A look at political education and ideology


August 16, 2018

From trade unions reviewing their education programmes to impassioned and competitive Political Education Officer elections in local Labour Parties, the topic of ‘working-class political education’ is being examined on popular left media outlets and down the pub in tones which are at once both urgent and shrouded in a slippery mysticism.

There is an acknowledgement that a) we are missing an opportunity to engage disempowered and seemingly apathetic people, and b) that an influx of new and eager activists could be enriched by a deeper understanding of… something. What it is they need to know, and how to teach them, is largely discussed in abstract, theoretical terms, making the course of action rather ungraspable.

Another hot buzzword being bandied around across the left is ‘community organising’.

Again, everyone worth their salt is apparently doing it. The Labour Party, trade unions, students’ unions, NGOs. Just about every activist group going.

With the decline of trade union membership, and with workers in increasingly precarious or otherwise short-term work, ‘community‘ is endorsed as a fertile alternative site of working-class struggle. So the question arises: how do community organisations school people in politics?

The ‘No Ideology’ Approach

Mainstream community organising in the UK today takes much direction from Saul Alinsky, author of famous book Rules for Radicals, a primer in the principles and tactics of building power.1 Often referred to as the ‘Father‘ of community organising, Alinsky is a controversial yet hugely influential figure who organised in America from the 30s-70s, advocating the principle that community organising should be devoid of ideology.

The Back of the Yards, where Alinsky started organising, was a meatpacking district infamous for its horrific working conditions. Alinsky organised workers to strike by getting to them in the community, approaching Catholic churches in the area and telling the clergy that if he didn’t organise their congregation, the communists would. He pointed out that if he organised them through the church, and the workers won, there’d be more money in the collection plates on Sundays. The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC) was born, and they had various wins including community funding, a school lunch program and medical care.

Alinsky was of course organising during the reign of McCarthy’s anti-communist practices. He firmly denied that he ever considered joining the Communist Party, saying:

Not at any time. I’ve never joined any organization— not even the ones I’ve organized myself […] philosophically, I could never accept any rigid dogma or ideology, whether it’s Christianity or Marxism […] if you think you’ve got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated. The greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by such religious and political and racial fanatics, from the persecutions of the Inquisition on down to Communist purges and Nazi genocide. 2

Alinsky’s method for ensuring that he didn’t inflict ideology on communities was to start a group to help them organise, and then to leave as soon as possible to allow the community to run it themselves.

BYNC became a powerful organisation, but by the 1950s, as the social change of the time meant that millions of African-Americans were migrating from the Southern states in the hope of getting jobs and escaping racial violence, BYNC became a reactionary, racist organisation doing everything it could to prevent African-Americans moving into the neighborhood. Building power without education isn’t without consequence.

Citizens UK ‘No Ideology’

Alinskyist community organisation Citizens’ UK is the most established in the UK today, with 12 ‘chapters‘ nationwide, organising member institutions such as churches, mosques, schools and universities. Citizens UK preach that a ‘no ideology’ approach allows them to engage the unengaged, avoiding divisions within the wider community by organising leaders from across the political spectrum together. As part of their Refugees Welcome campaign they organised synagogues together with a students’ union in North London to integrate refugees and demand that power holders provide the necessary funding and services. In addition to services arranged by the community, such as housing and childcare, the students’ union won scholarships from the University for three refugees to study there cost-free. This model lends itself to immediate and significant local wins.

However, avoidable consequences reoccurred. Citizens UK is based on a consensual, ostensibly ‘non-ideological’ approach, aiming to forge ‘constructive‘ relationships with decision makers. This approach saw Neil Jameson (the Founding Executive Director of Citizens UK) stand up at the launch of the Refugees Welcome campaign to unironically thank Theresa May for all the work she has done welcoming refugees. It was unclear which part of May’s hostile environment deserved praise, perhaps the state-sanctioned abuse of people in detention centres, the ‘go home‘ vans, or the wall built in Calais. This raises serious concerns about their ‘no ideology‘ ‘relationships with power‘ model, leaving ‘constructive relationship‘ to be read as ‘friendship’.

ACORN’s Political Method

Citizens UK also organised around issues of housing in London. During this campaign they called an Assembly to publicly demand promises from the Deputy Mayor. Tenants were tasked with chairing a section of the Assembly, giving testimony of appalling housing conditions. They formed demands, calling for citywide landlord licensing and a commitment to working with Citizens UK to tackle rogue landlords. However, at the citywide planning meeting for the Assembly these tenants were met by other Citizens UK members who were unhappy with these modest demands… because they themselves were landlords.

Contrastingly, ACORN is a union for the community which is owned and led by members, independently organising private renters to take direct action across the UK. ACORN wasn’t initially set up as a renter’s union – it started in the UK 4 years ago as a multi-issue organisation, but with a housing crisis, renters’ rights has defined their work.

Whilst not explicitly ideological, ACORN makes the explicit decision to organise working class people, to take what belongs to them: the right to decent affordable housing and quality public services.

No Such Thing As No Ideology

Any organisation seeking material change in society but lacking class analysis is bound to hit a dead end. Trying to organise landlords and renters together will always lead to a greater compromise. Ultimately, we need to admit that there’s no such thing as ‘no ideology’. Building a strategy based either on an analysis that systematic change is not possible - or that the system will ultimately right thing - is ideological.

Jane McAlevey’s book No Shortcuts examines Alinsky’s ‘no ideology‘ stance in some detail, mentioning that, conversely, Alinsky did acknowledge that left-wing organisers were the best, saying “left-wing leadership showed superior skill in every aspect of running a union”. 4 Remembering that he was organising in a time when leftist ideology had essentially been made illegal, perhaps we can agree with McAlevey that Alinsky’s understanding of power and tactics has been morphed: “a good rope twisted into a noose”.

What Came First, Action Or Knowledge

It is organising strategy that shapes an organisation’s ability to educate. Rather than deliberating about what comes first, political education or action, commit to building the sort of permanent, democratic, working class organisation we see from ACORN, moving people into conflict with the ruling elite. That is how to help people to understand not just that collectivism triumphs over individualism, but that there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. Fundamentally, the crucial lesson in political education that community organising has the potential to teach is that this is a war, there are two sides, and you need to choose one.


  1. Alinsky, Saul (1989) ‘Rules For Radicals’, Vintage Books: USA. 

  2. “Playboy Interview: Saul Alinsky”, Playboy Magazine. March 1972: http://documents.theblackvault.com/documents/fbifiles/100-BA-30057.pdf

  3. p. 33 McAlevey, Jane (2016) ‘No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age’, OUP: USA. 

  4. p. 207, McAlevey. 


author

Rohan Kon (@rohankon)

Rohan Kon is a Students’ Union campaigns staffer and member of community union ACORN.