Be afraid! Alinsky’s gonna getcha if you don’t watch out!
The American political right has done its best for decades to turn the name “Saul Alinsky” into a potent unifying symbol of evil leftie radical theory and practice, and oh did you know he was one of them Jews? And to be clear, he was and remains a great influence on some of the best-known political organizers of the 20th and 21st centuries.
But before he was a code-word and a dog-whistle, he was a man who did a great many things, and wrote about them with style, clarity and wit.
We here at Angry Black Lady Chronicles are conducting a book chat on Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. (Links to purchase or download the book are included at that post, and a reader provided a link to a .pdf of the text.) Reminder: we will begin this weekend with the preface as the topic of our first discussion.
So before we begin, I want to give our readers an overview of his life and work, and links where you can learn more about him and the movements for change he led and/or inspired.
The Life of Saul Alinsky
Saul Alinsky was born in Chicago in 1909 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, and attended the University of Chicago, where he majored in archeology. He went on to become an organizer with the CIO, then established the Industrial Areas Foundation in 1940. In 1946 he distilled much of his theory and practice of organizing into the book Reveille for Radicals.
In the 1950s, Alinsky began to focus on the African-American communities of Chicago, which earned him the wrath of Mayor Daley, and when he went west to do similar work in Oakland, a resolution to ban him from the city was introduced by the panicked city council.
At the end of his life, he rightly recognized that the white middle class, which Richard Nixon claimed was a Silent Majority who backed his conservative political philosophy, was buffeted by the pace of social change and confused, but could be organized as well. It was in this spirit, and in response to the young generation of radical activists who emerged on college campuses in the 1960s, but whose style and tactics repelled middle America, that Alinsky wrote Rules for Radicals. Many who look back at that time in history bemoan the fact that the Democratic Party largely ceded rural areas and the suburbs to the GOP and let vast swaths of the country turn rightward while hunkering down into metropolitan areas and the coasts.
The Story of Self is central to an organizer. How one presents and frames the story of one’s life is key to establishing rapport and making connections with the people one hopes to influence. So the best way to know Saul Alinsky is to let him tell his own story.
Shortly before his death in 1972, Alinsky was profiled and interviewed by Playboy Magazine. That article and interview makes for the best way to get insight into Alinsky. It has been preserved on the web as a series of posts here and is highly recommended reading.
At the IAF, Alinsky worked with Fred Ross, who went on to mentor Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to develop the United Farm Workers. Ed Chambers took over the IAF after Alinsky’s death and has continued its work in social justice and training new organizers. They have trained thousands of organizers, many of whom have gone on to form organizations of their own.
One group that evolved from the IAF is the Gamaliel Foundation, a grassroots network of non-partisan, faith-based organizations that “organizes to empower ordinary people to effectively participate in the political, environmental, social and economic decisions affecting their lives.”
2008 — The Alinsky Primary
While most of us have heard the name Alinsky closely associated with that of President Barack Obama, there was actually another Democratic candidate whose association with Alinsky was far more direct — Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Clinton’s senior thesis at Wellesley was entitled “‘There Is Only the Fight…’: An Analysis of the Alinsky Model.” And as part of her research for the thesis Hillary, who met Alinsky as a teen through a youth pastor in her church, met repeatedly with Saul Alinsky himself. In fact, Alinsky invited Hillary Rodham to attend his training program for organizers, but she declined the offer and enrolled in law school instead.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, was only 12 years old when Alinsky died and never met him. Obama worked with the Gamaliel Foundation while with the Developing Communities Project of Chicago. DCP hired Obama after he graduated from Columbia, and he became its first executive director when it incorporated. And Obama contributed a chapter to the 1990 book After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois.
A 2007 article from Shelterforce Magazine of the National Housing Institute about Obama’s Alinsky connection cited the following quote from an earlier profile that is revealing of Obama’s political philosophy.
“What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer,” he told reporter Hank De Zutter in a 1995 article in the Chicago Reader, “as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them? As an elected public official, for instance, I could bring church and community leaders together easier than I could as a community organizer or lawyer. We would come together to form concrete economic development strategies, take advantage of existing laws and structures, and create bridges and bonds within all sectors of the community. We must form grassroots structures that would hold me and other elected officials more accountable for their actions.”
This 2007 NPR interview with Alinsky biographer Sanford Horwitt (Let Them Call Me ‘Rebel’) was motivated by the Alinsky connection in both Obama’s and Clinton’s life stories. In other words, though some of Clinton’s supporters in the primaries were quick to distinguish her from Obama by suggesting that his “radical associations” would make him unelectable in the general election, whichever of them won the nomination would have had the Alinsky label attached to him/her by the Republican media machine. And in the end, their efforts to paint Obama as a radical with a secret agenda failed to connect with enough Americans to prevent his election.
So yes, there are a great many people who are afraid of Saul Alinsky — what he did, what he wrote, and how his influence continues to the present day. And that may the greatest measure of his accomplishments.