Who is Saul Alinsky, and why does the right hate him so much? - Vox clock menu more-arrow no yes

Who is Saul Alinsky, and why does the right hate him so much?

On the second night of the 2016 Republican Convention, primetime speaker Ben Carson warned attendees and viewers of the worst thing about Hillary Clinton: her ties to famed community organizer Saul Alinsky.

"One of the things that I have learned about Hillary Clinton is that one of her heroes, her mentors, was Saul Alinsky," Carson declared as the crowd booed. "Her senior thesis was about Saul Alinsky … This was someone she greatly admired and that affected all of her philosophy subsequently." And why is this bad? Well, Carson explained (erroneously), Alinsky dedicated his book Rules for Radicals to none other than … Satan himself!

"This is a nation where our Pledge of Allegiance says we are one nation under god. This is a nation were every coin in our pocket and every bill in our wallets says 'In god we trust.' So, are we willing to elect someone as president who has, as their role model, somebody who acknowledges Lucifer?" Carson asked. Again, the crowd booed.

The rapturous response Carson got was understandable given villainous reputation Alinsky has earned by now in certain conservative circles. But for the vast majority of people who've never heard of Alinsky, the speech was baffling.

So: who is this guy, and why does he matter?

1) Who is Saul Alinsky?

Saul Alinsky

Saul Alinsky with future San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, then a state assemblyman, in 1969. (Jane Tester/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Saul Alinsky is the father of community organizing.

In a Dissent piece, veteran organizer Mike Miller quoted a young Barack Obama giving a quite good definition of the core ideas behind community organizing:

Organizing begins with the premise that (1) the problems facing inner-city communities do not result from a lack of effective solutions, but from a lack of power to implement these solutions; (2) that the only way for communities to build long-term power is by organizing people and the money [they raise] around a common vision; and (3) that a viable organization can only be achieved if a broadly based indigenous leadership—and not one or two charismatic leaders—can knit together the diverse interests of their local institutions [and "grassroots" people].

The key to community organizing is that it's not about winning on any one issue. It's about creating broad coalitions, and training community members to conduct hardball campaigns that let them win on lots of issues. "Professional organizers focus on building community and power," Miller writes. "Issues are simply tools for the building process."

One of Alinsky's insights was to realize how many stakeholders there were to organize. He saw that the same grievances connected ordinary citizens, labor unions, churches, small businesses, and more — and if you could somehow get all those groups together, they were almost unstoppable. And he did get them together.

Alinsky didn't just theorize about organizing. He was, himself, an organizer. A criminologist by training, Alinsky lived in Chicago, and began his work in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in the 1930s. He created the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, a group bringing together unions, religious leaders, and other stakeholders in that area. At its first meeting, Alinsky biographer Sanford Horwitt writes, the council passed resolutions calling for a new recreation facility, for child nutrition and disease prevention programs, and to ask the Armour meatpacking company to compromise with the nascent meatpackers' union. The council took on a permanent role in the community, and still exists.

Alinsky then scaled up his model: he formed the Industrial Areas Foundation, a still-extant group that helps local groups like the Back of the Yards council organize and conducts trainings for organizers-to-be. IAF helped spread Alinsky's tactics far beyond Chicago. The Community Service Organization, an IAF offshoot organizing Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles, launched the careers of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

The documentary The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky & His Legacy is on YouTube in full, and serves as an excellent introduction to his work and thinking:

Alinsky was perhaps best known outside Chicago for his writings, including his first book, Reveille for Radicals, first published in 1946, and Rules for Radicals, which was published shortly before his 1972 death. In recent years, however, he's emerged as a central figure in conservative fears about the true beliefs of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

2) How did Alinsky become a preferred villain of the right?

horowitz alinsky

(The David Horowitz Freedom Center)

Alinsky never identified as a socialist or Communist, but he was a self-professed radical, and a man of the left. The difference between leftism and liberalism is often elided in American political discussion, but it matters. The fact that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both seriously engaged with his ideas — and that Clinton knew him personally — makes it possible to connect them with an American political tradition well to the left of the mainline, Democratic-party liberalism.

