For having gotten such a bad rap during the 2008 presidential election-remember Rudolph Giuliani and Sarah Palin’s digs at the Republican convention that year?-community organizing is in its full glory these days.
Our nation’s first black president is a former community organizer on Chicago’s South Side, and people on the left and right sides of the political spectrum are using organizing tactics to advance their agendas or try to thwart their opponents’ objectives.
While there are many different philosophies and proponents of organizing, Saul Alinsky is at or close to the top of any list of key organizers and tactics. His largely amoral, power-based approach to identifying clear opponents and winnable objectives, developed and honed in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, have been linked to everything from Obama’s ascension to the opponents of health care reform.
This type of attention would have suited the legendary organizer just fine, suggests Nicholas von Hoffman in Radical, his affectionate portrait of the man he worked for as a lead organizer for a decade and who, he suggests, is responsible for even more than that for which he has already been credited.
Radical is a personal and vividly written account that incorporates elements of Alinsky’s biography and personality, memories of their years working together, and an explanation of Alinsky’s organizing method and accompanying results.
That’s not all, of course.
Von Hoffman stops along the way to take a few swipes at other radicals like recently retired education professor Bill Ayers-he says Alinsky considered Ayers the “archetypal example of petulant decision making of the period” and calls the Weatherman Underground’s later forays into violence ” a tantrum of Rumpelstiltskin politics which included bomb throwing without the Taliban’s skill with explosives.”
Ultimately, though, these are side forays. Von Hoffman is most concerned here with painting a picture of his former boss.
He had plenty of material.
Alinsky emerges as a complex, bombastic, practical, ruthless, brilliant, authoritarian and funny force consummately concerned with increasing people’s power, even as he was quite agnostic about the means of doing so.
Radical contains descriptions of Alinsky’s connection with mobsters, his studies at the University of Chicago that led him in the direction of organizing, his successes in the Back of the Yards neighborhood and his venturing to Rochester to do similar types of work.
Although not hagiography, the book is firmly behind Alinsky. Von Hoffman includes criticisms leveled at his former leader such as the point made by one observer that Alinsky did not proceed until his cause was bankrolled, but uses assertions like these largely to explain and defend Alinsky’s choices and reasons for them. Von Hoffman goes light on Alinsky’s dictatorial behavior within his ranks, for example, and writes sympathetically about the organizer’s use of democracy as a means, rather than an end in itself.
One of the book’s particularly interesting section included the five reasons why Alinsky and his crew did not engage meaningfully in the civil rights movement (Hint: difficulty in identifying the opponent played prominently.). This part of the book is not completely convincing, and comes after von Hoffman has described how Alinsky worked subtly to help integrate the neighborhoods in which he worked by encouraging black people to move there despite substantial and occasionally violent opposition.
Radical is more than an analysis of Alinsky’s tactics and rationale. Rather it’s a ribald and almost stream of consciousness account of a man who wrote books about organizing, but saw them as primers, rather than bibles or cookbooks, and who was profane and tight-fisted and cunning and fun. At certain points in the book, you feel like you are reading about Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men, with activist priest Jack Egan as a latter day Friar Tuck.
In short, the book is a breezy and enjoyable tribute by von Hoffman to his former leader and mentor. Whether you want to learn more about community organizing or Alinksy, Radical is worth the time it takes.