The Right Wing’s Bizarre Case of Alinsky Envy

The Right Wing’s Bizarre Case of Alinsky Envy

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Saul Alinsky

Note: The following post grew out of an email conversation I had with Lowell. We were messaging back and forth about a post on Bearing Drift, where Shaun Kenney asserted that Donald Trump was not completely to blame for the recent violence at his rallies because the left was disrupting them. It was a full-throated attack, featuring all the right’s favorite left wing villains: Saul Alinsky and George Soros. And no attack on Alinsky would be complete without calling him a Marxist. 

Somehow Shaun even managed to throw Alinsky’s friendship with the late Jesuit priest, Jacques Maritain, whom Shaun admires, into the mix. It seemed like Shaun, who has been a stalwart Trump critic, was beginning the pivot to the general election where Republicans would have to suck it up and support Trump. I haven’t seen further evidence of that pivot from Shaun, but the Bearing Drift piece fascinated me because of the far right’s continuing obsession with a community organizer who died over forty years ago and whom the left has largely forgotten. So, I decided to explore exactly who Alinsky was and what was behind the ultra right’s preoccupation with him.

I have observed that whatever Republicans accuse their opponents of doing is a tell. It is usually something they themselves have either done or are contemplating. As my friend, Lowell Feld, said in an email discussion, “it’s a classic case of psychological displacement.” Nowhere is that phenomenon more evident than the right’s obsession with an obscure author, polemicist, and community organizer who died in 1972, Saul Alinsky.

If you are a leftist who never heard of Alinsky, don’t feel bad. You are not the only one. He last enjoyed fame over forty years ago. And it is not the modern left fueling the Alinsky revival. It is to the right wing that we owe that dubious distinction. Google his name and most of what comes up are screeds from right wing blogs, articles in conservative journals, and, of course, the usual Wikipedia factual entries. Alinsky is probably most famous for a book he wrote in 1970 called “Rules for Radicals.” You can find a complete list of the rules on Glenn Beck’s site,

These rules are nothing more lurid than a compilation of tactics for organizing community groups for social justice ends. They are common sense strategies that any group can use to organize for social change.

Alinsky once said that Machiavelli wrote “The Prince” to advise the powerful on how to keep power, while he wrote “Rules for Radicals” to advise those without power on how to take it. Usually, the purpose of taking it was to rally communities to demonstrate against city hall for better garbage collection or rat control in inner city neighborhoods.

Saul Alinksy was born in 1909 to impoverished Russian immigrants, who were Orthodox Jews. As a young man, he became an agnostic and a leftist. But he was more concerned with achieving pragmatic ends that helped poor people get higher wages, more livable communities, and better lives than he was with ideology. For a fuller bio, go here.

If you are wondering why he became such a right wing obsession more than forty years after his death, there are two interlocking reasons.

The first is that Barack Obama was a community organizer in Chicago, Alinsky’s old stomping ground. Although the two never met, (Alinsky died in 1972 and Obama worked in Chicago in the 1980s) it sparked the right’s imagination and they began looking for ways to connect Obama to Alinksy, hoping to discredit Obama. The goal was to paint Obama as a radical Marxist.

A more factual connection is that Hillary Clinton indeed wrote a college thesis about Alinsky and corresponded with him while she was working on it. But she traveled a long road from those days, and it’s pretty hard to label her both a corporate shill and a radical Marxist at the same time, as her enemies want to do.

But there is a glaring problem with that radical Marxist narrative anyway. While Alinsky considered himself a radical, he was never a Marxist. Indeed, he had disdain for both the old communist movement of the 1930s and the new radicals of the 60s and 70s.

In his own words, from an interview he gave Playboy, and as recounted by Bill Moyers:

“I’ve never joined any organization — not even the ones I’ve organized myself,” Alinsky told Playboy in 1972, shortly before his death. “I prize my own independence too much. And philosophically, I could never accept any rigid dogma or ideology, whether it’s Christianity or Marxism…The greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by such religious and political and racial fanatics, from the persecutions of the Inquisition on down to Communist purges and Nazi genocide.”

And from a July 2012 article in Salon:

Whatever his influence on Obama, Alinsky had a complicated relationship to the political left. In the 1930s, Alinsky had little patience for the bona fide socialists and card-carrying Communists who were prominent advocates of labor and civil rights. He repudiated Marxism then. By the 1960s — his moment of greatest influence — Alinsky was even harsher in his criticism of the New Left. He viewed activists in Students for a Democratic Society as naive and impractical and denounced the tactics of their erstwhile comrades on the militant fringe, like the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground as doomed to failure for their violent tactics and unwillingness to compromise. Alinsky loathed dogmatism of all varieties.

…Though he was a secular Jew, Alinsky forged his closest alliance with Catholic advocates of social justice, whose views at the time could not be described in the easy binary of left versus right. If any political view appealed to Alinsky, it was the Catholic doctrine of “subsidiarity,” namely leaving governance to the smallest possible unit: the community. Alinsky counted among his closest friends the Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain (whose doctrine of personalism was one of the strongest influences on the young Polish cleric Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II).

