Three Alinskys?

by Peter Szynka, Bremen / Germany

Introduction: Difficulties in Understanding Alinsky

At first, I would like to share some thoughts concerning the word tradition, before I go on to present my findings on Alinsky. Tradition could be defined as the passing on of knowledge and experience to others. Although Alinsky has written and reported basic findings on Community Organizing, I would not like to see him as a starting point of whatever tradition. This would deeply miss his intentions. Much of what Alinsky has said or written on Community Organizing was not new at his time. I do not want to say that Alinsky brought nothing new, however. But I would like to claim that Alinsky can only be understood adequately when one sees him as part of a chain within which something like tradition was passed on.

One can say that Alinsky was rooted very strongly in the Chicago School of Urban Sociology and that he learned a lot from his teachers. Furthermore, his work was subject and is subject to the interpretations of his co-workers , colleagues, trainees and students, who brought in their own views and lost others. This makes Alinsky part of a chain that we can define rather precisely. The Alinsky tradition can in no way be understood without references to his teachers and his trainees.  Doing justice to the work of Saul D. Alinsky we must regard his teachers and famous sociologists Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess. Also Oskar L. Lewis, the famous labor union leader, has to be mentioned. We also have to name Edward T. Chambers, one of Alinsky’s trainees and the present director of the Industrial Areas Foundation.
Occasionally one has to protect the teachers from their readers and trainees. This is not only true concerning Alinsky’s German readers, but also his American trainees. Last but not least we have to protect Alinsky’s teachers from Alinsky himself.

Further difficulties appear because many of the core concepts used by Alinsky have other, more complicated meanings in the German language. Many of these concepts are needed as scientific concepts, to help to clarify social facts. However, the same concepts are sometimes taken and turned into political concepts by people who want to fight for social change. For example, this is true for his concepts of „community“, „organization“, „power“, „conflict“, „self-interest“ and „compromise“.  It also applies to the term used in the titles of his major works: „radical“.

Another difficulty consists in the structure of the material left by Alinsky. There are scientific articles from his early period and his major works „Reveille for Radicals“ and „Rules for Radicals“. Sometimes they seem to be written down in a hurry and contain a lot of cryptic parts. There are a lot of lectures, fragments, interviews, press reports, films and all sorts of legends.

If one works precisely with the conceptual and structural difficulties and takes note of the sources of Alinsky’s ideas, one will come to fundamentally different results than in older approaches to his work.
In the following section, I would like to present three pictures of Alinsky. These pictures have two different functions.  On the one hand they are analytic and try to come closer to the truth of Alinsky’s person and work. However, the presented pictures are also selected strategically. They are intended to irritate and disturb the pictures people might have won during the reception of Community Organizing in the 70s.
I will first introduce Alinsky to you as a student of the Talmud. This picture is specially dedicated to German readers. In Germany it took a long time for Community Workers to become independent from religious Community Work during the 19th century. This led to the result that religious activities in the field of Community Work are regarded with suspicion. On the other hand, in Germany today, almost nothing is known about Judaism and its impact on social work. Alinsky’s religious education prepared him very well as an independent counselor of religious institutions.

You will then get to know Alinsky as scientist and science-critic. This section is specially dedicated to readers who try to build community Organizing efforts solely on the basis of religion or faith2. This is the case with some of his successors in the USA3. Alinsky was heavily engaged in enlarging the scientific base for his community organizing efforts. Sometimes it seems that his approach should be a kind of socio-technique that would function under all conditions. This surely did not come true. But it should be recognized that he tried to enlarge, as we would say in Europe the knowledge-base of his practice.

Finally I will show Alinsky advocating the American Way of Life. This is especially dedicated to readers who tried to see Alinsky as some kind of Marxist revolutionary leader. In contrast to this, he has to be seen as somebody who finds orientation in the economic and moral writings of the 18th century economist Adam Smith.

