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Saul AlinskyYou might be wondering why a Christian blog would feature the late Saul Alinsky.  Well, with all the progressive influences brought into church, it seemed apposite to focus on this hero of the American Left. 

His tactics are as old as the hills in progressive terms, so if you are familiar with how socialism and communism work in your country, these will look familiar to you.  His Rules for Radicals is money for old rope, really.

Let’s hope you never do, but you may run across Alinsky’s tactics in your own life, perhaps at church or at work.  They’re not restricted to the political sphere.

Early influences

Saul Alinsky was born in 1909, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants.  When he was 13, his parents divorced.  He went to live with his father in Los Angeles.  Power politics fascinated him from an early age:

‘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.’

Although he later earned a PhD in archaeology at the University of Chicago in 1930, he was already getting involved in progressive politics, starting with dissident miners.  He won a fellowship at the University of Chicago’s Sociology Department and studied criminology. This led him to work at the Illinois State Penitentiary and at the Chicago Institute for Juvenile Research.

He married another young progressive activist, Helene Simon.  They had a son and a daughter.  By 1936, he was deeply involved in militant labour organising and with impoverished youths in Chicago.  He determined that the quality of a neighbourhood was the main factor in how one turned out in life.  He brought various European immigrant groups in modest Chicago neighbourhoods together.  The one factor that united them all was the need for change.  In 1939, he established the Industrial Areas Foundation.  He was able to agitate people enough so that he had disciples who became his first community organisers.  They, in turn, would use unorthodox methods to agitate people in their neighbourhoods.  These people would end up naturally clamouring for change. 

Successful tactics

Alinsky’s tactics were working well for him.  He even wrote a book about them called Reveille for Radicals, which made the New York Times bestseller list in 1946.  Unfortunately, his beloved wife drowned in an accident in 1947.  Her death devastated him, so he decided to keep busy and took his work to California to organise Mexican migrant workers. 

It should be noted that when the Un-American Activities Committee — the McCarthy — hearings began, Alinsky wasn’t even a blip on their radar.  Here’s how canny he was: over the years, the press and the Catholic hierarchy warmly supported his organising efforts. He had won them over. So, although his adversaries found him combative, he did have some unexpected friends.      

Working with the Catholic Church

By the early 1950s, he had begun working on a biography of Msgr John O’Grady.  It went unpublished.  He also worked closely with the Catholic Church on social projects in Chicago neighbourhoods.

In 1957, the Archdiocese of Chicago awarded Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation a sum of money to track social tension resulting from demographic shifts in Chicago neighbourhoods.  He also trained a number of priests through the years in ‘community analysis and organisation’.  

In the 1960s civil rights and declining neighbourhoods were grist to Alinsky’s mill.  His reputation grew markedly as he received a considerable amount of national press coverage.  

Later life

Not all of Alinsky’s efforts in the 1960s were so successful.  He and the Black Power movement didn’t see eye to eye, understandably.  He also fell out with President Lyndon B Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty’ by claiming it was nothing more than a pork-barrel project (loaded with money that was just being wasted).  Yet, he organised blue collar workers in Chicago, Latinos in the Southwestern United States and Indians in Canada.  He continued his work with Mexican migrant workers and was a major influence on Cesar Chavez, who unionised and won further rights for the farm workers.

Alinsky remarried in 1952.  Jeanne Graham was a socialite who had divorced a Bethlehem Steel executive.  Shortly after their marriage, she became ill with multiple sclerosis.  Alinsky’s travels separated them frequently.  They divorced amicably in 1969. 

In 1971, Alinsky married Irene McInnis.  In 1972, on a visit to Jeanne in California, he died in Carmel of a heart attack after going to a local bank.

For more information, click here: Seal, Mike (2008) Saul Alinsky, community organizing and rules for radicals, the encyclopaedia of informal education.

Tomorrow: Great sayings from Alinsky himself

For more articles on postmodernism, click here.

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