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The Fear of Them Calling Us Rebels

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This is the second of three book review posts I am doing on books I read in 2006. The first review was on Richard Viguerie's "America's Right Turn," and the final review post will come in the next few days. Each of these books has key lessons for the progressive movement today - lessons that we too often ignore at our peril.

Let Them Call Me Rebel
Saul Alinsky: His Life and Legacy
By Sanford D. Horwitt
Vintage (March 1992)
640 pages

We live in an age where bluster reins supreme. From radio call in shows to blogs to email lists to sign-toting protests, we live in an age where there are more ways to express anger, outrage and frustration than ever.

Yet, this is also an era with perhaps the fewest serious efforts to challenge power than we've ever seen in American history. The labor movement - the core of any people's movement - is struggling to preserve its membership. The Netroots and many liberal organizations that make up the much-touted new progressive "infrastructure" is caught in a split personality disorder - unsure of whether to use resources to pressure both parties, or merely to be a microphone for an entrenched Democratic Party Establishment. And laying over all of this is society's justified sense of cynicism that the entire political process is a sitcom-style laughingstock more interesting for celebrity gossip intrigue than actual substance.

In short, we have more ways to blow off steam, but apparently less desire/ability/will to create it. And that is a tragedy, considering the very real potential for action and results a man named Saul Alinsky pioneered just a generation ago. His biography, written by Sanford D. Horwitt, is entitled "Let Them Call Me Rebel" - a phrase first coined by Thomas Paine and one that concisely sums up Alinsky's defiant personality and a power-challenging unfortunately attitude all too lacking in today's politics.

Alinsky spent his life helping low-income communities organize themselves so as to strengthen their political power. His blueprint was straightforward: through the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) which he created, he deployed organizers to help neighborhoods organize themselves into community councils (he called them "People's Organizations") made up of the leading local religious, civic and grassroots groups. These councils then performed two tasks: 1) providing services that the community needed, such as job placement/training and housing help and 2) pressuring the elected political leadership to deliver for the community. Tactically speaking, the task of service providing was used to draw in grassroots interest and organizational funding in order to build a force that could engage in bare-knuckled politics.

Alinsky, a University of Chicago-trained criminologist, faced many of the same obstacles progressives face today. From the start, he was forced to rely on large, often celebrity-obsessed benefactors who funded IAF out of altruistic "save the world" ideals, only to become disengaged when they realized community organizing didn't bring such donors in contact with celebrities, and additionally offended when Alinsky engaged in hardball tactics confronting Big Money (often times, the very wealthy will lose their sense of doing good when someone indicts a system that allows the rich to do so well to the detriment of the rest of society). As Alinsky wrote in a letter to a friend, some donors "were not too interested [in funding IAF] because there was no social prestige attached to making a contribution to the work, and they seemed to be a little frightened of the ungentlemanly tactics employed by our organizations."

These resource challenges were made worse by the cowering attitudes and bureaucratic inertia of liberal foundations - both qualities which still exist today. After submitting multiple drafts of funding proposals and mission statements to a foundation, Alinsky lashes out, saying "I know this sounds very strange to you, but the fact remains that this kind of operation does not proceed on an orderly blueprint chart" (I laughed when I read this - I've said much the same to donors when discussing the Progressive States Network, which works with state legislators).

He also faced - and stood down - opposition to his efforts from the Democratic Party. "The political independence of Alinsky's Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council attracted the wrath of [Chicago] Democratic political leaders," Horwitt recounts - and that wrath intensified as this and other organizations had the nerve to make demands on titans like Mayor Richard Daley and Congressman William Dawson.

How he got around these roadblocks are instructive about what has changed since Alinsky's time - and also what can still be done.

For instance, one of the most reliable allies for Alinsky was churches, and especially the Catholic Church. This was the era before the 700 Clubbing of religious politics into a right-wing platform - a phenomenon this book shows found its roots in Joe McCarthy's crusades, as the right slowly but surely learned how to use red-baiting to split off anti-communist Catholics from the left. This is the major reason why, despite Alinsky's strong anti-communist statements, the right constantly attacked him as a communist: to try to drive a wedge between Alinsky and his Catholic sponsors. Today's conservative attacks on the Left as supposedly terrorist sympathizers is merely an updated version of such wedge tactics that attempt to keep religious voters on the right - but the fact that there was very recently such a strong reliance between a progressive like Alinsky and the religious community shows the value and possibilities in new efforts to build up and promote the concept of the religious Left.

Additionally, Alinsky doggedly preached self-reliance rather than entitlement or charity. Though that message could sound like up-from-the-bootstraps conservatism, it was more a preview of the "nobody will help us but ourselves" mantra made familiar in the Black Power movement.

In all of Alinsky's organizing campaign plans, for instance, it was assumed that the community council would become economically independent through grassroots and local civic fundraising. Thus, the money that came into the organizing drive through the IAF's national donors was just seed money - and the eventual success or failure of the Alinsky-backed community organization was never held hostage by the whims of glamour-obsessed individual donors or foundation inertia (Interestingly, this insistence on resource independence later became an axiom for the right - as Richard Viguerie repeatedly asserts in his book "America's Right Turn," direct mail fundraising's ability to build organizational resources from small donors was a major factor in creating a conservative infrastructure that did not have to answer to individual Establishment special interests).

