George V. Reilly

An Interview with Saul Alinsky

An Interview with Saul Alinsky

I came across a very long interview with Saul Alinsky (24,000 words), conducted by Playboy in 1972, in a Fire­DogLake thread about the book 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Fight the Right.

Saul Alinsky was a longtime radical activist, starting in the Great Depression. He moved from labor organizing to social organizing in the late 1930s, working in the Back of the Yards neigh­bor­hood of Chicago that was made famous by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle. He is generally considered the father of community organizing.

Shortly before he died, he published his most famous book, Rules for Radicals

As a graduate student in crim­i­nol­o­gy, he spent a couple of years hobnobbing with Al Capone’s mob in Chicago:

PLAYBOY: Didn’t you have any com­punc­tion about consorting with – if not actually assisting – murderers?

ALINSKY: None at all, since there was nothing I could do to stop them from murdering, prac­ti­cal­ly all of which was done inside the family. I was a non­par­tic­i­pat­ing observer in their pro­fes­sion­al activities, although I joined their social life of food, drink and women: Boy, I sure par­tic­i­pat­ed in that side of things – it was heaven. And let me tell you something, I learned a hell of a lot about the uses and abuses of power from the mob, lessons that stood me in good stead later on, when I was organizing.

Another thing you’ve got to remember about Capone is that he didn’t spring out of a vacuum. The Capone gang was actually a public utility; it supplied what the people wanted and demanded. The man in the street wanted girls: Capone gave him girls. He wanted booze during Pro­hi­bi­tion: Capone gave him booze. He wanted to bet on a horse: Capone let him bet. It all operated according to the old laws of supply and demand, and if there weren’t people who wanted the services provided by the gangsters, the gangsters wouldn’t be in business. Everybody owned stock in the Capone mob; in a way, he was a public benefactor. I remember one time when he arrived at his box seat in Dyche Stadium for a North­west­ern football game on Boy Scout Day and 8000 scouts got up in the stands and screamed in cadence, "Yea, yea, Big Al. Yea, yea, Big Al." Capone didn’t create the corruption, he just grew fat on it, as did the political parties, the police and the overall municipal economy.

Later, he worked as a crim­i­nol­o­gist at the state prison in Joliet:

‘ll tell you something, though, the three years I spent at Joliet were worth while, because I continued the education in human re­la­tion­ships I’d begun in the Capone mob. For one thing, I learned that the state has the same mentality about murder as Frank Nitti. You know, whenever we elec­tro­cut­ed an inmate, everybody on the staff would get drunk, including the warden. It’s one thing for a judge and a jury to condemn a man to death; he’s just a defendant, an ab­strac­tion, an impersonal face in a box for two or three weeks. But once the poor bastard has been in prison for seven or eight months – waiting for his appeals or for a stay – you get to know him as a human being, you get to know his wife and kids and his mother when they visit him, and he becomes real, a person. And all the time you know that pretty soon you’re going to be strapping him into the chair and juicing him with 30,000 volts for the time it takes to fry him alive while his bowels void and he keeps straining against the straps. So then you can’t take it as just another day’s work. If you can get out of being an official witness, you sit around killing a fifth of whiskey until the lights dim and then maybe, just maybe, you can get to sleep. That might be a good lesson for the defenders of capital punishment: Let them witness an execution. But I guess it wouldn’t do much good for most of them, who are probably like one of the guards at Joliet when I was there – a sadistic son of a bitch who I could swear had an orgasm when the switch was thrown.

The Great Depression:

PLAYBOY: How close was the country to revolution during the Depression?

ALINSKY: A lot closer than some people think. It was really Roosevelt’s reforms that saved the system from itself and averted total cat­a­stro­phe. You’ve got to remember, it wasn’t only people’s money that went down the drain in 1929; it was also their whole tra­di­tion­al system of values. Americans had learned to celebrate their society as an earthly way station to paradise, with all the cherished virtues of hard work and thrift as their tickets to security, success and happiness. Then suddenly, in just a few days, those tickets were canceled and apparently unre­deemable, and the bottom fell out of everything. The American dream became a nightmare overnight for the over­whelm­ing majority of citizens, and the pleasant, open-ended world they knew suddenly began to close in on them as their savings dis­ap­peared behind the locked doors of insolvent banks, their jobs vanished in closed factories and their homes and farms were lost to foreclosed mortgages and forcible eviction. Suddenly the smoke­stacks were cold and lifeless, the machinery ground to a halt and a chill seemed to hang over the whole country.

