Alinsky Rises Again

By Al Giordano

It’s taken me a couple of weeks now to digest the symbolism and significance of the attempted censorship of my June 11 reference to Saul Alinsky and his Rules for Radicals as I continued our international teach-in on the subject of community organizing.

Beyond the evident and fundamental questions that are always raised by censorship, what’s really stuck in my craw is the gross strategic and tactical stupidity that this particular attempt to erase history reflected on the part of the would-be censors. They - and, they claim, some brain-damaged "potential big donors" - argued that the mere mention of Alinsky, the father of community organizing, in the context of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, would somehow harm his electoral chances in November. And in doing so, they demonstrated exactly why they – including a Democratic National Committee member and superdelegate – and party functionaries like them have been the dimwitted architects of so many losing campaigns in recent decades. They, and they alone, were responsible for their party's abysmal losing streak from 1994 to 2004. And they still think they know better than the rest of us about politics?

They don’t see how that kind of fear-based thinking shrunk their base over the years, leading many millions of Americans that have more in common ideologically with Democrats than Republicans to turn our backs on electoral politics, participation and voting, leaving them empty handed on election night after election night. They don’t “get” that the new wave of millions that flooded the primaries and caucuses among younger voters, alienated voters and never before voters delivered them a different kind of nominee this year precisely because of his community organizer profile that makes Obama visibly and substantially distinct from the standard Democratic Party hack politician that has more often led that party into defeat than victory.

They were offended, I think, by the mention of Alinsky, because under the surface of their misguided know-it-all-ism at politics, they sense that, yes, they really don’t understand what has just happened to their party as a result of the expansion of the base by these new or returned voters. Alinsky’s critique of the Democratic Party during his life is essentially that of so many of us that were turned off to electoral politics during the Clinton era: fearful, equivocating and, too often, corrupted in that very pursuit of large donors.

Since that moment two weeks ago, many Field Hands and others have brought to my attention the many public references to Obama’s community organizing in Chicago - that toddlin’ town where Alinsky developed the craft - that were not censored and clearly helped – not hurt – the candidate to clinch the nomination and, now, jump ahead of his GOP rival by every polling metric.

That book cover you see up top is that of the new work to be published on September 2, Taking On the System: Rules for Radical Change in a Digital Era, by Markos Moulitsas Zúniga (2008, hardcover, Celebra Books) which can be pre-ordered at that link.

Look carefully at that cover. Did you notice that subhed? Rules for Radical Change in a Digital Era. Sounds a lot like “Rules for Radicals,” no? It's clearly in tribute to Alinsky. And this, from the Democrat most responsible for his party’s sudden winning streak that began in 2006: When it came to recruiting, inspiring, generating waves of small donors and volunteers - and creating the online spaces through which they could self-organize - for the new generation of victorious Democrats, Kos has shown that he understands how to get his party to win elections far better than the old guard DNC types that keep telling us, in conflict with all evidence, that it’s they that have the secret decoder ring know-how.

Anyway, Kos went to some expense to send me, express mail across international borders, the galley proofs for the new book this week. The contents are embargoed: I can’t quote from it until September 2. But beyond the turn of Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” phrase in the book’s subtitle, y’all will be very interested to buy that book in September and see to whom the book is dedicated, and whose quotation opens the work.

I really hadn’t realized, when I posted that primer on Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, that others were thinking exactly along the same lines of what needs to be done, how to do it, and how adapting upon the innovations by Alinsky and other community organizers provides a key both for those that want to elect Obama as president and also for those that want to remain organized after November to ensure that the change that is promised can and will be delivered.

Interestingly, as the quotations and links I’m about to share with you indicate, some very knowledgeable journalists and columnists have also cited Alinsky in the context of Obama in recent months, causing zero damage to that candidate, and in fact – as the primary results demonstrate – those references helped to distinguish him from the kinds of party buffoons that had branded the reputation for failure upon the forehead of the Democratic Party in the United States.

To wit:

The Nation didn’t try to censor Nicolas Von Hoffman last March:


The person who invented community organizing, at least in its modern form, was Chicagoan Saul Alinsky (1909-1972). Articles about Obama often mention Alinsky and suggest that he has been influenced by him. (Google the two names together and you will get 29,000 hits.) Sometimes Obama is called a disciple, although Alinsky had no use for disciples, acolytes or slavish dedication to schools of thought.


