Essay: Radical Saul Alinsky: Prophet of Power to the People

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Alinsky deliberately cultivates his split personality; he believes that a well-developed case of schizophrenia is essential to successful radicalism. The radical knows in his heart that life is tragic, men are complex, and every course of action involves a choice of evils. Nevertheless, he must act as if he were utterly convinced of the righteousness of his cause. Only by so doing can he rally his supporters and intimidate the opposition. The Founding Fathers, Alinsky points out, were well aware of the benefits that England had bestowed on the colonies. But what impact would the Declaration of Independence have had, if it had given King George credit for his good deeds? Yet once a radical has achieved a position of power, insists Alinsky, he must negotiate on the basis of the world as it is: "Compromise is a noble word that sums up democracy." Alinsky claims to be doing nothing more un-American than following the precepts of the Founding Fathers. In the Federalist papers, James Madison warned against allowing any class or faction to acquire too much power. In his own way, Alinsky is trying to redress the balance of power within contemporary America. If the desire to preserve basic American principles makes one a conservative, then he indeed qualifies. His more boisterous exploits may have endeared him to Yippie Abbie Hoffman, but his efforts to reconstruct a viable society have won the respect of Nixon Aide Pat Moynihan. He surely offers proof—if any is needed—that significant change can be accomplished within the American system.

Alinsky grew up in Chicago, experiencing many of the same frustrations that now embitter the city's blacks. The son of a Jewish tailor from Russia, he burned as a youth with the need to compensate for his own lack of power. "I never thought of walking on the grass," he recalls, "until I saw a sign saying 'Keep off the grass.' Then I would stomp all over it." He studied archaeology at the University of Chicago, but what really excited him was spending a summer helping dissident miners in their revolt against John L. Lewis' United Mine Workers. Later he wrote a biography of Lewis, who became a close friend and mentor. After graduation, he received his first lesson in the realities of power when, as a graduate fellow in criminology, he studied Al Capone's gang. He learned that in the Chicago of the 1930s, crime was the Establishment. "When one of those guys got knocked off, there wasn't any court. Most of the judges were at the funeral, and some were pallbearers."

It was hatred of Hitler that first impelled Alinsky to try his hand at organization. In the so-called Back of the Yards section of Chicago in the late '30s, fascism was making many converts among the jobless, bitterly frustrated slumdwellers. "This was not the slum across the tracks," recalls Alinsky. "This was the slum across the tracks from across the tracks." By organizing a series of sitdowns and boycotts, he forced the neighborhood meat packers and slumlords to meet the demands of the community for a better life. Alien ideologies lost their force, and Back of the Yards became the model of a stable neighborhood.

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