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For conservatives accustomed to left-wing bogeymen falling neatly into either the “Marxist” or “sixties radical” box, Saul Alinsky can make for a bewildering figure.
Alinsky significantly never joined the Communist Party during the Red Decade. He later reflected, “I didn’t join because I had a sense of humor.” As a Roosevelt-era apparatchik of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), Alinsky defended union reliance on Communists to organize workers but also oversaw a touring beat-down crew targeting troublemaking Communists at the behest of the CIO. This reappearing hypocrisy, which Alinsky’s critics decried as a vice, Alinksy himself celebratd as a virtue. Flexibility to changing tactics, rather than rigid adherence to principle, was the Alinskyite hallmark of successful activism.
His sixties were very much like his thirties. Alinsky sat out the civil rights and anti-war movements, derided the Peace Corps as the “Piss Corps,” and frequented barbers and donned business attire when the fashion called for tie-dye, beads, and long hair. “When there are people who espouse the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy or the Tate murders or the Marin County Courthouse kidnappings and killings as ‘revolutionary acts,’” Alinsky reflected, “then we are dealing with people who are merely hiding psychosis behind a political mask.”
A leftist against the tide of leftism in two of the last century’s most radical decades, Alinsky ironically emerged as one of the Left’s most enduring idea men. Perhaps a richer paradox involves the man of action finding lasting significance as a theorist. One would be hard pressed to name a single community that the organizer extraordinaire even marginally improved. But his book Rules for Radicals is more popular than ever forty years after its publication.
The book’s popularity has much to do with ties of long-dead Alinsky to two of today’s most powerful political leaders, who heeded his advice to remain within the system.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton penned an impressive senior thesis on Alinsky at Wellesley College. “Much of what Alinsky professes does not sound ‘radical,’” Clinton insisted therein. “His words are used in our schools and churches, by our parents and their friends, by our peers. The difference is that Alinsky really believes in them and recognizes the necessity of changing the present structure of our lives in order to realize them.” Wellesley’s student commencement speaker nevertheless rejected a job offer from the subject of her paper.
Saul Alinsky never offered a job to Barack Obama, who was ten when Alinsky died. The future president nevertheless followed in his footsteps by becoming a Chicago community organizer. Recruited by Jerry Kellman, who was recruited into community organizing by Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation, Obama by all accounts became adept at the master’s instructions to “rub raw the sores of discontent.” Though the president’s supporters downplay his three years as a post-Alinsky Alinskyite, the president’s disciple status was so strong that an essay he wrote made its way into 1990’s After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois.
While Alinsky may be helpful to understanding Clinton and Obama, Clinton and Obama aren’t especially helpful to understanding Alinsky. Instead, two famous leaders of earlier Lefts, and strangely, the Chicago mafia, make better sense of the guru’s power-politics obsessions.
Saul Alinsky served as a bridge between the infamous but effective John L. Lewis to the beloved but ineffective Cesar Chavez. The former association taught him the lessons, and the latter association gave him the credibility, to impart his tactics to radical Baby Boomers reaching adulthood. Thus, he passed on labor union tactics to a new generation of radicals largely alienated from working men. Alinsky tellingly preferred the immoral labor leader who mentored him to the moral labor leader he mentored. His reaction to his United Mine Workers mentor and United Farm Workers mentee illustrates his embrace of cynicism and contempt for idealism.
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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