From the Playboy interview with Saul Alinsky in 1972.
PLAYBOY: How close was the country to revolution during the Depression?
ALINSKY: A lot closer than some people think. It was really Roosevelt’s reforms that saved the system from itself and averted total catastrophe. You’ve got to remember, it wasn’t only people’s money that went down the drain in 1929; it was also their whole traditional system of values. Americans had learned to celebrate their society as an earthly way station to paradise, with all the cherished virtues of hard work and thrift as their tickets to security, success and happiness. Then suddenly, in just a few days, those tickets were canceled and apparently unredeemable, and the bottom fell out of everything.
But then people began to come together, to join forces, to help each other.
Now, in America, new voices and new values began to be heard, people began citing John Donne’s “No man is an island,” and as they started banding together to improve their lives, they found how much in common they had with their fellow man. It was the first time since the abolitionist movement, for example, that there was any significant black-white unity, as elements of both races began to move together to confront the common enemies of unemployment and starvation wages. This was one of the most important aspects of the Thirties: not just the political struggles and reforms but the sudden discovery of a common destiny and a common bond of humanity among millions of people. It was a very moving experience to witness and be part of it.
PLAYBOY: You sound a little nostalgic.
ALINSKY: Yeah, those were exciting days to be alive in. And goddamn violent days, too. Whenever people wail to me about all the violence and disorder in American life today, I tell them to take a hard look back at the Thirties. At one time, you had thousands of American veterans encamped along the Anacostia petitioning the Government for a subsistence bonus until they were driven out at bayonet point by the Army, led by “I shall return” MacArthur. Negroes were being lynched regularly in the South as the first stirrings of black opposition began to be felt, and many of the white civil rights organizers and labor agitators who had started to work with them were tarred, feathered, castrated — or killed. Most Southern politicians were members of the Ku Klux Klan and had no compunction about boasting of it.
The giant corporations were unbelievably arrogant and oppressive and would go to any lengths to protect their freedom — the freedom to exploit and the freedom to crush any obstacle blocking the golden road to mammon. Not one American corporation — oil, steel, auto, rubber, meat packing — would allow its workers to organize; labor unions were branded subversive and communistic and any worker who didn’t toe the line was summarily fired and then blacklisted throughout the industry. When they defied their bosses, they were beaten up or murdered by company strikebreakers or gunned down by the police of corrupt big-city bosses allied with the corporations, like in the infamous Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago when dozens of peaceful pickets were shot in the back.
Those who kept their jobs were hired and fired with complete indifference, and they worked as dehumanized servomechanisms of the assembly line. There were no pensions, no unemployment insurance, no Social Security, no Medicare, nothing to provide even minimal security for the worker. When radicals fought back against these conditions by word or deed, they were hounded and persecuted by city police and by the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, who back in those days was already paranoid, while in Washington the House Un-American Activities Committee hysterically sounded the alarm against the gathering Bolshevik hordes. As bloody strikes and civic disorder swept the nation, the big cry was for law and order. Nobody talked about pollution then; yet the workers in coal and steel towns were shrouded in a perpetual pall of soot and black dust, while in cities like Chicago, people in the meatpacking areas grew up amid a stench so overpowering that if they ever ventured out into the country, the fresh air made them sick. Yeah, those were the good old days, all right. Shit, the country was far more polarized and bitter then than it is today.
This is crucial. The 30’s (and the 60’s) were far more violent and turbulent than anything going on now. Not only did the country survive those eras, much needed social change came out of them too; union and community organizing in the 30’s and the civil rights, environmental, feminist, and antiwar movements of the 60’s. And they all went mainstream.
We can do the same now.