Empowering People, Not Elites
Interview with Saul Alinsky, Part Two
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 OneLet's Talk
PLAYBOY: Mobilizing middle-class America would seem quite a departure for you after years of working with poverty-stricken black and white slum dwellers. Do you expect suburbia to prove fertile ground for your organizational talents?
To find out more about why Alinsky is doing what he's doing, and to probe the private complexities of the public man, PLAYBOY sent Eric Norden to interview him. The job, Norden soon discovered, was far from easy: "The problem was that Alinsky's schedule is enough to drive a professional athlete to a rest home, and he seems to thrive on it. I accompanied him from the East Coast to the West and into Canada, snatching tape sessions on planes, in cars and at airport cocktail lounges between strategy sessions with his local organizers, which were more like military briefings than bull sessions. My first meeting with him was in TWA's Ambassador Lounge at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. He was dressed in a navy-blue blazer, buttondown oxford shirt and black knit tie. His first words were a growled order for Scotch on the rocks; his voice was flat and gravelly, and I found it easier to picture him twisting arms to win Garment District contracts than organizing ghettos. As we traveled together and I struggled to match his pace, I soon learned that he is, if nothing else, an original. (Alinsky to stewardess: 'Will you please tell the captain I don't give a f--- what our wind velocity is, and ask him to keep his trap shut so I can get some work done?')"
"Nat Hentoff wrote last year, 'At 62, Saul is the youngest man I've met in years,' and I could see what he meant. There is a tremendous vitality about Alinsky, a raw, combative ebullience, and a consuming curiosity about everything and everyone around him. 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.
"And yet late at night, in a Milwaukee motel room, his face was gray, haggard and for once he showed the day's toll (three cities, two speeches, endless press conferences and strategy sessions). A vague sadness hung around him, as if some barrier had broken down, and he began to talk -- off the record -- about all the people he's loved who have died. There were many, and they seemed closer at night, in airport Holiday Inn rooms, sleeping alone with the air conditioner turned high to drown out the roar of the planes. He talked on for an hour, fell abruptly silent for a minute, then sprang to his feet and headed for the door. 'We'll really f--- 'em tomorrow!' The race was on again."
Norden began the interview by asking Alinsky about his latest and most ambitious campaign: to organize nothing less than America's white middle class.
ALINSKY: Yes, and it's shaping up as the most challenging fight of my career, and certainly the one with the highest stakes. Remember, people are people whether they're living in ghettos, reservations or barrios, and the suburbs are just another kind of reservation -- a gilded ghetto. One thing I've come to realize is that any positive action for radical social change will have to be focused on the white middle class, for the simple reason that this is where the real power lies. Today, three fourths of our population is middle class, either through actual earning power or through value identification. Take the lower-lower middle class, the blue-collar or hard-hat group; there you've got over 70,000,000 people earning between $5000 and $10,000 a year, people who don't consider themselves poor or lower class at all and who espouse the dominant middle class ethos even more fiercely than the rich do. For the first time in history, you have a country where the poor are in the minority, where the majority are dieting while the have-nots are going to bed hungry every night.
Christ, even if we could manage to organize all the exploited low-income groups -- all the blacks, chicanos, Puerto Ricans, poor whites -- and then, through some kind of organizational miracle, weld them all together into a viable coalition, what would you have? At the most optimistic estimate, 55,000,000 people by the end of this decade -- but by then the total population will be over 225,000,000, of whom the overwhelming majority will be middle class. This is the so-called Silent Majority that our great Greek philosopher in Washington is trying to galvanize, and it's here that the die will be cast and this country's future decided for the next 50 years. Pragmatically, the only hope for genuine minority progress is to seek out allies within the majority and to organize that majority itself as part of a national movement for change. If we just give up and let the middle classes go to the likes of Agnew and Nixon by default, then you might as well call the whole ball game. But they're still up for grabs -- and we're gonna grab 'em.
PLAYBOY: The assumption behind the Administration's Silent Majority thesis is that most of the middle class is inherently conservative. How can even the most skillful organizational tactics unite them in support of your radical goals?
ALINSKY: Conservative? That's a crock of crap. Right now they're nowhere. But they can and will go either of two ways in the coming years -- to a native American fascism or toward radical social change. Right now they're frozen, festering in apathy, leading what Thoreau called "lives of quiet desperation:" They're oppressed by taxation and inflation, poisoned by pollution, terrorized by urban crime, frightened by the new youth culture, baffled by the computerized world around them. They've worked all their lives to get their own little house in the suburbs, their color TV, their two cars, and now the good life seems to have turned to ashes in their mouths. Their personal lives are generally unfulfilling, their jobs unsatisfying, they've succumbed to tranquilizers and pep pills, they drown their anxieties in alcohol, they feel trapped in longterm endurance marriages or escape into guilt-ridden divorces. They're losing their kids and they're losing their dreams. They're alienated, depersonalized, without any feeling of participation in the political process, and they feel rejected and hopeless. Their utopia of status and security has become a tacky-tacky suburb, their split-levels have sprouted prison bars and their disillusionment is becoming terminal.
They're the first to live in a total mass-media-oriented world, and every night when they turn on the TV and the news comes on, they see the almost unbelievable hypocrisy and deceit and even outright idiocy of our national leaders and the corruption and disintegration of all our institutions, from the police and courts to the White House itself. Their society appears to be crumbling and they see themselves as no more than small failures within the larger failure. All their old values seem to have deserted them, leaving them rudderless in a sea of social chaos. Believe me, this is good organizational material.
