Yesterday at National Review my friend Ron Radosh has a review of Nation-writer Nicholas von Hoffman’s Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky. Although Ron takes me to task a bit I don’t really see this as a challenge to anything I wrote.
Von Hoffman is an apologist friend of Alinsky’s and this is his spin. Alinksy was not a principled libertarian on civil rights issues as von Hoffman suggests but was always a Machiavellian opportunist. He may have begun with a disposition for certain principles but he was ready to sacrifice them for his political ends, and he made a principle of such trade-offs. He compromised principles he pretended to have on innumerable occasions to keep his power base — whether it was with criminals or whites or the Catholic church in Chicago.
Von Hoffman’s book starts with an Alinsky quote: “If the ends don’t justify the means what does?” That is the voice of the devil himself. The answer is — except in the extraordinary circumstances of war, which is a form of barbarism — the means are ends themselves and their own justification. But of course Alinsky is by his own account engaged in a permanent war.
This is the problem with the von Hoffman piece. It portrays Alinsky as though he was a man of principle whereas everything he said and did showed that his only principle was the war he had declared on what he called the Haves — anything that advanced the war was good. Everything else was flexible. So it’s absurd to make him look like someone who opposed taking government money, for example, on principle. The fact that he didn’t create ACORN or didn’t like Billy Ayers is irrelevant. ACORN is run by people who are following Alinsky’s manual.
Also what von Hoffman and Ron overlook is that Alinsky’s tactics were always changing according to the situation (and he was indeed an extortionist as the infamous “fart in” incident shows, even though von Hoffman and Radosh won’t concede it). In the years when Alinsky was operating the Left was fragmented, and outside the political system . All that changed over the next forty years, and those changes would have had an impact on Alinsky’s tactics. In other words, he would have accommodated his principles to the facts of power, since he always insisted that the primary goal of community organizers was power. Alinsky would have loved the Obama Administration.
[Editor’s Note: Read David Horowitz’s “Alinsky, Beck, Satan, and Me” series here.]