The first wave of conservative criticism of Alinsky, and anxiety over the influence he may have had over Democratic politicians, occurred during the Clinton administration, when Hillary Clinton first rose to prominence. Clinton wrote her senior thesis about Alinsky, interviewing him in the process. He offered her an organizing job, which she declined in favor of going to Yale Law School, but they stayed in touch afterwards, as the recently revealed letters confirmed.

David Brock — then a prominent conservative journalist, now a key Clinton ally — examined Clinton's ties to Alinsky in some depth in his 1996 biography of her, The Seduction of Hillary Rodham. He memorably dubbed her "Alinsky's daughter." The late conservative writer Barbara Olson began each chapter of her 1999 book on Clinton, Hell to Pay, with a quote from Alinsky, and argued that his strategic theories directly influenced her behavior during her husband's presidency.

The conspiracy theories were supercharged when Clinton asked Wellesley to seal her thesis for the duration of her husband's presidency, which it did. In 2001, access was restored; you can read the thesis through interlibrary loan with Wellesley, at the Wellesley library directly, or on any number of websites to which it's been passed around.

As Barack Obama's candidacy gained strength, and (eventually) defeated Clinton's, attention shifted to his ties to Alinsky — or, more precisely, to Alinsky-trained organizers. In September 2008, Rudy Giuliani attacked him for being "educated in the Saul Alinsky methods." Once Obama took office, then-Fox host Glenn Beck started incorporating Alinsky into his grand theories about the leftist origins of President Obama's policies. See, for instance:

He was hardly the only conservative host to invoke Alinsky to explain Obama; Monica Crowley, Bill O'Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh also began bringing up Alinsky, with the latter asking, "Has [Obama] ever had an original idea — by that, I mean something not found in The Communist Manifesto? Has he? Has he simply had an idea not found in Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals?"

The late Andrew Breitbart also promoted the idea that Alinsky laid the blueprint for Obama's presidency, notably attacking the president for appearing on a panel after a play about Alinsky in 1998 in the last piece he wrote before passing away. Before long the criticism spread to presidential candidates like Newt Gingrich, who declared that "Saul Alinsky radicalism is the heart of Obama." Rudy Giuliani actually attacked Gingrich during the election on Alinsky-related grounds, saying of Gingrich's attacks on Mitt Romney's business record, "I expect this from Saul Alinsky."

One particularly pervasive theme in conservative criticism of Alinsky is a faulty claim that he dedicated Rules for Radicals to "Lucifer." He actually dedicated it to his wife Irene, but began the book with a series of quotes, including one attributed to himself: "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."

This tongue-in-cheek riff on Christian mythology is repeated in an interview he granted to Playboy shortly before his death:

Let’s say that if there is an afterlife, and I have anything to say about it, I will unreservedly choose to go to hell.

PLAYBOY: Why?

ALINSKY: Hell would be heaven for me. All my life I’ve been with the have-nots. Over here, if you’re a have-not, you’re short of dough. If you’re a have-not in hell, you’re short of virtue. Once I get into hell, I’ll start organizing the have-nots over there.

PLAYBOY: Why them?

ALINSKY: They’re my kind of people.

3) What did Alinsky actually believe?

Rules for Radicals was Alinsky's last book, completed the year before his death, and it laid out his organizing philosophy in detail. Its centerpiece is a list of rules of "power tactics," meant as basic guidelines for organizers and community activists:

  1. Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.
  2. Never go outside the experience of your people.
  3. Wherever possible go outside of the experience of the enemy.
  4. Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.
  5. Ridicule is man's most potent weapon.
  6. A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.
  7. A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.
  8. Keep the pressure on.
  9. The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.
  10. The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.
  11. If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside.
  12. The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.
  13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.

Most of these are elaborated upon in more detail in the book. For example, on #5, Alinsky notes, "It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage."

