Military history

Chapter 24

Existential Strategy

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even tacitly take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machines will be prevented from working at all.

—Mario Savio, Free Speech Movement, December 1964

IT had been young people who had sustained the later campaigns of the civil rights movement. Their experiences in the South had radicalized them, both in their critique of American society and their demand for a new politics. In the early 1960s to the extent that they were organized it was as part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which was largely made up of black activists (although initially not exclusively so), or else the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which as the name suggests was based in the universities and was largely white. Both initially reflected anger at the gap between the ideals upon which their country was based and the reality of racial divides and preparations for nuclear war. Both were set up with firm commitments to nonviolence, but both by the end of the 1960s had embraced violence and factionalism.

Of the two, SDS attracted the most comment: an active and radical political force emerging out of a disadvantaged minority was less surprising than one emerging out of the affluent majority. Moreover, SDS came to be seen as part of a broad cultural shift that went well beyond politics. There was a generational break between those whose formative experiences had been depression and the fight against Germany and Japan and those who had grown up in relative comfort but found the social constraints they had inherited frustrating. This was reflected in changing musical preferences, attitudes to sex, and the use of recreational drugs. A key word for the decade, borrowed from anti-colonial struggles, was “liberation.” The word came to be applied to any group, including women and gays, that felt constrained by social conventions and outdated laws. In this respect, it challenged the role of the state in everyday life and was individualistic rather than collectivist in inspiration.

This helps explain why there was such an uneasy fit with the orthodox Left, which was collectivist and enthusiastic about the possibilities of the state and the role of labor unions. It had been marginalized by affluence, its rhetoric seen as an echo of old struggles long lost and won, with its internal politics still marked by in-fighting between communists, Trotskyites, and social democrats. The young activists fresh from the freedom rides in the South, where they had often been in jail or suffered beatings, had little time for those who had spent their time trading theoretical blueprints for socialism. Although SDS was intended initially to be the student branch of the League for Industrial Democracy, another of John Dewey’s causes which now represented the pro-union, anti-communist strand in American socialism, it took off on its own trajectory. So the revolt was against not only the complacent liberalism and social conservatism of mainstream America but also the social democratic tradition. This tradition of mass parties organized to fight parliamentary elections on the basis of an agreed program reflecting a more or less coherent ideology had never really taken root in America. The new radicals were more in a libertarian, anarchist, anti-elitist tradition, desperate for authenticity even at the expense of lucidity, suspicious of all authorities and organizational discipline. Instead of decisions being taken by individuals who were detached, remote, and looking after their own interests, a way had to be found to engage ordinary people so that they could shape their own destinies.

When SDS was formed in 1962, meeting at the United Auto-Workers retreat at Port Huron, Michigan, there was a clash with the social democrats of the League for Industrial Democracy. Tom Hayden, a Michigan student journalist and the lead author of the Port Huron Statement that set SDS in motion, described his wonder that “seemingly serious people could get so enmeshed in such endlessly divisive hair-splitting debates.” “As a formative experience,” he noted, “we learned a distrust and hostility toward the very people we were closest to historically, the representatives of the liberal and labor organizations who had once been young radicals themselves.”1 The old leftists in turn were shocked by the indifference of the young activists to the working-class cause and the unions, and their reluctance to get drawn into denunciations of communism. Instead of the rigorous analysis of classic texts, the new radicals were suspicious of theory. Political acts had to be genuine expressions of values and sentiments. Convictions took priority over the calculation of consequences, reflecting a wariness of expediency and a refusal to compromise for the sake of political effects. At times it seemed as if deliberate and systematic thought was suspect and only a spontaneous stream of consciousness, however inarticulate and unintelligible, could be trusted. Todd Gitlin, an early activist and later analyst of the New Left, observed how actions were undertaken to “dramatize” convictions. They were “judged according to how they made the participants feel,” as if they were drugs offering highs and lows. If it was the immediate experience which counted for most, then there was little scope for thinking about the long term.2

This left the new radicals caught by Weber’s paradox. Though Weber was dispirited by the steady bureaucratization of society and politics, he considered it irresponsible to ignore the logic of functionality. The emerging political form of the new radicals embraced an ethic of irresponsibility. There could be no separation of means and ends. Every compromise, every denial of a core value meant that something precious had been lost, diminishing whatever might eventually be achieved. Their tactics, highlighted by the sit-in, instinctively challenged all rules. They were often strikingly lacking in both theory and organization, reveling in activism but without a clear direction. The underlying philosophy was existentialist rather than socialist.

This experiment in existential strategy failed because those features that made it so culturally liberating, and where the effects were actually long- lasting, also made it politically exasperating. When positions were articulated in terms of core values rather than alternative outcomes compromises were hard to arrange and coalitions became fragile. Without hierarchy, when every decision was subject to constant challenge and re-examination, organization became slow and ponderous, and implementation tentative. The activists, doubting rationality and trusting feelings, became increasingly angry. Their distaste for the politics of expedience and compromise led to isolation and irrelevance and vulnerability to the intervention of groups based on hard theory and disciplined organization against which they had initially rebelled.


Instead of the polarized class struggle anticipated by Marx, postwar capitalist society was marked by an improved standard of living, apparently developing into a self-satisfied but undifferentiated mass society. The salaried middle classes were on the ascendant, largely to be found in large, impersonal organizations. The daily grind of life was hardly grueling. Yet there appeared to be something missing. The critique was not of growing misery and poverty but of dreariness, not so much physical deprivation but of a psychological void. William Whyte’s The Organization Man suggested a degree of homogenization in the American middle class, reflected in standardized career paths, consumer tastes, and cultural sensibilities, with an accompanying degree of docility. The fault, he argued, was not in organization but its worship, “the soft-minded denial that there is a conflict between the individual and society.”3 Indeed, much of the writing about this group, including David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd and C. Wright Mills’s White Collar Workers, suggested that the rise of this class was joyless.

