The Alinksy Method: a Critique

It was an evening late in August 1968. I was in the bathtub. Believing that the critical issue at the national Democratic Party convention would be whether First Amendment activity could be carried on outside the building where the delegates were meeting, I had organized a march from the lakefront to the convention site in southwest Chicago. Several of the demonstrators, including myself, had been arrested. All tension past, I was luxuriating in the hot water of the bath.

The phone rang. It was Saul Alinsky. He wanted to talk with me about becoming a member of the faculty, along with Ed Chambers and Dick Harmon, at the new Industrial Areas Foundation Training Institute.

Two things made me want to accept. First, I needed a job. I had been blacklisted by academia. At five institutions of higher education in the Chicago area (Chicago State College, Northern Illinois University, Roosevelt University, the University of Illinois Circle Campus and Loyola University) I had been offered a full-time, tenure-track job, and I accepted, only to have the contract overridden by the trustees or Board of Governors. The Lynds were surviving on the “sweat of my Frau” and a regular paycheck was inviting.

Secondly, I was curious. The central organizations of the New Left, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), were in the process of destroying themselves. Although I shared criticisms of Alinsky’s work common to members of these two organizations, I wondered what I might be able to learn from Alinsky organizers. I conjectured that becoming a so-called teacher might be a good way to be a student. So I said “Yes.”

And I did learn some very valuable things. The modus operandi of the New Left was that if you were incensed about an issue, you tried to do something about it. Mr. Alinsky advised newcomers to the Institute to spend some time in a target neighborhood in order to discover what issues were already “there” in the minds of residents. Also, in my experience Alinsky did not emphasize coalition-building with the principal figures in existing organizations. He challenged us to discover the informal peoplepowerleadership of a community: the persons to whom neighbors went for help if they had problems. The next step was to bring these informal leaders together and to stress to those gathered that all structural arrangements (who would be chairperson, for example) would be preliminary and tentative. This gave the organizer an opportunity to observe who seemed to take a natural leadership role, and who followed through on what he said he would do. These were important insights.

Three of us were assigned to organize an Alinsky-type community organization in Lake County, Indiana, which includes the city of Gary and is dominated by U.S. Steel. We did so, baptizing our creation the Calumet Community Congress. There was an impressive founding convention, in which the picket line captain at the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre (George Patterson) and a district director of the Steelworkers who would run for national union president later in the 1970s (Ed Sadlowski) played prominent roles.

After the founding event, however, the organization fell apart. One of my colleagues was persuaded by a Catholic dignitary on the East Coast to use the convention as a personal jumping-off credential and leave town. His replacement as lead organizer was my second colleague.

I had developed the issue of the minimal taxes paid by U.S. Steel on its Gary steel mill property. I had talked with Ralph Nader and he had publicly supported that concern. The Gary newspaper had run an issue with a headline about the tax controversy all the way across the front page.

Colleague No. 2 decided not to pursue the tax issue. Instead he guided the new organization to take on a local pornographic bookstore. Within a matter of months the Congress slowly sank from sight, never to reappear.

At the same time that I lost out on how to build an organization for those who “cared about democracy and social and economic justice” (p. xiv), I was asked by Colleague No. 2 to withdraw from all activity on behalf of the new community organization because I was too radical.

Cardinal Sins

Because I was so intimately involved, and inevitably approach the subject with a strong personal bias, I prefer to let the editors of the book and the organizers quoted in it express their own critique of the Alinsky organizing tradition. I have no reason to believe that the shortcomings described have been corrected.

To begin with, we might consider Cesar Chavez. Chavez was the one human being whom I can recall Alinsky speaking of with love. It is likely, the editors of People Power: the Community Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinksy, write, “that by the mid-1970s more people knew his name than Alinsky’s.” Yet, according to this account, within the farmworkers’ organization that Chavez created and led,

[i]nternal purges eliminated from the staff many talented and dedicated organizers, while others quietly resigned in protest. The boycott became the principal strategic weapon of the union; on-the-ground organizing of farmworkers at workplaces was shunted to the sidelines. Power increasingly was concentrated in the hands of Cesar Chavez, who brooked no internal opposition “from below” — i.e., from among farmworkers — and vigorously worked to defeat leaders whose views were different from his own (pp. 106-107).

