Must Read Books:
Commonwealth: A Return to Citizen Politics

Note: The following are notes from the above book. I found the book seminal, eye-opening, life-changing. I recommend that you buy and read the entire book. Only by reading the entire book will you get the whole picture. The following quotes, I hope, will whet your appetite. --Colby Glass

Commonwealth: A Return to Citizen Politics. by Harry C. Boyte. NY: The Free Press, 1989.

Excerpts compiled by Colby Glass.

C.O.P.S. Populist Movement Eclipse of the Citizen
Saul Alinsky Civil Rights Movement

The book is "about the American political tradition of active citizens and its reemergence today" (xi).

"As the rise of technocratic models, based on the ideal of the detached scientist as the highest judge of truth and the most accomplished problem solver, came to dominate every field of social and economic policy, politics and public life became progressively thinner, not only in practice but in intellectual inquiry as well. Today, conventional understandings of politics do not incorporate concepts of an active civic life" (xii).

"To retrieve a conception of citizen politics grounded in real life conditions requires a twofold project. First we need to recall the active traditions of public life in American history, now largely forgotten. Second we need to explore what citizen politics might actually mean today..." (xii-xiii).

"... phronesis [practical reason].." (xiv).

" possibilities for a wider, more active democracy are beginning to emerge in the modern "information age." Effective citizen action in our times is possible if--and only if-- citizens develop the abilities to gain access to information of all kinds.. and the skills to put such information to effective use. Moreover, the possibilities for a reinvigorated popular sovereignty are dependent not only on information and knowledge but also on what might best be called "wisdom": the ability to GUIDE and frame action with integrative concepts and a clear, if flexible and evolving, set of public values and purposes. [This] points especially to the importance of knowledge itself as a resource that needs to be shared, shaped, and governed by the political community of citizens" (5).

"..the "republican" currents of our political culture, derived from the classical tradition of Greek and Roman political thought... civic participation was understood to be the foundation of a free society.." (7).

""Europeans," argued Jefferson, "have divided their nations into two classes, wolves and sheep," while for the Iroquois, "controls are their manners and the moral sense of right and wrong."" (7).

"[James] Madison declared.., "To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea"" (7).

"Large organizations and bureaucracies not only centralize information; they also fragment it, in ways that mirror the excessive specialization we learn in academic life and the professions. In the process, information is stripped of larger meaning. Data about housing, for instance, is rarely related to crime statistics, or health care patterns, or demographics information or environmental problems. "Issues" are separated from the larger context in which they appear" (11).

"Zuboff maintained that education's role is more crucial than ever: "to remind students of the classical themes in human experience, create a sense of kinship between present and past, and heighten understandings of the continuities in the human experience"" (11).

" conventional politics, much of grass-roots activism has spoken in thin, sometimes cynical language of narrow interests... [This particular single-issue approach] does little to change the wider pattern of power relations in communities... In fact, citizen organizing without larger purpose simply reflects the terms of politics-as-usual" (12).

"If an information society is fraught with dangers, it also offers opportunities. Knowledge is unlike capital or land as a resource. It is hard to centralize: one of the distinctive features of the "knowledge revolution" today is that information is harder and harder to hoard... Information lends itself to sharing transactions" (12).

"Information without values is, in itself, a barren form of communication" (13).


"Politics among equal citizens and assumption of responsibility for such public goods makes up the commonwealth tradition in American political culture..." (13).

The idea of commonwealth "has begun to reappear around the globe--from the Soviet Union to South Africa" (15).

"Simultaneously the idea of the "commons," understood as the collective goods and resources over which human communities serve as guardians and caretakers, has begun to acquire strong global implications. Land resources, forests, the oceans, the atmosphere, outer space, the worldwide flow of information and knowledge.. " (15).

