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Book review of Nicholas von Hoffman's "Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky"

Ronald Radosh

Nicholas von Hoffman’s short, breezy, and informative sketch of Saul Alinsky — and of the decade he spent with him working as a community organizer — offers us a very different take on the legendary activist than the narrative we are accustomed to. This is especially the case for those conservatives who consider Alinsky close to the devil. Alinsky made the comparison himself, invoking Lucifer, along with Thomas Paine and Rabbi Hillel, in the epigraphs to his classic, bestselling 1971 guide, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. As Alinsky put it, clearly facetiously, Lucifer was “the very first radical . . . who rebelled against the establishment,” and who was so effective “that he . . . won his own kingdom.” But the reality of Alinsky and his work was significantly different from what this tongue-in-cheek self-presentation — and, a fortiori, today’s conservative attacks on Alinsky — would have us believe. He was not a radical believer in Big Government, and he probably would have had serious problems with Barack Obama’s agenda.

Alinsky became famous by organizing ethnic workers in the old Chicago stockyards from 1939 to the end of the 1950s, where he created the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council as the vehicle to organize them. Because of his work, von Hoffman notes, “what had been an area of ramshackle, near-slum housing tilting this way and that had been rebuilt into a model working-class community of neat bungalow homes.”

Candidly, von Hoffman adds that Alinsky did not challenge the neighborhood’s pattern of segregation, which had “become an impregnable fortification of whites-only exclusionism.” Back in 1919, these same workers played a part in the famous 1919 Chicago-area race riots, in which 500 people, most of them black, were wounded and 38 killed. Alinsky did manage to obtain permission for blacks to have unmolested passage through the Back of the Yards as they were on their way to other places — which seems little by today’s standards, but, as von Hoffman notes, was a major accomplishment then.

As for the Neighborhood Council’s funding, it came not from government largesse, but from — of all things — the illegal-gambling activities of Alinsky’s partner, Joe Meegan. This spoke to Alinsky’s longstanding friendly relations with gangsters, thugs, and the organized-crime syndicates. That source of funding meant that any pressure from government to end racial exclusion would come to naught. Moreover, Alinsky’s belief that the people had to determine their own destiny meant, for him, that if the people wanted an all-white community, they should not be challenged on the matter. Although he wanted integration, and hoped that he could select and induce a few middle-class black families to buy homes in the Back of the Yards neighborhood and then convince whites to accept them, his partner Meegan nixed the idea. “Even public discussion of a Negro family,” von Hoffman writes, “would have the same effect as news that the bubonic plague was loose.” Even fair-minded whites in the area believed that blacks’ moving in meant “slumification, crime, bad schools, and punishing drops in real-estate values,” and hence the simple idea of an interracial neighborhood “would destroy the community and the council.” Alinsky’s code of loyalty to the Back of the Yards Council came before his personal opposition to segregation. (As von Hoffman rationalizes it, “the leaders behind the whites-only policy were his friends.”) The people pursued a policy he abhorred; and he had no choice but to stand with the people.

An even more surprising revelation is that Alinsky admired Sen. Barry Goldwater, whose libertarian objections to the proposed 1964 civil-rights act he shared. Countervailing power from organizations, not decisions made by courts, Alinsky thought, was the only way to achieve permanent change. Thus, von Hoffman tells us, “he was less than enthusiastic about much civil-rights legislation,” and during Goldwater’s run for the presidency, he had at least one secret meeting with the conservative senator, during which they discussed Lyndon Johnson’s civil-rights proposal. “Saul,” von Hoffman writes, “shared the conservative misgivings about the mischief such laws could cause if abused,” but would not publicly oppose the bill, since he had no better idea to propose in its place.

Alinsky also opposed Martin Luther King Jr.’s attempted march in Chicago in 1965, criticizing King for not building a “stable, disciplined, mass-based power organization.” He saw King as a man without local roots, who did not know the community, and who did not have any idea about how to organize it. Von Hoffman writes that King led “a little army stranded inside a vast and hostile terrain,” whose efforts “accomplished nothing except to reinforce the perception” that King “was an outsider.”

