Empowering People, Not Elites
Interview with Saul Alinsky, Part Four
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 ThreeCollege and Criminals
PLAYBOY: Were you politically active in college?
ALINSKY: Not in any organized sense. I started going to the University of Chicago in 1926, when the campus was still shook up over the Loeb-Leopold case. I suppose I was a kind of instinctive rebel -- I got into trouble leading a fight against compulsory chapel -- but it was strictly a personal rebellion against authority. During my first few years in school, I didn't have any highly developed social conscience, and in those placid days before the Depression, it was pretty easy to delude yourself that we were living in the best of all possible worlds. But by my junior year, I was beginning to catch glimpses of the emperor's bare ass. As an undergraduate, I took a lot of courses in sociology, and I was astounded by all the horse manure they were handing out about poverty and slums, playing down the suffering and deprivation, glossing over the misery and despair. I mean, Christ, I'd lived in a slum, I could see through all their complacent academic jargon to the realities. It was at that time that I developed a deep suspicion of academicians in general and sociologists in particular, with a few notable exceptions.
It was Jimmy Farrell who said at the time that the University of Chicago's sociology department was an institution that invests $100,000 on a research program to discover the location of brothels that any taxi driver could tell them about for nothing. So I realized how far removed the self-styled social sciences are from the realities of everyday existence, which is particularly unfortunate today, because that tribe of head-counters has an inordinate influence on our so-called antipoverty program. Asking a sociologist to solve a problem is like prescribing an enema for diarrhea.
PLAYBOY: Was sociology your major in college?
ALINSKY: God, no. I majored in archaeology, a subject that fascinated me then and still does. I really fell in love with it.
PLAYBOY: Did you plan to become a professional archaeologist?
ALINSKY: Yeah, for a while I did. But by the time I graduated, the Depression was in full swing and archaeologists were in about as much demand as horses and buggies. All the guys who funded the field trips were being scraped off Wall Street sidewalks. And anyway, much as I loved it, archaeology was beginning to appear pretty irrelevant in those days. I was starting to get actively involved in social issues, and during my last year in college, a bunch of us took up the plight of the Southern Illinois coal workers, who were in a tough organizational fight -- tough, Christ, the poor bastards were starving -- and we got some food and supplies together and chartered some trucks and drove down to help them.
PLAYBOY: Was it at this time that you became active in radical politics?
ALINSKY: It was at this time I became a radical -- or recognized that I'd always been a radical and started to do something concrete about it. But I wasn't a full-time activist; I remained in school, and I suppose a lot of my ideas about what could and should be done were as muddled as those of most people in those chaotic days.
PLAYBOY: What did you do after graduation?
ALINSKY: I went hungry. What little money my mother had was wiped out in the Crash and, as I've told you, my old man wasn't exactly showering support on me. I managed to eke out a subsistence living by doing odd jobs around the university at ten cents an hour. I suppose I could have gotten some help from a relief project, but it's funny, I just couldn't do it. I've always been that way: I'd rob a bank before I accepted charity. Anyway, things were rough for a while and I got pretty low. I remember sitting in a crummy cafeteria one day and saying to myself: "Here I am, a smart son of a bitch, I graduated cum laude and all that shit, but I can't make a living, I can't even feed myself. What happens now?" And then it came to me; that little light bulb lit up above my head.
I moved over to the table next to the cashier, exchanged a few words with her and then finished my coffee and got up to pay. "Gee, I'm sorry," I said, "I seem to have lost my check." She'd seen that all I had was a cup of coffee, so she just said, "That's OK, that'll be a nickel." So I paid and left with my original nickel check still in my pocket and walked a few blocks to the next cafeteria in the same chain and ordered a big meal for a buck forty-five -- and, believe me, in those days, for a buck forty-five I could have practically bought the fuckin' joint. I ate in a corner far away from the cashier, then switched checks and paid my nickel bill from the other place and left. So my eating troubles were taken care of.
But then I began to see other kids around the campus in the same fix, so I put up a big sign on the bulletin board and invited anybody who was hungry to a meeting. Some of them thought it was all a gag, but I stood on the lectern and explained my system in detail, with the help of a big map of Chicago with all the local branches of the cafeteria marked on it. Social ecology! I split my recruits up into squads according to territory; one team would work the South Side for lunch, another the North Side for dinner, and so on. We got the system down to a science, and for six months all of us were eating free. Then the bastards brought in those serial machines at the door where you pull out a ticket that's only good for that particular cafeteria. That was a low blow. We were the first victims of automation.
PLAYBOY: Didn't you have any moral qualms about ripping off the cafeterias?
ALINSKY: Oh, sure, I suffered all the agonies of the damned-sleepless nights, desperate 'soul-searching, a tormented conscience that riddled me with guilt -- Are you kidding? I wouldn't have justified, say, conning free gin from a liquor store just so I could have a martini before dinner, but when you're hungry, anything goes -- There's a priority of rights, and the right to eat takes precedence over the right to make a profit -- And just in case you're getting any ideas, let me remind you that the statute of limitations has run out.