The editors add a criticism that has also been expressed by Marshall Ganz and others, namely, that Chavez insisted on appointing the members of local ranch committees rather than permitting them to be elected, and opposed the creation of local unions of farmworkers with the result that “[e]verything was run from union headquarters” (pp. 108-109). Chavez was also “vigorously anti-Communist, no matter what kind of Communist you happened to be” (p. 111).

The farmworkers’ organization that Chavez created under Alinsky’s guidance hardly appears to offer a desirable template for the future.

Similar caution recommends itself when considering Alinsky’s admiration for John L. Lewis, “one of Alinsky’s major teachers” (p. 19). Lewis crushed internal opposition, a practice from which A.J. Muste and Roger Baldwin of the American Civil Liberties Union recoiled. From the beginning, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) entered into collective bargaining agreements that forbade for the duration of the contract the very strikes, plant occupations, and other direct action tactics that had won union recognition. The CIO undertook organizing campaigns that were not radical but were militant, and often were made to appear more militant than they really were by a focus on a single personal antagonist. Exactly as in the case of union organizing, a successful Alinsky campaign might end in a congenial sit-down with the principals on the other side. Alinsky never confronted or denounced capitalism as a system.

The most comprehensive critique of the failings of the Alinsky model that I found in “People Power” was expressed by Dick Harmon, my erstwhile colleague at the Training Institute. Dick is quoted as saying that during the mid-to-late 1970s “[s]ome of us, including myself, lost our moorings.” Dick voices the following devastating assessment:

Our operating assumptions were that you didn’t ask basic questions about the economy because that would label you a ‘pinko,’ an ideologue, and worse. If you raised these kinds of questions, the climate of the time would shut you down, so you had to be pragmatic. . . . We had no ongoing, fundamental analysis of the economy, no long-term diagnosis. No one was asking about alternatives to all the companies moving to the South, Latin America, Asia. We didn’t have any alternative except, just keep building organizations (pp. 208-209).

Local institutions, Dick Harmon also commented, “no longer ask questions about fundamentals such as where corporate capital is taking us.” There is no consideration within the Alinskyian community that “Corporate capitalism is One system, a Whole, assaulting both human beings and the rest of our natural world” (pp. 212-213).

The years in which I was closest to the Alinsky operation were the years in which American service men and women in effect ended the Vietnam War by refusing to fight. They fragged their officers, and refused to go on nighttime patrols or to provide targets for American planes by drawing fire from Vietnamese ambushes. I cannot remember even a comment by Alinsky or his staff that might have led to an organizing campaign directed against the war and the worldview that underlay the war.

I may be mistaken but to the best of my recollection there was also no staff response to the massacre at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. I do remember intense telephone calls with a student at the Institute (Zeke, where are you now?). And when the largest student strike in U.S. history followed the events at Kent State I believe the Institute played no role, initiating or supporting.

I also remember that as the Calumet Community Congress was being planned I questioned whether there should be a “color guard” drawn from the different branches of the military and a presentation of the flag. My concern was brushed aside with a comment to the effect that “we always do that.”

A Hope

Like the editors, I mourn the fact that there was no melding of New Left and Alinskyan worldviews in the 1960s. The editors have the candor and humility to recognize the barriers Alinsky traditionalists have put in the way of working with young idealists from the New Left or Occupy. They explicitly recognize

[t]he IAF’s macho style, organizational arrogance, dismissal of “movements,” avoidance of any coalition that it didn’t control, unwillingness to look at mutual aid as a strategic organizing tool that could lead to the development of substantial worker- and community-owned cooperatives and credit unions . . . (p. 317).

Participants in Occupy needed the help of experienced organizers in making the transition from sitting-in at the downtown public square to beginning to construct what the Zapatistas call “un otro mundo,” another world. We still need that help.

Staughton Lynd is a historian, attorney, long-time activist and author of many books and articles. He can be reached at