Saul Alinsky – Part 2

Alinsky warned the organizer to be on guard against the possibility that the enemy might offer him “a constructive alternative” aimed at resolving the conflict. Said Alinsky, “You cannot risk being trapped by the enemy in his sudden agreement with your demand and saying, ‘You’re right — we don’t know what to do about this issue. Now you tell us.’”[59] Such capitulation by the enemy would have the effect of diffusing the righteous indignation of the People’s Organization, whose very identity is inextricably woven into the fight for long-denied justice; i.e., whose struggle and identity are synonymous. If the perceived oppressor surrenders or extends a hand of friendship in an effort to end the conflict, the crusade of the People’s Organization is jeopardized. This cannot be permitted. Eternal war, by definition, must never end.

While Alinsky endorsed ruthlessness in waging war against the enemy, he was nonetheless mindful that certain approaches were more likely to win the hearts and minds of the people whose support would be crucial to the organizers’ ultimate victory. Above all, he taught that in order to succeed, the organizer and his People’s Organization needed to target their message toward the middle class. “Mankind,” said Alinsky, “has been and is divided into three parts: the Haves, the Have-Nots, and the Have-a-Little, Want Mores.”[60] He explained that in America, the Have-a-Little, Want-Mores (i.e., members of the middle class) were the most numerous and therefore of the utmost importance.[61] Said Alinsky: “Torn between upholding the status quo to protect the little they have, yet wanting change so they can get more, they [the middle class] become split personalities… Thermopolitically they are tepid and rooted in inertia. Today in Western society and particularly in the United States they comprise the majority of our population.”[62]

Alinsky stressed that organizers and their followers needed to take care, when first unveiling their particular crusade for “change,” not to alienate the middle class with any type of crude language, defiant demeanor, or menacing appearance that suggested radicalism or a disrespect for middle class mores and traditions. For this very reason, he disliked the hippies and counterculture activists of the 1960s. As Richard Poe puts it: “Alinsky scolded the Sixties Left for scaring off potential converts in Middle America. True revolutionaries do not flaunt their radicalism, Alinsky taught. They cut their hair, put on suits and infiltrate the system from within.”

In his book Radical in Chief, Stanley Kurtz describes Alinsky as “a cross between a democratic socialist and a communist fellow traveler.” But Alinsky carefully avoiding drawing any attention to that fact. Writes Kurtz:

“He was smart enough to avoid Marxist language in public…. Instead of calling for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, Alinsky and his followers talk about ‘confronting power.’ Instead of advocating socialist revolution, they demand ‘radical social change.’ Instead of demanding attacks on capitalists, they go after ‘targets’ or ‘enemies.'”
While Alinsky’s ultimate goal was nothing less than the “radicalization of the middle class,” he stressed the importance of “learning to talk the language of those with whom one is trying to converse.”[63] “Tactics must begin with the experience of the middle class,” he said, “accepting their aversion to rudeness, vulgarity, and conflict. Start them easy, don’t scare them off.”[64]

To appeal to the middle class, Alinsky continued, “goals must be phrased in general terms like ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’; ‘Of the Common Welfare’; ‘Pursuit of happiness’; or ‘Bread and Peace.’”[65] He suggested, for instance, that an effective organizer “discovers what their [the middle class’] definition of the police is, and their language — [and] he discards the rhetoric that always says ‘pig’ [in reference to police]. Instead of hostile rejection he is seeking bridges of communication and unity over the gaps…. He will view with strategic sensitivity the nature of middle-class behavior with its hang-ups over rudeness or aggressive, insulting, profane actions. All this and more must be grasped and used to radicalize parts of the middle class.”[66]

A related principle taught by Alinsky was that radical organizers must not only speak the language of the middle class, but that they also must dress their crusades in the vestments of morality. “Moral rationalization,” he said, “is indispensable to all kinds of action, whether to justify the selection or the use of ends or means.”[67] “All great leaders,” he added, “invoked ‘moral principles’ to cover naked self-interest in the clothing of ‘freedom,’ ‘equality of mankind,’ ‘a law higher than man-made law,’ and so on.” In short: “All effective actions require the passport of morality.”[68]

