* Identified a set of very specific rules that ordinary citizens could follow, and tactics that ordinary citizens could employ, as a means of gaining public power
* Created a blueprint for revolution under the banner of “social change”
* Two of his most notable modern-day disciples are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Born to Russian-Jewish parents in Chicago in 1909, Saul Alinsky was a Communist/Marxist fellow-traveler who helped establish the tactics of infiltration — coupled with a measure of confrontation — that have been central to revolutionary political movements in the United States in recent decades. He never joined the Communist Party but instead, as David Horowitz puts it, became an avatar of the post-modern left.
Though Alinsky is rightfully understood to have been a leftist, his legacy is more methodological than ideological. He identified a set of very specific rules that ordinary citizens could follow, and tactics that ordinary citizens could employ, as a means of gaining public power. His motto was, “The most effective means are whatever will achieve the desired results.”
Alinsky studied criminology as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, during which time he became friendly with Al Capone and his mobsters. Ryan Lizza, senior editor of The New Republic, offers a glimpse into Alinsky’s personality: “Charming and self-absorbed, Alinsky would entertain friends with stories — some true, many embellished — from his mob days for decades afterward. He was profane, outspoken, and narcissistic, always the center of attention despite his tweedy, academic look and thick, horn-rimmed glasses.”
According to Lizza:
“Alinsky was deeply influenced by the great social science insight of his times, one developed by his professors at Chicago: that the pathologies of the urban poor were not hereditary but environmental. This idea, that people could change their lives by changing their surroundings, led him to take an obscure social science phrase—‘the community organization’–and turn it into, in the words of Alinsky biographer Sanford Horwitt, ‘something controversial, important, even romantic.’ His starting point was a near-fascination with John L. Lewis, the great labor leader and founder of the CIO. What if, Alinsky wondered, the same hardheaded tactics used by unions could be applied to the relationship between citizens and public officials?”
After completing his graduate work in criminology, Alinsky went on to develop what are known today as the Alinsky concepts of mass organization for power. In the late 1930s he earned a reputation as a master organizer of the poor when he organized the “Back of the Yards” area in Chicago, an industrial and residential ethnic neighborhood on the Southwest Side of the city, so named because it is near the site of the former Union Stockyards; this area had been made famous in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle. In 1940 Alinsky established the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), through which he and his staff helped “organize” communities not only in Chicago but throughout the United States. IAF remains an active entity to this day. Its national headquarters are located in Chicago, and it has affiliates in the District of Columbia, twenty-one separate states, and three foreign countries (Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom).
By the late 1960s, the Black Power movement would drive Alinsky and his organizing crusades out of the projects in African-American neighborhoods, leaving him no choice but to shift his focus to white communities. For this purpose, he established the Citizens Action Program (CAP), in 1970. As Stanley Kurtz writes in his 2010 book Radical in Chief: “Alinsky was … convinced that large-scale socialist transformation would require an alliance between the struggling middle class and the poor. The key to radical social change, Alinsky thought, was to turn the wrath of America’s middle class against large corporations.”
In the Alinsky model, “organizing” is a euphemism for “revolution” — a wholesale revolution whose ultimate objective is the systematic acquisition of power by a purportedly oppressed segment of the population, and the radical transformation of America’s social and economic structure. The goal is to foment enough public discontent, moral confusion, and outright chaos to spark the social upheaval that Marx, Engels, and Lenin predicted — a revolution whose foot soldiers view the status quo as fatally flawed and wholly unworthy of salvation. Thus, the theory goes, the people will settle for nothing less than that status quo’s complete collapse — to be followed by the erection of an entirely new system upon its ruins. Toward that end, they will be apt to follow the lead of charismatic radical organizers who project an aura of confidence and vision, and who profess to clearly understand what types of societal “changes” are needed.
As Alinsky put it: “A reformation means that the masses of our people have reached the point of disillusionment with past ways and values. They don’t know what will work but they do know that the prevailing system is self-defeating, frustrating, and hopeless. They won’t act for change but won’t strongly oppose those who do. The time is then ripe for revolution.”
“[W]e are concerned,” Alinsky elaborated, “with how to create mass organizations to seize power and give it to the people; to realize the democratic dream of equality, justice, peace, cooperation, equal and full opportunities for education, full and useful employment, health, and the creation of those circumstances in which men have the chance to live by the values that give meaning to life. We are talking about a mass power organization which will change the world … This means revolution.”