So, the Marxist connection is tenuous at best. As the Salon piece points out, to the degree that Alinsky even had a political philosophy, it was closer to his longtime friend Jacques Maritain, a brilliant Jesuit priest and philosopher, who shared his passion for social justice for the have nots. From The New Oxford Review (for this one, scroll down to “The Philosopher and The Provocateur”):

We have missed the living witness of Maritain and Alinsky for over two decades now. Alinsky died in 1972, Maritain a year later. Their friendship teaches three extraordinary lessons. The first Doering himself underscores. Scholar and provocateur alike shared a “common personalist belief in the fundamental worth and dignity of every human being, in particular of the common people….” This populist conviction was not condescending. With French workers in mind, Maritain wrote: “we must first choose to exist with them and to suffer with them, to make their pain and destiny our own.” Speaking of decidedly ordinary folk, Alinsky commented: “Too often I’ve seen the have-nots turn into haves and become just as crummy as the haves they used to envy.” Yet both men shared, with a kind of connaturality, a preferential option for those on the losing end of capitalism’s social contract.

To be sure, Maritain and Alinsky are not beyond criticism. Maritain was wildly mistaken in judging that Alinsky’s work was “epoch-making.” Alinsky blundered in not meeting and working with Martin Luther King Jr. But this pales in comparison to the triumph of spirit. No one, I suspect, who reads this story of grace will soon forget Maritain’s epitaph for Helene Alinsky. “She accomplished at once what we are gropingly trying to learn: to die for those we love.” The dying is to self, of course. And whether philosophers or provocateurs, saints or sinners, we share that vocation.

So, Alinsky was not a Marxist. He was a secular, Jewish rabble-rouser who liked to hang around with priests while he pursued social justice. Instead of embracing Marxism, he actually endorsed the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity because he believed power should lie at the community level, closest to the people.

And the Catholic hierarchy in Chicago liked him too. They supported his Back of the Yards organizing efforts, as did philanthropist Marshall Field III, as Michael Kazin points out:

In the late 1930s, Alinsky launched his first project in the Back of the Yards, a multi-ethnic, working-class, mostly Catholic neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Bernard J. Sheil, the city’s auxiliary bishop, championed the new Back of the Yards Council and encouraged local priests and leading parishioners to take part. Sheil, founder of the Catholic Youth Organization, helped set up Alinsky’s network of local organizers—the non-profit Industrial Areas Foundation—and convinced financier Marshall Field III to bankroll it.

Just what is it about Alinsky, then, that gets the far right frothing at the mouth?

Quite simply, it is a case of Alinsky-envy. Alinsky might not have been a communist, but he was a very effective community organizer who got results. In addition, his book of “rules” codifies his very effective strategy.

Some examples include:

*RULE 1: “Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.” Power is derived from 2 main sources – money and people. “Have-Nots” must build power from flesh and blood. (These are two things of which there is a plentiful supply. Government and corporations always have a difficult time appealing to people, and usually do so almost exclusively with economic arguments.)

* RULE 2: “Never go outside the expertise of your people.” It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone. (Organizations under attack wonder why radicals don’t address the “real” issues. This is why. They avoid things with which they have no knowledge.)

Other rules include making the bureaucracy live up to their own rules. For example, if an agency has a regulation that every letter sent to them must be answered, get a group to send 30,000 letters, which will cripple the bureaucracy. And another “rule” is that ridicule is an effective tactic. Make your opponent look foolish. Keep him off guard. And make the demonstration or action fun for your own followers to keep them motivated. You know, like dressing in tricorn hats, carrying Gadsden flags, and waving insulting signs.

Sound familiar? Yeah, guess who actually adopted those tactics, even while demonizing the man who invented them (as David Brooks correctly observed in 2012 in “Walmart Hippies”):

But the similarities are more striking than the differences. To start with, the Tea Partiers have adopted the tactics of the New Left. They go in for street theater, mass rallies, marches and extreme statements that are designed to shock polite society out of its stupor. This mimicry is no accident. Dick Armey, one of the spokesmen for the Tea Party movement, recently praised the methods of Saul Alinsky, the leading tactician of the New Left.

Indeed, some of the most prominent tea partiers make no secret of their adaptation of Alinsky’s strategy and tactics:

Dick Armey, former House majority leader-turned-chairman of tea party group FreedomWorks, hands out copies of Rules for Radicals to activists. The organization said it has very closely studied “what the left has done.”

Conservative activist and prankster James O’Keefe has also said that he was inspired by Rules For Radicals.

Well that’s an embarrassing discovery for the right, isn’t it?

Dare I say this? The right has a bad case of Alinsky envy. They think all they need to succeed is the right strategy and tactics. What they misunderstand is that it’s not just tactics. It’s not only the packaging, it’s the message that brought Alinsky success. And the inherent morality of his causes. He fought for social justice for the dispossessed, not to defend the greed of the already wealthy.