Alinsky additionally lists 11 rules of "means and ends":

  1. One's concern with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with one's personal interest in the issue.
  2. The judgment of the ethics of means is dependent upon the political position of those sitting in judgment.
  3. In war, the end justifies almost any means.
  4. Judgment must be made in the context of the times in which the action occurred and not from any other chronological vantage point.
  5. Concern with ethics increases with the number of means available and vice versa.
  6. The less important the end to be desired, the more one can afford to engage in ethical evaluations of means.
  7. The ethics of means and ends is that generally success or failure is a mighty determinant of ethics.
  8. The morality of a means depends upon whether the means is being employed at a time of imminent defeat or imminent victory.
  9. Any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical.
  10. You do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral garments.
  11. Goals must be phrased in general terms like "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," "Of the Common Welfare," "Pursuit of Happiness" or "Bread and Peace."

The general idea here is that purity about tactics is a luxury that only the already powerful can afford; that doesn't mean anything goes, but it does mean that the undesirability of a particular means has to be weighed against the gravity of the injustice being fought.

A bogus list of "rules to create a social state" allegedly written by Alinsky has made the rounds since Barack Obama became president, including things like "Poverty — Increase the Poverty level as high as possible, poor people are easier to control." Needless to say, these are forged.

4) Was Alinsky a communist?

Conservatives aren't wrong that Alinsky was solidly on the left of the American political spectrum. The section of Reveille for Radicals defining what the term "radical" meant to Alinsky lays out some more specific beliefs:

The Radical believes that all peoples should have a high standard of food, housing, and health … The Radical places human rights far above property rights. He is for universal, free public education and recognizes this as fundamental to the democratic way of life … The Radical believes completely in real equality of opportunity for all peoples regardless of race, color, or creed. He insists on full employment for economic security but is just as insistent that man's work should not only provide economic security but also be such as to satisfy the creative desires within all men.

In the next chapter he adds, "Radicals … hope for a future where the means of economic production will be owned by all of the people instead of just a comparative handful." But it's important not to mistake statements like these for endorsements of Soviet-style central planning, as some conservative commentators have done.

In Reveille he is as contemptuous of "top down" approaches to social planning as he is of laissez-faire economic policies. The Radical, he says, "will bitterly oppose complete Federal control of education. He will fight for individual rights and against centralized power …The Radical is deeply interested in social planning but just as deeply suspicious of and antagonistic to any idea of plans which work from the top down. Democracy to him is working from the bottom up."

The portions of Reveille dealing with Alinsky's views on American history are revealing in this regard. He expresses sympathy for Thomas Jefferson in his dispute with Alexander Hamilton, and cites Jefferson's dichotomy between "those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes" and "those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests." The latter, Alinsky argues, is the radical position, standing in opposition not only to conservatives, but to liberals who "lay claim to the precious quality of impartiality, of cold objectivity" rather than serving, as radicals do, as "partisans of the people."

weather underground

The Weather Underground during their Days of Rage demonstrations in Chicago, October 1969. Alinsky had no patience for the Weather Underground and other violent New Left groups. (David Fenton/Getty Images)

Alinsky also had harsh words for New Left activists in the 1960s. "He viewed activists in Students for a Democratic Society as naive and impractical, and denounced the tactics of the New Left's militant fringe, as represented by groups like the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground, as doomed to failure for their violent tactics and unwillingness to compromise," historian Thomas Sugrue writes. Sugrue notes that this is in keeping with Alinsky's stance in the 1930s, when he "had little patience for the bona fide socialists and card-carrying Communists" and "repudiated Marxism."

So, yes, Alinsky was a man of the left. But he wasn't a Communist, he wasn't a Marxist, and he was certainly not a part of the New Left. The latter is a particularly common misconception. In 2010, David Brooks used his New York Times column to assail the Tea Party movement for copying Alinsky's tactics (more on that later), calling him "the leading tactician of the New Left." That is almost 180 degrees from the truth. Alinsky's whole problem with the New Left is that they eschewed his tactical advice.

5) Could we take a music break?

Sure. Sufjan Stevens' album Illinois touches on a wide array of figures from the state — John Wayne Gacy Jr., Carl Sandburg, Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, etc. — so it's perhaps not a huge surprise that The Avalanche, an album of rejected potential Illinois songs, features a track named after Alinsky: "The Perpetual Self, or 'What Would Saul Alinsky Do?'":

As for Alinsky's own musical tastes, in Reveille he writes that "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" is "the song of America's Radicals … the martial music of anger, of faith, of hope … the battle hymn of the American Radical … Its words burn in the hearts of all Radicals." Here's Whitney Houston's version:

6) So is Hillary Clinton actually connected to Alinsky?

