Rethinking ‘Rules for Radicals’

In 2014, would Saul Alinsky himself even be playing by the book?

Mark Engler and Paul Engler

Occupiers stuck with the rulebook and used their energies to create hosts of community organizations. (Fibonacci Blue / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Although Saul Alin­sky, the found­ing father of mod­ern com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing in the Unit­ed States, passed away in 1972, he is still invoked by the right as a dan­ger­ous har­bin­ger of loom­ing insur­rec­tion. And although his land­mark book, Rules for Rad­i­cals, is now near­ly 45 years old, the prin­ci­ples that emerged from Alin­sky’s work have influ­enced every gen­er­a­tion of com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers that has come since. 

The desire to re-examine maxims such as "build organizations, not movements" is an exciting development—one that opens the door to interaction between those focused on building long-term "people's organizations," as Alinsky called them, and those exploring the dynamics of strategic nonviolence and disruptive mass mobilization.

The most last­ing of Alin­sky’s pre­scrip­tions are not his well-known tac­ti­cal guide­lines — ridicule is man’s most potent weapon” or pow­er is not only what you have, but what the ene­my thinks you have.” Rather, they are embed­ded in a set of orga­ni­za­tion­al prac­tices and pre­dis­po­si­tions, a defined approach to build­ing pow­er at the lev­el of local com­mu­ni­ties. Hang around social move­ments for a while and you will no doubt be exposed to the laws of Chica­go-style com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing: Don’t talk ide­ol­o­gy, just issues. No elec­toral pol­i­tics. Build orga­ni­za­tions, not move­ments… Focus on neigh­bor­hoods and on con­crete, winnable goals.”

Vet­er­an labor writer David Moberg recent­ly offered this list when reflect­ing on the work of Nation­al Peo­ple’s Action, or NPA, one of today’s lead­ing coali­tions of com­mu­ni­ty-based groups. Giv­en that NPA’s dynam­ic exec­u­tive direc­tor, George Goehl, was trained by Shel Trapp — a promi­nent Alin­sky dis­ci­ple — it is no sur­prise that tra­di­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ples are still reflect­ed in the bot­tom-up, door-to-door method­olo­gies of NPA affil­i­ates in 14 states.

At the same time, under Goehl’s lead­er­ship, Nation­al Peo­ple’s Action is also doing many things dif­fer­ent­ly. His coali­tion is now embrac­ing a big-pic­ture vision (talk­ing about coop­er­a­tive own­er­ship of busi­ness and pub­lic con­trol of finance), and it is mak­ing for­ays into elec­toral pol­i­tics (form­ing a lob­by­ing arm to do leg­isla­tive advo­ca­cy and pos­si­bly even to run can­di­dates). In push­ing beyond Alin­sky’s tra­di­tion­al rules, Goehl is moti­vat­ed not only to win con­crete reforms with­in the exist­ing polit­i­cal sys­tem but to devel­op, Moberg writes, the vision, strat­e­gy, and full arse­nal of polit­i­cal weapons need­ed to roll back decades of cor­po­rate con­ser­v­a­tive vic­to­ries and to cre­ate a more demo­c­ra­t­ic econ­o­my and government.”

Goehl’s ambi­tion is not unique. Oth­er com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers who expe­ri­enced the Occu­py move­ment were impressed by the mas­sive momen­tum for change it cre­at­ed — even if much of its force proved fleet­ing. Efforts such as the 99% Spring and Occu­py Our Homes were steps by com­mu­ni­ty-based groups toward inte­grat­ing their tra­di­tion­al orga­niz­ing mod­els with the social move­ment ener­gy that had blos­somed in Zuc­cot­ti Park and beyond.

The desire to re-exam­ine max­ims such as build orga­ni­za­tions, not move­ments” is an excit­ing devel­op­ment — one that opens the door to inter­ac­tion between those focused on build­ing long-term peo­ple’s orga­ni­za­tions,” as Alin­sky called them, and those explor­ing the dynam­ics of strate­gic non­vi­o­lence and dis­rup­tive mass mobilization.

It is also one that Alin­sky him­self may well have supported.

Look­ing back at the ori­gins of many foun­da­tion­al prin­ci­ples asso­ci­at­ed with the Alin­skyite orga­niz­ing tra­di­tion, it becomes clear that some were not as deeply root­ed in the founder’s think­ing as oth­ers — and that he might have pressed for recon­sid­er­a­tion of cer­tain com­mand­ments that have grown hal­lowed since the 1960s. These dis­crep­an­cies raise an intrigu­ing ques­tion: If Alin­sky were alive today, would he be break­ing his own rules?

