Saul Alinsky. On organizing the middle class

Saul Alinsky

(Part 2 of a 5-part series this week about Alinsky)

From the Playboy interview with Saul Alinsky in 1972.

First, two quotes that maybe show who he was.

When “Rules for Radicals” was first published and received glowing reviews, Alinsy told his staff, “Don’t worry, boys, we’ll weather this storm of approval and come out as hated as ever.”

“The establishment can accept being screwed, but not being laughed at. What bugs them most about me is that unlike humorless radicals, I have a hell of a good time doing what I’m doing.”

On why the middle class must be organized

ALINSKY: Pragmatically, the only hope for genuine minority progress is to seek out allies within the majority and to organize that majority itself as part of a national movement for change. If we just give up and let the middle classes go to the likes of Agnew and Nixon by default, then you might as well call the whole ball game. But they’re still up for grabs — and we’re gonna grab ’em.

This is a huge difference in tactics and approach from Marxists who insist that change can only come from organizing the working class and thus ignore, often contemptuously, the middle class and the bourgeoisie. Alinsky, quite the contrary, says change must come from the middle class, because that’s where the power is.

PLAYBOY: The assumption behind the Administration’s Silent Majority thesis is that most of the middle class is inherently conservative. How can even the most skillful organizational tactics unite them in support of your radical goals?

ALINSKY: Conservative? That’s a crock of crap. Right now they’re nowhere. But they can and will go either of two ways in the coming years — to a native American fascism or toward radical social change.

They’re the first to live in a total mass-media-oriented world, and every night when they turn on the TV and the news comes on, they see the almost unbelievable hypocrisy and deceit and even outright idiocy of our national leaders and the corruption and disintegration of all our institutions, from the police and courts to the White House itself. Their society appears to be crumbling and they see themselves as no more than small failures within the larger failure. All their old values seem to have deserted them, leaving them rudderless in a sea of social chaos. Believe me, this is good organizational material.

While the Left has been insistent about ignoring the middle class, the Right has worked for decades organizing them. But we can still do it if we choose to. Alinsky tells how.

The despair is there; now it’s up to us to go in and rub raw the sores of discontent, galvanize them for radical social change. 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. We’ll start with specific issues — taxes, jobs, consumer problems, pollution — and from there move on to the larger issues: pollution in the Pentagon and the Congress and the board rooms of the megacorporations. Once you organize people, they’ll keep advancing from issue to issue toward the ultimate objective: people power. We’ll not only give them a cause, we’ll make life goddamn exciting for them again — life instead of existence. We’ll turn them on.

This is a far cry in tactics from Iraq antiwar rallies where speakers spoke about a bewildering array of far left causes that most moderates have never heard of and probably don’t care about. Alinsky says, start with concrete issues important to those you want to organize. That’s how to get their attention. And not by telling them to stand in solidarity with some far left revolutionary grouplet in another country.

ALINSKY: I love this goddamn country, and we’re going to take it back. I never gave up faith at the worst times in the past, and I’m sure as hell not going to start now.

Coming posts

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

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