Dispatches from the Potomac#32 | Saul Alinsky: The Haves and the Have-Nots

This is a translation of an article originally written in March 2020 for publication in the April 2020 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Yoichi Mineo

A young Barack Obama contributed his article “Why organize?” to a book titled “Post Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois.” In the article, he emphasizes the importance of organizing communities through traditional black churches. He writes that through community organizing he discovered the most satisfying contribution bringing communities together can make is helping working-class people. In 1969, Hillary Rodham (later Hilary Rodham Clinton) wrote her senior thesis “An analysis of the Alinsky model.” She finishes her thesis by writing “he has been feared - just as Martin Luther King has been feared, because each embraced the most radical of political faiths – democracy.” I would wager that there are few people on Earth who have not heard of President Obama and Secretary Clinton. However, far fewer people have heard of a man named Alinsky, whose prolific work inspired and heavily influenced the famous president and senator. So, who is he?

Saul David Alinsky was born in 1909 in Chicago, the son of Jewish Russian immigrants. While his academic career began with the study of archaeology, he changed his major when he was awarded a graduate fellowship in criminology. He would go on to say in a later interview with Harper’s magazine in 1965, “In the Capone gang I learned, among other things, the terrific importance of personal relationships.” After his fellowship ended, Alinsky found himself frustrated with his job in the government. In an interview with Playboy Magazine, he claimed he was labeled as a “communist” after trying to correct the root causes of criminality, which he had identified as poor housing, racial discrimination, economic insecurity and unemployment. In 1938, he left the job and began devoting himself to organizing communities of people living in poverty so that they would be able to help themselves.

Community organizing is the process of bringing individuals who are powerless by themselves together with an organization that acts in the shared interest of the group. Grassroots groups, faith-based organizations and labor unions are common types of community organizing. Alinsky was so influential because he developed a unique method of community organizing, implemented it and built a system to train future community organizers.

Alinsky successfully organized a diverse, multi-racial community in the Chicago area. This community famously supported a strike against a packinghouse, making substantive change to improve working conditions. Furthermore, in 1972, another Alinsky-led group recruited 2,500 people to simultaneously occupy all the bathrooms at Chicago O’Hare Airport. If the group had followed through with this plan, arriving passengers wouldn’t have had a place to relieve themselves. “The consequences” Alinsky described “would [have] be[en] catastrophic.” However, the well-organized plan was leaked and the threat of action ended up being enough for the Mayor of Chicago at the time to commit to addressing the group’s grievances.

In his last book “Rules for Radicals” published in 1971, the year before his death, he stated, “The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away”.

The book doesn’t discuss the pros and cons of organizing. Instead, it is more of a how-to manual for organizing. “Organizations must be based on many issues. Multiple issues would draw in the many potential members essential to the building of a broad, mass-based organization...Love and faith are not common companions. More commonly power and fear consort with faith.” Drawing on Machiavelli, Alinsky maintains that the ends do indeed justify the means. Unlikely allies working together might seem odd, but to him, it was the most efficient way to get things done. The “it’s just war” theory has always been the way to justify killing in war time. “Killing has always been regarded as justifiable if committed in self-defense...in war, the end justifies almost any means. Churchill supported communists for only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler.” Alinsky’s philosophy justifies any action so long as it corrects some injustice.

As its subtitle, “A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals” indicates, the book is entirely pragmatic. In other words, Alinsky makes no subjective judgements on the good or evil of things. In “Alinsky’s 13 Rules”, the 13th Rule is, “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Alinsky identified that while attacking an organization may not be effective, attacking an individual usually is. This is still true even now, almost 50 years after his death. Donald Trump won the 2016 election by provoking the fear of the “silent majority” who had been left out of the economic boom. Similarly, the Democratic Party won the House in 2018 by “picking” President Trump, “freezing”, “personalizing” and “polarizing” him. As a result, they successfully raised voter turnout to a record high.

Alinsky’s principles about power, organizing and the ends justifying the means continue to affect the way politics are organized and how candidates get elected today. His non-partisan approach has been used by the Tea Party and Democratic Party alike. His timeless ideas will continue to propel politics into the future.