Alinsky, Brooks, Clinton, and Obama: “outright fiction” on the American left

Mar 19th, 2010 | By L. Frank Bunting | Category: USA Today
Barack Obama and half-sister Maya Soetoro, with their mother Ann Dunham and grandfather Stanley Dunham, in the future president’s Hawaiian birthplace, early 1970s — just as Saul Alinsky was fading from a turbulent America.

Barack Obama and half-sister Maya Soetoro, with mother Ann Dunham and grandfather Stanley Dunham, in the future president’s Hawaiian birthplace, early 1970s .

David Brooks is an American conservative journalist who even non-conservatives can read with interest. His March 4, 2010 column in the New York Times on “The Wal-Mart Hippies” has attracted some wider attention — and been reprinted, eg, in the March 6, 2010 print edition of the National Post in Canada.  It seems to me, however, to almost altogether miss the mark.

The main thrust of Brooks’s argument is that there are some striking similarities between the “people we loosely call the New Left” from the 1960s and early 1970s, and the right-wing “people we loosely call the Tea Partiers” today.

Even the loosest connections of this sort are tenuous, I think. And a few specific sentences in Brooks’s  column are much worse. Consider, eg: “the Tea Partiers have adopted the tactics of the New Left. They go in for street theater, mass rallies, marches and extreme statements that are designed to shock polite society out of its stupor. This mimicry is no accident. Dick Armey, one of the spokesmen for the Tea Party movement, recently praised the methods of Saul Alinsky, the leading tactician of the New Left.”

Whatever else, to describe the long-deceased Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky (1909–1972) as “the leading tactician of the New Left” is highly misleading at the very least — and probably much closer to profoundly mistaken. And I say this as someone who spent a few years in the early 1970s embedded with an “Alinsky-style” organizing project in the east end of Toronto, Canada, staffed by graduates and friends of Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation.

1. Beginnings …

Saul Alinsky remains an only vaguely known, under-appreciated, and not-well-understood figure in 20th century American political thought and action. (And especially action: “Analysis is easy; action is what counts” is one proposition I heard again and again when I was trying to analyse “the methods of Saul Alinsky.”) That may be one reason David Brooks gets him so wrong.

I certainly can’t pretend to understand Alinsky any better than anyone else. But I  think it advances the ball somewhat to acknowledge that, some 38 years after his untimely death, he is still a cryptic figure — even if the present-day MSNBC TV journalist Chris Matthews has called him “one of our heroes from the past,” and Playboy magazine once anointed him “one of the great American leaders of the nonsocialist left.”

Alinsky was born in Chicago in 1909.  He also spent significant time in California (where his father moved, after his parents divorced). But all his life he remained a kind of folk-culture creation of the windy city, much like his friend, the journalist Studs Terkel. Even the legendary dysfunctional Chicago mayor and fierce Alinsky opponent Richard J. Daley ultimately recognized that “Alinsky loves Chicago the same as I do.”

In his youth Alinsky studied archaeology — his own first and favourite analytic love — at the University of Chicago. In the early 1930s he went to work as a criminologist for the Illinois state government. (The trouble with archaeology then, he said later, was that “the guys who funded the field trips were being scraped off Wall Street sidewalks.”) By the mid 1930s he was also working as a part-time labour organizer with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

2. Reveille for Radicals in the 1940s

Saul Alinsky in Chicago.

Saul Alinsky in Chicago.

By 1939 Alinsky had become “more active in general community organizing, starting with the slums of Chicago.” One of his models was the “neighbourhood organizing” of Al Capone and his colleagues in the 1920s “Chicago Outfit,” as carried on in the 1930s by Frank Nitti — the subject of Alinsky’s ultimate PhD dissertation in criminology.

Alinsky’s first great community organizing success was in “the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago (made infamous [earlier on] by Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle for the horrific working conditions in the Union Stock Yards).” In 1940, in the wake of his Back of the Yards’ success, Alinsky established the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), with a grant from the philanthropic arm of a Chicago-based department store chain. It would ultimately become an important training centre for his kind of community organizing.

