Empowering People, Not Elites
Interview with Saul Alinsky, Part Ten
Saul Alinsky is, along with Thomas Paine, Henry George, and Dorothy Day, one of the great American leaders of the nonsocialist left.
Response to our earlier article dealing with Alinsky has been so great that we worked to obtain this extensive interview with him, conducted by Playboy magazine in 1972. It is, by far, the most detailed conversation with Alinsky that we know of. The interview will be appearing in weekly installments here at The Progress Report.
Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six Part Seven Part Eight Part NineAfter World War Two -- Jousting with McCarthy and Organizing an African American Slum
PLAYBOY: What did you do after the war?
ALINSKY: I went back to community-organization work, crisscrossing the country, working in slums in New York and Detroit and Buffalo and in Mexican barrios in California and the Southwest. Reveille for Radicals became the number one best seller, and that helped drum up more support for our work, but then the Cold War began to freeze and McCarthyism started sweeping the country, making any radical activity increasingly difficult. In those days everybody who challenged the establishment was branded a Communist, and the radical movement began to disintegrate under the pressure.
PLAYBOY: What was your own relationship with the Communist Party?
ALINSKY: I knew plenty of Communists in those days, and I worked with them on a number of projects. Back in the Thirties, the Communists did a hell of a lot of good work; they were in the vanguard of the labor movement and they played an important role in aiding blacks and Okies and Southern sharecroppers. Anybody who tells you he was active in progressive causes in those days and never worked with the Reds is a goddamn liar. Their platform stood for all the right things, and unlike many liberals, they were willing to put their bodies on the line. Without the Communists, for example, I doubt the C.I.O. could have won all the battles it did. I was also sympathetic to Russia in those days, not because I admired Stalin or the Soviet system but because it seemed to be the only country willing to stand up to Hitler. I was in charge of a big part of fund raising for the International Brigade and in that capacity I worked in close alliance with the Communist Party.
When the Nazi-Soviet Pact came, though, and I refused to toe the party line and urged support for England and for American intervention in the war, the party turned on me tooth and nail. Chicago Reds plastered the Back of the Yards with big posters featuring a caricature of me with a snarling, slavering fanged mouth and wild eyes, labeled, "This is the face of a warmonger." But there were too many Poles, Czechs, Lithuanians and Latvians in the area for that tactic to go over very well. Actually, the greatest weakness of the party was its slavish parroting of the Moscow line. It could have been much more effective if it had adopted a relatively independent stance, like the western European parties do today. But all in all, and despite my own fights with them, I think the Communists of the Thirties deserve a lot of credit for the struggles they led or participated in. Today the party is just a shadow of the past, but in the Depiession it was a positive force for social change. A lot of its leaders and organizers were jerks, of course, but objectively the party in those days was on the right side and did considerable good.
PLAYBOY: Did you consider becoming a party member prior to the Nazi-Soviet Pact?
ALINSKY: Not at any time. I've never joined any organization -- not even the ones I've organized myself. I prize my own independence too much. And philosophically, I could never accept any rigid dogma or ideology, whether it's Christianity or Marxism. One of the most important things in life is what judge Learned Hand described as "that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you're right." If you don't have that, if you think you've got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated. The greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by such religious and political and racial fanatics, from the persecutions of the Inquisition on down to Communist purges and Nazi genocide. The great atomic physicist Niels Bohr summed it up pretty well when he said, "Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation, but as a question." Nobody owns the truth, and dogma, whatever form it takes, is the ultimate enemy of human freedom.
Now, this doesn't mean that I'm rudderless; I think I have a much keener sense of direction and purpose than the true believer with his rigid ideology, because I'm free to be loose, resilient and independent, able to respond to any situation as it arises without getting trapped by articles of faith. My only fixed truth is a belief in people, a conviction that if people have the opportunity to act freely and the power to control their own destinies, they'll generally reach the right decisions. The only alternative to that belief is rule by an elite, whether it's a Communist bureaucracy or our own present-day corporate establishment. You should never have an ideology more specific than that of the founding fathers: "For the general welfare." That's where I parted company with the Communists in the Thirties, and that's where I stay parted from them today.
PLAYBOY: Did the McCarthy era affect you personally?
ALINSKY: No, not directly, but the general malaise made it much more difficult to organize for radical goals. And in the long run, McCarthy really did a terrible injury to the country. Before McCarthy, every generation had its radicals who were prepared to stand up and fight the system. But then McCarthy transformed the country into a graveyard of fear; liberals who had casually joined the party or its front groups broke and ran for cover in an orgy of opportunism, many of them betraying their friends and associates to save their own skins. The fire-breathing radicals of the Thirties turned tail and skulked away, leaving behind a pitiful legacy of cowardice. And there was no one left except a few battered holdouts to hand the torch on to the next generation of radicals. That's why so many kids today sneer at their parents as cop-out artists, and they're right.