"When the American rebellion against Great Britain broke out, the insurgent colonists used the language and tradition of the commonwealth to express their ideals... colonists meant "commonwealth" in two main senses. In the first instance, it suggested a repubican government--the idea of a popular alternative to the monarchy... as state belonging to the whole people rather than the Crown... Commonwealth also was associated with a particular view of property--both private good and public resources... to suggest the concept of a democratic government that sees as its aim tending to the general welfare, especially in opposition to selfish economic interests" (17).

""The power of government can only be kept within its constituted limits by the display of a power equal to itself, the collected sentiment of the people," declared Henry Kammerer in 1794. "The spirit of liberty, like every virtue of the mind, is to be kept alive only by constant action"" (21, quoted from Russel L. Hanson, "'Commons' and 'Commonwealth' at the American Founding," paper presented to the Conference on Conceptual Change and the Constitution of the U.S., Conference for the Study of Political Thought, Washington, DC, April 15, 1987, p. 36).

"...God instructed the Hebrew people that every forty-ninth year private lands should be returned to the common tribal pool, so that no large private accumulations could develop: "Your land must not be sold on a permanent basis, because you do not own it; it belongs to God and you are like foreigners who are allowed to make use of it" (Leviticus 25:23). Such a tradition--the "Year of the Lord"--continued as a major thread in Isaiah and in the New Testament, especially the Gospel of Luke. Thomas Aquinas, building on such traditions, stressed the social dimensions of property: individuals may own property, but they do not have the exclusive rights to use it as they wish. Property always entails the concept of social obligation" (21).

"..Benjamin Franklin urged on the nation the example of the Iroquois Indian... all substantial private property should be seen as "the creature of Society.. subject to the calls of that Society"" (21).

Early settlers grazed their livestock and farmed on "commons" land which they held as a community, not individually. Later schools and parks were placed on public lands. Later, cattle were grazed on public lands in the West.

"After the Civil War, a range of radicals and reformers also used a vocabulary of commonwealth to challenge large-scale systems of concentrated power. Thus, former slaves proposed a distribution of land--"forty acres and a mule"--that would allow them full rights as citizens. "The great problem to be solved by the American people is this," wrote the African American poet Francis Harper in 1875, "whether or not there is strength enough in our religion to have mercy and eal justly with four millions of people lately translated from the old oligarchy of slavery to the new commonwealth of freedom." Women's rights crusaders envisioned a "maternal commonwealth" as an alternative to the male-dominated public world, which they argued was increasingly brutal and corrupt. Similarly, labor organizers called for a "cooperative commonwealth" where small producers and cooperative enterprise would replace the new trusts and corporations" (25).

(on the Maternal Commonwealth, see Sara M. Evans, Born For Liberty: A History of Women in America. NY: Free Press, 1989)

The Populist Movement

"Across the agricultural belt of the nation's South and Midwest in the 1880s, millions of farmers found themselves sinking ever deeper into debt as a result of a national monetary system and centralizing transportation system that operated in the narrow self-interest of financiers and industrialists. Moreover, accompanying the emerging large-scale monetary, communication, and transportation systems was an attack on traditional "commons" like grazing lands and forest resources that lower-class groups used to sustain their independence and dignity.

"Thus, in Georgia in the 1880s bitter conflicts arose about the meaning of "property." Affluent advocates of changes in the laws that would fence in livestock appealed to the "rule of law" about property, over against "custom."" (28-9).

Hard times resulting from this issue resulted in farmer's cooperatives and the creation of the People's, or Populist Party. "The Populist party mounted the last truly serious challenge to the two-party system in American political history" (29).

"The cooperative commonwealth was not hostile to private property. Rather, the thrust of the Populist platform proposed large-scale cooperative and social control over basic elements of the nation's economic foundations, those features like transportation, money supply, and land policy especially seen as essential to independence and small business survival. Populists viewed the loss of popular control at the hands of monopolies and concentrated financial interests as threatening the essentials of civic life and democratic government. Thus, challenges to elite control over money supply, transportation and communications systems, land policy, schools, marketing, and a series of similar areas formed the central thrust of the program" (30).

quote of Frank Doster, p.30.

