5 Principles of Conflict, from Saul Alinsky

Conflict is a constant in this world; it has intellectual, physical, and indeed metaphysical dimensions. Authors who distill life experiences – and past archives of pragmatic principial knowledge – in the arena of conflict for the benefit of one audience may be extremely useful reading. Books are tools and potentially weapons, take for example Curzio Malaparte‘s old book on the Coup. Businesspeople, students, and intellectuals alike can find useful principles, for managing their own fields’ conflicts, in books more narrowly dedicated to Political, Memetic, or Armed Conflict

Aristotle once said ; the mark of an educated person is the ability to entertain an idea without agreeing with it. Doubtlessly there are some people out there who would regard that as devil’s speak. I don’t think we need bother with them, because while they are usually sincere, and quite nice, they also can be inveterate idiots.

Being able to read and consider books by people you disagree with, or hate, is a nifty and useful skill. It’s not just a cliche that you can learn something from everyone, if you doubt this then you haven’t looked far enough. “Educated” need not mean well schooled or credentialed. There are erudite high school drop-outs, tremendously self taught, well read, and self motivated. People with humble formal educational accomplishments who made themselves, by will and motivation, more educated than some University graduates. What is important is the mindset you bring to seeking knowledge, and whether you are or are not a life-long learner. Formal credentials, in our society, are vital to being our being taken seriously by others, and considered a credentialed and qualified commentator on things. However this is how others see you, not how you see yourself. Knowledge is power, and you can leverage it to your benefit.

So here are 5 principle quotes from leftist organizer Saul Alinsky, that can be useful to anyone in a sphere of conflict, irrespective of politics, and may even have some usefulness in the world of business, or love and romance, or family life. Only your imagination can limit how you understand principles. With these 5, here also are some practical examples from history you may not have seen referenced..

1. “It does not matter what you know about anything if you cannot communicate to your people. In that event you are not even a failure. You’re just not there.”

It’s attributed to Mao Tse Tung that he was more afraid of a man with an idea and words to communicate it, than a gun. I haven’t found a source of this quote, but the sentiment rings true, and if he did say it it only further confirms his intellect.

Now someone with an idea or vision is better than one without. But someone with an idea and vision, which can be communicated – synthesized and understood not only internally but to the point of being able to be conveyed, in an adequate way, by speech or text that’s appropriate to one’s desired audience, such a one wields immense potential power.

Once you can communicate to your audience, articulate, and explain ideas – you have a toolset of immense power, if you only realized it..

Thomas S. Szasz. psychiatrist and humanist once stated:

“The struggle for definition is veritably the struggle for life itself. In the typical Western two men fight desperately for the possession of a gun that has been thrown to the ground: whoever reaches the weapon first shoots and lives; his adversary is shot and dies. In ordinary life, the struggle is not for guns but for words; whoever first defines the situation is the victor; his adversary, the victim…
[the one] who first seizes the word imposes reality on the other.. who defines thus dominates and lives.. ..who is defined is subjugated and may be killed.”

So, say you have knowledge, but you can’t convey it to others by putting it in words. Then it’s only of use to yourself privately, and even then it can’t be of much use to you, because until you can put it in words you really don’t fully understand it – you just think that you do. You may have an intuitive feeling for it and partial understanding, but not full. If your aim is to influence external events and change affairs, then you simply aren’t even on the ball court. Period, you are sitting on the bench on the side lines.

To be a player, you have to have a ball, the ball is your words joined to your ideas. To get your ball on court you have to be able to master the word.

In the movie The Book of Eli, Oldmeadow’s character, a local boss in a post-apocalyptic world, has an obsessive concern with stealing a book from Eli, the reason is his concern with “the word.”

“It’s not a fucking book! It’s a weapon. A weapon aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. It will give us control of them. If we want to rule more than one small, fucking town, we have to have it. People will come from all over, they’ll do exactly what I tell ’em if the words are from the book. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. All we need is that book.”

Now the book here it’s the King James Bible.
Don’t scoff, reflect on the fact that the King James Bible is a brilliant collection of rhetoric. It’s English may be antiquated, but you can learn a lot from the structure of it, in choices of phrase, arguments presented, and more. In spite of the rather Churchy intentions implicit in the movie, the point that it’s perfect for social engineering and crowd control isn’t even a subtle subtext. Oldmeadow’s character at one point states:

The word. Never forget the power of the word. An idea, a vision, that can be articulated and communicated is king. An idea that is inchoate and partially unexpressed “isn’t even there.”

Our social realities are controlled through the control of words, those who realize this realize it, those who don’t – well they really aren’t even players yet.

As Orwell put it in his pivotal 1949 novel 1984:

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

One gains this control over the past and present and hence the future through mastery of the word. Master words, and be able to present your ideas through them.

2. “Always remember the first rule of power tactics: Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.”

Saul may be speaking from his own experience as a provocateur and agitator, but in a sense he’s really just channeling the shades of Sun Tzu and Machiavelli here. It’s often said in our culture that “perception is reality” – this is not really true, though it comes close enough to the truth to slide under most people’s doors without further notice. Perception is virtually reality.