The San Francisco Chronicle (and other newspapers) didn’t try to censor syndicated columnist David Sirota last month:


the more citizens will "become educated about various corporation policies" because they will realize "they can do something about them," as famed shareholder activist Saul Alinsky once said. That is what truly scares Corporate America - and what could bring the most "real change" of all.


National Public Radio didn’t censor Robert Siegel last month:


Two leading Democratic candidates for president — Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — can trace their political character to teachings handed down indirectly from Alinsky, a community organizer from Chicago, who died in 1972. Alinsky is credited with developing a new approach to politics, using tactics that allowed ordinary people — the poor and disenfranchised — to fight city hall effectively.


The Seattle Post-Intelligencer didn’t try to censor reporter John Iwasaki last month:


The Industrial Areas Foundation was founded in Chicago by Saul Alinsky, whose work influenced Hillary Clinton (then Hillary Rodham) and Barack Obama, long before they would become Democratic presidential candidates.


Associated Press didn’t try to censor reporter Sharon Cohen on June 2:


Obama arrived in Chicago in 1985 with a college degree, a map of the city and a new job — community organizer.

Starting salary: Just over $10,000 plus enough money to buy a beat-up Honda.

Obama was a stranger to Chicago, but living abroad gave him experience as an outsider and a natural empathy for people without money and power, says Gerald Kellman, the man who hired him…

"He seemed to listen well and he learned fast," Kellman says. But even though Obama worked with people trained by Saul Alinsky, the father of community organizing, he didn't adopt hard-nose tactics.

"He did not like personal confrontation," Kellman says. "He had no trouble challenging power and challenging people on issues. When it came to face-to-face situations, he valued civility a great deal. ... When it came to negotiating conflict, he was very good at that. ... He was not one to get drawn into a protracted conflict that involves personalities."


MSNBC didn’t try to censor Chris Matthews on June 3:


"So it's Saul Alinsky against the beer baron… It's so funny, I never heard it put together, (Senator McCain) married into a beer fortune and he doesn't know how what it's like to sweat.”


Mother Jones didn’t try to censor James Ridgeway on June 5:


Saul Alinsky, the legendary community organizer on the South Side of Chicago who advocated confrontation with the Daley machine… encouraged his groups to engage in civil disobedience if need be… I can remember radicals attacking him for his lack of revolutionary fervor, in the same way, incidentally, they attacked Ralph Nader, who was seen as a patsy for the legal profession. "A guy has to be a political idiot," Alinsky scoffed at radicals back then, "to say all power comes out of the barrel of a gun when the other side has the guns."

Saul Alinsky believed that power flowed up from the streets and was there for the taking, if only people believed they could do so.


The Atlantic didn’t try to censor Marc Ambinder on June 13:


These house meetings form the core of the campaign's organizing model. The concept derives from organizing theory as taught by Saul Alinsky and as adopted by community organizers across the country. Never before has a major party presidential campaign used them to expand their support in a general election.


Politico didn't try to censor Ben Smith on June 19:


Obama has never been a traditional reformer. 

He came to politics through the community organizing movement, whose radical founder, Saul Alinsky, mocked highbrow reformers, and focused instead on the acquisition and use of power, with the ends often justifying the means.


And what about Barack Obama himself?

The drama-queening, off-message, money-grubbing, old guard performance of the past two weeks by one DNC member - in embarrassing email after email that failed to stem the exodus of former readers and what she suddenly recognized as valuable small donations - was often trying to justify its boneheaded behavior in his name, to "protect" Obama from any public acknowledgment of what everybody knows already: that he approached his campaign as a community organizer and did so expanding upon the techniques developed by Alinsky and others. They claimed to be speaking for him (a big no no, as any Obama staffer or fellow will testify), thus attempting to erase and censor, also, the ways he has already spoken for himself on these matters.

Here's something that Obama wrote, at the age of 29, and allowed to be published in a book with - gasp! - the word "Alinsky" in the title:


"Organizing teaches as nothing else does the beauty and strength of everyday people."

- Barack Obama, After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois (University of Illinois Press, 1990, Chapter 4).





Everyday people?

Oooooh. Scary!

User login


About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

RSS Feed