A Bible Lesson with Saul Alinsky

Saul David Alinsky grew up in a Jewish home. His parents were orthodox Jews and belonged to those approximately 50.000 Russian Immigrants who came to the US after the pogroms of 1881. At first they came to New York, and then went to Chicago to escape the overcrowded immigrant neighborhoods of New York. About his new home in Chicago, Alinsky later said, that it was „a slum in a slum“. His orthodox parents sent Saul David to the Cheder, the Jewish elementary school. His progress in reading Hebrew texts was rewarded and he was expected to finish the Yeshiva, the Jewish Talmudic school. Due to his stubbornness and independence of mind, his parents called him a „goyischen kop“, which means a „non Jewish mind“.  His father always feared that mobs from the Polish neighborhood could penetrate into the Jewish neighborhood and instigate a pogrom in the style of the old world he knew. The young Saul David participated in Jewish gangs which engaged in many fights with Polish and other gangs.

After one of theses fights, his mother took him to a rabbi. Saul defended his behavior with a Bible quotation: „an Eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth: this is the way things go in America“. The rabbi liked the vivacious boy and he patiently explained to him what it means „zu sejn a mensh“ (to be a man). He introduced to him the maxim of the great Rabbi Hillel „Where there are no men, be you a man!“ This saying of Rabbi Hillel will more than 50 years later stand over his second major work „Rules for Radicals“.

Again and again Alinsky told the story of Moses and the „Exodus from Egypt“. In Alinsky’s eyes, it was an example of brilliant organizing. The core of that story is the scene where Moses negotiated with God, who planned to destroy his people because of their dance before the golden calf.

„Moses did not try to communicate with God in terms of mercy or justice, when God was angry and wanted to destroy the Jews; he moved in on a top value and outmaneuvered God. (…)
A great Organizer, like Moses, never looses his cool (…)
He knew that the most important center of his attack would have been what he judged to be God´s prime value. As Moses read it, God wanted to be No. 1. (…)
Knowing this, Moses took off on his attack. (…)
He began to negotiate, saying „Look God, you’re God. You’re holding all the cards. Whatever you want to do, you can do and nobody can stop you. But you (…) can’t scratch the deal you’ve got with these people – (…) the Covenant – (…).
You’re going to tell me that they broke their end of it (…).
But it isn’t that easy. You are on the spot. The news of this deal has leaked out all over the joint. The Egyptians, Philistines, Canaanites, everybody knows about it.
But (…) you’re God. Go ahead and knock them off. What do you care if people say, „There goes God. You can’t believe anything he tells you. You can’t make a deal with him. His word isn’t even worth the stone it’s written on‘. But after all, you’re God and I suppose you can handle it.“4
And he finished with the quotation from Exodus, 32: 7-14
“And the Lord was appeased from doing the evil which he had spoken against his people.”

For our purpose it is only important that Alinsky neither invented this story nor its interpretation. The story is told in the book of Exodus. Its interpretations are more than 1800 years old and follow the ideas of the Chapter in the Babylonian Talmud called Berachot 32. Moreover, this text occupies a central position in Jewish thinking.  Every Jewish child knows the story and its problem. The manner in which Moses gets God off his oath of destruction is a central part of the liturgy of the Reconciliation Day, the highest Jewish holiday. In my opinion it is also a key to understand some of Alinsky’s central concepts of Community Organizing: conflict, negotiation, compromise and reconciliation.

Therefore, was Alinsky a religious man? His employee and successor Ed Chambers claims that Alinsky was an atheist. I think he was an assimilated, enlightened, modern Jew.

However, it was his knowledge of the Bible, resulting from his Jewish education, that gave him the ability to cooperate effectively with religious organizations like the Christian Churches. From the beginning of his career to the end of his life, he remained connected to the Roman Catholic Church and particularly to the archdiocese of Chicago. He even participated in the education of parish priests. For a time no parish priest was let into a community of Chicago unless he had completed an elementary course in Community Organizing with Saul D. Alinsky.