The Eclipse of the Citizen

In the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century, "concentrated capital, the major source of power in industrial society, seemed to demand an equally concentrated opponent--and to most reformers, the only serious instrument for taming the excesses of modern capitalism appeared to be the government. But as the government, rather than the citizenry, became the active agency, the thrust of reform politics marginalized active citizenship rooted in local communitiese" (35).

" hopes for the exercise of genuine popular power over the commonwealth eroded, the thrust of the progressive program increasingly focused on redistributive justice through the state, not active democracy" (35).

Progressive liberals ended up thinking like European socialists, focusing on economics rather than power.

The socialist left was not populist in the sense of a commonwealth--"the socialist left drew its theory of agency and its imagery for the future from the very terms of capitalist rationality and uprootedness. It remained caught by the language of the system with which it struggled" (37).

"Thus most socialist thought has assumed that a sundering of people's communal and historical identities--of "their roots"--is the indispensable prerequisite of freedom... [It] has assumed that people become that to which capitalism tends to reduce them. It is a theory that is profoundly flawed" (38).

"In our time, the left view of liberated consciousness as a process of radical separation [from] traditional moral values... " (39).

"As a strategic theory of social change, the model of protest as emerging from radical uprootedness is simply at stark odds with the material of social struggle: contemporary social history has demonstrated in immense detail the ways in which people draw on a range of ethnic, kinship, religious, and other relations in fighting back and sustaining solidarity. Thus the biases of socialist theory slight just those sources of power--traditional values and popular memories--which often prove most resistant to the characteristic patterns of domination in our age.." (39-40).

"The reigns of power in the construction of [U.S.] twentieth-century reform have been held by self-described liberals who had little use for an active, independent-minded citizenry.. Most reformers accepted corporate models of management" (43).

"...has left decision making to experts and administrators" (44).

"State-owned businesses under social democratic nations produced those same patterns of hierarchy, efficiency-minded management, and labor fragmentation that could be found in the most capitalist of American firms" (44).

"In such an environment, older republican themes of active citizenship and public life became radically weakened" (44).

Community Organizations

"In the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, in particular, the populist tradition had produced a highly creative if also only partially successful attempt to adapt citizen politics to the challenges of the modern world, taking the form of a new generation of community organizations begun by the late Saul Alinsky. Alinsky, often seen as the dean of modern community organizing, deserves a larger reputation. Over the course of a long career, he constantly asked and sought to answer what active democracy might actually look like in sustained PRACTICE, in a complex, industrial, managerial society" (45-6).

Saul Alinsky

"In the sixteenth year of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides recounted, Athens sent an armada of thirty-eight ships and several thousand warriors to the island of Melos, in the Aegean Sea. Unlike most of the islands, Melos had allied with Athens's chief enemy, Sparta, because, said Thucydides, ancient though distant ancestral ties existed between the two. Athenians had a simple demand: the Melians must switch sides.

"As the Greek historian depicted the encounter which took place in the fifth century BC, the Athenians were unswerving. From the beginning, they spoke the language of power. "We on our side will use no fine phrases," said their envoys:

We recommend that you should try to get what it is possible for you to get, taking into consideration what we both really do think; since you know as well as we do that, when these matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.

"Thucydides's vivid account sets up an encounter between abstract ideals and power politics that resonates across time and space. The Melians repeatedly argued on the basis of their hopes, appealing to the Athenians' own ideals: a "long-range" understanding of Athenian concerns for honor and stability in its empire; the possibility of last- minute help from Sparta or from the gods; the integrity of their seven-hundred-year history. The Athenians referred to the concrete realities of the situation: "do not be like those who, as so commonly happens, miss the chance of saving themselves in a human and practical way." Not eager to destroy or even humiliate the Melians, they suggested that their rule of power politics was to "stand up to one's equals, to behave with deference towards one's superiors, and to treat one's inferiors with moderation." They proposed that alliance with their cause need not mean abject surrender: "there is nothing disgraceful in giving way to the greatest city in Hellas when she is offering you such reasonable terms--alliance on a tribute-paying basis and liberty to enjoy your own property." But they were immovable in their demands. The Melians were "true to their ideals"--and blind to other realities. The Melians resisted for a time. Then, recounted Thucydides, "the Melians surrendered unconditionally to the Athenians, who put to death all the men of military age whom they took, and sold the women and children as slaves. Melos they took over for themselves, sending out later a colony of five hundred men."

