Although Saul Alinsky, the founding father of modern community organizing in the United States, passed away in 1972, he is still invoked by the right as a dangerous harbinger of looming insurrection. And although his landmark book, Rules for Radicals, is now nearly 45 years old, the principles that emerged from Alinsky’s work have influenced every generation of community organizers that has come since.
The most lasting of Alinsky’s prescriptions are not his well-known tactical guidelines — “ridicule is man’s most potent weapon” or “power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.” Rather, they are embedded in a set of organizational practices and predispositions, a defined approach to building power at the level of local communities. Hang around social movements for a while and you will no doubt be exposed to the laws of Chicago-style community organizing: “Don’t talk ideology, just issues. No electoral politics. Build organizations, not movements… Focus on neighborhoods and on concrete, winnable goals.”
Veteran labor writer David Moberg recently offered this list when reflecting on the work of National People’s Action, or NPA, one of today’s leading coalitions of community-based groups. Given that NPA’s dynamic executive director, George Goehl, was trained by Shel Trapp — a prominent Alinsky disciple — it is no surprise that traditional community organizing principles are still reflected in the bottom-up, door-to-door methodologies of NPA affiliates in 14 states.
At the same time, under Goehl’s leadership, National People’s Action is also doing many things differently. His coalition is now embracing a big-picture vision (talking about cooperative ownership of business and public control of finance), and it is making forays into electoral politics (forming a lobbying arm to do legislative advocacy and possibly even to run candidates). In pushing beyond Alinsky’s traditional rules, Goehl is motivated not only to win concrete reforms within the existing political system but to develop, Moberg writes, the “vision, strategy, and full arsenal of political weapons needed to roll back decades of corporate conservative victories and to create a more democratic economy and government.”
Goehl’s ambition is not unique. Other community organizers who experienced the Occupy movement were impressed by the massive momentum for change it created — even if much of its force proved fleeting. Efforts such as the 99% Spring and Occupy Our Homes were steps by community-based groups toward integrating their traditional organizing models with the social movement energy that had blossomed in Zuccotti Park and beyond.
The desire to re-examine maxims such as “build organizations, not movements” is an exciting development — one that opens the door to interaction between those focused on building long-term “people’s organizations,” as Alinsky called them, and those exploring the dynamics of strategic nonviolence and disruptive mass mobilization.
It is also one that Alinsky himself may well have supported.
Looking back at the origins of many foundational principles associated with the Alinskyite organizing tradition, it becomes clear that some were not as deeply rooted in the founder’s thinking as others — and that he might have pressed for reconsideration of certain commandments that have grown hallowed since the 1960s. These discrepancies raise an intriguing question: If Alinsky were alive today, would he be breaking his own rules?
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In recent years, Saul Alinsky has become known for of his connections to prominent figures inside Washington, D.C. In the 1980s, Barack Obama cut his political teeth as an organizer in an Alinskyite community organization, an initiative on the South Side of Chicago known as the Developing Communities Project. Hillary Clinton’s undergraduate thesis at Wellesley College was entitled, “There is Only the Fight: An Analysis of the Alinsky Model.” Because of these links, Glenn Beck featured Alinsky prominently on his maps of leftist conspiracy in America, and Newt Gingrich regularly used the organizer as a foil on the campaign trail in 2012.
There is some irony to these beltway associations, given that Alinsky built his reputation as an anti-establishment radical working squarely outside the domain of electoral politics. A Chicago native and son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Alinsky got his start organizing in the 1930s, inspired by CIO and United Mine Workers leader John L. Lewis. In spite of mentoring from Lewis, Alinsky was convinced that the labor movement had grown lethargic and that American democracy needed “people’s organizations” based outside the workplace — citizens’ groups with roots in local communities.
In his first attempt to create such a group he founded the Back-of-the-Yards Neighborhood Council, an effort to organize the ethnically diverse workers who lived behind the meatpacking plants featured in Upton Sinclair’s muckraking 1906 novel, The Jungle. To fight the slum conditions facing this community, Alinsky packed the offices of bureaucrats with hundreds of residents and routed marches past the homes of local officials. “Many confrontations and several months later,” author Mary Beth Rogers writes, “Back of the Yards claimed credit for new police patrols, street repairs, regular garbage collection, and lunch programs for 1,400 children.”
