Saul Alinsky was an agnostic Jew for whom religion of any kind held very little importance and little relation to the focus of his life’s work: the struggle for economic and social justice, for human dignity and human rights, and for the alleviation of the sufferings of the poor and downtrodden. His methods have long been considered controversial and it is perhaps for this reason that the Jewish world has never trumpeted its connection to the late Saul Alinsky, father of modern community organizing. Still, when asked what his religion or ethnicity was, he would say he is Jewish.
Born to Russian-Jewish parents in Chicago in 1909, Saul Alinsky was a Communist/ Marxist sympathizer who helped establish the tactics of confrontation—that have been central to revolutionary political movements in the United States in recent decades.
Saul Alinsky had a colourful history. While studying criminology as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, he became friendly with Al Capone and his mobsters. Ryan Lizza, senior editor of The New Republic, offers a glimpse into Alinsky’s personality: “Charming and self-absorbed, Alinsky would entertain friends with stories—some true, many embellished—from his mob days for decades afterward. He was profane, outspoken, and narcissistic, always the center of attention despite his tweedy, academic look and thick, horn-rimmed glasses.”
Despite these characteristics, according to Lizza, “Alinsky was deeply influenced by the great social science insight of his times, one developed by his professors at Chicago: that the pathologies of the urban poor were not hereditary but environmental.
This idea, that people could change their lives by changing their surroundings, led him to take an obscure social science phrase—‘the community organisation’—and turn it into, in the words of Alinsky biographer Sanford Horwitt, ‘something controversial, important, even romantic.’ “
He identified a set of specific rules for ordinary citizens to follow – “The 12 rules for radicals”, and tactics for them to employ, as a means of gaining public power. His motto was: “The most effective means are whatever will achieve the desired results.”
In the late 1930s, Saul Alinsky earned a reputation as a master organizer of the poor when he organized the “Back of the Yards” area in Chicago, an industrial and residential, ethnic minority neighbourhood on the Southwest Side of the city. In 1940, Alinsky established the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), through which he and his staff expanded his methods of community organizing throughout the United States. IAF remains an active entity to this day, with national headquarters located in Chicago and affiliates in the District of Columbia, twenty-one separate states, and three foreign countries (Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom).
However, by the late 1960s, the Black Power movement drove Alinsky and his organizing crusades out of the African-American neighbourhoods in the projects, leaving him no choice but to shift his focus to predominantly white, middle class communities and establish the Citizens Action Programme (CAP) in 1970. As Stanley Kurtz writes in his 2010 book Radical in Chief, “Alinsky was…convinced that largescale socialist transformation would require an alliance between the struggling middle class and the poor. The key to radical social change, Alinsky thought, was to turn the wrath of America’s middle class against large corporations.”
“[W]e are concerned,” Alinsky elaborated, “with how to create mass organisations to seize power and give it to the people; to realize the democratic dream of equality, justice, peace, cooperation, equal and full opportunities for education, full and useful employment, health, and the creation of those circumstances in which men have the chance to live by the values that give meaning to life. We are talking about a mass power organisation which will change the world … This means revolution.” Alinsky’s tactics were often unorthodox. In Rules for Radicals, Alinsky wrote that “the job of the organizer is to manoeuvre and bait the establishment so that it will publicly attack him as a ‘dangerous enemy,’” thus generating public attention, validating the cause and increasing the credentials of the organizer.