"Saul Alinsky, dean of the American community organizing tradition, used this account by Thucydides as a basic training document. The Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) Training Institute, which he and his associates formalized out of a loose network of groups in 1969, developed from the story a drama to begin every training session. It was intended to shock the new trainees. Shock them it did.

"Alinsky's recruits came to the field of community organizing out of a range of settings-- civil rights, religious activism, student involvement, and other causes--flushed with zeal to advocate the cause of the powerless and poor. The eager students would, of course, side with the Melians. They suggested "better arguments" the Melians might have advanced. They speculated that the islanders may have lost at the moment but "won" in some sense as lasting martyrs to the cause of liberty. And, inevitably when asked, they would argue with vehemence that the Melians had "done the right thing" in defending their autonomy and principles even at the cost of their lives. When IAF teachers called them romantics, operating out of a perspective of "victims," they would be greeted with offended outrage.

"Student outrage was precisely the expectation of the IAF educators. Their use of Thucydides was a dramatic device to have students refocus from what Alinsky called "the-world-as-we-would-like-it-to-be" to the "world-as-it-is." Alinsky-style organizers drew from Thucydides' story the lesson that the Melians' "all or nothing" approach failed to understand the process of conflict, power, self-change, self-interest, and negotiations that always is the medium for the expression of ideals in politics. At the end of the 1960s, the IAF was speaking about the interactive nature of power in a way that had been largely forgotten in a protest politics taht counterposed "power elite" to "power to the people," with little understanding of the dynamic interaction" (48-9).

"For Alinsky, Americans' lack of attention to the methods and theories of practical democracy was a great frustration. "Communists are completely committed to change. They have a developed literature, organizational principles, a Communist philosophy," he complained to a class of priests in 1964. "But we have no literature on [our own theory of democratic] change whatsoever in this country." It was his life work to rectify the absence in pragmatic terms that people could understand and put into practice. In particular, he sought to adopt earlier commonwealth, populist themes to the strikingly different world of the twentieth century" (51-2).

[for more, see Saul David Alinsky. Reveille for Radicals. NY: Vintage Books, 1946.]

"Where union organizing proved effective it drew on and reinforced ethnic heritages... the massive strikes in the Garment District of New York: the "uprising of the 20,000" in 1909 and "the uprising of the 50,000" in 1910" (53).

"... the left's "popular front" strategy of 1935... Thomas Jefferson was described as the ancestor of all those "Americans who are fighting against the tyrrany of Big Business with the revolutionary spirit and boldness with which he fought the Tories of that day." The African American singer Paul Robeson produced an anthem for the movement in his song "Ballad for Americans"" (54).


  1. Revive community ties--they give people "confidence in their own power"
  2. Bosses must be "brought down" to the level of ordinary human beings in the minds of those being organized. Use dramatic encounters, ridicule, criticism, even personal criticism
  3. Stress "self-help.. What you get by your own effort is really yours" --it changes you. You are more apt to be able to hold onto it
  4. Stress "confidence-building collective success." Poor people are used to failure--the experience of small successes can be critical to motivating them
  5. "...the necessity for conflict (of the nonviolent kind), using a variety of dramatic and unexpected tactics to "keep the opponent off guard," divide the opposition, use their rules against them" (58)
  6. Create "an organization of existing community institutions" --You have to start by unifying the "pockets of power" that already exist" --this approach over time has proven much more effective than trying to start from ground zero (59).