But Alinsky’s brand of revolution was not characterized by dramatic, sweeping, overnight transformations of social institutions. As Richard Poe puts it, “Alinsky viewed revolution as a slow, patient process. The trick was to penetrate existing institutions such as churches, unions and political parties.” He advised organizers and their disciples to quietly, subtly gain influence within the decision-making ranks of these institutions, and to introduce changes from that platform. This was precisely the tactic of “infiltration” advocated by Lenin and Stalin. As Communist International General Secretary Georgi Dimitroff told the Seventh World Congress of the Comintern in 1935:
“Comrades, you remember the ancient tale of the capture of Troy. Troy was inaccessible to the armies attacking her, thanks to her impregnable walls. And the attacking army, after suffering many sacrifices, was unable to achieve victory until, with the aid of the famous Trojan horse, it managed to penetrate to the very heart of the enemy’s camp.”
Alinsky’s revolution promised that by changing the structure of society’s institutions, it would rid the world of such vices as socio-pathology and criminality. Arguing that these vices were caused not by personal character flaws but rather by external societal influences, Alinsky’s worldview was thoroughly steeped in the socialist left’s collectivist, class-based doctrine of economic determinism. “The radical’s affection for people is not lessened,” said Alinsky, “… when masses of them demonstrate a capacity for brutality, selfishness, hate, greed, avarice, and disloyalty. It is not the people who must be judged but the circumstances that made them that way.” Chief among these circumstances, he said, were “the larcenous pressures of a materialistic society.”
To counter that materialism, Alinsky favored a socialist alternative. He characterized his noble radical (read: “revolutionary”) as a social reformer who “places human rights far above property rights”; who favors “universal, free public education”; who “insists on full employment for economic security” but stipulates also that people’s tasks should “be such as to satisfy the creative desires within all men”; who “will fight conservatives” everywhere; and who “will fight privilege and power, whether it be inherited or acquired,” and “whether it be political or financial or organized creed.” Alinsky maintained that radicals, finding themselves “adrift in the stormy sea of capitalism,” sought “to advance from the jungle of laissez-faire capitalism to a world worthy of the name of human civilization.” “They hope for a future,” he said, “where the means of production will be owned by all of the people instead of just a comparative handful.” In short, they wanted socialism.
In 1946 Alinsky wrote Reveille for Radicals, his first major book about the principles and tactics of “community organizing,” otherwise known as agitating for revolution. Twenty-five years later he authored Rules for Radicals, which expanded upon his earlier work. His writings, and the tactics outlined therein, have had a profound influence on all “social change” and “social justice” movements of recent decades.
Alinksy’s objective, which he clearly stated in Rules for Radicals, was to “present an arrangement of certain facts and general concepts of change, a step toward a science of revolution.” The Prince, he elaborated, “was written by Macchiavelli for the Haves on how to hold onto power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.”
If radicals were to be in the vanguard of the movement to transfer power from the Haves to the Have-Nots, Alinsky’s first order of business was to define precisely what a radical was. He approached this task by first distinguishing between liberals and radicals. Alinsky had no patience for those he called the liberals of his day — people who were content to talk about the changes they wanted, but were unwilling to actively work for those changes. Rather, he favored “radicals” who were prepared to take bold, decisive action designed to transform society, even if that transformation could be achieved only slowly and incrementally. Wrote Alinsky:
“Liberals fear power or its application.… They talk glibly of people lifting themselves by their own bootstraps but fail to realize that nothing can be lifted except through power…. Radicals precipitate the social crisis by action — by using power…. Liberals protest; radicals rebel. Liberals become indignant; radicals become fighting mad and go into action. Liberals do not modify their personal lives[,] and what they give to a cause is a small part of their lives; radicals give themselves to the cause. Liberals give and take oral arguments; radicals give and take the hard, dirty, bitter way of life.”
If the purpose of radicalism is to bring about social transmutation, the radical must be prepared to make a persuasive case for why such change is urgently necessary. Alinsky’s conviction that American society needed a dramatic overhaul was founded on his belief that the status quo was intolerably miserable for most people. For one thing, Alinsky saw the United States as a nation rife with economic injustice. “The people of America live as they can,” he wrote. “Many of them are pent up in one-room crumbling shacks and a few live in penthouses.… The Haves smell toilet water, the Have-Nots smell just plain toilet.” Lamenting the “wide disparity of wealth, privilege, and opportunity” he saw in America, Alinsky impugned the country’s “materialistic values and standards.” “We know that man must cease worshipping the god of gold and the monster of materialism,” he said.