“..It does not really matter whether or not our planet is really running out of fuel. Shortages are guaranteed by political manipulations we see today.”

From “Musings of a Man in Black”, by by the hacker and survivalist Thomas Icom

What one perceives as true and real might as well be, for the one perceiving it, in influencing their actions and reactions. Now reality as it is, not as it is perceived – contrary to the movie The Secret (need this be said) – always exerts an objective influence on you.

In a way the book and movie The Secret is as much a trap as it is an opportunity, because much of what is mentioned in there, about “manifesting” what you desire, has some real psychological – and even metaphysical – basis as long as you understand the mechanisms and the limits involved. But making it into open ended magical thinking it excites us, and titillates us, and ultimately leaves us disappointed because we are not being given the real mechanisms needed to engage emotion, will, perception of reality, and focused intent, to the goal of changing our lives and our circumstances.

Someone who understands these seemingly “occult“; psychological, psychological, physical, and ultimately metaphysical, principles, and is able to wield them with will and intent; accepting what truly is reality as it its, not as it seems, can be like the Magician in Disneys Sorcerers Apprentice, and compel what the enemy thinks of one.

Beyond a bluff or poker face, what you are able to convince your enemy of, concerning you, your enemy will believe ultimately, Whatever power your enemy things you have is what your virtually, ostensibly, do have – in your enemy’s “reality” with a small r. Regard reality with a small r and with a big R as two separate things. ‘Reality’, with a big R, are the worlds as they are outside of our subjective inner experience of them, the bullet that hits you from the side of your skull, while taking a walk in the park, completely unseen, fired in the air by a bored gang banker a kilometer away, it objective constraints, limits, and opportunities that all lie in the outside world.

Your disappointment with it should never cause you to forget it’s there, those who understand it wield immense power over themselves and others. ‘reality’ with a small r, you can regard as is the mental construction we carry in ourselves based on how our sense organs, and minds react and reconstruct this external reality, in a partial limited version. It’s our fishbowl. We can try to expand it by expanding our perception but it will always reflect to some degree our finite limits.

Aim to understand your enemy’s fishbowls, and induce in it a model of you and your powers, and he or she will believe in it. Stay congruent to it, in your operations around your enemy. Then you can exploit the gulf between the perceived and the actual.

There are implications in trade and business so manifestly clear it would seem to insult you to lay them out. That said, in negotiations control as far as possible your negotiating partner’s perceptions of you, your skills, your power base and resources. Everything from presentation of your dress, deportment, word use, business card, web site, letterhead correspondence, how your receptionist greets the phone, selective use of Press Releases over a standing campaign to build certain points up, selective interviews given to media, and more all go a long way – control your image before your partner/opponent sitting across from you, and control their perception of your powers.

3. “Change comes from power, and power comes from organization. In order to act, people must get together.”

One man or woman with an idea cannot change society unless they articulate it, but even if they articulate it they cannot change anything until it is repeated and accepted by others who then allow themselves to be organized, or indeed self-0organzie, into what are effectively revolutionary cadres able to mobilize, demonstrate, take to the streets and/or barricades. Without organization and external direction, however, all one has is an aggregate mass of humanity.

In an office or business environment you have to be able to recruit others to your side, rhetorically or otherwise, once you get a group of people who agree that a change is necessary from management, one or two voices accomplish nothing. But multiple voices, seemingly in unison, demanding some level of change, must be at least given lip service to. At that point the one with the greatest persuasive and rhetorical skills can and should aptly state the group’s case, and the advantages they seek and illustrate the degree of organization and backing they have, then there is room for negotiation from strength and the ability and mandate to illustrate a benefit to management as well. To get to the point of negotiation and the ability to demonstrate shared benefits behind a policy change having organized colleagues at your back is a necessity.

4. “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.”

In other words, one must be a provocateur on some level, to artificially raise the tempo of the situation in which the group one is appealing to finds itself. One must be able to make them uncomfortable enough, or challenged enough, so that their emotions and sentiments are in a bit of free fall, in other words you are essentially shaking them up out of their boredom and complacency.

The recent Arab Spring revolutions hold several examples, in Tunisia and in Egypt alike the people labored under enormous bureaucratic restrictions and oppression, small businesses, entrepreneurs, professionals, and worker laborers alike. One Tunisian man doing something culturally horrifying and shocking, driven to the point of not only despair but emasculated dishonor after suffering some abuse from a female police officer, over his small peddling business, snapped, and took his life in the most spectacularly public way – he set his self on fire.

This horrifically shocking act is more shocking in an Arab Muslim context given the seriousness even modern Muslims pay to both the idea of suicide (which is far less accepted than in the West) as well as to death by fire, something religiously and culturally abhorred to a greater degree in the Muslim world than in the West. This suicide by public fire provided a lurid desperation point, soon other people driven to the edge of their mental and emotional health by the daily oppression they suffered in these systems also lit themselves. This continues, the other week a group of Moroccan college schoolmates collectively decided to light themselves on fire in sheer desperation.

This act had the affect of shaking the complacency and routine ennui experienced by the people in these societies and facilitated, rapidly, the revolutionary elements in their midst in organizing them, leading to the results the world witnessed last spring.