Alinsky, of course, was no saint - he was vicious, he could be petty, he sometimes took credit for things that were not his ideas alone and he had a giant ego that led him to exaggerate his brilliance. But few would claim that Alinsky was not brilliant. He forged successes in downtrodden places that most believed success could not be achieved. He inspired people to change their own circumstances. And, at his core, he was a political visionary. With Nostradamus-like precision, he essentially predicted what would happen to an elite-controlled Democratic Party after he died in 1972. "[Alinsky] was deeply concerned and troubled that the lower middle class...was being lost to conservatives and the right wing," Horwitt writes. He also preiscently predicted that technology would be able to build movements across geographical distances, much like the Internet has in recent years.

But above all else, it was his willingness to take stands on taboo issues that garnered him his fame and his enemies, on both the left and right. Early in his career, he was seen as a thorn in the side of the social work industry because his self-reliance and mass action themes came with an indictment of social work's (now changed) focus on delivering charity for the individual (referred to in the book as "settlement house" methods). The fissure was over the old parable "give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for life" - with Alinsky labeling traditional social work as the former, and his own work as the latter.

Alinsky also tangled with conservative factions in labor. A disciple of radical Mine Workers Union president John L. Lewis (who led the CIO), he became increasingly upset that "the leadership of the labor movement - cautious, unimaginative, and interested most of all in its own preservation and prosperity - had taken [labor] so far down the wrong track that nobody, including radicals had the energy and strength to reverse the direction."

But it was Alinsky's tumultuous relationship with the New Left of the 1960s that is most relevant to today. By that time, Alinsky was a giant. He had trained people like Caesar Chavez and Nicholas Von Hoffman. He had organized the Woodlawn organization made famous during the civil rights movement, and he had helped Rochester, New York organize to fight the abuses of Eastman Kodak by pioneering creative uses of shareholder proxies. Horwitt writes that in many respects New Left leaders like Tom Hayden, Paul Booth, Todd Gitlin and others "should have been kindred spirits" - but their outlooks were fundamentally different than Alinsky's. As Horwitt recounts:

"'Participatory democracy,' a central concept of the [New Left's] Port Huron Statement, meant something fundamentally different to Hayden and the others from what 'citizen participation' meant to Alinsky. Theirs was something akin to the old town-meeting democracy, where everybody speaks his piece, consensus is the goal, and leadership and hierarchy are resisted, while Alinsky's 'organization of organizations' approach puts a premium on strong leadership, structure and centralized decision-making."

Make no mistake about it - Alinsky's methods were not rooted in the autocracy of today's right-wing organizations. His organizations insisted "that the process of problem-solving, the active participation of ordinary people, was at least as important as the solutions or decisions themselves," writes Horwitt. Put another way, he believed that democratic engagement in organizational decision making was at least half the reason to start an organization in the first place, because such engagement inherently empowers people ('s constant request for input from its members, for instance, suggests at least some organizations on the Left understand this principle).

Nonetheless, this split in outlook (which was just one between Alinsky and the New Left) is mirrored in progressive circles today, between what we might roughly call the Big Tenters and the Populists.

Crudely speaking, the Big Tenters are a mix of high-minded liberals who want everyone to hold hands and get along for the "common good"; Establishment types that use the mantra of "Big Tent" to deflect demands on them for accountability/results; and younger activists who were brought up being told by upper middle-class parents that "anyone can be rich, famous or president" and thus now believe that hierarchy is evil because "everyone can be the leader of a movement." The Populists are a strange brew of newer activists who feel so burned by both parties they have lost the ability to care about hurting people's feelings; more senior pre-Vietnam Era movement builders; industrial unions who are fighting the bipartisan Washington Consensus in order to save their jobs; and those students of political history who see a value in learning from opponents like Grover Norquist on the Right.

The struggle between these two factions is already at a boil. In just the last few weeks, it has come to the forefront of the early Democratic presidential jostling, with candidates like Barack Obama floating nebulous Big Tent themes of "hope" and John Edwards firing back with more confrontational populist themes and with subtle rejoinders that "Identifying the problem and talking about hope is waiting for tomorrow."

But along with this struggle is an even bigger question about whether Alinsky's work will be considered a historical relic or a before-his-time prophecy of how to actually make change. That Alinsky's name is relatively little-known among today's progressive activist class suggests the former - and that is a troubling commentary on the new generation's disregard of history, the older generation's failure to teach history, a general disdain for the unglorious pursuit of local organizing - or some combination of all three.

That's not really surprising: every single message in our political debate is designed to make ordinary people feel helpless. This is especially true of our culture's incessant focus on a celebrity-ized national political scene to the exclusion of other arenas that are more easily influenced by ordinary people, that are often more relevant to people's daily lives, and that Alinsky showed are the most powerful weapons in challenging power.

"We're trying to build a organizations with staying power, not a movement based on instant power and charisma," says Ed Chambers, Alinsky's disciple who now heads today's IAF. Can the same be said of the stirrings of today's new progressive activists who see themselves as a part of a movement? Will we let them call us rebels, as Alinsky, Paine and other icons of history did? Or, are we too afraid of being attacked for our dissent by the Establishment?

My take is simple: they already call us rebels and much, much worse. So we should simply act the part, because there is no benefit to doing otherwise. But there is a very powerful other side of this debate, and the answer to which path we take - power challenging or power appeasing - is sure to shape progressive politics and the national agenda in the next decade.

Cross-posted at Sirotablog and DailyKos