Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky, Nicholas von Hoffman, Nation Books, 256 pages.

By Jesse Walker

Back of the Yards is a district just south and west of the old Union Stock Yard in Chicago. A century ago, it was best known as the crowded, poverty-stricken setting of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking meatpacking novel The Jungle. Like most of the city, it was split into enclaves, generally along the lines of national origin. As Mike Royko would later put it, Chicago in those days was a confederation of ethnic neighborhood-states, a place where “you could always tell, even with your eyes closed, which state you were in by the odors of the food stores and the open kitchen windows, the sound of the foreign or familiar language, and by whether a stranger hit you in the head with a rock.”

When sociologists started studying such areas, they thought they were looking at human wastelands. In his 1986 book Back of the Yards, the historian Robert Slayton noted that such scholars were familiar with the sorts of social ties that were forged in small towns but were “blind to similar bonds of community among immigrant workers”; in 1929 one sociologist wrote bluntly that the slums were places where “local life breaks down.” Social workers and other outsiders often adopted similar attitudes, seeing the rich ecology of neighborhood institutions as something to be overcome, not strengthened. Social improvement would be provided by professionals with scientific training, not by a bunch of bohunks acting on their own behalf.

The founders of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, by contrast, appreciated all the self-directed activity taking place in the district. The group’s first meeting, held on July 14, 1939, featured 350 residents from 76 organizations: parish clubs, ethnic lodges, women’s groups, athletic clubs, unions, the chamber of commerce, a community newspaper. The council was a federation of those local groups rather than a mass organization of individuals; its structure, in Slayton’s words, was designed so as to “not challenge the private order of segmentation and nationalism, but instead create a public realm in which the individual pieces could join,” working together on areas of shared interest.

And work together they did. In the ’30s and ’40s, among many other activities, the council built a playground, established a credit union, did strike support work, acquired and lent out a portable bug exterminator, brought an infant health clinic to the neighborhood, helped young people find jobs, sprayed weedkiller in vacant lots, sold garbage cans to the community at a fraction of the market cost, and funded a softball league organized by some of the local gangs. Slayton notes that when “police or merchants apprehended a young lawbreaker, they would call the Back of the Yards Council instead of taking him to the station. The Council then arranged a conference with the child, the parents, the priest, educators, union officials, and police or probation officers — representatives of all the community’s resources.” The council acquired its funds in a number of ways: There were donations from a variety of civic groups and local businesses and, in a more clandestine realm, there were the profits from illicit gambling at a community fair. The group’s slogan: “We the People Will Work Out Our Own Destiny, We Can Do It Ourselves America.”

The activists did not consider themselves libertarians, and I don’t want to imply that they eschewed any assistance from the government. They were happy to inform the city authorities about housing violations, to accept a federal agency’s help in their job placement services, to use surplus food distributed by the feds in the council’s free lunch program. But in the days of the New Deal, a time when the American Left was increasingly centralist and statist, this was a different approach: social change driven by intermediary institutions at the most local level, not by experts erecting bureaucracies in Washington. In 1945, in a book called Reveille for Radicals, one of the council’s founders argued that such “People’s Organizations” could be the building blocks of a new, more participatory sort of citizenship.

The writer in question, a criminologist turned activist named Saul Alinsky, is the subject of a new book, Radical, by his former lieutenant Nicholas von Hoffman. Conservatives today often denounce Alinsky as the demonic wellhead of the modern Left, a claim that’s easier to make when you don’t know much about Alinsky’s actual ideas and activities. (I have even seen efforts to link the man to Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist who plays a mysteriously large role in several contemporary conspiracy theories.) It doesn’t help that Barack Obama started his political career as a community organizer in Chicago, where he supposedly drew deeply from Alinsky’s social vision. Alinsky’s 1971 book Rules for Radicals has been studied closely by conservatives convinced that they’ve found the White House’s secret playbook.

Smarter folks on the right, such as the Tea Party champions at FreedomWorks, have been reading Rules for Radicals as well, not to decode Obama’s occult intentions but in hopes of adapting Alinsky’s tactics to the fight for freer markets. It isn’t a bad idea, but it only scratches the surface of what the foes of taxes and bailouts can learn from Alinsky. In all his successes, mistakes, and contradictions, Alinsky represents the dormant decentralist wing of the left. His life is full of lessons for anyone, left or right, who demands a devolution of power.

Von Hoffman’s account doesn’t try to be a detailed biography. That already exists in the form of Sanford Horwitt’s thorough 1992 book Let Them Call Me Rebel. Instead, Radical is a thoughtful and entertaining portrait of a friend: not a complete account of a man’s career, but an introduction to his life by someone who knew and loved him. Alinsky comes off as a raconteur who loved to tell tales, some of them perhaps a bit exaggerated, of his negotiations with the gangsters, bosses, and bishops who commanded the wards and parishes of Chicago and other mid-century cities. Von Hoffman is a raconteur too, adding his own jokes and recollections to Alinsky’s yarns. He isn’t blind to the gray areas in his old friend’s career, but he doesn’t dwell on stories that make his mentor look bad. The most notable exception is a previously untold tale from 1940, when John L. Lewis of the CIO gave Alinsky “temporary direction” of a goon squad tasked with pushing some communists out of union positions.

