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Alinsky – Education Of An Organizer (Pt 1)

Excerpts from Saul Alinsky’s seminal work, Rules For Radicals, pp 63-81:


The Education of an Organizer

THE BUILDING of many mass power organizations to merge into a national popular power force cannot come without many organizers. Since organizations are created, in large part, by the organizer, we must find out what creates the organizer. This has been the major problem of my years of organizational experience: the finding of potential organizers and their training. For the past two years I have had a special training school for organizers with a full-time, fifteen-month program.

Its students have ranged from middle-class women activists to Catholic priests and Protestant ministers of all denominations, from militant Indians to Chicanos to Puerto Ricans to blacks from all parts of the black power spectrum, from Panthers to radical philosophers, from a variety of campus activists, S.D.S. and others, to a priest who was joining a revolutionary party in South America. Geographically they have come from campuses and Jesuit seminaries in Boston to Chicanos from tiny Texas towns, middle-class people from Chicago and Hartford and Seattle, and almost every place in between. An increasing number of students come from Canada, from the Indians of the northwest to the middle class of the Maritime Provinces. For years before the formal school was begun, I spent most of my time on the education as an organizer of every member of my staff.

The education of an organizer requires frequent long conferences on organizational problems, analysis of power patterns, communication, conflict tactics, the education and development of community leaders, and the methods of introduction of new issues. In these discussions, we have found ourselves dealing with quite a range of issues: internal problems of a clique in a Los Angeles organization out to get rid of its organizer; a Christmas tree selling fundraising fiasco in San Jose and why it failed; a massive voter registration drive in a Chicago project which was being 0 delayed in getting started; a group in Rochester, New York, attacking the organizer so that they could get their hot hands on the funds earmarked for organization—and so on.

Always the potential organizer’s personal experience was used as the basis for teaching. Always after the problem was solved there would be long sessions in which a postmortem would dissect the specifics and then stitch them into a synthesis, a body of concepts. All experiences are significant only insofar as they are related to and illuminating a central concept. History does not repeat specific situations—if any of the examples in these pages are read isolated from the general concept, they will be nothing more than a series of anecdotes. Everything became a learning experience.

Frequently personal domestic hangups were part of the conferences. An organizer’s working schedule is so continuous that time is meaningless; meetings and caucuses drag endlessly into the early morning hours; any schedule is marked by constant unexpected unscheduled meetings; work pursues an organizer into his or her home, so that either he is on the phone or there are people dropping in. The marriage record of organizers is with rare exception disastrous. Further, the tensions, the hours, the home situation, and the opportunities, do not argue for fidelity. Also, with rare exception, I have not known really competent organizers who were concerned about celibacy. Here and there are wives and husbands or those in love relationships who understand and are committed to the work, and are real sources of strength to the organizer

As I look back on the results of those years, they seem to be a potpourri, with, I would judge, more failures than successes. Here and there are organizers who are outstanding in their chosen fields and are featured by the press as my trained “protégés,” but to me the overall record has been unpromising.

Those out of their local communities who were trained on the job achieved certain levels and were at the end of their line. If one thinks of an organizer as a highly imaginative and creative architect and engineer then the best we have been able to train on the job were skilled plumbers, electricians, and carpenters, all essential to the building and maintenance of their community structure but incapable of going elsewhere to design and execute a new structure in a new community…

Among the organizers I trained and failed with, there were some who memorized the words and the related experiences and concepts. Listening to them was like listening to a tape playing back my presentation word for word. Clearly there was little understanding; clearly, they could not do more than elementary organization. The problem with so many of them was and is their failure to understand that a statement of a specific situation is significant only in its relationship to and its illumination of a general concept. Instead they see the specific action as a terminal point. They find it difficult to grasp the fact that no situation ever repeats itself, that no tactic can be precisely the same…

The area of experience and communication is fundamental to the organizer. An organizer can communicate only within the areas of experience of his audience; otherwise there is no communication. The organizer, in his constant hunt for patterns, universalities, and meaning, is always building up a body of experience.

Through his imagination he is constantly moving in on the happenings of others, identifying with them and extracting their happenings into his own mental digestive system and thereby accumulating more experience. It is essential for communication that he know of their experiences. Since one can communicate only through the experiences of the other, it becomes clear that the organizer begins to develop an abnormally large body of experience.

He learns the local legends, anecdotes, values, idioms. He listens to small talk. He refrains from rhetoric foreign to the local culture: he knows that worn-out words like “white racist,” “fascist pig,” and “motherfucker” have been so spewed about that using them is now within the negative experience of the local people, serving only to identify the speaker as “one of those nuts” and to turn off any further communication.

And yet the organizer must not try to fake it. He must be himself…

Here is the list of the ideal elements of an organizer —the items one looks for in identifying potential organizers and in appraising the future possibilities of new organizers, and the pivot points of any kind of educational curricula for organizers. Certainly it is an idealized list—. I doubt that such qualities, in such intensity, ever come together in one man or woman; yet the best of organizers should have them all, to a strong extent, and any organizer needs at least a degree of each.

