Reveille for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals

Alinsky, Saul (1989). Reveille for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals.  New York: Vintage.

1.      According to Saul Alinsky, where is the radical today?

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Alinsky’s analysis of radicalism today focuses on his own experience of radical activities. His understanding of radicalism originates from the community-centered approach and empowerment strategies.

 However, such an approach seems problematic, because it results in uniting qualitatively different phenomena under the label of radicalism and devaluing its crucial features. According to Alinsky, every activity focusing on ends, rather than moralizing on means is intrinsically radical. The latter, however, results in moral justification of conservative activities, which have nothing to do with radicalism, perceived as inherently leftist practice.

Moreover, it should be mentioned, that Alinsky provides with no clear perspective of social change, while criticizing Marxist radicals for the absence thereof. His vision of the subject of radical activity is characterized by Eurocentric approach, as he claims that ‘if we are to build power for change, and the power and the people are in the middle class majority.” (Alinsky, 45).

Apart from this, Alinsky explicitly tells us, that the radicalism is a primary domain of white working people. Such view neglects the reality of modern Western societies, where non-white immigrants and communities are the most exploited and dispossessed.

Some of Alinsky’s remarks on the lack of understanding between generations of radicals, however, reveal much of the truth, fail to provide the historical interpretation. It is evident that such lack of understanding between radicals has its roots in contradictory perspectives on social change, rather than individual ambitions. New radicals predominantly focus on postmodern feminist, cultural, queer and anarchist strategies, criticizing essentialist approach, preached by the earlier generations. Hence, such lack of understanding should be understood as quite natural.

Some of Alinsky’s arguments are quite rational and promising. For instance, the latter includes his concern that radicals should not alienate masses by some marginal activities, such as burning American flag, which cause anger among ordinary people.

Another conclusion, claiming that radicals should proceed from the experience of their community, however, reflects limited communitarian approach, which ignores the importance of universal social change, which is impossible without seizing state power.  Moreover, it should be mentioned, that Alinsky seems to overestimate the advantages of reformism and a room for maneuver, existing in formal democratic systems.

2. Evaluate the Authors organizational tactics
Alinsky’s approach to organization is characterized by specific attitude to revolution. Alinsky argues, that there exist reasons for ‘working inside the system’ and ‘acceptance of the reformation is essential to any revolution’.  (Alinsky, 34). There is no denying the importance of the fact, that such organizational approach is characterized by the neglect of real American society’s structure.

 Bernsteinian reformism and the strategy of gradual change may only result in the consolidation of social consensus in the American society, because it focuses on welfare politics and social guarantees, rather than liquidation of true contradictions of the capitalist system.

Alinsky also seems to overestimate the revolutionary potential of middle class. In fact, it is obvious that this stratum is naturally anti-revolutionary, because its well-being is based on the continuation of capitalist accumulation and imperialist intervention. It tends to align with American governments’ policies and ignores the interests of dispossessed immigrant communities. Therefore, Alinsky emphasis on embedding middle class into radical projects lacks coherence.

Alinsky’s organizational scheme immediately results in the set of radical tactics, he proposes.

The proposed tactics include the following points: 1. focusing on community experience. 2. ‘wherever possible go outside of the experience of the enemy’. 3. ‘Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules’. 4. ‘Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon’. 5. ‘A good tactic is one that your people enjoy’. 7. ‘A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag’. 8. ‘Keep the pressure on’. 9. ‘The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself’ (Alinsky, 128-129). Some other tactical points include the relationship with opposition and ethical issues. Mentioned tactical points often contain many practical insights and are marked with profound social experience.

However, some of the tactical strategies, such as ‘Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon’ should be regarded as aphoristic and rhetoric instruments, which can not be practically applied in real radical movement. Moreover, it seems doubtful, whether radicalism is a kind of activities always enjoyable and whether it should be one of that kind. In his organizational approach Alinsky also utilizes moral relativism, arguing that only those involved in certain activities may judge on their morality.  All outsiders have no moral rights to produce value judgments on them.

 Such understanding in our view lacks coherence, because subjective perspective on actions deeply deviates moral judgments. In contrast, outside position allows objectifying means and ends.

To sum it up, Alinsky’s approach to organization is characterized both by positive and negative sides. Tactical dimension of organization has essential advantages, which address complex problems, faced by contemporary radical movement. However, ideological ground of Alinsky’s approach may be regarded as too much reformist in aspirations and not always coherent in terms of assessing the prospects of social change.

3.      Discuss this statement: “Those who see fearlessly and clearly: they will be your radicals: (p.203).

Alinsky’s understanding of radicalism is marked by deep romanticism, as he considers it to be humanistic and enlightening activity. Such vision is in sharp contradiction with currently dominant bureaucratic and calculative approach to radicalism, preached by the proponents of non-violent action and ‘color revolution’. Alinsky argued that radicals should enjoy their tactics and the latter implies that their actions must be filled with heroism, practical reason and deep emotional thrill.

 Fearlessness is one of the main virtues of such kind of radicals. As they are not opportunistic, but rather focused on achieving the final purpose of social liberation, they should betray their personal or corporate interests in the name of feelings.  Apart from this, Alinsky considered that radicalism should be based on proper organization, tactics and theory. To put in the other words, radicals to be effective in meeting their objectives should have clear understanding of current situation and general theoretical grounds of their activities. In absence thereof, their activities may easily lead to brutal extremism and marginalization. Clear vision of revolutionary project for Alinsky includes adhering to communal experience, collaborating with majority and using reformist potential within the existing system. Hence, it may be said that in the discussed statement Alinsky synthesizes two distinct philosophical perspectives on radical activity – intuitivism and rationalism.

Such cohesion guarantees dialectical unity between theory and practice, which is crucial to any radical activity, focusing on social change and liberation. In addition it reflects deep philosophical ties of Alinsky’s theory with historical materialism, notwithstanding his later abandonment of its methodology.


Alinsky, Saul (1989). Reveille for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals.  New York: Vintage.


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