Originally published in The Tennessee Star on September 11, 2020.
By: Joe MacKinnon
In Rules for Radicals (the subject of Hillary Clinton’s thesis, a major influence on Barack Obama, and a subject of interest for proponents of the Tea Party), notorious leftist Saul Alinsky pointed out the inefficacy of the left-wing terrorism of the 1960s and 70s. What did the Weather Underground or the M19CO accomplish other than make the public desperate for law and order, appreciative of the Republic and their liberal democracy, and antipathetic to the New Left’s murderous causes? Alinsky, a keen observer—who had for two years sat in on Al Capone’s mob dealings in Chicago—saw that post-office bombings and cop-killings weren’t driving Americans anywhere closer to embracing the revolution he and his acolytes craved. Having spent over thirty years bringing together workers coalitions, organizing minority action groups, scaling-up grassroots activism, and raising money for leftist causes, Alinsky had observed enough to make a few prescriptions for fellow travellers. Before his death in 1972, he wrote Rules for Radicals (nicely bookending his career; his bestseller Reveille for Radicals was published in 1946). In this impactful work, he delineated steps radicals could take to effect serious change.
“There are no rules for revolution,” Alinsky wrote in the prologue to Rules, “but there are rules for radicals who want to change their world.” Over the course of his ‘organizing’ career (1939-1971), Alinsky encountered innumerable radicals keen on changing the world, and saw many if not most of them fail, at least where starting a meaningful revolution was concerned. They too often relied on silly or alienating rhetoric, frivolous celebrity endorsements, toothless demonstrations, or violence. Although other leftists such as Herbert Marcuse (father of the American New Left) similarly recognized the ineffectuality of principally-violent socialist strategies, Alinsky saw clearly the route to results and scaled his local-level organizing strategies up along with his late-in-life ambitions.
There is no better summary of the socialist strategies Alinsky knew to be either failures or prospects than provided by Dr. Stephen R.C. Hicks in Explaining Postmodernism (below). Hicks tracked the evolution of socialist strategies from Marx to the Neo-Rousseauians in a work that complements Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s Leftism Revisited. He discussed the mental gymnastics required of socialists after free-market economists won the theory debate (which had prompted a concession from Robert Heilbroner) and after dissident writers like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Nien Cheng detailed the atrocities statist regimes committed in the name of socialism, supported by the damning figures released by Kruschev during the USSR’s so-called thaw (which nullified any further appeal to some sort of ideological moral high ground). The mental gymnastics were and continue to be performed in the ethical standard and epistemology strategy-pivots:
Beginning with classical Marxist socialism… →
→Wait for the masses to revolt = Failure
→ Wait for capitalism to collapse economically = Failure
→ Try intellectual vanguard, industrial version (e.g., Lenin) = Failure
→ Try intellectual vanguard, agrarian version (e.g., Mao) = Failure
→ True believer: the-revolution-will-come-somehow = Failure
→ Change ethical standard
→→ From wealth is good to wealth is bad
→→→ Left environmentalism = ?
→→From need to equality
→→→ Left environmentalism = ?
→→→ Multicultural socialism (race, sex, environment) = ?
→ Change epistemology
→→ Lower one’s sights pragmatically
→→→ Multicultural socialism (race, sex, environment) = ?
→→→ Postmodernism; academic, use words as a weapon = ?
→→ Add Freudian / Frankfurt School repression
→→→ Postmodernism; academic, use words as a weapon = ?
→→→ Terrorism: direct physical = Failure
Changing epistemology was incidental to the approach Alinsky instead concentrated on. He was chiefly focused with changing the ethical standard and utilizing his organizing principles to get activists into positions where they could then make the new standard the rule.
“Do one of three things. One, go find a wailing wall and feel sorry for yourselves. Two, go psycho and start bombing—but this will only swing people to the right. Three, learn a lesson. Go home, organize, build power and at the next convention, you be the delegates.”
