Who in Hell is Saul Alinsky?

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

  I’d actually halfway finished a blog on a different subject today, when I was spun in a different  direction. Thursday night I had done something I never do and watched the Republican Debate in Florida. It was frighteningly enlightening to say the least, but what stood out for me was Newt commenting that our President was a disciple of Saul Alinsky. I thought then “How many people today know who Saul Alinsky was and what he represented?” On last nights Bill Maher’s show, Bill asked the question “Who was Saul Alinsky?” as part of his New Rules segment. This morning in HuffPost, Frank Mankiewicz addressed a variant of the same question: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frank-mankiewicz/america-meet-saul-alinsky_b_1238953.html

The idea of following heroes to me has always seemed silly, yet there are people whose lives and work I deeply admire and to some sense try to emulate. My first was Clarence Darrow and it is therefore no coincidence that I am a denizen of this blog. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarence_Darrow .  Clarence Darrow’s picture is used above because it is in the public realm, while mysteriously Saul Alinsky’s isn’t. Obviously, Saul Alinsky is another person whose life I admire. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saul_Alinsky  Alinsky was a radical in his methods, but one who eschewed the doctrinaire self assurance of an ideologue. When asked if he ever considered joining the Communist Party he famously 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.”

His was a belief that has resonated with me since those radical days in the 60’s, with the Movement, when I was surrounded by and courted by various ideologies, mostly Marxist whose rigidity of thought and party line belief, actually disgusted me. Yet there was Alinsky, the man who literally wrote the book on community organizing, who felt similarly towards ideological rigidity. He was truly an America Patriot, whose guiding idea was to assist downtrodden people to gain power over their lives and give them a chance to decide their fates. Alinsky was a man who achieved great success, if you define success as achieving ones goals. The disdain and demonization again being heaped upon him today comes from the very real threat his methodology has towards the 1% elite and curiously that aim of his was the reinstatement of “The American Dream” of freedom, equality and social justice.

The current conservative obsession with Alinsky comes from the fact that Barack Obama was supposedly an Alinsky disciple because of his community organizing work in Chicago:

“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.

Adding to their “Alinsky disdain” is that:

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.”

Thus we see two villains of the extreme Right Wing of the Republican Party, being linked somewhat to Alinsky, makes bringing him back into play as a “bogeyman” fitting. In truth one of the things that swayed me to support Obama in the first place were his ties to Alinsky, via his community organizing work in Chicago. For these extremists, however, the fact that Alinsky died when Obama was ten years old, is irrelevant. The President and Hilary, to their minds, have been polluted by Alinsky’s teachings. Why one would ask are the teachings of someone who was not a Marxist, not specifically anti-capitalist and believed that people should have the freedom to make up their own minds politically, be so damned threatening to the Extreme Right?

My take on the “why” is twofold. The first is that Alinsky believed in “empowerment” of those like Blacks, Stockyard workers and the poor in general. His methods, though non-violent, were disruptive of the status quo. He became so effective in organizing protests that sometimes just the threat of a protest led to negotiation with “the powers that were”. Take a look at this particular tactic and smile:

“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.”[9] 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.[9]

The elite of his time were infuriated that he had the temerity to disrupt their privileged existence. They insisted that by his not working through the “system” he was destroying our ordered way of life. The fact for instance that Blacks in the South had no system to work through, was irrelevant to those conservative forces reaping the “systems” benefits.

“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.[4] 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.”[4]

The second reason Alinsky is anathetimized is because his tactics work so damn well that people actually gain empowerment from them. This works in tandem with the fact that it is non-ideological, so it works to blur divisions between class, race and religion. The American Elite has always made its’ mark by sowing division among the 99%. This is in fact the entire operating structure that has kept the power structure in place. It to me it is little coincidence that the real opposition to MLK  outside the South, came at a point when his organizational effort went beyond Black Civil Rights and began to display opposition to poverty and the Viet Nam War. In the South post-bellum, the average White, while still suffering under the economic oppression of the South’s Elite, under a deeply unfair economic system, nevertheless could be comforted in their poverty by the fact that their status was higher than Blacks.