By 1940, with the help of funding from wealthy liberal Marshall Field III, Alinsky had created a nonprofit known as the Industrial Areas Foundation, or IAF, tasked with spurring organization in other urban neighborhoods. In the 1950s, Alinsky and Fred Ross worked through the IAF-supported Community Service Organization to improve living conditions for Mexican-Americans in California; there, Ross recruited a young organizer in San Jose named Cesar Chavez and another in Fresno named Dolores Huerta. (Only after years of training did Chavez and Huerta leave to form what would become the United Farm Workers.)
Among Alinsky’s other prominent campaigns, he would work in the 1960s with black residents in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood to fight exploitative landlords and to challenge school overcrowding, and he would help community members in Rochester, N.Y., compel the Eastman Kodak Company to create a hiring program for African-American workers.
Alinsky taught through stories, usually exaggerated, always entertaining. In 1971 writer Nat Hentoff stated, “At 62, Saul is the youngest man I’ve met in years.” Playboy interviewer Eric Norden agreed. “There is a tremendous vitality about Alinsky, a raw, combative ebullience, and a consuming curiosity about everything and everyone around him,” Norden wrote. “Add to this a mordant wit, a monumental ego coupled with an ability to laugh at himself and the world in general, and you begin to get the measure of the man.”
Alinsky’s first book, Reveille for Radicals became a bestseller when published in 1946; it blasted liberal-minded charity efforts and called for an indigenous American radicalism based in citizen action. Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals came in 1971, near the end of Alinsky’s life, and remains popular. It was recently circulated by Republican Dick Armey’s organization FreedomWorks to Tea Party members curious about the book’s methods, even if they are opposed to its goals. Its first chapter begins: “What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.”
Frank Bardacke, author of a sweeping history of the United Farm Workers, recounts how Alinsky’s principles for building power solidified into an identifiable organizing tradition: “With Saul as the fountainhead, community organizing has become a codified discipline, with core theoretical propositions, recognized heresies, disciples, fallen neophytes, and splits.” He quotes Heather Booth, founder of the Midwest Academy, an Alinskyite training center for organizers, who calls Alinsky “our Sigmund Freud.”
“What Booth means is that both Freud and Alinsky founded schools of thought,” Bardacke explains, “but there is another, deeper link: the role of training and lineage. Just as psychoanalysts trace their pedigree back to the grand master (they were either analyzed by Freud or by someone who was analyzed by Freud, or by someone who was analyzed by someone who…), so Alinskyite and neo-Alinskyite organizers trace their training back to Alinsky himself.”
Alinsky’s influence today is felt not just in the IAF or Goehl’s NPA — whose member groups range from Community Voices Heard in New York, to POWER in Los Angeles, to Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. It is also present in networks such as PICO, DART, USAction/Citizen Action, the Gamaliel Foundation, and the former branches of ACORN. Collectively these organizations claim several million members, and the tradition has spread internationally as well, with organizing trainings taking place in Europe, South Africa and the Philippines. Each of the networks, writes sociologist David Walls, is “indebted, in greater or lesser degree, to Alinsky and his early organizing programs in Chicago through IAF.”
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The principle of “no electoral politics” took hold in the Alinskyite tradition based on the idea that community organizations should be pragmatic, nonpartisan, and ideologically diverse — that they should put pressure on all politicians, not express loyalty to any. Historian Thomas Sugrue writes that Alinsky “never had much patience for elected officials: Change would not come from top-down leadership, but rather from pressure from below. In his view, politicians took the path of least resistance.” Alinsky himself was not anti-state — as sociologist P. David Finks writes, for him “the problem was not so much getting government off our backs as getting it off its rear end” — but the focus of his efforts was outside the electoral arena. The IAF’s lingering pride in its “independent, nonpartisan” status reflects its desire to recruit members from across the political spectrum in any given community, not merely to engage the usual suspects of progressive activism.
This “nonpartisan” avoidance of ideology also relates to perhaps the most interesting precept in the Alinskyite tradition: the one which distances community organizing from mass mobilizations. As Rutgers sociology professor and former ACORN organizer Arlene Stein wrote in 1986, “community organizers today tend generally to shun the term movement, preferring to see themselves engaged in building organization.”
