Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals. Introduction

rules for radicals

(This is the first of five posts about Saul Alinsky appearing this week)

Saul Alinsky invented community organizing in Chicago in the 1930’s in an area known as Back Of The Yards. It was the first time organizing had been done in a geographical area rather than in a union or industry. He was successful in organizing a downtrodden, beaten community into a powerful force that won concessions and unionized the meat packing plants. He later started organizations that trained other people to be organizers, one of whom was a young Cesar Chavez, as well as continuing to organize himself.

Alinsky wrote Rules for Radicals which detailed his pragmatic, hardball approach to organizing. Hillary Clinton, Obama, and many other have been influenced by it. The Right too, who most definitely has taken his rules to heart and used them. It’s time the Left read the book again.

Contrary to the beliefs of those on the Right and even many on the Left, Alinsky was not Marxist, had little use for them, and could not have organized Back Of The Yards if he had been. It was a heavily Catholic area of mainly eastern European ethnic communities who had their own churches and didn’t mingle much with each other. He organized these desperately poor, exploited stockyard workers by forming a partnership with the Catholic Church, which was strongly anti-Communist. They would not have worked with him had he been even slightly socialist. This is well-documented in biographies about him (and in a coming post here.)

His tactics were quite different from Marxists too. He would start groups, then step out of the way and let them run it. Because that’s what community organizing is about. People power. And not about forcing a mindset or ideology.

“Quotes from Mao, Castro, and Che Guevara – are as germane to our highly technological, computerized society as a stagecoach on a jet runway at Kennedy airport” — Saul Alinsky

A great place to start learning about him is with the reprint of his seminal 1972 interview with Playboy from The Progress Report. They preface it with –

Saul Alinsky is, along with Thomas Paine, Henry George, and Dorothy Day, one of the great American leaders of the nonsocialist left.

I’ll be blogging more about Alinsky and Rules for Radicals these next several days. Because, like I said, the Left really needs to read it again.

Coming posts:

Tue. Saul Alinsky. On organizing the middle class
Wed. Saul Alinsky. Rules for Radicals
Thu. Saul Alinsky. Back of the Yards organizing
Fri. Saul Alinsky. Rules for Radicals. Means vs. ends

  • UJ

    Have you read Markos Moulitsas’ Taking on the System? It’s basically Rules for Radicals 2009, based on the template of the original. Same principles, evolved to meet the digital era. Brilliant stuff.

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