The Live Profile:
Who The Hell Is Saul Alinsky?
Pierre Tristam | January 29, 2012
By Pierre Tristam
The majority of Americans were not alive when Saul Alinsky died in 1972, when he was 63 (and Barack Obama was 10). Fewer Americans than could fit in a minor league baseball stadium had heard of Alinsky when Newt Gingrich revived the name by dropping it, like a hot branding iron of all things evil in the Gingrich liturgy, in the former House speaker’s stump speeches as he campaigned for the GOP presidential nomination.
The alarmist name-dropping hasn’t stopped. It is reminiscent of one of the McCain-Palin smears of 2008, when the duo tried to make Obama’s vague friendship with Bill Ayres, the one-time Weatherman and subsequently much duller professor and education reformer, sound like a pact with one of Osama bin Laden’s lieutenants, with this difference: unlike Ayres, Alinski never had so much as a brush with violence, or even the sort of activities commonly associated with radicalism, though he called himself a radical. He was a community organizer. He spent 40 years helping slum and ghetto-dwellers get jobs, better homes and better schools. He helped Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans, the occasional Native American tribe and whoever else would call on his organizational skills, including several city governments, some of which paid for the help with federal dollars.
The Gingrich smear about Alinsky has been insulting on several levels, and also revealing of Gingrich’s tactics and character.
Three Gingrich Fallacies
First, Gingrich creates an Alinsky that never existed, but uses that fictional Alinsky as the most fearsome straw man in his anti-Obama arsenal. “We have had two cycles in my lifetime,” Gingrich said in November 2011, in phrases he would reuse in one form or another in speech after speech, “Ronald Reagan, and the Contract with America, both of which had the same policy: lower taxes, less regulation, more American energy, and have faith in the American job creator as distinct from the Saul Alinsky radicalism of higher taxes, bigger bureaucracy with more regulations.” The charge is not just a mis-reading of Alinsky, whatever book of his you read—Reveille for Radicals (1947) or Rules for Radicals (1971). It is a whole-cloth invention that has no relationship with the books or with Alinsky’s 40 years of work. Rather, it neatly sums up what Alinsky opposed or was indifferent to
Alinsky could care less about taxes. He doesn’t discuss them, except twice, in passing, in Rules for Radicals, and only to suggest they were too high. Alinsky reviled government bureaucracies, having spent his earliest years working in them, and deciding to become a community organizer outside those organizations precisely because he found them imprisoning and hurtful to those he wanted to help. And to the extent that he experienced government regulations through the Great Society, he despised those, too. “Today the anti-poverty program is emerging as a huge political pork barrel, a wielding of antipoverty funds as a form of political patronage,” Alinsky wrote—words that welfare critics and conservatives from Patrick Moynihan to William F. Buckley to William Kristol, and of course Newt Gingrich, would use repeatedly in one variation or another.
Saul Alinsky Talks to Studs Terkel
Second, Gingrich, who fancies himself the intellectual of the GOP bunch running for president—not a difficult claim in the presence of Bachmanns and Perrys and Cains and Santorums, though IQ for IQ, Romney likely has Gingrich licked—displays intellectual presumption by dropping a name he knows few people have heard of. He displays intellectual dishonesty by assuming, with unfortunate accuracy, that most people will take his fear-mongering at his word, bogus though it is. In that sense, Gingrich’s reading of the American public is at once cynical and dead on, though other politicians are not so venal in turning that cynicism into expediency. It’s that sort of cynicism Alinsky had in mind when he wrote of his purpose in Rules for Radicals: “The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.” That, of course, is what worries Gingrich: not so much the redistribution of wealth, but of power, which is at the heart of Alinsky’s version of community organizing. Alinsky is foremost a organizer for democracy. Pluralism describes him better than radicalism.
Third, Gingrich, who is the tea party’s favorite, is duplicitous in his smears of Alinsky considering that the tea parties gained prominence in the summer of 2009 primarily by using Alinski’s playbooks as theirs. “Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Republican, gives copies of Mr. Alinsky’s book Rules for Radicals to tea-party leaders,” the Wall Street Journal reported, and many of the disruptive “town hall” tactics tea party activists used in 2009, when they confronted members of Congress to denounce health care reform, were taken from Alinsky’s pages.
