The Real Reason Saul Alinsky Strikes Fear Into The Heart Of The Right

Newt Gingrich, like most conservatives, tries to frighten his base with prospects of elite, secular, humanist hordes taking over the country and its beloved institutions. From his victory speech after the South Carolina primary to the last Florida debate and even in his stump speeches, Newt has been resurrecting someone he hopes will scare his constituents into voting for a party proven to have anything but their best interests in mind. With ACORN illegitimately neutered, the specter of the community organizer needed a new terrifying image. Unfortunately, for Newt, his next choice, Saul Alinsky, is met with puzzled looks and blank stares. His relative obscurity in today’s vernacular is evident in the rash of articles appearing across news sites with titles asking, “Who is Saul Alinsky?” Better still, Bill Maher bluntly asked on his January 27th show, “Who the f@#k is Saul Alinsky?

The scramble to define Alinsky has come from the mainstream media, the left and the right. Some have chosen to provide his biography as a lifelong Chicago resident, atheist, Jew, organizer of the poor and minorities, and author of several books including Rules for Radicals and Reveille for Radicals. Others have discussed how he influenced their own work or how Alinsky would react to Obama’s presidency. Still others have pointed out that his tactics have been utilized by the right, and specifically the Tea Party, in recent years.

A common theme across many articles is the debate about Alinsky’s ideological foundations. Was he a communist? A socialist? Wouldn’t someone who writes more than one book for radicals have to be akin to Che Guevara, Vladimir Lenin, or Karl Marx? Alinsky himself provided his rejection of dogmatic community organization:

“My only fixed truth is a belief in people, a conviction that if people have the opportunity to act freely and the power to control their own destinies, they’ll generally reach the right decisions. The only alternative to that belief is rule by elite, whether it’s a Communist bureaucracy or our own present-day corporate establishment. You should never have an ideology more specific than that of the founding fathers: ‘For the general welfare.’…”

It would be more accurate to compare Alinsky to a Jesuit priest minus the faith. In fact, he spent a great deal of his time coordinating with local Roman Catholics. He wasn’t an advocate of violence, the overthrow of democracy, or even flag-burning. Instead, he focused on community organizing because he believed, “Organization means hope for people. It means making their institutions relevant. But, most of all, organization means power. It means being able to do something about things they’ve been frustrated about all their lives.”

Far from being a malignant threat to American democracy, Alinsky and the people he mentored fomented such revolutionary ideas as union membership, representation on city councils, and adequate trash collection. In fact, one of the best stories of his shenanigans is related to garbage. One of Chicago’s tenements was suffering from a stockpile of trash that wasn’t being collected by the city. Ordinary measures like appealing to government authorities weren’t working, so he had residents gather it all together and bring it to their alderman’s yard. Needless to say, this action worked. These are the kinds of elementary notions of fairness and justice he pursued.

Alinsky was a tactician, not an ideologue. He provided this motivation to his lifelong pursuits, “What I wanted to try to do was apply the organizing techniques I’d mastered … to the worst slums and ghettos, so that the most oppressed and exploited elements in the country could take control of their own communities and their own destinies…” His strategies included honoring the importance of local leaders and helping them to develop stronger support in the community through tactics as controversial as going door-to-door and talking to neighbors. He spoke of coalitions between smaller organizations with the goal of forming larger, more powerful groups that could affect change. He believed in working within systems just as much as from outside of them.

At its heart, the fear of people like Alinsky comes from the belief that only certain kinds of Americans should have input into our political system. The remainder should be passive recipients of whatever powerful people wish to inflict upon them.  As Alinsky stated, “All major controlling interests make a virtue of acceptance—acceptance of the ruling group’s policies and decisions.” Newt has made no secret of who he believes is just a little less American than his constituents, even when he uses dog-whistle politics, or, as some have said, “air raid siren” politics. He’s commented that Latinos speak the language of the ghetto; Obama is the food stamp president; and child labor laws need to be revised to force inner-city children to become janitors because they need to learn a work ethic.

