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Lynd on Alinsky

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Saul Alinsky in 1965. (Tribune Archive photo) ..OUTSIDE TRIBUNE CO.- NO MAGS,  NO SALES, NO INTERNET, NO TV, CHICAGO OUT..
Saul Alinsky in 1965. (Tribune Archive photo) ..OUTSIDE TRIBUNE CO.- NO MAGS, NO SALES, NO INTERNET, NO TV, CHICAGO OUT..

I have no idea why the right has so demonized Saul Alinsky as the greatest evil of all time, although that was really more a 2008-12 demon than today. But in any case, his organizing strategies were certainly influential. But there’s a strong critique to made against them from the left and the radical historian and colleague of Alinksy, Staughton Lynd, makes it. It’s not an easy thing to excerpt, so I would recommend just reading it for Lynd’s stories of trying to work in an Alinsky organization after 1968 and had quickly it all fell apart.

In so many cases, the building of the organization was actually the point of Alinsky’s style of organizing, which could be disastrous in the case of the United Farm Workers, when Cesar Chavez actively opposed empowering workers who could threaten the organization and frankly preferred working with white volunteers who would simply do whatever he told them. Chavez would purge members who disagreed with him, take resources away from the lettuce workers who actually wanted to organize to focus on the grapes where Chavez decided the fight should exist, etc. Focusing on building around preexisting issues and fostering natural leaders are certainly good strategies, but it’s long been clear to me that Alinksy-style organizing had very real limitations, including lacking a broader agenda or long-term goal, centralizing authority in a few people’s hands, and could deemphasize or even demonize the political agenda of members. Coming out of the New Left falling apart, some of that makes sense in some circumstances–organizing is hard and complicated and there’s no clear way to do it–but Alinsky and his followers went way too far. Alinsky-style organizing may provide useful strategies for current organizers but it’s hardly a model to follow to the letter.

Which brings us back to the bizarre question of why Alinsky is so scary for conservatives, but then I don’t really have a good answer for that except to say that he was key in the founding of the community organizing model, Barack Obama was a community organizer for 5 minutes, and therefore Kenyan Muslims come to power illegally or something.

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