Curiosity. What makes an organizer organize? He is driven by a compulsive curiosity that knows no limits. Warning cliches such as “curiosity killed a cat” are meaningless to him, for life is for him a search for a pattern, for similarities in seeming differences, for differences in seeming similarities, for an order in the chaos about us, for a meaning to the life around him and its relationship to his own life—and the search never ends. He goes forth with the question as his mark, and suspects that there are no answers, only further questions. The organizer becomes a carrier of the contagion of curiosity, for a people asking “why” are beginning to rebel. The questioning of the hitherto accepted ways and values is the reformation stage that precedes and is so essential to the revolution

Irreverence. Curiosity and irreverence go together. Curiosity cannot exist without the other. Curiosity asks, “Is this true?” “Just because this has always been the way, is this the best or right way of life, the best or right religion, political or economic value, morality?” To the questioner nothing is sacred. He detests dogma, defies any finite definition of morality, rebels against any repression of a free, open search for ideas no matter where they may lead. He is challenging, insulting, agitating, discrediting. He stirs unrest. As with all life, this is a paradox, for his irreverence is rooted in a deep reverence for the enigma of life, and an incessant search for its meaning. It could be argued that reverence for others, for their freedom from injustice, poverty, ignorance, exploitation, discrimination, disease, war, hate, and fear, is not a necessary quality in a successful organizer. All I can say is that such reverence is a quality I would have to see in anyone I would undertake to teach.

Imagination. Imagination is the inevitable partner of irreverence and curiosity. How can one be curious without being imaginative? …

There was a time when I believed that the basic quality that an organizer needed was a deep sense of anger against injustice and that this was the prime motivation that kept him going. I now know that it is something else: this abnormal imagination that sweeps him into a close identification with mankind and projects him into its plight. He suffers with them and becomes angry at the injustice and begins to organize the rebellion

Imagination is not only the fuel for the force that keeps organizers organizing, it is also the basis for effective tactics and action. The organizer knows that the real action is in the reaction of the opposition. To realistically appraise and anticipate the probable reactions of the enemy, he must be able to identify with them, too, in his imagination, and foresee their reactions to his actions

Humor is essential to a successful tactician, for the most potent weapons known to mankind are satire and ridicule.

A sense of humor enables him to maintain his perspective and see himself for what he really is: a bit of dust that burns for a fleeting second. A sense of humor is incompatible with the complete acceptance of any dogma, any religious, political, or economic prescription for salvation. It synthesizes with curiosity, irreverence, and imagination. The organizer has a personal identity of his own that cannot be lost by absorption or acceptance of any kind of group discipline or organization. I now begin to understand what I stated somewhat intuitively in Reveille for Radicals almost twenty years ago, that “the organizer in order to be part of all can be part of none.” …

An organized personality. The organizer must be well organized himself so he can be comfortable in a disorganized situation, rational in a sea of irrationalities. It is vital that he be able to accept and work with irrationalities for the purpose of change.

With very rare exceptions, the right things are done for the wrong reasons. It is futile to demand that men do the right thing for the right reason—this is a fight with a windmill. The organizer should know and accept that the right reason is only introduced as a moral rationalization after the right end has been achieved, although it may have been achieved for the wrong reason—therefore he should search for and use the wrong reasons to achieve the right goals. He should be able, with skill and calculation, to use irrationality in his attempts to progress toward a rational world

An organizer must become sensitive to everything that is happening around him. He is always learning, and every incident teaches him something…

A well-integrated political schizoid. The organizer must become schizoid, politically, in order not to slip into becoming a true believer. Before men can act an issue must be polarized. Men will act when they are convinced that their cause is 100 per cent on the side of the angels and that the opposition are 100 per cent on the side of the devil. He knows that there can be no action until issues are polarized to this degree

What I am saying is that the organizer must be able to split himself into two parts—one part in the arena of action where he polarizes the issue to 100 to nothing, and helps to lead his forces into conflict, while the other part knows that when the time comes for negotiations that it really is only a 10 per cent difference—and yet both parts have to live comfortably with each other. Only a well organized person can split and yet stay together. But this is what the organizer must do…

A free and open mind, and political relativity. The organizer in his way of life, with his curiosity, irreverence, imagination, sense of humor, distrust of dogma, his self-organization, his understanding of the irrationality of much of human behavior, becomes a flexible personality, not a rigid structure that breaks when something unexpected happens. Having his own identity, he has no need for the security of an ideology or a panacea. He knows that life is a quest for uncertainty; that the only certain fact of life is uncertainty; and he can live with it. He knows that all values are relative, in a world of political relativity. Because of these qualities he is unlikely to disintegrate into cynicism and disillusionment, for he does not depend on illusion.

Finally, the organizer is constantly creating the new out of the old. He knows that all new ideas arise from conflict; that every time man has had a new idea it has been a challenge to the sacred ideas of the past and the present and inevitably a conflict has raged. Curiosity, irreverence, imagination, sense of humor, a free and open mind, an acceptance of the relativity of values and of the uncertainty of life, all inevitably fuse into the kind of person whose greatest joy is creation. He conceives of creation as the very essence of the meaning of life. In his constant striving for the new, he finds that he cannot endure what is repetitive and unchanging. For him hell would be doing the same thing over and over again.

This is the basic difference between the leader and the organizer. The leader goes on to build power to fulfill his desires, to hold and wield the power for purposes both social and personal. He wants power himself. The organizer finds his goal in creation of power for others to use

One would think that this was a description of an organizer but in everything creative, whether it is organizing a mutual fund or a mutual society, one is on the hunt for these qualities. Why one becomes an organizer instead of something else is, I suspect, due to a difference of degree of intensity of specific elements or relationships between them—or accident.

Interesting, is it not?

Also one wonders for whom was the young Obama creating power?

(Continued in part two.)

This article was posted by Steve on Thursday, September 4th, 2008. Comments are currently closed.

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