Saul Alinsky apparently used to ask new recruits to his organizing efforts, “what are you organizing for?” And they would respond by saying that their goal was to help the poor, or get housing for the homeless, or whatever it might be. Alinsky would shoot down all these concrete goals, insisting that “you are organizing for power.” I like that; but Alinsky wasn’t terribly clear about what power actually meant, and this failure to think about power has had some pretty terrible consequences for the American left, especially in the very particular way they’ve adopted or adapted Alinsky’s methods.
This confused me when I first moved to the US; looking for the left in the Bay Area it seems at first like there’s no there there. The general left-wing sentiment in the area doesn’t seem to be matched by the existence of left-wing organizations. It turns out that that’s not quite right; it’s just that these organizations aren’t political organizations but are, rather, community organizations and non-profits. Some of these have radical rhetoric and a revolutionary pedigree, but they all share the weakness of the Alinskian (non-)understanding of power, where power is not conceived of as something that could be appropriated collectively and used creatively to common ends, but where power is something someone else (the state) has, and the limit of collective action is to force concessions from those who do hold power.