Alinsky as Scientist

Alinsky’s work becomes primarily understandable in the context of the sociological discussions at the Chicago School of Sociology of his time. Although Alinsky strongly criticized science, science business and the practical relevance of sociological knowledge, he did research on his own and made some remarkable contributions to the discussions of his time. His own scientific work is recognizably stamped by the Chicago School of Sociology. His later practice may also be seen as an application of central concepts from the Chicago School.

Alinsky studied criminology and sociology. He took part in projects of Ernest W. Burgess and worked for Clifford R. Shaw, where he began to fight against youth crime. He had practical experience as a participant observer and interviewer in the mobster-groups around Al Capone. He also took part in research of Ernest W. Burgess about the impact of dancing-halls on the moral development of young people.

The Chicago-Area-Project, guided by Clifford R. Shaw, was a model and a starting point for his own Back-Of-the-Yards Project. His early scientific work deals with interview techniques and the evaluation of his Back-of-The-Yards Project.

His later publications are more popular-scientific and written for a broader public.

Throughout his life Alinsky gave lectures at universities and other places of adult-education. Now, what are the important concepts, Alinsky took from the Chicago School?
The Chicago School of Sociology is inseparably linked to William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki. Their major sociological work is entitled: „The Polish peasant in Europe and America“. In this sparkling work the authors follow the question of how immigrants manage their everyday-lives in the US. This topic directly touches the history of Saul Alinsky’s family, immigrating from the east European, Jewish “shtetl” into the modern American, industrial “city”. The authors evaluated an enormous quantity of life-stories from Polish immigrants in this work.

The work of Thomas and Znaniecki is a milestone in the development of the sociology from a theoretical science towards an empirical science. At the core of this development stands the systematic evaluations of life-histories.

They also developed a theory of primary groups, a theory of the „Definition-of-the-Situation“, and a dialectic-process of “Organization/Disorganization/Reorganization” which remained basic for their students.
Life-stories and the everyday experiences of the people stand also at the beginning of Alinsky’s organizing efforts. Alinsky regarded communities as primary groups. He related community organization/disorganization to personal behavior. Furthermore, he discovered that the “Definitions-of-the-Situation” upon which people act can be changed by communication and the sharing of life-experience. This shared analysis of situations will be the basis for his later power analysis.

Thomas’ and Znaniecki’s successors at the Chicago School were Ernest W. Burgess and Robert Ezra Park. One of their trainees was Saul D. Alinsky. The major work of Park and Burgess was called „The City“ and is regarded as a manifesto of the Chicago School of Urban Sociology.

„The City“ contains nine chapters and an annotated bibliography of the urban community.

Three chapters deal directly with questions of Community Organizing. One deals with the interesting question of whether neighborhood work can have a scientific base.
This chapter was the model for Alinsky’s evaluation of his own Back-of-the-Yards Project. This Evaluation was published in the famous American Journal of Sociology and tried to show that Community Organizing could be planned and conducted on a scientific base5. He also distinguishes his Community Organizing practice from the approach of the settlement houses, which followed the model of Jane Addams’ Hull House. Further, he distinguished between self-organized neighborhood institutions and outside-organized services, which he accused of being some kind of welfare colonialism. From Park and Burgess he took over the concept of social forces and the distinction between scientific and “good-will” approaches.  Participant observation, open interview techniques, and „nosing around“ remained essential in his approach. I quote:

“Who are the leaders?

Which interests of the neighborhood do they incorporate in themselves and what is the technique by which they exercise control?

What is the social , i.e. what things must one do in the neighborhood in order to escape being regarded with suspicion or looked upon as peculiar?

What does it regard as a matter of fact? What is news? What is the general run of attention? What models does it imitate and are these within or without the group?

What is there in clear consciousness, i.e. what are its avowed sentiments, doctrines etc.?

What is the history of the neighborhood? What is there in sub consciousness — in forgotten or dimly remembered experiences- of this neighborhood which determines its sentiments and attitudes?”

