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Saul Alinsky

Saul Alinsky
Born Saul David Alinsky
(1909-01-30)January 30, 1909
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Died June 12, 1972(1972-06-12) (aged 63)
Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, U.S.
Cause of death Heart attack
Nationality American
Ethnicity Jewish
Education University of Chicago, Ph.B. 1930
U. of Chicago Graduate School, criminology, 1930–1932.
Occupation political activist
Known for community organization
Notable work Reveille for Radicals (1946); Rules for Radicals (1971)
Spouse(s) Helene Simon of Philadelphia (m. June 9, 1932 – her death)
Jean Graham (May 15, 1952 – 1970; divorced)
Irene McInnis Alinsky (m. May 1971)
Children Katherine and David (by Helene)
Awards Pacem in Terris Award, 1969

Saul David Alinsky (January 30, 1909 – June 12, 1972) was a Jewish American community organizer and writer. He is generally considered to be the founder of modern Rules for Radicals.

In the course of nearly four decades of political organizing, Alinsky received much criticism, but also gained praise from many public figures. His organizing skills were focused on improving the living conditions of poor communities across North America. In the 1950s, he began turning his attention to improving conditions in the African-American ghettos, beginning with Chicago's and later traveling to other ghettos in California, Michigan, New York City, and a dozen other "trouble spots".

His ideas were adapted in the 1960s by some U.S. college students and other young [4]


  • Biography 1
    • Early life 1.1
    • Education 1.2
    • Early jobs 1.3
    • Community organizing and politics 1.4
  • Legacy and honors 2
  • Death 3
  • See also 4
  • Works 5
  • Footnotes 6
  • Further reading 7
  • Video 8
  • External links 9


Early life

Saul David Alinsky was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1909 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, the only surviving son of Benjamin Alinsky's marriage to his second wife, Sarah Tannenbaum Alinsky.[6] Alinsky stated during an interview that his parents never became involved in the "new socialist movement." He added that they were "strict Orthodox, their whole life revolved around work and synagogue ... I remember as a kid being told how important it was to study."[4]

Because of his strict Jewish upbringing, he was asked whether he ever encountered antisemitism while growing up in Chicago. He replied, "it was so pervasive you didn't really even think about it; you just accepted it as a fact of life."[4] He considered himself to be a devout Jew until the age of 12, after which time he began to fear that his parents would force him to become a rabbi.

I went through some pretty rapid withdrawal symptoms and kicked the habit ... But I'll tell you one thing about religious identity...Whenever anyone asks me my religion, I always say—and always will say—Jewish.[4]

At the same time, he was also an agnostic.[7][8][9]


He worked his way through the University of Chicago, where he majored in archaeology, a subject that fascinated him.[4] His plans to become a professional archaeologist were changed due to the ongoing economic Depression. He later stated, "Archaeologists were in about as much demand as horses and buggies. All the guys who funded the field trips were being scraped off Wall Street sidewalks."[4]

Early jobs

After attending two years of graduate school, he accepted work for the Back of the Yards and other poor areas on the South Side of Chicago. His early efforts to "turn scattered, voiceless discontent into a united protest" earned the admiration of Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, who said Alinsky's aims "most faithfully reflect our ideals of brotherhood, tolerance, charity and dignity of the individual."[4]

As a result of his efforts and success at helping slum communities, Alinsky spent the next 10 years repeating his organization work across the nation, "from Kansas City and Detroit to the Oakland. Hearing of his plans, "the panic-stricken Oakland City Council promptly introduced a resolution banning him from the city."[4]

Community organizing and politics

In the 1930s, Alinsky organized the Woodlawn neighborhood; IAF trained organizers and assisted in the founding of community organizations around the country.

In Rules for Radicals (his final work, published in 1971 one year before his death), Alinsky addressed the 1960s generation of radicals, outlining his views on organizing for mass power. In the opening paragraph Alinsky writes,

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."[10]

Alinsky did not join political parties. When asked during an interview whether he ever considered becoming a Communist party member, he replied:

Not at any time. I've never joined any organization—not even the ones I've organized myself. I prize my own independence too much. And philosophically, I could never accept any rigid dogma or ideology, whether it's Christianity or Marxism. One of the most important things in life is what Judge Learned Hand described as 'that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you're right.' If you don't have that, if you think you've got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated. 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.[4]

He did not have much respect for mainstream political leaders who tried to interfere with growing black–white unity during the difficult years of the Great Depression. In Alinsky's view, new voices and new values were being heard in the U.S., and "people began citing John Donne's 'No man is an island.'"[4] He observed that the hardship affecting all classes of the population was causing them to start "banding together to improve their lives," and discovering how much in common they really had with their fellow man.[4]