In recent years, Saul Alin­sky has become known for of his con­nec­tions to promi­nent fig­ures inside Wash­ing­ton, D.C. In the 1980s, Barack Oba­ma cut his polit­i­cal teeth as an orga­niz­er in an Alin­skyite com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tion, an ini­tia­tive on the South Side of Chica­go known as the Devel­op­ing Com­mu­ni­ties Project. Hillary Clin­ton’s under­grad­u­ate the­sis at Welles­ley Col­lege was enti­tled, There is Only the Fight: An Analy­sis of the Alin­sky Mod­el.” Because of these links, Glenn Beck fea­tured Alin­sky promi­nent­ly on his maps of left­ist con­spir­a­cy in Amer­i­ca, and Newt Gin­grich reg­u­lar­ly used the orga­niz­er as a foil on the cam­paign trail in 2012

There is some irony to these belt­way asso­ci­a­tions, giv­en that Alin­sky built his rep­u­ta­tion as an anti-estab­lish­ment rad­i­cal work­ing square­ly out­side the domain of elec­toral pol­i­tics. A Chica­go native and son of Russ­ian-Jew­ish immi­grants, Alin­sky got his start orga­niz­ing in the 1930s, inspired by CIO and Unit­ed Mine Work­ers leader John L. Lewis. In spite of men­tor­ing from Lewis, Alin­sky was con­vinced that the labor move­ment had grown lethar­gic and that Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy need­ed peo­ple’s orga­ni­za­tions” based out­side the work­place — cit­i­zens’ groups with roots in local communities. 

In his first attempt to cre­ate such a group he found­ed the Back-of-the-Yards Neigh­bor­hood Coun­cil, an effort to orga­nize the eth­ni­cal­ly diverse work­ers who lived behind the meat­pack­ing plants fea­tured in Upton Sin­clair’s muck­rak­ing 1906 nov­el, The Jun­gle. To fight the slum con­di­tions fac­ing this com­mu­ni­ty, Alin­sky packed the offices of bureau­crats with hun­dreds of res­i­dents and rout­ed march­es past the homes of local offi­cials. Many con­fronta­tions and sev­er­al months lat­er,” author Mary Beth Rogers writes, Back of the Yards claimed cred­it for new police patrols, street repairs, reg­u­lar garbage col­lec­tion, and lunch pro­grams for 1,400 children.”

By 1940, with the help of fund­ing from wealthy lib­er­al Mar­shall Field III, Alin­sky had cre­at­ed a non­prof­it known as the Indus­tri­al Areas Foun­da­tion, or IAF, tasked with spurring orga­ni­za­tion in oth­er urban neigh­bor­hoods. In the 1950s, Alin­sky and Fred Ross worked through the IAF-sup­port­ed Com­mu­ni­ty Ser­vice Orga­ni­za­tion to improve liv­ing con­di­tions for Mex­i­can-Amer­i­cans in Cal­i­for­nia; there, Ross recruit­ed a young orga­niz­er in San Jose named Cesar Chavez and anoth­er in Fres­no named Dolores Huer­ta. (Only after years of train­ing did Chavez and Huer­ta leave to form what would become the Unit­ed Farm Workers.) 

Among Alin­sky’s oth­er promi­nent cam­paigns, he would work in the 1960s with black res­i­dents in Chicago’s Wood­lawn neigh­bor­hood to fight exploita­tive land­lords and to chal­lenge school over­crowd­ing, and he would help com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers in Rochester, N.Y., com­pel the East­man Kodak Com­pa­ny to cre­ate a hir­ing pro­gram for African-Amer­i­can workers.

Alin­sky taught through sto­ries, usu­al­ly exag­ger­at­ed, always enter­tain­ing. In 1971 writer Nat Hentoff stat­ed, At 62, Saul is the youngest man I’ve met in years.” Play­boy inter­view­er Eric Nor­den agreed. There is a tremen­dous vital­i­ty about Alin­sky, a raw, com­bat­ive ebul­lience, and a con­sum­ing curios­i­ty about every­thing and every­one around him,” Nor­den wrote. Add to this a mor­dant wit, a mon­u­men­tal ego cou­pled with an abil­i­ty to laugh at him­self and the world in gen­er­al, and you begin to get the mea­sure of the man.”

