Saul Alinsky: A Complicated Rebel
Nicholas von Hoffman's new book complicates a right-wing caricature.


Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky by Nicholas von Hoffman (Nation Books, 237 pp., $26.95)

Nicholas von Hoffman’s short, breezy, and informative sketch of Saul Alinsky — and of the decade he spent with him working as a community organizer — offers us a very different take on the legendary activist than the narrative we are accustomed to. This is especially the case for those conservatives who consider Alinsky close to the devil. Alinsky made the comparison himself, invoking Lucifer, along with Thomas Paine and Rabbi Hillel, in the epigraphs to his classic, bestselling 1971 guide, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. As Alinsky put it, clearly facetiously, Lucifer was “the very first radical . . . who rebelled against the establishment,” and who was so effective “that he . . . won his own kingdom.” But the reality of Alinsky and his work was significantly different from what this tongue-in-cheek self-presentation — and, a fortiori, today’s conservative attacks on Alinsky — would have us believe. He was not a radical believer in Big Government, and he probably would have had serious problems with Barack Obama’s agenda.

Alinsky became famous by organizing ethnic workers in the old Chicago stockyards from 1939 to the end of the 1950s, where he created the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council as the vehicle to organize them. Because of his work, von Hoffman notes, “what had been an area of ramshackle, near-slum housing tilting this way and that had been rebuilt into a model working-class community of neat bungalow homes.”

Candidly, von Hoffman adds that Alinsky did not challenge the neighborhood’s pattern of segregation, which had “become an impregnable fortification of whites-only exclusionism.” Back in 1919, these same workers played a part in the famous 1919 Chicago-area race riots, in which 500 people, most of them black, were wounded and 38 killed. Alinsky did manage to obtain permission for blacks to have unmolested passage through the Back of the Yards as they were on their way to other places — which seems little by today’s standards, but, as von Hoffman notes, was a major accomplishment then.

As for the Neighborhood Council’s funding, it came not from government largesse, but from — of all things — the illegal-gambling activities of Alinsky’s partner, Joe Meegan. This spoke to Alinsky’s longstanding friendly relations with gangsters, thugs, and the organized-crime syndicates. That source of funding meant that any pressure from government to end racial exclusion would come to naught. Moreover, Alinsky’s belief that the people had to determine their own destiny meant, for him, that if the people wanted an all-white community, they should not be challenged on the matter. Although he wanted integration, and hoped that he could select and induce a few middle-class black families to buy homes in the Back of the Yards neighborhood and then convince whites to accept them, his partner Meegan nixed the idea. “Even public discussion of a Negro family,” von Hoffman writes, “would have the same effect as news that the bubonic plague was loose.” Even fair-minded whites in the area believed that blacks’ moving in meant “slumification, crime, bad schools, and punishing drops in real-estate values,” and hence the simple idea of an interracial neighborhood “would destroy the community and the council.” Alinsky’s code of loyalty to the Back of the Yards Council came before his personal opposition to segregation. (As von Hoffman rationalizes it, “the leaders behind the whites-only policy were his friends.”) The people pursued a policy he abhorred; and he had no choice but to stand with the people.