Monday, January 30, 2012

Is Saul Alinsky a Bogeyman?

In his jubilant victory speech after winning the primary in South Carolina on January 21, Newt Gingrich made three references to Saul Alinsky. Some who heard Gingrich’s speech no doubt knew who Alinsky was, but perhaps many people wondered, “Who is Saul Alinsky and why is Gingrich mentioning him?”
Saul Alinsky (1909-1972)
Alinsky was born 103 years ago today, on January 30, 1909. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants living in Chicago, he grew up in the midst of poverty. The suffering and injustice he witnessed prompted him into social activism, and he became one of the original pioneers of grassroots organizing.
Alinsky died forty years ago this summer, in June 1972, but his influence continues—even among people who have not known his name, at least until some heard Gingrich resurrect it. Two days after his victory speech in South Carolina, published an article titled “Saul Alinsky Rides Again as Gingrich Makes Him 2012 Bogeyman.”
Alinsky’s best known book is Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (1971). In the first chapter’s opening paragraph, he 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 goes on to amplify his “radical” vision: “to realize the democratic dream of equality, justice, peace, cooperation, equal and full opportunities for education, full and useful employment . . .” Why in the world is Gingrich against goals such as those?
In her speech at the Democratic National Convention in August 2008, Michelle Obama told her impressions of Barack before they were married. She said, “Barack . . . spoke words that have stayed with me ever since. He talked about ‘The world as it is’ and ‘The world as it should be.’ And he said that all too often, we accept the distance between the two, and settle for the world as it is—even when it doesn’t reflect our values and aspirations.”
Political opponents soon pounced on those words, linked them to Alinsky, and labeled Obama as dangerous—a view that Gingrich apparently holds still. For some of us, though, they seem to be consistent with the prayer, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
It is quite noteworthy that Alinsky was the recipient of the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award in 1969, the sixth year it was given. That prize is awarded annually in commemoration of the 1963 encyclical letter “Pacem in Terris” (Peace on Earth) of Pope John XXIII. It is given “to honor a person for their achievements in peace and justice, not only in their country but in the world.”
The Pacem in Terris award was bestowed upon Alinsky four years after it was given to Martin Luther King Jr. and before it was given to Dorothy Day (1972), Mother Teresa (1976), and Archbishop Tutu (1987).
That’s not an award that you would expect to be given to a bogeyman.


  1. The first comments received on this posting was from my Thinking Friend in Wisconsin. He wrote:

    thanks Leroy
    You take on the big ones
    I have worked with Alinsky's ideas all my life.
    the faith based organizing movement is based a lot on his ideas of organizing community.
    the wing nuts on the right who talk about him do not know him
    thanks for bringing him in on his birthday.
    Happy Birthday Saul."

  2. Sue Wright, a local Thinking Friend, sent an e-mail with the following comments, which I post here with her permission:

    "When I was getting my MSW at MU in 1966, Saul Alinsky was considered one of our stars. So you can imagine how surprised I've been hearing his name thrown around like an epithet. Really, is there no end to the meanness and distortions spewed out by the Republican candidates for President!

    "Truth is, Alinsky's strategies for community organization are suspiciously similar to ones that Newt and his gang continue glomming for their own devious purposes. So sad because Saul's were meant for society's ultimate improvement and good."

  3. Leroy:

    Thanks for the reflective words about a man many of us admire. Going to seminary in Chicago from 1967-1971 I witnessed the community organizing that Saul Alinsky had supported and inspired. Neighborhoods were changing from places of crime and hopelessness to training grounds for leadership and transformation. The Alinsky model is still one of the best I have ever noticed and I am deeply grateful for this man's courage.

    I wonder where the fear and anger is coming from that has surfaced by the Right in these past years. Could it be that they see the enemy in the power of the people? Could they be aware that when those without money use their ability to organize and change the circumstances of their lives real change can take place.


  4. Having read Alinsky's work, it is summed up in "the end justifies the means" including holding others to their own standards while having no standards other than getting to the end including violence! Has anyone read this work or are you just paying homage to an image. I find it ironic that 14 years after his birth in his native land, a "workers' revolution" occurred for "the people"--probably the second greatest disaster of the 20th century.


  5. Dan, Alinsky was born in Chicago, so his "native land" was the United States. Of course, I hear that more than a century before he was born there was a revolution in that land, too. That revolution was linked to the idea that all people "are created equal." That seems to be in line with his vision “to realize the democratic dream of equality, justice, peace, . . ."

