He died in 1972, at the age of sixty-three, a marginalized figure in his own obscure field and seldom mentioned outside of it.
But to close followers of the topsy-turvy GOP presidential primary, the late Saul Alinsky is suddenly becoming a household word. This is due, in large measure, to the mantra-like repetition of the name by Newt Gingrich, who invokes it every day on the campaign trail as part of his stump-speech indictment of President Obama.
“We need somebody who is a conservative and who can stand up to him and debate and who can clearly draw the contrast between the Declaration of Independence and the writings of Saul Alinsky,” Gingrich told a large crowd outside the Wings Plus restaurant in Coral Springs, Florida Wednesday.
“The centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky,” the former House Speaker crowed to his raucous supporters on the night he won the South Carolina primary. “President Obama believes in Saul Alinsky's radicalism,” he said in West Columbia, four days earlier, “[and] a lot of strange ideas he learned at Columbia and Harvard."
It all begs the question: Who was Saul Alinsky? And another: Why does Gingrich think it effective messaging for him to conjure a man who’s been dead forty years, and whose name is recognized, in all probability, by one in every 100,000 registered voters?
Born in Chicago in 1909, Alinsky was a trained archeologist and criminologist. In the early 1930s, he observed with fascination the rigid hierarchies and extraordinary social cohesion discernible in the Windy City’s large population of gangland mobsters. Intrigued by the way these poor and uneducated ethnics galvanized themselves into a formidable force, and managed to achieve their stated ends – however reprehensible – Alinsky wondered if somehow the techniques of organization used by La Cosa Nostra could be applied to the city’s ordinary disenfranchised dwellers.
His first triumph was the successful rallying of a mix of ethnic Catholics in the rundown neighborhood known as “Back of the Yards.” With the help of the Chicago archdiocese, Alinsky mobilized these Irish and Polish workers and tenants to demand – and win – concessions from local slumlords and city hall.
From that moment onward, Alinsky has been regarded as the godfather of that modern form of rabble-rousing known as “community organizing.” He would go on to work with steelworkers, native Indians in Canada, American blacks, and Chicanos. His work with that last group included his tutelage of a young Cesar Chavez, who in turn led the first organization of California migrant workers, and became one of the most celebrated activists of the twentieth century.
While the antiwar protesters and radicals of the late 1960s breathed new life into Alinsky’s name and career, he occasionally expressed dismay with their attitudes and tactics. One occasion was the aftermath of the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Alinsky’s hometown of Chicago. Television sets across America beamed violent and unnerving images of Chicago police officers swinging nightsticks against antiwar protesters, hippies, and students in Grant Park.
When the tear gas evaporated, students and radicals approached Alinsky and asked whether they shouldn’t now organize in more militant forms, “the system” having failed them.
“Do one of three things,” Alinsky advised them. “One, go find a wailing wall and feel sorry for yourselves. Two, go psycho and start bombing – but this will only swing people to the right. Three, learn a lesson. Go home, organize, build power and at the next convention, you be the delegates.”
As a young post-graduate in the 1980s and ‘90s, Barack Obama was schooled in – and taught others – the Alinsky techniques. To hear Alinsky’s disciples tell it, his model of grassroots mobilization involved three key elements: an unsentimental assessment of the bottom-line interests that could serve to unite ordinary, and often apathetic, citizens in meaningful forms of protest; a highly confrontational, take-no-prisoners approach to those holding the reins of power; and an unwavering faith that positive change can be effected by people previously uninvolved in politics.
These principles Alinsky set forth in three books, most notably Reveille for Radicals (1949) and Rules for Radicals (1971), which found a wide audience amid the countercultural protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“In this book,” Alinsky declared near the outset of Rules, “we are concerned with how to create mass organizations to seize power and give it to the people; to realize the democratic dream of equality, justice, peace…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's whole style was very in-your-face,” said Marshall Ganz, a professor of public policy at Harvard University who began working with Chavez and the United Farm Workers in 1965. “He thought that making change required creating tension, so that people could learn and look at things from a new perspective….What Alinsky meant by ‘radical’ was somebody who does something about it, doesn't just talk about it.”
“He liked to provoke a reaction,” agreed Michael Gecan, an executive with the Industrial Areas Foundation, an activist group founded by Alinsky. “When people talk about Saul Alinsky being ‘radical,’” Gecan told Fox News in an interview from Chicago, “the radicalism is really quite literal. It means ‘to the root,’ ‘on the ground.’ We go to the root, we go on the ground, and listen to people, and respect them.”
Asked this week about Gingrich’s frequent invocations of Alinsky, and his efforts to tie the author of Rules for Radicals to the incumbent president, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney only noted dryly that Mr. Obama has, indeed, worked in this area.
“The president's background as a community organizer is well documented in the president's own books, so his experience in that field obviously contributed to who he is today,” Carney said in Monday’s press briefing. “But his experience is a broad-based one that includes a lot of other areas in his life.”
When Gingrich attacked Bain Capital, the private equity firm that made Mitt Romney a wealthy man, the former speaker got a dose of his own rhetorical medicine from a fellow Republican. During an appearance on “Fox and Friends” on January 12, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was asked what he would say to Gingrich about the Bain Capital controversy. “What the hell are you doing, Newt?” the former mayor responded. “I expect this from Saul Alinsky!”
Alinsky's career was the subject of a senior thesis written by a Wellesley College student named Hillary Rodham. More recently, numerous Tea Party figures have expressed admiration for Rules for Radicals, as a primer on grassroots activism.