Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky
By Nicholas von Hoffman
(Nation Books, 214 pages, $26.95)
“Although Alinsky is described as some kind of liberal left-winger in actuality big government worried him,” writes Saul Alinsky protégé Nicholas von Hoffman in his gossamer memoir, Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky. “He feared the gigantism of government, corporation and even labor union.”
Von Hoffman is trying to recast Alinsky as a government-fearing libertarian in order to make his communistic beliefs more marketable. It’s a project doomed to failure.
Alinsky’s right-hand man 50 years ago, von Hoffman paints an almost unrecognizable portrait of the Industrial Areas Foundation founder, depicting him as an idealistic fighter for the little guy, a champion of democracy. This is a Sisyphean task because Alinsky’s thuggish tactics, which Americans rightly regard as outside the legitimate political process, provide incontrovertible evidence of his small-c communism. Nonetheless, von Hoffman deems it necessary to downplay Alinsky’s ugly real-life views because they call into question the legitimacy of community organizing and today’s political leaders who emerged from that radical, un-American tradition. Today’s most famous community organizer, of course, and the reason for the recent surge in interest in Alinsky, lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Von Hoffman is an accomplished journalist who wrote Citizen Cohn, a brutal, nasty biography of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s counsel Roy Cohn. Cohn’s prosecutorial skills sent Communist spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair for passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. Von Hoffman, like so many Communist sympathizers, assumes falsely that the Rosenbergs were innocent and crucifies Cohn for doing his job.
Von Hoffman is mightily peeved that the right dared to discover Alinsky. He invokes the fifth rule of “power tactics” in Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals — “ridicule is man’s most potent weapon” — heaping scorn on the “right-wingers” and “tea baggers” who have discovered the power of Alinsky’s agitation techniques. “They are buying Rules by the thousands, which should be making Saul happy wherever he is, and are using it as their ‘playbook’ after adjuring each other to skip the parts containing its nonexistent Marxism.”
A few months before von Hoffman’s book came out, Reason magazine’s Jesse Walker bought into von Hoffman’s fantasy. He seemed to suggest that if Alinsky, who died in 1972, were alive today he might even have had a soft spot for the Tea Party movement. “Alinsky, after all, was always a decentralist at heart.” He “distrusted government planners, and while he was by no means opposed to redistribution in itself he was an acute critic of the welfare state as it functioned in practice.” Perhaps reading Alinsky’s writings would disabuse Walker of this notion. Yes, Alinsky was uncomfortable with aspects of the welfare state apparatus but only because he saw the welfare state as a half-measure. He wanted a complete reorganization of society and didn’t trust bureaucrats — “buttinskies” in von Hoffman’s words — to carry it out.
Alinsky’s biographer also closes his eyes to his subject’s ideological infatuations. Sanford D. Horwitt claims Alinsky disavowed Marxist-style “class analysis.” It is true the master said he didn’t join the Communist Party USA because he had a sense of humor. But just because he was too independent to submit to party discipline doesn’t change the fact he agreed with the Communists. “Radicals want to advance from the jungle of laissez-faire capitalism to a world worthy of the name of human civilization,” Alinsky wrote. “They hope for a future where the means of economic production will be owned by all of the people instead of just a comparative handful.” (Emphasis added.) Walker, Horwitt, and von Hoffman must have missed this textbook definition of socialism.
In Rules for Radicals Alinsky lays out his communistic catechism, which happens to include the precise Marxist-style class analysis Horwitt claimed Alinsky rejected. Alinsky’s trinity consists of what he calls the “Haves,” the “Have-Nots,” and the “Have-a-Little, Want Mores.” Madison Avenue couldn’t have done a better job putting an American gloss on the ruling class, the working class, and the middle class, or bourgeoisie. It’s the Communist Manifesto American-style.
Alinsky didn’t worry about the grave existential threat Communism posed to the United States during the Cold War. Like radical pseudo-journalist Max Blumenthal, who absurdly compares conservatives to the Taliban, Alinsky claimed “certain Fascist mentalities” were a greater threat to America than “the damn nuisance of Communism.”
ALINSKY CHEERED ON CLASS WARFARE, urged government-enforced wealth redistribution, and worked with Communists. He associated both with Communist Party USA members and Marxists who didn’t belong to the party. “I don’t think he ever remotely thought of joining the Communist Party [but] emotionally he aligned very strongly with it,” said Chicago alderman Leon Despres, a party member and college classmate of Alinsky. Horwitt wrote Alinsky was “broadly sympathetic” with the politics of Herb March, a friend who was an organizer for the Young Communist League.
Von Hoffman soft-pedals the damage that Alinsky-style organizing does to the body politic, claiming Alinsky was sounding “the trumpet blast for democracy.” If democracy includes “conking” picket line crossers on the head — something he admits Alinsky favored — then he’s right. Alinsky shied away from praising violence in public but in private “he would say that violence has its uses.”
Like a drug dealer trolling for new customers, Alinsky taught organizers to sell members of the community on big government by bribing them with other people’s money. “The fact is that self-interest can be a most potent weapon in the development of co-operation and identification of the group welfare as being of greater importance than personal welfare,” he said. This appeal to inner-city residents’ short-term avarice was a valuable recruiting tool that helped win converts to statist collectivism.
Alinsky also helped to engineer the disastrous War on Poverty and taught a generation of ACORN-wannabe groups how to terrorize appeasement-minded corporate lackeys and government agency officials. During the 1960s the federal government was laying the foundation for ACORN and similar groups. Government gave taxpayers’ money to community organizations to encourage them to agitate against the status quo. In a sense, America declared war on itself and hired leftist mercenaries like Alinsky and his comrades Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven to do the fighting.
Former Office of Economic Opportunity director Howard Phillips told me recently that Alinsky was also “a huge influence on OEO and its key employees.” The agency Phillips ran came out of President Johnson’s antipoverty program. Phillips gave copies of Rules for Radicals “to a great many people so that they would understand what I was up against, and I pointed out that he dedicated the book to Lucifer whose ideology was akin to that of Mr. Alinsky.” Alinsky groups eagerly accepted OEO funding.
Although Alinsky did not live to see ACORN come to fruition and played no direct role in creating the group, von Hoffman is certain the master would have approved of ACORN’s approach to agitation. The group’s “cheekiness, truculence and imaginative tactical tropes,” he writes, “have an Alinskyan touch.”
Perhaps for von Hoffman it really was all fun and games, and this explains why much of this memoir entertains while it reads like a lovely afternoon stroll through fantasyland. We learn that Alinsky had enough pull with President Franklin Roosevelt to arrange a White House meeting for an associate. We learn that Alinsky agreed to deliver a $50,000 bribe to the Vatican. We learn he was fascinated by King Tut and mummies. We also learn that for his own amusement Alinsky anonymously wrote an exam for doctoral candidates studying community organizations. Three of the questions were on him. He flunked two of them.