But Alinsky understood that there was a flip side to his strategy of speaking the palatable language of the middle class and the reassuring parlance of morality. Specifically, he said that organizers must be entirely unpredictable and unmistakably willing — for the sake of the moral principles in whose name they claim to act — to watch society descend into utter chaos and anarchy. He stated that they must be prepared, if necessary, to “go into a state of complete confusion and draw [their] opponent into the vortex of the same confusion.”[69]

One way in which organizers and their disciples can broadcast their preparedness for this possibility is by staging loud, defiant, massive protest rallies expressing deep rage and discontent over one particular injustice or another. Such demonstrations can give onlookers the impression that a mass movement is preparing to shift into high gear, and that its present (already formidable) size is but a fraction of what it eventually will become. “A mass impression,” said Alinsky, “can be lasting and intimidating…. Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.”[70] “The threat,” he added, “is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.”[71] “If your organization is small in numbers,” said Alinsky, “… conceal the members in the dark but raise a din and clamor that will make the listener believe that your organization numbers many more than it does.”[72]

“Wherever possible,” Alinsky counseled, “go outside the experience of the enemy. Here you want to cause confusion, fear, and retreat.”[73] Marching mobs of chanting demonstrators accomplishes this objective. The average observer’s reaction to such a display is of a dual nature: First he is afraid. But he also recalls the organizer’s initial articulation of middle-class ideals and morals. Thus he convinces himself that the People’s Organization is surely composed of reasonable people who actually hold values similar to his own, and who seek resolutions that will be beneficial to both sides. This thought process causes him to proffer — in hopes of appeasing the angry mobs — concessions and admissions of guilt, which the organizer in turn exploits to gain still greater moral leverage and to extort further concessions.

In Alinsky’s view, action was more often the catalyst for revolutionary fervor than vice versa. He deemed it essential for the organizer to get people to act first (e.g., participate in a demonstration) and rationalize their actions later. “Get them to move in the right direction first,” said Alinsky. “They’ll explain to themselves later why they moved in that direction.”[74]

Among the most vital tenets of Alinsky’s method were the following:

“Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules. You can kill them with this, for they can no more live up to their own rules than the Christian Church can live up to Christianity.”[75]
“No organization, including organized religion, can live up to the letter of its own book. You can club them to death with their ‘book’ of rules and regulations.”[76]
“Practically all people live in a world of contradictions. They espouse a morality which they do not practice.… This dilemma can and should be fully utilized by the organizer in getting individuals and groups involved in a People’s Organization. It is a very definite Achilles’ heel even in the most materialistic person. Caught in the trap of his own contradictions, that person will find it difficult to show satisfactory cause to both the organizer and himself as to why he should not join and participate in the organization. He will be driven either to participation or else to a public and private admission of his own lack of faith in democracy and man.”[77]
Alinsky taught that in order to most effectively cast themselves as defenders of moral principals and human decency, organizers must react with “shock, horror, and moral outrage” whenever their targeted enemy in any way misspeaks or fails to live up to his “book of rules.”[78]

Moreover, said Alinsky, whenever possible the organizer must deride his enemy and dismiss him as someone unworthy of being taken seriously because he is either intellectually deficient or morally bankrupt. “The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength,” said Alinsky.[79] He advised organizers to “laugh at the enemy” in an effort to provoke “an irrational anger.”[80] “Ridicule,” said Alinsky, “is man’s most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.”[81]

According to Alinsky, it was vital that organizers focus on multiple crusades and multiple approaches. “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag,” he wrote. “Man can sustain militant interest in any issue for only a limited time … New issues and crises are always developing…”[82] “Keep the pressure on,” he continued, “with different tactics and actions, and utilize all events of the period for your purpose.”[83]

Toward this end, Alinksy advised organizers to be sure that they always kept more than one “fight in the bank.” In other words, organizers should keep a stockpile of comparatively small crusades which they are already prepared to conduct, and to which they can instantly turn their attention after having won a major victory of some type. These “fights in the bank” serve the dual purpose of keeping the organization’s momentum going, while not allowing its major crusade to get “stale” from excessive public exposure.[84]

