Empowering People, Not Elites
Interview with Saul Alinsky, Part Three
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 TwoRaw Beginnings
PLAYBOY: Were your parents politically active?
ALINSKY: A lot of Jews were active in the new socialist movement at that time, but not my parents. They were strict Orthodox; their whole life revolved around work and synagogue. And their attitude was completely parochial. I remember as a kid being told how important it was to study, and the worst threat they could think of was that if I didn't do well at Yeshiva, I'd grow up with a goyischer kop -- with a gentile brain. When I got into high school, I remember how surprised I was to find all those gentile kids who were so smart; I'd been taught that gentiles were practically Mongoloids. And that kind of chauvinism is just as unhealthy as antiSemitism.
PLAYBOY: Did you encounter much antiSemitism as a child?
ALINSKY: Not personally, but I was aware of it. It was all around us in those days. But it was so pervasive you didn't really even think about it; you just accepted it as a fact of life. The worst hostility was the Poles, and back in 1918 and 1919, when I was growing up, it amounted to a regular war. We had territorial boundaries between our neighborhoods, and if a Jewish girl strayed across the border, she'd be raped right on the street. Every once in a while, it would explode into full-scale rioting, and I remember when hundreds of Poles would come storming into our neighborhood and we'd get up on the roofs with piles of bricks and pans of boiling water and slingshots, just like a medieval siege. I had an air rifle myself. There'd be a bloody battle for blocks around and some people on both sides had real guns, so sometimes there'd be fatalities. It wasn't called an urban crisis then; it was just two groups of people trying to kill each other. Finally the cops would come on horses and in their clanging paddy wagons and break it up. They were all Irish and they hated both sides, so they'd crack Polish and Jewish heads equally. The melting pot in action. You don't have that hostility in Chicago anymore; now Italians, Poles, Jews and Irish have all joined up and buried the hatchet -- in the blacks. But in those days, every ethnic group was at each other's throat.
I remember once, I must have been ten or eleven, one of my friends was beaten up by Poles, so a bunch of us crossed over into Polish turf and we were beating the shit out of some Polish kids when the cops pulled us in. They took us to the station house and told our mothers, and boy, did they blow their tops. My mother came and took me away, screaming that I'd brought disgrace on the family. Who ever heard of a good Jewish boy being arrested, she moaned to the cops, and she promised the sergeant I'd be taken care of severely when I got home. When we left, my mother took me right to the rabbi and the rabbi lectured me on how wrong I was. But I stood up for myself. I said, "They beat us up and it's the American way to fight back, just like in the Old Testament, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. So we beat the hell out of them. That's what everybody does." The rabbi just looked at me for a minute and then said very quietly, "You think you're a man because you do what everybody does. But I want to tell you something the great Rabbi Hillel said: 'Where there are no men, be thou a man.' I want you to remember it." I've never forgotten it.
PLAYBOY: Did you beat up any more Polish kids?
ALINSKY: No, the rabbi's lesson sank home. I don't even tell Polish jokes.
PLAYBOY: Were you a devout Jew as a boy?
ALINSKY: I suppose I was -- until I was about 12. I was brainwashed, really hooked. But then I got afraid my folks were going to try to turn me into a rabbi, so I went through some pretty rapid withdrawal symptoms and kicked the habit. Now I'm a charter member of Believers Anonymous. But I'll tell you one thing about religious identity: Whenever anyone asks me my religion, I always say -- and always will say -- Jewish.
PLAYBOY: Did you rebel in areas other than religion?
ALINSKY: Yes, in little ways I've been fighting the system ever since I was seven or eight years old. I mean, I was the kind of kid who'd never dream of walking on the grass until I'd see a KEEP OFF THE GRASS sign, and then I'd stomp all over it. I remember one time when I was ten or eleven, a rabbi was tutoring me in Hebrew and my assignment was to read the Old Testament and then he'd ask me a series of questions. One particular day I read three pages in a row without any errors in pronunciation, and suddenly a penny fell onto the Bible. I looked up and the rabbi told me that God had rewarded me for my achievement. Shit, I was awe-struck. All that day and through the night, I thought about it. I couldn't even sleep, I was so excited, and I ran over all the implications in my mind.
Then the next day the rabbi turned up and he told me to start reading. And I wouldn't; I just sat there in silence, refusing to read. He asked me why I was so quiet, and I said, "This time it's a nickel or nothing." He threw back his arm and slammed me across the room. I sailed through the air and landed in the corner and the rabbi started cursing me unto the fourth generation. I'd rebelled against Godl But there were no lightning bolts, nothing, just a rabid rabbi on the verge of a coronary.