That’s not necessarily to Alinsky’s credit. But it raises another question: beyond the tactics and the organizing that won Alinsky the grudging admiration of such conservatives as Buckley, what more is there to Alinsky that would, all presumptions aside, warrant the Gingrich smears? Actually, not much by way of ideological or philosophical heft. On those counts, Alinsky was either indifferent or a light-weight.
The Saul Alinsky Nobody Knows
Alinsky was matter-of-fact, funny, direct, and far more of a pragmatist than a radical, a word he used more as clever branding than as a description of his work. He never stopped believing in the American Dream. He was a white, less introspective Malcolm X, an intellectual who knew how to read the rage of the poor and disenfranchised and how to channel it into action. “Today, when I go into a community,” he wrote, “I suffer and resent with the people there, and they feel this. It’s a big thing in my relationships.” Like Malcolm X, he had little patience for academics or activists who embraced systems at the expense of experience. His life and achievements were the result of living, not of contemplation. Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals were the two slim book-ends to a lifetime of pragmatism in trenches he dug. The question—why is Saul Alinsky?—is better answered pragmatically, as Alinsky would have answered it, than by ideological innuendos.
Saul Alinsky was born on Jan. 30, 1909, in Chicago. His parents were poor, Russian, Orthodox Jewish immigrants. They lived in a Chicago slum and kept a small store. His mother was 17 when she had him. His parents divorced when he was an early adolescent. He had no social conscience as a youth. He liked tennis. He loved aviation and thought he’d be an aeronautical engineer. His father moved out to Los Angeles, where Saul would visit. (Saul would eventually own a second home in Carmel, with his second wife, before they divorced. His first wife drowned trying to save two children.)
He enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1926 and majored in archeology. He took a lot of sociology courses, none of which impressed him. In his latter college terms he traveled with other students to the coalfields of southern Illinois to help coal miners who were rebelling against their union and United Mine Workers President John Lewis, from whom he would soon be learning a lot of his tactics as an organizer. “It’s ironic,” Alinsky remembered, “my plunge into social action was to fight John L. Lewis. Later he took a great liking to me.” Alinsky would write an “unauthorized” but no less venerating biography of Lewis in 1949.
Cozying Up to Capone
He graduated cum laude at the very beginning of the Great Depression, when no one was interested in paying for archeological expeditions. He had no job. He went hungry, scheming his way to free food samples and meals in cheap restaurants, and all along refusing his mother’s help. “I don’t know why this is—I’ll steal before I take charity,” he’d say. Alinsky figured out a clever way to eat at restaurants by paying a fraction of the meal’s cost—essentially, a swindle—called a meeting and shared his scheme with innumerable hungry people in the streets, who then took advantage of the scheme all over the city until restaurants automated the billing system in such a way that Alinsky’s system was outwitted.
Just then he landed a fellowship at the University of Chicago’s Social Science department, studying criminology. Here’s where Alinsky’s chutzpah shone bright: “My assignment as a graduate student was to get insight into crime,” he said. He went on:
I figured the way to do this was to get inside. So I went over to the hotel which everybody knew was the headquarters of the Capone gang. I found one of the characters whose picture I’d seen in the papers and said to him, “I’m Saul Alinsky and I’m studying criminology at the University of Chicago. Do you mind if I hang around with you?” He looked at me and said, ‘Get lost, punk.’ The same thing happened several times.
Then one day I was sitting alone in a restaurant. At the next table was one of Capone’s top gunmen—I won’t mention his name because he may be a big Rotarian now. He had six or seven pals around him and he was saying, ,”Hey, you guys, did I ever tell you about the time I picked up that redhead in…” A moan went up around the table. “My god, do we have to hear that one again?”
So I leaned over and plucked his sleeve and said, “Mister, I’d love to hear that story.” “You would, kid?” he said. “Pull up a chair.” That’s the way it went. He had an audience for his stories. He introduced me to Frank Nitti and other people and from then on I was okay with the Capone gang. They knew exactly what I was doing. I was their total student body—they’d kid each other and say, “Hey, Professor, you take over the class.” I think it had a certain appeal to their egos.
