In 2010, I studied the life and works of Saul Alinsky (1909-1972) (right) as part of my Masters in Community Organising at Queen Mary University of London. Alinsky is the most significant figure in the history of community organising as he made substantial breakthroughs in both theory and practical methods during his career. He is regarded by many as the father of community organising although other streams also flowed into the river that became community organising in subsequent decades. His work in the Back of the Yards, in Woodlawn and Rochester laid the ground work for a widespread emergence of organising across America in the 1970s and 1980s.
It was in 1984 that Barack Obama was trained as a community organiser in Alinsky’s home city of Chicago. He was schooled by the Gamaliel Foundation in creating powerful relationships to secure social change. Working from the grassroots up, he was employed as an organiser for a short time before moving on to become a successful lawyer and latterly of course an even more successful politician. Hilary Clinton wrote her dissertation on Alinsky and was even offered a job with the Industrial Areas Foundation by Alinsky himself; she too chose to leave it behind and follow her legal training.
In the UK, the recent interest in community organising has its roots in Obama’s campaign for the presidency in 2008 when he managed to use the principles of organising to empower a broad coalition of interests – many of them poor, disenfranchised and oppressed. He raised amazing amounts of money in small gifts and mobilised votes in millions by focusing on organising principles modernised by the strategic use of mobile and internet technology. As a result of this revolutionary move, many in the UK wanted a bit of the action and recognised in Citizens UK an influential and dynamic community-led organisation with an Alinsky-style approach. The Locality training programme was one of the results.
Recent Republican postings
In America, the way Alinsky has played for the President’s election hopes this time round has been very different. I have used one of those nifty little tools now available to us all on the internet – a Google Alert. For the last few months, I have received a daily email alert each time anywhere in the world the name of Saul Alinsky has been published. And almost without an exception they have come from US Republican sources. The result of this study of one aspect of the right-wing blogosphere has been telling.
What I have discovered is the degree to which Alinsky has become a bogeyman for the independent Republican. All sorts of complete lies, innuendo and misunderstandings of the man and his work have been stated online without any response or reply. Having admired Alinsky’s achievements (whilst having some reservations about his style, misogynist tendencies and combative approach), I have been utterly flabbergasted to see the level of knowing ignorance shown by American commentators in his regard.
Three examples will suffice.
His (Barack Obama’s] goal, since being elected, has been to force the working part of our society to accept a Socialist/ Marxist system where all income is taken by government and redistributed as sustenance to a subservient populace and massive rewards to his elitist friends for his coronation. And, to achieve this, Obama has continued to follow the teachings of his mentor, the noted Marxist, Saul Alinsky.
Having never heard of Alinsky my curiosity got the best of me so I purchased his book, Rules for Radicals. This book is like a horror story that could produce nightmares if you dared to read it. Sadly, it is the very principles of this Marxist that are being used by Obama to redistribute the incomes of those of us that work and have provided to support ourselves. [Evening Tribune.com 10 October 2012]
Obama had two doggedly radical mentors that shaped both his ideology and his current policies. One was a committed hardcore Communist and the other was renowned as a hardcore Socialist. Neither man stressed American values, but taught the opposite — that America with its free enterprise, republic based, God-worshipping system is the enemy of the people…The late Harvard Professor Saul Alinsky wrote that the key to weaken — then take over America, its economy and its people — is to “destroy the middle class.” Alinsky advocated use of class and race warfare. He believed that “wealth redistribution,” taking from those who work and giving it to those who don’t, is the catalyst to bring down the U.S. economy and free-market capitalism. After four years in office, Obama is well on his way to doing just that. Alinsky’s socialist guidebook is embedded in Obama’s record of economic policies that he has visited upon all Americans and their families — specifically the “middle class.”
It should be noted that Alinsky began his book, Rules for Radicals, with a tribute to: “…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.” Alinsky championed and sought to emulate Lucifer, otherwise known as Satan. Alinsky’s game plan was to lie, cheat and steal elections in order to control the American people and bring American commerce to its knees. Excerpt from my April 2010 article: Power At Any Cost: The Training of Barack Obama:
Alinsky clearly recognized that Lucifer or Satan is also the king of deception. It is upon deception that Alinsky built his political strategy. Deception, he taught his followers, is the Trojan horse that gets you inside the gates where you can then access power and retain it by any means available – no matter the costs to the people, the government or the nation. Again, it is upon deception that Alinsky built his political strategy. It is Alinsky’s strategy that Barack Obama wrote on a blackboard and can be seen teaching to ACORN members during his days as a Chicago Community Organizer. Obama’s educational-mentor Alinsky also worked as a Chicago Community Organizer before him.