What is too madly ironic to be funny is that we see today the Ultra Conservatives utilizing Alinsky’s techniques to further their ends:

“Adam Brandon, a spokesman for the conservative non-profit organization FreedomWorks, which is one of several groups involved in organizing Tea Party protests, says the group gives Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals to its top leadership members. A shortened guide called Rules for Patriots is distributed to its entire network. In a January 2012 story that appeared in The Wall Street Journal, citing the organization’s tactic of sending activists to town-hall meetings, Brandon explained, “his tactics when it comes to grass-roots organizing are incredibly effective.” Former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey also gives copies of Alinsky’s book Rules for Radicals to Tea Party leaders.[19]

Below you will find a link to an illuminating debate between Alinsky and William F. Buckley. There are only five minutes video to be seen of this hour long “Firing Line” episode, but it is highly instructive. From this link you can also obtain a PDF link to a transcript of the entire debate. In both the Buckley salvos and the Alinsky responses you can see the essece of the men. Buckley, limited in tangible argument turning again and again to his huge vocabulary to throw up the smokescreen that he is actually making telling points. Alinsky, surprisingly (for political debate), honestly exposing himself as a human being, while demolishing Buckley’s false charges that would make Alinsky a threat to American Democracy.  http://hoohila.stanford.edu/firingline/programView2.php?programID=99

Looking at the Occupy Wall Street Movement I have no proof, but little doubt, that its organizers have been highly influenced by Saul Alinsky. In my opinion we all need to brush up on the Alinsky methodology today as our only way out of the dawning of an age of Corporatist Fuedalism. Voting can only be used to stave off the potential disasters that await the 99%, if the direction of this country doesn’t change. So in answer to my posed question: “Who in Hell is Saul Alinsky”, he is one of the great minds of the Twentieth Century, when it comes to finding non-violent means of developing a more humane society. I believe that putting his concepts into use by those who truly love this country can finally bring about the changes that will save America from becoming just another Third World Nation under the rule of a monied elite.

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger.

54 thoughts on “Who in Hell is Saul Alinsky?”

  1. I hereby declare open a contest to name the new Mt. Rushmore with an appropriate title.
    I’ll break the ice with mine: “T…. of the Nation”. And if you believe it is Throes, then you didn’t count right.
    Candidate contest can be judged by Mike S. If he wants tha job.

  2. “They were going to lead us, as good shepherds, to the slaughter, but first milking us as long as we were profitable.”


    I agree with all of your comment. That line above brought to mind some forgotten information that I learned 1992 when the book below was published, but had slipped out of consciousness for the ensuing years until I read the book again last year. The book is: “Gunfighter Nation: the myth of the frontier in twentieth-century America” by Richard Slotkin. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Slotkin

    In my second reading I was drawn to Slotkin’s analysis of Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive Movement he led. I had always viewed TR as a somewhat heroic President, who fought battles against Corporate power. Slotkin’s analysis, illustrated from TR’s own writings shows him in a far different light. TR was an Elitist who believed the upper classes were the most fit to lead the rabble. He was an internationalist who believed imperial power should be used to bring the advanced culture of the Northern European’s to the backward peoples of the world. He was a racist who felt Northern Europeans (Teutonics) were superior to all other humans and he didn’t think much of Jews either. TR’s own writings were quoted to illustrate these beliefs.

    Today the term Progressive assumes a different meaning, but its ancestry is definitely questionable. Your quote above sums up what TR and his group believed, but to them their motives were purely beneficent. I would think you would like that book and Slotkin’s other works on America’s foundational mythology.

    1. Thanks and more later.
      But just for now re TR. I have been appalled at the number of my icons who have shown to have clay feet, even FDR and Wilson. We perhaps need a new Mt Rushmore; or a parade of statues in Saddam style.

      But it’s all related to education, even the handicapped can learn and grow in cooperation and spirituality. That was shown here by a wonderful musical, in their own version, by a group of young mentally retarded. It was given many times all over to standing ovations, and mutual happiness, even for the neutrals.

  3. Why we are dominated???

    One of our basic problems is based on human nature. We have difficulty in linking up with others: be it family, relatives, neighbors, community, etc. At times we are so weak we don’t even empathize with ourselves. Whole nations could not be created until late 19th century due to this problem. (Italy, Germany, and today Africa). A national sense was/is lacking.
    I want go into the process of how this sense was created by the one percent, as it is only one of their many sins.

    Your horizon could be your housewalls (a muslim woman), your neighborhood (gangs), your village, or certainly only as far as the market town. (In NC the roads in the forties were so bad the red clay was impassible in rainy weather, putting the market out of reach.)

    In our American constant inward migration, we didn’t establish more that economically consistent local societies, although cultural norms developed.

    So what’s the point?

    We did not organize. We did not do other than follow the democratic ideal of electing representatives.

