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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.

Von Hoffman was not convinced that King was listening. He knew that the SCLC—coming off of mobilizations in Birmingham and Selma—had grown accustomed to much shorter campaigns, sometimes lasting just months. Nor was he impressed by King's decision to move his family into an apartment in one of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods, which von Hoffman dismissed as a "dramatic gesture" of little utility. "Organizing is akin to stringing beads to make a necklace," von Hoffman argued. "It demands patience, persistence, and some kind of design. King's campaign in Chicago was short on beads and bereft of design."

Alinsky and von Hoffman regarded MLK as a "one-trick pony."

Alinsky and von Hoffman regarded the SCLC leader as a "one-trick pony" who relied too heavily on media-seeking marches, and they held his team in low regard. As von Hoffman contended, King and the outsiders he brought into Chicago "were, as far as I could tell, a hodgepodge of young white idealists, college kids, and summer soldiers, most of whom had no knowledge of the people they were supposed to recruit. In the South the youthful white idealists were useful civil rights cannon fodder; in Chicago they were dead weight."

Von Hoffman noted the contrast with his tradition. "It was the antithesis of an Alinsky operation where outside volunteers were generally shooed away not only because they got in the way but also because they didn't have any skin in the game," he noted. "Laudable as it is to volunteer to help other people wrestle with their problems, effective organizations are built with people who have direct and personal interest in their success."

This type of analysis reflected Alinsky's broader critique of civil rights organizing. In a 1965 interview he argued, "The Achilles' Heel of the civil rights movement is the fact that it has not developed into a stable, disciplined, mass-based power organization." He believed the movement's victories owed much to uncontrollable world-historical forces, to "the incredibly stupid blunders of the status quo in the South and elsewhere," and to the contributions of church institutions.

He added, with King as his unnamed subject: "Periodic mass euphoria around a charismatic leader is not an organization. It's just the initial stage of agitation."

For Alinsky, stressing the importance of strong organization was also a matter of bridging a generation gap. Those yelling "kill the umpire," in his view, were the members of the New Left. Alinsky felt that people his age were partially responsible for the youths' ignorance. In writing Rules for Radicals, he sought to communicate with 1960s activists whom he saw as suffering from a lack of mentoring—the result of a missing generation of organizers. "Few of us survived the Joe McCarthy holocaust of the 1950s," Alinsky wrote, "and of those there were even fewer whose understanding and insights had developed beyond the dialectical materialism of orthodox Marxism. My fellow radicals who were supposed to pass on the torch of experience and insights to a new generation just were not there."

As a consequence, young leftists were too easily seduced by quick fixes, Alinsky believed. In an afterward to a 1969 reissue of his first book, Reveille for Radicals, he wrote, "The approach of so much of the present generation is so fractured with 'confrontations' and crises as ends in themselves that their activities are not actions but a discharge of energy which, like a fireworks spectacle, briefly lights up the skies and then vanishes into the void."

The creation of an alternative methodology—what Stein describes as "a highly structured organizing model specifying step-by-step guidelines for creating neighborhood organizations"—was an understandable response, and one that has shown great strengths. But, in recent decades, we may have seen its limitations as well.

The question is whether too close an adherence to a hardened model has created missed opportunities—chances to integrate structure-based organization and and momentum-driven movements, and to harness the power of both.

Evolving tactics for social change

It turns out that many of the rules of the Alinskyite tradition come less from the founder himself and more from his successors' subsequent codification of his ideas.

After Alinsky's death, IAF leaders Ed Chambers, Richard Harmon, and Ernesto Cortes sat down to assess the factors that contributed to the failure of earlier organizing drives. As author Mary Beth Rogers writes, they identified several "patterns that created instability, ineffectiveness, and eventual dissolution." Among them: "Movements that depended on charismatic leaders fell apart in the absence of the leader;" "organizations formed around a single issue died when the issue lost its potency;" and "organizations that played to the public spotlight confused their desire for media attention with their strategy for change."

