Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky


From Left to Right, one man has influenced them all: Saul Alinsky. Radical is a personal portrait of this controversial mastermind of popular movements, a man who is often called the American Machiavelli.

The tactics and strategy of Alinsky, who died in 1972, have been studied by people as diverse as Barack Obama, Cesar Chavez, Hillary Clinton, Dick Armey, the Tea Partiers, and activists and organizers of every persuasion. Thousands of organizations around the country owe their...

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Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky

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From Left to Right, one man has influenced them all: Saul Alinsky. Radical is a personal portrait of this controversial mastermind of popular movements, a man who is often called the American Machiavelli.

The tactics and strategy of Alinsky, who died in 1972, have been studied by people as diverse as Barack Obama, Cesar Chavez, Hillary Clinton, Dick Armey, the Tea Partiers, and activists and organizers of every persuasion. Thousands of organizations around the country owe their inspiration and origins to Alinsky—who is to community organizing what Freud is to psychoanalysis.

As told by his friend and protégé Nicholas von Hoffman, whom Alinsky dubbed “in all the world my favorite, drinking, talking, and thinking companion,” Radical is an intimate look at the man who made a career of arming the powerless and enraging the powerful. From Alinsky’s smuggling guinea pigs into the Joliet state penitentiary to the famous Buffalo fart-in. von Hoffman’s book reveals the humor as well as the ideals and anger that drove Alinsky to become a major figure in a democratic tradition dating back to Tom Paine.

Many of the stories about politicians, bishops, gangsters, millionaires, and labor leaders, which Alinsky did not want made public in his lifetime, are told here for the first time in Radical. Von Hoffman captures Alinsky’s brilliant critique of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s organizational tactics and where and why they succeeded or failed. It was a career that began in the politics and violence of the Great Depression and worked its way through the Communist threat, the racial struggles, and the Vietnam War protests of the second half of the twentieth century.

The first book to explain why so many have co-opted Alinsky’s ideas, and the first to explain why so many contemporary politicians misunderstand his message, Radical will become essential reading for anyone interested in American politics, past and present.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Saul Alinsky, the fiery Chicago activist whose 1971 Rules for Radicals is regarded as the organizer's bible, has already been memorialized in a biography, a documentary, and a play, which is why von Hoffman (Citizen Cohn), who spent a decade working with Alinsky as an organizer, wisely offers “an homage,” as opposed to a “biography or an exegesis on [Alinsky's] thinking.” What follows is a scattering of anecdotes and stray talking points—some of them insightful, like his observation that Alinsky “won his reputation for cynicism by insisting that most of us are moved to action by self-interest first, moral principles second, if at all,” many of them hazily remembered and poorly structured. Von Hoffman writes in a loose style that has the beat and rhythm of Chicago street talk, but as the sparsely punctuated sentences twist and turn, confusion takes over and the folksy charm wears thin. Such missteps are easy enough to overlook, but they add up, and after a while readers might wish the author had taken a more conservative approach to grammar, if not to politics. (July)
From the Publisher

Wall Street Journal
“[Von Hoffman] cautions that some of the quoted material represents his best memory of ‘things said a very long time ago.’ The result is literature, a charmingly picaresque... tale of a man whose job description was first, last and always Disturber of the Peace. The book’s chief delights are its sense of place—Chicago from the 1930s through the 1960s—and the cast of characters who share the stage with the main player as he struts and frets so colorfully.”

Mother Jones
“In his artful portrait, Von Hoffman aims to reclaim the godfather of grassroots activism for the left.”

Booklist, starred
“Von Hoffman’s intimate, illuminating homage celebrates an American original and meaningful activism.”

Carl Bernstein
Radical is a rare gem, the brilliantly-told tale of one of the enduring characters of modern American history: Saul Alinsky, the savvy and cerebral Chicago ‘community organizer’ who continues to influence our epoch. How remarkable that Alinsky came to profoundly touch the lives of three young citizens seeking their own identity in that city between the 1950s and the 1980s – Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Nicholas von Hoffman, who has crafted an important story that is part history, part memoir and altogether wonderful entertainment.”

Jonathan Alter
“Saul Alinsky once said that he didn’t join the Communist Party as a young man ‘because I have a sense of humor.’ So does this book. Nicholas von Hoffman, a legendary figure in his own right, brings alive not just his old boss Alinsky but all the flora and fauna of old Chicago--the union organizers, gangsters and neighborhood characters of a lost world. This is a raucous and charming first-hand account of one of the greatest small ‘d’ democrats in American history. It sheds light not just on Alinsky but on Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and a whole generation of activists who carry a part of him within them.”


The Barnes & Noble Review

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 - 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.

--Steve Weinberg

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781568584393
  • Publisher: Nation Books
  • Publication date: 6/29/2010
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Nicholas von Hoffman spent ten years as Saul Alinsky’s top community organizer then went to work as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and then the Washington Post, where he also wrote a syndicated column. He has been a commentator for both CBS radio and TV, doing a regular feature on 60 Minutes and for CBS radio news. He served as the American correspondent for the The Spectator (London) and has written for various magazines. He is the author of numerous books, including Citizen Cohn, which was made into an HBO movie.
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