The Problem With Saul Alinsky

If the Left is going to rebuild power in the age of Trump, we shouldn’t look to Saul Alinsky for a roadmap.

Saul Alinsky, popularly known as the “father of community organizing,” has garnered praise from figures ranging from Cesar Chavez to William F. Buckley. Through his writing — especially the 1971 book Rules for Radicals — and through organizations modeled on his Industrial Areas Foundation, Alinsky’s views continue to influence those seeking to build and lead successful community organizations.

Alinsky’s ideas have long held a canonical place in community organizing literature and training curricula, but interest in his life and work was sparked again in 2008 after Barack Obama’s election. Obama had cited him as an influence in his first book, Dreams from My Father.

The rising Tea Party movement developed a paranoid obsession with Alinsky, which persists among today’s “alt-right.” Articles appeared across conservative media with titles like “How Saul Alinsky Taught Barack Obama Everything He Knows About Civic Upheaval.” Glenn Beck even produced a four-part radio series to expose Alinsky’s “vision for a Godless, centrally controlled utopia.” This right-wing obsession fueled attacks on community organizations like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which ultimately led to its dissolution in 2010.

This ire comes not only from Alinsky’s stature but also from the Right’s hatred of any popular organizing on behalf of the exploited and oppressed. But while we should unapologetically defend any movements that fights to improve life for the poor and working class, Alinsky’s legacy is worth a critical look from the Left.

Today, the mantra of “Alinskyism” — apolitical “single-issue” campaigns that focus on “winnable demands” run by a well-oiled, staff-heavy organization — is regularly floated as a cure for the Left’s ailments. But predictably, this self-described pragmatism, which dismisses radical politics and empowers a class of professional organizers, has shut the door to more democratic and transformational forms of working-class mobilization.

Power to the Bureaucrats

Alinsky grew up on Chicago’s West Side, then an epicenter of working class struggle. When the Great Depression struck, it impacted a whole generation of radicals, including Alinsky. After a brief period studying criminology at the University of Chicago, he began working for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) under the mentorship of John L. Lewis, the union’s president.

Alinsky’s experience with the CIO profoundly shaped him. Communist and socialist influence was rising in the labor movement at this time, and leadership battles were bitterly contested. Seeking to take advantage of militants’ class anger and enthusiasm for organizing, Lewis hired hundreds of them as full-time staffers — but kept them within arm’s reach. Through cooptation and quiet repression, Lewis and his bureaucracy secured control over the radicals. After other staffers questioned the use of such radicals for organizing industrial workers, Lewis responded, “Who gets the bird? The hunter or the dog?”

Alinsky left the labor movement and formed his first community organization, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, in 1939. To organize the predominantly Roman Catholic community, he asked the church for support and pandered to its anticommunism.

As he explained in an interview with Playboy magazine:

In order to involve the Catholic priests in Back of the Yards, I didn’t give them any stuff about Christian ethics, I just appealed to their self-interest. I’d say, “Look, you’re telling your people to stay out of the Communist-dominated unions and action groups, right? . . . Your only hope is to move first, to beat the Communists at their own game, to show the people you’re more interested in their living conditions than the contents of your collection plate. And not only will you get them back again by supporting their struggle, but when they win they’ll be more prosperous and your donations will go up and the welfare of the Church will be enhanced.

Alinsky’s ploy worked, and he spread a very simple message throughout the community:

Look, you don’t have to put up with all this shit. There’s something concrete you can do about it. But to accomplish anything you’ve got to have power and you’ll only get it through organization. Now, power comes in two forms — money and people. You haven’t got any money, but you do have people, and here’s what you can do with them.

This is Alinskyism’s core: in contests between money and people, a large enough group can secure immediate concessions from landlords, politicians, and business owners. This organizing method helped his campaigns win local improvements in public housing, community health services, and public schools all across the United States.

Alinsky systematized these ideas in his most famous work, Rules for Radicals. In it, he tried to convince a new generation of radicalizing youth from the New Left to adopt his “pragmatic” approach to organizing, which rested on accepting “the world as it is” and rejecting more militant politics. The essence of this “realistic” radicalism was captured succinctly by Hillary Clinton herself, writing in her undergraduate thesis that,

Much of what Alinsky professes does not sound “radical.” . . . [H]e does not advocate immediate change. He is too much in the world right now to allow himself the luxury of symbolic suicide. He realizes that radical goals have to be achieved often by non-radical, even “anti-radical” means.