Alin­sky’s first book, Reveille for Rad­i­cals became a best­seller when pub­lished in 1946; it blast­ed lib­er­al-mind­ed char­i­ty efforts and called for an indige­nous Amer­i­can rad­i­cal­ism based in cit­i­zen action. Rules for Rad­i­cals: A Prag­mat­ic Primer for Real­is­tic Rad­i­cals came in 1971, near the end of Alin­sky’s life, and remains pop­u­lar. It was recent­ly cir­cu­lat­ed by Repub­li­can Dick Armey’s orga­ni­za­tion Free­dom­Works to Tea Par­ty mem­bers curi­ous about the book’s meth­ods, even if they are opposed to its goals. Its first chap­ter begins: What fol­lows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. 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.”

Frank Bar­dacke, author of a sweep­ing his­to­ry of the Unit­ed Farm Work­ers, recounts how Alin­sky’s prin­ci­ples for build­ing pow­er solid­i­fied into an iden­ti­fi­able orga­niz­ing tra­di­tion: With Saul as the foun­tain­head, com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing has become a cod­i­fied dis­ci­pline, with core the­o­ret­i­cal propo­si­tions, rec­og­nized here­sies, dis­ci­ples, fall­en neo­phytes, and splits.” He quotes Heather Booth, founder of the Mid­west Acad­e­my, an Alin­skyite train­ing cen­ter for orga­niz­ers, who calls Alin­sky our Sig­mund Freud.”

What Booth means is that both Freud and Alin­sky found­ed schools of thought,” Bar­dacke explains, but there is anoth­er, deep­er link: the role of train­ing and lin­eage. Just as psy­cho­an­a­lysts trace their pedi­gree back to the grand mas­ter (they were either ana­lyzed by Freud or by some­one who was ana­lyzed by Freud, or by some­one who was ana­lyzed by some­one who…), so Alin­skyite and neo-Alin­skyite orga­niz­ers trace their train­ing back to Alin­sky himself.”

Alin­sky’s influ­ence today is felt not just in the IAF or Goehl’s NPA — whose mem­ber groups range from Com­mu­ni­ty Voic­es Heard in New York, to POW­ER in Los Ange­les, to Iowa Cit­i­zens for Com­mu­ni­ty Improve­ment. It is also present in net­works such as PICO, DART, USAction/​Citizen Action, the Gamaliel Foun­da­tion, and the for­mer branch­es of ACORN. Col­lec­tive­ly these orga­ni­za­tions claim sev­er­al mil­lion mem­bers, and the tra­di­tion has spread inter­na­tion­al­ly as well, with orga­niz­ing train­ings tak­ing place in Europe, South Africa and the Philip­pines. Each of the net­works, writes soci­ol­o­gist David Walls, is indebt­ed, in greater or less­er degree, to Alin­sky and his ear­ly orga­niz­ing pro­grams in Chica­go through IAF.”

The prin­ci­ple of no elec­toral pol­i­tics” took hold in the Alin­skyite tra­di­tion based on the idea that com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions should be prag­mat­ic, non­par­ti­san, and ide­o­log­i­cal­ly diverse — that they should put pres­sure on all politi­cians, not express loy­al­ty to any. His­to­ri­an Thomas Sug­rue writes that Alin­sky nev­er had much patience for elect­ed offi­cials: Change would not come from top-down lead­er­ship, but rather from pres­sure from below. In his view, politi­cians took the path of least resis­tance.” Alin­sky him­self was not anti-state — as soci­ol­o­gist P. David Finks writes, for him the prob­lem was not so much get­ting gov­ern­ment off our backs as get­ting it off its rear end” — but the focus of his efforts was out­side the elec­toral are­na. The IAF’s lin­ger­ing pride in its inde­pen­dent, non­par­ti­san” sta­tus reflects its desire to recruit mem­bers from across the polit­i­cal spec­trum in any giv­en com­mu­ni­ty, not mere­ly to engage the usu­al sus­pects of pro­gres­sive activism.

This non­par­ti­san” avoid­ance of ide­ol­o­gy also relates to per­haps the most inter­est­ing pre­cept in the Alin­skyite tra­di­tion: the one which dis­tances com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing from mass mobi­liza­tions. As Rut­gers soci­ol­o­gy pro­fes­sor and for­mer ACORN orga­niz­er Arlene Stein wrote in 1986, com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers today tend gen­er­al­ly to shun the term move­ment, pre­fer­ring to see them­selves engaged in build­ing orga­ni­za­tion.”

Why would some­one pro­mot­ing social change see them­selves as wary of move­ments? There are sev­er­al rea­sons, and the way in which the terms move­ment” and orga­ni­za­tion” are under­stood con­nect to some defin­ing aspects of the Alin­skyite model.