Alinsky once explained that his reasons for organizing in black communities included:

Negroes were being tarred and feathered, castrated—or killed. Most Southern politicians were members of the Ku Klux Klan and had no compunction about boasting of it.[4]

Alinsky's tactics were often unorthodox. In Rules for Radicals he wrote,

[t]he job of the organizer is to maneuver and bait the [11]

As an example, after organizing FIGHT (an acronym for Freedom, Independence [subsequently Integration], God, Honor, Today) in Rochester, New York,[12] Alinsky once threatened to stage a "fart in" to disrupt the sensibilities of the city's establishment at a Rochester Philharmonic concert. FIGHT members were to consume large quantities of baked beans after which, according to author Nicholas von Hoffman, "FIGHT's increasingly gaseous music-loving members would hie themselves to the concert hall where they would sit expelling gaseous vapors with such noisy velocity as to compete with the woodwinds."[13] Satisfied with his threat yielding action, Alinsky later threatened a "piss in" at Chicago O'Hare Airport. Alinsky planned to arrange for large numbers of well-dressed African Americans to occupy the urinals and toilets at O'Hare for as long as it took to bring the city to the bargaining table. According to Alinsky, once again the threat alone was sufficient to produce results.[13] In Rules for Radicals, he notes that this tactic fell under two of his rules: Rule #3: Wherever possible, go outside the experience of the enemy; and Rule #4: Ridicule is man's most potent weapon.

Alinsky described his plans for 1972 to begin to organize the white middle class across the United States, and the necessity of that project. He believed that what President Richard Nixon and Vice-President Spiro Agnew then called "The Silent Majority" was living in frustration and despair, worried about their future, and ripe for a turn to radical social change, to become politically active citizens. He feared the middle class could be driven to a right-wing viewpoint, "making them ripe for the plucking by some guy on horseback promising a return to the vanished verities of yesterday."[4] His stated motive: "I love this goddamn country, and we're going to take it back."[4]

Legacy and honors

The documentary, The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky and His Legacy, states that "Alinsky championed new ways to organize the poor and powerless that created a backyard revolution in cities across America."[14] Based on his organizing in Chicago, Alinsky formed the PICO National Network, Gamaliel Foundation, Brooklyn Ecumenical Cooperatives, founded by former IAF trainer, Richard Harmon and Direct Action and Research Training Center (DART).[15][16][17]

Several prominent American leaders have been influenced by Alinsky's teachings,[16] including

  • Works by or about Saul Alinsky in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
  • Saul Alinsky collected news and commentary at The Wall Street Journal
  • Democratic Promise, a documentary about Alinsky and his legacy
  • Encounter with Saul Alinsky, National Film Board of Canada documentary
  • Saul Alinsky, The qualities of an organizer (1971)
  • Santow, Mark Edward (1 January 2000). Saul Alinsky and the dilemmas of race in the post-war city (Dissertation abstract). 
  • Behrent, Michael C. (10 June 2008). "Saul Alinsky, la campagne présidentielle et l'histoire de la gauche américaine" [Saul Alinsky, the presidential campaign, and the history of the American left] (in Français). La Vie des Idées. Retrieved September 8, 2011. 
  • Saul Alinsky's FBI files, hosted at the Internet Archive: part 1, part 2

External links

  • Bruce Orenstein (co-producer), The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky and His Legacy, Chicago Video Project, 1999.


  • P. David Finks, The Radical Vision of Saul Alinsky. New York : Paulist Press, 1984.
  • Sanford D. Horwitt, Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky: His Life and Legacy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.
  • Frank Riessman, "The Myth of Saul Alinsky," Dissent, vol. 14, no. 4, whole no. 59 (July–Aug. 1967), pp. 469–478.
  • Marion K. Sanders, The Professional Radical: Conversations with Saul Alinsky. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.
  • Herb Schapiro, The Love Song of Saul Alinsky. New York: Samuel French, 2007. —Play.
  • Aaron Schutz and Mike Miller, eds., People Power: The Saul Alinsky Tradition of Community Organizing. (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2015). ISBN 978-0-8265-2041-8
  • Nicholas von Hoffman, Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky. New York: Nation Books, 2010.