A contemporary of Alinsky’s, Herbert Marcuse—though an advocate for leftist guerilla tactics and terrorism around the globe—similarly recognized the importance of true-believers rising through the ranks of established political institutions in order to seize power with which to counter and crush rightist political opponents. He thought it prudent to work “against the established institutions while working in them.” In Essay on Liberation, Marcuse championed a number of the aforementioned strategies mentioned in Hick’s list above for which the results are not yet in. He would be pleased to know that there are presently promising signs [for radicals]. Postmodernism has transmogrified the English language, poisoned the academies, supplanted empiricist and rationalist epistemologies with a [Heideggerian] phenomenology, and thoroughly maligned the Western canon. Multicultural socialism has kicked identitarianism and identity politics into full gear, weakening and dividing American society to be later conquered. Enviromarxism is well into the process of caltropping western industry. These successes, though desirable to Marcuse (and no doubt to his terroristic protégés, Angela Davis included), were in part a result of a strict observance to Alinsky’s rules by his disciples and those “New Left-type politicos” Hillary Clinton mentioned in a letter she wrote to Alinsky. Like inverted Jesuits enculturating, Alinskyites went into all of the most crucial social and political institutions throughout the nation. Unlike Marcuse’s protégé Angela Davis—who made no secret of her penchant for Soviet oppression; who defended the gulag and blamed victims of the KGB; who defended leftist terrorism, and is openly a Lenin-Peace-Prize-winning communist—and others like her, Alinskyites concealed their envy, totalitarianism, and murderous rage behind well-constructed or diversionary facades. In the liberal institutions they infiltrated, they walked the walk, talked the talk, and now hold the reins. As you could imagine, this approach takes a great deal of time. Forget weeks and months. We’re talking decades and lifetimes, and we are now a lifetime into the scheme.
So there are leftists who’ve dedicated their lives to the destruction of the American Republic as it now stands (as a ‘capitalist democracy’), and then there are the leftists maiming Portland police officers, burning down federal buildings, stabbing black conservatives, and terrorizing suburbanites. While the same basic pathology drives both, the former are far more calculating and effective than the latter, and the latter may serve to jeopardize the life’s work of the former. While it may be seen that ultimately both approaches are futile, so far, futility is only guaranteed where street violence and terrorism is concerned (though you’re liable to get a plum teaching position at the University of California).
Alinsky made a careful distinction between short-sighted revelationaries [sic] and long-game revolutionaries. The former, like Antifa and BLM today, want[ed] immediate results. They’re ego-centric, impatient, and impetuous. They find meaning and identity in the collective, yet paradoxically, destabilize by making the process of revelation all about themselves. Revolutionaries, meanwhile, take positions of power, and bit by bit, brick by brick, destroy, reform, and or prepare the system for revolution.
In varying degrees, Barack Obama, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Bernie Sanders, and Ilhan Omar are revolutionaries. They appear not entirely focused on short-term political gains (financial gains along the way are another matter altogether). They have pushed for the “reform” needed for revolution (e.g. abolition of the Electoral College; the diminution of the Constitution; eliminating voter-ids; historical revisionism; government curtailment of rights; iconoclasm; silencing / de-platforming of critics; etc.), though are—as Alinsky recommended they be—“political relativist[s].” A radical, after all, “does not have a fixed truth—truth to him is relative and changing; everything to him is relative and changing.” A political relativist like Sanders could, for instance, push peaceful populist messaging and socialized healthcare, but then on dime rally behind an insurance-lobby-owned corporatist warmonger. While these relativists may publicly and privately laud the symbolic, short-term wins won by their street-fighting comrades—such as tearing down a Junipero Serra statue, burning down a church, attacking police officers with improvised explosive devices, lynching a Trump supporter, or committing other acts of violence and iconoclasm—they know that to boil a frog alive, you have to turn the heat up slowly. Otherwise, it will jump to safety. On this point, Alinsky made it abundantly clear:
“It is most important for those of us who want revolutionary change to understand that revolution must be preceded by reformation…Men don’t like to step abruptly out of the security of familiar experience; they need a bridge to cross from their own experience to a new way. A revolutionary organizer must shake up the prevailing patterns of their lives—agitate, create disenchantment and discontent with the current values, to produce, if not a passion for change, at least a passive, affirmative, non-challenging climate.”
You might now understand why the Alinskyites have yet to either endorse or condemn Antifa or BLM terrorism. Unless they have the statist power to throw all the frogs into water brought to boil by revelationaries and long-game strategy, the revolutionaries have to bide their time while continuing to slowly turn up the heat.
If it was intentional and not merely a side-effect of bad leadership, then Obama did what Bin Laden could not and what the Financial Crisis 2007-08 could only in part: he exhausted Americans. He created disenchantment and discontent with the current values. He didn’t use his office or his personal experience to bridge the racial divide (widened after Ferguson), but managed instead to exacerbate it. Those already tired of America’s foreign policy, particularly where regime-change wars were concerned, figured the case for change utterly hopeless after their Hope and Change messiah started a couple new wars while in office. As for trust in the government, after having the extent of the American surveillance state exposed by Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, he doubled down and expanded it. He made another Alinskyite (more of a fair-weather radical) Secretary of State, and left her in charge of arming what became ISIL in southern Syria and abandoning Ambassador Stevens to a cruel fate in Libya. Barack Obama gutted Main Street and bailed out Wall Street. His crony capitalism accelerated unprecedented corporate consolidation and class stratification. He made American liberties appear brittle, particularly by his government’s grievous treatment of persons like Cliven Bundy; its torture of whistleblowers; its gassing of Standing Rock protesters; its caging of illegal aliens; its weaponization of the IRS against the Tea Party; and its perpetual threat of gun confiscation. Despite his recent mythologization (largely by the LGBTQ lobby, still appreciative for the initiative on marriage he took later in his presidency), Obama did nothing apparent for the left in the short run, but he certainly turned up the heat and left the stove on. Perhaps following Alinsky’s prescription in The Professional Radical, Obama sought the “wrong reasons to get right things done.”