After the United States joined the Second World War in 1942, Alinsky “worked on special assignment for the Treasury and Labor Departments … to increase industrial production in conjunction with the CIO and … organize mass war-bond drives across the country.” He had been offered a foreign-service position with the OSS, precursor of today’s CIA. But in the end the State Department apparently felt that he “could make a better contribution [domestically] in labor affairs, ensuring high production, resolving worker-management disputes, that sort of thing.”

In 1946, with the Second World War out of the way, Alinsky published his first book, Reveille for Radicals — which he claimed to have begun while in jail, for (at first) locally unappreciated “outside agitation” in Kansas City. In the book he “described the new community organizing strategy as ‘collective bargaining beyond the present confines of the factory gate.’”

The best-selling Reveille for Radicals did its best to explain Alinsky’s key concept of local “people’s organizations” — the kind of thing he had first put together in Back of the Yards, and would then work to replicate in “a score of slum communities across the nation, from Kansas City and Detroit to the barrios of Southern California.”

A perceptive review in Time magazine (apparently by Whittaker Chambers) pointed out that the “author has glimpsed a vision which is greater than his ability to put it in practical terms. But this vision …  is no less than the revitalization of democracy.”  The book was also described as “a manifesto which called upon America’s poor to reclaim American democracy.” And the sociologist Daniel Bell urged that Reveille for Radicals “attempts to give people a sense of  participation and belonging” and “becomes important as a weapon against cynicism and despair.”

3. Rules for Radicals in the 1960s and early 1970s

Alinsky carried on with his community organizing work after the Second World War, based out of the Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago.

For a time, the new Cold War with the Soviet Union and the domestic McCarthy scare that cast such a political pall over the United States in the early 1950s made “any radical activity increasingly difficult. In those days everybody who challenged the establishment was branded a Communist.”

Alinsky’s own attitude to Communism was: “I could never accept any rigid dogma or ideology … My only fixed truth is a belief in people, a conviction that if people have the opportunity to act freely and the power to control their own destinies, they’ll generally reach the right decisions. The only alternative to that belief is rule by an elite, whether it’s a Communist bureaucracy or our own present-day corporate establishment. You should never have an ideology more specific than that of the founding fathers: ‘For the general welfare.’”

As it happened, democracy in America was not dead and McCarthyism faded. By the late 1950s, following the US Supreme Court’s landmark school desegregation decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education, the incarnation of Saul Alinsky with which the baby-boom generation and the 1960s “New Left” would become familiar had begun to put down roots.

In 1958 “a group of black leaders came to me and explained how desperate conditions were” in the “Woodlawn district of Chicago …  a black ghetto every bit as bad as Back of the Yards had been in the Thirties.” They “asked our help in organizing the community … At first, I hesitated … I’d never organized a black slum before and I was afraid my white skin might prove an insurmountable handicap.”

These fears proved unfounded. And the growth of the The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) over the next several years helped give “Alinsky-style” community organizing a new national profile in the USA of the civil rights era.

Alinsky and his Industrial Areas Foundation also became involved in the 1950s and 1960s struggles of Mexican agricultural migrants in California. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers were trained by the IAF associate Fred Ross.

By the late 1960s the IAF’s organizer training resources had been bolstered by a grant from the Midas Muffler chain. And Alinsky and his organizers became involved in another high-profile struggle between the Eastman Kodak corporation and a new people’s organization called “FIGHT” (Freedom, Integration, God, Honor, Today) in the black ghetto of  Rochester, NY.

Alinsky’s second major book, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals was published in 1971. It adapted his mid 1940s message and concept of “people’s organizations” in Reveille for Radicals for a new generation. In the spirit of the times it had a sharper edge: “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 word “rules” tempts some readers to reduce the book to a few crucial propositions. Eg: “Power is not only what you have, but what an opponent thinks you have. If your organization is small, hide your numbers in the dark and raise a din that will make everyone think you have many more people than you do.” (Like the right-wing Tea Partiers today?)

The most striking theme in both Rules for Radicals and Saul Alinsky’s later thought on community organizing turned around his hopes for organizing the “White middle class across America.” You could only go so far, he finally concluded, with underclass minorities.