Hillary Clinton's senior thesis at Wellesley — "'There Is Only the Fight…': An Analysis of the Alinsky Model" — was about Alinsky and his model of organizing. She spoke to Alinsky in the course of writing the thesis, and thanked him in the acknowledgements for "providing a topic, sharing his time and offering me a job." The thesis is broadly sympathetic to Alinsky, concluding that "he has been feared — just as Eugene Debs or Walt Whitman or Martin Luther King has been feared, because each embraced the most radical of political faiths — democracy."

But Clinton takes pains to hear out criticisms of Alinsky's model. She notes that it is at least somewhat dependent on Alinsky's unique talents. "One of the primary problems with the Alinsky model is that the removal of Alinsky drastically alters its composition," she writes. "Alinsky is a born organizer who is not easily duplicated." The results of the Back of the Yards organizing campaign, she continues, were not uniformly positive, arguably ossifying the community and preventing mobility among its inhabitants.

Most crucially, she sympathetically cites criticisms of Alinsky on the grounds that community organizing is insufficient in a world in which "the territorially-defined community is no longer a workable social unit." The rise of the suburbs and federal consolidation of power mean that change needs to be achieved at levels that the Alinsky model wasn't supposed to target, according to this critique.

Clinton also, as shown by the newly uncovered letter she sent to Alinsky, was in contact with him while in law school at Yale.  She thanks him for "encouraging words of last spring in the midst of the Yale-Cambodia madness" (a reference, presumably, to the Yale protests over a trial of Black Panther leaders and of the Nixon administration's bombing of Cambodia) and alludes to the duo's "biennial conversations."

His secretary's response seems to confirm that the two had a friendly relationship. "Since I know his feelings about you I took the liberty of opening your letter because I didn't want something urgent to wait for two weeks. And I'm glad I did," Georgia Harper, Alinsky's assistant, writes. Mentioning that he will be in San Francisco while Clinton was in Berkeley, Harper continues, "I know he would like to have you call him so that if there is a chance in his schedule maybe you can get together."

Clinton used a 1993 Washington Post interview (via MSNBC.com's Bill Dedman) to claim that her support for Alinsky was based on sympathy with his critique of large, top-down government programs: "I basically argued that he was right. Even at that early stage I was against all these people who come up with these big government programs that were more supportive of bureaucracies than actually helpful to people."

In her 2003 memoir, Living History, Clinton recalls her thesis and relationship with Alinsky, but notes that she came to disagree with him over his contention that real change can't occur from the inside — which makes sense, given that she was a sitting US Senator by then:

For my thesis, I analyzed the work of a Chicago native and community organizer named Saul Alinsky, whom I had met the previous summer. Alinsky was a colorful and controversial figure who managed to offend almost everyone during his long career. His prescription for social change required grassroots organizing that taught people to help themselves by confronting government and corporations to obtain the resources and power to improve their lives. I agreed with some of Alinsky's ideas, particularly the value of empowering people to help themselves. But we had a fundamental disagreement. He believed you could change the system only from the outside. I didn't. Later, he offered me the chance to work with him when I graduated from college, and he was disappointed that I decided instead to go to law school. Alinsky said I would be wasting my time, but my decision was an expression of my belief that the system could be changed from within.

7) What's President Obama's connection to Alinsky?

obama young

Barack Obama at Harvard Law School, the period when he excoriated Alinsky on a panel and contributed to the volume After Alinsky. (Apic/Getty Images)

President Obama, unlike Clinton, had no personal ties to Alinsky. Alinsky, after all, died when Obama was 10 years old. But Obama was certainly influenced by Alinsky's followers and overall model of organizing.