The saddest thing is that if liberals and radicals had just held a united front against McCarthy, they could have stopped him cold. I remember in the early Fifties his committee came to see me; they told me that if I didn't supply them with lists of names of people I'd known, they'd subpoena me and McCarthy would destroy my reputation. I just laughed in their faces, and before I threw 'em out I said, "Reputation? What reputation? You think I give a damn about my reputation? Call me as a witness; you won't get any Fifth Amendment from me. He can force me to answer yes and no, but once I get out into the corridor with the press, then he can't stop me from talking about the way he courted Communist support for his Senate fight against La Follette in '46. Tell McCarthy to go to hell." They had come in all arrogant, expecting me to crawl and beg, but when they left they were really whitefaced and shook up. I continued organizing throughout the Fifties without any trouble from Washington, although I caught a lot of flak from local police in the communities where I was working.
PLAYBOY: What was your major organizational effort of this period?
ALINSKY: The Woodlawn district of Chicago, which was a black ghetto every bit as bad as Back of the Yards had been in the Thirties. In 1958, a group of black leaders came to me and explained how desperate conditions were in Woodlawn and asked our help in organizing the community. At first, I hesitated; we had our hands full at the time, and besides, I'd never organized a black slum before and I was afraid my white skin might prove an insurmountable handicap. Friends of mine in the civil rights movement who knew I was considering the idea told me to forget it; nobody could organize Woodlawn; the place made Harlem look like Grosse Pointe; it was impossible. But there was only one way to find out: Try it. So the decision was go.
At first, it did look as if my whiteness might be a major obstacle, but then, as always, the good old establishment came to my rescue. The University of Chicago, which controlled huge hunks of real estate in the area, was trying to push through an urban-renewal program that would have driven out thousands of Woodlawn residents and made their property available for highly profitable real-estate development, which naturally made the U. of C. a universally hated and feared institution in Woodlawn. The saying in the ghetto then was "Urban renewal means Negro removal."
Once I announced my intentions to organize Woodlawn, the man in the street looked on me as just another white do-gooder. All the university needed to do to knock me out of action effectively was to issue a statement welcoming me to the neighborhood and hailing me as an illustrious alumnus. Instead, their spokesmen blasted hell out of me as a dangerous and irresponsible outside agitator, and all the Chicago papers picked up the cue and denounced me as a kind of latter-day Attila the Hun. Off the record, the university was charging that I was funded by the Catholic Church and the Mafia! Crazy. Well, this was great; right away, people in Woodlawn began to say, "Christ, this guy must not only be OK, he must have something on them if he bugs those bastards so much," and they became receptive to our organizing pitch.
Anyway, we quickly gained the support of all the Catholic and Protestant churches in the area and within a few months we had the overwhelming majority of the community solidly behind us and actively participating in our programs. Incidentally, my leading organizer at the time was Nicholas von Hoffman, who has since become a writer and is now with The Washington Post. Nick's contribution was crucial. We picketed, protested, boycotted and applied political and economic pressure against local slumlords and exploitive merchants, the University of Chicago and the political machine of Mayor Daley -- and we won.
We stopped the urban-renewal program; we launched a massive voter-registration drive for political power; we forced the city to improve substandard housing and to build new low-cost public housing; we won representation on decisionmaking bodies like the school board and anti-poverty agencies; we got large-scale job-training programs going; we brought about major improvements in sanitation, public health and police procedures. The Woodlawn Organization became the first community group not only to plan its own urban renewal but, even more important, to control the letting of contracts to building contractors; this meant that unless the contractors provided jobs for blacks, they wouldn't get the contracts. It was touching to see how competing contractors suddenly discovered the principles of brotherhood and racial equality.
Once TWO had proved itself as a potent political and economic force, it was recognized even by Mayor Daley, although he tried to undercut it by channeling hundreds of thousands of Federal anti-poverty dollars to "safe" projects; Daley has always wanted -- and gotten -- all Federal money disbursed through City Hall to his own housebroken political hacks. But perhaps our most important accomplishment in Woodlawn was intangible; by building a mass power organization, we gave the people a sense of identity and pride. After living in squalor and despair for generations, they suddenly discovered the unity and resolve to score victories over their. enemies, to take their lives back into their own hands and control their own destinies. We didn't solve all their problems overnight, but we showed them that those problems could be solved through their own dedication and their own indigenous black leadership. When we entered Woodlawn, it was a decaying, hopeless ghetto; when we left, it was a fighting, united community.
PLAYBOY: Were the tactics you employed in Woodlawn different from those you would have used in a white slum?
ALINSKY: Race doesn't really make that much difference. All tactics means is doing what you can with what you have. Just like in Back of the Yards, we had no money at our disposal in Woodlawn, but we had plenty of people ready and willing to put themselves on the line, and their bodies became our greatest asset. At one point in the Woodlawn fight, we were trying to get Chicago's big department stores to give jobs to blacks. A few complied, but one of the largest stores in the city -- and one of the largest in the country -- refused to alter its hiring practices and wouldn't even meet with us. We thought of mass picketing, but by now that had become a rather stale and familiar tactic, and we didn't think it would have much of an impact on this particular store. Now, one of my basic tactical principles is that the threat is often more effective than the tactic itself, as long as the power structure knows you have the power and the will to execute it; you can't get anywhere bluffing in this game, but you can psych out your opponent with the right strategy.