People tried to delude themselves and say, "None of this is real, we’ll just sleep through it all and wake up back in the sunlight of the Twenties, back in our homes and jobs, with a chicken in every pot, two cars in every garage." But they opened their eyes to the reality of poverty and hope­less­ness, something they had never thought possible for themselves, not for people who worked hard and long and saved their money and went to church every Sunday. Oh, sure, poverty might exist, far off in the dim shadowy corners of society, among blacks and share­crop­pers and people with funny names who couldn’t speak English yet, but it couldn’t happen to them, not to God’s people. But not only did the darkness fail to pass away, it grew worse. At first people sur­ren­dered to a numbing despair, but then slowly they began to look around at the new and fright­en­ing world in which they found themselves and began to rethink their values and priorities.

We’ll always have poor people, they’d been taught to believe from pulpit and classroom, because there will always be a certain number of misfits who are too stupid and lazy to make it. But now that most of us were poor, were we all dumb and shiftless and in­com­pe­tent? A new mood began stirring in the land and a mutual misery began to eat away the tra­di­tion­al American virtues of rugged in­di­vid­u­al­ism, dog-eat-dog com­pe­ti­tion and sanc­ti­mo­nious charity. People began reaching out for something, anything, to hang on to – and they found one another. We suddenly began to discover that the ruthless law of the survival of the fittest no longer held true, that it was possible for other people to care about our plight and for us to care about theirs. On a smaller scale, something similar occurred in London during the blitz, when all the tra­di­tion­al English class barriers broke down in the face of a common peril.

On getting people on to your side:

Now, it’s always been a cardinal principle of organizing for me never to appeal to people on.the basis of abstract values, as too many civil rights leaders do today. Suppose I walked into the office of the average religious leader of any de­nom­i­na­tion and said, "Look, I’m asking you to live up to your Christian principles, to, make Jesus’ words about broth­er­hood and social justice realities." What do you think would happen? He’d shake my hand warmly, say, "God bless you, my son," and after I was gone he’d tell his secretary, "If that crackpot comes around again, tell him I’m out."

So in order to involve the Catholic priests in Back of the Yards, I didn’t give them any stuff about Christian ethics, I just appealed to their self-interest. I’d say, "Look, you’re telling your people to stay out of the Communist-dominated unions and action groups, right?" He’d nod. So I’d go on: "And what do they do? They say, ‘Yes, Father,’ and walk out of the church and join the C.I.O. Why? Because it’s their bread and butter, because the C.I.O. is doing something about their problems while you’re sitting here on your tail in the sacristy." That stirred ‘em up, which is just what I wanted to do, and then I’d say, "Look, if you go on like that you’re gonna alienate your parish­ioners, turn them from the Church, maybe drive them into the arms of the Reds. Your only hope is to move first, to beat the Communists at their own game, to show the people you’re more interested in their living conditions than the contents of your collection plate. And not only will you get them back again by supporting their struggle, but when they win they’ll be more prosperous and your donations will go up and the welfare of the Church will be enhanced." Now I’m talking their language and we can sit down and hammer out a deal. That was what happened in Back of the Yards, and within a few months the over­whelm­ing majority of the parish priests were backing us, and we were holding our or­ga­ni­za­tion­al meetings in their churches. To fuck your enemies, you’ve first got to seduce your allies.

PLAYBOY: How did you win the backing of the community at large?