The ultimate goal was to connect with the new American urban and suburban mainstream, with all its continuing vague memories of the old agrarian democratic values nurtured by the family farm: “We’ll give them a way to participate in the democratic process, a way to exercise their rights as citizens and strike back at the establishment that oppresses them, instead of giving in to apathy … I’ve been in this fight since the Depression … and in a way it’s all been preparation for this. I love this goddamn country, and we’re going to take it back.”

As another variation on the same theme, in the midst of FIGHT’s late 1960s/early 1970s struggles in Rochester, NY, Alinsky addressed well-off members of a liberal religious organization “and asked them for their proxies on whatever Kodak stock they held in order to gain entree to the stockholders’ meeting.”

This “proxies for people” became a new middle-class organizing tactic, which “scared Kodak, and … Wall Street. It’s our job now to relieve their tensions by fulfilling their fears … Pat Moynihan told me in Washington when he was still Nixon’s advisor that ‘proxies for people would mean revolution — they’ll never let you get away with it.’”

At this point in his career, Alinsky also confessed, he was told by various perhaps credible enough sources that a bullet was waiting for him. Similar bullets, one might surmise (with only a touch of some conspiracy-theory neurosis?) had already reached John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.

It is at least tempting to imagine that something inside Alinsky decided to save his most aggressive opponents the trouble. On June 12, 1972 he died of a heart attack, at the age of 63, during a visit to his second wife, the one-time debutante Jean Graham, in Carmel, California.

4. What was the New Left?

Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, circa 1970. Photograph by Dan Wynn.

Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, circa 1970. Photograph by Dan Wynn.

As someone who was profoundly intrigued by both Saul Alinsky and the New Left during the early 1970s, David Brooks’s 2010 image of Alinsky as “the leading tactician of the New Left” has struck me as, again, at best profoundly misleading.

At the same time,  Brooks does underline “people we loosely call the New Left.”  And it is true enough that the New Left of the 1960s and early 1970s was at best a vague and amorphous political concept.

To start with, the exact phrase was a largely English-speaking invention. There were more or less parallel trends in other parts of the global village, but they did not quite use this calling card.  (The political thought of Chairman Mao in China is just one illustration.“Soxiante-huit” in Paris [and Prague], and the Red Brigades in Italy [and Red Army Faction in Germany], may be others. And then there is whatever was going on in Africa and the Middle East and Latin America at that point [see, eg, Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara immediately below].)

There were as well perhaps more than subtle differences between the New Left in the United Kingdom and the United States. I still have on my own bookshelves, eg, a 1970 volume edited by the London School of Economics political science professor Maurice Cranston, entitled The New Left: Six Critical Essays. It includes extended discussions of Che Guevara, Jean-Paul Sartre, Herbert Marcuse, Frantz Fanon, Black Power, and R.D. Laing.

At least three of these UK subjects had transatlantic US echoes — Guevara, Marcuse, and (of course) Black Power. Cranston’s foreword to this 1970 volume also identified several UK New Left themes that arguably had clear enough US analogues:

* a rather vague interest in the early Karl Marx who was the “philosopher of alienation,” rather than “the later Marx, the author of Das Kapital” (whose work had already been discredited, one might say, by the Anglo-American political response to the 1930s Depression);

* a rejection of the old working-class proletariat as the revolutionary class, in favour of a “new proletariat … composed — in the words of the title of Fanon’s most famous book — of the damnés de la terre, the impoverished peasants and rural workers of the third world, the Negro inhabitants of the American ghettoes, together … with miscellaneous alienated drop-outs from the Western bourgeoisie”;

* a “glorification of violence” as a political “cleansing force” — which arguably had more in common historically with the French socialist Georges Sorel than with even “the red terrorist doctor” version of Karl Marx, but was nonetheless “echoed by almost all the luminaries of the New Left, including Sartre, Marcuse, Eldridge Cleaver, Stokley Carmichael and R.D. Laing”;

* allowing for various qualifications, at least some sort of “link between the New Left and the ideology of the psychedelic hippie movement” — which shared “antipathies towards the bourgeoisie and the affluent society, towards the square and the old,” and were “united also by certain fantasies about the innocence of man and the wickedness of rulers.”

