Eric Mann’s Playbook for Progressives: a book review

Future Hope column, September 11, 2011

(10 years ago today as I write the US was attacked by Al Qaeda. I consider it appropriate to write this column today about “transformative organizing” to change the world. Without transformative organizing, we face a future full of catastrophic natural and human-caused disasters, wars, terrorism and massive, unnecessary suffering.)

It was 1969, and I was in my sophomore year at Grinnell College in Iowa. I was one of the campus radicals, and I was soon to be publicly turning in my draft card to the campus chaplain and leaving college two years early to “join the revolution.”

A month or so before that happened, Saul Alinsky came and spoke. After his speech I was one of twenty or so students who met with Alinsky for more in-depth discussion. The main things I remember about that discussion were Alinsky criticizing us for our anti-Vietnam war activity, his call for us to get involved in community organizing a la what he had been doing for a long time, and my not being very impressed.

Drop anti-war organizing? There were half a million U.S. troops in Southeast Asia, and the war was getting worse.

But I did undertake to read Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, his last book before his death in 1972. My general recollection of my reaction was that there was some useful information and experiences on tactics, but it didn’t have much of an impact on me.

Alinsky’s approach to organizing is summed up by the second part of the title of Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. One of his key teachings is that community organizers should start very small, choose an issue that is widely understood by those being organized and easily winnable, like getting a stop sign or light on a corner where there have been multiple accidents. Winning victories is essential, he taught, if people are to learn that they have the power to change things if they work together, which is definitely true.

Since his death, there has been a growth of groups which have organized themselves to do organizing more or less along Alinskyite lines. There have also been many organizers and groups which have consciously NOT used the Alinsky model in their work. Eric Mann and the Labor/Community Strategy Center inLos Angeles are among the most prominent.

Eric has written a book published last month, Playbook for Progressives: 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer. It should be read by every person who wants to become the best possible organizer for positive social change in the world. It is a deep and powerful contribution to the literature on effective organizing.

Eric does not explicitly address the Alinsky approach to organizing, but in the introduction he refers to discussions with “hundreds of ‘issue-based’ organizers who feel that their ‘one cause at a time’ approach, which was motivated by a desire to restrict the scope of their demands in order to ‘win something,’ has led to isolation, ineffectiveness, and a sense of alienation.” p. xx

His alternative is “transformative organizing,” defined at the beginning of the book as organizing which “works to transform the system, transform the consciousness of the people being organized, and, in the process, transform the consciousness of the organizer.” He says that a “connection between ideology on one hand and strategy and tactics on the other is one of the hallmarks of transformative organizing. Ideology is a worldview that gives the most essential direction to your life and leads organizations in their work to change conditions in the world.” pps. x-xi

12 Roles

Playbook for Progressives puts forward “16 qualities of the successful organizer,” but before it does it puts forward “12 roles of the successful organizer.”

What are the 12 roles? Foot soldier, evangelist, recruiter, group builder, strategist, tactician, communicator, political educator, agitator, fund-raiser, comrade and confidante, and cadre. In the 12 short chapters about each of these roles, he explains what he means by them and writes about an organizer he knows who is or was particularly good in that particular role.

A few examples:

Recruiter: “The key to recruiting someone is to combine four elements: listen very carefully and let the person talk, show a deep concern about very specific conditions people face, present very concrete demands, and frame the conversation within an up-front worldview of those fights as part of a larger social transformation.” p. 19

Fund-raiser: “Movements of the poor are significantly funded by members of the middle and affluent classes who support their moral appeal. This has been a dependable model throughout history. In the building of a progressive movement, money is a critical component of power to the people.” p. 64

Comrade and confidante: “At the Strategy Center, I am fortunate to have close comrades who will take me aside, which I appreciate in itself, and explain to me things I have done that were arrogant, chauvinist, insensitive. They will point out ways I have been inconsistent and even vacillatory. They show me instances when I did not listen to or respect the ideas of others and assumed I was right, when in fact they understood the situation far better than I did.” p. 68

16 Qualities

Mann explains the difference between the 12 roles and 16 qualities, writing that the qualities “are what make the difference between success and failure in the practice of each particular job role. . . The qualities represent an integrated, qualitative way of looking at life, being and acting. . . In many ways the sixteen qualities are consistent with the qualities of a successful person and a successful life—one filled with meaning and concern for others besides ourselves.” pps. 75-77

What are the 16 qualities? Joins an organization based on agreement with its strategy and tactics; builds a base and never walks alone; sings with the choir but finds her own voice; a good listener: keeps an ear to the ground; a good investigator: seeks truth from facts; tribune of the people: fights for all the oppressed; generosity of spirit: takes good care of others; self-sustaining: takes good care of himself; completes the circle: from start to finish; tactically agile: masters the decision of the moment; a strong class stand: which side are you on?; the organizer as expert: science in service to the people; courageous and militant: on the front lines of the battle; a strong work ethic: first to arrive, last to leave; relentless: won’t take no for an answer; fights to win: leading the great campaign.

