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Review of ÔThe ActivistÕs HandbookÕ and ÔRules for RadicalsÕ


‘The Activist’s Handbook’ by Randy Shaw compares itself to all the self-help and managerial expertise how-to books out there, lamenting the absence of similar books designed to help people win social change. Shaw wrote ‘The Activist’s Handbook’ to fill that void. It’s full of valuable lessons learned over long years of successful anti-poverty activism in San Francisco combined with research and experience from other campaigns. It’s also full of good stories of activist campaigns which, even without the lessons, would make it worth reading. But the lessons are so valuable that I’ll summarize them here.

Don’t Respond, Strategize. Shaw exhorts activists to not respond to the establishment (one example of a purely reactive strategy is to stage demonstrations at meetings chosen by the establishment) but instead to set an agenda an go on the offensive, taking actions designed to pressure the opposition to relent to the agenda. Then let them respond. This could—and the whole book could—be described as a ‘reformist’ strategy. But the right reforms, won the right way, will bring us closer and closer to fundamental and necessary changes in society. His advice includes having—and communicating—a factual, realizable alternative to the thing you’re campaigning against.

Imagine a movement that could widely publicize a plan (maybe based on an analysis like Shalom’s ‘Drug Policy and Program’ [http://www.zmag.org/racewatch/ShalomDrugPolicy.htm]) for decriminalizing and legalizing drugs, redirecting funds from law enforcement and prisons here and aerial fumigation programs in Colombia and elsewhere to public health programs to fight addiction. Imagine we could come up with a sensible time table for releasing drug offenders from prison, closing prisoners, and re-integrating prisoners and law-enforcement employees into public life. Crunch the numbers and show how and where the money would come from and go, predict the effects on crime and incarceration rates. Imagine if at that point, we could get as many millions of people as use drugs (alcohol and tobacco included) to go out in public and use or display illegal drugs and demand they be arrested or the plan be enacted.

Inspiring fear and loathing in elected officials. Shaw has seen many movements work hard to elect a ‘progressive’ official only to have their agenda betrayed. He advises that elected officials, even progressives, respond to pressure, not friendship, and that a non-progressive can be pressured into doing progressive things, while a progressive official who doesn’t feel pressure can do very destructive things. The relationship between activists and elected officials should be one of fear and loathing.

Rounding up the Unusual Suspects in Coalition Activism. The book reminds activists that if everyone in a campaign agrees on everything, there is no coalition. A real threat to the establishment is links between groups that do not have everything in common, but do have legitimate principles of unity. There is, however, such a thing as an unholy alliance, and the book talks about things to watch for in coalition building.

Winning more than coverage in the media. Shaw emphasizes the use of investigative journalists when possible. He cautions that there is such a thing as bad publicity and warns activists not to assume a story will advance their cause. The media should be used for results, not coverage. Decide what you want from a media campaign before you start.

Lawyers. The book warns against using lawyers for strategy. Lawyers should be used by movements, not the other way around. When should a campaign use the courts? Many factors must be considered—the impact of losing, the possibility of a good decision being overturned, the ability of the court to actually deliver what it grants, the value of resources dedicated to a court strategy which could be used on other approaches.

Direct Action. Shaw emphasizes that direct action often works, that a group employing it should be able to mobilize facts as well as bodies, that an ‘out’ should be offered to the opposition, in the form of demands that the opposition can meet that are credible and realizable to the people the action is intended to sway.

All in all, ‘The Activist’s Handbook’ is full of excellent advice on how to run an activist campaign. How about building an organization that is capable of pulling off such campaigns? For that, Saul Alinsky’s ‘Rules for Radicals’ has advice. The introduction to that book says: ‘The Prince’ was written by Machiavelli to show the Haves how to hold power. Rules for Radicals was written for the Have-Nots, to take it away’. Alinsky has no illusions about the opposition. There is a conflict, for power, and the Have Nots have to win. ‘The only question about ends is are they achievable and worth the cost. The only question about means is do they work.’ In his discussion of means and ends, Alinsky talks about violence in a hard-headed and practical way that is very useful for working activists today. At times ‘Rules’ isn’t just practical, but also very reflective and deep.

‘Rules’ talks about the importance of having multiple issues—an organization needs issues like an individual needs oxygen, it says—and gives rules for choosing tactics. There are a lot of rules and a lot of wisdom, too much to repeat here. But one important emphasis is on communication. If I’m trying to organize a Jewish community, he says, I don’t walk in eating a ham sandwich. And if long hair is impeding communication, then a radical will be the first to cut his hair. ‘Rules’ also emphasizes tactics that build the organization’s strength and numbers, pressure and divide the opposition, are fun for the people, and turn the heat up on the opposition until they have to relent. Ridicule, ‘Rules’ offers, is the most powerful weapon in a radical’s armory. Alinsky fleshes out the general concepts with stories from a lifetime of rich, even legendary, successful organizing experience.

I’ve learned that the best way to learn about activism and organizing is to find a group that is doing good work and sign up. Finding people you admire and can learn from while contributing to badly-needed changes is more rewarding and rich than reading even solid books. But the chance to apprentice yourself to Alinsky is passed. Randy Shaw is all the way in San Francisco. Their books are easier to find. And their advice is very good.

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