The American Prospect published Peter Dreier’s half-hearted defense of Hillary Clinton in July of 2016, which rebuffed claims that she was a satanic Alinskyite (I won’t speculate about the nature of the power she worships in these pages). In the piece, Dreier suggested that both Obama and Clinton had entered politics despite their affinity for, influence by, or relationship with Alinsky. Clinton apparently claimed she and Alinsky had a difference of opinion; that Alinsky “believed you could only change the system from the outside.” Clinton had certainly read Rules for Radicals when she made that claim. She knew that Alinsky explicitly made the case for achieving revolution inside mainstream institutions of power. Her decision to posthumously change the old radical’s mind may be a testament to her fidelity to his original message and call for concealment. Then there’s the 44th American president who was an organizer with the Alinskyite Developing Communities Project during the 1980s. According to Dreier, “like Hillary, [Obama] lacked the appetite for confrontation and believed he could make more large-scale impact by getting a law degree and entering mainstream politics.” This is the more honest of the two statements, granted it recognizes Obama sought power on the inside because that is the kind worth having if you mean to execute major change.
When Chris Hedges said in 2010 that Obama was the “poster child for the death of the liberal class”—that he had shut out the possibility for “incremental or piecemeal reform within the formal mechanisms of power”—he wasn’t wrong, but strangely he also wasn’t celebratory. In revelationary terms, Obama was a tragedy for the left. He dashed the dreams of the Occupy movement and made clear neither hope nor change were on the table. Revolutionary terms may cast him in a different light, however. He did gift the Dems a tipping point. Since Hedges wouldn’t conflate liberalism with leftism, it may also be that he discounted the prospect of what might be left over or fill the vacuum in those dead spaces; that the frogs were left boiling for Clinton to make good with…
Everywhere liberal institutions are being destroyed with purpose, including the presidency. Alinskyites (along with some less-subtle Marcusian New Leftists and postmodern radicals) infiltrated formerly liberal institutions such as the media, public education, the universities, Hollywood, publishing houses, as well as religious groups. Their death, for Alinskyites, is part of their reformation. When these institutions are dead inside, and the moral foundations of the social order begin to collapse, you’ll find the right shi (势,a concept discussed in another set of rules and stratagems—Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War—that refers to an actionable moment where you have energy and momentum or at the very least a psychological advantage). The public will be more accepting of change. Populism will seem all the more tantalizing to the public—either as a remedy (for those they alienate) or as a next-step (for the indoctrinated keen to exercise the tyranny of the mob).
Though they anticipated and facilitated the growth of grassroots movements on the left, the long-game revolutionaries clearly did not consider the impact of the revelationaries’ premature and rapid heating of the pot over these past few years. Not only did they alert some frogs—despite having successfully boiled a few generations—but in the process of their destructionist “reform”, they helped activate another accelerant: a populist movement on the right (which is roughly centered around an economically-nationalist, common-good conservativism). The comfortable revolutionaries were not prepared for the eventuality that this would become the more energetic and stable of the two primary varieties of American populism (echoed in Britain, Hungary, Poland, Italy, and Brazil). They certainly didn’t factor in the possibility that Trump would not only take the helm, but weather the storm; sail through waves thrown by a dying liberal establishment, amid thunderclaps of leftist vitriol, and against gusts from a panicked bought-corporate-media, with shi on his side.