Some 40 years later, the current Wikipedia article on “New Left” has, understandably enough no doubt, “multiple issues” editorially. Yet its broad definition seems serviceable enough. (“The New Left was an epithet applied mainly in the United Kingdom and United States to activists, educators, agitators and others in the 1960s and 1970s who sought to implement a broad range of reforms, in contrast to earlier leftist or Marxist movements that had focused mostly on labor unionization and questions of social class.”)

For all its faults, the Wikipedia article also does not too bad a job of further filling in the US side of the transatlantic anglophone picture.

From this angle, “at the core” of the New Left in the United States was the college campus organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), with its 1962 Port Huron Statement. Some key older (and younger) luminaries here included: the sociologist C. Wright Mills, with his 1960 “Letter to the New Left”; and then (in alphabetical order, and with no pretensions to comprehensiveness at all, of course): Murray Bookchin, Cesar Chavez, Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, David Horowitz, and Jerry Rubin.

The Wikipedia article goes on to note that: “Most New Left thinkers in the US were influenced by the Vietnam War and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.” Similarly: “The US New Left drew inspiration from black radicalism, particularly the Black Power movement and the more explicitly left-wing Black Panther Party … the American Indian Movement” and the “Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee” (SNCC). And: Some “students immersed themselves into poor communities” and “sought to be a broad based, grass roots movement.”

Finally: “It could be argued that the New Left’s most successful legacy was the rebirth of feminism.” Its leaders were still “largely white men”  — and “women reacted to the lack of progressive gender politics with their own … movement” (which would of course bring on such further luminaries as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and  Bella Abzug).

5. Alinsky and the New Left in and after the 1960s

It is altogether revealing (and unsurprising), I think, that neither the 1970 Cranston book on the New Left nor the Wikipedia article today makes any reference at all to Saul Alinsky.

At the same time, as evidence, so to speak, that David Brooks’s view of Alinsky as “the leading tactician of the New Left” is not entirely without any rhyme or reason whatsoever, there are a few vague connections. Cesar Chavez, eg, is on the Wikipedia list of US New Left luminaries. And Chavez was trained by the IAF associate Fred Ross. (Though Alinsky himself apparently initially thought that Chavez’s aspirations to organize farm workers were unlikely to succeed. Ross has also claimed that Alinsky in fact had little to do with his own or Chavez’s training.)

Similarly, there are records of correspondence between Alinsky and C. Wright Mills in the 1940s.  But nothing finally came of a proposed literary collaboration between the two men. Alinsky’s biographer Sanford Horwitt has written: “Mills must have realized that Alinsky was not particularly good at developing sociological theories or writing abstract formulations … .”

There is no doubt as well that Alinsky, in a general way, considered himself a deeply committed “radical” and “progressive,” who was clearly on the left as opposed to the right. And his work in the 1960s with black-ghetto organizations like TWO in Chicago and FIGHT in Rochester connects at least somewhat with the Black Power side of Maurice Cranston’s New Left.

Some US New Left student radicals who “immersed themselves” in “poor communities” and looked towards a “broad based, grass roots movement” probably were at least dimly aware of Alinsky’s concept of local “people’s organizations.” Alinsky and the SDS shared general concerns about the future of the “democratic society” in America, and so forth.

Yet even when all vague connections of this sort are accounted for — and all allowances made for David Brooks’s stress on the word loosely — to anyone with direct experience of the two phenomena the differences between the quasi-psychedelic New Left and Saul Alinsky’s street-wise community organizing will seem far more striking than their similarities.

So Jeffrey Shaffer has recently written in the Huffington Post: “As someone who experienced the 1960s in America firsthand, I feel compelled to push back against a growing trend of snide generalities and outright fiction that’s being passed off as the truth about what happened in that remarkable period … The latest example came in a recent New York Times column by David Brooks which attempted to compare tea party followers with the New Left.”

