that compromise as the key to political progress is a pretty radical idea these days. What it isn’t is a nod to Satanism or path to revolution.