Alinsky learned two things from the Capone gang: personal relationships and working from the inside were essential to learning and achieving anything effectively, though personal relationships don’t substitute for what he calls power relationships. He also learned to move on once he’d learned everything he could from an experience. He lost interest in the Capone gang when he got a job with the Illinois Division of Criminology. His bosses wanted him to stay involved in Capone research. Alinsky had other ideas. “I was more interested in the young kids, the ‘Forty-two’ gang, which was held responsible at that time for 80 percent of the auto thefts in Chicago.” The gang was more difficult to infiltrate, but he managed it anyway.
Prisoner of Criminology at the Joliet State Prison
He then spent three years working as a criminologist at the state prison in Joliet, a year too long, he discovered: “I’ve never encountered such a mass of morons as in the field of criminology,” a closed set that operated by rote on old assumptions that never made a difference and avoided all controversies even when they knew better. All experts in the field, Alinsky concluded, “agreed that the major causes of crime were poor housing, discrimination, economic insecurity, unemployment, and disease. So what did we do? We went in for supervised recreation, camping programs, something mysterious called ‘character building.’ We tackled everything but the actual issues, because the issues were controversial. Sometimes I’d say, ‘Come on, let’s stop this crap, we know what the causes of crime are.’ Then they’d say, ‘Don’t be a radical.’ After a while I saw that the only difference between being in a professional field and in business was the difference between a ten-buck whore and a hundred-dollar call girl.”
That was in the late 1930s, when Hitler and Mussolini were rising to power, the Spanish Civil War was raging and the New Deal was rolling at home. “With so much happening,” Alinsky said, “I couldn’t keep my mind on a kid sitting across the desk from me who had stolen an automobile or burglarized a store.” He raised money for sharecroppers in the South or to help poor urban renters from being evicted. He organized poker parties to raise money for the Newspaper Guild and the International Brigade, making people “feel noble while they’re playing poker.” He met many communists and admitted to having sympathies for the Soviet Union at the time, but only because “it was the one country that seemed to be taking a strong position against Hitler.” His hatred of fascism was near pathological. “My one regret about the Bomb—to this day—is that it wasn’t dropped on berlin instead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he would say.
But he never joined the Communist Party—or any party or organization, including those he organized himself. He despised systems. He reviled doctrine and the dogmatic, humorless people who ran them (“I detest and fear dogma,” he wrote in Rules for Radicals), and saw little difference between the hermetic assumptions of the University of Chicago’s sociology department, the bureaucratic self-preservation of the state’s criminology establishment or the theoretic certainties of the Communist Party: to Alinsky, they were all complicit in babble from self-inflated bubbles that did little to improve the lives of the poor or relieve the stranglehold bankers, landlords and machine politicians held on what, then more than now, were the 99 percent.
No to $200,000, Yes to Community Organizing
In 1938, he was offered an $8,000 job as head of probation and parole in Philadelphia, plus a visiting lectureship at the University of Pennsylvania for $2,400, plus a weekly column in the Philadelphia Ledger “on how to keep your kiddies out of trouble,” for an annual total of $12,000—the equivalent of nearly $200,000 in 2012 dollars. It was an enormous temptation. He reasoned with himself that he could play the game, “make speeches and write papers full of double-talk and put the real message between the lines or in footnotes,” make a fortune and then make things happen. All along, he knew it was self-delusion. He didn’t want to become one of those “hungry young agitators [who] were now fat-bellied and fat-headed.” He turned down the jobs and many others after that. “Most people spend their lives working their way up,” he said. “But I seem to have been working my way down. Still, who’s to say, which is really down?” He decided he’d do the organizing himself:
I knew it would be tough. You have to remember that concepts which are accepted today were considered wildly radical then—for instance, the idea that the local people have the intelligence and the ingenuity to work out their own problems. And it was heresy to tell them, “The hell with charity—the only thing you get is what you’re strong enough to get, and so you’d better organize.”