But you know, that incident was interesting, because it was actually my first experience as an organizer -- I learned something else from it, too; after the cafeterias had outflanked us, a bunch of the kids I'd organized came up to me and said, "OK, Saul, what do we do next?" And when I told them I didn't have the slightest idea, they were really pissed off at me. It was then I learned the meaning of the old adage about how 'favors extended become defined as rights.'
PLAYBOY: Did you continue your life of crime?
ALINSKY: Crime? That wasn't crime -- it was survival -- But my Robin Hood days were short-lived; logically enough, I was awarded the graduate Social Science Fellowship in criminology, the top one in that field, which took care of my tuition and room and board -- I still don't know why they gave it to me -- maybe because I hadn't taken a criminology course in my life and didn't know one goddamn thing about the subject -- But this was the Depression and I felt like someone had tossed me a life preserver -- Hell, if it had been in shirt cleaning, I would have taken it. Anyway, I found out that criminology was just as removed from actual crime and criminals as sociology was from society, so I decided to make my doctoral dissertation a study of the Al Capone mob -- an inside study.
PLAYBOY: What did Capone have to say about that?
ALINSKY: Well, my reception was pretty chilly at first -- I went over to the old Lexington Hotel, which was the gang's headquarters, and I hung around the lobby and the restaurant. I'd spot one of the mobsters whose picture I'd seen in the papers and go up to him and say, "I'm Saul Alinsky, I'm studying criminology, do you mind if I hang around with you?" And he'd look me over and say, "Get lost, punk." This happened again and again, and I began to feel I'd never get anywhere. Then one night I was sitting in the restaurant and at the next table was Big Ed Stash, a professional assassin who was the Capone mob's top executioner. He was drinking with a bunch of his pals and he was saying, "Hey, you guys, did I ever tell you about the time I picked up that redhead in Detroit?" and he was cut off by a chorus of moans. "My God," one guy said, "do we have to hear that one again?" I saw Big Ed's face fall; mobsters are very sensitive, you know, very thin-skinned. And I reached over and plucked his sleeve. "Mr. Stash," I said, "I'd love to hear that story." His face lit up. "You would, kid?" He slapped me on the shoulder. "Here, pull up a chair. Now, this broad, see . . ." And that's how it started.
Big Ed had an attentive audience and we became buddies. He introduced me to Frank Nitti, known as the Enforcer, Capone's number-two man, and actually in de facto control of the mob because of Al's income-tax rap. Nitti took me under his wing. I called him the Professor and I became his student. Nitti's boys took me everywhere, showed me all the mob's operations, from gin mills and whorehouses and bookie joints to the legitimate businesses they were beginning to take over. Within a few months, I got to know the workings of the Capone mob inside out.
PLAYBOY: Why would professional criminals confide their secrets to an outsider?
ALINSKY: Why not? What harm could I do them? Even if I told what I'd learned, nobody would listen. They had Chicago tied up tight as a drum; they owned the city, from the cop on the beat right up to the mayor. Forget all that Eliot Ness shit; the only real opposition to the mob came from other gangsters, like Bugs Moran or Roger Touhy. The Federal Government could try to nail 'em on an occasional income tax rap, but inside Chicago they couldn't touch their power. Capone was the establishment. When one of his boys got knocked off, there wasn't any city court in session, because most of the judges were at the funeral and some of them were pallbearers. So they sure as hell weren't afraid of some college kid they'd adopted as a mascot causing them any trouble. They never bothered to hide anything from me; I was their one-man student body and they were anxious to teach me. It probably appealed to their egos.
Once, when I was looking over their records, I noticed an item listing a $7500 payment for an out-of-town killer. I called Nitti over and I said, "Look, Mr. Nitti, I don't understand this. You've got at least 20 killers on your payroll. Why waste that much money to bring somebody in from St. Louis?" Frank was really shocked at my ignorance. "Look, kid," he said patiently, "sometimes our guys might know the guy they're hitting, they may have been to his house for dinner, taken his kids to the ball game, been the best man at his wedding, gotten drunk together. But you call in a guy from out of town, all you've got to do is tell him, 'Look, there's this guy in a dark coat on State and Randolph; our boy in the car will point him out; just go up and give him three in the belly and fade into the crowd.' So that's a job and he's a professional, he does it. But one of our boys goes up, the guy turns to face him and it's a friend, right away he knows that when he pulls that trigger there's gonna be a widow, kids without a father, funerals, weeping -- Christ, it'd be murder." I think Frank was a little disappointed by my even questioning the practice; he must have thought I was a bit callous.
Next Week -- Worthwhile Struggles
Alinsky's biography is available here
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