Ed Cham­bers, Alin­sky’s suc­ces­sor as IAF direc­tor, express­es an aver­sion to move­ments as a part of his long-term com­mit­ment to com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers. As he writes in his book Roots for Rad­i­cals, We play to win. That’s one of the dis­tinc­tive fea­tures of the IAF: We don’t lead every­day, ordi­nary peo­ple into pub­lic fail­ures, and we’re not build­ing move­ments. Move­ments go in and out of exis­tence. As good as they are, you can’t sus­tain them. Every­day peo­ple need incre­men­tal suc­cess over months and some­times years.”

Alin­sky, too, saw a dan­ger in expect­ing quick upheavals. He argued, Effec­tive orga­ni­za­tion is thwart­ed by the desire for instant and dra­mat­ic change…. To build a pow­er­ful orga­ni­za­tion takes time. It is tedious, but that’s the way the game is played — if you want to play and not just yell, Kill the umpire.’” Before enter­ing a neigh­bor­hood, Alin­sky planned for a sus­tained com­mit­ment. He would not hire an orga­niz­er unless he had raised enough mon­ey to pay for two or more years of the staffer­’s salary.

Beyond set­ting expec­ta­tions for time­frame, a ded­i­ca­tion to orga­ni­za­tions not move­ments” is reflect­ed in sev­er­al oth­er Alin­skyite norms. These include the tra­di­tion’s con­nec­tion to church­es and oth­er estab­lished insti­tu­tions, its selec­tion of bot­tom-up demands rather than high-pro­file nation­al issues, and its atti­tude toward vol­un­teers and free­lance activists.

Alin­sky believed in iden­ti­fy­ing local cen­ters of pow­er — par­tic­u­lar­ly church­es — and using them as bases for com­mu­ni­ty groups. The mod­ern IAF con­tin­ues to fol­low this prin­ci­ple, serv­ing as a mod­el of faith-based” organizing.

Instead of pick­ing a gal­va­niz­ing, moral­ly loaded, and pos­si­bly divi­sive nation­al issue to orga­nize around — as would a mass move­ment — Alin­sky advo­cat­ed action around nar­row local demands. Mark War­ren’s Dry Bones Rat­tling, a study of the IAF, explains: As opposed to mobi­liz­ing around a set or pre­de­ter­mined issues, the IAF brings res­i­dents togeth­er first to dis­cuss the needs of their com­mu­ni­ty and to find a com­mon ground for action.” Prac­tic­ing what is some­times called stop sign orga­niz­ing,” those work­ing in this vein look for con­crete, winnable projects — such as demand­ing that city offi­cials place a stop sign at a dan­ger­ous inter­sec­tion. The idea is that small vic­to­ries build local capa­bil­i­ties, give par­tic­i­pants a sense of their pow­er, and spur more ambi­tious action.

They also meet some of the imme­di­ate needs of the com­mu­ni­ty — far prefer­able, in Alin­sky’s view, to social move­ments’ far-off calls for free­dom and jus­tice. Through­out his career, Alin­sky spoke the lan­guage of self-inter­est. He looked to build demo­c­ra­t­ic pow­er among com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers seek­ing to improve the con­di­tions of their own lives. He was sus­pi­cious of vol­un­teer activists who were moti­vat­ed by abstract val­ues or ide­ol­o­gy, peo­ple drawn to high-pro­file moral cru­sades. That move­ments were full of such peo­ple did not sit well with the Alin­skyites. As Cham­bers writes: Activists and move­ment types are mobi­liz­ers and enter­tain­ers, not demo­c­ra­t­ic orga­niz­ers. Their script is their per­sona and their cause. They tend to be over­in­ter­est­ed in them­selves. Their under­stand­ing of polit­i­cal­ness is super­fi­cial or media-dri­ven. They lack disinterestedness.” 

More­over, Cham­bers con­tends, move­ment activists’ expec­ta­tions for change are far too short-term: Their time frame is imme­di­ate. What do we want?’ Free­dom.’ When do we want it?’ Now!’ No jus­tice, no peace,’” he explains dis­mis­sive­ly. Move­ment activists appeal to youth, frus­trat­ed ide­al­ists, and cyn­i­cal ide­o­logues, ignor­ing the 80 per­cent of mod­er­ates who com­prise the world as it is…. Orga­niz­ing is gen­er­a­tional, not here today, gone tomorrow.”

