Resolving the conflict between being visionary and being pragmatic is critical for those who want to transform society.
Published in Waging Nonviolence.
Organizations committed to changing the world for the better must deal with a fundamental tension: On the one hand, they need to present a vision for the kind of society they would like to create. On the other hand, they are forced to reckon with everyday realities of the existing economic and political order. In the community organizing tradition in the United States, this tension is often described as the conflict between “the world as it is” and “the world as it should be.”
Over the past half-century, some of the most prominent community organizing networks in the United States — ranging from the Gamaliel Foundation to Faith In Action to the Industrial Areas Foundation, or IAF — have taught about this divide as a key part of their introductory trainings, using it as a means of orienting new organizers to their approach to organizing. Over the years, the framework has been invoked by Barack Obama, Saul Alinsky and countless rank-and-file organizers. For advocates of this concept, understanding the “two worlds” dichotomy is fundamental to developing the type of people who can effectively produce change: namely, realistic radicals.
So what is the origin of this idea? And why might it be useful for us today?
In his 2003 memoir, “Roots for Radicals,” Edward T. Chambers, who led the Saul Alinsky-founded IAF from 1972 to 2009, explains the idea this way: “Until we die, we live with a tension under our skin at the center of our personhood. We are born into a world of needs and necessities, opportunities and limitations, and must survive there…” Continuing, he writes, “Self-preservation, food, clothing, shelter, safety, health care, education and work are necessary for everyone. Large numbers of people agonize over these things every day of their lives; many of us think of nothing else.” Like it or not, these are the circumstances we are thrown into and the conditions we must confront. They are the world as it is.
But that is only one side of the story. As Chambers notes, “We also have dreams and expectations, yearnings and values, hopes and aspirations. “We exist from day to day with the awareness that things not only might, but could be, should be, different for ourselves and our children.” Our hopes and ideals for a better society make up the world as it should be. And these are integral to who we are as people. “Cynics deride vision and values as irrelevant in the real world,” Chambers wrote, “but the fact is that they are indispensable to our sanity, integrity and authenticity.”
To succeed, organizers are forced to deal with both worlds at once. They have to figure out how to reconcile them without sacrificing either a broader vision for change or the demand for concrete improvements in the here and now. Radical movements seeking to alter the material conditions of people’s daily lives must first contend with the constraints created by those conditions — including the despondency engendered by a system more accountable to moneyed interests than ordinary people. They must deal with the reality of power as a guiding force in the world. In the course of pushing for a given demand or policy change, organizers might find that winning requires navigating their way through very compromised institutions or entering into unsavory alliances. Therefore, they must weigh the costs and benefits of engaging with the system while also trying to remain true to their values.
While the need to balance the two worlds is challenging, the ongoing conflict between them can also become a creative force: “When these two worlds collide hard enough and often enough, a fire in the belly is sometimes ignited,” Chambers explains. “The tension between the two worlds is the root of radical action for justice and democracy[.]”
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Alinsky, Obama and the problem of ideology
By the time Chambers wrote his memoir, activists had been discussing the tension between the two worlds for many decades. The roots of the framework can be traced to Saul Alinsky himself, a foundational figure in modern U.S. community organizing traditions, who deployed it as an argument for rejecting utopian self-isolation and being willing to interact with the system, with all its flaws and limitations. Barack Obama, who started his career as an Alinskyite community organizer, incorporated the phrase as part of his political worldview and occasionally referenced it after becoming president. However, it was Alinsky’s less famous successors who fleshed out the framework and adapted it for their organizations, weaving it into the DNA of community organizing networks such as the IAF.
Even as the framework attracted adherents, it has also drawn detractors. Critics of Alinsky’s model of community organizing see focusing on “the world as it is” as a way of avoiding ideology and hemming in a movement’s more radical aspirations. In a critique for Jacobin, socialist writer Aaron Petcoff argues that, coming out of the 1960s, Alinsky “tried to convince a new generation of radicalizing youth from the New Left to adopt his ‘pragmatic’ approach to organizing, which rested on accepting ‘the world as it is’ and rejecting more militant politics.”