Riesman argued that inner-directed personalities followed life goals established at an early age, had a strong sense of values, and were therefore apt to suffer from guilt when deviating from those values. They were giving way to other-directed personalities, who took cues from their environment and were dependent on their contemporaries or even the media for direction. The distinction was between following either an internal gyroscope or an external radar. The Lonely Crowd became one of the most popular books ever written by a sociologist. In contrast to the earlier progressives who looked to other-directedness as a means of binding society together and encouraging a democratic sensitivity, it encouraged the view, probably more than Riesman intended, that there was something pernicious about social conventions and political orthodoxy as uncritically transmitted through the mass media.4 The idea that adapting to the social environment risked denying core values was also a theme of Erich Fromm’s Fear of Freedom. Fromm, a refugee from Nazi Germany, warned of the dangers of rootless individuals seeking security in conformism or authoritarianism. Freedom had to be about more than lack of restrictions. It needed to be more positive, creative, authentic, expressive, and spontaneous, as well as less respectful of the received wisdom of experts or the dictates of common sense. Social structures were presented as suppressing the natural, positive side of human nature rather than as restraining the negative, coercive side.5

The enthusiasts for the cultural developments of the 1960s saw it as an affirmation of this positive side of human nature against the conformism of the corporate state. When in 1970 Theodore Roszak looked back approvingly over that decade, he described the many developments he applauded as responses to the “technocracy.” This, echoing Weber, was described as corporate power combined with a state of mind according to which the requirements of our humanity yield wholly to some manner of formal analysis which can be carried out by specialists possessing certain impenetrable skills which can then be translated by them directly into a congeries of economic and social programs, personnel management procedures, merchandise, and mechanical gadgetry.

These experts, to be found at the corporate center, believed that most human needs had been filled; where there was a problem, it was the result of a misunderstanding.6 In different ways, Roszak claimed, the poetry, literature, sociology, political tracts, and demonstrations of the time challenged this technocratic presumption. In this respect, the politics of the decade was but one part of a general revolt against rationality, whether in challenges to bureaucracy and scientific expertise, or in hedonistic life styles and the disparagement of conventional careers. Claims of objective knowledge were distrusted. Instead of worldviews being shaped by the accumulation of knowledge, “knowledge” always deserved quotation marks, reflecting an underlying worldview rather than actual reality.

What did this mean for strategy? At a general level it challenged an idea of strategy based on not only the presumption of choice but also the availability of methods for choosing well, which included the need to pay close attention to the operating environment and think ahead. In some respects, liberalism as it had developed through the twentieth century could pride itself on having created the optimal conditions for strategy-making: the right of free political expression, the ability to organize, and respect for the scientific method as a means of bringing clarity to choice and thinking through consequences. Now the New Left appeared to see this approach as problematic, a form of thinking that constrained the range of choice and excluded those affected by decisions from contributing to their resolution, and a stress on organization, which meant hierarchy.

It could also be the case that there was little point in worrying too much about relating ends and means because of the utter hopelessness of the strategic task in the face of a complacent majority culture. The aspirations of the young radicals were beyond the scope of rational planning. Not surprisingly, therefore, a strategy of absolute ends emerged, heroic and romantic, doomed to fail but magnificent in its ambition and noble in its honesty. The aim was to affirm existence rather than realize goals, and in this there was a nod across

the Atlantic to the French existentialists with their deep musings about the human condition, full of absurdity, abandonment, and despair, but also stressing the unavoidability of choice. Jean-Paul Sartre might seem to dwell on the futility of action, but his point was that hopelessness was not in itself a reason for passivity. Indeed, choice was unavoidable for men were “condemned to be free.” They did not choose the circumstances of their existence, but they were obliged to respond. The quality of their responses, whether heroic or cowardly, was their responsibility and would eventually define their lives.7 More influential than Sartre, at least in the United States, was Albert Camus. Politically, Camus was closer to the anarchists than the communists, and his strong anti-Soviet views caused a break with Sartre. In 1940, he was a pacifist but the experience of occupation led him to join the resistance, eventually editing the underground journal, Combat. This was the inspiration for his allegorical 1947 novel, The Plague. As a plague almost overwhelmed the Algerian City of Oran, the citizens were in denial and then, instead of abandoning hope, the community found a way of defeating the disease and regained its solidarity in the process. The doctor, Bernard Rieux, summed up the philosophy: “All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.”8 From Camus came the argument that rebellion made a life worth living, even when this meant acting in the face of overwhelming odds. So long as one was acting with integrity there was no need to worry about being an underdog, for integrity mattered more than consequences.

Mills and Power

C. Wright Mills died of a heart attack in his mid-40s in 1962. Mills was controversial at the time and has remained so since, not least because of his larger than life personality and his readiness to cast himself as a dissident.9 He was the classic inner-directed man, true to his own values, describing himself as a loner who never worked with a political group. The early years of his career saw him subjected to three influences, two of which remained critical for his own ideas. The pragmatists were the first influence, and the subject of his doctorate. He shared their belief in the public role of intellectuals. There was an affinity with James’s anti-militarism and Dewey’s advocacy of participatory democracy. At the same time, Mills was skeptical of Dewey’s quasi-scientific framework and over-mechanical view of politics, his reluctance to come to terms with the problem of power and to acknowledge its manipulative, emotional, and coercive elements.10 Yet Mills also appreciated Dewey’s commitment to intelligence as a form of power. Both were opinionated, although by contrast with Dewey’s ponderously functional prose, Mills’s was laced with invective and value-laden categories.

Hans Gerth, an émigré from the Frankfurt School, helped move Mills from philosophy to sociology, and introduced him to the work of Max Weber. From Weber, Mills then derived his basic explanatory framework, the interweaving of class, status, power, and culture, and the alarm at the role of large bureaucracies in all areas of life. Marx was not read or taken seriously by Mills until well into his career, after which Mills became progressively more Marxist. He was also becoming more of an activist intellectual toward the end of his life, defending the Cuban Revolution and developing links with the British New Left (composed of Marxists, often scholarly, who had left the Communist Party). Part of his appeal to students was that he already identified them as potential agents of change, ready to challenge the forces of inertia and conservatism.11

His books combined subtle analysis and research with a searing social critique. The critique became more strident during the course of the 1950s as his own international reputation as a dissenting intellectual grew. He was preoccupied with the structures of power: how in modern corporate America the elite no longer needed brute force or coercion to sustain its position but could instead rely on manipulation. His target was what came to be described as the “pluralist” school, which argued that democracy could function with a relatively low level of citizen participation. Since everybody got something out of the political process and had no cause for either excessive distress or joy, somehow it was working effectively and fairly.