Why would someone promoting social change see themselves as wary of movements? There are several reasons, and the way in which the terms “movement” and “organization” are understood connect to some defining aspects of the Alinskyite model.
Ed Chambers, Alinsky’s successor as IAF director, expresses an aversion to movements as a part of his long-term commitment to community members. As he writes in his book Roots for Radicals, “We play to win. That’s one of the distinctive features of the IAF: We don’t lead everyday, ordinary people into public failures, and we’re not building movements. Movements go in and out of existence. As good as they are, you can’t sustain them. Everyday people need incremental success over months and sometimes years.”
Alinsky, too, saw a danger in expecting quick upheavals. He argued, “Effective organization is thwarted by the desire for instant and dramatic change…. To build a powerful organization takes time. It is tedious, but that’s the way the game is played — if you want to play and not just yell, ‘Kill the umpire.'” Before entering a neighborhood, Alinsky planned for a sustained commitment. He would not hire an organizer unless he had raised enough money to pay for two or more years of the staffer’s salary.
Beyond setting expectations for timeframe, a dedication to “organizations not movements” is reflected in several other Alinskyite norms. These include the tradition’s connection to churches and other established institutions, its selection of bottom-up demands rather than high-profile national issues, and its attitude toward volunteers and freelance activists.
Alinsky believed in identifying local centers of power — particularly churches — and using them as bases for community groups. The modern IAF continues to follow this principle, serving as a model of “faith-based” organizing.
Instead of picking a galvanizing, morally loaded, and possibly divisive national issue to organize around — as would a mass movement — Alinsky advocated action around narrow local demands. Mark Warren’s Dry Bones Rattling, a study of the IAF, explains: “As opposed to mobilizing around a set or predetermined issues, the IAF brings residents together first to discuss the needs of their community and to find a common ground for action.” Practicing what is sometimes called “stop sign organizing,” those working in this vein look for concrete, winnable projects — such as demanding that city officials place a stop sign at a dangerous intersection. The idea is that small victories build local capabilities, give participants a sense of their power, and spur more ambitious action.
They also meet some of the immediate needs of the community — far preferable, in Alinsky’s view, to social movements’ far-off calls for freedom and justice. Throughout his career, Alinsky spoke the language of self-interest. He looked to build democratic power among community members seeking to improve the conditions of their own lives. He was suspicious of volunteer activists who were motivated by abstract values or ideology, people drawn to high-profile moral crusades. That movements were full of such people did not sit well with the Alinskyites. As Chambers writes: “Activists and movement types are mobilizers and entertainers, not democratic organizers. Their script is their persona and their cause. They tend to be overinterested in themselves. Their understanding of politicalness is superficial or media-driven. They lack disinterestedness.”
Moreover, Chambers contends, movement activists’ expectations for change are far too short-term: “Their time frame is immediate. ‘What do we want?’ ‘Freedom.’ ‘When do we want it?’ ‘Now!’ ‘No justice, no peace,'” he explains dismissively. “Movement activists appeal to youth, frustrated idealists, and cynical ideologues, ignoring the 80 percent of moderates who comprise the world as it is…. Organizing is generational, not here today, gone tomorrow.”
Chambers’s view may seem harsh, but it is not atypical of those drawn to community organizing. As Stein explains, “[T]he revival of Alinsky-style organizations in the 1970s and 1980s often defined itself against the social movements of the previous decade — especially the civil rights, women’s, and student antiwar movements — which it tended to view as promoting collective identity formation over the achievement of strategic goals.”
Patient base-building, long-term strategy, incremental local wins. These ingredients would contribute to a lasting and influential organizing model. They would also, in the turbulent 1960s, put Alinsky at the center of an activist culture clash.
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At the same time that Alinsky became a popular speaker on 1960s campuses, his vision of organizing put him at odds with many of the era’s leading activists — both its student militants and its more high-profile leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1965 and 1966, tensions between “organization” and “movement” surfaced when King and his Southern Christian Leadership Council came to Chicago, Alinsky’s home turf, to mount their first Northern civil rights drive.
During the campaign, Nicholas von Hoffman, a close Alinsky lieutenant, had a chance encounter with King in Memphis, Tenn., in the hospital where activist James Meredith had been taken after being shot while marching in support of black voter registration. Von Hoffman gave King his advice about Chicago: “I told him I thought it could succeed if he was prepared for trench warfare, which would demand tight, tough organization to take on the Daley operation,” von Hoffman writes. “I added it could not be done in less than two years.”