Cham­ber­s’s view may seem harsh, but it is not atyp­i­cal of those drawn to com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing. As Stein explains, “[T]he revival of Alin­sky-style orga­ni­za­tions in the 1970s and 1980s often defined itself against the social move­ments of the pre­vi­ous decade — espe­cial­ly the civ­il rights, wom­en’s, and stu­dent anti­war move­ments — which it tend­ed to view as pro­mot­ing col­lec­tive iden­ti­ty for­ma­tion over the achieve­ment of strate­gic goals.” 

Patient base-build­ing, long-term strat­e­gy, incre­men­tal local wins. These ingre­di­ents would con­tribute to a last­ing and influ­en­tial orga­niz­ing mod­el. They would also, in the tur­bu­lent 1960s, put Alin­sky at the cen­ter of an activist cul­ture clash.

At the same time that Alin­sky became a pop­u­lar speak­er on 1960s cam­pus­es, his vision of orga­niz­ing put him at odds with many of the era’s lead­ing activists — both its stu­dent mil­i­tants and its more high-pro­file lead­ers, such as Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. In 1965 and 1966, ten­sions between orga­ni­za­tion” and move­ment” sur­faced when King and his South­ern Chris­t­ian Lead­er­ship Coun­cil came to Chica­go, Alin­sky’s home turf, to mount their first North­ern civ­il rights drive.

Dur­ing the cam­paign, Nicholas von Hoff­man, a close Alin­sky lieu­tenant, had a chance encounter with King in Mem­phis, Tenn., in the hos­pi­tal where activist James Mered­ith had been tak­en after being shot while march­ing in sup­port of black vot­er reg­is­tra­tion. Von Hoff­man gave King his advice about Chica­go: I told him I thought it could suc­ceed if he was pre­pared for trench war­fare, which would demand tight, tough orga­ni­za­tion to take on the Daley oper­a­tion,” von Hoff­man writes. I added it could not be done in less than two years.”

Von Hoff­man was not con­vinced that King was lis­ten­ing. He knew that the SCLC — com­ing off of mobi­liza­tions in Birm­ing­ham and Sel­ma — had grown accus­tomed to much short­er cam­paigns, some­times last­ing just months. Nor was he impressed by King’s deci­sion to move his fam­i­ly into an apart­ment in one of Chicago’s poor­est neigh­bor­hoods, which von Hoff­man dis­missed as a dra­mat­ic ges­ture” of lit­tle util­i­ty. Orga­niz­ing is akin to string­ing beads to make a neck­lace,” von Hoff­man argued. It demands patience, per­sis­tence, and some kind of design. King’s cam­paign in Chica­go was short on beads and bereft of design.” 

Alin­sky and von Hoff­man regard­ed the SCLC leader as a one-trick pony” who relied too heav­i­ly on media-seek­ing march­es, and they held his team in low regard. As von Hoff­man con­tend­ed, King and the out­siders he brought into Chica­go were, as far as I could tell, a hodge­podge of young white ide­al­ists, col­lege kids, and sum­mer sol­diers, most of whom had no knowl­edge of the peo­ple they were sup­posed to recruit. In the South the youth­ful white ide­al­ists were use­ful civ­il rights can­non fod­der; in Chica­go they were dead weight.” 

Von Hoff­man not­ed the con­trast with his tra­di­tion: It was the antithe­sis of an Alin­sky oper­a­tion where out­side vol­un­teers were gen­er­al­ly shooed away not only because they got in the way but also because they did­n’t have any skin in the game,” he wrote. Laud­able as it is to vol­un­teer to help oth­er peo­ple wres­tle with their prob­lems, effec­tive orga­ni­za­tions are built with peo­ple who have direct and per­son­al inter­est in their success.”

This type of analy­sis reflect­ed Alin­sky’s broad­er cri­tique of civ­il rights orga­niz­ing. In a 1965 inter­view he argued, The Achilles’ Heel of the civ­il rights move­ment is the fact that it has not devel­oped into a sta­ble, dis­ci­plined, mass-based pow­er orga­ni­za­tion.” He believed the move­men­t’s vic­to­ries owed much to uncon­trol­lable world-his­tor­i­cal forces, to the incred­i­bly stu­pid blun­ders of the sta­tus quo in the South and else­where,” and to the con­tri­bu­tions of church institutions. 

He added, with King as his unnamed sub­ject: Peri­od­ic mass eupho­ria around a charis­mat­ic leader is not an orga­ni­za­tion. It’s just the ini­tial stage of agitation.”