The debate on power was an important one and Mills’s book, The Power Elite, was always cited on one side of the argument, often against Robert Dahl’s Who Governs: Democracy and Power in an American City.12 Part of the difficulty was that they reflected two different views of power and how to measure it, and both views were relevant to the developing debates about radical politics. Power was, and still is, regularly referred to as an attribute of a political entity, measured in terms of the more blatant indicators of military and economic strength. Yet it was evident that an ample stock of both did not guarantee favorable outcomes in all encounters. The powerful did not always get their way. Resources needed to be considered in the context of the problems they were supposed to solve. A card player might have great skill and a wonderful hand of cards for bridge but not for poker. There was therefore a difference between putative and actual power, between capabilities and effects, the potential and the act.13 Dahl’s definition stressed the ability to influence: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.”14 It was not enough that A had capacity: it was only really power as revealed in quite specific relationships through measurable effects, by B being made subject to A’s will.

One of the most important and lasting challenges to this view came not from Mills but two political scientists, Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz, in a 1962 article:

Of course power is exercised when A participates in the making of decisions that affect B. But power is also exercised when A devotes his energies to creating or reinforcing social and political values and institutional practices that limit the scope of the political process to public consideration of only those issues which are comparatively innocuous to A. To the extent that A succeeds in doing this, B is prevented, for all practical purposes, from bringing to the fore any issues that might in their resolution be seriously detrimental to A’s set of preferences.15

This second face of power had an almost insidious quality: it was about how A sustained a position in a power structure, of power over others, by keeping issues off the agenda and creating a background consensus that denied B the opportunity to begin to challenge A, never mind defeat A in a direct confrontation. It was this line of critique that by the end of the decade had been embraced by the radicals, although often in a far cruder, “false-consciousness” way than these authors intended. Mills avoided the simple Marxist analysis of government being the executive committee of the ruling class or of mass consciousness being shaped by bourgeois ideology. His description of the power elite was more about a bureaucratic convergence of interests, including corporate executives and the “warlords,” than an organized conspiracy, but he insisted that the system of checks and balances was no longer working and so encouraged the view of a vital resource being monopolized by a privileged view, so that they could get what they wanted when they wanted it.16

Mills became as much of a pamphleteer as a scholar, “prepared to step forth and brazenly pin his indictment like a target to the enemy’s chest.”17 His catchy rhetoric remained nonetheless an extension of his sociology. His impatience with mainstream sociology was reflected in his book The Sociological Imagination,18 in which he derided what he saw to be the two false paths of mainstream sociology: self-important grand theory on the one hand and abstracted empiricism, full of microscopic studies that remained marginal to the big questions of the day, on the other. The true purpose, he insisted, should be to connect private troubles with social and political structures. If an individual was unemployed that was a private trouble: if 20 percent of the population was unemployed that was a structural issue and thus a task for sociology. In this role, he argued, sociology could be the master discipline of politics. The sociological imagination would feed the political imagination. “Before you are through with any piece of work, no matter how indirectly on occasion,” he insisted, “orient it to the central and continuing task of understanding the structure and the drift, the shaping and the meanings, of your own period, the terrible and magnificent world of human society in the second half of the twentieth century.”

The Port Huron Statement

Tom Hayden was a natural wordsmith and was the first to find fresh language to convey a new mood. The Port Huron Statement, for which he was the lead author, was discussed in June 1962 by a group of about sixty people, feeling—as he later remarked—that they “were giving voice to a new generation of rebels.”19 There were a number of influences. Arnold Kaufman, Hayden’s philosophy professor at Michigan, had introduced him to John Dewey as an exponent of the democratization of all social institutions. From Camus came a way of thinking about rebellion as a way of life, and from C. Wright Mills a critique of the prevailing distribution of power, but also something more personal. It was partly that they were both lapsed Catholics. But it was also that what unsettled him about his own family could be explained. As he read Mills, Hayden saw a portrait of his father, an accountant for Chrysler: “proud in his starched white collar, occupying his accountant’s niche above the union work force and below the real decision makers, penciling in numbers by day, drinking in front of the television at night, muttering about the world to no one in particular.”20

Mills explained for Hayden “the factors that made people uninterested and apathetic in the face of Camus’s plague.” Bureaucratic elites welcomed passivity and had no incentive to encourage true democracy. Mills had written of the emergence of the “cheerful robot,” a creature of mass society with an illusion of freedom but unable to influence the larger structures of power. “Between the little man’s consciousness and the issues of our time, there seems to be a veil of indifference. His will seems numb; his spirit meager.” In this spirit the Port Huron Statement opened, acknowledging the awkwardness of the position of students: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably at the world we inherit.” They did not claim to be speaking for the masses but were a self-declared minority observing that “the vast majority of our people regard the temporary equilibriums of our society and world as eternally-functional parts.” Students “don’t even give a damn about the apathy.”21

A Millsian analysis was offered of why people felt so powerless and had succumbed to indifference: “People are fearful of the thought that at any moment things might be thrust out of control. They fear change, since change might smash whatever invisible framework seems to hold back chaos from them now.” Yet here was optimism about humanity. “We regard men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love.” If core values could be rediscovered in a “moral realignment” then there was a possibility of a “political realignment.”22Politics was not a means to an end. It was an end in itself, participation and engagement serving to heal the divide that had opened up between people and their society. The New Left, the statement insisted, must transform modern complexity into issues that can be understood and felt close-up by every human being. It must give form to the feelings of helplessness and indifference so that people may see the political, social and economic sources of their private troubles and organize to change society. In a time of supposed prosperity, moral complacency and political manipulation, a new left cannot rely on only aching stomachs to be the engine of social reform.23

The immediate cause for the students was civil rights in the South. This met their appetite for activism and provided experiences that were more instructive and meaningful than anything that could be gained through studying the political classics. But that could only take the movement so far. The aim was to move the demand for rights into all institutions rather than just the electoral process. The starting point for their demands to be heard was therefore their own institutions—the universities. Here they were expected to conform, accept what they were told in class without demur, and follow all rules at risk of expulsion. Gradually this new mood made itself felt. A clash over the rights of CORE to organize on the San Francisco Berkeley campus led to the first big student demonstrations.