Von Hoffman was not convinced that King was listening. He knew that the SCLC — coming off of mobilizations in Birmingham and Selma — had grown accustomed to much shorter campaigns, sometimes lasting just months. Nor was he impressed by King’s decision to move his family into an apartment in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, which von Hoffman dismissed as a “dramatic gesture” of little utility. “Organizing is akin to stringing beads to make a necklace,” von Hoffman argued. “It demands patience, persistence, and some kind of design. King’s campaign in Chicago was short on beads and bereft of design.”
Alinsky and von Hoffman regarded the SCLC leader as a “one-trick pony” who relied too heavily on media-seeking marches, and they held his team in low regard. As von Hoffman contended, King and the outsiders he brought into Chicago “were, as far as I could tell, a hodgepodge of young white idealists, college kids, and summer soldiers, most of whom had no knowledge of the people they were supposed to recruit. In the South the youthful white idealists were useful civil rights cannon fodder; in Chicago they were dead weight.”
Von Hoffman noted the contrast with his tradition. “It was the antithesis of an Alinsky operation where outside volunteers were generally shooed away not only because they got in the way but also because they didn’t have any skin in the game,” he noted. “Laudable as it is to volunteer to help other people wrestle with their problems, effective organizations are built with people who have direct and personal interest in their success.”
This type of analysis reflected Alinsky’s broader critique of civil rights organizing. In a 1965 interview he argued, “The Achilles’ Heel of the civil rights movement is the fact that it has not developed into a stable, disciplined, mass-based power organization.” He believed the movement’s victories owed much to uncontrollable world-historical forces, to “the incredibly stupid blunders of the status quo in the South and elsewhere,” and to the contributions of church institutions.
He added, with King as his unnamed subject: “Periodic mass euphoria around a charismatic leader is not an organization. It’s just the initial stage of agitation.”
For Alinsky, stressing the importance of strong organization was also a matter of bridging a generation gap. Those yelling “kill the umpire,” in his view, were the members of the New Left. Alinsky felt that people his age were partially responsible for the youths’ ignorance. In writing Rules for Radicals, he sought to communicate with 1960s activists whom he saw as suffering from a lack of mentoring — the result of a missing generation of organizers. “Few of us survived the Joe McCarthy holocaust of the 1950s,” Alinsky wrote, “and of those there were even fewer whose understanding and insights had developed beyond the dialectical materialism of orthodox Marxism. My fellow radicals who were supposed to pass on the torch of experience and insights to a new generation just were not there.”
As a consequence, young leftists were too easily seduced by quick fixes, Alinsky believed. In an afterward to a 1969 reissue of his first book, Reveille for Radicals, he wrote, “The approach of so much of the present generation is so fractured with ‘confrontations’ and crises as ends in themselves that their activities are not actions but a discharge of energy which, like a fireworks spectacle, briefly lights up the skies and then vanishes into the void.”
The creation of an alternative methodology — what Stein describes as “a highly structured organizing model specifying step-by-step guidelines for creating neighborhood organizations” — was an understandable response, and one that has shown great strengths. But, in recent decades, we may have seen its limitations as well.
The question is whether too close an adherence to a hardened model has created missed opportunities — chances to integrate structure-based organization and momentum-driven movements, and to harness the power of both.
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It turns out that many of the rules of the Alinskyite tradition come less from the founder himself and more from his successors’ subsequent codification of his ideas.
After Alinsky’s death, IAF leaders Ed Chambers, Richard Harmon, and Ernesto Cortes sat down to assess the factors that contributed to the failure of earlier organizing drives. As author Mary Beth Rogers writes, they identified several “patterns that created instability, ineffectiveness, and eventual dissolution.” Among them: “Movements that depended on charismatic leaders fell apart in the absence of the leader;” “organizations formed around a single issue died when the issue lost its potency;” and “organizations that played to the public spotlight confused their desire for media attention with their strategy for change.”
Clearly, the IAF heavyweights were critical of the social movements of the New Left. But, more surprisingly, their assessment also indicted Alinsky’s own work.