A People’s Organization, said Alinsky, can build a wide-based membership only if it focuses on multiple issues (e.g., civil rights, civil liberties, welfare, rent, urban renewal, the environment, etc.) “Multiple issues mean constant action and life,” Alinsky wrote.[85]

Alinsky cautioned organizers to judiciously choose to initiate only those battles which they stood a very good chance of winning. “The organizer’s job,” he said, “is to begin to build confidence and hope in the idea of organization and thus in the people themselves: to win limited victories, each of which will build confidence and the feeling that ‘if we can do so much with what we have now, just think what we will be able to do when we get big and strong.’ It is almost like taking a prize-fighter up the road to the championship — you have to very carefully and selectively pick his opponents, knowing full well that certain defeats would be demoralizing and end his career.”[86]

Alinsky also taught that in some cases the mission of the People’s Organization could be aided if the organizer was able to get himself arrested and thereafter exploit the publicity he derived from the arrest. “Jailing the revolutionary leaders and their followers,” Alinsky said, “… strengthens immeasurably the position of the leaders with their people by surrounding the jailed leadership with an aura of martyrdom; it deepens the identification of the leadership with their people.” It shows, he said, “that their leadership cares so much for them, and is so sincerely committed to the issue, that it is willing to suffer imprisonment for the cause.”[87] But Alinsky stipulated that organizers should seek to be jailed only for a short duration (from one day to two months); longer terms of incarceration, he said, have a tendency to fall from public consciousness and to be forgotten.[88]

During the 1960s Alinsky was an enormously influential force in American life. As Richard Poe reports: “When President Johnson launched his War on Poverty in 1964, Alinsky allies infiltrated the program, steering federal money into Alinsky projects. In 1966, Senator Robert Kennedy allied himself with union leader Cesar Chavez, an Alinsky disciple. Chavez had worked ten years for Alinsky, beginning in 1952. Kennedy soon drifted into Alinsky’s circle. After race riots shook Rochester, New York, Alinsky descended on the city and began pressuring Eastman-Kodak to hire more blacks. Kennedy supported Alinsky’s shakedown.”

Alinsky died in 1972, but his legacy lives on as a staple of leftist method, a veritable blueprint for revolution (which he and his disciples euphemistically refer to as “change”). Two of his most notable modern-day disciples are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

In 1969 Hillary Clinton wrote her 92-page senior thesis on Alinsky’s theories. A great admirer of Alinsky’s blend of ruthless and stealth activist tactics, Hillary personally interviewed the famed author for her project. She concluded her thesis by stating:

“Alinsky is regarded by many as the proponent of a dangerous socio/political philosophy. As such, he has been feared — just as Eugene Debs [the five-time Socialist Party candidate for U.S. President] or Walt Whitman or Martin Luther King has been feared, because each embraced the most radical of political faiths — democracy.”

Hillary would maintain her allegiance to Alinsky’s teachings throughout her adult life. According to a March 2007 Washington Post report:

“As first lady, Clinton occasionally lent her name to projects endorsed by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the Alinsky group that had offered her a job in 1968. She raised money and attended two events organized by the Washington Interfaith Network, an IAF affiliate.”

Ultimately, Hillary’s investigation of Alinsky’s methods and ideals led her to conclude that the Lyndon Johnson-era federal antipoverty programs did not go far enough in redistributing wealth among the American people, and did not give sufficient power to the poor.

When Hillary graduated from Wellesley in 1969, she was offered a job with Alinsky’s new training institute in Chicago. She opted instead to enroll at Yale Law School.

Unlike Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama never personally met Saul Alinsky. By the time Alinsky died in 1972, Obama was only 11 years old. But as a young man, he became a master practitioner of Alinsky’s methods. In 1985 a small group of 20-odd churches in Chicago offered Obama a job helping residents of poor, predominantly black, Far South Side neighborhoods. Accepting that opportunity, Obama became Director of the Developing Communities Project, where he worked for the next three years on initiatives that ranged from job training to school reform to hazardous waste cleanup. David Freddoso, author of the 2008 book The Case Against Barack Obama, summarizes Obama’s community-organizing efforts as follows:
“He pursued manifestly worthy goals; protecting people from asbestos in government housing projects is obviously a good thing and a responsibility of the government that built them. But [in every case except one] the proposed solution to every problem on the South Side was a distribution of government funds …”

Three of Obama’s mentors in Chicago were trained at the Alinsky-founded Industrial Areas Foundation. (The Developing Communities Project itself was an affiliate of the Gamaliel Foundation, whose modus operandi for the creation of “a more just and democratic society” is rooted firmly in the Alinsky method.)

