Radical Origins of the 'Big Society' ?

Saul Alinsky's 1971 book, Rules for Radicals has been cited recently as an influential source for David Cameron's campaign for a Big Society. The main themes are the importance of citizens as participants and opportunities for re-engagement and re-empowerment.

If you're already questioning why the Conservative manifesto employed a guiding quotation from that book, you're not alone. One alarmed commentators was Gerald Warner, writing in the Daily Telegraph on April Fools' day 2010:

"David Cameron's Big Society is a grotesque fantasy inspired by leftist subversive Saul Alinsky"
"Yet the Conservative Party blurts out this admission in the launch document of Big Society. There is a pedantic debate over whether Alinsky was technically a Marxist, or by-passed Marx as old-hat. What is beyond question is his project to overthrow capitalist society and to do so through infiltration of political parties, institutions and, above all, by the use of “community organisers”. Anybody who thought claims on this blog of Cultural Marxism influencing even the Tory Party were exaggerated can now think again."

I've selected some quotes below from Alinsky's book which I hope readers will find useful:

"What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away."

"The price of democracy is the ongoing pursuit of the common good by all of the people. One hundred and thirty five years ago Tocqueville gravely warned that unless individual citizens were regularly involved in the action of governing themselves, self-government would pass from the scene. Citizen participation is the animating spirit and force in a society predicated on voluntarism. (p.xxv)

(p. xxv) Here we are desperately concerned with the vast mass of our people who, thwarted through lack of interest or opportunity, or both, do not participate in the endless (p. xxvi) responsibilties of citizenship and are resigned to lives determined by others. To lose you “identity” as a citizen of democracy is but a step from losing your identity as a person. People react to this frustration by not acting at all. The separation of the people from the routine daily functions of citizenship is heartbreak in a democracy.

"It is a grave situation when a people resign their citizenship or when a resident of a great city, though he may desire to take a hand, lacks the means to participate. That citizen sinks further into apathy, anonymity, and depersonalization. The result is that he comes to depend on public authority and a state of civic sclerosis sets in.

"From time to time there have been external enemies at our gates; there has always been the enemy within, the hidden and malignant inertia that foreshadows more certain destruction to our life and future than any nuclear warhead. There can be no darker or more devastating tragedy than the death of man’s faith in himself and in his power to direct his future.”

Beyond the Big Society idea, Alinsky's preoccupation with the combination of opposites suggests another discourse underpinning the surprise joining of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives:

Perhaps also welcome is the notion of open-ended. Alinsky quotes Niels Bohr, speaking out against dogmatic ideology “Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation, but as a question.” (4)

He further explores dualities such as ying and yang etc

“We know intellectually that everything is functionally interrelated, but in our operations we segment and isolate all values and issues.” (15)

He further quotes Bohr on complementarity “There is not so much hope if we have only one difficulty, but when we have two we can match them off against each other.”

and on p. 16 Alinsky quotes the philosopher Whitehead

“In formal logic, a contradiction is the signal of a defeat; but in the evolution of real knowledge it marks the first step in progress towards a victory”

The jury's still out on politics, philosophy, radicalism; the Big Society Rulebook is yet to be written. I tend to agree with Alinksy at this point: there are more questions than answers

Have the subversives really taken over the Conservatives?

I look forward to reading your Toolkits and Action Plans. Look out for my forthcoming blog 'The Spectre of Community'.


  1. watcha Ian.

    there is, of course, another interpretation of the 'Big Society':


    that two such positions exist is less a manifestation of Whitehead's dictum on the potential of contradiction, than it is an indictment of the current mishmashed state of political thought.

    i'm not advocating a return to dogma. rather that it might be nice if the culture's discourse contained an element of socially responsible intellectual coherence.

    (it's a loaded and duplicitous mess and it would be nice if it wasn't. profound, huh?)

  2. Thanks for the web link and your comments, Charles. The Review from London Review of Books is indeed very entertaining. I select one example:

    "plaintive rural nostalgia for the small, self-contained life of the village; for a world where ‘frontline services’ are ‘delivered’ from within the community by the church, the WI and the Over Sixties Club, where no one dies unnoticed by his neighbours, the pub serves as a nightly local parliament, ‘ethos’ is reinforced by the vicar in the pulpit of St Stephen’s and ‘mutuality’ flourishes in the gossip at the shop. In the Ambridge I remember, everybody pulled together to win the Borsetshire Best Kept Village competition; in Cameron’s new Britain, he promises to appoint himself to the chairmanship of the Best Kept Nation committee."

  3. Thanks for the post Ian...

    I have to think Alinsky would be rolling over in his grave, at the thought of being adopted by Tory politicians as a key plank of their manifesto...

    They've clearly chosen to adopt some of the rhetoric that Alinsky put forward, in line w/ his influence on Obama's community organising background, without engaging the more radical elements of 'Rules for Radicals'. Namely, that individual and community empowerment comes through struggle and victory over oppressive forces - the Gloria Steinam approach that 'power can be taken, but not given'.

    In a sense, a government attempting to adopt these ideas, is at inherent odds w/ Alinksy, as I'm sure he would state clearly that a government cannot 'give' power to the people...

    Sadly (but unsurprisingly), I think the London Review of Books' piece you've highlighted is much closer to the type of practical implementation we're likely to see from this government when it comes to 'the big society'... unless we create an independent alternative?

  4. I'm a big fan of the voluntary and community sector ... but it's actually a very small base from which to start?

  5. Hi Ian,

    "small" and ever shrinking with less resources to deliver more and more folk needing to focus on survival with less time energy and resource to give to the common good.
    It's also an expectation that (market?)need will generate what people need without any gaps, without any seams.

  6. bleak, bleak, and more bleak

    a bit more philanthropy is not going to change a country, a continent, or a world, which is based on massive inequality of wealth ?

  7. From Greg ClarK:

    For the 'big society' to flourish, everyday heroes need influence

    The localism bill will ensure social entrepreneurs' ideas are heard, ending the monopoly effect stifling the public sector


  8. Hi, of course community organising in the form of community development for at least 40 years. Initially deeply influenced be Alinski and Frieri. At the last count about 5 years ago it was reckoned there was about 20,000 of them of course this will have shrunk quite a bit but will still be a lot more than the army of 5000 primed in the big society. For a critique of cd and Alinski see our recent paper http://www.scribd.com/doc/46254123/Big-Society-Public-Services


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