Alinsky Revisited


Regarding my summary of Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals,” an anonymous reader wrote to correct me on the time period in which the book was written and to do a much better job of explaining Alinsky’s purpose than I did. — Thanks.

Alinsky didn’t write Rules for Radicals during the Reagan years, He published it in 1971 during the Nixon years. 

I worked with Alinsky. Contrary to the likes of Gingrich, Saul was not a Marxist. He was a old-fashioned American patriot who frequently quoted the Founding Fathers.

One of Alinsky’s favorite quotes — mine too — and which he used to introduce an earlier book I also recommend entitled Reveille For Radicals, is from Thomas Paine: “Let them call me rebel and welcome, I feel no concern for it, but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul.” 

Saul’s objective was not mere resistance. People tend to focus on Saul’s tactics but his objective — the objective of Alinsky style community organization —  was participatory democracy. No less than to make US style representative democracy work the way the founders intended. Here I would recommend you go back and take a look at [the ending of] Obama’s last State of the Union.

Saul’s tactics, based in life-long experience, close observation and study under everyone from UC sociology professors to John L. Lewis and Frank Nitti — what he called called “applied social science” — were designed to involve — to enfranchise — those who were excluded from civic decision-making that effected their lives. 

Alinsky used confrontation over issues important to peoples’ lives to get them involved. He started off with what he called “fast, easy victories” to give people confidence they could actually get things accomplished and to convince others to join the effort so it would be possible to take on bigger and bigger projects. In addition to political tactics Saul  taught leadership skills, research skills, fund-raising skills, how to prioritize and pursue goals and how to build not only a voluntary neighborhood organization but a coalition of voluntary associations.  

If everyone’s involved, all interests represented — and people are informed about available options and the implications of those options — Saul figured things would turn out at better than they would otherwise. What he called “enlightened self-interest.” An informed, involved citizenry was an article of faith with him as distinct from those who rely on demagoguery and/or ideology for their answers. Saul was a big fan of checks and balances. 

The idea that an educated citizenry is essential to representative democracy is of course also basic to American style democracy as envisioned by people like Jefferson and Franklin. 

Basically, Saul was a teacher — saw himself that way and saw Alinsky-style organizers that way too.  

Saul taught people citizenship — how to become effectively and productively involved.

Saul  believed therein lay the best available answers. The opposite of those who purposefully seek to disenlighten because an enlightened citizenry would never buy what they are trying to sell.