Yet his first incursion into Chicago’s “Back of the Yards,” what he called Upton Sinclair’s “Jungle”—“this was not the slum across the tracks. This was the slum across the tracks from across the tracks”—was not to fight crime, but to fight fascism, which he called “the real crime” of the slums. These were the days when fascist sympathizers like Father Charles Coughlin and William Pelley, the Christian Right of the time, had large populist followings. Alinsky’s approach was at heart a simple one. Like Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, who believed that the heart of the law was experience, not theory, Alinsky believed that the heart of justice was experience, not theory or idealism. It meant nothing for the Catholic church to tell its members not to join the unions. They would join anyway, because the church had no concept of its flock’s realities, where abstract moralism meant nothing. The experience of the slums was self-destructive hate fueled on resentment, anger and helplessness. Alinsky’s insight was to use that resentment and anger as fuel for change by way of grass-roots organizing. That’s what he did in Chicago’s Back of the Yards, where he managed to create a coalition of Catholic churches, small businesses and slum-dwellers. They demanded better jobs, better housing conditions, better schools. They got the attention of the city’s Democratic machine, and their demands were met.
Man vs. Slum
Alinsky described how he got it done: “What happens when we come in? We say, ‘Look, you don’t have to take this; there is something you can do about it. You can get jobs, you can break these segregated patterns. But you have to have power to do it, and you’ll only get it through organization. Because power just goes to two poles—to those who’ve got money, and those who’ve got people. You haven’t got money, so your own fellowmen are your only source of strength. Now the minute you can do something about it you’ve got a problem. Should I handle it this way or that way? You’re active, and all of a sudden you stand up.’ That’s what happened in Back of the Yards.” The tactic has been summed up as “rubbing raw the sources of discontent in a community.”
Alinsky’s work there was so successful that it caught the attention of Marshall Field, the Protestant millionaire, who would become to Alinsky what billionaire Sheldon Adelson is to Newt Gingrich: a source of money. Field’s donations were very modest, however. An initial subsidy of $15,000 allowed Alinsky to establish the Industrial Areas Foundation, which then allowed him to go to work in various parts of the country, agitating for change. He was frequently detained by police, though not quite arrested. As he described it in one particular Midwestern town, a police captain thought Alinsky’s mere presence was a threat, so he’d have him followed, picked up, tossed in jail, but never booked. That’s where Alinsky, well before Martin Luther King’s Birmingham jail letter, wrote Reveille for Radicals, in 1946. “Sometimes the jailers would tell me to get out when I was in the middle of a chapter,” Alinsky recalls. “I’d tell them, ‘I don’t want to go now; I’ve got a couple of hours’ more work to do.’ This really confused them. But after a while they got used to it.” He even became friendly with the police captain, who stopped having him picked up. “If he hadn’t done that, I’m sure I’d have written another book.”
His fame grew. Cities used federal dollars to hire him and put his organizational skills to work. He worked with Canadian Indians, Mexican-Americans, working-class whites, ghetto blacks. He had successes in some cities, such as Rochester, where his organization managed to compel Eastman Kodak, which controlled Rochester, not only to open its ranks to black workers but to let blacks pick some of the jobs.
Johnson’s Great Society as Political Pornography
Things didn’t go as well in Syracuse. Syracuse University used $10,000 from its federally funded Community Action Training Center to bring in Alinsky in 1965 and train local organizers in a campaign against poverty. He built a corps of 25 organizers, who then did what Alinsky’s methods called for: they held sit-ins, marches and demonstrations, and they registered 2,000 voters, most of whom signed up as Democrats. Syracuse was controlled by Republicans. Alinsky’s contract was not renewed. “When low-income people are organized,” an observer close to the situation told the New York Times back then, on the promise of anonymity, “and they do things regarded as controversial, it hurts the university, which is embarked on a big fund-raising program.”
The experience soured Alinsky against Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, which he likened to “political pornography.” He predicted that the Great Society would “become the worst political blunder and boomerang of the present administration,” because its half-measures were no more convincing than foreign-aid projects that parachuted in and out of other nations, and because, like his old colleagues in Illinois’ state bureaucracy, the fear of controversy overrode the need to solve problems.