That’s the only time the book describes Alinsky engaging in political violence. The organizer’s talent for Machiavellian manipulation rears its head more often, most notably when Alinsky and von Hoffman have to contend with a conflict between two cherished values: the fight for community self-determination and the fight against segregation. The Back of the Yards Council, von Hoffman writes, “had accomplished great things between its founding at the end of the 1930s and the middle of the 1950s. 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.” In the process, though, it had also “become a model of how a white community can stay white.” The council was assisted in this exclusion by an informal public-private partnership: If a black family moved into the neighborhood, a private citizen might set fire to their house and a public official might then decline to send any emergency vehicles to the scene of the crime.

To overcome those attitudes, Alinsky and his allies in the council embraced, in von Hoffman’s words, “a small amount of judicious ballot-box stuffing.” But not on behalf of the people you might expect. The anti-racists fixed elections so the racists would win. The idea, von Hoffman explains, was “to have them inside the organization believing that it was their organization and not outside it perfecting their Molotov cocktail–chucking technique.”

You can see an echo here of the council’s early days, of the decision not to “challenge the private order of segmentation and nationalism” but instead to open up new avenues for cooperation across ethnic lines. Von Hoffman reports that Alinsky was privately skeptical about some of the era’s civil rights bills, which is what you’d expect from a man who would rather bend a local institution from within than remove or remold it from above. In the early ’60s, the book reveals, Barry Goldwater contacted Alinsky and the two men had a meeting. “The conversation,” von Hoffman reports, “was about Goldwater’s opposition to pending civil rights legislation. Saul shared the conservative misgivings about the mischief such laws could cause if abused, but he told Goldwater that he should not morally and could not politically oppose the legislation unless he had a better idea himself.”

More broadly, von Hoffman writes, Alinsky believed that “governmental action was the last resort, not the ideal one.” He also “felt that when the government, via one or another of its poverty programs, put the smartest and most energetic on its payroll it made an independent civic life next to impossible. He would point out that it opened up avenues of social and political control that could be used by the government to stifle independent action. In the worst case thousands of government-paid organizers could be turned into police spies.” (At least one group that Alinsky helped to start — The Woodlawn Organization in Chicago — did receive some grants from the government during the War on Poverty, as did some institutions launched by activists Alinsky had trained. But Alinsky himself was not involved in any of those operations at the time.)

Alinsky sometimes spoke kindly of Franklin Roosevelt but was at best a lukewarm supporter — according to Sanford Horwitt, he described the president privately as “the great smiler” and may have voted for Wendell Willkie in 1940. By the time Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, the old radical had grown even more caustic. Always hostile to social workers, Alinsky attacked the entire Great Society in a 1965 article for the Journal of Social Issues. “The anti-poverty program may well be recorded as history’s greatest relief program for the benefit of the welfare industry,” he wrote. It wasn’t that he was ideologically opposed to federal aid to the poor. Indeed, the same article included his own suggestions for how Washington might lend a hand, though his proposals were so politically unrealistic that it’s unclear whether they were meant to be more than a thought experiment. Whatever it might have been in theory, the War on Poverty in practice was, in Alinsky’s view, “a prize piece of political pornography” (not to mention “the first war ever launched in history on a balanced budget”).

This was the Alinsky that his Machiavellian reputation sometimes concealed: a humanist radical who distrusted large institutions and put his faith in concrete local affiliations. In von Hoffman’s words, Alinsky wanted little platoons like the Back of the Yards Council to form a “countervailing power” against “the gigantism of government, corporation and even labor union.” The reference to unions might raise some eyebrows, given Alinsky’s close friendship with John L. Lewis and his support for the ’30s labor movement, but you don’t have to look far to find the man mixing criticism with his enthusiasm. In Reveille for Radicals, Alinsky attacked union leaders for trying to block new technologies, for accommodating themselves to corrupt political machines, for restrictionist rules that make it harder for outsiders to get jobs, for racial discrimination, and, in general, for being “the bride of big monopoly business.”

There’s a lesson there for the Tea Partiers who have been studying Alinsky’s tactics, should they care to explore the rest of his legacy. If they’re serious about building a real alternative to the Bush/Obama megastate, as opposed to merely being used by the Republicans and discarded as soon as the GOP is in a position to relaunch the K Street Project, the activists need to build countervailing power of their own, rooted not merely in talk radio and the Internet but in the indigenous institutions that shape people’s everyday lives. In some areas — bank bailouts, eminent domain, the crackdown on civil liberties, America’s imperial foreign policy — they might even reach across the invisible lines that separate their favorite segments of civil society from the churches and councils that mobilize people on the grassroots left, to work together on issues of shared concern even when they aren’t about to back the same candidates. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to cross a boundary, even if there’s a risk that a stranger might hit you in the head with a rock.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason and author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America.

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