Building Organization Through Movements: A Defense of Alinsky

Building Organization Through Movements: A Defense of Alinsky

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party supporters, 1964 (Library of Congress)

Community organizers and those who write about them have a bad habit of exaggerating the divide between “organizations” and “movements.” Building the kind of people power we need to slow, halt, and reverse present trends requires of various organizing camps that they break out of present silos and find common ground with those now considered rivals (keeping in mind the bottom line requirement that a rival has to deliver people, not just have good ideas).

In their article “Would Saul Alinsky Break His Own Rules?”, Mark and Paul Engler take several important steps in this direction. The piece breaks new ground in an old debate and is worthy of wide circulation. At times, however, it risks reinforcing misconceptions that have long hindered efforts to build genuine people power.

Take the Englers’ initial characterization of “Chicago-style community organizing,” which they in turn quote from another recent, and important, article by David Moberg:

Don’t talk ideology, just issues. No electoral politics. Build organizations, not movements. . . . Focus on neighborhoods and on concrete, winnable goals.

No question has been more perplexing, disruptive, and obscuring than a point disparagingly raised by many that “Alinsky doesn’t have an ideology.” Unfortunately, many practitioners of Chicago-style organizing had a distorted understanding of Alinsky on this point, lending credence to the Englers’ formulations. Today’s organizers, following Alinsky’s lead, should not allow themselves to fall into the same trap.

In a time of movement, organizing is like swimming with the river’s current. In a time of political quiescence, however, organizing requires going against the current; it demands tough assessments of what is doable in the given context and attention to quick, nuts-and-bolts victories with visible results that help overcome pessimistic views of the efficacy of collective action. But Alinsky’s worldview was hardly circumscribed by such short-term efforts. Even in the quiet times of the 1950s, he situated his work within the broad moral framework of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the democratic principles of the Declaration of Independence. His thinking was rooted in an American, small “d” radical democratic, populist understanding of the world.

The Englers’ argument reaches beyond Alinsky to a historic debate between Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizers and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) over “organizing versus mobilizing” that took place during my mid-1960s years on SNCC’s staff. This debate itself overlooks the extent to which some of the mass mobilizations of the civil rights movement took place through the black church. When the Montgomery Improvement Association “mobilized” the bus boycott that launched the mid-twentieth-century civil rights movement, it did so through the structure of the black church—accurately described by Reverend Amos Brown as “the only institution we own lock, stock, and barrel.” Jesse Jackson did the same thing with Operation Breadbasket, as did Reverend Leon Sullivan in a parallel black boycott-for-jobs effort in Philadelphia. The black church already has a structure, deep relationships, and base of shared values. (Its more recent cooptation by community development corporations and other funded programs was a political choice, not an inevitability.)

Moreover, as the Englers note, Alinsky and his organizer Nick von Hoffman saw the civil rights movement as an opportunity within which to build organization:

He saw that using mass mobilization to produce spikes in social unrest is a process that follows a different set of rules than conventional organizing. Many of its principles—embracing demands with wide symbolic resonance, channeling energy and participation from a broader public, articulating self-interest in moral and visionary terms—are the opposite of the principles that drive local community organizing. And yet Alinsky was willing to experiment with their possibilities.

What of Alinsky’s disciples? Did they ignore what the Englers call “the true spirit of Alinsky”—his effort to challenge the division between organizations and movements? The Englers approvingly cite former ACORN organizer Arlene Stein: “In placing ‘organization’ ahead of ‘movement,’ ACORN and groups like it” miss opportunities “to grasp the possibilities of mobilization when they occur.”

This is not quite right. ACORN built a national organization that took advantage both of movement momentum and nuts and bolts organizing. (In other contexts I might question how deep the organization went, but I’ll set that aside for now.) ACORN campaigns on “big issues”—like increasing the minimum wage—picked up on existing momentum for that issue. But ACORN had a very specific and detailed “model” for building chapters—local units of power. Stein implies that placing movement ahead of organization is the better formulation. The division between the two, again, is exaggerated. The question is whether in a time of movement you can build organization. If you don’t, three things are likely to result: (1) you rarely win; (2) you can’t enforce victories you do win; and, most importantly, (3) you don’t change the relations of power—a central goal of organizing.

From Protest to Power

The Englers write:

Whether it is the global justice protests of 1999 and 2000, the massive immigrant rights marches of 2006, or the rapid spread of Occupy Wall Street across the country in 2011, veteran organizers are often caught off guard by movement outbreaks. As a result, they have few ideas for how to guide and amplify these efforts—or how to harness the energy of peak moments in order to propel their ongoing organizing.

