No Rules for Radicals

The Saul Alinsky phase usually hits at age 21.

It was around that age that the current President vowed to take on Alinsky’s profession (community organizer) in Alinsky’s city (Chicago). His secretary of state reported to her professors that Alinsky “has been feared” because he “embraced the most radical of political faiths—democracy.” And at Glenn Beck’s Lincoln Memorial event this past weekend, many College Republicans in attendance no doubt will go back to their campuses and appropriate Alinsky’s tactics to their ends.
Nearly four decades after his death, Saul Alinsky is hotter than ever. 

In Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky, Nicholas von Hoffman recounts a story of how the subject of his memoir once anonymously took a college examination on community organizing, wrongly answering two of three questions—on his own methods. If Saul Alinsky (1909-1972) couldn’t get himself right on a test, one can forgive von Hoffman for a book portrayal of his former boss that is often at odds with itself.

According to von Hoffman, Alinsky spent his life “tinkering with new ways to realize the old goal of democratic self-rule.” And according to von Hoffman, Alinsky stuffed organizational ballot boxes to affect the favored outcome.

The author quips, “We organized people to determine their own destinies except when we determined them.” That authoritarian spirit also animated the small group Alinsky headed. “Saul would joke about the [Industrial Areas Foundation] being a democratic organization in which he had one more vote than all the others combined.”

According to von Hoffman, Alinsky “was not a troublemaker for the hell of it.” And according to von Hoffman, Alinsky kept a framed picture of George Metesky, a lunatic who terrorized New York City with pipe bombs for over a decade, on his office wall. He professed Machiavelli an ethical yet practical democrat. His admiration for the rebellious angel Lucifer sparked him to preface Rules for Radicals with praise for the devil.

According to von Hoffman, Alinsky was “a man of great kindness.” And according to von Hoffman, Alinsky was a man of great hatreds. “There are some people I not only do not love but hate with a cold fury that would stop at nothing,” Alinsky wrote his philosopher friend Jacques Maritain. “I hate people who act unjustly and cause many to suffer. I become violently angry when I see misery and am filled with a bitter vindictiveness toward those responsible.”

According to von Hoffman, Alinsky was an “ethical teacher.” And according to von Hoffman, Alinsky’s associates were a motley crew of mobster murderers, corrupt prelates, and urban white racists.

Violence, Alinsky held, “was too touchy and to bring it up was to invite misquotation and distortion. In private, though, he would say that violence has its uses.” The author explains that Alinsky once led a goon squad to force Communists out of leadership positions in the United Mine Workers. Elsewhere, the “ethical teacher” Alinsky worked alongside Communists.

Alas, “Saul was amused by his own inconsistencies,” von Hoffman writes. Radical’s chaotic jumble of contradictions at times obscures, at times conveys the real Alinsky, whose protégé-biographer probably saw him here as kind, there as hateful.
This “least doctrinaire of men” found strength in ignoring the set script. He made up the story as he went along, confounding enemies as unscrupulous and alienating friends as unprincipled. Out for amusement, Alinsky bored easily and moved from project to project. He liked seeing his picture in the newspaper, loved the power trip of embarrassing powerful people, and reveled in outrageous stunts whether enacted or merely threatened. 

Though the methods that brought him fame were transparently one dimensional, the less-discussed politics that motivated such methods were complex. Alinsky denigrated the Peace Corps as the “Piss Corps” and thought the Great Society would be more effective if the money had been handed out randomly on ghetto street corners.

“One of the reasons that Saul had a certain contempt for liberals or progressives and called himself a ‘radical’ was that he suspected liberals of being losers,” von Hoffman explains. “He shared with conservatives the feeling that liberals were soft, that they would buckle in a crisis and quit the field.”

Alinsky counseled his workers to stay out of jail, cut their hair, wear bourgeois clothing, and eschew idealistic ventures with little chance for victory. Upon publication of Rules for Radicals in 1971 a generous portion of those referring to themselves as “radicals” viewed Alinsky as a square. 

Alinsky would have probably viewed a generous portion of those currently reading Rules for Radicals as “squares.” It is fitting that an amoral, unscrupulous man authored a book that has been seized upon by conservatives to rattle leftist congressmen at town halls and upend ACORN, (the closest thing to an Alinskyite establishment), through ridicule. Good strategy is an ideologically neutral commodity.

But it would be a shame if the obligatory rudeness, activism as catharsis, and situational ethics of the Alinsky model became a staple of the right-wing’s foot soldiers, too. If conservatives come to believe with Alinsky that ends justify means then it is not long before something as bassackwards as pushing liberalism to further conservatism will come to be rationalized—if that hasn’t happened already. 

Then there is the question of the ultimate effectiveness of such tactics. Examples of Alinsky afflicting the comfortable are many. When did he ever comfort the afflicted?

Admirers are quick to cite the master’s influence on Cesar Chavez and, less directly so, on Barack Obama. And did you hear that Hillary Rodham wrote her senior thesis on Alinsky? Instances of Saul Alinsky effecting lasting positive change upon any community that he “organized” are not to be found in von Hoffman’s Radical—or anywhere else. 

The hardnosed agitator bequeaths no permanent imprint on the South Side of Chicago or in blue-collar Rochester. Instead, he left his mark on library shelves, where Rules for Radicals thrives as an activist guidebook.

Hell for Saul Alinsky is that his legacy is primarily as a theorist rather than a man of action. That conservatives are utilizing his theories is ninth-circle stuff.