At its outset, Alinsky presented Rules as an explicit alternative to the politics of revolutionary socialism:

The Have-Nots of the world seeking revolutionary writings, can find such literature only from the communists. . . . Here they can read about tactics, maneuvers, strategy, and principles of action in the making of revolutions. . . . We have permitted a suicidal situation to unfold wherein revolution and communism have become one. These pages are committed to splitting this political atom.

Revolutionary ideas unnecessarily limit an organizer, Alinsky insisted. Rather, an organizer should have a “free and open mind, and political relativity” that allowed him to “respond to the realities of the widely different situations our society presents.” Alinsky’s discussion of means and ends most concretely expressed his relativism: “[i]n war,” he argued “the end justifies almost any means.”

Alinsky gave organizers a list of rules: “Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have,” “Never go outside the experience of your people,” “Keep the pressure on.” These dicta have become so widespread that they can often be seen prominently posted in labor and nonprofit organizations’ offices.

Like much of Alinsky’s writing, Rules is filled with anecdotes of small victories. In one exemplary story, his Back of the Yards organization campaigned for infant medical care from Chicago’s health office. Alinsky explained to his readers that, years earlier, the neighborhood’s religious leadership had driven these clinics out of the community because they provided birth control information. Residents needed to simply ask the city to bring them back.

“I kept this information to myself,” Alinsky confessed, and convinced his organization’s members to storm the office and demand the services. Alinsky asked the reader to review his discussion of means and ends before accusing him of “trickery.”

The Organizer Makes History

Despite his insistence on the importance of organization, Alinsky wrote little about the role education, debate, and democracy should play in a community organization. He focused instead on the organizer: “[o]rganizations are created, in large part, by the organizer,” a “highly imaginative and creative architect and engineer.”

As labor organizer and scholar Jane McAlevey put it in her recent book No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Guilded Age, “Alinsky was not known for his governance skills.” His legacy has encouraged the union movement to embrace the bureaucratic pressures all unions face rather than resist them. Those pressures have helped lead to the legalistic grievance procedures, closed-door bargaining, and staff-led “corporate campaigns” that characterize the labor movement today, severely depressing rank-and-file engagement, enthusiasm, and mobilization.

Alinsky didn’t place any special importance on the role or potential power of workers, and he preferred to treat all tactics in a campaign, including strikes, as potentially equal.

In the Playboy interview, he explained his transition from the labor movement to community organizing:

What I wanted to try to do was to apply the organizing skills I’d mastered in the CIO to the worst slums and ghettos, so that the most oppressed and exploited elements could take control of their own communities and their own destinies. Up until then, specific factories and industries had been organized for social change, but never whole communities.

In his second book, Reville for Radicals, Alinsky favorably quoted one CIO leader, who said:

If history has proved anything about the role of labor in highly industrialized societies in recent years, it has proved the gross error of ascribing to the trade unions a revolutionary character . . . workers have been and still are reluctant to get excited about political theories proposing radical social change.

The organizer, not the worker or community member, is the primary subject in an Alinsky-style organization. While she discusses the importance of small victories to mobilize the community around a particular demand, she pays little attention to the development of rank-and-file political consciousness.

Alinsky and Cesar Chavez

Alinskyism’s characteristic traits are likely familiar to those who have worked with unions and social movement non-profit organizations in the past. Following the collapse of the mass militancy of the 1960s, many radicals formed organizations to sustain progressive grassroots engagement. In many cases, the Alinsky-style organizations served as the template for their structure and approach to building organizations.

Among those organizations, the United Farm Workers was particularly influential, a union impeccably documented by Frank Bardacke in Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers. The popularity of the UFW grew through the late 1960s just as the influence of the New Left began to wane, filling an important void that helped the union build large networks of support.

The founders of the UFW, including Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Fred Ross, were devoted disciples of Alinsky. Chavez was even known for giving Alinsky’s biography of John L. Lewis to friends and colleagues as a gift. Alinsky’s ideas, however, ultimately left the union leadership unprepared to build the kind of democratic workers’ organization necessary to successfully take on California’s powerful growing industry — and helped lead to the union’s eventual collapse.