Some of Brooks’s mistaken judgments in the particular case of Saul Alinsky as “the leading tactician of the New Left” may flow from his perhaps understandable enough tendency (as a conservative journalist) to draw a little too much of his understanding of Alinsky from recent right-wing US political writing, that takes the Palinesque arts and crafts of “snide generalities and outright fiction” about one’s political opponents to almost inconceivable heights.

To cite just one of an enormous number of such crazed literary creations, currently available on the world-wide web, consider something called “The Art and Science of Irrational Education” by one Diane Alden, dated June 5, 2002.

Note this particular paragraph of Ms. Alden’s: “In order to create the ‘new man’ for the new state, one must first capture the language. Then they must capture the institutions such as the universities. The totalitarians have done that in the United States in the last half-century far better than if we had been invaded by Russians in the ’60s. Instead we were invaded by the products of the Frankfurt School of Sociology and its generals such as Herbert Marcuse and Saul Alinsky.”

To explain in any detail how either stunningly corrupt and dishonest or just plain appallingly ignorant and dumb the last sentence of this paragraph is (or perhaps both?) lies beyond the scope of what space I have left here. Those deeply interested can consult the Wikipedia article on the “Frankfurt School,” and/or Martin Jay’s 1973 book, The dialectical imagination: a history of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–1950.

In both cases the reader will find references to Herbert Marcuse, but none at all to Saul Alinsky. Someone who reads both these items along with Alinsky’s two major books will begin to see just how plainly absurd the notion of Alinsky as a “general” of “the Frankfurt School of Sociology” is — and begin to fear for the fate of any democratic society in which such outright fictions are treated with anything but vast amusement and polite but resolute contempt.

It is another plain truth that Alinsky himself is on record in various places about his feelings towards “the New Left.” Always concerned to show its higher-minded side, eg, Playboy magazine interviewed him a month before he died in 1972. At one point the Playboy interviewer asked: “Spokesmen for the New Left contend that this process of accommodation renders piecemeal reforms meaningless, and that the overthrow and replacement of the system itself is the only means of ensuring meaningful social progress. How would you answer them?”

Alinsky replied: “That kind of rhetoric explains why there’s nothing left of the New Left. It would be great if the whole system would just disappear overnight, but it won’t, and the kids on the New Left … aren’t going to overthrow it …  Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin couldn’t organize a successful luncheon, much less a revolution.”

He went on: “I can sympathize with the impatience and pessimism of a lot of kids, but … it’s just idiocy for the Panthers to talk about all power growing from the barrel of a gun when the other side has all the guns … The only answer is to build up local power bases that can merge into a national power movement that will ultimately realize your goals. That takes time and hard work and all the tedium connected with hard work, which turns off a lot of today’s rhetorical radicals. But it’s the only alternative … It’s important to look at this issue in a historical perspective.”

As the remark about “the Panthers” here suggests as well, there was in Saul Alinsky’s concept of building “people’s organizations” none of the “glorification of violence” as a political “cleansing force” that Maurice Cranston saw as a key feature of the New Left in his 1970 book of essays.

At one point in the Playboy interview Alinsky was talking about organizing tactics that demonstrated all “the elements of good organization — imagination, legality, excitement and, above all, effectiveness.” The Playboy interviewer jumped in with “And coercion …”  But Alinsky quickly came back: “No, not coercion —  popular pressure in the democratic tradition.”

In Rules for Radicals Alinsky also stressed, as one recent friendly commentator has put it, “that people should not underestimate the room to manoeuvre in democratic systems.” Alinsky’s community organizing, he urged himself, could only survive in democratic societies underpinned by a working rule of law. Adding the white middle-class mainstream in America to the black ghettoes and Latino barrios was the wave of his radical organizing future in the early 1970s. He remained a “conservatively dressed community organizer who looks like an accountant and talks like a stevedore” (a personal style also favoured by some graduates from his IAF.) And in the very end, he liked to explain, “quotes from Mao, Castro, and Che Guevara” were “as germane to our highly technological, computerized, cybernetic, nuclear-powered, mass media society as a stagecoach on a jet runway at Kennedy airport.”

6. Alinsky and Barack Obama (and Hillary Clinton) today

Saul Alinsky in his later days.

