Misreading Alinsky

Since the year before his disciple, Barack Obama, was elected president, many of us have been raising alarms about how Saul Alinsky’s brass-knuckles tactics have been mainstreamed by Democrats. It was thus refreshing to find an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this week, by Pete Peterson of Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy, expressly calling out a top House Democrat for resorting to the seminal community organizer’s extortion playbook.

But in the end, alas, Mr. Peterson gets Alinsky wrong.

He does a fine job of exposing the hardball played by Rep. Raul Grijalva, the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. Grijalva attempted to intimidate scientists and professors who fail to toe the alarmist line on “climate change” by sending letters to presidents of their universities. He wrote the letters on congressional letterhead and purported to impose a March 16 due date for a response – creating the coercive misimpression that the letters were enforceable demands for information, made by a government official in a position to punish noncompliance. The missives sought information about the scientists and academics (among them, the excellent Steve Hayward of Pepperdine and Power Line), including whether they accepted funding from oil companies. Peterson adds that the letters were followed up by officious calls from Grijalva’s staff. The abuse of power is blatant and reprehensible.

Peterson is quite right that Grijalva’s “targeting [of] institutions and their leaders is pure Alinsky; and so are the scare tactics.” He goes astray, however, in contending that this leftist lawmaker’s adoption of Alinsky’s tactics “may not fit with Alinsky’s philosophy.”

In essence, Peterson contends that Alinsky’s systematizing of extortionate tactics can be divorced from any particular ideological agenda. He urges, as did Alinsky himself in Rules for Radicals, that the latter’s system was devised for the “Have-Nots,” advising them how to take power away from the “Haves.” Therefore, Peterson reasons, “an existential crisis for [Alinsky’s] vision” arises once the Have-Nots acquire power: i.e., the system is somehow undermined by its own success because the Have-Nots are not Have-Nots anymore.

This overlooks a crucial detail. There is a reason why Alinsky’s self-help manual is called Rules for Radicals, not Rules for Have-Nots.

Alinsky was a radical leftist. Of course, he struck the pose of one who eschewed faithful adherence to a particular doctrine; but that is a key part of the strategy. To be successful – meaning, to advance the radical agenda – a community organizer needs public support. Thus he must masquerade as a “pragmatist” rather than reveal himself as a socialist or a communist. The idea is for the organizer to portray himself as part of the bourgeois society he despises, to coopt its language and mores in order to bring about radical transformation from within.

But it is not as if Alinsky organizers are indifferent to the kind of change a society goes through as long as it is change of some kind. Alinsky was a man of the hard left, a social justice activist who sought massive redistribution of wealth and power. Peterson acknowledges this in a fleeting mention of Alinsky’s “professed hatred of capitalism.” Noteworthy, moreover, is Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals critique of such seventies revolutionaries as the Weathermen: his contempt stemmed not from disagreement with their goals but from the fact that their terrorist methods enraged the public, making those goals harder to achieve. When a book begins, as Rules for Radicals does, by saluting Lucifer as “the very first radical,” it is fairly clear that the author has taken sides.