The Alinsky/Goldwater Axis


Before he was a journalist, Nicholas von Hoffman was an activist trained by the godfather of community organizing, Saul Alinsky. Von Hoffman's new book about Alinsky, Radical, includes a passage that should raise some eyebrows in an era when Alinsky is a demon figure for the right and Rand Paul is a demon figure for the left:

Although Alinsky is described as some kind of liberal left-winger in actuality big government worried him. He had no use for President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society with its War on Poverty. He used to say that if Washington was going to spend that kind of dough the government might as well station people on the ghetto street corners and hand out hundred-dollar bills to the passing pedestrians. For him governmental action was the last resort, not the ideal one.

He felt that when the government, via one or another of its poverty programs, put the smartest and most energetic on its payroll it made an independent civic life next to impossible. He would point out that it opened up avenues of social and political control that could be used by the government to stifle independent action. In the worst case thousands of government-paid organizers could be turned into police spies. Writers like George Orwell and José Ortega y Gasset, men of the Left, now seem chiefly read by conservatives but for Alinsky their thinking was central.

He feared the gigantism of government, corporation and even labor union. The hope of his life was democratic organizations which could pose countervailing power against modern bureaucracies. It was only in that way, he thought, that personal freedom and privacy could be maintained. He did not trust the courts and legal protections to preserve individual liberty. It had to be backed up by countervailing power. For him, as he would often say, it was the struggle of the little man against big structures.

For these reasons he was less than enthusiastic about much civil rights legislation, though he kept his misgivings to himself. Around the time of Barry Goldwater's run for the presidency he was contacted by the senator and the two men had at least one meeting. Goldwater or perhaps one of his people had heard of Saul and wanted to see if there was some common ground. The conversation, he told me, was about Goldwater's opposition to pending civil rights legislation. Saul shared the conservative misgivings about the mischief such laws could cause if abused, but he told Goldwater that he should not morally and could not politically oppose the legislation unless he had a better idea himself. The country was blowing up over civil rights. To stand mute with nothing to offer except opposition to the one legislative proposal on the table was untenable.

Bonus reading: My column arguing that ACORN wasn't Alinskyan enough.