Movements always catch people off guard. They are not predictable. Organizers only know they are in a time of motion when they feel the river current at their back rather than opposing them. That’s how CIO organizers experienced the 1930s and how SNCC campus-based organizers experienced the sit-ins and freedom rides. The question is whether organizers can translate that momentum into sustained, institutional power.

During the civil rights movement, SNCC sought to do precisely this. The climate created by “movement,” amplified by television coverage, opened a space for SNCC field secretaries in the deep South to begin the patient work of building organization as they helped register African Americans to vote. In this effort, however, they won the battle, but lost the war.

The SNCC-backed Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which expressed both the political rights and social and economic justice aspirations of the great majority of Mississippi’s African Americans, is illustrative. President Lyndon Johnson and both the national and local mainline Democrats defeated MFDP in the post–voting rights victory period. Its key leaders were either coopted or isolated. It failed to win recognition. While Mississippi has the largest number of elected black officials in the country, black poverty and the lack of quality education remain widespread. The mobilization around voting rights did not build sufficient organization to carry forward the rest of MFDP’s program.

More recent mass mobilizations in the United States, meanwhile, seem to have all but abandoned the goal of fostering sustained, organized people power. The “global justice protests,” for example, have not led to organization. Where are the units of power (locals, chapters, branches, affiliates, or some other structure rooted in local communities) built out of “the battle in Seattle”? Except for the very loose World Social Forum, we see no ongoing vehicle for people power emerging from them. Can we, then, claim substantive victories? The protests raised consciousness about neoliberalism, but there is a danger here, too: for most people, awareness without power to do anything about it is a prescription for withdrawal from civic life—not engagement in it.

Occupy Wall Street hovered somewhere between these two extremes. Because Occupy initially had a broad program addressing all the major problems facing the American people it could, at least in some cases, have led to organization. Indeed, in some places it has. As the Englers note: “Fortunately, in the wake of Occupy, an increasing number of people are interested in precisely this challenge. Those now seeking ways to combine structure- and momentum-based organizing models have much fertile terrain to explore.” Whether the organizations that are now developing will last, gain recognition, and engage in the long march through institutional power toward social transformation remains to be seen—and will depend in part on whether they abandon the “models” that the Englers mention. Organizing approaches that offer outlines of structures and methods, while also maintaining a blurred vision of the future, are essential. “Models,” however, lock people into rigidities that are counter-productive. Too many people in organizing now think in those terms, when this kind of reification is just what Alinsky preached against.

One constituency that has historically used movement to build organization is labor. Recall that Alinsky’s initial school for organizing was the 1930s industrial union movement, and that John L. Lewis, head of the CIO, was his primary teacher. Alinsky’s union experiences helped him grasp a fundamental dynamic: short of total military conquest or some other form of complete surrender by an opposing power, the hallmark of altering the relations of power is achieving recognition as the bargaining agent for a heretofore powerless group. This is different from unilaterally being granted concessions in the face of “protest.” This shift from protest to power is a crucial one.

Before anything else in the struggles of the 1930s, CIO unions sought recognition. Winning recognition leaves democratic organizations with a wide range of options: they can “settle” with the powers that be; accept a junior partner status; or recognize that they are in an ongoing struggle over both decision-making prerogatives (i.e. power and authority) and the distribution of status, wealth, and income. Cooptation and narrowing of agenda are not the inevitable consequences of recognition and negotiation. For a brief period after the Second World War, the United Auto Workers wouldn’t accept a wage increase that was passed on to auto purchasers. During farmworker strikes, longshoremen across the globe refused to unload boycotted wine, grapes, and lettuce. In a display of internationalism, they also refused to unload South African ships flying the apartheid flag. Sacrificing solidarity for sectoralism and narrow gains is the choice of those satisfied with being junior partners to corporate power or Democratic Party politicians, not the inevitable consequence of recognized power.

In addition to its power as a bargaining unit, organized labor once had a strategy of mass mobilization that made use of disruptive power. It abandoned both. It needs to reclaim its own tradition. Most movement experience since the 1970s has dead-ended in one of two directions: either increasingly militant rhetoric and action isolated it from a potential mass base, or engagement in the administration of programs (the ubiquitous NGOs that now dot the political map in all the areas of concern to progressives) coopted its leadership and energy. Further, operating on the basis of single-issue approaches to change, they fell into the trap of sectoralism.

