Saul Alinsky. Back of the Yards organizing

saul alinsky

(Part 4 of a 5-part series this week about Alinsky)

Alinsky started organizing Back of the Yards in Chicago in the 30’s, and invented community organizing in the process. From the Playboy interview in 1972.

ALINSKY: It was the area behind the Chicago Stockyards that Upton Sinclair wrote about in The Jungle at the turn of the century, and nothing at all had been done to improve conditions since then. It was the nadir of all slums in America. People were crushed and demoralized, either jobless or getting starvation wages, diseased, living in filthy, rotting unheated shanties, with barely enough food and clothing to keep alive. And it was a cesspool of hate; the Poles, Slovaks, Germans, Negroes, Mexicans and Lithuanians all hated each other and all of them hated the Irish, who returned the sentiment in spades.

Native fascist groups like the German American Bund, Father Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice and William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Shirts were moving in to exploit the discontent, and making lots of converts. It wasn’t because the people had any real sympathy for fascism; it was just that they were so desperate they’d grab on to anything that offered them a glimmer of hope, and Coughlin and Pelley gave them handy scapegoats in the Jews and the “international bankers.” But I knew that once they were provided with a real, positive program to change their miserable conditions, they wouldn’t need scapegoats anymore.

Everyone on the Left should read and re-read the above paragraph. If we do not provide an alternative to hard right organizing, the masses could go right by default. Right now, the Left is asleep. It needs to wake up. And start organizing.

PLAYBOY: How did you go about organizing a community like Back of the Yards?

ALINSKY: Well, the first thing I did, the first thing I always do, is to move into the community as an observer, to talk with people and listen and learn their grievances and their attitudes. Then I look around at what I’ve got to work with, what levers I can use to pry closed doors open, what institutions or organizations already exist that can be useful. In the case of Back of the Yards, the area was 95 percent Roman Catholic, and I recognized that if I could win the support of the Church, we’d be off and running. Conversely, without the Church, or at least some elements of it, it was unlikely that we’d be able to make much of a dent in the community.

Marxists generally have a set of beliefs that they wish to impose upon the worker. Alinsky had no particular ideology and instead, big difference, listened to what people said.

He appealed to the self-interest of the priests by saying if you want to keep your parishioners out of communist-dominated unions, then you’ve got to show you care and provide a better alternative for them. Plus, if they get more prosperous, contribution to your parishes will increase.

PLAYBOY: What tactics did you use?

ALINSKY: Everything at our disposal in those days — boycotts of stores, strikes against the meat packers, rent strikes against the slumlords, picketing of exploitive businesses, sit-downs in City Hall and the offices of the corrupt local machine bosses. We’d turn the politicians against each other, splitting them up and then taking them on one at a time. At first the establishment dismissed us with a sneer, but pretty soon we had them worried, because they saw how unified we were and that we were capable of exerting potent economic and political pressure. Finally the concessions began trickling in — reduced rents, public housing, more and better municipal services, school improvements, more equitable mortgages and bank loans, fairer food prices.

The linchpin of our struggle in Back of the Yards was unionization of the packing-house workers, because most of the local residents who worked had jobs in the stockyards, and unless their wages and living standards were improved, the community as a whole could never move forward. Now, at that time the meat barons treated their workers like serfs, and they had a squad of vicious strikebreakers to terrorize any worker who even opened his mouth about a union. In fact, two of their goons submachined my car one night at the height of the struggle. They missed me and, goddamn it, I missed them when I shot back. So anyway, we knew that the success or failure of the whole effort really hinged on the packing-house union. We picketed, we sat down, we agitated; but the industry wouldn’t budge.

He finally broke the bosses of the meat packing plants by making a deal with the anti-union Mayor of Chicago, who desperately wanted acceptance by FDR. Alinksy said he could make him into a liberal overnight and completely acceptable to FDR.

Suddenly he sat bolt upright in his chair and his eyes bored into mine. “How do I know you can deliver?” he asked. I handed him a slip of paper. “That’s the unlisted number of John L. Lewis in Alexandria, Virginia. Call him, tell him I’m here in your office, tell him what I said, and then ask him if I can deliver.” Kelly leaned back in his chair and said, “What do you want?” I said, “I want you to put the screws on the meat packers to sign a contract with the union.” He said, “It’s a deal. You’ll get your contract tomorrow.” We did, and from that time on victory for Back of the Yards was ensured. And I came out of that fight convinced that the organizational techniques we used in Back of the Yards could be employed successfully anywhere across the nation.

And the rest was history. Alinsky’s tactics and ideas have been used in countless communities to organize and get results.