A few examples from these 16 chapters:

“One of the greatest qualities of the successful organizer is the ability to listen: listen to your base, listen to peers, listen to criticism. Listening is a centerpiece of any successful social practice and of any good relationship based on equality among people. It is the building block of a dialectical, transformative theory of organizing.” p. 95

“Burnout is a real concern. So is going through the motions, quitting on the work without realizing you are doing it. To survive and succeed, each organizer must cultivate an ever-evolving tactical plan to ground himself—to sustain and nourish himself as a long-distance runner.” p. 124

“Organizers who are ill-informed about their issues can speak only the general truths of the revolution and are outmatched by the scientists and expert witnesses marshaled by their opponents. They are usually unpersuasive, unable to effect actual change, and are used as caricatures by the system to discredit the movement.” p. 153-4

“Ai-jen Poo explains the core of Domestic Workers United’s organizing theory: ‘Every one of us has needed care, provided care, or relied on someone else for care at some point in our lives. If we frame our work around values and create the right conditions, people will choose fairness and love even when it cuts against their immediate self-interest.’” p. 185

These are just a few of the many nuggets of wisdom found throughout the book from beginning to end. This is a book not just to read but to study, to discuss with others, to critique and reflect upon.

Constructive Criticisms

Here and there I had questions or disagreements with something Eric wrote, but, with two exceptions, they were all pretty minor.

I was glad that Eric identified the climate crisis and work around it as part of the mix of issues that a movement to transform the system must be about, and I know from interacting with Eric over the years that he and his organization do that work. But I wish that he would have underlined the absolute importance of the progressive movement as a whole getting much more serious about this work and doing so now. As shown by the extreme weather events we have seen and experienced in the US and the world over the last couple of years, the climate crisis is worsening much more quickly than the climate scientists expected. There is a very real possibility that we are close to climate tipping points beyond which it will be very difficult to avoid full-out, worldwide climate catastrophe.

My other concern is best summed up by a second definition of a transformative organizer found in the middle of the book, in between the first part on the 12 Roles and the second part on 16 Qualities. Here is that second definition: “Transformative organizers are driven by an ideology and ethical vision of radical change and a daily practice (my emphasis) of working with society’s most exploited, oppressed—those most impacted by the crimes and punishments of the system.”

I think the second part of that definition is a limiting definition. Using it, there are lots and lots of solid transformative organizers, people who have an anti-racist and anti-oppression consciousness and are willing to speak up accordingly in their day-to-day work, who would not be included. These are people who are organizing in predominantly white communities or workplaces or around issues whose constituencies are not solely, or even primarily, “society’s most exploited, oppressed.”

And this definition isn’t an isolated case. To Eric’s credit, throughout the book there is a heavy emphasis on organizing within low-income/working-class communities of color as far as the examples used. This is to Eric’s credit because, without question, he has been exemplary in his work to support and advance leadership of working-class people of color. But I am concerned that white progressives working primarily with white people who read this book could come away from it feeling like their work is not so important, not so strategic, not so transformative.

I believe, as a white organizer and activist, a revolutionary, that my primary role is to work among masses of white working people, working on the issues of most concern to them while also doing the political education work and leading by example, taking the risks, that break down the racism and other negative isms that, of necessity, will be found there. I need to support affirmative, inclusive practices that build multi-cultural groups and which build healthy alliances between predominantly white and predominantly people of color groups.

I also know from experience that unless I have personal and organizational connections with transformative organizers of color, people who can play the role of comrade and confidante, let me know when I’ve made a racist error, that I will not be as effective in my work of breaking down those negative isms.

With Eric, I am fully committed to doing what I can “to coalesce our disparate arenas of work into a broad Movement for Global Justice: an international united front against racism, the police state, ecological destruction, and war led by a strategic alliance of forces building bases on the ground, centered in working-class communities of color, and expanding to all classes and races in society.” May the coalescence happen as soon as possible!

Ted Glick has been politically active since 1968. Past writings and other information can be found at He can be followed on twitter @jtglick.