Dick Flacks, a young academic closely involved with the Port Huron Statement, observed the tension between the developing movement as a way of life and as an agency of change. The way of life he called “existential humanism,” which required no more than acting according to core beliefs, constantly striving “to approach an ethical existence,” but he saw that this could be irresponsible, searching “for a personally satisfying mode of life while abandoning the possibility of helping others to change theirs; of placing tremendous hope in the movement of the immediate community for achieving personal salvation and gratification—then realizing that these possibilities are, after all, limited and, consequently suffering disillusionment.” As did Weber, Flacks sought to reconcile convictions with responsibility. This meant acting “politically because our values cannot be realized in any durable sense without a reconstruction of the political and social system.” Politics, however, apart from an existential ethic would be “increasingly manipulative, power-oriented, sacrificial of human lives and souls,”—in short, “corrupted.” The answer, suggested Flacks, was “strategic analysis,” though he acknowledged the prevailing suspicion of an “explicit and systematic preoccupation with strategy” as imposing artificial constraints, restricting spontaneity, and reducing responsiveness to what people really wanted. As it was the property of a few, “acting in terms of strategy is elitist.” Unfortunately, without strategy there would be no sense of priorities, inarticulateness, and “almost random behavior among students who want to do effective social action.”24

This described the problem rather than identified solutions. As with previous generations of radicals, the only way out of the dilemma appeared to be to get among the people, working with them to address their issues without claiming that they had all the answers. So it was that Hayden joined a community program, the Economic Research and Action Project, in Newark. The prohibition on elitism was limiting. There were other “liberal forces” in the area with whom it might be advisable to coalesce, but Hayden found them “extremely self-serving,” with “wide community contact but no active and radical membership base” and programs that “would do very little to change the real lives of the poor.” Entering into “political bartering” would violate “the basic trust we have with the neighborhood people. Our place is at the bottom.”25 Liberal strategies assumed that the “masses are apathetic and can only be roused because of simple material needs or during short periods of great enthusiasm.” Because of this, “they need skilled and responsible leaders.” The complaint then followed a familiar path: leaders presumed that only they could maintain the organization. Because people reacted with “disinterest or suspicion” to such elitism, the leadership was able to call the masses apathetic, although he also acknowledged a worrying tendency to “think subserviently.”

Hayden was considering not the broad masses of Marxist mythology but a minority underclass.26 He recoiled from the obvious answer, which was to form coalitions or at least make temporary arrangements with the powerful. This was rejected because no more than “welfare-state reforms” would be on offer, bound to fail because they were “not conceived by the poor people they are designed for” and allowed the middle class to relax “into the comfortable sense that everything is being managed well.” His focus was so relentlessly about power, and avoiding appearing to want it, that the assumption had to be that if those at the bottom had power they would do well by themselves and others. But would they want the things that the activist believed they ought to want? If their minds had been turned by years of powerlessness and a consumerist culture, might their demands and the efforts they were prepared to put behind be disappointing?

Unsurprisingly, he was left with a “mystery” when looking for a “workable strategy.” His aim was “a thoroughly democratic revolution,” reversing the abdication of power to “top-down organizational units,” out of which a “new kind of man” might emerge who could not be manipulated because it was “precisely against manipulation that he has defined his rebellion.” The poor would transform decision-making by acting on their aspirations, working against the grain of “an affluent and coercive society.” As he later accepted, the flaw in this analysis was assuming that the aspirations of the poor would be any different from the middle-class society whose values he personally derided. He already was aware of the difficulty of finding leaders who could forswear an interest in the organization for its own sake or a rank and file who understood and committed themselves to the movement’s goals.27

While Hayden was struggling to sustain his commitment to participatory democracy, SNCC was in the process of abandoning it. James Forman, as executive secretary, had argued in 1964 for a proper mass organization rather than uncoordinated activists to compete with other civil rights organizations. To the centralizers, this simply required individuals to subordinate their own issues to the needs of the collective.

This was hard for many activists to take. They were afraid that a distant center would be insensitive to local concerns and indulge in empirebuilding. Moreover, it went against SNCC’s founding ethos. Participatory democracy in practice, however, had been found frustrating and exhausting. There were the familiar problems of finding local people able to commit time and energy to the cause, and the tendency for the principle to paralyze decision-making with constant discussions which nobody dared bring to a conclusion, as every attempt to take an initiative was challenged as usurpation of democratic rights. In her book, Freedom Is an Endless Meeting, Francesca Polletta recounts how demands to “let the people decide” came up against the exasperating tendency of the people to be moderate and risk averse, seeking social services rather than revolution. This led to the conviction that people needed to have their real interests explained to them. There were also deeper factors at work. There was an issue with educated northerners who were often seen by the local southerners as being self-serving, with a patronizing reverence for the untutored wisdom of the poor and ignorance of local culture. According to Polletta, this was more about class and education than race, though there were concerns about white liabilities as black community organizers. By 1966, however, black power had taken over and the new leadership of SNCC wanted to distinguish themselves from northern liberals by something tougher and more militant.28

The Heroic Organizer

It is worth comparing the experience of community organization as an exercise in participatory democracy with that of the man who did more than most to develop the idea of organizing local communities to take on local power structures. Saul Alinsky was born in Chicago in 1909 and joined the University of Chicago’s sociology department as an undergraduate in 1926. The department was then under the leadership of Robert Park. Park, who had come to sociology later in his career after starting off as a reporter, was attuned to city life in all its forms and studied it with an almost voyeuristic curiosity. Introduction to the Science of Sociology, the book he published in 1921 with his close colleague Edwin Burgess, was for two decades a core text in the field. Burgess, a diffident man and in Parks’s shadow, was more of a social reformer. He viewed “social research as the solutions to society’s ills,” but less in terms of elite prescriptions and more in democratic terms, as a means of “harnessing social change.”29

Park and Burgess took students on field trips to explore Chicago, from the dance halls to the schools, the churches, and the families. The city was large and diverse, with distinctive immigrant communities. Organized criminal gangs, of which Al Capone’s was the most famous, flourished during the Prohibition Era. The proximity to Canada meant that Chicago was a natural base for smuggling illicit liquor into the United States, and vicious competition developed over the control of the trade. The city should be a focus of study, Park argued, for it showed “the good and evil in human nature in excess. It is this fact, perhaps, more than any other which justifies the view that would make of the city a laboratory or clinic in which human nature and social processes may be most conveniently and profitably studied.”30 Critical to this school of thought was the conviction, bolstered by research, that social problems had social rather than personal causes. Burgess took this a step further than Park, arguing that the role of researchers was to “organize the community for self-investigation.” The community should survey its own problems, educate themselves about social issues, and develop a core group of leaders prepared to organize for “social advance.”