Tax cuts for billionaires, outsourcing and offshoring jobs, climate change denial in the face of increasingly wild weather patterns, nativism and disrespect for people of color and women are all part of a lousy message and no amount strategy is going to make that message more palatable.

Meanwhile, as I said at the start, whatever Republicans accuse others of is usually a tell that points right back at them. Watch and listen carefully. If you do, you will find out what they are planning next.

  • http://www.bluevirginia.us/ lowkell

    Great job, Karen, and thanks for posting this here! Among other things, I now know more about Alinsky than I ever did before, including that his “Rules for Radicals” is esteemed by right wingers like Dick Armey and James O’Keefe. LOL Meanwhile, how many Dems have ever even heard of Alinsky? Very, very few is my guess.

    • Anonymous Is A Woman

      First, you’re welcome, Lowell. It’s great to post here. Thank you for giving me that opportunity.

      Second, it is really funny but even my husband, who has worked in organized labor for over 25 years and has been involved in organizing campaigns, was not very familiar with Alinsky. He had heard the name, but didn’t really know much about him.

      I read “Rule for Radicals” when it first came out but then forgot about it until his name began surfacing again after 2008, when I reread the book. I’ve spent the last few days asking my leftist friends how familiar they are with Alinsky and not very many are. Like Dan, they know the name, mostly because of the right’s renewed interest has put it in the news again. But that’s about it. That’s why I finally had to write this.

      • http://www.bluevirginia.us/ lowkell

        Exactly, which is why the right’s obsession with Alinsky says a LOT more about the right than it does about Democrats, liberals, and/or progressives.

        • KathyinBlacksburg

          Yes, it does say a lot more about the other side. Most liberals and progressives could give a damn about Alinsky (if they know about him). But it is a telling shorthand. We can pretty much know where they got the nonsense.

    • Oldaggie

      Actually, a few of us old codger Democrats and social justice Catholics have heard of (and admired) Alinsky. I am grateful to learn here of Alinsky’s friendship with Jacques Maritain, another radical I admired and, it seems, prepared the ground for much of what Pope Francis has been saying. Long-time WaPo readers also may remember when Nicholas von Hoffman wrote an op-ed column (before the days Hiatt turned it into a right wing redoubt). Hoffman was an associate of Alinsky in Chicago before his Washington gig.

      • Anonymous Is A Woman

        I remember Nicholas von Hoffman. Yes, a few people would remember Alinsky from the 70s. But the right’s obsession with him is all out of proportion to his current influence on the left, which isn’t very much :)

  • Popcorn

    The right likes to paint Democrats as Alinsky followers in the same way (and for the same basic reasons) as the left likes to say Republicans are all followers of the John Birch Society. Most Republicans don’t even know who the John Birch Society was, but a lot of Democrats do, and they use it as a kind of rhetorical shorthand to attribute to Republicans all the things that Democrats hate about the right. Republicans do the same with Alinsky.

    • Anonymous Is A Woman

      I’m not sure that is true Popcorn. I have seen some leftists compare some rightists to John Birchers, but there is nowhere on the left blogosphere the equivalent obsession with the John Birch Society. It is not a cottage industry, nor do we attempt to employ JBS tactics. That is precisely what the far right does. It is not so much that they casually refer to leftists as “Alinskyites” as that they actively use Alinsky’s tactics even while demonizing him. And they misrepresent what he actually stood for. Alinsky, for example, was not a Marxist. And he did not use violence to achieve his ends. Those are the claims the right makes about him.

      • http://www.bluevirginia.us/ lowkell

        Agreed, I’ve never seen anyone say that “Republicans are all followers of the John Birch Society.” What I have seen – and written myself – is that the Tea Party and the far right wing of the Republican Party bears some resemblance to the John Birch Society. For more on the John Birch Society and its relation to the Republican Party, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Birch_Society

  • KathyinBlacksburg

    This is an excellent diary. Thx so much for posting and good to see you back!

    • Anonymous Is A Woman

      And thank you. Glad to be back.

  • Dianna Richardson

    Thank you for this diary that brought back memories of Saul Alinsky. He spoke on my college campus in a small Q & A setting in 1970. My sociology teacher was very excited that he was visiting campus and probably required student attendance – I don’t remember.

    What I do remember is that most of us did not know who he was prior to his visit, but he left a lasting impression on me. He was funny, genial, and exuded a sense of purposefulness that has made him memorable unlike most college speakers I have long forgotten.

    Many of us who went to hear Mr. Alinsky had grown up in safe communities sheltered from world and even most national problems until violence in the cities, assassinations, and campus protests in the late 60s all under the horrifying shadow of the Vietnam War encroached upon our lives. I know those years and events changed my thought processes, but I was still a fairly naive college sophomore with ill-shaped ideas about the world and my place in it when Mr. Alinsky spoke to us about organizing and being change agents. I just wish I had been more mature and had had more life experiences so that I could have better appreciated him and understood more deeply his life of walking the walk.