Saul Alinsky was born on 30 January 1909, 103 years ago this week. He was born into the maelstrom that was Chicago to an Orthodox Jewish couple émigré from Russia, Benjamin and Sarah. He grew up precocious and often involved in petty warfare with Polish boys from the neighbouring community. His community was neither poor nor rich, a comfortable existence without finery. The Shtetl community was mostly self-sufficient, creating and respecting the institutions of civil life – such as synagogues, schools, health services, banks – from their own resources.
He took up a place in 1926 reading anthropology at the University of Chicago where he began to appreciate the nature of Chicago in the post-crash late 1920s afresh. The rapid growth of the industrial base of Chicago had led to massive growth in population in a few years. Many had come from great poverty in Eastern Europe bringing with them the historical rivalries and hostilities from their home turf. The Italians were top dog in Chicago’s public realm running both the Catholic Church and the Mob. The city government was run with the Mob’s connivance by the Democrat Machine which employed placemen on the basis of the number of local votes they could command. Such powerful forces were in Alinsky’s emerging view the Haves, pitted against the many Have-nots. In modern parlance, the 1% against the 99%.
Gangs and Social Disorganisation
Alinsky spent time learning criminology, working with street gangs even meeting Al Capone. He was trained in sociology by Ernest Burgess of the Chicago School who was pioneering the ethnographic study of urban life. As a result, Alinsky got to know the gangs through close observation and everyday exposure to their lives. He went on to work at a prison for a while before returning to take part in Clifford Shaw’s early work on juvenile delinquency. He began work near the stockyards and meat packing yards – a major employer of mass labour in urban Chicago – where beef, pork and poultry from the mid-West were packed in dreadful conditions for rail distribution across the continent. (Upton Sinclair had recently written his The Jungle about the area.) He was working to bring the ideas from his academic world to bear on the crushing poverty of such an exploited working class community, divided into competing Slavic sectors of Poles, Czechs, Lithuanians and Slovaks in the midst of the Great Depression.
His inspiration by the mid 1930s was the union leader John L. Lewis (pictured on the left). As the founder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, John L. Lewis was a mighty force for worker power across America. His union organisers were agitating throughout America’s industrial workforce for increased rights and higher wages. Many organizers were influenced by Communism and called for the workers to get organised to increased their negotiating position with the wealthy employers. For Alinsky, this struggle for power became an archetypal contest between those who owned and those who worked – his Haves and Have-nots.
Cooking up a new way
From this potent brew of small town Judaism, ethnography of gang culture and norms, academic criminology and union organising came his early articulation of community organising. Passionately committed to overcoming the social disorganisation of the urban poor whilst distancing himself from any single ideology, Alinsky began to meld together diverse elements of local civil society and culture. In 1939, he persuaded a Communist organiser Joseph Meegan to join with one of the local ethnic Catholic priests in calling a meeting of all the local people’s organisations and so the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC) was conceived.
BYNC became a powerful voice for an area of Chicago formerly ignored by all. It managed to transform the area into one of pride for its residents and maintained its unity for over a decade. Alinsky’s skill in enabling people who were actively hostile to each other to acknowledge their common bond around their shared community was extraordinary. He did it by working closely with all the parties and ensuring that the people themselves were in charge and their independence sustained. They remained free of interference from The Mob, The Machine or the Catholic Church until Alinsky persuaded the diocese to fund his work and respect its freedom.
A Legacy still alive
Such was but the earliest achievement of a life sadly cut short by a heart attack in June 1972; he went on to build people’s organizations in several cities and in rural areas too. Alinsky was a brilliant tactician but often angry, arrogant and aggressive. His capacity to capture the news headlines with a deft action was enough to prevent his opponents from sweeping him aside on many occasions. He brought together an amalgam of fervour and cold logic with a deep understanding of how power controls and commands people in community. Listening to his words today – on film or on the page – it is clear he comes from another era. He predates the emergence of the modern world but his story and his exemplary tactics remain a legacy from which we all benefit. Happy birthday Saul, indeed!
Saul D. Alinsky (1989) Reveille for Radicals Vintage Books
Saul D. Alinsky (1989) Rules for Radicals Vintage Books
Sanford D. Horwitt (1992) Let Them Call Me Rebel – Saul Alinsky: His Life and Legacy Vintage
Nicholas von Hoffman (2011) Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky Nation Books
Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council – a history offered by BYNC today
Upton Sinclair (2002) The Jungle Penguin