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

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Radical Saul Alinsky: Prophet of Power

SAUL ALINSKY has possibly antagonized more people—regardless of race, color or creed—than any other living American. From his point of view, that adds up to an eminently successful career: his aim in life is to make people mad enough to fight for their own interests. "The only place you really have consensus is where you have totalitarianism," he says, as he organizes conflict as the only route to true progress. Like Machiavelli, whom he has studied and admires, Alinsky teaches how power may be used. Unlike Machiavelli, his pupil is not the prince but the people.

It is not too much to argue that American democracy is being altered by Alinsky's ideas. In an age of dissolving political labels, he is a radical—but not in the usual sense, and he is certainly a long way removed from New Left extremists. He has instructed white slums and black ghettos in organizing to improve their living and working conditions; he inspired Cesar Chavez's effort to organize California's grape pickers. His strategy was emulated by the Federal Government in its antipoverty and model-cities programs: the poor have been encouraged to participate in measures for their relief instead of just accepting handouts.

A sharing of power, thinks Alinsky, is what democracy is all about. Where power is lacking, so are hope and happiness. Alinsky seeks power for others, not for himself. His goal is to build the kind of organization that can dispense with his services as soon as possible. Nor does he confine his tactics to the traditionally underprivileged. Although he has largely helped the very poor, he has begun to teach members of the alienated middle classes how to use power to combat increasingly burdensome taxes and pollution.

In his view, the end of achieving power justifies a wide range of means. "To get anywhere," Alinsky teaches, "you've got to know how to communicate. With city hall, the language is votes, just as with a corporation it's stock power. This means that they never hear with their ears but only through their rears." He knows how to kick. To force slumlords, corporations or city officials to clean up buildings, provide jobs or stop cheating consumers, he resorts to picketing, boycotts, rent strikes and some imaginative dramatic stunts. He had garbage dumped on an alderman's driveway to make the point that collections were inadequate in the slums; ghetto rats were ceremoniously deposited on the steps of city hall. If the occasion requires, Alinsky's forces will not refrain from spreading rumors about an antagonist or indulging in something that comes very close to blackmail. "Our organizers," he says, "look for the wrong reasons to get the right things done." He has only contempt for liberals who appeal to the altruism of their opponents: "A liberal is the kind of guy who walks out of a room when the argument turns into a fight."

Help from the Establishment

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