Newt accuses Alinsky of being a big government supporter, when in fact he advocated local organization and never personally organized communities to tackle government issues beyond the limits of Chicago. Newt’s scorn for Alinsky leads one to question, “What exactly is his vision of democracy?” If Alinsky offends his sensibilities by advocating that everyone should have a voice in their government, is Newt suggesting that political involvement is only the purview of the wealthy and powerful? It is difficult to escape any other conclusion. Alinsky wanted the “have-nots” to take some of the power held by the “haves.” He never promoted the notion that the “have-nots” take over the government or expand it, simply that they have a place at the table.

So what was Alinsky’s great sin? He worked predominantly in poor and minority communities with the aim of increasing their power and influence. For this, he could never be forgiven, especially by unreconstructed racists like Newt Gingrich. It is obvious that Newt believes “these people” should simply know their place, and accept whatever destructive practices or malign neglect that corporations and governments mete out to them. For the rest of us, a few lessons from Alinsky could be vital.

17 Replies to “The Real Reason Saul Alinsky Strikes Fear Into The Heart Of The Right”

  1. Welcome to PoliticusUSA Deborah!

    I think you hit on the real issue- it’s about poor people and the people without a voice, and as DL said, right now, with Occupy making noise successfully, it’s about their fear of our voices being raised up until they can be heard.

    The voices of the people they thought they could manipulate and silence. the 99%.

    It’s funny because sane people will still whisper to me today about Alinksy — I even got sent a book on him to prove Obama was up to no good. Turns out, it was someone else writing about Alinskly – not quite the same thing:-) Thanks for debunking the myths.

  2. After 10+ years on the Yahoo msg boards I still never knew who Alinsky was until recently. I have been accused of being an Alinsky follower and I have never read a single word he wrote until tonight.

    I think its funny Newtron goes after Alinsky and Romney. Newt has promised to stick it out until the Nomination ceremonies anoint and crown him all in the same night. Even though tomorrow he will be crushed in a primary made to cry over. The candidates are making a mockery of the office of the presidency and each of them knows they cannot win

  3. thats funny..in 08 i had a right winger drop the name on me..i was alive and active in the 60’s and knew the name in passing.. im betting that this name is one of those things that circulate amoung the birchers, and that ilk.. obviously a dog whistle of Newt’s to them

  4. I think Newt is probably speaking over the heads of his base. I wonder how many of them actually know who Saul Alinsky was and how many of those who don’t know will bother to look it up. It’s hard to get excited about a remote piece of history with whom people (his base, that is) can’t make a connection. Getting out the visual of George Romney and Alinsky would connect some dots for them. :)

  5. I want one of those Fox interviewers to call Sarah Palin out one day and ask her to explain what exactly are Saul Alinsky’s positions, WHO he is, and to specifically explain what about the GOP attacks on Gingrich are like “Alinsky leftist attacks” also, too, in what way are they “Stalinesque”, AND indeed, who is Stalin? I guaran-darn-tee-ya Palin will shut her pie-hole real quick – since she has NO idea who Saul Alinsky is, nor the facts about Stalin. FOX should do it just to give their cretin audience a glimpse of the truth of Sarah Palin, try to redeem themselves as a “News” organization, instead of a skank comedy show!

  6. George Romney and alinsky are all the rage for the cons right now. They’re probably checking under their bed right now for Stalin too. Reds are coming!

  7. Thanks, Sarah!

    I am excited to join your writing staff! :-)

    I was also happy to be able to use my social work education for this article. We studied Alinsky at length in my community organizing classes, so I hauled out my old textbooks to find some of his quotes. It’s been bizarre to see him used as a boogeyman, when he was an admirer of our Founding Fathers and advocated nothing more than full democratic participation. It’s pathetic how much right wingers are so afraid of that.