Obama, famously, worked as a community organizer in Chicago between 1985 to 1988. The group he worked for — Developing Communities Project (DCP), part of the Calumet Community Religious Conference — was not a part of the IAF but, like most organizing groups in Chicago, was deeply influenced by Alinsky. Jerry Kellman, who hired Obama, was trained by Alinsky's organizing school, as were Mike Kruglik and Gregory Galluzzo, his other main organizing mentors. But none of them were personally tied to Alinsky, with Galluzzo telling the New Republic's Ryan Lizza, "I regard myself as St. Paul who never met Jesus. I'm his best disciple."

Obama himself attended an IAF training, and contributed a chapter to the book After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois. Neither the chapter nor Obama's memoir Dreams from My Father (which deals extensively with his time organizing) mentions Alinsky by name.

One of the few places where Obama has directly commented on Alinsky was in a profile by Lizza in 2007. Lizza writes that Obama internalized the first main lesson of Alinsky — that organizing is about leveraging the community's self-interest for its own empowerment. "The key to creating successful organizations was making sure people's self-interest was met," Obama told Lizza, "and not just basing it on pie-in-the-sky idealism. So there were some basic principles that remained powerful then, and in fact I still believe in." Eventually, Obama got the strategies well enough to teach trainings himself.

But Obama came to reject certain elements of Alinsky's approach, including Alinsky's downplaying of the importance of rhetoric and ideas. Here's Lizza:

"It's true that the notion of self-interest was critical," Obama told me. "But Alinsky understated the degree to which people's hopes and dreams and their ideals and their values were just as important in organizing as people's self-interest." He continued, "Sometimes the tendency in community organizing of the sort done by Alinsky was to downplay the power of words and of ideas when in fact ideas and words are pretty powerful. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, all men are created equal.' Those are just words. 'I have a dream.' Just words. But they help move things. And I think it was partly that understanding that probably led me to try to do something similar in different arenas."

In another piece in the New Republic, John Judis quotes Obama at a 1989 symposium laying out his criticisms of Alinsky's methods. He noted that Alinsky's focus on organization as an end in itself meant his model could be used to deleterious ends, as it was by Save our Neighborhoods/Save our City, an organization which claimed it wanted to protect the interests of "white ethnics" under the mayoralty of Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor. "Before he was done," Judis continued, "Obama had rejected the guiding principles of community organizing: the elevation of self-interest over moral vision; the disdain for charismatic leaders and their movements; and the suspicion of politics itself."

8) Have any conservatives used Alinsky's strategies?

Alinsky's politics obviously don't align with those of the modern conservative movement, but he's always been admired by conservatives as an exceptionally talented organizer. William F. Buckley wrote in 1966 that Alinsky was "very close to being an organizational genius," and conducted a largely respectful interview on his show Firing Line:

More recently, Alinsky's writing, in particular Rules for Radicals, helped shape the Tea Party movement. Dave Weigel reported that the "town hall strategy" of summer 2009, in which anti-Obamacare activists forced confrontations with legislators over the plan, was influenced by the book. Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey was an open admirer of Alinsky during his time running FreedomWorks, a lobbying group with ties to the Tea Party Movement. "What I think of Alinsky is that he was very good at what he did but what he did was not good," Armey told the Financial Times. In 2009, Adam Brandon, then a press secretary for FreedomWorks, told Politico he was given a copy of Rules for Radicals upon joining the group.

James O'Keefe, the stunt journalist who helped destroy the community organizing group ACORN, ironically drew inspiration for his tactics from Alinsky. At the height of his influence, Glenn Beck both developed elaborate conspiracy theories about Alinsky's supposed influence and encouraged conservatives to learn from his tactics.

This is somewhat akin to the way that Vladimir Lenin's tactical genius is admired by some on the right; Grover Norquist reportedly keeps a statue of Lenin in his home, and Stuart Butler and Peter Germanis, then of the nascent Heritage Foundation, wrote a "Leninist strategy" for achieving Social Security privatization in 1983. But admiration of Alinsky, or at least adoption of his tactics, appears to be significantly more common.

Many thanks to Georgetown's Michael Kazin for reviewing a draft of this piece to ensure it got Alinsky's place in the history of American radicalism right.

Correction: This piece originally said Harold Washington was Chicago's only black mayor. After his death he was briefly succeeded by Eugene Sawyer, who was also black. In any case Washington was the only black person to ever be elected mayor. We regret the error.

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