But what did Alinsky think about the other major liberal ideas of the time — for example, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program, or Robert F. Kennedy’s program for the poor? According to David Horowitz, the conservative activist and author — in his very influential pamphlet “Barack Obama’s Rules for Revolution: The Alinsky Model” — Alinsky’s radical organizers had a responsibility to work “within the system.” They did not follow the path advocated by the New Left, who preferred to utter meaningless calls for “revolution.” Thus, Horowitz writes, they “infiltrated the War on Poverty, made alliances with the Kennedys and the Democratic Party, and secured funds from the federal government. Like termites, they set about to eat away at the foundations of the building in expectation that one day they could cause it to collapse.” While the New Left created riots like that at the Chicago Democratic convention in 1968, “Alinsky’s organizers were insinuating themselves into Johnson’s War on Poverty program and directing federal funds into their own organizations and causes.”

According to von Hoffman, though, Alinsky had nothing but contempt for activists who gladly took money from the government, and hence his own group did not work within or for the government’s War on Poverty programs. Writes von Hoffman:

Although Alinsky is described as some kind of liberal left-winger[,] in actuality big government worried him. He had no use for President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society with its War on Poverty. He used to say that if Washington was going to spend that kind of dough the government might as well station people on the ghetto street corners and hand out hundred-dollar bills to the passing pedestrians. For him governmental action was the last resort, not the ideal one.

Moreover, according to von Hoffman, Alinsky also opposed putting community organizers on the government payroll, as Bobby Kennedy sought to do, since “it made an independent civil life next to impossible.” It also created the conditions by which any administration could use their work for “social and political control.” It would “stifle independent action,” and possibly turn paid organizers “into police spies.” As von Hoffman sees his mentor, Alinsky opposed not only big government, but also large corporations and big labor. What he wanted was not revolution — despite his radical rhetoric meant to appeal to the New Left — but “democratic organizations which could pose countervailing power against modern bureaucracies.” Thus, in von Hoffman’s view, Saul Alinsky was a radical, but a Tory radical or a radical conservative: a man with a libertarian sensibility who supported all the little men fighting against any large structure, whether it was the government, a corporation, or organized labor.

In today’s America, conservatives have paid a great deal of attention to what was — until its recent demise after a series of scandals — the largest and most successful community organization, ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). Critics have accused the group of electoral fraud, of shakedowns of large banking and manufacturing firms, and of helping to create the housing bubble by fighting to have community banks grant loans to those who had no way to pay them back. Many of the critics claim that the organization, formed in 1970, was inspired by Alinsky’s methods and concepts — but Alinsky had nothing to do with its founding.

This is an important issue, because the great interest Alinsky has for commentators today stems largely from his reputed influence on Barack Obama. One often hears critics of President Obama’s policies proclaim that he is acting “straight out of the Alinsky playbook.” Because Obama was a community organizer for a brief time before going to law school, many people have assumed that, as a disciple of Saul Alinsky, he was committed thereafter to apply Alinsky’s principles as a guide for whatever position he held in life. Many therefore assume that he is now acting on them as president.

It is true that Obama’s mentors were trained by Alinsky’s organization. In re­searching a piece for The New Republic in 2007, Ryan Lizza spoke to Gregory Galluzzo, one of the three men who instructed Obama when he became a community organizer. Galluzzo told Lizza that many organizers would start as idealists, and that he urged them to become realists and not be averse to Alinsky’s candid advocacy of gaining power, since “power is good” and “powerlessness is evil.” Galluzzo taught Obama that people have to be organized according to their self-interest, and not on the basis of what Obama himself has characterized as “pie-in-the-sky idealism.”

In 1992, Obama famously worked for a voter-registration group called Project Vote, which was an ACORN partner, and helped Carol Moseley Braun defeat an incumbent U.S. senator in the 1992 Democratic primary. A few years later, Lizza reported, Obama became ACORN’s attorney, and won a decision forcing Illinois to implement the Motor Voter Law, with what the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund called “loose voter-registration requirements that would later be exploited by ACORN employees in an effort to flood voter rolls with fake names.” Obama cited ACORN first on a list he composed in 1996 of key supporters for his campaign for the state senate.

