Empowering People, Not Elites
Interview with Saul Alinsky, Part Eight
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 SevenSuccess versus Co-optation
PLAYBOY: How does a self-styled outside agitator like yourself get accepted in the community he plans to organize?
ALINSKY: The first and most important thing you can do to win this acceptance is to bait the power structure into publicly attacking you. In Back of the Yards, when I was first establishing my credentials, I deliberately maneuvered to provoke criticism. I made outrageous statements to the press, I attacked every civic and business leader I could think of, and I goaded the establishment to strike back. The Chicago Tribune, one of the most right-wing rags in the country at the time, branded me a subversive menace and spokesmen for the meat packers denounced me as a dangerous enemy of law and order. Now, these were the same forces that were screwing the average Joe in Back of the Yards, and the minute he saw those attacks he said, "That guy Alinsky must be all right if he can get those bastards that pissed off; he must have something or they wouldn't be so worried." So I used what I call psychological jujitsu on the establishment, and it provided me with my credentials, my birth certificate, in all the communities I ever organized.
But over and above all these devices, the ultimate key to acceptance by a community is respect for the dignity of the individual you're dealing with. If you feel smug or arrogant or condescending, he'll sense it right away, and you might as well take the next plane out. The first thing you've got to do in a community is listen, not talk, and learn to eat, sleep, breathe only one thing: the problems and aspirations of the community. Because no matter how imaginative your tactics, how shrewd your strategy, you're doomed before you even start if you don't win the trust and respect of the people; and the only way to get that is for you to trust and respect them. And without that respect there's no communication, no mutual confidence and no action. That's the first lesson any good organizer has to learn, and I learned it in Back of the Yards. If I hadn't, we would never have won, and we could never have turned that liellhole into a textbook model of progressive community organization. Twenty-five years later, the Back of the Yards Council is still going strong, and a whole generation has grown up not even knowing that their neighborhood was once one of the foulest slums in the country. Even Mayor Daley lives there now -- about the only argument I'd ever buy for restrictive covenants.
PLAYBOY: Mayor Daley's presence in Back of the Yards symbolizes what some radicals consider the fatal flaw in your work: the tendency of communities you've organized eventually to join the establishment in return for their piece of the economic action. As a case in point, Back of the Yards is now one of the most vociferously segregationist areas of Chicago. Do you see this as a failure?
ALINSKY: No, only as a challenge. It's quite true that the Back of the Yards Council, which 20 years ago, was waving banners attacking all forms of discrimination and intolerance, today doesn't want Negroes, just like other middle-class white communities. Over the years they've won victory after victory against poverty and exploitation and they've moved steadily up the ladder from the have-nots to the have-a-little-want-mores until today they've thrown in their lot with the haves. This is a recurring pattern; you can see it in the American labor movement, which has gone from John L. Lewis to George Meany in one generation. Prosperity makes cowards of us all, and Back of the Yards is no exception. They've entered the nightfall of success, and their dreams of a better world have been replaced by nightmares of fear -- fear of change, fear of losing their material goods, fear of blacks. Last time I was in Back of the Yards, a good number of the cars were plastered with Wallace stickers; I could have puked. Like so many onetime revolutionaries, they've traded in their birthright for property and prosperity. This is why I've seriously thought of moving back into the area and organizing a new movement to overthrow the one I built 25 years ago.
PLAYBOY: This process of co-optation doesn't discourage you?
ALINSKY: No. It's the eternal problem, but it must be accepted with the understanding that all life is a series of revolutions, one following the other, each bringing society a little bit closer to the ultimate goal of real personal and social freedom. I certainly don't regret for one minute what I did in the Back of the Yards. Over 200,000 people were given decent lives, hope for the future and new dignity because of what we did in that cesspool. Sure, today they've grown fat and comfortable and smug, and they need to be kicked in the ass again, but if I had a choice between seeing those same people festering in filth and poverty and despair, and living a decent life within the confines of the establishment's prejudices, I'd do it all over again. One of the problems here, and the reason some people just give up when they see that economic improvements don't make Albert Schweitzers out of everybody, is that too many liberals and radicals have a tender-minded, overly romantic image of the poor; they glamorize the povertystricken slum dweller as a paragon of justice and expect him to behave like an angel the minute his shackles are removed. That's crud. Poverty is ugly, evil and degrading, and the fact that have-nots exist in despair, discrimination and deprivation does not automatically endow them with any special qualities of charity, justice, wisdom, mercy or moral purity. They are people, with all the faults of people -- greed, envy, suspicion, intolerance -- and once they get on top they can be just as bigoted as the people who once oppressed them. But that doesn't mean you leave them to rot. You just keep on fighting.