Where strategy is concerned, the main reason leftists (particularly Alinsky radicals) despise or ought to despise Trump—who has broken with the establishment tradition of starting a new Near East war once in office; whose actions brought black and Hispanic unemployment down to record lows; who has begun the Herculean task of onshoring manufacturing jobs, reducing the administrative state and regulations, and reifying America’s borders; and who is making citizenship mean something again—is because he is addressing the needs of the dying American middle-class and the forgotten people past administrations have whipped up for votes then abandoned. These ostensibly hopeless, disenchanted Americans (a.k.a. ‘deplorables’) were supposed to be the constituents of the radicals’ revolutionary army. (Back in 2016, Obama was prepared to hand off a gift-wrapped revolutionary moment to Clinton, but fumbled the pass, meaning lifetime of leftist work was spoiled by the People…) Even now, with America’s social order on the brink, idleness at an all-time high (owing to the pandemic), and community life sporadically shut-down (prompting a desire for social connection / belonging), the masses—caught in a state of flux—should be ripe for radicalization. Yet, the riots and the protests have been populous, not popular. If the revolutionaries were waiting for a catalytic revelation, they’re certainly not acting like it or at the very least acting like this ain’t the one.
Perhaps the established Alinskyites have kicked the can down the road again. Maybe, they’re comfortable, and the status quo guarantees that comfort continues. (Alinsky’s intention in writing Rules for Radicals was to champion a counter to Machiavelli’s rules for princes; that if The Prince detailed how elites could hold onto power, his book would delineate how the “Have-nots” could take that power away. Curiously, many of the supposed proponents of the have-nots became princes.) It is not uncustomary to see true believers elected into office who get a taste for the lifestyle and the money, then abandon those who lifted them up or their raison d’être. How committed to reform and revolution is AOC after seeing that a life spent selling out the country—a country she hates in its present form—could make her $100M like Nancy Pelosi? How likely is Ilhan Omar to concentrate her energies on paving the road to serfdom when she can make off like a bandit and funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars into her husband’s firm?
Or maybe, just maybe, they recognize that the American people, though most certainly hurting—10.2% unemployment; over 65,000 overdoses and 50,000 suicides a year—are majoritively hopeful and distrustful of the left’s “grandiose rationalization of petty resentments.” It is entirely possible that the reason behind the Alinskyites’ pregnant pause is the recent polling data.
A recent Rasmussen poll found that 49% of Americans (including one-third of Democrats, 45% of blacks, and 51% of Hispanics and Asians) consider Antifa a terrorist group. 49% of Americans believe that the riots we have seen in recent weeks are not a legitimate reaction. Over 50% of Likely US Voters say the police should crack down on the protests to bring them to an end. According to an ABC News / Washington Post poll, 55% oppose reducing police funding. Where the leftist guerillas’ iconoclasm is concerned, according to a recent Harvard CAPS/Harris poll, 58% of Americans oppose the removal of Confederate statues. Where religious and historical statues are concerned, a sliver minority of Americans tolerate destruction. More broadly: a Gallup poll conducted at the height of the CCP virus epidemic amidst record unemployment found that the majority of Americans remained opposed to socialism.
The Alinskyites are witnessing a new generation of revelationaries fail. For fear that the shi isn’t right—that it’s not yet time for revolution—they haven’t taken any meaningful steps to intercede on the behalf of the leftist militants. That said, while not supportive, the Alinskyites in the Democrat Party are not condemnatory. They refuse to denounce Antifa and are directly collaborating with BLM. Allowing the revelationaries to carry on is, however, a major risk to the revolutionaries’ long-game.
It is entirely possible that Antifa and BLM will soon cross a line (the kind invisible until passed, and then blindingly clear) and incur the wrath of a super-majority of the American people, and in so doing kill for prospective recruits the allure of socialism. The slaying of Aaron “Jay” Danielson in Portland on August 29th seemed to encroach on such a line, though it can easily and may soon be overstepped by a great measure. While it would provide a just answer to the questions Hicks posed concerning contemporary leftist strategies, in the meantime—up until the moment the sleeping giant wakes—a lot of innocent people may get hurt or worse. The Alinskyites may get by silently and by deflecting accountability for helping to create the environment responsible (i.e. turning up the heat), but it also may not matter. Misalignment, poor timing, and impotence may have forever stalled their murderous fantasy.
Alinskyites either feel that they haven’t executed the ‘reform’ required for a revolution, are hypocrites, or are cowards waiting for a sure-thing. Either way, the longer the leftist terrorism continues unabated and uncriticized by the Dems, the harder it will be down the road for established radicals to make a case for their continued empowerment. Conversely, the longer they keep dormant their revolution, the less stock their leftist base will put in them (hence the recent formation by the Jimmy Dore / Chris Hedge-styled progressives of the People’s Party). Two things are, however, abundantly clear: 1) if Trump is able to reinvigorate the economy and restore some faith in America’s cornerstone institutions, it won’t be a matter off kicking the revolutionary can down the road but off of it; and 2) it won’t matter how many cooked frogs the academies ladle out—if and when the time comes, the American people won’t stand for a leftist revolution, but they’ll certainly put it down.