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Why Saul Alinsky, Author of "Rules" for Social Change, Would Probably Break Them Today

Most organizers today believe that Alinsky taught to focus on building organizations and not social movements. But the author's own political work shows a more flexible approach.
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The "Sigmund Freud" of community organizing

In recent years, Saul Alinsky has become known for his connections to prominent figures inside Washington, D.C. In the 1980s, Barack Obama cut his political teeth as an organizer in an Alinskyite community organization, an initiative on the South Side of Chicago known as the Developing Communities Project. Hillary Clinton's undergraduate thesis at Wellesley College was entitled, "There Is Only the Fight: An Analysis of the Alinsky Model." Because of these links, Glenn Beck featured Alinsky prominently on his maps of leftist conspiracy in America, and Newt Gingrich regularly used the organizer as a foil on the campaign trail in 2012.

There is some irony to these beltway associations, given that Alinsky built his reputation as an anti-establishment radical working squarely outside the domain of electoral politics. A Chicago native and son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Alinsky got his start organizing in the 1930s, inspired by CIO and United Mine Workers leader John L. Lewis. In spite of mentoring from Lewis, Alinsky was convinced that the labor movement had grown lethargic and that American democracy needed "people's organizations" based outside the workplace—citizens' groups with roots in local communities.

In his first attempt to create such a group he founded the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, an effort to organize the ethnically diverse workers who lived behind the meatpacking plants featured in Upton Sinclair's muckraking 1906 novel, The Jungle. To fight the slum conditions facing this community, Alinsky packed the offices of bureaucrats with hundreds of residents and routed marches past the homes of local officials."Many confrontations and several months later," author Mary Beth Rogers writes, "Back of the Yards claimed credit for new police patrols, street repairs, regular garbage collection, and lunch programs for 1,400 children."

By 1940, with the help of funding from wealthy liberal Marshall Field III, Alinsky had created a nonprofit known as the Industrial Areas Foundation, or IAF, tasked with spurring organization in other urban neighborhoods. In the 1950s, Alinsky and Fred Ross worked through the IAF-supported Community Service Organization to improve living conditions for Mexican-Americans in California; there, Ross recruited a young organizer in San Jose named Cesar Chavez and another in Fresno named Dolores Huerta. (Only after years of training did Chavez and Huerta leave to form what would become the United Farm Workers.)

Among Alinsky's other prominent campaigns, he would work in the 1960s with black residents in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood to fight exploitative landlords and to challenge school overcrowding, and he would help community members in Rochester, N.Y., compel the Eastman Kodak Company to create a hiring program for African-American workers.

Alinsky taught through stories, usually exaggerated, always entertaining. In 1971 writer Nat Hentoff stated, "At 62, Saul is the youngest man I've met in years." Playboy interviewer Eric Norden agreed. "There is a tremendous vitality about Alinsky, a raw, combative ebullience, and a consuming curiosity about everything and everyone around him," Norden wrote. "Add to this a mordant wit, a monumental ego coupled with an ability to laugh at himself and the world in general, and you begin to get the measure of the man."

Alinsky's first book, Reveille for Radicals, became a bestseller when published in 1946; it blasted liberal-minded charity efforts and called for an indigenous American radicalism based in citizen action. Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals came in 1971, near the end of Alinsky's life, and remains popular. It was recently circulated by Republican Dick Armey's organization FreedomWorks to Tea Party members curious about the book's methods, even if they are opposed to its goals. Its first chapter begins: "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."

Frank Bardacke, author of a sweeping history of the United Farm Workers, recounts how Alinsky's principles for building power solidified into an identifiable organizing tradition: "With Saul as the fountainhead, community organizing has become a codified discipline, with core theoretical propositions, recognized heresies, disciples, fallen neophytes, and splits." He quotes Heather Booth, founder of the Midwest Academy, an Alinskyite training center for organizers, who calls Alinsky "our Sigmund Freud."

"What Booth means is that both Freud and Alinsky founded schools of thought," Bardacke explains, "but there is another, deeper link: the role of training and lineage. Just as psychoanalysts trace their pedigree back to the grand master (they were either analyzed by Freud or by someone who was analyzed by Freud … ) so Alinskyite and neo-Alinskyite organizers trace their training back to Alinsky himself."

Alinsky's influence today is felt not just in the IAF or Goehl's NPA—whose member groups range from Community Voices Heard in New York, to POWER in Los Angeles, to Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. It is also present in networks such as PICO, DART, USAction/Citizen Action, the Gamaliel Foundation, and the former branches of ACORN. Collectively these organizations claim several million members, and the tradition has spread internationally as well, with organizing trainings taking place in Europe, South Africa and the Philippines. Each of the networks, writes sociologist David Walls, is "indebted, in greater or lesser degree, to Alinsky and his early organizing programs in Chicago through IAF."

The power of small victories

The principle of "no electoral politics" took hold in the Alinskyite tradition based on the idea that community organizations should be pragmatic, nonpartisan, and ideologically diverse—that they should put pressure on all politicians, not express loyalty to any. Historian Thomas Sugrue writes that Alinsky "never had much patience for elected officials: Change would not come from top-down leadership, but rather from pressure from below. In his view, politicians took the path of least resistance."

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