As Bardacke concludes in his book, Chavez believed that,

organizers rather than local leaders were the crucial people who made politics happen. The organizers were, he said in 1969, “the heroes of the farm worker movement.” Without the guidance of skilled organizers . . . rank-and-file leaders would be forever trapped in a competitive individualism, incapable of building their own movement. That idea came from Saul Alinsky.

Staff organizers, not the farm workers themselves, were the heart and soul of the UFW under Chavez’s model.

The union carried this perspective to its logical conclusion: it had no local organization at the rank-and-file level at all. Farm workers were unable to elect their leadership.

The bulk of the union’s revenue was gathered from donations from sympathetic progressive (mostly student or church-based) organizations rather than farm workers’ dues. Inevitably, this meant the union became more accountable to its liberal supporters than to conditions in the field.

The UFW came to resemble a fundraising outfit more than a union, raising money for farm worker organizing based on the work of UFW staff in mostly urban areas, fueled by the tragic tales of farm workers’ plight but without real input from those rank and filers. In fact, as Bardacke writes, Chavez and his loyalists actually declared war on those members who dissented from his organizing vision, whether because they had radical political commitments of their own (Chavez also shared Alinsky’s disdain for leftism), disagreed with the cult of personality that Chavez began demanding in the late 1970s, or just wanted rank-and-file workers to have more of a say in the functioning of the day-to-day operations of the union.

At the height of its influence, the union represented over 50,000 members and brought some of the most powerful growers in the country to their knees. But with virtually no organization in the fields, and with the union unable to leverage any power to enforce or renegotiate contracts with the growers, contracts expired and membership declined dramatically. Today, the union is a shadow of its former self.

Not Dead Ballast, But a Lifeline

Alinsky was correct that leadership is an indispensable element in the success of any social movement. But he is wrong that effective leadership must reject “political ideology” (as if such a thing were even possible). A democratic, social-movement-focused leadership, guided by a radical political vision, can use its accumulated experience, political analysis, and understanding of history to come up with strategies to organize collective action from below.

Alinsky’s rejection of radical politics does not free organizers to be “flexible,” in other words. Instead, it limits them to a relatively constrained field of vision in which the rank and file appears hopelessly disorganized and conservative. They have no particular political aspirations of their own. Instead, the organizer must come from outside to encourage them to make “winnable” and “realistic” demands to improve their conditions.

A labor organizer explained it this way to McAlevey:

Alinsky’s attempt to strip the organizing model of ideology manifests in various concrete practices, like insisting that groups should only wage winnable fights and that the organizer should refrain from bringing her political views into the organization’s discourse. The ramifications render the Alinsky model impotent relative to many contemporary challenges because ideology is a central front of the rightwing, and, therefore the left must contest in this arena.

McAlevey gets at an important point: without a radical political guide to action, it’s easy for organizers to avoid confronting racial divisions within a workplace or neighborhood (as Alinsky didn’t in Back of the Yards: after his departure, the organization infamously used the tools and infrastructure he helped build to fight integration in the neighborhood) or building an organization that maximizes democratic engagement among the rank and file. A labor militant who uses socialist politics to confidently argue against xenophobic scapegoating within her workplace more aptly characterizes effective radicalism than the pipe-smoking armchair Marxist, as Alinsky would have it.

Far from making us rigid, our ideas help socialists understand the world around us, providing us with a sense of strategic direction and allowing us to plot effective collective action.

Alinsky’s attitude toward theory begs Leon Trotsky’s polemical question:

How many times have we met a smug centrist who reckons himself a “realist” merely because he sets out to swim without any ideological baggage whatever and is tossed by every vagrant current? He is unable to understand that principles are not dead ballast but a lifeline for a revolutionary swimmer.

Despite Alinsky’s Cold War-era insistence that revolutionary ideology makes an organizer inert or rigidly dogmatic, socialists have been among the most successful and committed organizers in virtually every movement against oppression and exploitation. We recognize that today’s conflicts help lay long-term political and organizational foundations for successive and escalating confrontations.