Burgess became a major influence on Alinsky, not least because he recognized in his student an ability that his academic record had obscured.31 Alinsky was drawn to criminology and upon graduation, he got a fellowship with Burgess’s support. He decided to make a study of the Capone gang, if possible from the inside. Eventually he made contact by hanging around the gangsters and listening to their stories.32 For a while he worked as a criminologist in a state prison. Then, in 1936 he joined the Chicago Area Project designed to show how delinquency could be addressed socially. The cause of criminality was not individual feeble-mindedness but neighborhoods marked by multiple and reinforcing problems of poverty and unemployment. Burgess set the principles for the organizers. The program should be for the neighborhood as a whole, with local people autonomous in planning and operations. This required an emphasis on training and local leadership, strengthening established neighborhood institutions, and using activities as a device to create participation.33 He argued that local organizers, preferably former delinquents, could help show their own people a way to more acceptable behavior. This approach was controversial. He was directly challenging paternalistic social work and was accused of tolerating criminality, encouraging populist agitators to stir up local people against those who were trying to help them and had their best interests at heart.

In 1938, Alinsky was assigned to the tough Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago, already notorious as the jungle of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel. He was a natural in the organizer’s role. Clever, street-wise, and brash, Alinsky had a knack of gaining the confidence of people who might otherwise feel neglected and marginalized. His approach was more political than the project allowed, however. Not only did he use the issue of delinquency to move into virtually all problems facing the neighborhood, but he also put together a community organization based on representatives of key groups who had clout because of who they represented and not just as individuals. Alinsky also drew organized labor into his campaign, well exceeding his brief by getting involved in a struggle against the meatpacking industry. By 1940 he had left the project and struck out on his own.

Over time he became more scathing in his critique of the social sciences as remote from the realities of everyday existence. Quoting a description of the University of Chicago’s sociology department as “an institution that invests $100,000 on a research program to discover the location of brothels that any taxi driver could tell them about for nothing,” he added his own observation that “asking a sociologist to solve a problem is like prescribing an enema for diarrhea.”34 Certainly tendencies in sociology had moved on since the Park/Burgess era at Chicago. Nonetheless, Alinsky’s initial trajectory reflected the preoccupations of the discipline during the interwar years.

In an article published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1941, Alinsky provided a clear account of his approach. He described the wretched lives of those working in the slaughter houses and packing-houses of the Back of the Yards area. The neighborhood was a “byword for disease, delinquency, deterioration, dirt, and dependency.” The traditional community organization would be of little value in such an area because it considered individual problems in isolation from each other and the community in isolation from the “general social scene.” Instead, by placing each community within its broad context, its limited ability to “elevate itself by means of its own bootstraps” could be acknowledged. He identified “two basic social forces which might serve as the cornerstone of any effective community organization.” These were the Catholic Church and organized labor: “The same people that comprise the membership of a parish also form the membership of a union local.” He got local organizations to come together to form the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council. Membership did not just involve the church and the unions, but also the local chamber of commerce, the American Legion post, as well as “the leading businessmen, the social, the nationality, the fraternal, and the athletic organizations.”

Through the council, problems such as unemployment and disease were shown to be threats to all the people, both labor unions and businesses dependent upon local purchasing power. The various leaders “learned to know one another as human beings rather than as impersonal symbols of groups which, in many cases, appeared to be of a hostile nature.” Behind this was a “people’s philosophy” that emphasized rights rather than favors and the need to rely on an organization “built, owned, and operated by themselves” to get their rights.35

This was obviously a completely different philosophy to Hayden’s. Alinsky went out of his way to draw in local organizations; Hayden was worried that this kept ordinary people excluded and reinforced local power structures. At the time, many on the Left would have queried working with the Catholic Church, which was deeply hostile to the atheistic Communist Party. Alinsky’s self-definition as a radical was reflected, as his biographer notes, in his “inclinations, convictions and rhetoric, and wishes” but less so “in his actions, which took a more pragmatic form.”36 He was prepared to forge coalitions with whosoever appeared appropriate. His role model was not so much the communist agitator but the labor organizer.

This was the heroic age of the American labor movement, led by John Lewis of the United Mineworkers, which had broken away from the sleepy American Federation of Labor, dominated by elitist craft unions, and formed the Confederation of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Lewis combined a strident anti-communism with a belief in a centralized state stabilizing and planning the economy. He provided dynamic leadership to the burgeoning labor movement, with his tough and imaginative negotiating style demonstrated to the full in the sit-down strike at the General Motors Flint plant in 1937. After Flint, other industries were wary of head-on confrontations. He was able to do a deal with U.S. steel without making direct threats. He challenged the racial discrimination of southern mineworkers (who argued that black workers could make do with lower wages to support their more modest lifestyle). Within two years, the CIO had 3.4 million members. Alinsky met Lewis in July 1939 when he spoke on behalf of the Chicago packing workers. Lewis’s daughter Kathryn was on the board of Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation.