For Alin­sky, stress­ing the impor­tance of strong orga­ni­za­tion was also a mat­ter of bridg­ing a gen­er­a­tion gap. Those yelling kill the umpire,” in his view, were the mem­bers of the New Left. Alin­sky felt that peo­ple his age were par­tial­ly respon­si­ble for the youths’ igno­rance. In writ­ing Rules for Rad­i­cals, he sought to com­mu­ni­cate with 1960s activists whom he saw as suf­fer­ing from a lack of men­tor­ing — the result of a miss­ing gen­er­a­tion of orga­niz­ers. Few of us sur­vived the Joe McCarthy holo­caust of the 1950s,” Alin­sky wrote, and of those there were even few­er whose under­stand­ing and insights had devel­oped beyond the dialec­ti­cal mate­ri­al­ism of ortho­dox Marx­ism. My fel­low rad­i­cals who were sup­posed to pass on the torch of expe­ri­ence and insights to a new gen­er­a­tion just were not there.”

As a con­se­quence, young left­ists were too eas­i­ly seduced by quick fix­es, Alin­sky believed. In an after­ward to a 1969 reis­sue of his first book, Reveille for Rad­i­cals, he wrote, The approach of so much of the present gen­er­a­tion is so frac­tured with con­fronta­tions’ and crises as ends in them­selves that their activ­i­ties are not actions but a dis­charge of ener­gy which, like a fire­works spec­ta­cle, briefly lights up the skies and then van­ish­es into the void.”

The cre­ation of an alter­na­tive method­ol­o­gy — what Stein describes as a high­ly struc­tured orga­niz­ing mod­el spec­i­fy­ing step-by-step guide­lines for cre­at­ing neigh­bor­hood orga­ni­za­tions” — was an under­stand­able response, and one that has shown great strengths. But, in recent decades, we may have seen its lim­i­ta­tions as well.

The ques­tion is whether too close an adher­ence to a hard­ened mod­el has cre­at­ed missed oppor­tu­ni­ties — chances to inte­grate struc­ture-based orga­ni­za­tion and momen­tum-dri­ven move­ments, and to har­ness the pow­er of both.

It turns out that many of the rules of the Alin­skyite tra­di­tion come less from the founder him­self and more from his suc­ces­sors’ sub­se­quent cod­i­fi­ca­tion of his ideas.

After Alin­sky’s death, IAF lead­ers Ed Cham­bers, Richard Har­mon, and Ernesto Cortes sat down to assess the fac­tors that con­tributed to the fail­ure of ear­li­er orga­niz­ing dri­ves. As author Mary Beth Rogers writes, they iden­ti­fied sev­er­al pat­terns that cre­at­ed insta­bil­i­ty, inef­fec­tive­ness, and even­tu­al dis­so­lu­tion.” Among them: Move­ments that depend­ed on charis­mat­ic lead­ers fell apart in the absence of the leader;” orga­ni­za­tions formed around a sin­gle issue died when the issue lost its poten­cy;” and orga­ni­za­tions that played to the pub­lic spot­light con­fused their desire for media atten­tion with their strat­e­gy for change.”

Clear­ly, the IAF heavy­weights were crit­i­cal of the social move­ments of the New Left. But, more sur­pris­ing­ly, their assess­ment also indict­ed Alin­sky’s own work.

While the found­ing father had plant­ed seeds for orga­ni­za­tions through­out the coun­try, only a hand­ful sur­vived for longer than three years. As IAF orga­niz­er Michael Gecan writes in his book Going Pub­lic, Alin­sky was extra­or­di­nar­i­ly effec­tive as a tac­ti­cian, writer, speak­er and gad­fly. He was the first the­o­rist and expo­nent of cit­i­zen orga­niz­ing in urban com­mu­ni­ties.” But, While Alin­sky had many gifts and strengths… he did not cre­ate orga­ni­za­tions that endured.”

This chal­lenge would be left to his suc­ces­sors, in par­tic­u­lar Ed Cham­bers. That was Cham­ber­s’s crit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tion to the world of cit­i­zens orga­niz­ing and to Amer­i­ca as a whole,” Gecan writes. He had a tal­ent for teach­ing peo­ple how to orga­nize pow­er that last­ed.” Cham­bers’ sys­tem­iza­tion of the Alin­sky mod­el would involve for­mal­iz­ing process­es for recruit­ing and groom­ing orga­niz­ers, rely­ing less on large foun­da­tions for fund­ing, improv­ing work­ing con­di­tions to reduce burn-out, and strength­en­ing ties to faith-based groups. Oth­er net­works of com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions would fur­ther the mod­el by bring­ing local groups into nation­al coali­tions and cre­at­ing their own train­ing pro­grams to refine and spread the rules of grass­roots power-building.

