Who Is Saul Alinsky & Why Is Newt Gingrich Yammering About Him?


On the night of his triumph in the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich declared that “The centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky.”

That reference and subsequent references to Alinsky surely puzzled viewers of a certain age and probably many viewers of all ages. This is because Alinsky, a legendary community organizer, died in 1972.

Translated, Gingrich’s dog-whistle demagoguery is:

I am sure that a threateningly ethnic and Jew boy name like Saul Alinsky will resonate with Southern Republican voters. Oh, and Barack Obama was a community organizer in Chicago like Saul Alinsky, whose views are at the heart of all that is wrong with our great republic today, and like Saul Alinsky, the man whom I will oust from the White House is an anti-religious radical who demeans our great republic. Did I mention that ours is a great republic?

I happen to think that Alinsky was not a radical although he considered himself one. His Rules For Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, was one of the most influential books that I read as a young man in educating myself on outside-the-mainstream politics and philosophies. Published shortly before Alinsky’s death, it is a handbook for community organizers.

Alinsky writes in the prologue that: “What I have to say in this book is not the arrogance of unsolicited advice. It is the experience and counsel that so many young people have questioned me about through all-night sessions on hundreds of campuses in America. It is for those young radicals who are committed to the fight, committed to life.”

Now it so happens that Obama did once work in a Chicago community organizing project inspired by Alinsky, but there the similarities end, which Gingrich should well know if he is the student of history that he claims to be.

Alinsky, it turns out, was a deep believer in grassroots democracy and institutional religion. He frequently quoted Jefferson and Madison and was disdainful of 1960s leftists who burned American flags. He did much of his work with the active support and resources of the Roman Catholic Church. Yes, the same religion that Gingrich converted to when he married Callista Bisek. Three religions and three marriages, but so little time.

In 1969, Alinsky received the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, given annually by a coalition of Catholic groups in the Midwest to commemorate an encyclical about human rights and alternatives to war written by Pope John XXIII. Most honorees have been ardent reformers of one faith or another. They include Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, Cesar Chavez, Daniel Berrigan and Lech Walesa. Oh, and Mother Teresa.

That’s our Newt. Terrific demagogue and lousy historian.

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  • The_Ohioan

    This seems to be the essence of Alinsky – from the UK Guardian:

    [In Rules for Radicals, for example, he responds to the demands by youth frustrated at the continuation of the Vietnam war by the Democratic party after the political battles and riots of 1968:

    "It hurt me to see the American army with bayonets advancing on American boys and girls. But the answer I gave to the young radicals seemed to me the only realistic one: "Do one of three things. One, go and find a wailing wall and feel sorry for yourselves. Two, go psycho and start bombing – but this will only swing people to the right. Three, learn a lesson. Go home, organise, build power and at the next convention, you be the delegates."]

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/richard-adams-blog/2012/jan/24/republican-presidential-nomination-2012-newt-gingrich

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    I didn’t know anything about Mr. Alinsky and when I heard Gingrich’s dog whistle I thought he was talking about some sinister, fifth column, Soviet Marxist-Communist “fellow-traveler” — I am sure exactly what Gingrich had in mind.

    Now, those who sympathize with Gingrich’s tactics will counter-quote the following from that highly regarded “Guide to the Political Left”:

    Born to Russian-Jewish parents in Chicago in 1909, Saul Alinsky was a Communist/Marxist fellow-traveler who helped establish the tactics of infiltration — coupled with a measure of confrontation — that have been central to revolutionary political movements in the United States in recent decades. He never joined the Communist Party but instead, as David Horowitz puts it, became an avatar of the post-modern left.

    Blah, blah, blah …

    Thanks for shining a moderate light on this, Shaun

  • cjjack

    What really gets me about the whole “Saul Alinsky” angle is how far removed it is from the man Obama is today. He once worked as a community organizer for an outfit that was nominally inspired by Alinsky?

    Hey, I once worked in a McDonald’s. Does that mean I’m a disciple of Ray Kroc?

  • roro80

    I think Alisnki is the perfect boogieman ghost for Gingrich — should be for Romeny too. He was all about the people. He understood the problems plaguing communities because he listened to the members of those communities, and built his strategies for gaining power for the people around the strengths and needs of those people. It should come as no shock that he was extremely supportive of labor, workers rights, and civil rights. I don’t agree with everything he did, but that’s probably because his only dogma for the difference between right and wrong was that the power should belong to the people, and wherever it didn’t, he was going to figure out a way to help them get that power back.

  • bluebelle

    A proponent of grass-roots democracy— ooooh how radical!
    Alinsky was in step with Mao Tse Tung!!

  • slamfu

    I have not read this article, nor have I ever heard of Saul Alinsky. I am going to guess who he is, and see if the usual right wing name dropping like this turns out to be what it always is.