Lewis was Alinsky’s role model. He was egocentric, entered confrontations with relish, and led with nerve and panache. Later, Alinsky would write an admiring biography. From Lewis he learned how to provoke and goad opponents, promote conflict and then negotiate its resolution, using power to best advantage at all stages. Alinsky paid attention to the intellectual justifications for action and their rhetorical expression. He was impressed by the way Lewis managed to pursue a program which menaced the establishment by associating the CIO with American ideals of fairness and justice. “Similarly, Alinsky’s own argumentation sought to place the objectives of his Industrial Areas Foundation firmly within familiar-sounding American political tradition.”37

In 1946, Alinsky published his first book, Reveille for Radicals, which became a surprising bestseller. The basic idea behind this was that the sort of techniques that had been used so effectively by the labor unions in the factories could be used within urban communities—as he put it, “collective bargaining beyond the present confines of the factory gate.” The radical was described as a militant idealist, someone who “believes what he says,” has the common good as the “greatest personal value,” “genuinely and completely believes in mankind,” takes on every struggle as his own, avoids rationalization and superficiality, and deals in “fundamental causes rather than current manifestations.” His goals were described in terms of a utopia—where every individual’s worth was recognized and potentiality realized; all would be truly free politically, economically, and socially; and war, fear, misery, and demoralization would be eradicated. By contrast, liberals attracted Alinsky’s scorn, for flaws in temperament and attitude rather than philosophy. They came over as feckless, hesitant, complacent, lacking the stomach for a fight, combining “radical minds and conservative hearts,” paralyzed by their insistence on seeing both sides of an issue, and fearful of action and partisanship.

The fundamental difference revolved around the “issue of power.” Radicals understood, according to Alinsky, that “only through the achievement and better use of power can people better themselves.” Where liberals protested, radicals rebelled.38 Given the heroic concept of community organization (a “program is limited only by the horizon of humanity itself’), it was not surprising that Alinsky also had a heroic concept of the organizer. “One could envision Alinsky’s organizing flying high in a Superman cape,” observed his biographer, “swooping into a forlorn industrial community, ready to fight for truth, justice and the American Way!” The organizer would lead the “war against the social menaces of mankind.”39

Over the next couple of decades, before his sudden death in 1972, Alinsky’s acolytes were involved in a number of organizational efforts across the United States. Alinsky himself was particularly associated with two: one in the Woodlawn District of Chicago and the other in Rochester, New York. Both involved largely black communities and had as their key demands improved employment and an end to the discriminatory practice of only hiring blacks for the most menial jobs. In Rochester, the target was the town’s dominant corporation, Eastman Kodak. In both cases Alinsky enjoyed a degree of success, though this required negotiations rather than the capitulation of the employers.

Not long before he died, he published another book, Rules for Radicals, which set out his basic philosophy. We shall return later to this book, which is important in terms of how he positioned himself in relationship with the other radical social movements of the 1960s. For the moment, we can consider the “rules” themselves.

He set down eleven. A number were basic to any underdog strategy. The first was pure Sun Tzu: persuade the opponent that you were stronger than was really the case (“If your organization is small, hide your numbers in the dark and raise a din that will make everyone think you have many more people than you do”). The second and third were about staying close to the comfort zone of your own people and going outside that of the opponent in order to “cause confusion, fear, and retreat.” Rule 4 was to use the opponent’s own rulebook against them, and Rule 5 was to use ridicule (“man’s most potent weapon”) because it was hard to counterattack and infuriated the opposition. This led to Rule 6, which was that a good tactic was one your people enjoyed, while a bad tactic was not only not fun but also (Rule 7) dragged on and became hard to sustain. This was because (Rule 8) the essence of a good strategy was to keep the pressure on the opponent. “The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition. It is this that will cause the opposition to react to your advantage.” Rule 9 was an observation about how threats could be more terrifying than the reality, and Rule 10 was about the need for a constructive alternative, an answer to the question, “Okay, what would you do?” Lastly, Rule 11 commanded: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it. Don’t try to attack abstract corporations or bureaucracies. Identify a responsible individual. Ignore attempts to shift or spread the blame.”

These rules were those of a campaigner and in that respect were different from a form of strategic thinking that consisted largely of worrying about how to relate, if at all, to the local power structure and the principles that should govern any action. Alinsky was all about the campaign and the specific goals that had been set for it. The rules reflected Alinsky’s appreciation of the elemental requirements of strategy in terms of endurance, coalitions, a capacity for surprise, and a need to keep an eye on public perceptions. The sense of community and confidence in the organization must grow with the campaign until it became strong enough to withstand setbacks and was able to move from one issue to another. One of Alinsky’s admirers, Charles Silberman, compared his approach to guerrilla warfare. He explained the need “to avoid a fixed battle where the forces are arrayed and where the new army’s weakness would become visible, and to concentrate instead on hit- and-run tactics designed to gain small but measurable victories. Hence the emphasis on such dramatic actions as parades and rent strikes whose main objective is to create a sense of solidarity and community.”40 The aim was not just to keep pressure on the targets but also to build up the community and its organization at the same time. Certainly Alinsky was clear that violence was a bad idea. This was not a moral issue. He was against actions that almost guaranteed defeat, and resort to arms came into that category.

Some of the tactics for which Alinsky became best known reflected a sense of mischief and provocation. One was to unnerve a Chicago department store that had discriminatory hiring policies by sending thousands of blacks on a normally busy Saturday for a shopping spree that would lead to very few purchases while deterring normal customers. Another tactic, intended to pressure Chicago’s mayor, was to occupy all the toilets at O’Hare airport so that arriving passengers would be left desperate. The most notorious ploy, though possibly largely intended to amuse his audiences, was a proposed “fart-in” at the Rochester Philharmonic, sponsored by Eastman Kodak. The effect was to be achieved by feeding copious quantities of baked beans to young men prior to their joining the audience. What is notable about these tactics, apart from their dependence to some extent on white stereotypes of blacks, was that none of them were actually implemented, although Alinsky claimed that getting word to the targets had a coercive effect. One of his tactical innovations was the use of share proxies to gain a right to speak at shareholder meetings and put companies on the spot, first achieved with Kodak stock in April 1967. Reports of the meeting suggest little sympathy from other shareholders, but here was a way to embarrass company boards and put them on the spot in a way that might be picked up by the media.