Anyway, we devised our tactic for this particular department store. Every Saturday, the busiest shopping day of the week, we decided to charter buses and bring approximately 3,000 blacks from Woodlawn to this downtown store, all dressed up in their Sunday best. Now, you put 3,000 blacks on the floor of a store, even a store this big, and the color of the entire store suddenly changes: Any white coming through the revolving doors will suddenly think he's in Africa. So they'd lose a lot of their white trade right then and there. But that was only the beginning. For poor people, shopping is a time-consuming business, because economy is paramount and they're constantly comparing and evaluating prices and quality. This would mean that at every counter you'd have groups of blacks closely scrutinizing the merchandise and asking the salesgirl interminable questions. And needless to say, none of our people would buy a single item of merchandise. You'd have a situation where one group would tie up the shirt counter and move on to the underwear counter, while the group previously occupying the underwear counter would take over the shirt department. And everybody would be very pleasant and polite, of course; after all, who was to say they weren't bona-fide potential customers? This procedure would be followed until one hour before closing time, when our people would begin buying everything in sight to be delivered C. O. D. This would tie up delivery service for a minimum of two days, with additional heavy costs and administrative problems, since all the merchandise would be refused upon delivery.
With the plan set, we leaked it to one of the stool pigeons every radical organization needs as a conduit of carefully selected information to the opposition, and the result was immediate. The day after we paid the deposit for the chartered buses, the department-store management called us and gave in to all our demands; overnight, they opened up nearly 200 jobs for blacks on both the sales and executive levels, and the remaining holdout stores quickly followed their lead. We'd won completely, and through a tactic that, if implemented, would be perfectly legal and irresistible. Thousands of people would have been "shopping" and the police would have been powerless to interfere. What's more, the whole thing would have been damned good fun, an exciting outing and a release from the drab monotony of ghetto life. So this simple tactic encompassed all the elements of good organization -- imagination, legality, excitement and, above all, effectiveness.
PLAYBOY: And coercion.
ALINSKY: No, not coercion -- popular pressure in the democratic tradition. People don't get opportunity or freedom or equality or dignity as an act of charity; they have to fight for it, force it out of the establishment. This liberal cliche about reconciliation of opposing forces is a load of crap. Reconciliation means just one thing: When one side gets enough power, then the other side gets reconciled to it. That's where you need organization -- first to compel concessions and then to make sure the other side delivers. If you're too delicate to exert the necessary pressures on the power structure, then you might as well get out of the ball park. This was the fatal mistake the white liberals made, relying on altruism as an instrument of social change. That's just self-delusion. No issue can be negotiated unless you first have the clout to compel negotiation.
PLAYBOY: This emphasis on conflict and power led Philip M. Hauser, former chairman of the University of Chicago's Department of Sociology, to say at the time of your Woodlawn struggle that any black who follows you "may be the victim of a cruel, even if unintended, hoax ... [because] the methods by which [Alinsky] organized TWO may actually have impeded the achievement of consensus and thus delayed the attaining of Woodlawn's objectives." How would you respond to him?
ALINSKY: I think the record of Woodlawn's evolution refutes it more convincingly than I could with words. In fact, I strongly doubt Hauser would say the same thing today; the university is now proud of TWO and fully reconciled to its goals. But apart from the specific criticism, this general fear of conflict and emphasis on consensus and accommodation is typical academic drivel. How do you ever arrive at consensus before you have conflict? In fact, of course, conflict is the vital core of an open society; if you were going to express democracy in a musical score, your major theme would be the harmony of dissonance. All change means movement, movement means friction and friction means heat. You'll find consensus only in a totalitarian state, Communist or fascist.
My opposition to consensus politics, however, doesn't mean I'm opposed to compromise; just the opposite. In the world as it is, no victory is ever absolute; but in the world as it is, the right things also invariably get done for the wrong reasons. We didn't win in Woodlawn because the establishment suddenly experienced a moral revelation and threw open its arms to blacks; we won because we backed them into a corner and kept them there until they decided it would be less expensive and less dangerous to surrender to our demands than to continue the fight. I remember that during the height of our Woodlawn effort, I attended a luncheon with a number of presidents of major corporations who wanted to "know their enemy." One of them said to me, "Saul, you seem like a nice guy personally, but why do you see everything only in terms of power and conflict rather than from the point of view of good will and reason and cooperation?" I told him, "Look, when you and your corporation approach competing corporations in terms of good will, reason and cooperation instead of going for the jugular, then I'll follow your lead." There was a long silence at the table, and the subject was dropped.
Next Week -- More Tactics, More Targets
Alinsky's first book, Reveille for Radicals
Alinsky's second and final book, Rules for Radicals
Alinsky's biography is available here
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