The despair is there; now it's up to us to go in and rub raw the sores of discontent, galvanize them for radical social change. We'll give them a way to participate in the democratic process, a way to exercise their rights as citizens and strike back at the establishment that oppresses them, instead of giving in to apathy. We'll start with specific issues -- taxes, jobs, consumer problems, pollution -- and from there move on to the larger issues: pollution in the Pentagon and the Congress and the board rooms of the megacorporations. Once you organize people, they'll keep advancing from issue to issue toward the ultimate objective: people power. We'll not only give them a cause, we'll make life goddamn exciting for them again -- life instead of existence. We'll turn them on.
PLAYBOY: You don't expect them to beware of radicals bearing gifts?
ALINSKY: Sure, they'll be suspicious, even hostile at first. That's been my experience with every community I've ever moved into. My critics are right when they call me an outside agitator. When a community, any kind of community, is hopeless and helpless, it requires somebody from outside to come in and stir things up. That's my job -- to unsettle them, to make them start asking questions, to teach them to stop talking and start acting, because the fat cats in charge never hear with their ears, only through their rears. I'm not saying it's going to be easy; thermopolitically, the middle classes are rooted in inertia, conditioned to look for the safe and easy way, afraid to rock the boat. But they're beginning to realize that boat is sinking and unless they start bailing fast, they're going to go under with it. The middle class today is really schizoid, torn between its indoctrination and its objective situation. The instinct of middle-class people is to support and celebrate the status quo, but the realities of their daily lives drill it home that the status quo has exploited and betrayed them.
PLAYBOY: In what way?
ALINSKY: In all the ways I've been talking about, from taxation to pollution. The middle class actually feels more defeated and lost today on a wide range of issues than the poor do. And this creates a situation that's supercharged with both opportunity and danger. There's a second revolution seething beneath the surface of middle-class America -- the revolution of a bewildered, frightened and as-yet-inarticulate group of desperate people groping for alternatives -- for hope. Their fears and their frustrations over their impotence can turn into political paranoia and demonize them, driving them to the right, making them ripe for the plucking by some guy on horseback promising a return to the vanished verities of yesterday. The right would give them scapegoats for their misery -- blacks, hippies, Communists -- and if it wins, this country will become the first totalitarian state with a national anthem celebrating "the land of the free and the home of the brave." But we're not going to abandon the field to them without a long, hard fight -- a fight I think we're going to win. Because we'll show the middle class their real enemies: the corporate power elite that runs and ruins the country -- the true beneficiaries of Nixon's so-called economic reforms. And when they swing their sights on that target, the sh-- will really hit the fan.
PLAYBOY: In the past, you've focused your efforts on specific communities where the problems -- and the solutions -- were clearly defined. But now you're taking on over 150,000,000 people. Aren't you at all fazed by the odds against you?
ALINSKY: Are you kidding? I've been doing this for 30 years now, and the odds haven't bothered me yet. In fact, I've always taken 100-to-one odds as even money. Sure, it's true that the middle class is more amorphous than some barrio in Southern California, and you're going to be organizing all across the country instead of in one city. But the rules are the same. You start with what you've got, you build up one community around the issues, and then you use the organization you've established as an example and a power base to reach other communities. Once you're successful in, say, Chicago -- one of the cities where we're organizing the middle class -- then you can go on to Cincinnati or Boston or Dubuque and say, "OK, you see what we did in Chicago, let's get movin' here." It's like an ink-blot effect, spreading out from local focal points of power across the whole country. Once we have our initial successes, the process will gather momentum and begin to snowball.
It won't be easy and, sure, it's a gamble -- what in life isn't? Einstein once said God doesn't throw dice, but he was wrong. God throws dice all the time, and sometimes I wonder if they're loaded. The art of the organizer is cuttin' in on the action. And believe me, this time we're really going to screw the bastards, hit 'em where it hurts. You know, I sort of look at this as the culmination of my career. I've been in this fight since the Depression; I've been machine-gunned, beaten up, jailed -- they've even given me honorary degrees -- and in a way it's all been preparation for this. I love this goddamn country, and we're going to take it back. I never gave up faith at the worst times in the past, and I'm sure as hell not going to start now. With some luck, maybe I've got ten more good productive years ahead of me. So I'm going to use them where they count the most.
PLAYBOY: How did you ever get into this line of work?
ALINSKY: I actually started organizing in the middle Thirties, first with the C.I.O. and then on my own. But I guess I would have followed the same path if there hadn't been a Depression. I've always been a natural rebel, ever since I was a kid. And poverty was no stranger to me, either. My mother and father emigrated from Russia at the turn of the century and we lived in one of the worst slums in Chicago; in fact, we lived in the slum district of the slum, on the wrong side of the wrong side of the tracks, about as far down as you could go. My father started out as a tailor, then he ran a delicatessen and a cleaning shop, and finally he graduated to operating his own sweatshop. But whatever business he had, we always lived in the back of a store. I remember, as a kid, the biggest luxury I ever dreamed of was just to have a few minutes to myself in the bathroom without my mother hammering on the door and telling me to get out because a customer wanted to use it. To this day, it's a real luxury for me to spend time uninterrupted in the bathroom; it generally takes me a couple of hours to shave and bathe in the morning -- a real hang-up from the past, although I actually do a lot of my thinking there.
Next Week -- Religious Background & Growing Up
Alinsky's biography is available here
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