Alinsky’s distrust of liberals and tendency to romanticize the poor were traits he shared with the young radicals who moved into community organizing in the mid-1960s. But there were important differences. He was results oriented. He wanted victories, even if small, which meant that he would form coalitions and cut deals. He knew that his natural constituents were minorities, and this became even more so as a majority of the American people identified with the middle class. He therefore understood the need for support from those who might otherwise be spectators. He was prepared to get his funds from rich liberals, and was always looking to his targets’ vulnerabilities on external support as a source of pressure (for example, customers or stockholders or some higher governmental authority). In terms of tactics, his basic need was to find new ways of sustaining campaigns and keeping them in the public eye (and here his own notoriety could be an advantage). He also understood that the degree of organization required, especially when undertaken by outsiders and professionals, was bound to be an issue in itself. The establishment was quick to point to the malign presence of outside “agitators” (a label Alinsky happily embraced) to delegitimize campaigns, just as the young radicals were wary of strong leaders who could easily set themselves up as an alternative establishment and leave the people as powerless as they had been at the start. Just as the young radicals now hoped, Alinsky had begun assuming that the organizer was drawing out a latent political consciousness, creating awareness not only of injustice but of the possibility of redress. Communities would be self-reliant and self-sustaining not only in their organization but in their consciousness, with a local leadership able to give voice to this consciousness and ensure its long-term authenticity. Alinsky made it a rule, which he only came to question toward the end of his life, that no more than three years’ support should be provided to a community organization, after which they were on their own.41

Yet he was working with people with few resources and little self-confidence, who were almost completely absorbed by coping with the everyday problems of existence. Alinsky’s colleague, Nicholas von Hoffman, who worked with him for a decade before leaving in 1962 to become a journalist, described how the “lumpen proletariat” faced a series of emergencies and a chain of bad news: “Gas is cut off, electrical service terminated, the landlord is evicting them, a cousin is in jail, the baby has to be rushed to the emergency room, one of the kids sassed a social worker and the family is getting cut off, the reigning male came home and beat the hell out of the mother, Wilson stole the food money, Janice is pregnant, Mother missed her appointment with the vocational counsellor because she was drunk.” As a result, the poor were “unreliable, not the stuff of organizations which are bound together by keeping their commitments.” In practice that meant (as the civil rights movement also discovered) that the pool of credible and capable local leaders was small; the activist base was narrow. Only a few percent of any community were involved in Alinsky’s campaigns. His methods, therefore, came to rely on careful organization and strong leadership. While that did not fit with the later fashion for spontaneity and participatory democracy, he judged that he got better results. His pragmatism was also reflected in his choice of campaigns. Von Hoffman recalled that Alinsky “had no tolerance for a defeat that could have been avoided, no patience with moral victories.” He picked fights that he could win on the grounds that not all injustices could be righted.42


Although the younger Alinsky had been prepared to cast himself in the role of heroic organizer, the elder Alinsky was more wary of the notion. The people who grasped power and its uses were rarely pure in their motives, if only because they enjoyed the rough and tumble of politics. That could make them devious and cynical, relishing their notoriety, as he certainly did. An awareness of imperfection was to be preferred to a claim of perfection. In this regard, he worried about Cesar Chavez, a man whose work he supported. Chavez had been hired in the early 1950s by Fred Ross, who was running the Alinsky-sponsored Community Service Organization in California to promote voter registration and workers’ rights among Mexican farm workers. A decade later, Chavez left to form what became the United Farm Workers Union (UFW). He was a follower of Gandhi, adopting methods such as fasting and pilgrimages and insisting on nonviolence. In the spring of 1966 he led farm workers in a march from Delano to Sacramento, the California state capital. This was combined with a campaign for a nationwide boycott of Californian grapes. Alinsky was skeptical, but the boycott gained widespread support. It lasted five years and ended in victory: higher wages and rights to organize unions enshrined in law.

Traditional unions were wary of migrant workers, who were presented as threats to white employment. An earlier attempt by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)43 to organize farm workers failed because the leadership did not understand local conditions or speak Spanish and instead relied on familiar models from old labor campaigns, despite having to work with a transitory workforce with a high turnover. Chavez saw the value of rooting the union in local communities, which offered educational possibilities, access to the church, and added to the tactical repertoire—for example, rent strikes. He could also use the example of the civil rights movement:

How have negroes won their battles? When everyone expects them to run . . . they kneel and pray. When they appear beaten, they turn their defeat into victory. They use only what they have, their bodies and their courage . . . We farm workers have the same weapons—our bodies and our courage . . . The day we farm workers apply this lesson with the same courage as they have shown in Alabama and Mississippi—on that day, the misery of the farm workers will come to an end.44

Chavez’s strategy put him at the center of his movement. An iconic moment came in 1968 when his people were wearying of a long strike that appeared to be going nowhere, and the value of nonviolence was being questioned. He embarked on a fast to reassert his authority, spiritual more than coercive, and to demonstrate the power of suffering. His penitence was presented as a response to those in the union who had spoken of violence. Mexican Catholics appreciated the symbolism and saw him to be suffering on their behalf. With ministers in attendance, the fast became a religious event. It had a galvanizing effect on the workers, many of whom made their own pilgrimages to the site of the fast.

The advantages gained in strengthening union support were further reinforced when the grape growers, who apparently believed that the fast was a fraud, decided to issue an injunction against the union’s tactics at this point. This provided a frail Chavez with a perfect opportunity to turn up in the courtroom, attended by thousands of praying supporters. When he ended his fast after twenty-five days (one day more than Gandhi’s longest fast) he did so after an ecumenical service with a piece of bread handed to him by Senator Robert Kennedy (about to declare his candidacy for the presidency). A minister read Chavez’s speech:

I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice. To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us to be men.45

Alinsky was wary of piety. He told Chavez that he found the fast “embarrassing.” Nor was he impressed by Chavez’s insistence on living on a low wage, ensuring an appropriate level of suffering, when he had a family to support. Eventually Chavez’s insistence that UFW staff all work on a subsistence wage became a source of discontent.46