  6. Leroy, his background is Russian Jew, and the socialist revolution I am referring to was the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 (my calculations were based on 1903 instead of 1909 which should have been the date I used). As a person who abhors violence, I am surprised that you would seek to honor a man who advocated any means necessary. I find it interesting that you castigated Ayn Rand's work without reading it for yourself based on atheism but honor this work even though he was an atheiest also. I guess the ends do justify the means.

  7. Dan, thanks for commenting again. I knew, of course, that you were referring to the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Still, Alinsky was an American, not a Russian.

    I want to deal with the "means and ends" question separately, and later (when I have more time to write). Let me now say, though, that I did not "castigate" Ayn Rand for being an atheist. (And, by the way, she was born and educated in Russia.) If you will re-read my 9/20/11 posting you will find that I criticize her for being an outspoken advocate of selfishness and an opponent of altruism. Her goals seem quite opposite to Alinsky's vision “to realize the democratic dream of equality, justice, peace, cooperation, . . ."

  8. The "means and end" issue is so important, I have just decided to write my Feb. 10 posting about that. I probably will quote this pithy statement by Alinsky in that article: "The means-and-ends moralists or non-doers always wind up on their ends without any means" ("Rules for Radicals," p. 25; that whole sentence is in italics).

  9. I have enjoyed the comments on this one, Leroy as well as the few exchanges with DHJ. I await eagerly your remarks on "ends justifying the means." I think that the level of moral sophistication one must achieve to avoid an ends-means mode of action is quite high. Humans tend to drift back toward the low water mark on that one, I fear.

    Regarding the present post, though, I must confess I have read nothing by Alinsky. I do recall his name arising during the election year of 2008. My only caution is too facilely equating his "ends" with the "coming of God's Kingdom." Justice and peace certainly are promised in this kingdom; equality, though? I'm not so sure. First, God's kingdom presupposes a just ruler, God's messiah. This is a long way away from a democratic notion of self rule. Second, equality presupposes that everyone has a right to be there. And, as you know, God's reign would eliminate those whom God judged as unworthy. So, until your next post...

  10. Leroy, where does Alinsky come down on the use of violence? It is my understanding that Alinsky's methods were developed from his observation of the Chicago mafia and in particular the methods of Capone's gang. I understand what his ends were, but I still cringe at the methods allowed for those ends to be achieved. I too am looking forward to your posting about the ends/means issue.

    The revolutions fomented in the name of the people over the past 100 years have all had an ominous results with a few recent ones in the Middle East that are still too early to call. In the name of the people, the people end up bearing the brunt of the violence caused by power hungry individuals or groups (e.g. Bolsheviks, Chinese communists, German socialists, Iranian religious leaders, Vietcong, Khmer Rouge, etc.). Is it any wonder that I question anyone who is doing "good" works for the people!

  11. Well written,Leroy! And prescient! NPR this afternoon: "Why does Saul Alinsky Inspire Such Passion?"

  12. OK, I do not know much about Alinsky, so I checked that modern guru, Wikipedia, and made an amazing discovery. Surely it is no surprise that President Obama's organizer roots go back to Alinsky, but I did not know that the Tea Party does, too! Wikipedia reports that Adam Brandon, involved in organizing Tea Party events, says his group, FreedomWorks, gives copies of Rules for Radicals to top leadership of the Tea Party, and an abbreviated version called Rules for Patriots to the entire network.

    Now with that background, Newt Gingrich's slams against Alinsky are even more amazing and disturbing. However, it appears anyone wondering what to do about the Tea Party should start by studying Alinsky!

    In response to DHJ above, I would say that one of the great intellectual failures of modern thinking is in failing to see just how much overlap there is between gangs, corporations, governments, and religions. When people get together, things happen. None of them are all bad, none of them are all good. Think of a gang as an indigenous, self-forming local government. Think of the other three as, well, you get the picture! Carefully observing gangs was no doubt very instructive.

    A separate issue is pacifism. I am not a pacifist. I am, however, a violence minimalist. Gandhi succeeded as a pacifist in the face of British colonialism, King succeeded against American racism, but both were close to the margin where justifiable violence begins. We saw this play out in Libya, and it is repeating in Syria. When a peaceful search for a redress of grievances is met not just with refusal, but with violent opposition, there is a moment where revolution legitimately begins. What is required is a thick skin and a long patience with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to measure that moment.

    A related issue is police power. A small minority of any society will not abide by reasonable rules, and are a tremendous threat to others. Police power, sparingly used, is a great good. Mass murderers and serial rapists must be stopped. However, a great challenge is built into this equation, for raw power should be the last tool of the state, not the first. And a nation that has a far higher incarceration rate than any other nation on earth is obviously failing badly on this count. A measure of the proper sparing use of power would be the total rejection of capital punishment.

