Nick Von Hoffman on Alinsky

SaulAlinskyNew Orleans Driving back from a union bargaining session at the NASA Michoud facility I just missed a call from a 207 area code.  Returning the call, it was a pleasant surprise to find the caller was none other than Nicholas von Hoffman, who is somewhat known to people now for his journalistic and broadcasting career, but to me always as a place in the pantheon as perhaps the best of all the organizers to work with Saul Alinsky back in the day.

Nick had some small questions for the introduction of a book he was finishing for Perseus which he described as something of a homage to Alinsky.  He wanted my opinion on Alinksy’s legacy.  We talked about the several times that Alinksy had done sessions with my staff at Massachusetts Welfare Rights in early 1970 and various other things that we dispatched quickly.

More interesting to me was my quid pro quo. I wanted to ask Nick a couple of questions from his time about Alinksy’s real views from his perspective as opposed to the views that have been carried forward by the acolytes to the present.

One was whether Alinksy’s hostility to “movements” as opposed to “organizations” was tactical or fundamental.  Von Hoffman replied quickly that in his view there had been a lot of false attributions in his name.  He claimed that he had not heard Alinsky make this argument, and told me a story, that I thought I had read in an Alinsky biography, about when he was organizing The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) in Chicago and some of the TWO leaders wanted to invite some of the Freedom Riders to come to a meeting.  He was not too excited because in the past when they had pushed for similar meetings and they were lucky to pull 25 folks.  This time there was a huge crowd!  Nick said that he was talking to Saul, who was in Carmel (CA) later that night after the meeting, and told him about the meeting and that there was a real movement afoot.  Saul asked him to send him a memo, because this was worth attention.  Nick claimed he had never heard Saul movement bashing, and expressed surprise based on this story.

Of course I had heard Saul on this rant myself and it is well reported, but von Hoffman’s insight was valuable, because it might reveal something closer to Alinsky’s real opinions and curiosities rather than how he felt he had to handle his business in public.  Nick also told me there had been a serious debate, led by Saul, about putting the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) out of business and retooling to a wider range of projects, including an attack on the Daley machine in Chicago, but with his death that didn’t happen obviously.

Similarly I thought from the Alinsky book on John Lewis that his view of movements should have been different from his arguments there, but I also assumed the labor federation structure had fueled the “organization of organization” structure used in the Alinsky organizations in the 1950-60’s particularly.  Von Hoffman also pushed back on that and argued that Alinsky would have been much more open and flexible about the ACORN structure and membership base, and cited the work done with Fred Ross and the Community Service Organization (CSO) in California.

All of this led me to my second real question about the why Alinsky organizations were so apolitical and anti-political despite the discussions about power.  My theory had always been that if that were really Alinksy’s viewpoint, it came from the environmental experience in Chicago and the power of the Daley democratic machine then.  Von Hoffman scoffed at all of this.  He believed the only reason any of the Alinsky or IAF had to strictly with funders and the ease of getting funding to a tax exempt organization.  He said he and Saul talked about politics all of the time and none of what ACORN had done in terms of moving political action would have been anything but applauded by Alinsky.

Who knows at this point?  It’s nice to have someone like von Hoffman looking after the Alinsky legacy and willing to broaden Alinksy’s vision and work to encompass much of what has grown up and proven successful in the last almost 40 years since his death.  I hope someone does as much for me 40 years after I’m dead!

It was such a pleasure to have the conversation after all of these years with Nick.  I remember what he actually wrote about ACORN decades ago when he was a columnist, but didn’t bring it up, since he had already joked about not remembering much of what he had written in the past himself.  One thing about the right’s new – and perverse – interest in Alinksy’s books, is that it probably made room for something that von Hoffman would get to write now with this new audience, so that’s a contribution I should thank the Glen Beck people for myself.

207 turns out to be in Maine, so once there’s a spring thaw, I’ll start looking for this volume, and Nick was delighted that I was interested in an excerpt in Social Policy, so this is all good.

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One thought on “Nick Von Hoffman on Alinsky

  1. From a chapter on Alinsky I’m writing for an Introduction to Community Organizing:

    However, this was in the days of the early freedom rides through the South, when busloads of black and white activists rode busses through the heart of the black belt to test federal laws mandating integration, sparking riots and bloody violence. One of Alinsky’s organizers, Nicholas von Hoffman agreed without much enthusiasm to set up a public appearance by a few of the riders recovering from their injuries. To his surprise, so many people turned up, that they had to set up speakers in the street outside the church. As Horwitt tells it, “At evening’s end, von Hoffman was in an unfamiliar state of shock and euporia.” He called Alinsky at 3am and described what had happened. Then von Hoffman said

    I think that we should toss out everything we are doing organizationally and work on the premise that this is the moment of the whirlwind, that we are no longer organizing but guiding a social movement.

    There was a pause on the phone, and then Alinsky said,

    You’re right. Get on it tomorrow.

    As Horwitt notes, Alinsky’s response highlighted “Alinsky’s brilliance as a political tactician: he was able to shed even his most favored organizational concepts and assumptions when confronted with a new, unexpected reality.” This is a lesson that many organizers who came after him failed to learn, sometimes almost slavishly follwing his “principles” and treating them like “rules,” a term that Alinsky problematically used in the title of his second book on organizing, Rules for Radicals.

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