While they may not entirely agree with Petcoff’s critique, a variety of organizers trained in the community organizing tradition have also noted the anti-ideological biases that were baked into their formation. In a 2018 essay for The Nation, journalist Nick Bowlin quotes Detroit organizer Molly Sweeney, who recalls that her training in Alinskyite organizing lacked “any analysis of the greater forces of white supremacy and capitalism that shape our world.” As Sweeney explains, “The ‘world as it is’ was articulated in my training void of any analysis of how the world became that way.”
Expressing similar sentiments, Katie Horvath of the Symbiosis Research Collective wrote in a 2018 reflection for The Ecologist about her experience with how the framework was used: “It’s framed as pragmatism: We don’t live in the world as it should be, we live in the real world, and we have to act according to its rules to get what we want,” she explains. “At training, this was always explained as a necessary strategy in order to achieve the world as it should be,” but Horvath found herself wondering about the limitations it imposed. Being overly pragmatic, she reflects, “constricts what is politically possible, as it means you end up working off of the lowest common denominator of shared values for fear of alienating member institutions.” She further argues, “The short-sighted focus on picking only concrete and winnable issues means never getting at underlying systemic problems that require longer campaigns or that cannot be solved at all within the constraints of the current system.”
Some of this criticism is justified. Alinsky favored organizing around narrow local demands that could be used to build community power rather than taking on galvanizing, morally loaded, and possibly divisive national issues. There are some positive aspects to this approach: Community organizers have devoted themselves to reaching out beyond self-identified groups of leftists, meeting people “where they are at,” and building broad-based coalitions by working on issues of concrete relevance in specific communities. And yet, the approach can sometimes feel more small-minded than visionary, never truly advancing an inspiring model of a different world. The IAF, in particular, has tended to hew to traditional community organizing principles, and it has been less flexible than many of its peer networks at incorporating criticisms of a variety of different aspects of the Alinskyite model.
That said, over the past two decades, the world of community organizing as a whole has evolved considerably. Most major networks have increasingly invested in political education and incorporated more structural analysis into their outlook and strategies — recognizing the need, as Oakland-based organizer Gary Delgado put it in an influential 1998 essay entitled ”The Last Stop Sign,” to “proactively address issues of race, class, gender, corporate concentration and the complexities of a transnational economy.” As organizers Daniel Martinez HoSang, LeeAnn Hall and Libero Della Piana recently wrote in an article for The Forge, “Today, nearly every community organizing group accepts the importance of centering racial justice.” Additionally, these groups have shown greater interest in campaigns that transcend neighborhood-level concerns, as well as in electoral interventions, especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 victory.
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Beyond mere pragmatism
As community organizing networks have begun to think bigger in their analysis and aspirations, can the “two worlds” remain useful guideposts?
Although, in practice, the framework has sometimes been used as a call to mere pragmatism, in its richest form it can be more than that. Indeed, its true value lies in its dialectical nature. The dichotomy does not merely warn against unchecked utopianism; it also rejects the impulse to become overly accommodating of the status quo. As Chambers puts it, “Understanding the world as it is while ignoring the world as it should be leads to cynicism, division and coercion.” In his view, ethical behavior is rooted in “stepping up to the tension between the two worlds” and recognizing the shortfalls inherent in being either overly starry-eyed or inured to existing conditions. Advancing a similar idea, leaders in IAF trainings highlight the role of both power and love in creating change. Echoing Martin Luther King Jr., they explain: “Power without love is tyranny. Love without power is sentimentality.”
The need, then, is to cultivate individuals who can manage both sides of the push-and-pull — or, in the words of former West Coast IAF Director Larry B. McNeil, the best community organizers are people with “double vision.” According to McNeil, “They can actually see what is not there, and they can see the practical organizing and political steps that make that vision a reality.” As he further notes: “Most people get stuck in the world as it is. They become so mired in the present that they forget to imagine. Utopians make the opposite mistake. They become so enthralled in their vision of the future that they fail to do the dirty day-to-day work to make their vision real.”
McNeil offered these words in a 1998 speech to a conference of the Urban Parks Institute. At the conference, he promoted a hard-headed approach to building power and carefully selecting issues to organize around — “We have to take complex, multi-sided problems and turn them into specific, concrete, immediate issues,” he told the attendees. And yet, he insisted on the necessity of unfettered imagination, telling his audience in his closing remarks, to “make sure that your vision of what could be never succumbs to the limits of what is.”
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Can we be both visionary and strategic?