While the founding father had planted seeds for organizations throughout the country, only a handful survived for longer than three years. As IAF organizer Michael Gecan writes in his book Going Public, “Alinsky was extraordinarily effective as a tactician, writer, speaker and gadfly. He was the first theorist and exponent of citizen organizing in urban communities.” But, “While Alinsky had many gifts and strengths… he did not create organizations that endured.”
This challenge would be left to his successors, in particular Ed Chambers. “That was Chambers’s critical contribution to the world of citizens organizing and to America as a whole,” Gecan writes. “He had a talent for teaching people how to organize power that lasted.” Chambers’ systemization of the Alinsky model would involve formalizing processes for recruiting and grooming organizers, relying less on large foundations for funding, improving working conditions to reduce burn-out, and strengthening ties to faith-based groups. Other networks of community organizations would further the model by bringing local groups into national coalitions and creating their own training programs to refine and spread the rules of grassroots power-building.
In many respects, these were necessary changes. Yet they may have come at the cost of some of Alinsky’s original creativity. In their focus on building for the long term and creating strong organizational structures, subsequent community organizing leaders have grown less sensitive than their tradition’s founder to the potential of exceptional moments of mass mobilization.
In truth, Alinsky was far less rigid than the “rules” attributed to him might suggest. Nicholas von Hoffman, in a memoir about his time with Alinsky, describes his former mentor as “one of the least dogmatic and most flexible of men. Alinsky believed that liberty was to be redefined and rewon by every generation according to its circumstances and the demands of the time.” For his part, Alinsky liked to tell a story, possibly apocryphal, of sitting in on a university exam designed for students of community organization. “Three of the questions were on the philosophy and motivations of Saul Alinsky,” he claimed. “I answered two of them incorrectly!”
This flexibility affected his view of elections. Alinsky’s biographer, Sanford Horwitt, notes that the organizer had plans to run a candidate for Congress in a 1966 election on Chicago’s South Side, and he sent staffers from Woodlawn to serve on the campaign staff of an anti-machine challenger. Horwitt quotes von Hoffman, who says, “A lot of people, especially those who turned ‘community organizing’ into a kind of religion, now take it as gospel from Saul Alinsky… that one never gets directly involved in electoral politics. Well, he never thought that.”
More importantly, Alinsky’s take on mass mobilization was not one-dimensional. One of the most interesting moments in his career came when he attempted to integrate the energy of a social movement with the work of one of his community organizations.
While organizing in the Woodlawn neighborhood in early 1961, von Hoffman got a call from a civil rights activist taking part in the Freedom Rides, a protest designed to challenge segregated interstate busing in the South. The riders were violently attacked in Alabama — one of their buses was burned in Anniston, and they were beaten by a mob in Montgomery. Having just been released from a New Orleans hospital, the activist and some of his fellow participants contacted von Hoffman to express interest in making their first public appearance in Chicago.
Von Hoffman was initially hesitant — wary that the event would not advance local organizing and mindful of previous civil rights rallies in Chicago that drew only a handful of picketers. Yet he arranged for a talk to be held in a large gymnasium in St. Cyril’s Church. As Horwitt writes, “On a Friday night, two hours before the program was to start, the gym was empty and von Hoffman was nervous — his initial fears seemed about to be confirmed. An hour later, an elderly couple arrived, and then, to von Hoffman’s total amazement, so many people turned up that there was no room left in the gym, in the foyer, or on the stairs.”
Von Hoffman arranged for loudspeakers to broadcast the talk to the hundreds of people in the streets outside the venue. Later, he left the event reeling. Far more people had come than his group could have possibility mobilized through its organizational structures, and the issue had generated a profound energy in the community. He woke up Alinsky with a middle-of-the-night phone call and explained what happened. Von Hoffman said, “I think that we should toss out everything we are doing organizationally and work on the premise that this is the moment of the whirlwind, that we are no longer organizing but guiding a social movement.”
To his surprise, Alinsky responded by saying, “You’re right. Get on it tomorrow.”
The Woodlawn organization subsequently held its own version of the Freedom Rides — a bus caravan to register black voters. The event, Horwitt recounts, produced “the largest single voter-registration ever at City Hall,” startled the city’s power-brokers, generated much greater publicity than Woodlawn’s typical actions, and set the stage for further civil rights activism by the group. In criticizing Martin Luther King several years later, Alinsky was not trying to write off the civil right movement as a whole. A devotee of headline-grabbing direct action, he recognized its accomplishment. And yet he sought to present its leaders with the challenge of institutionalization — a question which King himself grappled with in his later years and which is vital in thinking about how organizing models might be integrated.