It wasn't defiance so much as curiosity in action, which seems to others to be defiance. My father, for example -- he was far from permissive and I'd get my share of beatings, with the invariable finale, "You ever do that again and you know what's going to happen to youl" I'd just nod, sniffling, and skulk away. But finally one day, after he'd really laid into me, he stood over me swinging his razor strap and repeated, "You know what's going to happen to you if you do that again?" and I just said through my tears, "No, what's going to happen?" His jaw dropped open, he was completely at a loss, he didn't know what the hell to say. He was absolutely disorganized. I learned my lesson then: Power is not in what the establishment has but in what you think it has.
PLAYBOY: Was your relationship with your father uniformly hostile?
ALINSKY: Yeah, pretty much so. My parents were divorced when I was 18 and my father, who'd begun to make some money out of his crummy sweatshops, moved out to California. For the next few years, I shuttled back and forth between them, living part of the time with my mother in Chicago and the rest with my father in California. I shouldn't really say living with him, because the minute I'd arrive, he'd shunt me off to a furnished room somewhere and I'd never see him till I'd leave. Our only words to each other were "Hello" and then, three months later, "Goodbye." It was a funny kind of life. When I was 16, I started shackin' up with some old broad of 22 -- and believe me, at 16, 22 is positively ancient. Between moving around in Chicago with my mother and going back and forth to California, I must have attended a dozen different schools; in fact, I wound up with four high school diplomas when I went to college. That's one of the reasons I always stayed close to my kids when they were growing up; I didn't want them to have to go through that.
PLAYBOY: A psychoanalytic interpretation of your life might conclude that your subsequent career as a radical was motivated more by hatred of your father than by opposition to the establishment.
ALINSKY: Parlor psychoanalysis isn't my bag. Anyway, I don't think I ever hated the old man; I never really knew him, and what little I did know just didn't interest me. And the feeling must have been reciprocated. I remember, when I graduated from college at the height of the Depression, I had exactly four bucks between me and starvation, and my mother was so broke I didn't want to add to her troubles. So in desperation I sent a registered letter to my father, asking trim for a little help, because I didn't even have enough for food. I got the receipt back showing he'd got the letter, but I never heard from him. He died in 1950 or 1951 and I heard he left an estate of $140,000. He willed most of it to an orchard in Israel and his kids by his previous marriage. To me he left $50.
PLAYBOY: How did you feel when you learned of his death?
ALINSKY: Maybe the best way I can explain it is to tell you what happened when my mother heard he'd died. She understood his body had been shipped to Chicago and she called me up and asked me to check all the undertaking establishments to see if he was there and what arrangements had been made. I didn't want to, but she insisted, so I sat down with the phone book and started running through the funeral parlors. After a half hour or so of this, I heard hysterical laughter coming out of the living room and I went in to find my wife, Helene, doubled up in hysterics. I asked her what the hell was so funny and when she finally got control of herself she said, "Do you have any idea what you're doing?" I said, "Why, what are you talking about?" and she said, "Let me give an imitation of you: 'Hello, Weinstein's undertaking parlor? Oh, well, look, do me a favor, will you? My name is Alinsky, my father's name is Benjamin, would you mind looking in the back room and seeing if by any chance you've got his body laid out there?'" And as I listened to her, I understood all the deadly silences I'd been getting at the other end of the phone. That was how much it affected me.
PLAYBOY: Were you equally estranged from your mother?
ALINSKY: Oh, no, we were very close. Momma's great, she's still around and going strong. She speaks more Yiddish than English, but she collects all my clippings, even though she's confused about what I'm doing, and she gloats over the fact that I'm the center of a lot of attention. "My son the revolutionary," you know. Once I was the lead speaker at a mass meeting in Chicago and I thought she'd enjoy seeing it, so I had her picked up and taken to the auditorium. Afterward, I drove her home and I said, "Momma, how did you like my speech?" And she said, all upset, "That's a fine thing you did, to do a thing like that, what will people think of your mother, how will they think I brought you up?" I said, "Momma, what was it I said?" And she said, "You don't know? You ask me, when twice, twice you wiped your nose with your hand when you were talking? What a terrible thing!" You know, I'm 68 years old and what are her first words to me on the phone? "Have you got your rubbers? Are you dressed warm? Are you eating right?" As a Jewish mother, she begins where other Jewish mothers leave off. To other people, I'm a professional radical; to her, the important thing is, I'm a professional. To Momma, it was all anticlimactic after I got that college degree.
Next Week -- College and Criminals
Alinsky's biography is available here
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