Further reading

  1. ^ "Saul David Alinsky".  (subscription required) Gale Biography in Context.
  2. ^ "Saul David Alinsky Collection".  
  3. ^  
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q "Playboy Interview: Saul Alinsky".  
  5. ^ Alinsky, Saul David (Fee).   15 vols.
  6. ^ Horwitt, Sanford D. (1989). Let them call me rebel: Saul Alinsky, his life and legacy. New York:  
  7. ^ Nicholas Von Hoffman (2010). Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky. Nation Books. pp. 108–109.  
  8. ^ Charles E. Curran (2011). The Social Mission of the U.S. Catholic Church: A Theological Perspective. Georgetown University Press. p. 32.  
  9. ^ Deal Wyatt Hudson (1987). Deal Wyatt Hudson, Matthew J. Mancini, ed. Understanding Maritain: Philosopher and Friend. Mercer University Press. p. 40.  
  10. ^ Alinsky, Saul. Rules for Radicals. 
  11. ^ Philip Klein (25 January 2012), "A Saul Alinsky Republican?", Washington Examiner
  12. ^ Hill, Laura Warren. "Rochester Black Freedom Struggle Online Project: Oral Histories". University of Rochester Libraries. 
  13. ^ a b Nicholas von Hoffman, Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky Nation Books, 2010 p. 83-4
  14. ^ a b c "The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky and His Legacy". July 14, 1939. Retrieved February 26, 2009. 
  15. ^ Dick Meister, "A Trailblazing Organizer's Organizer"
  16. ^ a b Slevin, Peter (March 25, 2007). "For Clinton and Obama, a Common Ideological Touchstone".  
  17. ^  
  18. ^ Flora, Cornelia Butler; Flora, Jan L.; Fey, Susan. Rural Communities.  
  19. ^ Jerzyk, Matt (February 21, 2009). "Rhode Island's Future". Retrieved February 26, 2009. 
  20. ^ Newfield, Jack (19 July 1971). "A Populist Manifesto: The Making of a New Majority". New York Magazine. p. 46. 
  21. ^ a b c Sugrue, Thomas (January 30, 2009). "Saul Alinsky: The activist who terrifies the right". Salon. Retrieved February 7, 2012. 
  22. ^  
  23. ^ Levenson, Michael (March 4, 2007). "A student's words, a candidate's struggle In 1969 thesis, Clinton tackled radicalism tag". Boston Globe. Retrieved April 14, 2015. 
  24. ^  
  25. ^ Obama, Barack (1988). "Problems and promise in the inner city". Illinois Issues. Retrieved April 16, 2015. 
  26. ^  
  27. ^ Knickerbocker, Brad (January 28, 2012). "Who is Saul Alinsky, and why is Newt Gingrich so obsessed with him?". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved April 16, 2015. 
  28. ^ Williamson, Elizabeth (January 23, 2012). "Two Ways to Play the 'Alinsky' Card". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved January 26, 2011. 
  29. ^  



See also

ALINSKY: ... if there is an afterlife, and I have anything to say about it, I will unreservedly choose to go to hell.
ALINSKY: Hell would be heaven for me. All my life I've been with the have-nots. Over here, if you're a have-not, you're short of dough. If you're a have-not in hell, you're short of virtue. Once I get into hell, I'll start organizing the have-nots over there.
PLAYBOY: Why them?
ALINSKY: They're my kind of people.

Alinsky died at the age of 63 of a sudden, massive heart attack in 1972, on a street corner in Carmel, California. Two months previously, he had discussed life after death in his interview with Playboy:[4]


In 1969, Alinsky was awarded the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, an annual award given by the Diocese of Davenport to commemorate an encyclical by Pope John XXIII.[29]

Adam Brandon, a spokesman for the conservative non-profit organization Dick Armey also gives copies of Alinsky's book Rules for Radicals to Tea Party leaders.[28]

According to biographer Sanford Horwitt, U.S. President Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign was influenced by Alinsky's teachings.[24] Alinksy's influence on Obama has been heavily emphasized by some of his detractors, such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Thomas Sugrue of writes, "as with all conspiracy theories, the Alinsky-Obama link rests on a kernel of truth".[21] For three years in the mid 80s, Obama worked for the Developing Communities Project, which was influenced by Alinsky's work, and he wrote an essay that was collected in a book memorializing Alinsky.[21][25] Newt Gingrich repeatedly stated his opinion that Alinsky was a major influence on Obama during his 2012 presidential campaign, equating Alinsky with "European Socialism", although Alinsky was U.S.-born and was not a Socialist.[26] Gingrich's campaign itself used tactics described by Alinsky's writing.[27]

In 1969, while a political science major at Wellesley College, Hillary Rodham Clinton chose to write her senior thesis on Alinsky's work, with Alinsky himself contributing his own time to help her.[22] During her time as first lady, the thesis was not made publicly available by the school. Although Clinton defended Alinksy's intentions in her thesis, she was critical of his methods and dogmatism.[23]

Although Alinsky held little respect for elected officials,[21] he has been described as an influence on several notable politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties.

[20].Jesse Jackson, and Cesar Chavez, Ralph Nader movement," along with populist of the Avatars magazine, included Alinsky among "the purest New York, writing in Jack Newfield [14]

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