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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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To his surprise, Alinsky responded by saying, "You're right. Get on it tomorrow."

The Woodlawn organization subsequently held its own version of the Freedom Rides—a bus caravan to register black voters. The event, Horwitt recounts, produced "the largest single voter-registration ever at City Hall," startled the city's power-brokers, generated much greater publicity than Woodlawn's typical actions, and set the stage for further civil rights activism by the group. In criticizing Martin Luther King several years later, Alinsky was not trying to write off the civil right movement as a whole. A devotee of headline-grabbing direct action, he recognized its accomplishment. And yet he sought to present its leaders with the challenge of institutionalization—a question which King himself grappled with in his later years and which is vital in thinking about how organizing models might be integrated.

The master of radical pragmatism

Alinsky understood something important when he embraced "the moment of the whirlwind." He saw that using mass mobilization to produce spikes in social unrest is a process that follows a different set of rules than conventional organizing. Many of its principles—embracing demands with wide symbolic resonance, channeling energy and participation from a broader public, articulating self-interest in moral and visionary terms—are the opposite of the principles that drive local community organizing. And yet Alinsky was willing to experiment with their possibilities.

Veteran organizers are often caught off guard by movement outbreaks.

Former ACORN organizer Stein argues that such openness became a rarity among Alinsky's disciples. The Alinskyite organizations of recent decades, she writes, "often fail to grasp the possibilities of mobilization when they occur." Because of this, they have unduly limited themselves. "The great social movements of American history—labor, populist, civil rights, women's (to name some of the most important ones)," Stein argues, "captured the interest and imagination of vast numbers of people by offering them material benefits as well as the experience of communal solidarity in an individualistic American culture. In placing 'organization' ahead of 'movement,' ACORN and groups like it" miss this. They discount modes of organizing that tap the transformative possibility of going beyond the most local, concrete or winnable demands.

Whether it is the global justice protests of 1999 and 2000, the massive immigrant rights marches of 2006, or the rapid spread of Occupy Wall Street across the country in 2011, veteran organizers are often caught off guard by movement outbreaks. As a result, they have few ideas for how to guide and amplify these efforts—or how to harness the energy of peak moments in order to propel their ongoing organizing.

Fortunately, in the wake of Occupy, an increasing number of people are interested in precisely this challenge. Those now seeking ways to combine structure- and momentum-based organizing models have much fertile terrain to explore. This will mean opening dialogue between the worlds of "resource mobilization" and "disruptive power"; and it will involve allowing those immersed in labor and community organizing cultures to compare their methods with the insights into mass mobilization that come out of traditions of strategic nonviolence and civil resistance.

In pursuing this work, they can take inspiration from a master of radical pragmatism. For while the split between organizations and movements is real, the true spirit of Alinsky is in breaking the rule that keeps them divided.

Mark Engler100.jpgMark Engler and Paul Engler wrote this article for, where it originally appeared. Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus, an editorial board member at Dissent, and a contributing editor at Yes! Magazine. Paul Engler is founding director of the Center for the Working Poor, in Los Angeles. They are writing a book about the evolution of political nonviolence. They can be reached via the website

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