Empowering People, Not Elites
Interview with Saul Alinsky, Part Six
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 FiveRadicals Amid the Depression
PLAYBOY: How close was the country to revolution during the Depression?
ALINSKY: A lot closer than some people think. It was really Roosevelt's reforms that saved the system from itself and averted total catastrophe. You've got to remember, it wasn't only people's money that went down the drain in 1929; it was also their whole traditional system of values. Americans had learned to celebrate their society as an earthly way station to paradise, with all the cherished virtues of hard work and thrift as their tickets to security, success and happiness. Then suddenly, in just a few days, those tickets were canceled and apparently unredeemable, and the bottom fell out of everything. The American dream became a nightmare overnight for the overwhelming majority of citizens, and the pleasant, open-ended world they knew suddenly began to close in on them as their savings disappeared behind the locked doors of insolvent banks, their jobs vanished in closed factories and their homes and farms were lost to foreclosed mortgages and forcible eviction. Suddenly the smokestacks were cold and lifeless, the machinery ground to a halt and a chill seemed to hang over the whole country.
People tried to delude themselves and say, "None of this is real, we'll just sleep through it all and wake up back in the sunlight of the Twenties, back in our homes and jobs, with a chicken in every pot, two cars in every garage." But they opened their eyes to the reality of poverty and hopelessness, something they had never thought possible for themselves, not for people who worked hard and long and saved their money and went to church every Sunday. Oh, sure, poverty might exist, far off in the dim shadowy corners of society, among blacks and sharecroppers and people with funny names who couldn't speak English yet, but it couldn't happen to them, not to God's people. But not only did the darkness fail to pass away, it grew worse. At first people surrendered to a numbing despair, but then slowly they began to look around at the new and frightening world in which they found themselves and began to rethink their values and priorities.
We'll always have poor people, they'd been taught to believe from pulpit and classroom, because there will always be a certain number of misfits who are too stupid and lazy to make it. But now that most of us were poor, were we all dumb and shiftless and incompetent? A new mood began stirring in the land and a mutual misery began to eat away the traditional American virtues of rugged individualism, dog-eat-dog competition and sanctimonious charity. People began reaching out for something, anything, to hang on to -- and they found one another. We suddenly began to discover that the ruthless law of the survival of the fittest no longer held true, that it was possible for other people to care about our plight and for us to care about theirs. On a smaller scale, something similar occurred in London during the blitz, when all the traditional English class barriers broke down in the face of a common peril.
Now, in America, new voices and new values began to be heard, people began citing John Donne's "No man is an island," and as they started banding together to improve their lives, they found how much in common they had with their fellow man. It was the first time since the abolitionist movement, for example, that there was any significant black-white unity, as elements of both races began to move together to confront the common enemies of unemployment and starvation wages. This was one of the most important aspects of the Thirties: not just the political struggles and reforms but the sudden discovery of a common destiny and a common bond of humanity among millions of people. It was a very moving experience to witness and be part of it.
PLAYBOY: You sound a little nostalgic.
ALINSKY: Yeah, those were exciting days to be alive in. And goddamn violent days, too. Whenever people wail to me about all the violence and disorder in American life today, I tell them to take a hard look back at the Thirties. At one time, you had thousands of American veterans encamped along the Anacostia petitioning the Government for a subsistence bonus until they were driven out at bayonet point by the Army, led by "I shall return" MacArthur. Negroes were being lynched regularly in the South as the first stirrings of black opposition began to be felt, and many of the white civil rights organizers and labor agitators who had started to work with them were tarred, feathered, castrated -- or killed. Most Southern politicians were members of the Ku Klux Klan and had no compunction about boasting of it.
The giant corporations were unbelievably arrogant and oppressive and would go to any lengths to protect their freedom -- the freedom to exploit and the freedom to crush any obstacle blocking the golden road to mammon. Not one American corporation -- oil, steel, auto, rubber, meat packing -- would allow its workers to organize; labor unions were branded subversive and communistic and any worker who didn't toe the line was summarily fired and then blacklisted throughout the industry. When they defied their bosses, they were beaten up or murdered by company strikebreakers or gunned down by the police of corrupt big-city bosses allied with the corporations, like in the infamous Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago when dozens of peaceful pickets were shot in the back.
Those who kept their jobs were hired and fired with complete indifference, and they worked as dehumanized servomechanisms of the assembly line. There were no pensions, no unemployment insurance, no Social Security, no Medicare, nothing to provide even minimal security for the worker. When radicals fought back against these conditions by word or deed, they were hounded and persecuted by city police and by the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, who back in those days was already paranoid, while in Washington the House Un-American Activities Committee hysterically sounded the alarm against the gathering Bolshevik hordes. As bloody strikes and civic disorder swept the nation, the big cry was for law and order. Nobody talked about pollution then; yet the workers in coal and steel towns were shrouded in a perpetual pall of soot and black dust, while in cities like Chicago, people in the meatpacking areas grew up amid a stench so overpowering that if they ever ventured out into the country, the fresh air made them sick. Yeah, those were the good old days, all right. Shit, the country was far more polarized and bitter then than it is today.
PLAYBOY: When did you involve yourself full time in the radical movement?
ALINSKY: Around 1938. I stuck to my job with the Institute for Juvenile Research as long as I could, doing as little as I could, while I grew more and more active in the movement. But unlike most of the people I was working with, I still had my feet in both camps, and if things ever got too hot, I always had a cushy job I could lean back on, which began to bother me. Also, it was bugging me that suddenly people were calling me an expert in criminology, newspapers were describing me as the top man in my field and I was being asked to speak at all these chicken-shit conferences and write papers and all that crap. It just shows the crummy state of criminology; anybody who has even a flickering shadow of intelligence automatically becomes a national authority.
So all this bothered me, and apart from everything else, I was just plain bored again; I knew the field, I'd gotten all there was to get out of it and I was ready to move on to more challenging pastures. But I still had the problem of making a living, and for a while I sort of rationalized, "Oh, well, at least this way I've got my integrity. If I took a job in business, I'd have to butter customers up, agree with them. But here I'm free to speak my mind." Integrity! What shit. It took me a while to realize that the only difference between being in a professional field and in business was the difference between a five-buck whore and a $100 callgirl.
The crunch came when I was offered a job as head of probation and parole for Philadelphia at a salary of $8000 a year, with the added bonus of a visiting lectureship at the University of Pennsylvania for $2400 a year and a weekly column in the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger on how to keep your kiddies on the straight and narrow. Remember, $10,400 then was equal to $30,400 now [in 1972; that's over $100,000 today]. So this was the turning point for me. I could picture myself in a nice house in the suburbs, just two hours from New York, with all its theaters and concerts, with money in the bank, a car, all the goodies. And I could already hear the rationalizations I'd make: "I'd better not jeopardize this setup. After all, I can do so much more for the cause by stimulating students than by getting personally involved. I can write speeches or papers and put the real message between the lines or in footnotes, and really have an impact." Or: "This will give me the financial freedom to participate effectively." Bullshit. Once you get fat and comfortable and reach the top, you want to stay there. You're imprisoned by your own so-called freedoms. I've seen too many lean and hungry labor leaders of the Thirties grow fat-bellied and fat-headed. So I turned down the job and devoted myself to full-time activity in the radical movement.
Next Week -- Organizing The Back of the Yards
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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