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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.

Alinsky himself was not anti-state—as sociologist P. David Finks writes, for him "the problem was not so much getting government off our backs as getting it off its rear end"—but the focus of his efforts was outside the electoral arena. The IAF's lingering pride in its "independent, nonpartisan" status reflects its desire to recruit members from across the political spectrum in any given community, not merely to engage the usual suspects of progressive activism.

This "nonpartisan" avoidance of ideology also relates to perhaps the most interesting precept in the Alinskyite tradition: the one which distances community organizing from mass mobilizations. As Rutgers sociology professor and former ACORN organizer Arlene Stein wrote in 1986, "community organizers today tend generally to shun the term movement, preferring to see themselves engaged in building organization."

Why would someone promoting social change see themselves as wary of movements? There are several reasons, and the way in which the terms "movement" and "organization" are understood connect to some defining aspects of the Alinskyite model.

Ed Chambers, Alinsky's successor as IAF director, expresses an aversion to movements as a part of his long-term commitment to community members. As he writes in his book Roots for Radicals, "We play to win. That's one of the distinctive features of the IAF: We don't lead everyday, ordinary people into public failures, and we're not building movements. Movements go in and out of existence. As good as they are, you can't sustain them. Everyday people need incremental success over months and sometimes years."

Alinsky, too, saw a danger in expecting quick upheavals. He argued, "Effective organization is thwarted by the desire for instant and dramatic change. … To build a powerful organization takes time. It is tedious, but that's the way the game is played—if you want to play and not just yell, 'Kill the umpire.'" Before entering a neighborhood, Alinsky planned for a sustained commitment. He would not hire an organizer unless he had raised enough money to pay for two or more years of the staffer's salary.

Beyond setting expectations for timeframe, a dedication to "organizations not movements" is reflected in several other Alinskyite norms. These include the tradition's connection to churches and other established institutions, its selection of bottom-up demands rather than high-profile national issues, and its attitude toward volunteers and freelance activists.

Alinsky believed in identifying local centers of power—particularly churches—and using them as bases for community groups. The modern IAF continues to follow this principle, serving as a model of "faith-based" organizing. Instead of picking a galvanizing, morally loaded, and possibly divisive national issue to organize around—as would a mass movement—Alinsky advocated action around narrow local demands. Mark Warren's Dry Bones Rattling, a study of the IAF, explains: "As opposed to mobilizing around a set or predetermined issues, the IAF brings residents together first to discuss the needs of their community and to find a common ground for action." Practicing what is sometimes called "stop sign organizing," those working in this vein look for concrete, winnable projects—such as demanding that city officials place a stop sign at a dangerous intersection. The idea is that small victories build local capabilities, give participants a sense of their power, and spur more ambitious action.

They also meet some of the immediate needs of the community—far preferable, in Alinsky's view, to social movements' far-off calls for freedom and justice. Throughout his career, Alinsky spoke the language of self-interest. He looked to build democratic power among community members seeking to improve the conditions of their own lives. He was suspicious of volunteer activists who were motivated by abstract values or ideology, people drawn to high-profile moral crusades. That movements were full of such people did not sit well with the Alinskyites. As Chambers writes: "Activists and movement types are mobilizers and entertainers, not democratic organizers. Their script is their persona and their cause. They tend to be overinterested in themselves. Their understanding of politicalness is superficial or media-driven. They lack disinterestedness."

Moreover, Chambers contends, movement activists' expectations for change are far too short-term: "Their time frame is immediate. 'What do we want?' 'Freedom.' 'When do we want it?' 'Now!' 'No justice, no peace,'" he explains dismissively. "Movement activists appeal to youth, frustrated idealists, and cynical ideologues, ignoring the 80 percent of moderates who comprise the world as it is. … Organizing is generational, not here today, gone tomorrow."

Chambers' view may seem harsh, but it is not atypical of those drawn to community organizing. As Stein explains, "[T]he revival of Alinsky-style organizations in the 1970s and 1980s often defined itself against the social movements of the previous decade—especially the civil rights, women's, and student antiwar movements—which it tended to view as promoting collective identity formation over the achievement of strategic goals."

Patient base-building, long-term strategy, incremental local wins. These ingredients would contribute to a lasting and influential organizing model. They would also, in the turbulent 1960s, put Alinsky at the center of an activist culture clash.

Tensions with the civil rights movement

At the same time that Alinsky became a popular speaker on 1960s campuses, his vision of organizing put him at odds with many of the era's leading activists—both its student militants and its more high-profile leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1965 and 1966, tensions between "organization" and "movement" surfaced when King and his Southern Christian Leadership Council came to Chicago, Alinsky's home turf, to mount their first Northern civil rights drive.

The question is whether too close an adherence to a hardened model has created missed opportunities.

During the campaign, Nicholas von Hoffman, a close Alinsky lieutenant, had a chance encounter with King in Memphis, Tenn., in the hospital where activist James Meredith had been taken after being shot while marching in support of black voter registration. Von Hoffman gave King his advice about Chicago: "I told him I thought it could succeed if he was prepared for trench warfare, which would demand tight, tough organization to take on the Daley operation," von Hoffman writes. "I added it could not be done in less than two years."

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