Alinsky was no kinder to Richard Nixon. In July 1969, when Americans walked on the Moon for the first time, the New York Times asked several prominent people to share their thoughts about the event, which took place on Nixon’s early watch. “It represents a major opportunity for the Administration to go to the moon. I think the President ought to be among those going,” Alinsky wrote. “Judging from the present record of the Administration, I don’t know if it would make any difference if he goes to the moon or stays in Washington. If he goes, it might be a great service to the American people.” This was happening at the height of the Vietnam war, when hundreds of American soldiers were being killed every week. He added: “I wish to Christ they’d take the South Vietnamese Government and stick them in the capsule. Send them to the moon one way. That’s the only way to get rid of them since they won’t take dough and go to Switzerland. We’ll have to fight a war of independence to free ourselves from the Vietnamese.”
His dislike of Democrats and Republicans was of a piece with what little philosophy could be found in Rules for Radicals: “To diminish the danger that ideology will deteriorate into dogma,” he wrote, “and to protect the free, open, questing and creative mind of man, as well as to allow for change, no ideology should be more specific than that of America’s founding fathers: ‘For the general welfare.’”
Alinski had his admirers and his haters. Writing in the liberal journal Dissent in 1967, New York University sociologist Frank Riessman charged that Alinsky’s works from Back of the Yards to Syracuse had come under “considerable question about their effectiveness and achievements at various levels.” He also cited what he considered to be failures in an Alsinsky project in Chelsea (in Manhattan) back in the 1940s, while little to nothing was left of some 44 community organizations Alinsky had built over the years. “This reminds one of the hit and run tactics of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] in the South,” Riessman wrote, “and it doesn’t lead to greater local activity or self-confidence, but rather to passivity, demoralization and cynicism.” Alinsky called Riessman’s article “an extraordinary document of misinformation, fiction and political naiveté.” Riessman had never contacted Alinsky or his staff directors or been to Alinsky projects before writing the piece.
Rules for Radicals
The last years of Alinsky’s life coincided with the crack-up of the 1960s’ social movements he had helped foment. He was disheartened by the cynicism of the younger generation, and the gridlock of the political system. “The young,” he wrote, “are inundated with a barrage of information and facts so overwhelming that the world has come to seem an utter bedlam, which has them spinning in a frenzy, looking for what man has always looked for from the beginning of time, a way of life that has some meaning or sense.” Rules for Radicals was an attempt to revive that sense of purpose. It would prove too late, though it was no coincidence that the tea party generation picked up the call again in 2009: it was the very same generation Alinsky had written for, merely older, grayer, but with a renewed if somewhat reversed sense of resentment: the tea partiers were out to protect the wealth and benefits they’d accumulated, and what they resented most was the notion that any of it should be redistributed. They weren’t disenfranchised. They were digging in against those wanting a piece of their—for instance—Medicare pie. Alinsky would have felt in familiar territory. He would not have sided with his contemporary tea partiers.He never shook the doubt of the skeptic, even with his own accomplishments. He believed in what Judge Learned Hand called “that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you are right.” In Alinsky’s words: “I’ve never been sure I’m right but I’m sure nobody else has this thing called truth.” He elaborated: “I hate dogma. People who believe they owned the truth have been responsible for the most terrible things that have happened in our world, whether they were Communist purges or the Spanish Inquisition or the Salem witch hunts. The Communists I knew were doctrinaire and rigid. I had learned that you had to look at life in a flexible, fluid way. I also knew that in this kooked up irrational world, you really have to have a sense of humor to survive. And doctrinaire people have no humor.”
Alinsky would most likely not have paid much attention to a Gingrich making so much of a community organizer’s limited impact on an old pluralistic ideal that neither Democrats nor Republicans could fault: more political and social participation for those usually denied either. In light of Alinsky’s truer, more banal history, Gingrich’s attacks sound less like those a presidential candidate and more like something Dr. Doofenshmirtz might cook up. We could explain who Doofenshmirtz is. But as tactical name-dropping goes, surely Gingrich knows the reference. Doofenshmirtz wrote the Gingrich rules.
Pierre Tristam is the editor of FlaglerLive. Reach him here.