Alinsky: Not an activist to emulate

  • Article by: CRAIG WESTOVER
  • Updated: February 8, 2012 - 11:34 AM

Under his worldview, life is a zero-sum game in which we take sides.

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Describing "Rules for Radicals" author Saul Alinsky, as Myles Spicer does ("To Gingrich, an enemy; to others, an inspiration," Jan. 31), as a "community organizer" representing "the best American traditions of protest" is like describing Benito Mussolini as "an effective bureaucrat" representing "the best traditions of effective railroad management."

Alinsky is not dangerous because he was a social reformer dedicated to improving life for society's "have-nots." Alinsky is dangerous because he advocated that the only way to empower one group is by disempowering another.

His is a zero-sum game in which seizing and controlling collective power is the objective. His philosophy offers no guidance for what to do with power or for controlling the use of power once one achieves it.

His is an amoral Hobbesian world of all against all in which life inevitably must be nasty, brutal and short.

Characterizing Alinsky as "apolitical" because he did not identify with any specific ideology misses an insight brought to the fore by author/philosopher Ayn Rand: No social system can survive without a moral base.

Although Rand's notion of a "virtue of selfishness" antagonizes many people, the essence of her work was developing a logically consistent moral code based on the observation that all people act out of self-interest, which is also a premise of Alinsky's philosophy.

The difference is that while Rand elevates morality to an individual virtue, Alinsky reduces morality to a political necessity.

Around rational self-interest, Rand built a system of morality, an ethical code of values to guide individual choices and actions. Morality, she declared, is imperative to survival.

Alinsky also recognized the primacy of self-interest in human action. He is not, however, as Spicer contends, "apolitical"; Alinsky is über-political. Morality, he writes, is rhetorical rationale for expedient action and self-interest.

"It is not man's 'better nature,'" Alinsky says in "Rules for Radicals," "but his self-interest that demands that he be his brother's keeper. ... If he does not share his bread, he dare not sleep, for his neighbor will kill him. To eat and sleep in safety a man must do the right thing, if for seemingly the wrong reasons ..."

Doing the "right thing" for the "wrong reasons" leads Alinsky to this conclusion:

"That perennial question, 'Does the end justify the means?' is meaningless as it stands; the real and only question regarding the ethics of means and end is, and always has been, 'Does this particular end justify this particular means?'"

In Alinsky's own words, the end is what you want and the means is how you get it. The man of action views the issue of means and ends in pragmatic and strategic terms. He has no other problem -- he asks of ends only whether they are achievable and worth the cost; of means, only whether they will work.

(Ironically, taking Alinsky at his word validates the "conservative" position that torturing suspected terrorists is OK as long as it proves effective in obtaining information. In "Atlas Shrugged," Rand makes clear the "liberal" position that torture is immoral.)

Alinsky's would-be world is precisely the altruistic world that Rand's philosophy and principled conservatives struggle against.

Unlike Rand's ethical system of rational self-interest that empowers individual fulfillment and achievement and creates the wealth that makes compassion and charity possible, Alinsky defines the purpose of human action as "mass salvation and not individual salvation."

His is a philosophy of constant individual self-sacrifice of the individual to the masses -- or they will kill him in his sleep.

Alinsky offers some keen insights into human nature and human behavior, but he falls victim to the progressive conceit (and the premise of the Obama administration) that, understanding principles of human behavior, he therefore has a "right" to control individual action to make the world what he believes it should be.

Relegating human beings to mere means to satisfy ends imagined by an all-encompassing government is a high price to pay for punctual trains.

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Craig Westover is a Republican activist and writer.

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