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In a biography of Alinsky which was close to being a love letter, Nicholas von Hoffman writes of Alinsky’s “biography of Lewis which was close to being a love letter.” In that 1949 book, Alinsky coldly recounts the events of 1922’s Herrin Massacre, in which John L. Lewis’s United Mine Workers (UMW) murdered twenty nonunion mine workers with impunity. A fawning Alinsky compares Lewis punching carpenters’ union leader William Hutcheson at a 1935 American Federation of Labor convention to colonists firing at the red coats at Lexington. Alinsky conceded of his mentor’s leadership of the UMW that there is “no question that Lewis runs the union with a strong dictatorial hand.” Rather than repulse the fledgling community organizer, the strong-arm tactics of the CIO and UMW strongman infatuated him. John L. Lewis: An Unauthorized Biography foreshadows the more widely read Rules for Radicals published twenty-two years later. Dismissing critics of Lewis’s controversial tactics, his aide/biographer explained, “In the arena of power politics, the question of the ethics of means and ends can only be relegated to an academic arena.”
But this didn’t stop him from questioning the means of one of his most famous disciples. Alinsky chastised employee Cesar Chavez for not taking advantage of an expense account and argued with the Mexican-American organizer to accept a raise. Alinsky’s foundation lent financial backing to Chavez’s efforts to unionize migrant agricultural workers but he found his methods, such as public fasts, embarrassing. “Though the saintly Cesar later emerged to cast a spell over men like Bobby Kennedy, women like Dorothy Day and a wide liberal public, he was not a figure Saul could trust,” von Hoffman, hired by Alinsky the same day as Chavez, recounted. “The leadership he admired and whose decision making he could rely on was that of a Franklin Roosevelt or a John L. Lewis, men who might be devious, cynical, power loving and glory seeking but who lacked that pious tick that can make for calamity.”
The contrasting appraisals of the very different men—finding a saint in the sinner Lewis and a sinner in Saint Chavez—tell us more about the appraiser than the appraised.
Whereas Chavez’s methods appealed to the public’s decency, Lewis and Alinsky’s more forceful methods assumed that their targets had no decency. Thus, they fought fire with fire. “The organizer should know and accept that the right reason is only introduced as a moral rationalization after the right end has been achieved, although it may have been achieved for the wrong reasons to achieve the right goals,” instructs Rules for Radicals. “He should be able, with skill and calculation, to use irrationality in his attempts to progress toward a rational world.”
These “wrong reasons” included violence. “The subject was too touchy and to bring it up was to invite misquotation and distortion,” von Hoffman writes in his biography. “In private, though, he would say that violence has its uses.” It did as the head of a CIO goon squad. And Alinsky later boasted of his Depression-era involvement with Chicago mobsters. Enforcer “[Frank] Nitti took me under his wing,” he told Playboy shortly before his 1972 death. “I called him the Professor and I became his student. Nitti’s boys took me everywhere, showed me all the mob’s operations, from gin mills and whorehouses and bookie joints to the legitimate businesses they were beginning to take over. Within a few months, I got to know the workings of the Capone mob inside out.” He coolly crowed about detached discussions of mafia hits with Nitti, telling Hugh Hefner’s magazine, “I learned a hell of a lot about the uses and abuses of power from the mob, lessons that stood me in good stead later on, when I was organizing.”
Saul Alinsky dedicated Rules for Radicals to Satan. He kept a framed picture of a mad bomber on his office wall. He found in Machiavelli an ethical democrat. He labeled Al Capone a “public benefactor.” He was a moralist for amorality.
A common sin of activists involves allowing the brilliant ends to blind one to the dark means. At first glance, Saul Alinsky appears a repeat offender of this familiar transgression. But Alinsky is really that unique figure so caught up in pursuing devious means that he loses track of the ends.
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