Alinsky History

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Saul Alinsky was born in Chicago in 1909 and died in California in 1972. His preferred self- description was “rebel” and his entire life was devoted to organizing a revolution in America to destroy a system he regarded as oppressive and unjust. By profession he was a “community organizer,” the same term employed by his most famous disciple, Barack Obama, to describe him.

Alinsky came of age in the 1930s and was drawn to the world of Chicago gangsters, whom he had encountered professionally as a sociologist. He sought out and became a social intimate of the Al Capone mob and of Capone enforcer Frank Nitti who took the reins when Capone was sent to prison for tax evasion in 1931. Later Alinsky said, “[Nitti] took me under his wing. I called him the Professor and I became his student.” While Alinsky was not oblivious to the fact that criminals were dangerous, like a good leftist he held “society” – and capitalist society in particular – responsible for creating them. In his view, criminality was not a character problem but a result of the social environment, in particular the system of private property and individual rights, which radicals like him were determined to change.

Alinsky’s career as an organizer spanned the period in which the Communist Party was the major political force on the American left. Although he was never formally a Communist and did not share their tactical views on how to organize a revolution, his attitude towards the Communists was fraternal, and he saw them as political allies. In the 1969 “Afterword” to his book Reveille for Radicals he explained his attitude in these words: “Communism itself is irrelevant. The issue is whether they are on our side….” Alinsky’s unwillingness to condemn Communists extended to the Soviet empire – a regime which murdered more leftists than all their political opponents put together. This failure to condemn communism (his biographer describes him as an “anti-anti communist”) contrasts dramatically with the extreme terms in which he was willing to condemn his own country as a system worth “burning.”4

Communists played a formative role in the creation of the CIO – the “progressive” coalition of industrial unions – led by John L. Lewis and then Walter Reuther. In the late 1940s, Reuther purged the Communists from the CIO. Reuther was a socialist but, unlike Alinsky, an anti-Communist and an American patriot. In Rules for Radicals, Alinsky, a deracinated Jew, refers to the ferreting out of Communists who were in practice Soviet agents as a “holocaust,” even though in the McCarthy era only a handful of Communists ever went to jail.

By his own account, Alinsky was too independent to join the Communist Party but instead became a forerunner of the left that emerged in the wake of the Communist fall. Like leftists who came of age after the Soviet collapse, Alinsky understood that there was something flawed in the Communist outlook. But, also like them, he never really examined what those flaws might be. In particular he never questioned the Marxist view of society and human nature, or its goal of a utopian future, and never examined its connection to the epic crimes that Marxists had committed. He never asked himself whether the vision of a society which would be socially equal was itself the source of the totalitarian state.

Instead, Alinsky identified the problem posed by Communism as inflexibility and “dogmatism” and proposed as a solution that radicals should be “political relativists,” that they should take an agnostic view of means and ends. For Alinsky, the revolutionary’s purpose is to undermine the system and then see what happens. The Alinsky radical has a single principle – to take power from the Haves and give it to the Have-nots. What this amounts to in practice is a political nihilism – a destructive assault on the established order in the name of the “people” (who, in the fashion common to dictators, are designated as such by the revolutionary elite). This is the classic revolutionary formula in which the goal is power for the political vanguard who get to feel good about themselves in the process.

Alinsky created several organizations, and inspired others, including his training institute for organizers, which he called the Industrial Areas Foundation. But his real influence was as the Lenin of the post-Communist left. Alinsky was the practical therorist for progressives who had supported the Communist cause to regroup after the fall of the Berlin Wall and mount a new assault on the capitalist system. It was Alinsky who wove the inchoate relativism of the post-Communist left into a coherent whole, and helped to form the coalition of communists, anarchists, liberals, Democrats, black racialists, and social justice activists who spear- headed the anti-globalization movement just before 9/11, and then created the anti-Iraq War movement, and finally positioned one of their own to enter the White House. As Barack Obama summarized these developments at the height of his campaign: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Infiltrating the institutions of American society and government – something the “counter-cultural” radicals of the 1960s were reluctant to do – was Alinsky’s modus operandi. While Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were confronting Lyndon Johnson’s Pentagon and creating riots at the Democratic convention, Alinsky’s organizers were insinuating themselves into Johnson’s War on Poverty program and directing federal funds into their own organizations and causes.

