Who is Saul David Alinsky ?
(January 30, 1909 – June 12, 1972) was an American community organizer and writer.
He is generally considered to be the founder of modern community organizing, and has been compared to
Thomas Paine as being "one of the great American leaders of the socialist left."
He is often noted for his book Rules for Radicals.
In the course of nearly four decades of political organizing, Alinsky received much criticism,
but also gained praise from many public figures. His organizing skills were focused on
improving the living conditions of poor communities across North America. In the 1950s, he began
turning his attention to improving conditions of the African American ghettos, beginning with
Chicago's and later traveling to other ghettos in California, Michigan, New York City, and a
dozen other "trouble spots".
His ideas were later adapted by some U.S. college students and other young organizers in the late 1960s and
formed part of their strategies for organizing on campus and beyond.
Time magazine once wrote that "American democracy is being altered by Alinsky's ideas,"
and conservative author William F. Buckley said he was "very close to being an organizational genius."
After attending two years of graduate school he dropped out to accept work as a community organizer for the
state of Illinois as a criminologist. On a part-time basis, he also began working as an organizer with the
Congress of Industrial Organizations (C.I.O.). After a few years, by 1939, he became less active in the
labor movement and became more active in general community organizing, starting with the slums of Chicago.
His early efforts to "turn scattered, voiceless discontent into a united protest aroused the admiration of
Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, who said Alinsky's aims 'most faithfully reflect our ideals of brotherhood,
tolerance, charity and dignity of the individual.
As a result of his efforts and success at helping slum communities, he spent the next 10 years repeating
his organization work across the nation, "from Kansas City and Detroit to the barrios of Southern California."
By 1950 he turned his attention to the African American ghettos of Chicago, where his actions
would later earn him the hatred of Mayor Richard J. Daley, although Daley would later say that
"Alinsky loves Chicago the same as I do."
He traveled to California at the request of the San Francisco Bay Area Presbyterian Churches to
help organize the black ghetto in Oakland. Hearing of his plans, "the panic-stricken Oakland City
Council promptly introduced a resolution banning him from the city.
Community organizing and politics
In the 1930s, Alinsky organized the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago (made infamous by
Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle for the horrific working conditions in the Union Stock Yards). He went on to found the
Industrial Areas Foundation while organizing the Woodlawn neighborhood, which trained organizers and
assisted in the founding of community organizations around the country.
In Rules for Radicals (his final work, published in 1971 one year before his death), he addressed the
1960s generation of radicals, outlining his views on organizing for mass power. In the first chapter,
opening paragraph of the book Alinsky writes, "What follows is for those who want to change the world
from what it is to what they believe it should be. 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.
Alinsky did not join political organizations. When asked during an interview whether he ever considered becoming a
Communist party member, he replied:
"Not at any time. I've never joined any organization—not even the ones I've organized myself. I prize my own independence too much.
And philosophically, I could never accept any rigid dogma or ideology, whether it's Christianity or Marxism. One of the most
important things in life is what Judge Learned Hand described as 'that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you're right.'
If you don't have that, if you think you've got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire,
humorless and intellectually constipated. The greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by such religious
and political and racial fanatics, from the persecutions of the Inquisition on down to Communist purges and Nazi genocide."
Nor did he have much respect for mainstream political leaders who tried to interfere with growing black–white
unity during the difficult years of the Great Depression. In Alinsky's opinion, new voices and new values
were being heard in the U.S., and "people began citing John Donne's 'No man is an island,'" he said.
He observed that the hardship affecting all classes of the population was causing them to start "banding together
to improve their lives," and discovering how much in common they really had with their fellow man.
He stated during an interview a few of the causes for his active organizing in black communities:
"Negroes were being lynched regularly in the South as the first stirrings of black opposition began to be felt, and
many of the white civil rights organizers and labor agitators who had started to work with them were tarred and feathered,
castrated—or killed. Most Southern Democrat politicians were members of the
Ku Klux Klan and had no compunction about boasting of it."