Saul Alinsky in his later days.

In the midst of the “growing trend of snide generalities and outright fiction that’s being passed off as the truth about” the progressive tradition in contemporary America, there are of course many growing urban legends about the past, present, and future of President Barack Obama. And a number of these also allude to the cryptic figure of Saul Alinsky from Chicago.

As a further example from the contemporary online literature of the ridiculous right, consider “OBAMA, RADICAL MENTOR SAUL ALINSKY, AND MARXIST LIBERATION THEOLOGY,” dated 4/14/07.  A few brief passages must suffice: “There is quite a connection between Obama and the Industrial Areas Foundation, a radical organization located in Chicago (Obama’s turf) and the ideological heir of Saul Alinsky, a notorious revolutionary … The radical Marxist, Saul Alinsky, was the mentor of both Hillary and Obama and his book Rules for Radicals is the bible for radicals as the Mein Kampf was for the Nazis.”

(Again, stooping to refute such lunacy gives it far more attention than it deserves. Very briefly, however, unlike Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School, Alinsky was, as Playboy noted years ago, on the “nonsocialist left.” Far from any kind of “Marxist,” one of Saul Alinsky’s greatest admirers — and friends — was the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, who aptly characterized Alinsky’s essential ideological posture as “specifically American.” And then, whatever the Goebbels-clone Glenn Beck may say, if you are going to pretend that your opponents are Marxists, you at least cannot rationally imply that they are Nazis too.)

Having said all this, it is true enough that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama do have connections with Saul Alinsky, and the Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago that he established in 1940. These connections were sensibly outlined in a March 25, 2007 article in the Washington Post — at a time when Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama were still rivals for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in the United States.

Hillary Clinton, in her senior year at Wellesley College (1968-69) wrote a 92-page thesis on   “‘There Is Only the Fight . . .’ : An Analysis of the Alinsky Model.”  She had first met Alinsky during the summer of 1968 at a church-sponsored event in Chicago (also her home town). She interviewed him two more times in preparing her thesis. It may be that only someone from such a comparatively privileged background as hers could have managed all this. Alinsky was in any case impressed by her ambition, “political literacy,” and emerging progressive values. He offered her a job as part of his burgeoning campaign to organize America’s white middle class. She turned the job down, and went directly on to law school instead. (As she would later explain, Alinsky “believed you could change the system only from the outside. I didn’t.”)

Barack Obama was only 10 years old when Saul Alinsky died. But Alinksy’s Industrial Areas Foundation lived on after his death (as it still lives on today). In June 1985, in his mid 20s, Obama moved from New York City to Chicago, “to work with the Developing Communities Project, an offshoot of the Alinsky network,” associated with the IAF. The future US president was, at the time, “strongly idealistic, very much a dreamer.” His new community organizing job with the surviving Alinsky network in Chicago was “very romantic, until you do it.” He stayed in the job until May 1988, when he left for his first trip to Europe and his father’s birthplace in Kenya. Late in 1988 he too went on to law school.

The future president’s time as a Chicago community organizer apparently involved “ three roller-coaster years trying to build a new source of power in the Altgeld Gardens housing project and the Roseland community, maneuvering among neighbors, church leaders and politicians who did not always welcome the encounters” (a not unusual description of community organizing work). At the same time: “During his three years as the DCP’s director, its staff grew from one to thirteen and its annual budget grew from $70,000 to $400,000. He helped set up a job training program, a college preparatory tutoring program, and a tenants’ rights organization … ”

According to Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund, “who knows Obama, worked closely with Clinton and spoke at Alinsky’s funeral,” in the end “Obama and Clinton both learned” that “community organizing is crucial but not enough.” According to “Chicago organizer Gregory Galluzzo, Obama’s former supervisor, who likes to describe himself as Alinsky’s St. Paul,” either Obama or Clinton as president would mean “a government that’s more responsive to the ordinary people.” But some differences remained. As Galluzzo also told the Washington Post in 2007, “Obama’s exposure to the organizer’s liturgy taught him that wisdom can emerge from the grass roots.” Hillary more often “leans toward the elites.”

