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For conservatives accustomed to left-wing bogeymen falling neatly into either the “Marxist” or “sixties radical” box, Saul Alinsky can make for a bewildering figure.
Alinsky significantly never joined the Communist Party during the Red Decade. He later reflected, “I didn’t join because I had a sense of humor.” As a Roosevelt-era apparatchik of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), Alinsky defended union reliance on Communists to organize workers but also oversaw a touring beat-down crew targeting troublemaking Communists at the behest of the CIO. This reappearing hypocrisy, which Alinsky’s critics decried as a vice, Alinksy himself celebratd as a virtue. Flexibility to changing tactics, rather than rigid adherence to principle, was the Alinskyite hallmark of successful activism.
His sixties were very much like his thirties. Alinsky sat out the civil rights and anti-war movements, derided the Peace Corps as the “Piss Corps,” and frequented barbers and donned business attire when the fashion called for tie-dye, beads, and long hair. “When there are people who espouse the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy or the Tate murders or the Marin County Courthouse kidnappings and killings as ‘revolutionary acts,’” Alinsky reflected, “then we are dealing with people who are merely hiding psychosis behind a political mask.”
A leftist against the tide of leftism in two of the last century’s most radical decades, Alinsky ironically emerged as one of the Left’s most enduring idea men. Perhaps a richer paradox involves the man of action finding lasting significance as a theorist. One would be hard pressed to name a single community that the organizer extraordinaire even marginally improved. But his book Rules for Radicals is more popular than ever forty years after its publication.
The book’s popularity has much to do with ties of long-dead Alinsky to two of today’s most powerful political leaders, who heeded his advice to remain within the system.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton penned an impressive senior thesis on Alinsky at Wellesley College. “Much of what Alinsky professes does not sound ‘radical,’” Clinton insisted therein. “His words are used in our schools and churches, by our parents and their friends, by our peers. The difference is that Alinsky really believes in them and recognizes the necessity of changing the present structure of our lives in order to realize them.” Wellesley’s student commencement speaker nevertheless rejected a job offer from the subject of her paper.
Saul Alinsky never offered a job to Barack Obama, who was ten when Alinsky died. The future president nevertheless followed in his footsteps by becoming a Chicago community organizer. Recruited by Jerry Kellman, who was recruited into community organizing by Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation, Obama by all accounts became adept at the master’s instructions to “rub raw the sores of discontent.” Though the president’s supporters downplay his three years as a post-Alinsky Alinskyite, the president’s disciple status was so strong that an essay he wrote made its way into 1990’s After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois.
While Alinsky may be helpful to understanding Clinton and Obama, Clinton and Obama aren’t especially helpful to understanding Alinsky. Instead, two famous leaders of earlier Lefts, and strangely, the Chicago mafia, make better sense of the guru’s power-politics obsessions.
Saul Alinsky served as a bridge between the infamous but effective John L. Lewis to the beloved but ineffective Cesar Chavez. The former association taught him the lessons, and the latter association gave him the credibility, to impart his tactics to radical Baby Boomers reaching adulthood. Thus, he passed on labor union tactics to a new generation of radicals largely alienated from working men. Alinsky tellingly preferred the immoral labor leader who mentored him to the moral labor leader he mentored. His reaction to his United Mine Workers mentor and United Farm Workers mentee illustrates his embrace of cynicism and contempt for idealism.
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