When I left home for a university education in 1966 at age 18, I swore I would work for Saul Alinsky when I graduated. The year I did graduate, Alinsky was declining, and he died two years later. So much for my plan to work for him in Chicago—and maybe elsewhere around the nation—organizing the dispossessed into effective groups that eventually might alter the equation of power across the United States. But, though he was dead in body, Alinsky left behind his theories and practices in books that guided me, and later guided somebody younger and eventually far more influential than I am—Barack Obama.
So, today, Alinsky lives, 38 years after he died. Radical, the just-published memoir by Nicholas von Hoffman, an Alinsky community organizer for 10 years, helps make sense of what the Alinsky resurrection means.
When Alinksy began organizing the disorganized in Chicago neighborhoods, he invented not just a process but also a job title. Von Hoffman, who after leaving Alinsky became a commentator for CBS’s 60 Minutes and the Washington Post, notes that “when Saul started there was no known social role for somebody calling himself a ‘community organizer.’ Fifty years ago you might as well have said that you were a tourist from Alpha Centauri.”
Obama decided to become a community organizer in 1983. When his college classmates asked him what such a person did, Obama could not find the words to reply clearly. Instead, Obama would pronounce the need for change, and how it must grow at the grassroots.
After actually obtaining a job as a community organizer in Chicago, Obama, always articulate, still found explanations difficult to offer. At one juncture, a low-level public school employee questioned why a bright guy would want such a job. After all, she told Obama, “the pay is low, the hours is long, and don’t nobody appreciate you.” The only brief answer Obama could muster went like this: “It needs to be done, and not enough folks are doing it.”
Alinsky lived the job, explaining it best when he could find time to write the books Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals. As von Hoffman explains over and over, some of the legends of tactical ingenuity handed down through generations of Alinsky followers are not strictly true. For instance, when Alinsky wanted recalcitrant Chicago leaders to help loosen restrictions on where minorities could reside within the city’s segregated neighborhoods, he did not actually mobilize well-dressed African Americans to tie up all the public toilets at O’Hare Airport, the pride of the city’s fathers. On the other hand, Alinsky might have suggested he would employ that gambit if absolutely necessary.
Alinsky liked to call himself a radical rather than a liberal. As von Hoffman shows, however, “radical” to Alinsky did not mean spontaneous or otherwise poorly prepared. His campaigns for greater equality demonstrated painstaking planning, with small risks of failure. Alinsky was no dreamy radical. Rather, he was a practical radical who made a difference in neighborhood after neighborhood.
It might sound heretical to many readers, but von Hoffman makes a case for why Alinsky would often succeed where a dreamer like Martin Luther King Jr. would accomplish far less for those he wanted to help. Maybe the von Hoffman memoir will inspire a modern-day Alinsky to emerge. Goodness knows a polarized society would benefit.