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|Saul Alinsky |
by Jay Atkinson
Saul Alinsky was a community organizer and organized the Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago in 1940. Born in 1909, Alinsky's strategy was social reform by the organizing in mass power and taught us the means for action until his death in 1972. He was a compassionate social reformer of great magnitude and wisdom and brought together community groups to work with socially aware churches. No one had more experience or was more successful in bringing together activists for united community action than Saul Alinsky. We may truly have Alinsky to thank for all the good that came out of all that was bad of the Democratic Convention of Chicago in 1968.
Saul was born and raised in Chicago, studied archaeology and criminology and worked as criminologist. Alinsky saw the hypocrisy of Madison Ave, the middle-class and the Protestant moral superiority and recognized the ignorance inherent in the attitude that to be controversial is practically a cardinal sin. Rather, Alinsky believed that conflict and controversy are the very elements of a democratic, free way of life and even told stories about spending time with Al Capone and his mob. In Chicago, he helped organize the Back of the Yards Council, made famous in Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," the Industrial Areas Foundation and the Woodlawn Organization which organized inner-city blacks to solve problems.
Although much of his work was done in Chicago, due to the activist and evangelistic spirit of his students, there was also organizing activity in all the big cities in the sixties and seventies. His efforts survived for some years after his death but interest waned during the materialistic "me generation" of the Reagan and Bush years. Some work was done in resurrecting the IA with churches coming together again but it wasn't until the Presidential campaigns of 2008 that his names resurfaces.
Alinsky's field of action and stated political purpose was the field of change and a constant stream of conflict within the democratic process. Alinsky knew that in today's world, most people are not motivated by altruism, you needed to somehow appeal to their self-interest. The right thing is usually done for the wrong reasons. When he came into a community in order to organize it, he got the local churches involved. He said that he never appealed to the ministers or priests in terms of Christian principles because they did not really believe in the Christianity of Jesus. Therefore, Alinsky appealed to what really motivated them - their self-interests, and talked more about membership and more money. It worked every time.
The tension was felt wherever his people went, especially if he came with them. When Alinsky came to Rochester, a "howl of protest" came up. He seemed to work best among the socially aware churches, which were generally labeled "liberal" and the black holiness churches. It appeared that the hot or cold churches were with him, the luke-warm were against.
Saul Alinsky's book, Rules For Radicals was first published in 1971 and is his impassioned advice to young radicals on how to effect constructive, non-violent, social change. The Rules became a primer for hell raisers. Alinsky wanted us to know "the difference between being a realistic radical and being a rhetorical one." In his own words, "The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away." Alinsky loved the American democratic tradition and his book outlines the rules of the game for organizers to follow in bringing together people bent on social and political justice. Eschewing both capitalism and communism, Alinsky took a social democratic stance and preached the revolutionary thinking of Abraham Lincoln and Henry David Thoreau. Alinsky believed in the moral life and that the moral life is the only road to survival, if we will not share part of our material wealth, we will lose all of it.
For those that label Alinsky a "Marxist," they have never studied him. The influence was understandably there as well as other revolutionaries and reformers, but with his witty humor, it has been said that it was more Groucho than Karl. Alinsky said it best in his own words. "Believing in people, the radical has the job of organizing them so that they will have the power and opportunity to best meet each unforeseeable future crisis as they move ahead in their eternal search for those values of equality, justice, freedom, peace, a deep concern for the preciousness of human life, and all those rights and values propounded by Judaeo-Christianity and the democratic political tradition. Democracy is not an end but the best means toward achieving these values. This is my credo for which I live and, if need be, die." (Page 12, Rules for Radicals)
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|In 1971, Saul Alinsky wrote an entertaining classic on grassroots organizing titled Rules for Radicals. Those who prefer cooperative tactics describe the book as out-of-date. Nevertheless, it provides some of the best advice on confrontational tactics. Alinsky begins this way: |
What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.
His “rules” derive from many successful campaigns where he helped poor people fighting power and privilege
For Alinsky, organizing is the process of highlighting what is wrong and convincing people they can actually do something about it. The two are linked. If people feel they don’t have the power to change a bad situation, they stop thinking about it.
According to Alinsky, the organizer — especially a paid organizer from outside — must first overcome suspicion and establish credibility. Next the organizer must begin the task of agitating: rubbing resentments, fanning hostilities, and searching out controversy. This is necessary to get people to participate. An organizer has to attack apathy and disturb the prevailing patterns of complacent community life where people have simply come to accept a bad situation. Alinsky would say, “The first step in community organization is community disorganization.”
Through a process combining hope and resentment, the organizer tries to create a “mass army” that brings in as many recruits as possible from local organizations, churches, services groups, labor unions, corner gangs, and individuals.
Alinsky provides a collection of rules to guide the process. But he emphasizes these rules must be translated into real-life tactics that are fluid and responsive to the situation at hand.
Rule 1: Power is not only what you have, but what an opponent thinks you have. If your organization is small, hide your numbers in the dark and raise a din that will make everyone think you have many more people than you do.
Rule 2: Never go outside the experience of your people.
The result is confusion, fear, and retreat.
Rule 3: Whenever possible, go outside the experience of an opponent. Here you want to cause confusion, fear, and retreat.
Rule 4: Make opponents live up to their 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.”
Rule 5: Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It’s hard to counterattack ridicule, and it infuriates the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage.
Rule 6: A good tactic is one your people enjoy. “If your people aren’t having a ball doing it, there is something very wrong with the tactic.”
Rule 7: A tactic that drags on for too long becomes a drag. Commitment may become ritualistic as people turn to other issues.
Rule 8: Keep the pressure on. Use different tactics and actions and use all events of the period for your purpose. “The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition. It is this that will cause the opposition to react to your advantage.”
Rule 9: The threat is more terrifying than the thing itself. When Alinsky leaked word that large numbers of poor people were going to tie up the washrooms of O’Hare Airport, Chicago city authorities quickly agreed to act on a longstanding commitment to a ghetto organization. They imagined the mayhem as thousands of passengers poured off airplanes to discover every washroom occupied. Then they imagined the international embarrassment and the damage to the city’s reputation.
Rule 10: The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. Avoid being trapped by an opponent or an interviewer who says, “Okay, what would you do?”
Rule 11: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it. Don’t try to attack abstract corporations or bureaucracies. Identify a responsible individual. Ignore attempts to shift or spread the blame.
According to Alinsky, the main job of the organizer is to bait an opponent into reacting. “The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength.”