  8. Speaking as an activist back in the 60’s, we all knew who Alinsky was. His Reveille for Radicals was a wake up call, and I personally eagerly bought Rules for Radicals when it came out in the early ’70s. Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman were probably the best of his followers at using his ideas. The problem arises when people use his ideas simply as a means to power without the underlying heart, as has happened far too frequently, and especially lately. Ultimately, Alinsky’s ideas are an embodiment of those Leon Trotsky enumerated in “Our Morality,” where anything and everything is permitted, as long as “we” take power. This resulted in Stalin and the gulags, the Chicago machine, and now Barak Obama’s empty rhetoric. We are also seeing his ideas at use in Mitt Romney’s campaign tactics.

    Ultimately, Alinsky’s ideas are useful only to tear down the prevailing power structure, but have no sense of what to replace it with. Over the years, I have come to realize that our constitutional form of government is far more benign than whatever is likely to replace it.

  9. Speaking as an activist back in the 60’s, we all knew who Alinsky was. His Reveille for Radicals was a wake up call, and I personally eagerly bought Rules for Radicals when it came out in the early ’70s. Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman were probably the best of his followers at using his ideas. The problem arises when people use his ideas simply as a means to power without the underlying heart, as has happened far too frequently, and especially lately. Ultimately, Alinsky’s ideas are an embodiment of those Leon Trotsky enumerated in “Our Morality,” where anything and everything is permitted, as long as “we” take power. This resulted in Stalin and the gulags, the Chicago machine, and now Barak Obama’s empty rhetoric. We are also seeing his ideas at use in Mitt Romney’s campaign tactics.

    Ultimately, Alinsky’s ideas are useful only to tear down the prevailing power structure, but provide no sense of what to replace it with. Over the years, I have come to realize that our constitutional form of government is far more benign than whatever is likely to come after.

  10. It’s interesting you should use Abbie Hoffman as an example of a “best follower” of his ideas, because my husband and I just saw a comment online suggesting that Hoffman would have been jealous of all of the attention that Alinsky is getting. Interestingly enough, my husband also commented that Hoffman was *not* a good example of Alinsky’s tactics, because he was more of a clown than a tactician. That may have been how individuals reading his book interpreted what Alinsky was saying, but not for those reading his methods in classrooms under the direction of a thoughtful teacher. Social workers are required to read about Alinsky’s strategies in community organizing class (which is also required) and the emphasis is always on organizing, building leadership from within the grassroots, and joining forces to build coalitions. The best example of his tactics in action was ACORN, but we all know what happened to them. They were highly effective at empowering poor communities, so they had to go.

  11. My brother has the stomach to listen to right wing media on a regular basis, and he tells me that Alinsky has been in their news since 2008. At any rate, they may know who he is, but they certainly don’t know it accurately. Like you say, they are probably checking under their beds for Reds.

  12. Thanks for posting these links! It was indeed a pleasure to see Romney Sr. with Alinsky. It also gives me a great deal more respect for his dad. Seems George Romney was quite a man.

  13. Welcome, Deborah!

    I’m sort of in the Bill Maher category when it comes to knowledge about Saul Alinsky, though I’m a tad more informed thanks to your article.

    The thing is, I’m more than certain that Newt supporters have no idea who Alinksy is, nor do they have the capacity to find out.

  14. There is only one reason Saul Alinsky strikes fear into the right and it has absolutely nothing to do with Mr Alinsky.
    The live in fear because the have run out of crap to say, they are scraping at the bottom of the barrel of right wing pseudo religious fear.
    Everyone has heard it all before and no one believes it any more not even the faithful that spread that right wing hate as far as possible, they don’t believe it, just spread because it profits them to do so.
    The mind boggles, Father Christmas, they gave that gives away stuff for, my God in Heaven, for ‘FREE’.
    The Easter Bunny for conspiring to hide eggs so that poor children can find them.
    We can all expect Jesus Christ to change from hero to villain for chasing out the godly money changers, after all today those right wing elite financiers would be handling ‘In God We Trust’ US dollars.
    I can never get over the US right so abusing their own religion by putting ‘In God We Trust’ on their currency, in total contradiction to many of the principles of Christianity, a more glaring idolatry I could scarcely imagine.

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