It is true that Saul Alinsky preferred the teachings of Lenin, who murdered millions, to the teachings of Mao, who also murdered millions. Mao advocated obtaining power by the barrel of the gun. Lenin was more subtle by first advocating working the system and obtaining power by the vote, then using the barrel of the gun to keep it. Alinsky had no qualms about stealing the vote as a means to reach his end result – power. For Saul Alinsky, deception is the key to everything. Say one thing, do another, even change the meanings of words. Pretend to be bi-partisan in order to get the upper hand. For Alinsky, the means don’t matter – destroy whomever or whatever gets in your way. Alinsky made it clear that what his followers want “is power.”
Though Alinsky died before Obama could make it into his classroom, an Investor Business Daily editorial traces Obama’s affair with Alinsky’s radical ideology: “Obama first learned Alinsky’s rules in the 1980s, when Alinskyite radicals with the Chicago-based Alinsky group Gamaliel Foundation recruited, hired, trained and paid [Obama] as a community organizer in South Side Chicago …In 1988, Obama even wrote a chapter for the book “After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois,” …he traveled to Los Angeles for eight days of intense training at Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation. In turn, he trained other community organizers in Alinsky agitation tactics. Obama also taught Alinsky’s “Power Analysis” methods at the University of Chicago. [Tucson Citizen.com 12 October 2012]
Saul Alinsky has saturated the Left and our government today. For them, it works and is what they chose to follow as a philosophy and political belief system. It is America’s version of Marxism. It is a formula that the Left is plugged into and their faith in their philosophy is fully justified by Alinsky — at least in their own minds. And even if they lose an election, they are not finished. They will come back later with a passion and encourage each other with the concept that “it did not work before but it will next time.” This is part of the Left’s long-standing tradition. They are like weeds: They just keep coming back. [Canada Free Press 14 October 2012 – writing about the US Vice Presidential Debate]
Impact on UK Organising
So what does all this nonsense really mean for community organising in the UK? I think it has three implications for our politics.
First, the US political culture is highly confrontational and increasingly polarised. Many studies have shown that in the States people read, listen to and watch only one side of the debate for which they already have sympathy. The ridiculous claims in these Republican sources about Alinsky’s Marxism, his Harvard professorship and his wish to bring down the American middle-class are not really challenged because they are speaking to an undifferentiated audience, in a Republican bubble. There is a real danger that the UK culture of political debate could go the same way. In so many things, where the US leads we follow. We all need to take the responsibility to challenge factual inaccuracy but also to engage in meaningful debate with those with whom we fundamentally disagree. A healthy democracy requires the popping of opinion bubbles – on both sides!
Second, the ire in which Alinsky is held is very potent and those on the right who listen to the American scene may well be influenced in their view of the man and his work. The very reputation of community organising – which was so bolstered during the first Obama Presidential election – may become sullied in their minds. Part of the antidote to the vitriol of the American right’s view of Alinsky is for those of us who have a better understanding of his work to articulate it in rounded terms, to be advocates for Alinsky in debate. And it is vital that his legacy at times is expressed in terms that the right as well as the left can appreciate: independence, self-determination, the small person against the overbearing state. Alinsky need not be captured by one side or the other in this false dichotomy; his legacy does not respect such categories.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we need to have a solid grasp of the organising tradition. Organising may have begun with people like Saul Alinsky but it has matured, broadened and been shaped over the last 40 years since his death. Much inspiration is still drawn for organisers from the example of Alinsky’s practical actions, from his interviews and from his writings (despite their anachronistic tone today). But the world he lived and worked in is not the same today. We live in a globalised multi-ethnic environment where communities are atomised with power ever more concentrated at the top of society. Whilst Alinsky offers us inspiration, his tactics and methods have to be open to adaptation and in some cases transformation. And many of our fellow citizens have been on that road for decades. We need not defend Alinsky from attack; rather we should know how the organising tradition has been strengthened and transformed since his time.
A Democratic Epilogue
Bill Maher takes the rise out of the Republican obsession with Alinsky in this great TV piece from January 2012: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywSnsYJlOEw. It’s five minutes of fun! And a repost from Bill Moyers to Newt Gingrich’s use of the Alinsky name in February 2012 here: http://billmoyers.com/2012/02/06/saul-alinsky-who/
Having posted this yesterday, today’s Alert brought an extended ‘expose’ of Alinsky from I. M. Citizen on Freedom Bunker dated 16 July 2012. Here is the heart of the misunderstanding of Alinsky that informs the Republican fear and loathing of his thought. Worth taking a few minutes to digest, I think. http://freedombunker.com/2012/07/16/understanding-obama-clinton-and-the-saul-alinsky-playbook/