In many respects, these were nec­es­sary changes. Yet they may have come at the cost of some of Alin­sky’s orig­i­nal cre­ativ­i­ty. In their focus on build­ing for the long term and cre­at­ing strong orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­tures, sub­se­quent com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing lead­ers have grown less sen­si­tive than their tra­di­tion’s founder to the poten­tial of excep­tion­al moments of mass mobilization.

In truth, Alin­sky was far less rigid than the rules” attrib­uted to him might sug­gest. Nicholas von Hoff­man, in a mem­oir about his time with Alin­sky, describes his for­mer men­tor as one of the least dog­mat­ic and most flex­i­ble of men. Alin­sky believed that lib­er­ty was to be rede­fined and rewon by every gen­er­a­tion accord­ing to its cir­cum­stances and the demands of the time.” For his part, Alin­sky liked to tell a sto­ry, pos­si­bly apoc­ryphal, of sit­ting in on a uni­ver­si­ty exam designed for stu­dents of com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tion. Three of the ques­tions were on the phi­los­o­phy and moti­va­tions of Saul Alin­sky,” he claimed. I answered two of them incorrectly!”

This flex­i­bil­i­ty affect­ed his view of elec­tions. Alin­sky’s biog­ra­ph­er, San­ford Hor­witt, notes that the orga­niz­er had plans to run a can­di­date for Con­gress in a 1966 elec­tion on Chicago’s South Side, and he sent staffers from Wood­lawn to serve on the cam­paign of an anti-machine chal­lenger. Hor­witt quotes von Hoff­man, who says, A lot of peo­ple, espe­cial­ly those who turned com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing’ into a kind of reli­gion, now take it as gospel from Saul Alin­sky… that one nev­er gets direct­ly involved in elec­toral pol­i­tics. Well, he nev­er thought that.”

More impor­tant­ly, Alin­sky’s take on mass mobi­liza­tion was not one-dimen­sion­al. One of the most inter­est­ing moments in his career came when he attempt­ed to inte­grate the ener­gy of a social move­ment with the work of one of his com­mu­ni­ty organizations.

While orga­niz­ing in the Wood­lawn neigh­bor­hood in ear­ly 1961, von Hoff­man got a call from a civ­il rights activist tak­ing part in the Free­dom Rides, a protest designed to chal­lenge seg­re­gat­ed inter­state bussing in the South. The rid­ers were vio­lent­ly attacked in Alaba­ma — one of their bus­es was burned in Annis­ton, and they were beat­en by a mob in Mont­gomery. Hav­ing just been released from a New Orleans hos­pi­tal, the activist and some of his fel­low par­tic­i­pants con­tact­ed von Hoff­man to express inter­est in mak­ing their first pub­lic appear­ance in Chicago.

Von Hoff­man was ini­tial­ly hes­i­tant — wary that the event would not advance local orga­niz­ing and mind­ful of pre­vi­ous civ­il rights ral­lies in Chica­go that drew only a hand­ful of pick­eters. Yet he arranged for a talk to be held in a large gym­na­si­um in St. Cyril’s Church. As Hor­witt writes, On a Fri­day night, two hours before the pro­gram was to start, the gym was emp­ty and von Hoff­man was ner­vous — his ini­tial fears seemed about to be con­firmed. An hour lat­er, an elder­ly cou­ple arrived, and then, to von Hoff­man’s total amaze­ment, so many peo­ple turned up that there was no room left in the gym, in the foy­er, or on the stairs.”

Von Hoff­man arranged for loud­speak­ers to broad­cast the talk to the hun­dreds of peo­ple in the streets out­side the venue. Lat­er, he left the event reel­ing. Far more peo­ple had come than his group could have pos­si­bil­i­ty mobi­lized through its orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­tures, and the issue had gen­er­at­ed a pro­found ener­gy in the com­mu­ni­ty. He woke up Alin­sky with a mid­dle-of-the-night phone call and explained what hap­pened. Von Hoff­man said, I think that we should toss out every­thing we are doing orga­ni­za­tion­al­ly and work on the premise that this is the moment of the whirl­wind, that we are no longer orga­niz­ing but guid­ing a social movement.”

To his sur­prise, Alin­sky respond­ed by say­ing, You’re right. Get on it tomorrow.”