I did not take these questions from Alinsky’s chapter on “Native Leadership” and “Community Traditions and Organizations” in his book „Reveille for Radicals“6, as readers would probably expect. I took it from the original source, the sociological classic of his teachers Park and Burgess called “The City” 7.

Probably the best known contribution of the Chicago School to the world of Sociology is Thomas’ theorem of the „Definition-of-the-Situation“. In the original version it is cited „If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.“ It reflects the experience that people act upon their judgment of the situation. They do this whether this definition is true or not.
With this background, Alinsky’s famous Rule No. 1 on power-tactics becomes easily understandable. He says:

„Power is not only what you have, but also what your opponent thinks you have.“8

Although Alinsky was very deeply rooted in the Chicago School of Sociology, he strongly criticized sociology.
He used to say:

“The words academic and irrelevant are synonymous”.

In interviews Alinsky said that his work was not influenced by the Chicago School of Sociology although this influence is conspicuous. He particularly admired Robert E. Park. I think, therefore, that his polemics were not aimed at the sociology of the Chicago School in general, but against special developments and influences. His criticism can be understood as criticism of a development which successively replaces qualitative social research by quantitative, statistical research. The polemics aimed at a sort of sociology that makes itself dependent on the market (as market research) and on the state (as opinion research). His criticism aimed at a sociology that restricts the empirical value of the single man or woman. He opposes a sociology that cannot guarantee its relevance for an improved social and political practice, a sociology that doesn’t reflect the relevance of its results for social development and social progress. His criticism coincides with that of Robert Lynd9 or C. Wright Mills10 with whom he worked and corresponded about these problems.

Alinsky and the American Way of Life

Reitzes and Reitzes11 wrote that only a brief examination of Alinsky’s work shows that the American Founding Fathers were more important to him than Karl Marx. This also applies to Thomas Paine, to Alexis de Tocqueville and furthermore to the economist Adam Smith.

He permanently denied being a Marxist and there is no reason to quote Alinsky together with Frantz Fanon or Brazilian guerilla leader Carlos Marighela, as for instance the Dutch author Piet Reckman did 1971 in his book about Social Action12. It was never Alinsky’s intention „to crush the welfare islands of the world“. He did not agree with groups – also existing at that time in the USA – who hoped, that an „armed People’s Army“ would come to „free the American people“.

One can even say that Alinsky tried to counter the excesses of the student movement in his second major work called „Rules for Radicals“. In his later years, he also seemed to switch over to the organization of the American middle class and share-holders.13

On the question of property, Alinsky was on the side of the Founding Fathers.14 But how then, can the community be protected against the bad consequences of unjust distribution of property in society?
Alinsky probably found his answer in the work of the economist Adam Smith, which defined self-interest as a basis and prerequisite for all human behavior and made this finding the basis of his economic theory. Alinsky quotes Smith’s famous and well known sentences from the book “Wealth of Nations”:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard of their own interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantage.”15

According to Smith, the excesses of unbridled self-interest (egoism and lack of interest) can only be controlled by moral rules, compassion, positive law and competition.16

Alinsky himself does not criticize the unjust distribution of property, but he criticizes a moral deficit:

„We know that one of the greatest obstacles in the way of strengthening out the affairs of mankind is the confusion and inner conflicts raging within men. It is the vast discrepancy between our morals and our practices. It is the human dilemma, which constantly draws a shadow of guilt over many of man’s noblest endeavors. It gnaws at our vitals and drives us to irrationality „.17

How does Alinsky intend to close this „vast discrepancy“ between morals and practice? We still have to learn a little more from Adam Smith at this point. We find the key not in Smith’s most famous book „The Wealth of Nations“ but in his “Theory of Moral Sentiments”.18

As already said, according to Alinsky and Smith, in a world of people who follow their self-interest and pursue their happiness, people’s morals become very important. According to Smith and Alinsky, there are primarily two moral feelings which fulfill this educational and stabilizing function.

In Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” these feelings always appear together as counterparts. On the one hand, there is the positive feeling of “gratitude” we feel towards others, who behave according to the necessities of the common welfare. On the other hand we feel and express a negative feeling of “moral disapproval” towards others who are going to damage the common welfare by their behavior.
This feeling of „moral disapproval“ appears in the original text of Smith as „resentment“. In the German translation it appears as „retribution feeling“19, which in German language also contains an aggressive connotation. Therefore I prefer to say „moral disapproval“.

At this place it would fit that everyone ask him or herself in what manner he or she expresses his or her feelings of „moral disapproval“ in everyday-life. According to Smith and Alinsky the adequate expression of “gratitude” and “resentment” is of excellent value for the regulation of human matters.
Therefore, Alinsky says, that the first task of an Organizer is to

„rub raw the resentments of the people of the community; fan the latent hostilities of many of the people to the point of overt expression. He must search out controversy and issues, rather than to avoid them. (…) An Organizer must stir up dissatisfaction and discontent; provide a channel into which people can angrily pour their frustrations. He must create a mechanism that can drain them of the underlying guilt for having accepted the previous situation for so a long time. Out of this mechanism, a new community Organization arises“.20

This essential finding of Alinsky can not be adequately understood without Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments.”

However, if Alinsky counts on Smith in this central question, then what kind of a „radical“ is he?

Here the nearest comparison can be made with Thomas Paine, of which the following saying stands as a motto at the beginning of Alinsky’s „Reveille for Radicals“:

„Let them call me a rebel and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul…“.

Alinsky radicalism is like that of Thomas Paine. It is a civil radicalism.  Paine aimed against the American dependence from England and against aristocracy and totalitarianism. Alinsky aimed his radicalism against injustice, a lack of democracy and against welfare colonialism. Alinsky was not a „radical“ according to the extremist-resolutions in Germany. He was not „radical“ in the sense of Marxists, who aimed at changing the system.

His „Back-of -the-Yards Project“ stepped forward from good-will and compassion to the articulation of citizen-rights. This step was also a step from the general call for the gratitude of the people to everybody’s right to indignation.

In this sense Saul D. Alinsky was a radical moralist. He formulated a criticism of the (moral) conditions (of the system) and not a criticism of the system itself. He didn’t create any alternative systems but he analyzed Adam Smith, the mentor of a free economy, so precisely that he got his ally. According to the famous Alinsky Power Rule No. 4, he “hit the system with his own book of rules” or, as he used to say,

„Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules. You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian Church can live up to Christianity.“21


I again emphasize that these pictures remain parts of an incomplete mosaic. It is not the purpose of my paper to deny the necessity of studying his writings. I only try to replace some given pictures, drawn in the seventies, which I think are too simple. Much more might be said about Alinsky: For instance “Alinsky as Biographer of the Union leader John L. Lewis” or on “Alinsky and the Socratic Dialog”. This was not the place to do that. I would like to advocate the necessity of further research. Especially Alinsky’s roots in Chicagoan Sociology throw new light on the history and development of social planning, ecological thinking and systemic intervention. A just recognition of his contribution to applied sociology and social policy is still inspiring for social scientists, social workers and political engaged people who want to understand and solve social problems.


