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Reveille for Radicals by Saul Alinsky

The Introduction and Afterword to the Vintage Edition for our reading this week were published in 1969, whereas the rest of Alinsky's book was published in 1946. In keeping with this timeline, the Introduction and Afterward re-examine the book in light of the period of political and social turmoil in which it was re-published, imploring readers to rise to action and do something to change the situation of their times.

In his Introduction to the Vintage Edition, Alinsky examines whether the spirit of his original writings is still relevant in 1969. In order to answer this question, he asks himself what he has learned during the previous 23 years. Alinksky cites a litany of life lessons (an a propos image considering his continued use of Judeo-Christian imagery), but along the way, he names some things I took issue with or found too dismissively simplistic.

For example, on page X, Alinsky describes the morality of the haves and the have nots as being that " the have-nots are out to get," whereas "the haves are out _to keep." Have and have not seem to connote material possessions or things, while I think (and perhaps Alinsky does too] that the distinction should be more nuanced. What, exactly, are the have nots out to get? What is it that the haves have, exactly? Perhaps we are at a disadvantage in this instance for not having read the entire book, but I think this phrase encourages us to pause and think about this important distinction between groups and what it means for Alinsky's argument.

Later in his introduction (pg. xiii), Alinsky compares organizers to physicists in their shared understanding of probability. To this analogy, I suggest another possible comparison. What if organizers were like chemists, understanding the situation and breaking it into its smaller component parts and seeing what happens when one of those parts-elements, if you will-is changed. In order to change such a part, the chemist must have at least a partial understanding of what might happen, and not be afraid for things to get messy if the expected result isn't achieved.

Interesting comparisons could also be made between Alinsky's idea of "construct(ing) natural laws of politics" and the natural law ideas which are the basis for our conceptions of human rights. Much of the human rights rhetoric comes from Locke's idea of natural law and the justification that human rights were universal because of their relationship to this natural law concept. I'm sure that Alinsky's reference to the rhetoric forming the basis of the human rights regime is not accidental.

Alinsky shifts dramatically in the Afterword into a more explicit analysis of where the ideas set forth in Reveille for Radicals fall in a world in turmoil like that of the late 1960s. Alinsky says "we must ask two questions: first 'Where are we?' and second, 'Where do we go from here?'"(pg. 208) Alinsky's questions bring to mind a scene from Alice in Wonderland between Alice and the Cheshire Cat, and I have a feeling that he would have the same response in the context of 1968. Alice says:

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where." said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat. (Alice in Wonderland, pg. 64)

Unlike the Cheshire Cat, however, I think that Alinsky would push this conversation one step further, saying that while it doesn't matter which way Alice (or in Alinsky's case, the people) gets to if she don't much care where she goes, she very much should care where she goes in the first place, instead of bumbling on her journey absentmindedly, as he might perceive to be the case now. What do the people want? They should certainly decide, since if they don't, they can't complain about where they end up.

Alinsky continues in his Afterword to call the people to action, to incite them to eschew apathy and care. He is particularly interested in television and how, even while being bombarded with images of the war (in this case Vietnam) and the personalization of war that comes with it, people still aren't moving towards transforming the situation. I am curious to see how he might view the role of the internet, a medium while connecting so many people from so many different places, has succeeded in making its users almost completely anonymous.

While there are many more interesting points brought up by Alinsky in both the Introduction and Afterward, I am most curious to further consider the issue of how these words are relevant today. How might Alinsky's argument change (or be strengthened) by our modern day situation, occurring another generation after his last re-visit to his work. What would he say had changed? What would he argue should still be changed? And what prophesies had he feared had come true?

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  1. Feb 27, 2008

    mtaft says:

    Hannah Arendt's On Revolution might be useful here--this idea of the haves and t...

    Hannah Arendt's On Revolution might be useful here--this idea of the haves and the have-nots and the need to come up with a new kind of revolutionary politics that doesn't just seek freedom from oppression (as, we can maybe argue, occurs when the have-nots becomes the haves) but a productive freedom to and for liberation.