"Alinsky and his associates relished the use of outrageous tactics. A community organization in the Woodlawn area of Chicago called The Woodlawn Organization, or TWO, once threatened to tie up the bathrooms at O'Hare Airport, with hundreds of
Alinsky said, "Those who want [social] change must be against sacred cows and not only innately irreverent but outwardly, purposefully irreverent in their actions. They must be iconoclastic bulldozers willing to be regarded as profane spoilers of the sacred myths" (60).
members holding "the country's first shit-in" to pressure Mayor Daley into an agreement" --the intentions were leaked to the press and Mayor Daley instantly gave in (60).

"Alinsky's organizing lacked a larger, framing visionary dimension [ie., ideals and values]. As a result, his groups produced local power but not much broader change" (61).

The Civil Rights Movement

"Citizen politics on a large scale had its rebirth in the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s... an eloquent call for the nation to live up to its values and promises" (64).

Martin Luther King, Jr. "rejected Marxism for its depersonalization of the individual and its doctrine of class conflict... Rather, King held to a tradition of the "Christian commonwealth" that drew on older populist and biblical ideals.

[see especially Stephen B. Oates. Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. NY: Harper & Row, 1982]

"...created a scaffolding for the grass-roots program crafted by leaders like Ella Baker... The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the organization which King headed, was formed in early 1957 out of discussions among King, Baker, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Bayard Rustin, and others" (66).

"Baker... argued that a large-scale organizing program was needed to train laity and others. "Instead of 'the leader,'" she said, expressing skepticism of overreliance on black clergy, "you would develop individuals who were bound together by a concept that provided an opportunity for them to grow." Baker sought to develop SCLC's first program, called "the Crusade for Citizenship," into such an organizing effort, and her efforts took shape especially in an enormous program of "Citizenship Schools," organized in small communities across the South" (66).

"Civil rights succeeded in its own terms, abolishing the segregated statutes, registering millions of new black voters... But it represented only one stage in democratic renewal. The efforts toward lasting poor people's organizing that King and others advocated by 1967 and 1968 were cut short by a rising tide of bitterness over the war in Vietnam, and King's death" (68).

Other democratic movements:

"Throughout his years in office, President Reagan justified proposals ranging from budget cutting to the New Federalism by invoking the need for increased local control and a rebirth of voluntary community initiatives" (78-9).

""When you demythologize the rhetoric and look at the specific things the administration has cut, you find that they've specifically targeted all those programs that [are] essential components of self-help," explained Kathy Desmond, who conducted a study for the American Catholic Bishops on patterns of Administration defunding. "The Reagan people didn't want the government to fund groups that were going to stir things up," she concluded. "Anything that was organizing or advocacy"" (79-80).

"After Alinsky's death, the [IAF] network went back to older democratic traditions and began to build "people's organizations" that wedded the struggle for power to vision" (80).

"The Industrial Areas Foundation, or IAF, is a network of large-scale, successful citizen organizations.." (81).

"...information itself is increasingly a central strategic resource and form of power" (81).

"..gave rise to a new approach, called "value-based organizing." ...[which involved] coming to see themselves as "schools of public life" ...self-funded citizen organizations where people learn the arts and skills of a politics far more multidimensional than voting... Its approach to learning develops ways to overcome people's lack of access to civic knowledge as well as the ability to think about the meaning and values that must be added to information" (81-2).

"IAF groups believe that it is not sufficient to simply protest; to "move into power" on a continuing basis in the modern world, citizens must also assume an important measure of responsibility for the basic public goods of their community" (82).

"Between 1980 and 1985 alone, $380 billion was spent for corporate mergers and hostile takeovers, many involving the purchase of locally owned business by multinational corporations. Patterns of concentration reflected such merger activity. By the early 1980s, the assets of the largest two hundred companies matched the percentage of the economy held by the largest one thousand in 1941" (85).

"The gobbling up of locally owned industries and businesses and the trends toward centralization of financial and economic power and wealth all meant transfer of effective authority to national or even global managers... " (85-6).

(continued... )

Please send comments to: Colby Glass, MLIS

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