Workers’ confidence in their own power grows after each successful confrontation. Toward that end, socialists place the highest priority on thoroughgoing internal democracy and political education. This does not emerge from an abstract set of ethics, but rather from a practical understanding of how working class organizations successfully confront capital.

Because workers can rarely improve their quality of life by their own individual efforts, they must organize to build the social power necessary to win concessions from the bosses. They have the greatest leverage in their workplaces by shutting down production. Rank-and-file democracy not only guarantees that all workers can express their ideas about the best tactics to win, but also encourages a sense of identity and commitment to their organization.

Shortcutting on democratic engagement with workers or community group members, or substituting the efforts of staff for rank-and-file members’ capacity, does not expedite a campaign’s success, but critically undermines an organization’s long-term political strength by rendering the membership inert. Some people may even forget that they’re a member of the organization at all.

A radical commitment to democracy is not only necessary for immediate and defensive campaigns, but lays the groundwork for future revolutionary struggles ahead. As people collectively debate, discuss, and assess their experiences, they’re more able to understand their own power to transform and reshape society to meet their needs. As the UFW example shows, no staff organizer, no matter how talented, can substitute for that patient process of building up rank-and-file capacity.

As C. L. R. James once put it,

The struggle for socialism is the struggle for proletarian democracy. Proletarian democracy is not the crown of socialism. Socialism is the result of proletarian democracy. To the degree that the proletariat mobilizes itself and the great masses of the people, the socialist revolution is advanced. The proletariat mobilizes itself as a self-acting force through its own committees, unions, parties, and other organizations.

Alinsky never considers the possibility that people organized to fight in their community or workplace may eventually develop their own radical ideas about how they should organize or take collective action once they begin to sense their own power. In his model, the initiative remains in the hands of the organizer and staff. We insist on the necessity of democracy.

Formed in the Bureaucracy

Alinsky’s own ideas about democracy and ideology developed out of his experience in the CIO bureaucracy. While he liked to present his ideas as “pragmatic” and matter-of-fact, they rather reflect the common sense attitudes of the labor and social movement bureaucracy.

While those who earn their living carrying out the day-to-day operations, maintenance, and political tasks of trade unions and community organizations, unlike the rank-and-file membership, their livelihood is not tied to the fate of class struggle. Rather, a bureaucrat’s income depends primarily on the organization’s longevity – especially its ability to collect dues and raise money.

This often encourages reservations about direct confrontations with the boss and capital that may drain funds and endanger stable sources of revenue. While committed and often even militant radicals may join the staff or leadership of unions and community groups, they often end up pitted against the interests of their rank and file. Alinsky’s “pragmatism” has enjoyed a great deal of popularity and longevity precisely for providing a “radical” language for emphasizing short-term and winnable campaigns against raising more ambitious demands and strategies to engage the rank and file to confront the power of the bosses.

This is not to say, of course, that rank-and-file workers or poor community residents are ready to beat down the gates of power, only to be restrained by a conservative bureaucracy. Economic uncertainty, poor job security, and the lack of militant leadership on the shop floor places limits on peoples’ willingness to fight.

But it would be wrong to treat the understandable hesitancy people might feel toward strikes or confronting the bosses as reflective of their insurmountable individualism or conservatism, as has been the traditional approach of those in the Alinsky school.

Exploitation and oppression will always produce elements of resistance, however small. The task of radicals who want to fight against and eventually overthrow those systems of oppression is to organize alongside that “militant minority” and prepare for greater struggles ahead. It was communist and socialist militants with this perspective who have played critical roles in leading struggles that led to the foundation of the US labor movement of the 1930s, the Black Freedom Struggle, and social movements erupting today.

In a sort of historical irony, Alinskyism enjoyed its own success living off the successes of the more radical movements that preceded it. Relatively high levels of working-class organization (as well as the especially high profit rates of the postwar years) created a social and political climate where businesses, landlords, and politicians were more willing to concede to social pressure from below. As the economic situation began to deteriorate in the late 1960s, business declared an all out “one-sided class war.” Alinsky-style organizations have been increasingly unable to secure substantive victories ever since.

Despite all this, Alinsky’s writings remain the standard go-to guide for building militant organization. But the stakes are too high, and our tasks are too urgent, to leave Alinskyism’s dominance unchallenged. We can do better.