The Contradictory European Legacy of Saul Alinsky

labor unions protest in Brussels (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Brussels      Saul Alinsky would have wanted to be seen as a realist, so I can easily imagine him just shrugging and saying the equivalent of a “whatever” from more than 45 years ago.   The right seems to read him more closely than the left, both in the US and abroad, but at least some are reading him.  He’d be happy with that.  In the same way that Facebook is seen as the same as the internet in many countries around the world, in Europe at least, and perhaps everywhere, Saul Alinsky is seen as the same as community organizing.  Saul would be ecstatic to hear that undoubtedly.

I thought about this a number of times while in Brussels.  During the debate and question and answer sessions after the showing of the “The Organizer,” there were some questions about Alinsky.  During our training one or two of the people in the session asked about something they had read, often apocryphal, in Rules or Reveille.   Frequently, they want to know if the actions Saul discussed in the book every happened.  Usually not, but the threat is often more powerful than the action itself, so what’s the harm.  Do all actions have to be “fun,” one asked citing Alinsky?  No, many are more necessary than “fun.”  Then in the debate at the union hall the advertisement bringing people to the meeting suggested not only that my colleague, Adrien Roux and I would be there to talk about ACORN, but that we would also talk about the principles of Saul Alinsky and how they might suggest “new methods” for organized labor in Belgium. That would have been hard to do.  In some cases, we were asked to describe how the ACORN methodology was the same or different from Alinsky’s precepts.  On those questions, we had to put sugar in peoples’ coffee often times.

We all owe a huge debt to Alinsky and his work.  He was the great evangelist for community organizing.  In some ways, as evidenced by the interest expressed on the union flyer, he still is.  Our head organizers in France and Italy have both written books about Alinsky.  In that sense, Saul is still bringing people into the work.

At the same time, I think Saul would have adapted to the changes over the last almost five decades since his death.  Organizational and institutional ties have weakened hugely in that period.  To build an “organization of organizations” would leave out more people than it would involve these days.  Alinsky could not have anticipated these declines, but I like to think he might have evolved a model closer to what ACORN has done.  Before his death he was already experimenting with organizations like the Chicago-based Citizens Against Pollution and trumpeting the need to organize the middle-class rather than the poor.  I’m not saying that I agree with his direction, but he was smart enough to know that organizing had to continually adapt and experiment.  The latter day Alinsky followers still stress building from the base of institutions, especially the church, and particularly the Catholic Church.  There is a rationale there, but it also creates something less than an autonomous organization, and one that rises and falls with those institutions as well.

The legacy of Alinsky is alive and kicking.  In Europe particularly perhaps, it is best to simply protect the legend, because the actual organizing methodology would likely not bring as many people into community organizations.

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Europe Really is Different than the United States

in line for donations in Athens by Crete farmers

Thessaloniki   The point is so obvious that it almost seems trivial.  Of course, Europe is different from the United States and every country within the European Union is also different from the others in history, culture, and often language.  No visitor fails to remark about the feeling in Europe of walking in ancient footsteps. Walking by a Greek column that is not a replica but an artifact is as common as remnants of construction during this Roman emperor or another.

Yet, the differences I notice are so much more than that the longer I stay and the more I travel.  If the wealth of an England or France seems eye to eye with the United States, Greece seems more like Mexico or even Paraguay.  Here people grudgingly say that the economy is slightly improving, but still talk of “the crisis” in Greece as the daily occurrence that they still feel everywhere.  University professors’ shop at the co-op store, not just because of a political persuasion but also because with their salaries have been cut to shreds, it is what they can afford.  Students who once enjoyed free education are now having to cobble together money to stay in school.  A sign in the men’s washroom, written in English, said perhaps too much about the situation, as the letters shouted “We Need Toilet Paper!”

The social welfare system is an entitlement for the unemployed in a way that US workers would find unimaginable.  Talking by Skype last week to a young man in Frankfurt, Germany about organizing a tenants’ union there, it was not a surprise that he was on public assistance while he tried to pull these pieces together.  For students the same is true and reduces the panic of joblessness and opens the door to opportunity to find a place whether in Greece or Scotland or France.

The political diversity of multi-party experience may seem fractured, but is actually invigorating.  Casual introductions that include the fact that so-and-so was a former Communist city councilman or that this one or that were key activists in the anarchist community or that this tavern owner or landlord or even neighborhood were well-known as anarchist strongholds.  In the United States such a comment would seem extraordinary, possibly subversive, and the subject of a special feature on Fox News, but in Greece it is so commonplace that it hardly bears mentioning.  Politics of almost all persuasions seems mainstream rather than marginal.  In a multi-party politics rather than a two-party system one has to cultivate a certain tolerance because it is impossible to predict where the party slightly left or right might end up your coalition partner in government or opposition.  The choices can both make or break politicians and parties, raising some up, and destroying others.

The nuances are almost impossible for a stranger visiting from afar, as I am, to navigate without constant guides who prove their worth by the paths they point both away from trouble and to the company of friends.  Being accused of having an “American perspective” is an insult and a caution.  Listening and watching for the clues is constant, because the lessons are everywhere and the learning curve is steep.  To assume something is the same in Europe as in America is a guarantee of falling over the cliff.

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