Civil Rights

Tools for Radicals

The leftist localism of Saul Alinsky


Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky, by Nicholas von Hoffman, Nation Books, $26.95, 256 pp.

Back of the Yards is a district just south and west of the old Union Stock Yard in Chicago. A century ago, it was best known as the crowded, poverty-stricken setting of Upton Sinclair's muckraking meatpacking novel The Jungle. Like most of the city, it was split into enclaves, generally along the lines of national origin. As Mike Royko would later put it, Chicago in those days was a confederation of ethnic neighborhood-states, a place where "you could always tell, even with your eyes closed, which state you were in by the odors of the food stores and the open kitchen windows, the sound of the foreign or familiar language, and by whether a stranger hit you in the head with a rock."

When sociologists started studying such areas, they thought they were looking at human wastelands. In his 1986 book Back of the Yards, the historian Robert Slayton noted that such scholars were familiar with the sorts of social ties that were forged in small towns but were "blind to similar bonds of community among immigrant workers"; in 1929 one sociologist wrote bluntly that the slums were places where "local life breaks down." Social workers and other outsiders often adopted similar attitudes, seeing the rich ecology of neighborhood institutions as something to be overcome, not strengthened. Social improvement would be provided by professionals with scientific training, not by a bunch of bohunks acting on their own behalf.

The founders of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, by contrast, appreciated all the self-directed activity taking place in the district. The group's first meeting, held on July 14, 1939, featured 350 residents from 76 organizations: parish clubs, ethnic lodges, women's groups, athletic clubs, unions, the chamber of commerce, a community newspaper. The council was a federation of those local groups rather than a mass organization of individuals; its structure, in Slayton's words, was designed so as to "not challenge the private order of segmentation and nationalism, but instead create a public realm in which the individual pieces could join," working together on areas of shared interest.

And work together they did. In the '30s and '40s, among many other activities, the council built a playground, established a credit union, did strike support work, acquired and lent out a portable bug exterminator, brought an infant health clinic to the neighborhood, helped young people find jobs, sprayed weedkiller in vacant lots, sold garbage cans to the community at a fraction of the market cost, and funded a softball league organized by some of the local gangs. Slayton notes that when "police or merchants apprehended a young lawbreaker, they would call the Back of the Yards Council instead of taking him to the station. The Council then arranged a conference with the child, the parents, the priest, educators, union officials, and police or probation officers — representatives of all the community's resources." The council acquired its funds in a number of ways: There were donations from a variety of civic groups and local businesses and, in a more clandestine realm, there were the profits from illicit gambling at a community fair. The group's slogan: "We the People Will Work Out Our Own Destiny, We Can Do It Ourselves America."

The activists did not consider themselves libertarians, and I don't want to imply that they eschewed any assistance from the government. They were happy to inform the city authorities about housing violations, to accept a federal agency's help in their job placement services, to use surplus food distributed by the feds in the council's free lunch program. But in the days of the New Deal, a time when the American Left was increasingly centralist and statist, this was a different approach: social change driven by intermediary institutions at the most local level, not by experts erecting bureaucracies in Washington. In 1945, in a book called Reveille for Radicals, one of the council's founders argued that such "People's Organizations" could be the building blocks of a new, more participatory sort of citizenship.

The writer in question, a criminologist turned activist named Saul Alinsky, is the subject of a new book, Radical, by his former lieutenant Nicholas von Hoffman….

The rest of this article can be read at The American Conservative, where it originally appeared.


NEXT: Michael Kinsley's Right: This Can't Go On

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  1. Alinsky represents the dormant decentralist wing of the left.

    Dormant, or mythical?

    1. ….or doormat?

  2. David Brooks has your number. This from David Brooks’ column today is about the Tea Party, but it describes right-wing libertarians to a T:

    “The movement carries viruses that may infect the G.O.P. in the years ahead. Its members seek traditional, conservative ends, but they use radical means. Along the way, the movement has picked up some of the worst excesses of modern American culture: a narcissistic sense of victimization, an egomaniacal belief in one’s own rightness and purity, a willingness to distort the truth so that every conflict becomes a contest of pure good versus pure evil.?

    1. Edward, what do you do for a living? Besides haunting H&R, of course.

      1. I’m independently wealthy. You’re probably stealing from your employer right now.


          Sure you are.

          1. Don’t laugh. You can make a lot of money letting the neighborhood boys fuck your mom corpse.

              1. Once again, not Max. Fuck off, sockpuppet. The only thing worse than a troll is thinking it’s funny to be one.

        2. Does that mean that you live with your mom? I’m pretty sure it does.

          1. “She lives with ME”

        3. “You’re probably stealing from your employer right now.”

          You should be happy for him, then, because according to you leftards, his employer is stealing from him through wage slavery, right?

        4. Do you pay your fair share in taxes, Max? If you’re not paying 90% on the dollar, you’re a hypocritical leech.

      2. Well, Mr. Episiarch, I’ll have you know that my Maxie is quite comfortable in the basement, with his sister’s old computer. He has no need for money, and it’s a good thing because he’s never earned a dime in his life. Although now that I think about it, he did get some cash from our creepy neighbor Mr. McChester, who needed some gardening done. Funny thing is, I never saw Max out in his yard. Isn’t that odd?