One of Obama’s early mentors in the Alinsky method, Mike Kruglik, would later say the following about Obama:

“He was a natural, the undisputed master of agitation, who could engage a room full of recruiting targets in a rapid-fire Socratic dialogue, nudging them to admit that they were not living up to their own standards. As with the panhandler, he could be aggressive and confrontational. With probing, sometimes personal questions, he would pinpoint the source of pain in their lives, tearing down their egos just enough before dangling a carrot of hope that they could make things better.”

For several years, Obama himself taught workshops on the Alinsky method. Also, beginning in the mid-1980s, Obama worked with ACORN, the Alinskyite grassroots political organization that grew out of George Wiley’s National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO).

This profile was written by John Perazzo in April 2008.

[1] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals (New York: Vintage Books), March 1972 edition, p. xxii. (Original publication was in 1971.)

[2] Ibid., p.3.

[3] J. Edgar Hoover, Masters of Deceit (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1958), p. 213.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals (New York: Vintage Books), 1989, p. 90. (Original publication was in 1946.)

[6] Ibid., p.91.

[7] Ibid., pp. 16-17.

[8] Ibid., p. 26.

[9] Ibid., p. 25.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, p. 7.

[12] Ibid., p. 3.

[13] Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, pp. 21-22.

[14] Ibid., p. 4.

[15] Ibid., p. 92.

[16] Ibid., p. 40.

[17] Ibid., p. 92.

[18] Ibid., p. 45.

[19] Ibid., p. 43.

[20] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, pp. 120-121.

[21] Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, pp. 6-7.

[22] Ibid., p. 15.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., p. 40.

[25] Ibid., p. 16.

[26] Ibid., p. 60.

[27] Ibid., p. 25.

[28] Ibid., p. 57.

[29] Ibid., p. 59.

[30] Ibid., p. 60.

[31] Ibid., pp. 59-60.

[32] Ibid., p. 133.

[33] Ibid., pp. 48, 64.

[34] J. Edgar Hoover, Masters of Deceit, p. 90.

[35] Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, p. 44.

[36] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, p. 91. Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, p. 104.

[37] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, p. 92.

[38] Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, p. 43.

[39] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, p. 61.

[40] Ibid., pp. 116-117.

[41] Ibid., p. 117.

[42] Ibid., p. 100.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid., p. 130.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid., p. 133.

[47] Ibid., pp. 130-131.

[48] Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, p. 125.

[49] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, p. 151.

[50] Ibid., p. 134.

[51] Ibid., p. 78.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid., p. 29.

[54] Ibid., p. 34.

[55] Ibid., p. 24.

[56] Ibid., p. 26.

[57] Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, p. 150.

[58] Ibid., pp. 133-134.

[59] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, p. 130.

[60] Ibid., p. 18.

[61] Ibid., pp. 18-20.

[62] Ibid., p. 19.

[63] Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, p. 93.

[64] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, p. 195.

[65] Ibid., p. 45.

[66] Ibid., p. 186.

[67] Ibid., p. 43.

[68] Ibid., pp. 43-44.

[69] Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, pp. 150-151.

[70] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, p. 127.

[71] Ibid., p. 129.

[72] Ibid., p. 126.

[73] Ibid., p. 127.

[74] Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, pp. 169-170.

[75] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, p. 128.

[76] Ibid., p. 152.

[77] Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, pp. 93-94.

[78] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, p. 130.

[79] Ibid., p. 136.

[80] Ibid., p. 138.

[81] Ibid., p. 128.

[82] Ibid.

[83] Ibid.

[84] Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, pp. 151-152.

[85] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, pp. 76-78, 120.

[86] Ibid., p. 114.

[87] Ibid., p. 155.

[88] Ibid., p. 156.


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