The Wood­lawn orga­ni­za­tion sub­se­quent­ly held its own ver­sion of the Free­dom Rides — a bus car­a­van to reg­is­ter black vot­ers. The event, Hor­witt recounts, pro­duced the largest sin­gle vot­er-reg­is­tra­tion ever at City Hall,” star­tled the city’s pow­er-bro­kers, gen­er­at­ed much greater pub­lic­i­ty than Wood­lawn’s typ­i­cal actions, and set the stage for fur­ther civ­il rights activism by the group. In crit­i­ciz­ing Mar­tin Luther King sev­er­al years lat­er, Alin­sky was not try­ing to write off the civ­il right move­ment as a whole. A devo­tee of head­line-grab­bing direct action, he rec­og­nized its accom­plish­ment. And yet he sought to present its lead­ers with the chal­lenge of insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion — a ques­tion which King him­self grap­pled with in his lat­er years and which is vital in think­ing about how orga­niz­ing mod­els might be integrated.

Alin­sky under­stood some­thing impor­tant when he embraced the moment of the whirl­wind.” He saw that using mass mobi­liza­tion to pro­duce spikes in social unrest is a process that fol­lows a dif­fer­ent set of rules than con­ven­tion­al orga­niz­ing. Many of its prin­ci­ples — embrac­ing demands with wide sym­bol­ic res­o­nance, chan­nel­ing ener­gy and par­tic­i­pa­tion from a broad­er pub­lic, artic­u­lat­ing self-inter­est in moral and vision­ary terms — are the oppo­site of the prin­ci­ples that dri­ve local com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing. And yet Alin­sky was will­ing to exper­i­ment with their possibilities.

For­mer ACORN orga­niz­er Stein argues that such open­ness became a rar­i­ty among Alin­sky’s dis­ci­ples. The Alin­skyite orga­ni­za­tions of recent decades, she writes, often fail to grasp the pos­si­bil­i­ties of mobi­liza­tion when they occur.” Because of this, they have undu­ly lim­it­ed them­selves. The great social move­ments of Amer­i­can his­to­ry — labor, pop­ulist, civ­il rights, wom­en’s (to name some of the most impor­tant ones),” Stein argues, cap­tured the inter­est and imag­i­na­tion of vast num­bers of peo­ple by offer­ing them mate­r­i­al ben­e­fits as well as the expe­ri­ence of com­mu­nal sol­i­dar­i­ty in an indi­vid­u­al­is­tic Amer­i­can cul­ture. In plac­ing orga­ni­za­tion’ ahead of move­ment,’ ACORN and groups like it” miss this. They dis­count modes of orga­niz­ing that tap the trans­for­ma­tive pos­si­bil­i­ty of going beyond the most local, con­crete or winnable demands.

Whether it is the glob­al jus­tice protests of 1999 and 2000, the mas­sive immi­grant rights march­es of 2006, or the rapid spread of Occu­py Wall Street across the coun­try in 2011, vet­er­an orga­niz­ers are often caught off guard by move­ment out­breaks. As a result, they have few ideas for how to guide and ampli­fy these efforts — or how to har­ness the ener­gy of peak moments in order to pro­pel their ongo­ing organizing.

For­tu­nate­ly, in the wake of Occu­py, an increas­ing num­ber of peo­ple are inter­est­ed in pre­cise­ly this chal­lenge. Those now seek­ing ways to com­bine struc­ture- and momen­tum-based orga­niz­ing mod­els have much fer­tile ter­rain to explore. This will mean open­ing dia­logue between the worlds of resource mobi­liza­tion” and dis­rup­tive pow­er”; and it will involve allow­ing those immersed in labor and com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing cul­tures to com­pare their meth­ods with the insights into mass mobi­liza­tion that come out of tra­di­tions of strate­gic non­vi­o­lence and civ­il resistance.

In pur­su­ing this work, they can take inspi­ra­tion from a mas­ter of rad­i­cal prag­ma­tism. For while the split between orga­ni­za­tions and move­ments is real, the true spir­it of Alin­sky is in break­ing the rule that keeps them divided.

This piece is reprint­ed with per­mis­sion from Wag­ing Non­vi­o­lence.

Mark Engler is a senior ana­lyst with For­eign Pol­i­cy In Focus, an edi­to­r­i­al board mem­ber at Dis­sent, and a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Yes! Mag­a­zine. Paul Engler is found­ing direc­tor of the Cen­ter for the Work­ing Poor, in Los Ange­les. Their new book is This Is an Upris­ing: How Non­vi­o­lent Revolt Is Shap­ing the 21st Cen­tu­ry.
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