    Saul is a REALLY left wing radical. He has almost no following outside of very certain circles, these circles don’t not wield any real political power or influence, but he made a big stink about something that runs contrary to one of the current GOP’s G-spots, like Saul wanted to make rich people pay taxes. At best Saul’s agenda may have made some headlines, but my guess is that he wrote some poorly circulated papers, maybe a book, but that his agenda is not something that would ever seriously get to the floor of Congress, nor be supported by too many elected officials.

    Ok, off to do my research :)

  • http://kikoshouse.blogspot.com SHAUN MULLEN, TMV Columnist

    roro80:

    “I don’t agree with everything he did, but that’s probably because his only dogma for the difference between right and wrong was that the power should belong to the people, and wherever it didn’t, he was going to figure out a way to help them get that power back.”

    Beautifully said.

    slamfu:

    Yes, you need to do some research because the Alinsky you describe is not the Alinsky that most other people describe.

  • http://kikoshouse.blogspot.com SHAUN MULLEN, TMV Columnist

    Dan Savage draws a parallel between Alinsky’s advice to young radicals — “go home, organize, build power [and] you be the delegates” — and the strategy adopted by the religious right and social conservatives in the 1980s.

    I would go one further and draw a parallel between Alinsky’s advice and the Tea Party movement.

  • slamfu

    Well I was partially right Shaun :) He does appear to have been fairly influential, but his ideas seem pretty grounded, but since he was focused on the have-nots, he was obviously a major liberal by today’s standards. The fact Gingrich thinks Alinsky is such a bad guy says a lot, but nothing surprising.

  • roro80

    “Dan Savage draws a parallel between Alinsky’s advice to young radicals … and the strategy adopted by the religious right and social conservatives in the 1980s.”

    Very interesting, definitely. It does make total sense, though. The man literally wrote the book on how to start and maintain a movement. He wasn’t particularly specific about what that movement should be about (even if he chose which ones he, personally, would be involved in), but things like how to get grassroots support, how to moralize the goal (which is always power), how to demonize the enemy, how to maintain trust in the community, and how to choose which strategies to employ to gain the power wanted.

    It does make me kind of sad that these lessons — hard learned and proven by the left throughout the 20th century — seem to have now been forgotten by groups like OWS, and are now being employed by the hard right. No doubt the Tea Party did a better job of employing Alinsky’s “Rules” than OWS did. I suppose any tool is a weapon if you hold it right, and once learned, it can be weilded by those on either side.

  • http://kikoshouse.blogspot.com SHAUN MULLEN, TMV Columnist

    roro80:

    I have an old friend who learned at Alinsky’s knee. Just before Alinsky’s death, my friend decided to run for mayor of the college town in which we lived. One problem: My friend didn’t own property in the town, which was a requirement.

    Alinsky’s advice: Buy a cemetery plot. My friend did and was put on the ballot but lost.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    roro says:

    “…things like how to get grassroots support, how to moralize the goal (which is always power), how to demonize the enemy, how to maintain trust in the community, and how to choose which strategies to employ to gain the power wanted.”

    …things like the Contract on America and the latest slash and burn.

  • rudi

    He never joined the Communist Party but instead, as David Horowitz puts it, became an avatar of the post-modern left.
    LOL DTN and David Horowitz are biased observers.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Horowitz_Freedom_Center

    The David Horowitz Freedom Center is a conservative[1] foundation founded in 1988 by political activist David Horowitz and his long-time collaborator Peter Collier. It was established with funding from groups including the Olin Foundation, the Bradley Foundation and the Sarah Scaife Foundation.

    DTN is part of DH’s group.

  • roro80

    “…things like the Contract on America and the latest slash and burn.”

    Well, yes and no. The driving force behind Alinsky was that power must belong to and be weilded for the benefit of the people, and his special gift (if you will) was coming up with strategies to get power to the masses who had no standard means or recourse against the monied, powerful few. One can’t be too squeamish, he argues, about calling power by its name, nor realizing that that’s what you want.

    Now, if you already have a lot of money and power, and you want to at least give the impression of grassroot support (or, conversely, if you want to build actual grassroots support), a lot of the strategies employed can be tweaked for that purpose. It’s just a lot easier because you’re already wealthy and powerful, so you can skip that whole part where you need to work to gain the trust of the community and listen to what they need and want, think about how to go about getting it for them without access to traditional means, and that whole business of making sure the people actually end up better off. Basically — astroturfing.

  • roro80

    “He never joined the Communist Party but instead, as David Horowitz puts it, became an avatar of the post-modern left.”

    He never joined the party because he was fiercely anti-dogma, and Communism is extremely dogmatic. In other words: he didn’t join the Communist Party because he wasn’t a Communist.

    In even other words: David Horowitz is dumb.