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Alinsky understood something important when he embraced “the moment of the whirlwind.” He saw that using mass mobilization to produce spikes in social unrest is a process that follows a different set of rules than conventional organizing. Many of its principles — embracing demands with wide symbolic resonance, channeling energy and participation from a broader public, articulating self-interest in moral and visionary terms — are the opposite of the principles that drive local community organizing. And yet Alinsky was willing to experiment with their possibilities.
Former ACORN organizer Stein argues that such openness became a rarity among Alinsky’s disciples. The Alinskyite organizations of recent decades, she writes, “often fail to grasp the possibilities of mobilization when they occur.” Because of this, they have unduly limited themselves. “The great social movements of American history — labor, populist, civil rights, women’s (to name some of the most important ones),” Stein argues, “captured the interest and imagination of vast numbers of people by offering them material benefits as well as the experience of communal solidarity in an individualistic American culture. In placing ‘organization’ ahead of ‘movement,’ ACORN and groups like it” miss this. They discount modes of organizing that tap the transformative possibility of going beyond the most local, concrete or winnable demands.
Whether it is the global justice protests of 1999 and 2000, the massive immigrant rights marches of 2006, or the rapid spread of Occupy Wall Street across the country in 2011, veteran organizers are often caught off guard by movement outbreaks. As a result, they have few ideas for how to guide and amplify these efforts — or how to harness the energy of peak moments in order to propel their ongoing organizing.
Fortunately, in the wake of Occupy, an increasing number of people are interested in precisely this challenge. Those now seeking ways to combine structure- and momentum-based organizing models have much fertile terrain to explore. This will mean opening dialogue between the worlds of “resource mobilization” and “disruptive power”; and it will involve allowing those immersed in labor and community organizing cultures to compare their methods with the insights into mass mobilization that come out of traditions of strategic nonviolence and civil resistance.
In pursuing this work, they can take inspiration from a master of radical pragmatism. For while the split between organizations and movements is real, the true spirit of Alinsky is in breaking the rule that keeps them divided.
Communities around one of Guatemala’s most popular tourist destinations are working to ban single-use products polluting the water they depend on for survival.
Vietnam antiwar organizer Robert Levering discusses his groundbreaking new documentary “The Movement and the ‘Madman’” airing on PBS.
By understanding how mainstream political culture co-opts elected officials, grassroots groups can help them resist.
I’d wager that Alinsky wouldn’t have been half so influential as he was, had he not had the innate pragmatism that was shown by his willingness to work in concert with those in the civil rights movement (as described in this article), who had shown they could develop very broad, diverse participation in actions designed to put pressure on recalcitrant public authorities. Eventually anyone who spends enough time teaching or organizing nonviolent resistance learns that it’s prudent to have an ecumenical rather than doctrinal approach to explanatory frames about how and why it works.
In defense of movements as a category of vehicles for civil resistance, I’ve noticed that in the U.S., the definition of what constitutes a movement is more diffuse than it is in countries where there is far less open civic space in which to operate. This comment quoted above from Ed Chambers is a clue to that less precise view: “We don’t lead everyday, ordinary people into public failures, and we’re not building movements…As good as they are, you can’t sustain them.” In fact, strategic action isn’t inconsistent with large movements if participants have been well-taught and prepared, and hundreds of nonviolent movements around the world have been sustained for years and indeed decades. But in America, the label “movement” is often pasted on nothing much more than a sequence of protests that manage to get media attention.
If our nomenclature was more consistent, and activists spent more time harvesting effective ideas from all over the world (abetted by “Waging Nonviolence” and other sources of information on nonviolent action), “movements” that are fielded in America wouldn’t earn quite so much skepticism. They have much to learn. We all do. Citizen-based organizing and mobilizing can take many forms — as it should — but in the long march of political and social history, it’s only just emerged.
Overall a good article that rightly emphasizes the need for flexibility in organizing and the contradiction between forming an organization and becoming inflexible and therefore missing the historical moment when people are ready to revolt.