PLAYBOY: Spokesmen for the New Left contend that this process of accommodation renders piecemeal reforms meaningless, and that the overthrow and replacement of the system itself is the only means of ensuring meaningful social progress. How would you answer them?
ALINSKY: That kind of rhetoric explains why there's nothing left of the New Left. It would be great if the whole system would just disappear overnight, but it won't, and the kids on the New Left sure as hell aren't going to overthrow it. Shit, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin couldn't organize a successful luncheon, much less a revolution. I can sympathize with the impatience and pessimism of a lot of kids, but they've got to remember that real revolution is a long, hard process. Radicals in the United States don't have the strength to confront a local police force in armed struggle, much less the Army, Navy and Air Force; it's just idiocy for the Panthers to talk about all power growing from the barrel of a gun when the other side has all the guns.
America isn't Russia in 1917 or China in 1946, and any violent head-on collision with the power structure will only ensure the mass suicide of the left and the probable triumph of domestic fascism. So you're not going to get instant nirvana -- or any nirvana, for that matter -- and you've got to ask yourself, "Short of that, what the hell can I do?" The only answer is to build up local power bases that can merge into a national power movement that will ultimately realize your goals. That takes time and hard work and all the tedium connected with hard work, which turns off a lot of today's rhetorical radicals. But it's the only alternative to the continuation of the present system. It's important to look at this issue in a historical perspective. Every major revolutionary movement in history has gone through the same process of corruption, proceeding from virginal purity to seduction to decadence. Look at the Christian church as it evolved from the days of the martyrs to a giant holding company, or the way the Russian Revolution degenerated into a morass of bureaucracy and oppression as the new class of state managers replaced the feudal landowners as the reigning power elite. Look at our American Revolution; there wasn't anybody more dedicated to the right of revolution than Sam Adams, leader of the Sons of Liberty, the radical wing of the revolution. But once we won the fight, you couldn't find a worse dictatorial reactionary than Adams; he insisted that every single leader of Shays' Rebellion be executed as a warning to the masses. He had the right to revolt, but nobody had the right to revolt against him. Take Gandhi, even; within ten months of India's independence, he acquiesced in the law making passive resistance a felony, and he abandoned his nonviolent principles to support the military occupation of Kashmir. Subsequently, we've seen the same thing happen in Goa and Pakistan. Over and over again, the firebrand revolutionary freedom fighter is the first to destroy the rights and even the lives of the next generation of rebels.
But recognizing this isn't cause for despair. All life is warfare, and it's the continuing fight against the status quo that revitalizes society, stimulates new values and gives man renewed hope of eventual progress. The struggle itself is the victory. History is like a relay race of revolutions; the torch of idealism is carried by one group of revolutionaries until it too becomes an establishment, and then the torch is snatched up and carried on the next leg of the race by a new generation of revolutionaries. The cycle goes on and on, and along the way the values of humanism and social justice the rebels champion take shape and change and are slowly implanted in the minds of all men even as their advocates falter and succumb to the materialistic decadence of the prevailing status quo.
So whenever a community comes to me and asks me for help and says, "We're being exploited and discriminated against and shafted in every way; we need to organize," what am I going to say? "Sorry, guys, if I help organize you to get power and you win, then you'll all become. just like Back of the Yards, materialistic and all that, so just go on suffering, it's really better for your souls." And yet that's what a good many so-called radicals are in fact saying. It's kind of like a starving man coming up to you and begging you for a loaf of bread, and your telling him, "Don't you realize that man doesn't live by bread alone?" What a cop-out. No, there'll be setbacks, reverses, plenty of them, but you've just got to keep on sluggin'. I knew when I left Back of the Yards in 1940 that I hadn't created a utopia, but people were standing straight for the first time in their lives, and that was enough for me.
Next Week -- After the Back of the Yards, What Next?
ALINSKY's first book, Reveille for Radicals
ALINSKY's second and final book, Rules for Radicals
ALINSKY's biography is available here
Email this article Sign up for free Progress Report updates via email
What's your opinion? Tell your views to The Progress Report:
Page One Page Two Archive Discussion Room Letters What's Geoism?