Many other examples can be found.

In business, academia, or the office, prior to organizing (see above) the ability to stir up resentments previously inchoate and unexpressed, to make them articulated and on everyone’s tongue, and to give them a lurid shape and form, preferably by slogan, is a necessary precondition to ORGANIZING a discontent body.

5. “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. “

Intelligence and Iwar analyst and theoretician, Michael Wilson, has pointed out in his papers on the subject, and opposition force must be able to build alternative dependency infrastructures to the ones they discredit or destroy. If OPFOR weakens or destroys a defender’s infrastructure of social dependency, that her clients benefit from, and does not offer a viable alternative, then there is no real ultimate victory, only destruction. It is harder to offer real constructive and viable alternatives to those things one wishes to attack.

In a business or office environment, you really cannot make a successful attack on the managerial establishment without then being able to rapidly articulate and deploy a constructive alternative, and since they are management your alternative has got to have a clear upside and advantage to management, which includes at the very least quelling the discontent you fomented while giving them a more effective or efficient set of alternatives than they enjoy now.

There’s a delicate bit of arbitrage necessary here, you must be able to leverage your own dependency infrastructures, your own constructive alternatives, to give the group you are appealing to a real viable and attractive alternative way of getting their seemingly mundane, but quite vital, needs met. If you cannot then however great the sentimental attachment shared, ultimately your attack will make little lasting headway.

I’ve seen attributed to Abdul Hamid II, the last real Ottoman Sultan, “I have never seen a revolutionary build what he can destroy.” Again an attributed quote, whose source lies in the ether, but with a ring of authenticity. This sentiment, concerning the enthusiastic and naive, and ultimately destructive, errors of the Young Turks and Young Ottoman, revolutionary cadres, illustrate Saul’s point here.

I believe, and I think history will bear this out, that they were unable to build anything on the scale of what they destroyed. Attaturk; Mustafa Kemal Pasha’s rearguard reorganization of the Turkish Republic saved some things, yet the Young Turks collectively could not, did not, and and have not built civilization’s institutions equal to that of the one they helped destroy, in their prime.

The success however of Solon‘s reforms in Athenian Greece, in spite of being despised by his contemporaries, in part lay in his creating alternatives that aptly met the needs of both sides, the Demos and the Aristocracy. His terms were not ideal to either, but balanced each other out as pragmatic and constructive alternatives, and gave each side – grumbling – an adequate replacement for the status quo.

The 19th Century’s Masonic and later Revolutionary Left inspired waves of revolutions suffered from this point – take the 1848 revolutions, and the failure of the Paris Commune, the ultimate downfall of the Young Turk’s revolution in the end of the Ottoman empire prior to its dissolution (in which surviving elements of the Young Turks managed to salvage, at least, a secular Turkish republic). But take Young Italy; the case of Mazzini, there would be no Garibaldi without his vision, and his ability to communicate that vision, and the ability of those he inspired to build constructive alternatives to what they attacked. The US Revolution – an early branch from the same inchoate revolutionary tree, was marked by it’s real success at building constructive alternatives,

Looking at the history of revolutions in Asian history, or the Jihadic revolutions that swept through Sudanic Africa in the late 18th century, you find that some failed and some succeeded, and one critical factor in all cases was the degree to which the revolutionaries involved articulated their vision, communicated it clearly, and created constructive alternatives.

Only a fool would not look at the political-strategic factors involved in the Chinese Yellow Turban revolts, or going further back what history survives on the revolutions planned by the philosophical cadres following the teachings of Pythagoras, or the revolution and jihad of Uthman Dan Fodio in the area of the Sudan that became Nigeria, or – and most fascinating of all – the Fatimid revolutions in Egypt and Syria.

Better men than you and I, some of the best economic and political thinkers in the West, keenly studied non-Western conflict history for their strategic insights, and to whatever degree you have time – so should you.

The Weapon of Text
Saul Alinsky’s writings can be regarded by some as rather dangerous mind weapons. In common with certain other books throughout history, he or she who really understands the implications of the words found in these weapons, can wield unprecedented influence, if he or she has the intention and will and energy and drive to put them in action.

If naive you can also find yourself in thrall to the writer’s will, and becoming a took of his or her project. This is the risk of reading anything, all books change you to some degree, and all books wield a persuasive influence – even if you reject it.

I said will and energy, but don’t forget your imagination, it is here that most people are stopped. Because stepping outside the box and really using your imagination is difficult, and the more highly educated one is along certain lines, the more difficult it can be to even see certain alternatives beyond the boundaries of what one’s been trained in.

Books, per the character in the Book of Eli, are weapons. Successful activists, irrespective of their political economic or social doctrines, use them accordingly. Successful businessmen, use them accordingly. Successful students or scholars, obviously, use them accordingly. They aren’t doorstops. If you shy away from a book because of your repugnance towards the author, then you sit at a disadvantage to someone – perhaps an opponent of yours – with the brightness to use the insights that book may offer in his favor, and in your disfavor.

Interested? Here are two pragmatic and practical books by Alinsky

Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals

Alinsky’s older, but very interesting, Reveille for Radicals


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