    2. “a narcissistic sense of victimization, an egomaniacal belief in one’s own rightness and purity, a willingness to distort the truth so that every conflict becomes a contest of pure good versus pure evil.?”

      This sounds like every political movement in the US.

      Except for the ones I believe in of course!

    3. Good. Time for Libertarians to grow up and realize we live in a Democracy, which means that it doesn’t matter what the truth is, it only matters what you can convince people is the truth. Principles and consistency belong in your political philosophy, not in your political strategy (conservatives tend to get that backwards).

      1. This sounds an awful lot like “ends justifies the means.”

      2. LOL troll much?

        1. He is right to this extent. As long as the only criteria to vote in age, this country is fucked!

  3. “Tea Party activists have been reading Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals in hopes of adapting his tactics to the fight for freer markets.”

    That’s refreshing. One thing I’ve always admired about Leftists is that they really know how to manipulate the system to get what they want (comes from having no integrity). That’s how they’ve been so successful implementing such bad ideas.

    1. Bad ideas. Let’s see, Social Security, unemployment benefits, an eight-hour day, vacation time, public education. Go fuck yourself, you right-wing asshole.

      1. Vacation time?

        Every other one of those is a shitty idea, dumbfuck.

        1. Medicare, Medicade, universal health care (in most of the advanced world) the right to collectively bargain and the right to strike…

          1. You’re up to ten variations of theft. Go for more!

            1. If I call you a toilet, does it make you one?

              1. If I were a toilet and you called me one I wouldn’t pretend to be offended. You are a thief and an advocate of theft.

                Taking something that isn’t yours is theft. Kindergartners understand this, why can’t you? Can you name all the colors? Try and count to 20 for us like a big boy.

                1. Sorry for arguing with the puppet. Basically, anything that posts more than once or twice is the puppet.

                  1. You posted more than once or twice. You’re the towel sockpuppet!

                    1. No, you’re the sockpuppet!

                    2. “You’re a beaner towel.”

                      (gives middle finger)

                2. The vast majority of Americans realize that paying taxes is part of an implicit social contract that they benefit greatly from. Your equation of taxation with theft is moronic right-wing shit, you fucking turd.

                  1. Boring, sockpuppet.

                  2. Paying taxes for public goods is fine, though some taxes are fairer than others.

                    Paying taxes for redistribution is theft.

                  3. How the fuck do you enforce an “implicit contract”??? Try and use more pretty words to cover for theft.

                    1. an “implicit contract” ooohhh! that sounds good. where do I sign?

                  4. Say no to a mugger. Then say no to the IRS. Let me know the difference.

                  5. Gosh, Max, nothing elitist in your writing.


              2. Well, you were a dumbfuck even before I called you one.

          2. The collective rights are of course controled by the union bosses… so it’s more middle management telling you not to work

      2. Oh Edward, I can’t tell if you don’t know what “right-wing” means, or if you’re just insane. Probably insane.

        1. unfettered free markets, deregulation, privatization of most government services, property rights trump everything, opposition to mouse/human hybrids…Have I missed anything?

          1. “property rights trump everything”

            I guess it will take next public infrastructure project going through what used to be your backyard to make you appreciate the value of property rights.

          2. opposition to mouse/human hybrids

            Stuart Little is history’s greatest monster

          3. “…..mouse/human hybrids”??? What we don’t have enough leftists now?

          4. It’s refreshing to see just how much regard you really have for property rights, Max… IOW, none whatsoever.

      3. Interestingly, you start your list with the worst offender of them all.

    2. That’s refreshing. One thing I’ve always admired about Leftists is that they really know how to manipulate the system to get what they want (comes from having no integrity). That’s how they’ve been so successful implementing such bad ideas.” Plus this country is full of idiots.

  4. But Jesse, that guy was a….community organizer! Such folks are meddlesome fools you know?

    And I’m pretty sure he prayed to the wrong God.

    1. At least do better than Max. If not you are just redundant.

  5. :But Jesse, that guy was a….community organizer!”

    Actually, he was a Mafia acolyte who got bored and decided that figuring out ways to tear society apart would be more interesting.

    1. He misunderstood ‘creative destruction’. A poor reading of Schumpeter is what got us all into this mess.

      1. Liberals love Shumpeter. He spent the first chapter (which is all they ever read) of “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy” praising Marx’s genius before he tore apart every Communist idea in the rest of the book.

  6. Not a single comment about the article.

    1. Okay, you’re right… Alinsky is a socialist fuckbag.

    2. I like turtles.

  7. We the People Will Work Out Our Own Destiny, We Can Do It Ourselves America.

    Will never happen. The political establishment see the American people as helpless fat-asses with no motivation, or morals, who can only be helped by government. Without government, these people believe death squads would break out, lining up minorities against the wall and executing them… or worse.

    The Corporations and Ultra Elite will ultimately work out our destinies, all the way to hell, or some form of nightmarish existence/non-existence.

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