Profound economic injustice was by no means America’s only shortcoming, as Alinsky saw things. Lamenting the nation’s “rather confused and demoralized ideology,” he further identified “unemployment,” “decay,” “disease,” “crime,” “distrust,” “bigotry,” “disorganization,” and “demoralization” as inevitable by-products of life in capitalist America. Such a state of affairs, he said, made life for a majority of Americans nothing more than an exercise in drudgery. “At the end of the week,” said Alinsky of the average American, “he comes out of the hell of monotony with a paycheck and goes home to a second round of monotony…. Monday morning he is back on the assembly line.… That, on the whole, is his life. A routine in which he rots. The dreariest, drabbest, grayest outlook that one can have. Simply a future of utter despair.” “People hunger for drama and adventure, for a breath of life in a dreary, drab existence,” he expanded.
According to Alinsky, this unhappy existence exerted a profoundly negative influence on the American character. Alinsky perceived most Americans as people who were governed by their prejudices, and who thus felt great antipathy toward a majority of their fellow countrymen — particularly those of different racial, ethnic, or religious backgrounds. “[M]ost people,” he said, “like just a few people, and either do not actively care for or actively dislike most of the ‘other’ people.”
Having painted a verbal portrait of a thoroughly corrupt and melancholy American society, Alinsky was now prepared to argue that wholesale change of great magnitude was in order. What was needed, he said, was a revolution in whose vanguard would be radicals committed to eliminating the “fundamental causes” of the nation’s problems, and not content to merely deal with those problems’ “current manifestations” or “end products.” The goal of the radical, he explained, must be to bring about “the destruction of the roots of all fears, frustrations, and insecurity of man, whether they be material or spiritual”; to purge the land of “the vast destructive forces which pervade the entire social scene”; and to eliminate “those destructive forces from which issue wars,” forces such as “economic injustice, insecurity, unequal opportunities, prejudice, bigotry, imperialism, … and other nationalistic neuroses.”
The objective of ridding the nation of the aforementioned vices dovetailed perfectly with Alinsky’s belief that all societal problems were interrelated. According to Alinsky, if segments of the population were beset by crime, unemployment, inadequate housing, malnourishment, disease, demoralization, racism, discrimination, or religious intolerance, it was impossible to address, to any great effect, any particular one of those concerns in isolation. They “are simply parts of the whole picture,” he said. “They are not separate problems.”
“[A]ll problems are related and they are all the progeny of certain fundamental causes,” Alinsky elaborated. “Many apparently local problems are in reality malignant microcosms of vast conflicts, pressures, stresses, and strains of the entire social order.” Thus “ultimate success in conquering these evils can be achieved only by victory over all evils.” In other words, what was needed was a revolution, led by radicals, to literally turn society upside-down and inside-out.
Alinsky then proceeded to lay out the method by which radicals could achieve this goal by forming a host of “People’s Organizations” — each with its own distinct name and mission, and each of which “thinks and acts in terms of social surgery and not cosmetic cover-ups.”
These People’s Organizations were to be composed largely of discontented individuals who believed that society was replete with injustices that prevented them from being able to live satisfying lives. Such organizations, Alinsky advised, ought not be imported from the outside into a community, but rather should be staffed by locals who, with some guidance from trained radical organizers, could set their own agendas.
The installment of local leaders as the top-level officers of People’s Organizations helped give the organizations credibility and authenticity in the eyes of the community. This tactic closely paralleled the longtime Communist Party strategy of creating front organizations that ostensibly were led by non-communist fellow-travelers, but which were in fact controlled by Party members behind the scenes. As J. Edgar Hoover explained in his 1958 book Masters of Deceit: “To make a known Party member president of a front would immediately label it as ‘communist.’ But if a sympathizer can be installed, especially a man of prominence, such as an educator, minister, or scientist, the group can operate as an ‘independent’ organization.”
Alinsky taught that the organizer’s first task was to make people feel that they were wise enough to diagnose their own problems, find their own solutions, and determine their own destinies. The organizer, said Alinsky, must exploit the fact that “[m]illions of people feel deep down in their hearts that there is no place for them, that they do not ‘count.’” To exploit this state of affairs effectively, Alinsky explained, the organizer must employ such techniques as the artful use of “loaded questions designed to elicit particular responses and to steer the organization’s decision-making process in the direction which the organizer prefers.