    But you can be convinced, as I am, that the ONE PERCENT did organize all over this nation. Yes, there was strivings, competition, turf-building both economically and within political areas. But overall, there was one consensus. They were going to lead us, as good shepherds, to the slaughter, but first milking us as long as we were profitable.

    All the whiile waving the promises of the Constitution and the flag, using us as the universal soldiers to fight their wars of conquest and economic hegemony and profit.

    Lead by a lead goose, or bellweather animal, and followed by (as I saw in Bali) a bare-legged elderly man waving a long feather-topped bamboo cane over our heads to keep us on to the “right” path (our teachers, etc).

    There is an ancient custom (agape) practiced at the end of Christian liturgies where one clasps the neighbors around you to your breast, one on one. So do the muslims also at the end of their ceremonies- It is of course a test of your acceptance of your joint humanity and humility; and a reinforcement of your bonds.

    Until we can build on this, which was what Saul Alinsky did in a secular way, we are and will be powerless.

    Power truly comes from within us. And that’s my Monday secular sermon in homage to Saul and us all.

  4. I hope cross-posting of other person’s posts is permitted here. Here goes:

    Texxtyn (from Alternet)

    One of the things I find most offensive about the way the US serves the International elite is the privatization of the oil industry. Unlike Norway whose citizens enjoy a nationalized oil industry to strengthen the quality of life for all, Americans are slaves to “our” oil industry.

    Americans have been forced to pay for these wars in the middle east with everything we have..past , present, and future. Now that these oil fields have been captured, they belong to , not Americans, but rather Shell, Exxon, Wall Street and the International elite. These very wars themselves, also privatized for-profit affairs. Mostly it is the same International elite taking the spoils of war for themselves that have arranged to be paid enormous sums to secure them by Americans not benefiting from any of these spoils what so ever.

    I don’t believe wars are good or acceptable things and think these wars have been a dark and shameful time for the American people, but if we are going to be forced into these wars and forced to pay for them with blood and treasure, we should be sharing in the wealth that these wars are bringing about. It’s insane for us to do otherwise and insane for those getting rich beyond imagination, that are now actually going so far as decrying that they are the victims of class war, to even expect us to accept any of this. We are the biggest chumps in the history of the planet. We are being exploited by the one percent and the one percent captured government. We must end this tyranny and theft of our country from our children. WE MUST!

  5. Rich,

    I totally get your points 1 and 2, but knew them going into writing my piece. They are in fact extensively included in the links I provided. What I always loved about Alinsky was that he was ever willing to compromise his ideals, but was always willing to and expecting to compromise. You must remember that his ideals weren’t tied to any political agenda, except in trying to give power to the people without it.

  6. Mike S:

    Thanks for the refresher on Alinski. His commitment to the downtrodden was manifest and his acknowledgement of the value of self-doubt should be required a course in all schools.

  7. Bringing up Alinsky is kind of odd for a pol these days. He’s no longer taught in some courses where his books would have been read a generation ago. .His name has never been well known to the general public. It’s like bringing up Keynes or the Vienna school of economics, who occasionally have turned up in the pundit side of the GOP food fight. I suspect his name is used partly because “it sounds Jewish”. Even in relatively liberal circles in the South anti-semitism (as well as old fashioned anti-papist sentiments–freely given to someone like me with a WASPY surname but a huge number of Catholic relatives) are common.

    Mike–you miss 2 important points about Alinsky:

    (1) He talked about the grassroots, outsider approaches, but always had “an inside game”. His great benefactor was the Archdiocese of Chicago, which was quite liberal but had a lot of conservative rank and file clergy. He had to engage the latter as well as the former to make things work in neighborhoods. He also cultivated countless relationships throughout the establishment and knew how insiders operated.

    (2) Gingrich and the teabggers have used many classic Alisnky-esque techniques to advance their causes. This would be the simplest retort one could make and it says something about how cowed Dems and libs are that they don’t simply do this.It also speaks to the ignorance and/or timidity of the media which should have a few people knowledgable enough to do this as well.

  8. Swarthmore Mom,

    A short apology: before yesterday I’d never heard the name Saul Alinsky; and didn’t even stir to Google or Wiki Hillary. Shame, shame.

    Otherwise, great posts here. Of course, one would always say that when hearing one’s opinions confirmed by learned folks, and besides get some new stuff to add to your little pile.

    Not to be self-demeaning, just comparing myself with LearnedHand*s “gnawing doubt”.

Comments are closed.