No major organizing in this country operates outside the use of “strategic nonviolence.” On the other hand, “civil resistance” tends to be the domain of small, dedicated minorities willing to go to jail for their convictions, to make “moral witness” against injustice. The latter is pretty hard to integrate into mass-based organizing. When SNCC added “voter registration” to sit-ins and freedom rides, it was recognizing this fact.

Frances Fox Piven and Social Movement Theory

In their recent article on Frances Fox Piven, the Englers again make several misleading generalizations. “Alinsky,” they write, “was a guru in the art of the slow, incremental building of community groups. Piven, in contrast, has become a leading defender of unruly mass protest, undertaken outside the structure of any formal organization.” This misses the point that Alinsky welcomed and used periods of movement as opportunities to build organization; so did the labor movement in the 1930s.

Actually, Piven doesn’t oppose organization if it’s an organization of mobilizers—a separate body of activists who mobilize people in those periods when there is movement but do not seek to institutionalize the effort in a mass, democratic organization. Some of the problems posed by this approach are discussed above in relation to the World Social Forum.

Here we need to sharpen the distinction between “mobilization” and “movement.” The Obama campaign mobilized voters. It subsequently sought to convince its volunteers that they were part of a movement. When it became clear that control remained in the hands of those at the top of the organization, there wasn’t much left. In the CIO, on the other hand, motion among participants was expressed in vitally democratic union locals—a motion that was only contained by struggles by union leaders to constrain participation (and by the red scare and expulsion of the left unions).

The Englers note: “As Piven says of the labor movement, ‘Mass strikes lead to unions. But unions are not the big generators of mass strikes.’” In fact, in 1946, CIO industrial unions led the greatest strike wave in the nation’s history. The Englers also approvingly quote Piven on Alinsky: “In a later essay, Piven and Cloward note: ‘Saul Alinsky said organizers must rub raw the sores of discontent, but that does not tell us which sores, or whose sores, or how to inflame them, or what to suggest people should do when they are ready to move into action.’ This is well put.” Nicely put, yes, but erroneous. In elaborating this very point, Alinsky noted that he didn’t need to tell people what was wrong. Rather, what was crucial was providing a vehicle for addressing the wrongs and stirring people to act.

Reformulating Alinsky’s Ideas for Today

In light of these observations, let me conclude by proposing reformulations of the principles of “Chicago-style community organizing” that the Englers list:

Instead of “Don’t talk ideology, just issues”: “Don’t talk abstract ideology; talk values, self-interests, and power.”

Instead of “No electoral politics”: “Don’t engage in electoral politics unless your participation will make a difference in the outcome, and unless the candidate won’t sell you out once elected.”

Instead of “Build organizations, not movements”: “Use movements as opportunities to build organizations.”

Instead of “Focus on neighborhoods”: “Focus on wherever there are continuing relationships among people—neighborhoods, congregations, workplaces, athletic teams, and so on.”

Instead of “Focus on concrete, winnable goals”: “Focus on immediate, specific, and winnable issues because these are what will make it possible for you to build people power. Small initial wins help build the organization. The more people in the organization, the more people power you will have; the more people power you have, the bigger will become the issues that you can win.”

In times of “movement,” you may be able to build organization from big issue campaign mobilizations because the power structure will likely be granting concessions to prevent further growth of a social movement. But if you don’t pay attention to organization-building as an aspect of what you’re doing, you’ll face the problems I’ve noted above.

Alinsky had a particular understanding of “issue”: if you didn’t have the power to address a problem, he said, you were simply a victim. An “issue” arises when you have the power to do something about it. Issues were to be used to build power. With more power, you could address issues that were more deeply embedded in the status quo.

Here’s the formula: small issue with guerrilla band leads to small win; use the win to deepen relationships among participants, create self-confidence, and enhance organizational competency (i.e. build power); use small wins to recruit skeptics, leading to a bigger band that can undertake larger issues and win those. Multiply the formula and create an army. And above all, don’t let any so-called “issue” obscure the real goal: building people power.


Mike Miller directs the San Francisco–based ORGANIZE Training Center. He was a SNCC field secretary for four years, directed one of Saul Alinsky’s community organizing projects, and has been a community organizer for fifty years. His article “Alinsky for the Left” was published in the Winter 2010 issue of Dissent.


Lima