ALINSKY: The first step was getting the priests; that gave us the right imprimatur with the average resident. But we still had to convince them we could deliver what we promised, that we weren’t just another do-gooder social agency strong on rhetoric and short on action. But the biggest obstacles we faced were the apathy and despair and hope­less­ness of most of the slum dwellers. You’ve got to remember that when injustice is complete and crushing, people very seldom rebel; they just give up. A small percentage crack and blow their brains out, but the other, 99 percent say, "Sure, it’s bad, but what can we do? You can’t fight city hall. It’s a rotten world for everybody, and anyway, who knows, maybe I’ll win at numbers or my lottery ticket will come through. And the guy down the block is probably worse off than me."

The first thing we have to do when we come into a community is to break down those jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for inertia. We tell people, "Look, you don’t have to put up with all this shit. There’s something concrete you can do about it. But to accomplish anything you’ve got to have power, and you’ll only get it through or­ga­ni­za­tion. Now, power comes in two forms – money and people. You haven’t got any money, but you do have people, and here’s what you can do with them." And we showed the workers in the packing houses how they could organize a union and get higher wages and benefits, and we showed the local merchants how their profits would go up with higher wages in the community, and we showed the exploited tenants how they could fight back against their landlords. Pretty soon we’d es­tab­lished a community-wide coalition of workers, local busi­ness­men, labor leaders and housewives – our power base – and we were ready to do battle.

PLAYBOY: What tactics did you use?

ALINSKY: Everything at our disposal in those days – boycotts of stores, strikes against the meat packers, rent strikes against the slumlords, picketing of exploitive businesses, sit-downs in City Hall and the offices of the corrupt local machine bosses. We’d turn the politi­cians against each other, splitting them up and then taking them on one at a time. At first the es­tab­lish­ment dismissed us with a sneer, but pretty soon we had them worried, because they saw how unified we were and that we were capable of exerting potent economic and political pressure. Finally the con­ces­sions began trickling in – reduced rents, public housing, more and better municipal services, school im­prove­ments, more equitable mortgages and bank loans, fairer food prices.

I’ll give you an example here of the vital importance of personal re­la­tion­ships in organizing. The linchpin of our struggle in Back of the Yards was union­iza­tion of the packing-house workers, because most of the local residents who worked had jobs in the stockyards, and unless their wages and living standards were improved, the community as a whole could never move forward. Now, at that time the meat barons treated their workers like serfs, and they had a squad of vicious strike­break­ers to terrorize any worker who even opened his mouth about a union. In fact, two of their goons sub­ma­chined my car one night at the height of the struggle. They missed me and, goddamn it, I missed them when I shot back. So anyway, we knew that the success or failure of the whole effort really hinged on the packing-house union. We picketed, we sat down, we agitated; but the industry wouldn’t budge. I said, "OK, we can’t hurt ‘em head on, so we’ll outflank ‘em and put heat on the downtown banks that control huge loans to the industry and force them to exert pressure on the packers to accept our demands." We directed a whole series of tactics against the banks, and they were a little wobbly at first, but then they formed a solid front with the packers and refused to give in or even to negotiate.

We were getting nowhere on the key issue of the whole struggle, and I was getting worried. I racked my brain for some new means of applying pressure on the banks and finally I came up with the answer. In those days, the un­con­test­ed ruler of Chicago was the old-line political boss Mayor Kelly, who made Daley’s machine look like the League of Women Voters. When Kelly whistled, everybody jumped to attention, from the local ward heeler to the leading busi­ness­man in town. Now, there were four big-city machines in the country at that time – Kelly’s in Chicago, Pendergast’s in Kansas City, Curley’s in Boston and Hague’s in Jersey City – and between them they exercised a hell of a political clout, because they were the guys who delivered the swing states to the Democrats at election time. This meant that Roosevelt had to deal with them, but they were all pretty dis­rep­utable in the public eye and whenever he met with them he smuggled them through the back door of the White House and conferred in secret in some smoke-filled room. This was par­tic­u­lar­ly true in Kelly’s case, since he was hated by liberals and radicals all across the country because of his re­ac­tionary anti-labor stand and his re­spon­si­bil­i­ty for the Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago in 1937. In fact, the left despised Kelly as intensely in those days as they did Daley after the Chicago Democratic Convention [1968].