Because the tension between pragmatism and idealism is such a persistent issue for social movements, a variety of different terminologies have been developed to discuss the dichotomy. Sociologist Max Weber, for one, made a distinction between the “ethic of ultimate ends” and the “ethic of responsibility.” Someone operating with a focus on ultimate ends acts according to ardent moral conviction; as Weber writes, this person follows the religious slogan, “The Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord.” Meanwhile, political actors motivated by the ethic of responsibility are more pragmatic; they are concerned with the outcomes and with “the foreseeable results of one’s action.”
Pointing to other similar frameworks, movement theorist and trainer Jonathan Matthew Smucker argues that within movements, “We have to navigate and find a balance between the expressive and the instrumental aspects of collective action; between within-group bonding and beyond-group bridging; between the life of the group and what the group accomplishes aside from its own existence.”
Such divides are perhaps most commonly discussed as a tension between prefigurative and strategic politics. Popularized by sociologist Wini Breines, this dichotomy makes a distinction between groups oriented toward modeling a new society in the present (prefigurative) and those more focused on influencing and moving mainstream institutions (strategic). In principle, these two modes of practice could be integrated with one another. For example, as it rose to prominence with its sit-in actions in the early 1960s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, sought both to prefigure the interracial “beloved community” imagined by the civil rights movement and to push strategically for changes within businesses and government. However, in her analysis of New Left groups, Breines perceived a tension between the two approaches — one that has been regularly borne out in recent decades. Often, the two tendencies lend themselves to different theories of change: Those leaning toward prefigurative concerns tend to focus on building alternative institutions or promoting personal transformation, while those more focused on strategic politics tend to gravitate toward inside-game politics and structure-based organizing that seek to win instrumental demands.
All of these frameworks attempt to provide language for discussing how visionary aspirations and real-world conditions push against one another in the pursuit of social change. One thing that makes the “two worlds” idea distinctive is that it is firmly integrated into the culture and training curriculum of networks such as the IAF. This is not an abstract concept with a home in academic sociology. Rather, it is something that community organizations talk about regularly and include as a key point of orientation for new members. It is the way they inoculate against ideological purists, on the one hand, and jaded insiders, on the other — those who would have them work exclusively within the channels of formal politics rather than deploying the power of organized people from the outside. The lesson the organizers impart is that we can afford neither to be ultra-righteous nor ultra-cynical.
There exist precedents for how other movements talk about this tension in their day-to-day practice. Michael Harrington, a founder of the Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA, likened the balance he thought radicals should strike to walking “a perilous tightrope.” He believed that radical vision must be married to “actual movements fighting not to transform the system, but to gain some little increment of dignity or even just a piece of bread.” In the early years of DSA and its predecessor organizations, Harrington’s call to serve as the “left wing of the possible” functioned as a slogan that oriented its members to the group’s strategic outlook — in a manner similar to how the “two worlds” framework has operated in many community organizing spaces. In both cases, the rhetoric served as a way of making the tension a central part of how organizations can describe their theory of change and organizing vision.
An issue deeper than politics
What, then, is the proper balance between idealism and pragmatism?
Chambers and his colleagues do not give too much guidance for how to balance the two worlds they describe, and this can be considered a shortcoming of their dichotomy. At the same time, the “world as it is” framework suggests that the strategic questions it raises are not ones that can be answered in the abstract; they must always be determined amid consideration of real-world conditions. Nor are they questions that can be answered once and then regarded as definitively resolved. Rather, they must be reckoned with again and again.
As much as this reckoning involves political considerations, it is ultimately a spiritual and existential matter. Chambers insists, “the tension I’m naming here isn’t a problem to be solved. It’s the human condition.” For realistic radicals, “taking responsibility for our destiny means deliberately embracing the fearsome, creative tension that comes when we choose to live resolutely in between the world as it is and the world as it should be, refusing to be condemned either to materialism or false idealism as a way of life.”
While various social movements may reach different conclusions about how to act in accordance with their most deeply held values while also operating within the flawed conditions of our present society, none can avoid wrestling with the contradiction. The idea of “two worlds” in tension — one a messy reality and one a precious ideal of what could be — provides an accessible means of discussing this critical dilemma, intuitively understandable even to those with no prior experience in politics. For this reason alone, it is a concept worth appreciating.