Though I wonder a bit about these judgments myself, I think the assessment of Hillary Clinton  probably makes sense. Her reason for not taking the job Saul Alinsky offered, eg — because Alinsky only believed in working “outside” the system — doesn’t ring quite true. In Rules for Radicals Alinsky wrote: “As an organizer 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 — it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system.”

You might even say that President Obama also internalized this side of Alinsky’s gospel.  And that could be part of what makes even the reasonable conservative David Brooks urge, in a March 11, 2010 New York Times column that almost makes up for all the unhappy misconceptions in his column from the previous week: “In a sensible country, people would see Obama as a president trying to define a modern brand of moderate progressivism.”

This finally leads me to two very final thoughts (I promise) — in a context where much else could be thought and said, if only both readers and writers had the time and patience (and sheer ability too, no doubt). The first is that, when President Obama is at the top of his game (and the United States is in one of its intermittent sensible moods), he is laying the foundation for David Brooks’s “modern brand of moderate progressivism.” And it may owe something quite important to the Alinsky-style organizing concept that “wisdom can emerge from the grass roots.”

Or, as Alinsky himself said: “My only fixed truth is a belief in people, a conviction that if people have the opportunity to act freely and the power to control their own destinies, they’ll generally reach the right decisions.”

Or, again, as the 21-year-old Hillary Clinton put it, in her college thesis: despite Saul Alinsky’s rhetoric, much of his agenda “does not sound ‘radical.’”  Even his tactics were often “non-radical, even ‘anti-radical.’ His are the words used in our schools and churches, by our parents and their friends, by our peers. The difference is that Alinsky really believes in them.”

Second, and alas, President Obama sometimes continues to be hampered in his struggles by a largely unfortunate fact of recent American political history. The greatest misconception in David Brooks’s March 4, 2010 column in the New York Times, that is to say, is its suggestion (or implication at any rate) that many on the left in the United States (and elsewhere) — moderate or radical, old or new, etc, etc — have studied Saul Alinsky and taken him seriously.

In fact, Alinsky’s ultimate legacy to his progressive colleagues — including his closest friends in the surviving IAF — was a challenging one. Few on the right or left ever take to such things easily. (And no doubt for good enough reasons: few people really believe what they believe in the way Saul Alinsky did.) The crusade to organize the white middle class in America, so much on his mind when he had his fatal heart attack in Carmel, California, is the ultimate case in point.

In 1972 Alinsky “believed that what President Richard Nixon and Vice-President Spiro Agnew called ‘The Silent Majority’ was living in frustration and despair, worried about their future, and ripe for a turn to radical social change, to become politically-active citizens. He feared the middle class could be driven to a right-wing viewpoint, ‘making them ripe for the plucking by some guy on horseback promising a return to the vanished verities of yesterday.’”

In 2010 it is probably not too much of a stretch to say that Alinsky’s early 1970s fears are close enough to what has happened in the contemporary political history of the USA, from President Ronald Reagan on. And in this sense I think David Brooks’s March 4 column finally does point to something true enough about the present situation in Barack Obama’s America, even if the often estimable Mr. Brooks gets almost all the details wrong.

It may at least be constructive at this juncture to argue that if the progressive tradition in America had paid more serious attention to what Saul Alinsky was saying (and doing) 40 years ago, there would be no right-wing Tea Partiers today. Those involved — as few or many as they are — would almost all be on the left, supporting President Obama and his “Change We Can Believe In!” It is no doubt not easy at all being President of the United States right now — or serving on his apparently somewhat beleaguered staff. But it may also be true enough that one of the many things the White House could usefully remember is what the president himself began to learn some 25 years ago, on the streets of South Chicago.

March 18, 2010.

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  1. Mr. Bunting…this is a terrific overview. Having met Saul Alinsky years ago, I couldn’t understand at all why some people called him a socialist. He was a “power to the people guy” in the best sense, showing them how to speak to power with, as you cited, “magination, legality, excitement and, above all, effectiveness” and never coercion.

    I hope David Brooks learned from reading this. I certainly did. And, your remark, “polite but deserved contempt”, I’m taking to heart.

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