Today in 1909, the American political organizer and radical Saul David Alinsky was born. Alinsky is best known for authoring the leftist political strategy book Rules for Radicals in 1971, that has been a touchstone work for the American left ever since. Alinsky is regarded as one of the most influential American leftists of the 20th century, and the father of community organizing.
Alinsky’s career was a very controversial one, drawing condemnation and praise from many corners. His work, which began in earnest during the 1930s, focused on elevating the quality of life of the American poor, especially black Americans who lived in urban ghettos. Alinsky cut his teeth organizing in the slums of Chicago, before branching out to poor areas of California, Michigan, New York City and other poverty-afflicted hot spots across the country.
Alinsky’s writing was a key influence on the campus radicalism of the 1960s. Perhaps the key influence. Time magazine wrote of his work, “It is not too much to argue that American democracy is being altered by Alinsky’s ideas.” Even William F. Buckley Jr, recalcitrant figurehead of American conservatism, begrudgingly acknowledged Alinsky’s political savvy. Buckley described him as “very close to being an organizational genius.”
In addition to his writing, Alinsky’s legacy consists of a large footprint in progressive organization. In the thirties, he founded the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), while in the process of organizing Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. The IAF went on to be influential in politically mobilizing many communities across the country.
Rules for Radicals was his most influential work and also his last, written in 1971, the year before his death. It opens with a stirring passage:
“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.”
In 1971, Alinsky voiced an intention to try to politically organize America’s white middle class, which he thought was of dire, immediate importance for the country’s future. He argued that if they weren’t organized, the prevailing trend towards conservatism in public life was “making them ripe for the plucking by some guy on horseback promising a return to the vanished verities of yesterday.”
Alinsky died of heart attack at age 63 on June 12, 1972.
Watch this rousing encounter between William Buckley and Alinsky.