Clearly, the IAF heavyweights were critical of the social movements of the New Left. But, more surprisingly, their assessment also indicted Alinsky's own work.

While the founding father had planted seeds for organizations throughout the country, only a handful survived for longer than three years. As IAF organizer Michael Gecan writes in his book Going Public, "Alinsky was extraordinarily effective as a tactician, writer, speaker and gadfly. He was the first theorist and exponent of citizen organizing in urban communities." But, "While Alinsky had many gifts and strengths … he did not create organizations that endured."

This challenge would be left to his successors, in particular Ed Chambers. "That was Chambers' critical contribution to the world of citizens organizing and to America as a whole," Gecan writes. "He had a talent for teaching people how to organize power that lasted." Chambers' systemization of the Alinsky model would involve formalizing processes for recruiting and grooming organizers, relying less on large foundations for funding, improving working conditions to reduce burn-out, and strengthening ties to faith-based groups. Other networks of community organizations would further the model by bringing local groups into national coalitions and creating their own training programs to refine and spread the rules of grassroots power-building.

In many respects, these were necessary changes. Yet they may have come at the cost of some of Alinsky's original creativity. In their focus on building for the long term and creating strong organizational structures, subsequent community organizing leaders have grown less sensitive than their tradition's founder to the potential of exceptional moments of mass mobilization.

In truth, Alinsky was far less rigid than the "rules" attributed to him might suggest. Nicholas von Hoffman, in a memoir about his time with Alinsky, describes his former mentor as "one of the least dogmatic and most flexible of men. Alinsky believed that liberty was to be redefined and rewon by every generation according to its circumstances and the demands of the time." For his part, Alinsky liked to tell a story, possibly apocryphal, of sitting in on a university exam designed for students of community organization. "Three of the questions were on the philosophy and motivations of Saul Alinsky," he claimed. "I answered two of them incorrectly!"

This flexibility affected his view of elections. Alinsky's biographer, Sanford Horwitt, notes that the organizer had plans to run a candidate for Congress in a 1966 election on Chicago's South Side, and he sent staffers from Woodlawn to serve on the campaign staff of an anti-machine challenger. Horwitt quotes von Hoffman, who says, "A lot of people, especially those who turned 'community organizing' into a kind of religion, now take it as gospel from Saul Alinsky … that one never gets directly involved in electoral politics. Well, he never thought that."

More importantly, Alinsky's take on mass mobilization was not one-dimensional. One of the most interesting moments in his career came when he attempted to integrate the energy of a social movement with the work of one of his community organizations.

While organizing in the Woodlawn neighborhood in early 1961, von Hoffman got a call from a civil rights activist taking part in the Freedom Rides, a protest designed to challenge segregated interstate busing in the South. The riders were violently attacked in Alabama—one of their buses was burned in Anniston, and they were beaten by a mob in Montgomery. Having just been released from a New Orleans hospital, the activist and some of his fellow participants contacted von Hoffman to express interest in making their first public appearance in Chicago.

Von Hoffman was initially hesitant—wary that the event would not advance local organizing and mindful of previous civil rights rallies in Chicago that drew only a handful of picketers. Yet he arranged for a talk to be held in a large gymnasium in St. Cyril's Church. As Horwitt writes, "On a Friday night, two hours before the program was to start, the gym was empty and von Hoffman was nervous—his initial fears seemed about to be confirmed. An hour later, an elderly couple arrived, and then, to von Hoffman's total amazement, so many people turned up that there was no room left in the gym, in the foyer, or on the stairs."

Von Hoffman arranged for loudspeakers to broadcast the talk to the hundreds of people in the streets outside the venue. Later, he left the event reeling. Far more people had come than his group could have possibility mobilized through its organizational structures, and the issue had generated a profound energy in the community. He woke up Alinsky with a middle-of-the-night phone call and explained what happened.

Von Hoffman said, "I think that we should toss out everything we are doing organizationally and work on the premise that this is the moment of the whirlwind, that we are no longer organizing but guiding a social movement."

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