Alinsky's tactics were often unorthodox. After organizing FIGHT (an acronym for Freedom, Independence,
God, Honor, Today) in Rochester, New York, Alinsky once threatened to stage a "fart in" to disrupt the
sensibilities of the city's establishment at a Rochester Philharmonic concert. FIGHT members were to consume large
quantities of baked beans after which, according to author Nicholas von Hoffman, "FIGHT's increasingly gaseous music-loving
members would hie themselves to the concert hall where they would sit expelling gaseous vapors with such noisy velocity
as to compete with the woodwinds." Satisfied with the reaction to his threat, Alinsky would later threaten a "piss in" at Chicago
O'Hare Airport. Alinsky planned to arrange for large numbers of well dressed African Americans to occupy the urinals
and toilets at O'Hare for as long as it took to bring the city to the bargaining table. According to Alinsky, the threat
alone was sufficient to produce results.
Alinsky described his plans in 1972 to begin to organize the white middle class across America, and the necessity of that
project. He believed that what President Richard Nixon and Vice-President Spiro Agnew called The Silent Majority" was
living in frustration and despair, worried about their future, and ripe for a turn to radical social change,
to become politically-active citizens. He feared the middle class could be driven to a right-wing viewpoint,
"making them ripe for the plucking by some guy on horseback promising a return to the vanished verities of yesterday.
" His stated motive: "I love this goddamn country, and we're going to take it back."
Alinsky's own words, from his 1946 "Reveille for Radicals", capture his perspective, his motivation, and his style of engagement:
A People’s Organization is a conflict group, [and] this must be openly and fully recognized. Its sole reason in coming into
being is to wage war against all evils which cause suffering and unhappiness. A People’s Organization is the banding together
of large numbers of men and women to fight for those rights which insure a decent way of life. . . .
A People’s Organization is dedicated to an eternal war. It is a war against poverty, misery, delinquency, disease,
injustice, hopelessness, despair, and unhappiness. They are basically the same issues for which nations have gone to war in
almost every generation. . . . War is not an intellectual debate, and in the war against social evils there are no rules of fair play. . . .
A People’s Organization lives in a world of hard reality. It lives in the midst of smashing forces, dashing struggles,
sweeping cross-currents, ripping passions, conflict, confusion, seeming chaos, the hot and the cold, the squalor and the
drama, which people prosaically refer to as life and students describe as 'society'.
The documentary The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky and His Legacy, states that "Alinsky championed new ways to organize
the poor and powerless that created a backyard revolution in cities across America." Alinsky formed the Industrial Areas Foundation
(IAF) in 1940, and Edward T. Chambers became its Executive Director after Alinsky died. Since the IAF's formation, hundreds
of professional community and labor organizers and thousands of community and labor leaders have attended its workshops.
Fred Ross, who worked for Alinsky, was the principal mentor for Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Other organizations following
in the tradition of the Congregation-based Community Organizing pioneered by IAF include PICO National Network, Gamaliel Foundation,
and Direct Action and Research Training Center (DART).Hillary Clinton's senior honors thesis on Saul Alinsky, written at
Wellesley College, noted that Alinsky's personal efforts were a large part of his method.
Several prominent American leaders have been influenced by Alinsky's teachings,
including Ed Chambers,Tom Gaudette, Ernesto Cortes, Michael Gecan, Wade Rathke,
and Patrick Crowley. Alinsky is often credited with laying the foundation for the grassroots political organizing that
dominated the 1960s.Jack Newfield writing in New York magazine included Alinsky among "the purest Avatars of the populist movement,"
along with Ralph Nader, Cesar Chavez, and Jesse Jackson. Biographer Sanford Horwitt has claimed that
U.S. President Barack Obama was influenced by Alinsky and followed in his footsteps as a Chicago-based community organizer.
Horwitt furthermore has asserted that Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign was influenced by Alinsky's teachings.
In 1969, he was awarded the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award.
Alinsky died of a sudden, massive heart attack in 1972, on a street corner in Carmel, California, at the age of 63.