One of the problems with those who have gotten involved in electoral politics is they have done so inside the corporate-dominated Democratic Party. As a result they have aligned their goals, indeed, limited their goals to the Democratic Party agenda. This is something Alinsky and King would have agreed was a terrible mistake.
The author mentions the 99%Spring as an example of organizations trying to build on the energy of the occupy movement. This is actually a good example of the failure of these organizations. 99% Spring fizzled, accomplished nothing even though it was featured in the Nation, Bill Moyers Journal and other progressive outlets. When people went to some 99% Spring events there was Obama literature being given out by the organizers, some of the spaces were made available by Democratic Party clubs and the agenda of the 99% Spring was consistent with Obama re-election campaign rhetoric. The organizations involved were too closely aligned with partisanship, with a party that is funded by Wall Street and big business interests, that is why it failed.
Perhaps this is a flaw of building organizations that seek to last a long time (a decade or longer) as they end up working with the system, often resulting in being captured by it. This is a flaw to be averted, much better for organizations to ally with a movement. Organization and movement are not antagonistic as this article seems to imply, they can be synergistic. Indeed, the Occupy encampment phase is behind us, now we have the longer term, multi-year challenge of building national consensus around the issues raised by and this will take more organization than the explosion of Occupy.
But the partisan relationship to the Democratic Party is deadly and I’d be very surprised of Alinsky would have supported it. Anyone who knows the history of the Democratic Party knows it is a movement killer, it is where movements go to die.
The question of whether and how to engage the Democratic Party (or how to replace it) is obviously a very long one on the left. Since it’s not the focus on this article, I’ll leave that debate to others.
I did want to comment on 99% Spring. I would agree with Kevin Zeese that it was not a success. But I do think it was an experiment with breaking that organization/movement divide that was a step in the right direction. Also, I don’t think it’s accurate to paint it as a mere staging ground for Democratic Party activity. The trainings were diverse and varied, as were the politics of the sponsoring organizations. While Obama literature may have been given out in some places, the curriculum was not about that. In the training I attended in Philadelphia, the Democrats were discussed quite critically when they were mentioned at all. So I think a critique of 99% Spring would have to be more nuanced.
I certainly agree with Zeese that organization and movement can be synergistic. Although we were trying to illustrate this divide in the article by documenting some of its historical roots, our ultimate goal was to help people overcome some of the divisions that occur as a result of clashes in organizing cultures and organizing traditions.
I can tell you that for many of us in Occupy, people who helped to organize occupations, the 99% Spring was not seen as an effort to break the organization-movement divide, but as an effort by Democratic-aligned organization to co-opt the movement. There were a series of articles written at the time that pointed this out.
http://dev2.wagingnonviolence.org/feature/the-making-of-a-99-spring/, correctly identified the project as coming from the institutional left. These established NGO’s are closely aligned with the Democratic Party and its agenda. Yes, they will criticize the party, but in the end they urge people to vote for it. It did not help 99% Spring that its website was on a MoveOn website — a group clearly a political arm of the Democratic Party.
This article describes how a local Dem group funded the payment for the space and how Obama literature was being pushed; and how the conversation was well within the mainstream, not the protest movement; indeed those in charge shut down the kind of discussion more common at occupy encampments:
This article highlights how the 99% spring agenda was the Obama re-election agenda, http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/04/12/moveons-99-percent-spring-obama-and-the-dems-march-in-lock-step/.
These articles that were written at the time of the event so they provide a useful history of what actually occurred. Each article links to more articles.
Regarding dealing with the Democrats, I don’t think there is much debate on the left regarding this point: we should not limit ourselves to the Democrats agenda. There is debate on whether to try to change the Dems from the inside or to challenge the from the outside. But, the Democrat agenda is not our agenda.
For those interested in the debate on independence v. partisanship, here’s an article we wrote last week continuing a discussion that is getting hotter online: http://www.popularresistance.org/the-debate-independence-or-partisanship/. We link to articles on both sides of this discussion in the early paragraphs.
For those who believe the movement should be independent visit http://www.PopularResistance.org as that is the approach we take. We welcome people who are registered Democrats, Greens, independents, socialists, non-voters etc., but we believe the movement itself should not be aligned with any political party or its agenda.
Thank you for an excellent article Mark and I appreciate you responding to my comment on the areas where we disagree (we mostly agree). And, I look forward to your book.