Now, Kelly was a funny guy; he was a mass of con­tra­dic­tions – like most people – and despite his antilabor actions he really admired F.D.R.; in fact, he worshiped him, and nothing hurt him more than the way he was forced to sneak into the White House like a pariah – no dinner parties, none of those little Sunday soirees that Eleanor used to throw, not even a public tes­ti­mo­ni­al. He des­per­ate­ly wanted acceptance by F.D.R. and the in­tel­lec­tu­als in his brain trust, and he really smarted under the second-class status the President conferred on him. I’d studied his per­son­al­i­ty carefully, and I knew I’d get nowhere appealing to him over labor’s rights, but I figured I might just be able to use this personal Achilles’ heel to our advantage.

Finally I got an audience with Kelly and I started my spiel. "Look, Mayor," I said, "I know I can’t deliver you any more votes than you’ve already got" – in those days they didn’t even bother to count the ballots, they weighed ‘em, and every cemetery in town voted; there was a real afterlife in Chicago – "but I’m going to make a deal with you." Kelly just looked bored; he was probably asking himself why he’d even bothered to see this little pip-squeak radical. "What’ve you got to deal with, kid?" he asked me. I told him, "Right now you’ve got a reputation as the number-one enemy of organized labor in the country. But I’ll make you a liberal overnight. I’ll deliver the national C.I.O. en­dorse­ment for you and the public support of every union in Chicago. I’ve arranged for two of the guys who were wounded in the Memorial Day Massacre to go on the radio and applaud you as a true friend of the workingman. Within forty-eight hours I’ll have turned you into a champion of liberalism" – Kelly still looked bored – "and that’ll make you completely acceptable to F.D.R. on all occasions, social and political."

Suddenly he sat bolt upright in his chair and his eyes bored into mine. "How do I know you can deliver?" he asked. I handed him a slip of paper. "That’s the unlisted number of John L. Lewis in Alexandria, Virginia. Call him, tell him I’m here in your office, tell him what I said, and then ask him if I can deliver." Kelly leaned back in his chair and said, "What do you want?" I said, "I want you to put the screws on the meat packers to sign a contract with the union." He said, "It’s a deal. You’ll get your contract tomorrow." We did, and from that time on victory for Back of the Yards was ensured. And I came out of that fight convinced that the or­ga­ni­za­tion­al techniques we used in Back of the Yards could be employed suc­cess­ful­ly anywhere across the nation.

PLAYBOY: Were you right?

ALINSKY: Absolutely. Our tactics have to vary according to the needs and problems of each particular area we’re organizing, but we’ve been very successful with an overall strategy that we adhere to pretty closely. For example, the central principle of all our or­ga­ni­za­tion­al efforts is self-de­ter­mi­na­tion; the community we’re dealing with must first want us to come in, and once we’re in we insist they choose their own objectives and leaders. It’s the organizer’s job to provide the technical know-how, not to impose his wishes or his attitudes on the community; we’re not there to lead, but to help and to teach. We want the local people to use us, drain our experience and expertise, and then throw us away and continue doing the job themselves. Otherwise they’d grow overly dependent on us and the moment we moved out the situation would start to revert to the status quo ante. This is why I’ve set a three-year limit on the time one of our organizers remains within any particular area. This has been our operating procedure in all our efforts; we’re outside agitators, all right, but by invitation only. And we never overstay our welcome.


PLAYBOY: How does a self-styled outside agitator like yourself get accepted in the community he plans to organize?

ALINSKY: The first and most important thing you can do to win this acceptance is to bait the power structure into publicly attacking you. In Back of the Yards, when I was first es­tab­lish­ing my cre­den­tials, I de­lib­er­ate­ly maneuvered to provoke criticism. I made outrageous statements to the press, I attacked every civic and business leader I could think of, and I goaded the es­tab­lish­ment to strike back. …

But over and above all these devices, the ultimate key to acceptance by a community is respect for the dignity of the individual you’re dealing with. If you feel smug or arrogant or con­de­scend­ing, he’ll sense it right away, and you might as well take the next plane out. The first thing you’ve got to do in a community is listen, not talk, and learn to eat, sleep, breathe only one thing: the problems and as­pi­ra­tions of the community. Because no matter how imag­i­na­tive your tactics, how shrewd your strategy, you’re doomed before you even start if you don’t win the trust and respect of the people; and the only way to get that is for you to trust and respect them. And without that respect there’s no com­mu­ni­ca­tion, no mutual confidence and no action. That’s the first lesson any good organizer has to learn, and I learned it in Back of the Yards.

