The Radical Correspondence of Saul Alinsky
One of the most talked about philosophical/political figures of the past several years (not counting the Right Wing’s agnostic, anti-social, failed fiction-writing muse Ayn Rand) is Saul Alinsky. Not bad for an Orthodox Jewish kid from Chicago who’s been dead for 40 years.
Well, I know Saul Alinsky, and few people on the Right or Left have done him justice. I was weened on his teachings; trained in the Alinsky Method of Organizing when I was a labor organizer for the National Education Association; and taught Alinsky’s book “Rules for Radicals” for 22 years for Cornell University’s ILR Schools’ Labor Studies Program. Saul Alinsky is my Yoda.
I taught teachers and Teamsters, truck-drivers and electrical workers all about the works and tactics of Saul Alinsky, who was never a Communist nor a Socialist because he hated all dogma and prized his independence and freedom of thought and action. Alinsky was an archeologist by education, a criminologist by training and an organizer of the “have-nots” by choice.
“As an organizer,” he wrote in his seminal work, “I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be…that means working in the system.” For Alinsky, radicalism was not found in burning down ghettos, as happened across the country three years before he wrote “Rules” in 1971, but in organizing them. For him, the meaning of the word “radical” was elemental: getting to the root of the problem.
“One never reaches the horizon,” Alinsky wrote in one more philosophical paragraph, “ it is always just beyond, ever beckoning onward; it is the pursuit of life itself. This is the world as it is. This is where you start.” I followed Saul Alinsky to Rochester, New York, two months after his death, and several years following his successful FIGHT campaign in that upstate city where Blacks were marginalized and left out of the kindnesses of the Eastman Kodak Company, the Eastman School of Music and virtually every other opportunity in town. FIGHT: Freedom, Integration, God, Honor, Today–began to change that.
Corporations and right-wing politicians, then, as now, tried to paint Alinsky as a negative force. Yet, his work, his teachings, his tactics and his philosophy proved otherwise. “ My personal philosophy is anchored in optimism,” he wrote. It must be, for optimism brings with it hope, a future with a purpose, and therefore, a will to fight for a better world.” That may explain why leaders of Freedom Works, the conservative non-profit organization which supports the Tea Party, gives copies of Alinsky’s “Rule for Radicals” to all of its Tea Party Leaders.
Alinsky’s chapter of “Rules for Radicals” entitled ‘A Word about Words,” is a masterpiece on the use of language and semantics. In it, he exposes the tricks politicians play with words to lie and mislead, which is probably why deceivers like Newt Gingrich and Dinesh D’Sousa are alarmed by Alinsky so much. The little Jewish organizer from Chicago strips phonies bare, and, it’s often not a pretty sight. When Bill Mahrer admitted a few years back that he never heard of Saul Alinsky, nor read his work, he unwittingly presaged the basis for his ignorant and prejudiced remarks about Muslims in 2014.
What must greatly gall Gingrich, D’Sousa and other slippery types is Saul Alinksy’s Fourth Rule in the chapter of “Rules for Radicals” entitled “Tactics”: “The fourth rule is, make the enemy live up to their own book of rules”–an impossible standard for many to meet since they fundamentally believe, and act, as if no rules apply to them: on marriage, on lobbying, on examining facts, or telling the truth.
Forget about Alinksy’s allure for Cesar Chavez, Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama, all of whom were influenced by his writings, teachings and tactics to varying degrees. What the shrivel-souled gang Saul has galled can’t stand, is the clarity of Alinksy’s vision, especially as he foresaw the need to organize America’s middle class to achieve social good. “To reject them,” Alinsky wrote, “is to lose them by default. They will not shrivel and disappear. You can’t switch channels and get rid of them….” No one understands this fundamental Alinsky-truth better than Elizabeth Warren, and its why in her calm, fact-based, Midwestern, motherly way, she terrifies the Wall Street, banking and corporate interests who have pulverized the middle class over the past 30 years.
I know Saul Alinsky. He is, and has long been, my Yoda. And, corporate propagandists of the Far Right fear him still– more than 40 years after his death–because the truths he taught have gotten tougher and larger, and cannot be erased by changing the subject, buying the channels or the chattel Members of Congress who recite scripts written by Citibank or the folks at Fox News.