So Obama’s association with ACORN was real, and close. This, combined with the fact that Obama taught Alinsky’s methods when he worked with community organizers, has led many to assume that Alinsky himself approved of ACORN. Von Hoffman, however, challenges this notion. He writes: “[ACORN’s] cheekiness, truculence, and imaginative tactical tropes have an Alinskyan touch but the organization’s handling of money, embezzlement, and nepotism would have drawn his scorn. Nor would he have been comfortable with the large amounts of government money flowing into the organization.” (Emphasis added.) This conclusion is essentially confirmed by the activist and writer John Atlas, whose new pro-ACORN book, Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, explains that the group broke with the Alinsky model in a number of ways — most importantly, by applying for and receiving government contracts.

According to von Hoffman, Alinsky had nothing but disdain for the New Left with which Obama was associated. He thought Bill Ayers was wedded to “petulant ego decision making,” as well as a “comic-book leftism whose principal feature was anger at a government which did not do as they bade it. Their foot-stamping anger and humiliation at their failures . . . made them believe they were justified in taking up violence.” He saw the Weather Underground as a group prone to tantrums and “Rumpelstiltskin politics.”

Alinsky’s own approach had some major successes. In Rochester, N.Y., he got Eastman Kodak to agree to hire more blacks. In 1965, he had been approached by ministers from Rochester after Martin Luther King Jr. had turned down an overture from them. This in itself provides an interesting contrast with some of the activism of later times: Alinsky took action after he was asked to intervene by community ministers. This was quite different from the kind of shakedown associated in more recent years with Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton, the kind in which large corporations fill an organization’s coffers with money in exchange for a hands-off agreement.

Yet, even in the Rochester fight, Alinsky’s methods often appeared rather comical, and it is rather hard to believe that they were taken seriously. According to von Hoffman, what Alinsky proposed, and scared the city’s elite with, was a scheduled “fart-in” at the Kodak-sponsored Rochester Symphony. He planned to gather black activists — for whom concert tickets had been bought — for a pre-concert dinner made up exclusively of baked beans. This would be his substitute for sit-ins and picket lines. Alinsky called it a “flatulent blitzkrieg,” and the result of this threat (along with other tactics, including the use of proxies at stockholder meetings)?evidently was a settlement in which the city fathers agreed to the demands. In Chicago, he threatened a “piss-in” at O’Hare Airport, which immediately led the city to the bargaining table. That such juvenile tactics worked perhaps says more about the fears of the politicians than the genius of Alinsky.

Alinsky had some impressive backers. Among them was the old giant of the mine workers’ union, John L. Lewis, who advised him and supported him. (Like Lewis, he used Communists as orga­nizers on his staff. He disdained the Communist Party and its Marxist and pro-Soviet positions, and regarded its members as “servants of an antidemo­cratic foreign power” — but because he valued the organizing skill of individual Communists, he hired them as staffers anyway.) He also bonded with key figures in the Catholic archdiocese of Chicago. The whites he sought to organize were mainly believing Catholics, and thus Alinsky became particularly close to Fr. John O’Grady, whom von Hoffman credits with doing away with clerically dominated local charities and replacing them with charities run by professionals from social-work schools in Catholic colleges and universities. Later, Alinsky became close to the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, with whom he regularly corresponded. He also befriended Cardinal Stritch and Fr. Jack Egan, who got the archdiocese to give him the money to launch organizing drives in the 1950s. This constituency is hardly what one thinks of as a force for social revolution in America.

So what were Alinsky’s goals in the end? Von Hoffman does not really answer this question, perhaps because Alinsky never did. Before people decide whether Saul Alinsky was a man with an actual revolutionary plan, they owe it to themselves to take into consideration von Hoffman’s contrary assessment of the father of community organizing.

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