Alinsky’s “Rules” is more accurately “Rules for Liberals Who Think They Are Radical.” There is nothing new about socialists who reject participation in politics. Both Marx and Lenin discussed this phenomenon. Lenin called the Alinsky type “Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder.” Alinsky might have made a difference if he had explained to people in Chicago the class and economic conditions which had created the poverty they were living in. Instead he learned his lesson from McCarthy and never again spoke about wage-slavery, class war, revolution, or communism. And his greatest contribution to history: Barak Obama, a bourgeois elitist, whose first act as president was to turn over a trillion (probably more) dollars to the banking class.
The piece by the Englers is much appreciated because it takes seriously the legacy of Saul Alinsky and a core tension that impacts the strategic vision of organizers for change. Having spent forty years as an IAF organizer in Chicago, New York, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona I can’t recall a single project where the tensional field between organizing and movement mobilizing was not present.
It seems to me that all organizing – whether disciplined, long term, “professional” or an hour, day, month or year offered up by an “activist” – represent complex wagers driven by some sort of self narrated story. The wager is that the storyline will find sufficient fulfillment to justify the investment of time, talent and perhaps treasure. For most organizers I suspect that this story is generally threaded through various movements as well as satisfactions of the craft itself (including remuneration) and collaborative work with similarly inclined co-conspirators.
In my experience, IAF organizations commonly intersect with movements of the day. Just as Alinsky sought to build off the civil rights energy in the TWO story related by Nicholas von Hoffman, so COPS built off the emerging sensibility of Chicano activism in the early and mid seventies. The Campaign Against Pollution – Alinsky’s Chicago based middle class foray in the early seventies – emerged from nascent environmental movement. Much current organizing flows from the anger and focus fostered by immigrant rights issues. On and on.
All of this is to say that the tension between organizing and mobilizing merits the kind of exploration your piece suggests. This is as good a time as any, maybe better than most, to pursue it.
Thanks for this comment, Frank. It’s very interesting to hear reflections based on such a deep background in organizing. Although we draw out the movement/organization distinction in this article for the purposes of analysis, I think you are right that the boundaries can be more porous in practice. It would be interesting to see people take up further investigation into the community organizing tradition in order to document moments of synergy and innovation on this issue.
Although I realize that Saul Alinsky did many good things in his life, I’m troubled by one of the quotes attributed to him: “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” If we resort to ridiculing people with whom we disagree, then we’re resorting to the same tactics used by Joe Mc Carthy and the extremist elements in the Tea Party movement.
Although I’m sure that Saul Alinsky did some good things in his life, I was troubled by one remark that was attributed to him: “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” If we resort to ridicule when we disagree with someone, then we aren’t any different from Joe Mc Carthy or the extremist elements in the Tea Party movement.
This is true as far as it goes. The IAF folks became increasingly risk-averse, in part because of their experience in the early years after Alinsky’s death when they began to believe that what they called “issue-based” organizing wouldn’t work. Mike Miller argues that they missed an important opportunity in their city-wide CAP organization that dissolved in inter-organization and inter-personal fights. PICO was originally a neighborhood organizing group that turned away from organizing on the “doors” to congregation-based organizing.
An exception would be Trapp’s work in NPA, where he went around the country building local organizing groups–especially in Cleveland, Iowa (which still exists) and elsewhere. I think it’s important not to limit the post-Alinsky tradition to the IAF folks and congregation-based organizing (although they generally dominate the literature) and remember that there are branches of the Alinsky-based vision that went in other directions, including NPA which grew out of Tom Gaudette’s approach to organizing in the Northwest Community Organization and Organization for a Better Austin. Mike and I write about this in a forthcoming book from Vanderbilt Univ. Press. Not trying to sell books, but I don’t think the story is well told elsewhere. (There is a book published by NPA about Trapp called _Dynamics of Organizing_ (different than the text available online with the same name).
Oh, and Michael Westgate’s book _Gale Force_ which is available on Amazon now. It doesn’t focus as much on the on-the-ground organizing that Trapp did which was more an extension of the Alinsky tradition. However the combination was a great case study, which has still not sufficiently been examined, of a combination between a movement-based and structure-based approach to organizing. The archives of NPA (such as they are–they are pretty spotty) are now at DePaul.