“Is this manipulation?” asked Alinsky. “Certainly,” he answered instantly. But it was manipulation toward a desirable end: “If the common man had a chance to feel that he could direct his own efforts … that to a certain extent there was a destiny that he could do something about, that there was a dream that he could keep fighting for, then life would be wonderful living.” In Alinsky’s calculus, the common man could achieve this renewed vitality of spirit via his membership and active participation in the People’s Organization.
Alinsky viewed as supremely important the role of the organizer, or master manipulator, whose guidance was responsible for setting the agendas of the People’s Organization. “The organizer,” Alinsky wrote, “is in a true sense reaching for the highest level for which man can reach — to create, to be a ‘great creator,’ to play God.”
Alinsky laid out a set of basic principles to guide the actions and decisions of radical organizers and the People’s Organizations they established. The organizer, he said, “must first rub raw the resentments of the people; fan the latent hostilities to the point of overt expression. He must search out controversy and issues, rather than avoid them, for unless there is controversy people are not concerned enough to act.” The organizer’s function, he added, was “to agitate to the point of conflict” and “to maneuver and bait the establishment so that it will publicly attack him as a ‘dangerous enemy.’” “The word ‘enemy,’” said Alinsky, “is sufficient to put the organizer on the side of the people”; i.e., to convince members of the community that he is so eager to advocate on their behalf, that he has willingly opened himself up to condemnation and derision. 
But it is not enough for the organizer to be in solidarity with the people. He must also, said Alinsky, cultivate unity against a clearly identifiable enemy; he must specifically name this foe, and “singl[e] out” precisely who is to blame for the “particular evil” that is the source of the people’s angst. In other words, there must be a face associated with the people’s discontent. That face, Alinsky taught, “must be a personification, not something general and abstract like a corporation or City Hall.” Rather, it should be an individual such as a CEO, a mayor, or a president.
Alinsky summarized it this way: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it…. [T]here is no point to tactics unless one has a target upon which to center the attacks.” He held that the organizer’s task was to cultivate in people’s hearts a negative, visceral emotional response to the face of the enemy. “The organizer who forgets the significance of personal identification,” said Alinsky, “will attempt to answer all objections on the basis of logic and merit. With few exceptions this is a futile procedure.”
Alinsky also advised organizers to focus their attention on a small number of selected, strategic targets. Spreading an organization’s passions too thinly was a recipe for certain failure, he warned.
Alinsky advised the radical activist to avoid the temptation to concede that his opponent was not “100 per cent devil,” or that he possessed certain admirable qualities such as being “a good churchgoing man, generous to charity, and a good husband.” Such qualifying remarks, Alinsky said, “dilut[e] the impact of the attack” and amount to sheer “political idiocy.”
Alinsky stressed the need for organizers to convince their followers that the chasm between the enemy and the members of the People’s Organization was vast and unbridgeable. “Before men can act,” he said, “an issue must be polarized. Men will act when they are convinced their cause is 100 percent on the side of the angels, and that the opposition are 100 percent on the side of the devil.” Alinsky advised this course of action even though he well understood that the organizer “knows that when the time comes for negotiations it is really only a 10 percent difference.” But in Alinsky’s brand of social warfare, the ends (in this case, the transfer of power) justify virtually whatever means are required (in this case, lying).
Winning was all that mattered in Alinsky’s strategic calculus: “The morality of a means depends on whether the means is being employed at a time of imminent defeat or imminent victory.” “The man of action … thinks only of his actual resources and the possibilities of various choices of action,” Alinsky added. “He asks only whether they are achievable and worth the cost; of means, only whether they will work.” For Alinsky, all morality was relative: “The judgment of the ethics of means is dependent on the political position of those sitting in judgment.”
Given that the enemy was to be portrayed as the very personification of evil, against whom any and all methods were fair game, Alinsky taught that an effective organizer should never give the appearance of being fully satisfied as a result of having resolved any particular conflict via compromise. Any compromise with the “devil” is, after all, by definition morally tainted and thus inadequate. Consequently, while the organizer may acknowledge that he is pleased by the compromise as a small step in the right direction, he must make it absolutely clear that there is still a long way to go, and that many grievances still remain unaddressed. The ultimate goal, said Alinsky, is not to arrive at compromise or peaceful coexistence, but rather to “crush the opposition,” bit by bit. “A People’s Organization is dedicated to eternal war,” said Alinsky. “… A war is not an intellectual debate, and in the war against social evils there are no rules of fair play.… When you have war, it means that neither side can agree on anything…. In our war against the social menaces of mankind there can be no compromise. It is life or death.”
References End of Part 2