  1. An earlier version of this paper was part of apresentation in German language at  the conference of the German Society for Social Work in Frankfurt/Main, 2001-12-01 (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sozialarbeit, Arbeitskreis „Soziale Arbeit in und mit Gemeinwesen“).  It was also part of a presentation in English language at the conference of the Inter-University Consortium for International Social Development (IUSCISD) in The Hague / Netherlands, 2002-09-27. Because English is not my mother tongue, I have to thank Martin Asmuß, Edewecht (Germany), Gisela Broers, Oldenburg (Germany) and Randy Stoecker, Toledo (USA) for their help and remarks on the translation.
  2. see „A saint man only gives birth to sacred cows „, Alinsky, Saul D., Reveille for Radicals, 1946, p. XV
  3. see for instance: Jacobsen, Dennis A., Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing, Minneapolis 2001
  4. Alinsky, Saul D., Rules for Radicals, 1971, pp 89 ff
  5. Alinsky, Saul D., (1941) Community Organization and Analysis. In: American Journal of Sociology, May, 1941, pp. 797-808
  6. Alinsky, Saul D., Reveille for Radicals, Chicago, 1946, pp. 87-111
  7. Park, Robert E., Burgess, Ernest W., McKenzie, Roderick D., The City: Suggestions for Investigations of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment, Chicago 1925, p. 11, (quoted in reversed order)
  8. Alinsky formulated “13 Rules of Power-Tactics” which should be easily remembered and foster group discussions: 1. Power is not only what you have but what your enemy thinks you have, 2. Never go outside the experience of your people, 3. Wherever possible, go outside the experience of your enemy, 4. Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules, 5. Ridicule is the most potent weapon, 6. A good tactic is what your people enjoy, 7. A tactic that drags too long becomes a drag, 8. Keep the pressure on, 9. The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself, 10 The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition, 11. If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside, 12. The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative, 13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.
    The Rule No. 4 will be discussed at the end of this paper. See: Alinsky, Saul D.: Rules for Radicals, New York 1971, pp. 126 ff.
  9. Lynd, Robert, Knowledge for What?, Princeton 1939
  10. 1Mills, C. Wright, Sociological Imagination, New York 1959
  11. Reitzes, Donald C. and Reitzes Dietrich C., The Alinsky Legacy: Alive and Kicking, Greenwich 1987
  12. Reckman, Piet, Soziale Aktion, Laetare, Freiburg, 1971 p. 11 and p 35ff.
  13. Alinsky, Saul David, Rules for Radicals, 1971, p. 184: “Organization for Action will now and in the decade ahead center upon America´s white middle class.”
  14. See: Federalist Papers, Article 10, (Madison)
  15. Smith, Adam, An Inquiry to the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 1790, quoted in: Alinsky, Saul D., Rules for Radicals, New York 1971,  p. 54
  16. Recktenwald, Horst Claus, Freiheitliche Ordnung der Klassik, in: Smith, Adam, Der Wohlstand der Nationen, Göttingen 1980, Appendix p. 820
  17. Alinky, Saul D., Reveille for Radicals, 1946, pp. 39-40
  18. Smith, Adam, The Theorie of Moral Sentiments, German Edition: Theorie der ethischen Gefühle, Meiner, Hamburg 1994, pp. 60-69 , and pp 99-102
  19. op.cit., p. 616
  20. Alinsky, Saul D. , Rules for Radicals, 1971, p. 116 f.
  21. Alinsky, Saul D. , Rules for Radicals, 1971, p. 128

About the Author

Peter Szynka was a Social Scientist and Social Worker, Community Organizer in Duisburg-Bruckhausen during the 70’s. At present he is a regional advisor, responsible for the organizational development of services for homeless people run by the Service Agency of the Protestant Church (DIAKONIE) in North-West Germany. He was trained in Community Organizing by Ed Shurna of Chicago, Don Elmer of San Francisco, and the IAF of Chicago. He is currently chair of FOCO (Forum Community Organizing) in Germany.

Diskussion zu dem Aufsatz

From: „Mark R. Warren“ <>

Dear Peter,
I read your comm-org paper with great interest. It’s a perceptive and refreshing piece. I liked it because I think you show how Alinsky combined, or connected, or interrelated, the moral, political and scientific worlds into action. I think so much of our contemporary problem is the disconnection between these fields of action. Politics is the world of naked self-interest and power only; social scientists abandon any moral standpoint – any critique of injustice, prising a dispasssionate, so-called objective science; and religion too often retreats into the private world. I’m not advocating that social scientists become moralists. But our work (I’m a sociologist) needs to be guided by a moral vision and should seek to impact politics and social policy, the world of practice. There are perhaps many ways to interconnect science, morality and politics. Alinsky, and your interpretation of his work, offers much to learn from, as we all seek our own authentic path.

Mark R. Warren
Graduate School of Education
Harvard University