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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Nick von Hoffman, TWO Legend and Alinsky Lieutenant

Saul Alinsky and Nick von Hoffman

Boston    It’s just makes a cold day even colder when it starts with reading an obituary in the Boston Globe about Nick von Hoffman dying at Rockport, Maine at 88 years old.

For von Hoffman the early part of this career in Chicago when he was a community organizer and the chief lieutenant of Saul Alinsky is almost a footnote to the more mainstream prominence he attracted as a columnist for the Washington Post, the liberal side of the television commentary debate called “Point Counterpoint,” or even his best-selling book about the notorious fixer Roy Cohn from McCarthy to Trump and others.  But, community organizers know von Hoffman as the lead organizer for the then path-breaking and famous, TWO, The Woodlawn Organization.

In 2010 Nick wrote a reflection of Alinsky as he was having a strange revival as a tactical textbook for the right wing, quoted liberally by James O’Keefe, the video provocateur among others.  Nick arranged to call me in 2009 for some background or another that I don’t recall precisely this minute, but it was largely because he wanted to draw a straight line between Alinsky and ACORN.  We had a cordial and lengthy conversation, but the quid pro quo for my participation was getting the chance to ask him some questions that had always intrigued me about the paths taken – and not taken – by Alinsky and his team then.

I had often quoted a line attributed to von Hoffman when he decided to shelve organizing and try his hand at journalism.  He had run a giant voter registration effort in Chicago shortly before that where they had registered thousands of new voters, 8000 sticks in my memory, and he was quoted saying in essence that despite this major effort, it made no difference in the election and in Chicago politics, and that was the wake-up call that led him away from organizing.  I asked him about that campaign and his comment which was determinedly political, and why Alinsky and his successors had always so militantly avoided politics.  Was it the power of the Daley machine in Chicago, and the feeling that it couldn’t be beaten at the polls, so it was better to avoid the contest?

Responding, Nick claimed that Alinsky had never avoided politics or encouraged organizations to not be political, which was contrary to every conversation and piece of evidence to the contrary.  After a couple of more questions along this line as well as their positions on women organizers and other subjects, I figured out Nick’s mission.  He was writing the book as a counterpoint of another sort.  He wanted to update Alinsky to modern organizing and contemporary progressive practice, including ACORN’s.  He was going to marry his own memoir to the new currency of Alinsky and community organizing after the election of Obama who also had his short stint in the work.

This was a legacy project.  We should all have been lucky enough to work with Nick when he was a great organizer, and we would all be so fortunate to have him guard, protect, and invent a legacy when it matters, as a last gift of friendship to a comrade-in-arms.

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