Jacques Maritain’s Review of Saul Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals (1945?)

Jacques Maritain

I think that this book will be epoch-making. It was born not of theory only, but of experience, concrete human knowledge and love for the people. In my opinion the achievements of The Back of the Yards Movement open a new road to real democracy, and show us the only way in which that deep need for communion which today stirs up men threatened by technocratic civilization, can be satisfied in freedom and through freedom, in and through genuine respect for the human person, in and through actual and living trust in the people. No totalitarianism can worm its way into democracy built on such basic communal activities and the principles involved. At the same time we see the manner in which one of our great problems–how real leaders can emerge from and be chosen by real people–is to be solved.

Democracy does not work with amorphous, unorganized people; that is why democracy necessarily requires political parties. It also requires that from the very bottom people organize themselves naturally, spontaneously, in the everyday life of their basic communities, so as to participate really and actively in the political life of the nation, and so that the achievements of this life may really be their work and their achievements. Such deep-seated civic consciousness is the best way to rejuvenate the very life of political parties, and to make stable the primary foundations of government by the people and for the people.

In Chapter III Saul Alinsky cites the serious warning that Tocqueville delivered, more than a hundred years ago, to American democracy–and not only to the American democracy but also to all modern democracies–when he insisted that freedom limited to a rare and brief exercise of free choice with regard to the great things of the State, and enslavement in the minor affairs of everyday life are rather bad conditions for a people and for freedom itself. I think that the proper answer to Tocqueville’s warning is to be found in people’s congresses such as experienced and set going by the Back of the Yards Movement and the Industrial Areas Foundation. Here is the core of Alinsky’s book. He explains in a remarkable manner how the intensity with which a small community, thus organized from within as a living whole, becomes definitively aware of its power of initiative and its common good, naturally develops into concrete awareness of the common good of the nation and the common good of the international community.

It is beyond my province to express any opinion whatever on those sections of Alinsky’s book which deal, sometimes in a sharply critical fashion, with matters peculiar to American life and American labor. But I can and I do admire the constructive value and the univeral import of the essential concepts it proposes, and the new possibilities it discovers for that “orderly revolution” which Mrs. Agnes E. Meyer anticipated in describing the work started in Chicago’s Packingtown.

Saul Alinsky does not share in my religious faith. His religious philosophy seems to me rather inconsistent. Yet I would wish that many Christians may exhibit, in their approach to social matters, as deep an understanding of the moral implications of our basic temporal problems, as bold a courage in fighting for the dignity of the people, and as ardent a thirst for justice and freedom as Alinsky does. Reveille for Radicals does not only reveal a new social technique; the main thing is the inspiration that such a technique impies and without which it would be nothing. I have been greatly impressed both by the spirit of self-effacement and combative generosity which is required from those who start these people’s organizations, acting as ferment and passing out when the work is done, and by the practical attentiveness to individual psychology which the methods used by Alinsky put into action. The manners in which, starting from selfish interests, they succeed in giving rise to the sense of solidarity and finally to an unselfish devotion to the common task, conveys an invaluable teaching to us. At the same time it becomes obvious that in the very bosom of the humblest, most material needs of a community of men, an internal moral awakening is linked with the awakening to the elementary required of true political life.

Saul Alinsky’s book is specifically America. The ask of social pionering it describes, with its aggressive dynamism, its appeal to the sense of community life and its reliance on individual endeavor, is deep-rooted in a specifically American tradition, which carries on the work of the Founders of Independence and the historic mission of this country. But this book conveys a message to all freedom-loving men, and should invite everywhere the living forces of democracy to reveille and renewal. I am anxious to have it translated into French. I am convinced that the same effort, adapted to different historical conditions, should be undertaken in European democracies.

–Jacques Maritain

[Jacques Maritain in the New York Post (1945?)] 
[Review found in The Philosopher and the Provocateur: The Correspondence of Jacques Maritain and Saul Alinsky by Bernard E. Doering, pp. 18-20]