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A Tale of Two Neo-Marxists: Paulo Freire and Saul Alinksy

June 22, 2009

I have been reading afresh, and reflecting upon, the neo-Marxisms of Paulo Freire (1921-1997) and Saul Alinsky (1909-1972). For anyone who is unfamiliar with the ideas of these two writers, I strongly encourage you to read Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Comparing the ideas presented in them has, for me, been a delightful experience.

First, I will provide short quotations from these two books. I will then briefly comment. To begin, here is Freire:

This book will present some aspects of what the writer has termed the ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’, a pedagogy which must be forged with, not for, the oppressed (be they individuals or whole peoples) in the incessant struggle to regain their humanity. This pedagogy makes oppression and its causes objects of reflection by the oppressed, and from that reflection will come their necessary engagement in the struggle for their liberation. And in the struggle this pedagogy will be made and remade.

The central problem is this: How can the oppressed, as divided, unauthentic beings, participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation? Only as they discover themselves to be ‘hosts’ of the oppressor can they contribute to the midwifery of their liberating pedagogy. As long as they live in the duality where to be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible. The pedagogy of the oppressed is an instrument for their critical discovery that both they and their oppressors are manifestations of dehumanization.

Liberation is thus a child birth, and a painful one. The man who emerges is a new man, viable only as the oppressor-oppressed contradiction is superseded by the humanization of all men. Or to put it another way, the solution of this contradiction is born in the labour which brings this new man into the world: no longer oppressor or oppressed, but man in the process of achieving freedom.

This solution cannot be achieved in idealistic terms. In order for the oppressed to be able to wage the struggle for their liberation, they must perceive the reality of oppression, not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform. This perception is necessary, but not a sufficient condition by itself for liberation; it must become the motivating force for liberating action.

Paulo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Now, a quotation from Alinsky:

Tactics are those conscious deliberate acts by which human beings live with each other and deal with the world around them. In the world of give and take, tactics is the art of how to take and how to give. Here our concern is with the tactic of taking; how the Have-Nots can take power away from the Haves.

For an elementary illustration of tactics, take parts of your face as the point of reference; your eyes, your ears, and your nose. First the eyes; if you have organized a vast, mass-based people’s organization, you can parade it visibly before the enemy and openly show your power. Second the ears; if your organization is small in numbers, then…conceal the members in the dark but raise a din and clamor that will make the listener believe that your organization numbers many more than it does. Third, the nose; if your organization is too tiny even for noise, stink up the place.

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

Second: Never go outside the experience of your people. When an action is outside the experience of the people, the result is confusion, fear, and retreat.

Wherever possible go outside of the experience of the enemy. Here you want to cause confusion, fear, and retreat.

The fourth rule is: Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules. You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.

The fourth rule carries within it the fifth rule: Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.

Sixth rule: A good tactic is one that your people enjoy. If your people are not having a ball doing it, there is something very wrong with the tactic.

A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag. Man can sustain militant interest in any issue for only a limited time, after which it becomes a ritualistic commitment.

Keep the pressure on, with different tactics and actions, and utilize all events of the period for your purpose.

The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.

The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.

If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside; this is based on the principle that every positive has its negative.

The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. you cannot risk being trapped by the enemy in his suddenly agreeing with your demand and saying “You’re right – we don’t know what to do about this issue. Now you tell us.”

Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.

In conflict tactics there are certain rules that the organizer should always regard as universalities. One is that the opposition must be singled out as the target and “frozen.” By this I mean that in a complex, interrelated, urban society, it becomes increasingly difficult to single out who is to blame for any particular evil. There is a constant, and somewhat legitimate, passing of the buck. The target is always trying to shift responsibility to get out of being the target.

One of the criteria in picking your target is the target’s vulnerability – where do you have the power to start? Furthermore, the target can always say, “Why do you center on me when there are others to blame as well?” When you “freeze the target,” you disregard these arguments and, for the moment, all others to blame.

Then, as you zero in and freeze your target and carry out your attack, all of the “others” come out of the woodwork very soon. They become visible by their support of the target.

The other important point in the choosing of a target is that it must be a personification, not something general and abstract such as a community’s segregated practices or a major corporation or City Hall. It is not possible to develop the necessary hostility against, say, City Hall, which after all is a concrete, physical, inanimate structure, or against a corporation, which has no soul or identity, or a public school administration, which again is an inanimate system.

Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals

Freire was an educator. Alinksy was a community organizer. Freire was a Roman Catholic who developed a system not terribly at variance from Latin American theologies of liberation. Alinsky was an atheist who demonstrated his willingness to work with various groups, including those in Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

Now, a more subjective evaluation: In reading Freire, I could not help but feel his compassion for the poor and his overriding desire for them to recognize their dominated statuses and, through conscientization (critical consciousness or consciousness raising), to ultimately become emancipated.

Alinsky, on the other hand, was a political pragmatist – a proponent of realpolitik. To abuse an analogy, he turned Machiavelli upside down on his head. Even a superficial reading of Alinsky makes his position evident that dominated groups, in the course of their organizing, must utilize similar tactics and expediencies to “the prince.” By such means, he contended, will they accomplish their objectives over and against their oppressors.

As might be evident at this point, while I find Freire’s approach to be much to my own liking (and much like my own), I substantially reject Alinsky’s rules for radicals as exemplary of the sort of consequentialism often characterized as “the end justifies the means.”

Bluntly stated, internalizing the Machiavellianism of one’s oppressors, like other expressions of internalized dominance, implicitly legitimizes their actions. What is more, such practice of realpolitik by dominated individuals would demonstrate that the oppressor, her mentality and rules of operation, continues to reside within their hearts.

Finally, in my view, the ultimate revolution in human rights, whether pertaining to Autists or to other socially dominated populations, will come through an education into conscientization, not through the ruthless exercise of disparagement and dissimulation. The axiology, or value system, one cherishes while still dominated may be prescient of the world one wishes to construct.

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