Alinsky’s Ghost


Nelson Lichtenstein’s otherwise excellent review of Frank Bardacke’s otherwise extraordinary book on Cesar Chavez and the farm workers union (Winter 2012) repeats Bardacke’s misreading of Saul Alinsky’s ideas about organizers and leaders and the relationship of each to building democratic people power. The debate is expressed in phrases like “top-down versus bottom-up organizing” or “staff-driven versus member-run.” Like most pithy phrases, these obscure as much as they clarify.

The question is important because many people on the left have romanticized ideas about building people power. The result is an “immaculate conception” of people power organizations—they spontaneously arise (perhaps assisted by leftists who immerse themselves in the workplace or community in which they sprout), develop structures, and build sustainable people power.

Saul Alinsky carefully studied people power. He worked closely with the early CIO Packinghouse Workers Union, which put him in touch with Herb March, one of the best Communist organizers in the country, and led to a close relationship with the democratic socialist president of the union, Ralph Helstein. In Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC), he formulated the idea of a full-time professional community organizer, and put it into successful practice. Communists, socialists, Catholics, and others united to defeat the Chicago meat packers and clean up the Back of the Yards slum neighborhood.

Here’s Lichtenstein’s first misreading of Alinsky: “Chavez’s…sense of social commitment had been framed…[in] Alinsky’s Community Service Organization (CSO), where he learned that the successful organizer had to put people into social motion without forfeiting his own autonomy or becoming entirely linked to their sometimes prosaic interests.”

It is upon people’s material and moral interests—prosaic and broad—that a democratic “people power” organization is built. The organizer is always partially, as Alinsky put it, “off-stage,” thinking beyond what’s next, and after what’s after that. Alinsky taught the meaning of democracy by engaging people to become democratic citizens.

Lichtenstein criticizes Chavez’s belief that “without…organizer direction and management, rank-and-file leaders would be forever trapped in a competitive individualism, incapable of building their own movement or fulfilling their moral destiny.”

An Alinsky organizer (I was one), a union international’s organizer sent to a work-site, a “salt” who leaves campus radicalism to build within the working class, and other “outside organizers” are needed because insiders are typically trapped by perspectives shaped by being inside. (As Bardacke demonstrates, local leaders were skillful in winning victories. They had not figured out how to turn those into ongoing power.)