Hillary Rodham on Saul Alinsky, Community Organizing, and Change

Hillary_lede.grid-6x2Montreal     I knew that Hillary Clinton, when still Hillary Rodham, had written her senior thesis at Wellesley College on Saul Alinsky and his work, and I had even talked to her about it briefly over lunch once in Little Rock in the early 1970’s, but I had never actually read it until the link was recently forwarded to me by Camilo Viveiros of the George Wiley Institute in Rhode Island.  It was different than I expected it to be.  First it was much better than I had imagined it might be as a senior thesis.  Secondly, it was different than the reports I had read years ago, when she last ran for President.  Yes, it was a something of a rejection of the Alinsky methods, though admiring of Alinsky, but her objection was largely that his methodology – and vision – did not go far enough, not that it was either too radical or not traditional enough.

She was a diligent student and reading the sources and footnotes, she was a fellow traveler well read in James Ridgeway and Andrew Kopkind, the dominant left journalists of that era and beyond, critical of Daniel Moynihan’s critique, and astutely embracing Warren Haggstrom, a major, though often unrecognized, intellectual influence on all of community organizing, then and now.She also understood deeply, but perhaps too uncritically, the critique of Alinsky and his work by Frank Reissman, the founder of our journal, Social Policy  that I still edit and publish.  She was spot-on in recognizing the Alinsky debt to union organizing and structural models in a way that contemporaries often miss.  On the whole, her thesis is a surprisingly solid piece of work and a good grasp of the issues, while being justly admiring of Alinsky and his belief and commitment to democracy and respectful of community organizing and its role in making change.

She was a left-critic of the War on Poverty, saying…

All too often the War on Poverty with confused intentions and armed with misinterpreted social theory fulfilled Moynihan’s concluding description of the community action programs: “…the soaring rhetoric, the minimum performance; the feigned constancy, the private betrayal; in the end…the sell-out.”

She was not a fan of student organizing in the late 1960’s or what she calls “New Left strategists,”

The problems inherent in such an approach, including elitist arrogance and repressive intolerance, have become evident during recent university crises.  The engineers of disruption, lacking Alinsky’s flexibility in dealing with their “enemy” (i.e. administrators, trustees, etc.), become hardened into non-negotiable situations.  Conflicts then run the possibility of escalating into zero sum games where nobody wins.

Her real critique of Alinsky is that he didn’t go far enough, and the evidence is plentiful in a number of her remarks in the thesis even as she walks a fine line to balance her academic objectives…

  • He realizes that radical goals have to be achieved often by non-radical, even “anti-radical” means.
  • Perhaps, the Alinsky model’s emphasis on local issues and goals determined locally diverts energies from wider or coalition organizations.
  • His belief that the poor can translate apathy into power and then use that power responsibly has, in some cases, proven true. In others, the transition has been dysfunctional either for the community or for the cause of radical change.

Tellingly, even the title of her thesis, “There is Only the Fight…” is a thinly veiled critique that she shares in part with Reissman that he lacked “vision” for a more radical, national change.  She is clearly heavily influenced by her own Wellesley professor, Annemarie Shimony, in putting her perspective together and Shimony’s view that Alinsky was “a showman rather than an activist.”

Undoubtedly, then Hillary Rodham was a “child of the 60’s” who believed it was a time and opportunity for comprehensive change:

Often the application of the Alinsky model in geographically-bound lower class areas assumes an almost bootstrap formula which is too conservative for our present situation.  A People’s Organization of local organizations can at best create new levels of harmony among its members and secure a few material gains.  It is not oriented toward harmonizing competing metropolitan interests in a concert of governmental restructuring.

Clearly, she liked Alinsky and much of the model, but didn’t like the “messy” of student organizing and the New Left, compared to the pragmatic, flexibility of Alinsky approach even while seeing it as lacking “vision” and “too conservative for our present situation.”  In 1969, she wasn’t ready for the barricades, but she wanted to figure out a way to make comprehensive change.   Her thesis is a helpful place to build a more nuanced understanding of Hillary and her quest perhaps, contrary to what many have argued, both pro and con.

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ODETTA – This Little Light of Mine

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