The sixties left had no connection to the labor movement. But Alinsky did. The most important radical labor organizer of the time, Cesar Chavez, who was the leader of the United Farmworkers Union, was trained by Alinsky, and worked for him for ten years. Alinsky also shaped the future of the civil rights movement after the death of Martin Luther King. When racial unrest erupted in Rochester, New York, Alinsky was called in by activists to pressure Eastman-Kodak to hire more blacks, a form of racial extortion that became a standard of the civil rights movement under the leadership of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

Alinsky also pioneered the alliance of radicals with the Democratic Party, which ended two decades of confrontation climaxing in the convention riot of 1968. Through Chavez, Alinsky had met Robert Kennedy who supported his muscling of Kodak executives. But the Kennedys were only one of the avenues through which Alinsky organizers now made their way into the inner circles of the Democratic Party.

In 1969, the year that publishers reissued Alinsky’s first book, Reveille for Radicals, a Wellesley undergraduate named Hillary Rodham submitted her 92-page senior thesis on Alinsky’s theories (she interviewed him personally for the project).6 In her conclusion Hillary compared Alinsky to Eugene Debs, Walt Whitman and Martin Luther King.

The title of Hillary’s thesis was “There Is Only the Fight: An Analysis of the Alinsky Model.” In this title she had singled out the single most important Alinsky contribution to the radical cause – his embrace of political nihilism. An SDS radical once wrote, “The issue is never the issue. The issue is always the revolution.” In other words the cause – whether inner city blacks or women – is never the real cause, but only an occasion to advance the real cause which is the accumulation of power to make the revolution. That was the all consuming focus of Alinsky and his radicals.

Guided by Alinsky principles, post-Communist radicals are not idealists but Machiavellians. Their focus is on means rather than ends, and therefore they are not bound by organizational orthodoxies in the way their admired Marxist forebears were. Within the framework of their revolutionary agenda, they are flexible and opportunistic and will say anything (and pretend to be anything) to get what they want, which is resources and power.

The following anecdote about Alinsky’s teachings as recounted by The New Republic’s Ryan Lizza nicely illustrates the focus of Alinsky radicalism: “When Alinsky would ask new students why they wanted to organize, they would invariably respond with selfless bromides about wanting to help others. Alinsky would then scream back at them that there was a one-word answer: ‘You want to organize for power!’

In Rules for Radicals, Alinsky wrote: “From the moment an organizer enters a community, he lives, dreams, eats, breathes, sleeps only one thing, and that is to build the mass power base of what he calls the army.”8 The issue is never the issue. The issue is always the revolution.

Unlike the Communists who identified their goal as a Soviet state – and thereby generated opposition to their schemes – Alinsky and his followers organize their power bases without naming the end game, without declaring a specific future they want to achieve – socialism, communism, a dictatorship of the proletariat, or anarchy. Without committing themselves to concrete principles or a specific future, they organize exclusively to build a power base which they can use to destroy the existing society and its economic system. By refusing to commit to principles or to identify their goal, they have been able to organize a coalition of all the elements of the left who were previously divided by disagreements over means and ends.

The demagogic standard of the revolution is “democracy” – a democracy which upends all social hierarchies, including those based on merit. This is why Alinsky built his initial power base among the underclass and the urban poor. The call to make the last ones first is a powerful religious imperative. But in politics it functions as a lever to upset every social structure and foundation. For Alinsky radicals, policies are not important in themselves; they are instrumental – means to expanding the political base.

To Alinsky radicals, “democracy” means getting those who are in, out. Their goal is to mobilize the poor and “oppressed” as a battering ram to bring down the system. Hillary concludes her thesis with these words: “Alinsky is regarded by many as the proponent of a dangerous socio/political philosophy. As such, he has been feared – just as Eugene Debs or Walt Whitman or Martin Luther King has been feared, because each embraced the most radical of political faiths – democracy.” But democracy as understood by the American founders is not “the most radical of all political faiths” or, if it is, they regarded it as dangerous enough to put checks and balances in its way to restrain it.

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