On co-optation:

ALINSKY: No. It’s the eternal problem, but it must be accepted with the un­der­stand­ing that all life is a series of rev­o­lu­tions, one following the other, each bringing society a little bit closer to the ultimate goal of real personal and social freedom. I certainly don’t regret for one minute what I did in the Back of the Yards. Over 200,000 people were given decent lives, hope for the future and new dignity because of what we did in that cesspool. Sure, today they’ve grown fat and com­fort­able and smug, and they need to be kicked in the ass again, but if I had a choice between seeing those same people festering in filth and poverty and despair, and living a decent life within the confines of the es­tab­lish­ment’s prejudices, I’d do it all over again. One of the problems here, and the reason some people just give up when they see that economic im­prove­ments don’t make Albert Schweitzers out of everybody, is that too many liberals and radicals have a tender-minded, overly romantic image of the poor; they glamorize the pover­tys­trick­en slum dweller as a paragon of justice and expect him to behave like an angel the minute his shackles are removed. That’s crud. Poverty is ugly, evil and degrading, and the fact that have-nots exist in despair, dis­crim­i­na­tion and de­pri­va­tion does not au­to­mat­i­cal­ly endow them with any special qualities of charity, justice, wisdom, mercy or moral purity. They are people, with all the faults of people – greed, envy, suspicion, in­tol­er­ance – and once they get on top they can be just as bigoted as the people who once oppressed them. But that doesn’t mean you leave them to rot. You just keep on fighting.


Over and over again, the firebrand rev­o­lu­tion­ary freedom fighter is the first to destroy the rights and even the lives of the next generation of rebels.

But rec­og­niz­ing this isn’t cause for despair. All life is warfare, and it’s the continuing fight against the status quo that re­vi­tal­izes society, stimulates new values and gives man renewed hope of eventual progress. The struggle itself is the victory. History is like a relay race of rev­o­lu­tion­s; the torch of idealism is carried by one group of rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies until it too becomes an es­tab­lish­ment, and then the torch is snatched up and carried on the next leg of the race by a new generation of rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. The cycle goes on and on, and along the way the values of humanism and social justice the rebels champion take shape and change and are slowly implanted in the minds of all men even as their advocates falter and succumb to the ma­te­ri­al­is­tic decadence of the prevailing status quo.

On dogmatism:

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. The great atomic physicist Niels Bohr summed it up pretty well when he said, "Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an af­fir­ma­tion, but as a question." Nobody owns the truth, and dogma, whatever form it takes, is the ultimate enemy of human freedom.

Now, this doesn’t mean that I’m rud­der­less; I think I have a much keener sense of direction and purpose than the true believer with his rigid ideology, because I’m free to be loose, resilient and in­de­pen­dent, able to respond to any situation as it arises without getting trapped by articles of faith. My only fixed truth is a belief in people, a conviction that if people have the op­por­tu­ni­ty to act freely and the power to control their own destinies, they’ll generally reach the right decisions. The only al­ter­na­tive to that belief is rule by an elite, whether it’s a Communist bu­reau­cra­cy or our own present-day corporate es­tab­lish­ment. You should never have an ideology more specific than that of the founding fathers: "For the general welfare." That’s where I parted company with the Communists in the Thirties, and that’s where I stay parted from them today.

I’ll let you read the story of the O’Hare "shit-in" for yourselves. Not to mention the "fart-in".

Almost by accident, he invented the tactic of getting proxy votes to attend (and disrupt) share­hold­er meetings, and as a means of social and political pressures against the mega­cor­po­ra­tions.

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