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Blogging Alinsky's Rules for Radicals: Prologue

(All page references: Rules for Radicals, Vintage Books, 1989)

Just a couple lines into Rules for Radicals, I heard the voice of Rahm Emanuel:

You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. What I mean by this is it’s an opportunity for you to do things you could not do before.

Just as Obama, Emanuel, and their compatriots are doing, so too did radical Alinsky decades before. In 1971, he observed the counterculture (“the revolutionary force”), saw a rudderless movement, and set out to to chart a course for the next generation of radicals to follow:

These words are written in desperation, partly because it is what they do and will do that will give meaning to what I and the radicals of my generation have done with our lives (p. xiii).

Alinsky bemoans the vanguard of young radicals having to start “almost from scratch,” because of the McCarthy “holocaust” of the early 1950s. Holocaust? Six million deaths in Nazi Germany vs. the McCarthy hearings and the trial and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for espionage?

Alinsky’s description of life in America is suffocatingly dark and nihilistic. Looking through his charcoal-colored glasses, there is no joy among the adult middle class. These people are materialistic, mindless sellouts with superficial values whose relationships and lives end in destruction and decay (xiv).

The disaffected youth spawned of these miserable creatures see their parents clearly and also are preternaturally wise enough to see the “almost unbelievable idiocy of our political leadership” at every level.

We are all — well, except for Alinsky and his “happy few” youthful radicals — hypocrites and failures.

The world is “utter bedlam,” and American youth have no sense of meaning or purpose. Alinsky notes that:

Men have always yearned for and sought direction by setting up religions, inventing political philosophies, creating scientific systems like Newton’s, or formulating ideologies of various kinds,” but life is as random as “the changing pattern in a kaleidoscope” (xv).

As discussion fodder, this statement is loaded. There’s the sense of ideologue Alinsky somehow not seeing his own ideology as part of the kaleidoscope. There’s the glaring fact that the purposelessness of which he speaks is not a collective sin — that the responsibility of finding meaning and purpose is an individual problem, not something to blame on society. Finding meaning and purpose has always been as simple and available as volunteering at a soup kitchen, reading to a hospitalized child, or tutoring an inner city student.

What stands out: The emptiness of atheism. The solipsistic response of the human heart where there is no God. Alinsky — just as I and other former radical comrades — supposes that if you aren’t living the philosophically nihilistic life of a radical then you are a mindless automaton with no human vitality, creativity, or value.

Self-absorbed, he seems completely unaware that during the social upheaval of the 60s and 70s, millions of people were leading quietly ordinary — and often sacrificial — lives: getting married, working, raising families. They thought themselves happy, productive, and satisfied.

But what did they know?

When I came out of my political radicalism and finally began to relate up close and personally with conservatives, this was indeed a startling revelation. Until then, I believed my entire generation was counterculture — well, except for a few pathetic purposeless souls as defined by Alinsky. As a conservative, I was gratified to find I had been in the minority — as I found at my 40th high school reunion in 2005, where it seemed that most of my classmates had had their heads on straight while I was living large the Rules for Radicals life.

Regrettably, I know that had I gone to my 10th, 15th, or 20th reunion, I would have scoffed at my former classmates leading empty and shallow lives — a la Alinsky, whose sophisticated focus is on:

The absurdity of human affairs and the forlornness and emptiness, the fearful loneliness that comes from not knowing if there is any meaning to our lives (p. xvii).

My guess is that the poor schlemiels Alinsky judges are absurd enough to believe their lives have meaning. And when you get right down to it, who the hell is he to judge? Isn’t this, as my husband would tell our 12 children, cutting off others’ heads to make yourself taller? Is Alinsky’s — along with those who claim his blessing — the only life worth living?

Credit where  it’s due:

  • Alinsky does not mince words about his contempt for the Weather Underground (personified today as Obama buddy William Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn) (xvii). He takes 60s radicals to task for trashing the American flag (xviii) and for setting up any barriers to communication through attachment to counterculture symbols like long hair. Alinsky’s pragmatism means that if long hair means fewer converts to radicalism, the radical should cut his hair (xix).
  • Alinsky does not worship leftist icons like Mao, Che, and Castro, “which are as germane to our highly technological, computerized, cybernetic, nuclear-powered, mass media society as a stagecoach on a jet runway at Kennedy airport.” He appreciates the freedoms we share as Americans, scolding young radicals, “Let’s keep some perspective” (xxi). Alinsky radicals like Anita Dunn seem to have missed this memo.
  • While he is about fomenting discontent to accomplish his ends, he warns: “Parts of the far left have gone so far in the political circle that they are now all but indistinguishable from the extreme right.” (Wonder what he would make of O & Co. and their repressive tactics with FOX News and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.)

Alinsky strongly believes in working inside the system, instructing young radicals that their task is to change the attitude of the masses:

They must feel so frustrated, so defeated, so lost, so futureless in the prevailing system that they are willing to let go the past and chance the future (xix).

When he speaks of cozying up to the “blue collar” or “hard hat” class (and I need to point out here that in the 60s these occupational class distinctions were much starker than they are today, when you do find college graduates working as contractors), at first I was impressed with Alinsky’s egalitarianism (xx).

But just one sentence later, it is clear that the intent was not recognition of fellow human beings in their diversity, but exploitation of another class which might otherwise be lost to the radical agenda. Almost 40 years later, we’ve seen solidarity between the radicals and working class — delivered by union bosses — become an almost impenetrable political fortress. Think SEIU.

Alinsky’s naked contempt for his fellow man begs the question: Is it the American way of life that dehumanizes man? Or is it the radical/elitist view of Alinsky and his followers? (As well as Nazi Germany, Russia, and China?) In 2009, one certainly sees this naked contempt from the highest White House echelons to the teensiest trolls who prowl conservative blogs with vicious personal attacks and little substantive discussion.

Alinsky wraps up his prologue with such inspirational lines as:

  • The spirit of democracy is the idea of importance and worth in the individual (xxiv).
  • There can be no darker or more devastating tragedy than the death of man’s faith in himself and in his power to direct his future (xxvi).

Alinsky — insofar as he’s revealed himself in the prologue — shows no respect for the individuality of man and thinks of them only in terms of masses waiting for the direction of enlightened radicals.

Thirty-eight years later, we are confronting the legacy of this elitist and empty philosophy.


It has already been suggested by a reader that Alinsky’s political strategies have merit for conservatives and I can’t help but agree. For organizational purposes, I will save this discussion for a postscript, but feel free to indulge yourselves in the comments as you see fit.

Chapter One, pages 3-23, on Monday.