ALINSKY: It’s the organizer’s job to provide the technical know-how, not to impose his wishes or his attitudes on the community; we’re not there to lead, but to help and to teach. We want the local people to use us, drain our experience and expertise, and then throw us away and continue doing the job themselves. Otherwise they’d grow overly dependent on us and the moment we moved out the situation would start to revert to the status quo ante. This is why I’ve set a three-year limit on the time one of our organizers remains within any particular area. This has been our operating procedure in all our efforts; we’re outside agitators, all right, but by invitation only. And we never overstay our welcome.


Saul Alinsky. Rules for Radicals. Means vs. ends

Saul Alinsky. Rules for Radicals

Saul Alinsky

(Part 3 of a 5-part series this week about Alinsky)

From Rules for Radicals, Alinsky’s now-famous rules for organizing.

Rule 1: Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have. Power has always derived from two main sources, people and money. Lacking money, the Have-Nots must always build power from their own flesh and blood. A mass movement expresses itself with mass tactics. Against the finesse and sophistication of the status quo, the Have-Nots have always had to club their way.

Rule 2: Never go outside the expertise of your people. It results in confusion, fear and retreat. It also leads to a collapse in communications.

Rule 3: Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy. Here you want to cause, fear, confusion, and retreat.

Rule 4: Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules. You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian Church can live up to Christianity.

This is precisely what that videographer did to ACORN. Rush Limbaugh specifically cited this rule as a reason why he did it. There’s a reason Alinsky’s rules are classics. They work. And can be used by anyone. Except the Left lately, apparently.

Rule 5: Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counteract ridicule. It also infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.

Hey, Sarah Palin says something outrageous and liberal blogs get infuriated, foam at the mouth, and run the story constantly. I’d say she has them well-trained.

Rule 6: A good tactic is one your people enjoy. If your people are not having a ball doing it, then there is something very wrong with the tactic.

I once saw a flyer from a Marxist group wanting to recruit people that said “Join us in the struggle.” Golly that sure sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Rule 7: A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag. Man can sustain militant interest in any issue for only a limited time, after that it becomes a ritualistic commitment, like going to church on Sunday mornings.

Rule 8: Keep the pressure on. Never let up, with different tactics and actions.

Rule 9: The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.

Rule 10. The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.

Rule 11: If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive.

Sounds positively zen-like, doesn’t it? But it’s what Gandi did.

Rule 12: The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. You can not risk being trapped by the enemy by his sudden agreement with your demand and saying “You’re right, we don’t know what to do about this issue, now you tell us.”

Rule 13: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. As soon as you zero in and freeze your target and carry out your attack, all of the “others” come out of the woodwork very soon. They become visible by their support of the target.

Also, the target must be personalized, not an abstraction. Because once you personalize it, then you get to see who the real enemy is.

Coming posts

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

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

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

Saul Alinsky quotes

alinsky book
Alinksy is considered the founder of community organizing and his book, Rules for Radicals, has been widely read by organizers from all over the political spectrum. He started organizing in Chicago in the 1930’s in Back of the Yards, which he organized by forming a partnership with the Catholic Church. He was not Marxist, had little use for them, and could not have succeeded in that partnership if he had been, because the Church was strongly anti-communist. Obama, Hillary Clinton, Cesar Chavez and a zillion other organizers and politicians have been influenced by him. He died in 1972.

“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.

No matter how imaginative your tactics, how shrewd your strategy, you’re doomed before you even start if you don’t win the trust and respect of the people; and the only way to get that is for you to trust and respect them.

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 dedication to Rules for Radicals, this is classic Alinsky

Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer

Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict

Power goes to two poles: to those who’ve got money and those who’ve got people.

Society has good reason to fear the Radical. Every shaking advance of mankind toward equality and justice has come from the Radical. He hits, he hurts, he is dangerous.

Conservative interests know that while Liberals are most adept at breaking their own necks with their tongues, Radicals are most adept at breaking the necks of Conservatives.

Always remember the first rule of power tactics: Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have

Once you accept your own death, all of a sudden you’re free to live. You no longer care about your reputation. You no longer care except so far as your life can be used tactically to promote a cause you believe in.

Too many liberals and radicals have a tender-minded, overly romantic image of the poor; they glamorize the povertystricken slum dweller as a paragon of justice and expect him to behave like an angel the minute his shackles are removed. That’s crud. Poverty is ugly, evil and degrading, and the fact that have-nots exist in despair, discrimination and deprivation does not automatically endow them with any special qualities of charity, justice, wisdom, mercy or moral purity. They are people, with all the faults of people — greed, envy, suspicion, intolerance — and once they get on top they can be just as bigoted as the people who once oppressed them. But that doesn’t mean you leave them to rot. You just keep on fighting.

We must believe that it is the darkest before the dawn of a beautiful new world. We will see it when we believe it. “