One of those who worked with Chavez, Marshall Ganz, observed the importance of the initial motivation as a source of strategic creativity. Strategy did not come first but followed the commitment to act, which inspired “concentration, enthusiasm, risk taking, persistence, and learning.” The intense interest in the problem at hand encouraged critical thinking, challenging expectations and contexts.47 Chavez provided the impetus, but he also had a view of organization that depended on strong leadership, and in which the people who did the work made the decisions. This was far removed from participatory democracy, or any sort of democracy, really. Building a movement and running an organization were two different activities. In the latter role Chavez became autocratic and eccentric, eventually leaving the UFW in disarray. Chavez remained an inspirational figure, and many of the alumni of the UFW went on to play important roles in other social movements. Nonetheless, he ended up destroying his own creation by purging insufficiently sycophantic staff.48

Imperfect Communities

The natural imperfections of human beings were reflected in the rank and file as well as the leaders. Perhaps Alinsky’s most bitter lesson was that there was no natural coincidence of views between politically aware outside organizers and the communities they urged to seize power. After 1945, the collective efforts of the revitalized Back of the Yards community were devoted to keeping out blacks. As von Hoffman observed, once the area had been rebuilt and revitalized it became “a stable rock of racial exclusion.” There was now something to defend. Even people who were not actively racist still believed that blacks coming into the community “were harbingers of slumification, crime, bad schools and punishing drops in real estate values.”49

In his last interview (where he was described as one “who looks like an accountant and talks like a stevedore”), Alinsky recognized somewhat ruefully the irony of this and a less-than-romantic view of “the people.” When he arrived at the Back of the Yards in the late 1930s, it was already “a cesspool of hate; the Poles, Slovaks, Germans, Negroes, Mexicans and Lithuanians all hated each other and all of them hated the Irish, who returned the sentiment in spades.” As he diagnosed the problem, it was one of “dreams of a better world” being replaced by “nightmares of fear—fear of change, fear of losing their material goods, fear of blacks.” He was thinking “of moving back into the area and organizing a new movement to overthrow the one I built 25 years ago.” He still thought it was right to help people escape from “filth and poverty and despair,” even if they now shared the “establishment’s prejudices.” Just because the “have-nots exist in despair, discrimination and deprivation” did “not automatically endow them with any special qualities of charity, justice, wisdom, mercy or moral purity.” They were just ordinary people with all the normal weaknesses.

History is like a relay race of revolutions; the torch of idealism is carried by one group of revolutionaries until it too becomes an establishment, and then the torch is snatched up and carried on the next leg of the race by a new generation of revolutionaries. The cycle goes on and on, and along the way the values of humanism and social justice the rebels champion take shape and change and are slowly implanted in the minds of all men even as their advocates falter and succumb to the materialistic decadence of the prevailing status quo.

During the 1960s, such sentiments ensured that Alinsky was a popular speaker on campuses. He argued for radical, though not revolutionary, change and the redistribution of power. And he did not pretend that it would be easy or straightforward: “Change means movement; movement means friction; friction means heat; heat means controversy.” Yet he had little affinity with the leaders of the New Left. In the summer of 1964, a meeting was arranged between Alinsky and a few of the key figures in SDS, including Tom Hayden and Todd Gitlin. It did not go well. Alinsky was dismissive. Little would be achieved without leadership and hierarchy, and it was naïve to suppose that the poor wanted anything other than the lifestyles that these middle class youngsters were rejecting.50 For Alinsky, being the underdog was a liability to be overcome rather than a badge of honor.

Alinsky’s skepticism also extended to Martin Luther King, Jr., although he admired his achievements and copied some of his tactics. There was an attempt to get them to join forces when King came to Chicago in 1966, but they never met. Alinsky was resistant, wary of such a celebrity entering his home base, especially as he had made a deliberate decision not to try to campaign in the South, where he suspected he would be neither welcome nor effective. He was not one to take second place, even to a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and he also questioned whether a southern preacher could succeed in this setting. Alinsky appreciated that the civil rights movement’s basic approach was similar to his own, in terms of using direct action to dramatize key issues. The key to its success, he thought, was the stupidity of the southern establishment and international pressure. “A Bull Connor with his police dogs and fire hoses down in Birmingham did more to advance civil rights than the civil rights fighters themselves.”51 Alinsky had always insisted on proper organization, and his people noticed the difference with King’s entourage. Some were “very talented and some crazy as hoot owls,” but too many spent time bickering with each other, seeking to get close to King. The leadership never fired anyone and exercised no control over spending.52

Bayard Rustin had argued vehemently with King about Chicago, warning him about the harsh, cynical culture of the northern ghettoes and the complexity of city politics, especially the formidable machine of Mayor Michael Daley. Life was often tough, but blacks were not excluded from the political process and local conditions were less simple than the morality play that had been played out in the South. In one row Rustin told King that he did not know what Chicago was like. “You’re going to be wiped out.” King ended the argument by saying that he was going to pray and consult with the Lord. Rustin was furious. “This business of King talking to God and God talking to King,” he complained was no way to resolve serious strategic questions.53 Rustin’s misgivings were justified. King received a hostile reception and failed to gather any momentum behind his campaign. Rather than choosing a single issue around which to mobilize, nothing was precluded and any issue might be picked up. In other words, the campaign lacked focus. The aim was to draw a number of potential constituents, from slum dwellers to the unemployed to students, into activity and then escalate into a mass movement that could take dramatic action. Financial difficulties, poor local leadership, distractions in the South, and the complexities of which Rustin had warned all meant that King’s campaign never acquired momentum.

Alinsky demonstrated what could be done with community organization but also the limits of a bottom-up approach. Battles could be won and lives improved, but the results were bound to be disillusioning if set against romantic notions about what the people might achieve collectively once mobilized. The people, especially those with tough lives, had their own priorities and ways of coping. Only on occasion did these coincide with those of activists. Moreover, few campaigns could have the moral clarity of the civil rights movement, which put the establishment on the spot from the start. It was impossible in a liberal society to argue against the principle of desegregation, so the only issues were about pace and method. Other issues were more complex, both analytically and ethically. In addition, as Rustin began to argue forcefully, the changes sought—whether in civil rights or addressing the causes of poverty—required support from central government. Merely raging against the system resulted in largely unproductive consequences for the people on whose behalf the activists claimed to be raging.

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