    A parallel issue is the role of guerrilla theatre and acts of property disruption on the part of protests. I can see where these can easily have an uncomfortable similarity to terrorism. On the other hand, a long tradition of civil disobedience points to a way of significant resistance without terrorism. This does not exist in a vacuum, and the complexities of the balances between state war and police powers on one hand, and rights of protest and resistance on the other put moral and practical restraints on all.

    I believe that the social contract is very real, yet very ephemeral. It is constantly being renegotiated, redefined, supported, and subverted. It is not something that happened in the mythic past that justifies kings and governments today. It is something that must be renewed every moment. When it dies, its death is terrible thing for all. Look at Somalia for an example of where this has happened. Listen to the rhetoric of those proposing "Second Amendment" solutions for an example of where this is threatening to happen here. Or to the American Civil War for a time when it did. So anyone exploring the limits of what can be done for the people, must be aware of how their efforts may play out when deployed by others. However, to reject all activism, such as that which Alinsky developed, is to abandon the field of history to the biggest gang on the block, and to encourage that gang to be as bad as it wants to be. Alinsky was taking the theory of "checks and balances" out of the Constitution and into the streets. I am sure Occupy Wall Street would make him proud.

  13. I appreciate Craig's comments about the various individuals and groups employing the rules for the radicals and reminding me that Newt Gingrich is currently using some of them against Romney in an effort to get nominated. Character assassination is one that is particularly important by focusing attention away problems and personalizing it to the individual. Both political parties are now employing this technique which the media in general has frequently used (a warfare technique of making your enemy less human and hence easier to attack and kill for the consciousness of the combatants). The result is the personal, ethical, and moral destruction of one's opponent ("salted earth") and victory via default. I fear that the incivility that these techniques engender will explode in the general election this fall. In warfare the Geneva convention rules are designed to determine what a "Just War" is and how to conduct it. The Alinsky method in practice is to hold your enemies to that standard while operating without regard to that standard. In other words, ethics and morals are important tools to use against the enemy while not taking them into consideration for the radical. If Alinsky's methods are to be praised, then civility dies on the alter of this radical.

  14. A Thinking Friend who is a retired pastor and now lives in Arizona, send the following comment by e-mail:

    "Thanks for the blog on Saul Alinsky. I studied his work when I was in the school of social work and greatly admired his community action philosophy and strategy. I used him as an example when I taught community advocacy in the school of social work at ASU."

  15. A brief comment in response to MPH's comments above:

    I do not facilely equate Alinsky's ends with the coming of God's Kingdom. Those who have read my book "The Limits of Liberalism," as MPH has, know that one of my criticism of liberals is their optimism and their thinking that by effort we humans can usher in the Kingdom of God.

    Still, the vision expressed by Alinsky seems to me to be consistent with the characteristics of the Kingdom of God. While we humans can't realize the coming of that Kingdom by our efforts, we can and should act in ways consistent with the characteristics of that Kingdom.

    And a word about equality: surely there is no possibility that everyone will be or could be equal in every way. But it should not be too much to expect that everyone be considered equally important and valuable, deserving respect and fair treatment.

  16. I was happy to receive the following comments from Dr. Will Adams, retired political science professor at William Jewell College (and I post these comments with her permission).

    "I always read your blogs. Sometimes I just smile and nod, but sometimes the content brings back some of the things I learned while teaching courses on The American Constitution, and Civil Rights and Liberties, for 34 years.

    "Judicial politics is different from presidential or congressional politics, but it is politics just the same.

    "In the early 1930's, the conservative activist majority on the U. S. Supreme Court had been striking down most major New Deal legislation, so in his 2nd inaugural address, President Roosevelt proposed what became known as the court-packing plan.

    "The number of justices on the Court is fixed by Congress, not the Constitution, so the president asked Congress to create 6 new justice positions, which Roosevelt would appoint, of course, with Senate (Democrat dominated) approval.

    "This was too much even for most frustrated liberals, and the plan was not adopted. However, almost immediately, Justice Roberts defected from the 4 most conservative justices (Sutherland, VanDevanter, McReynolds and Butler) and joined the 4 moderate justices and the New Deal was suddenly constitutional.

    "There have been liberal and conservative coups on the Court several times in our history, conservative more often than liberal. The attitudes taken by liberals, conservatives, Democrats and Republicans always depends on what the Court majority is doing, not on whether it is activist or self-restrained, practices loose or strict construction of the Constitution, or interprets government powers as broad or narrow.

    "So I may have something to say any time you wish to discuss the role of the Court in U. S. politics."

  17. Wow!

    Having just done a speed read of the book, I find it very enlightening, especially of current politics.
    Words like Machiavellian nature and post-modern ethics are stunning. The dedication captures and summarizes it expertly.