It is a matter of no small amusement for the journalist and agitator Nicholas von Hoffman that his beloved mentor, Saul Alinsky, learned the craft of “organizing” at the feet of Chicago’s most notorious mobsters. This was nearly eighty years before the self-proclaimed radical became a household name, having posthumously inspired an up-and-coming organizer who went on to become the forty-fourth president of the United States. Alinsky’s entrée to the Al Capone gang (which, tellingly, he called a “public utility”) was neither his ruthlessness nor his penchant for rabble-rousing, though a surfeit of both qualities surely impressed his friend Frank (“the Enforcer”) Nitti. It was, instead, his academic credentials.

A freshly minted doctor of criminology from the University of Chicago, Alinsky sought out, bonded with, and closely studied anti-social types. His experience proved invaluable in his lifelong pursuit of “social justice,” the organizer’s panacea. Alinsky even found a Depression-era job at Joliet’s hard-knocks penitentiary, assessing the suitability of inmates for parole. Not every crook had the panache of the Enforcer, and the work soon bored Alinsky, whose promiscuous mind was easily given to boredom. Yet there was an oasis in this desert: the evaluation of an occasional con man. In an unintentionally hilarious vignette, von Hoffman relates that “one of the flim-flam men initiated Alinsky into the secrets of his trade.” We’re never told to which “his” the trade-secrets in question belonged—the flim-flammer or the organizer. It turns out not to matter. They’re both frauds.

Fraud is, in fact, the leitmotif of Radical, von Hoffman’s adoring portrait of Alinsky.[1] This oughtn’t be taken the wrong way: Radical is an enjoyable, sometimes even an endearing, read. Von Hoffman is an engaging writer, especially during the stretches when he manages to rein in his seething disdain for “teabaggers,” “the rich,” and other Americans who actually like America. There was a self-conscious coldness about Alinsky, who urged disciples to nurture what von Hoffman describes as the “cold anger that fosters calculated and measured action.” This “Alinsky aesthetic” held social workers and other idealistic progressives in nearly as low esteem as smug capitalists. It lauded the good sense of Saint Paul (a model organizer in the agnostic Alinsky’s eyes), for leaving “the poor to Jesus while he went after people with at least a little substance.” It’s a stripe of bloodless cynicism that will ring a bell for those who’ve closely watched the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Yet von Hoffman’s admiration for his subject illuminates the fire that burned within this “picador in the political corrida,” whose “irreverence was his banderilla.”

No, fraud is not a reason to take a pass on Radical but a cause to read it and be astonished. Even here, in this most affectionate of depictions, there can be no camouflaging that an “organizer” is a fraud through and through—in his tactics, in his motives, and in his carefully crafted self-image.

Take the organizer’s underlying premise: he presents himself as a builder of “small-d democracy.” “Democracy” is a codeword. To the unwary, it is drained of meaning, vaguely connoting a benign call to freedom and self-government. But for the revolutionary—and that’s what Alinsky’s radical is about, revolution—a democrat is the heroic Jacobin pitted in a fight to the finish against the evil, moneyed, ruling aristocrat. Life in America is a Manichean war in which the democrat inhabits the side of the angels.

Angels matter, by the way. Alinsky began Rules for Radicals—which was originally to be called Rules for the Revolution—with an “over the shoulder acknowledgment” of Lucifer as the “very first radical . . . who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom.” Inconvenient, and thus glossed over by Alinsky and von Hoffman, is the minor detail that the kingdom “won” by the fallen angel was . . . hell—a trenchant observation from the former radical turned patriot, David Horowitz, who acidly adds, “Typical of radicals not to notice the ruin they have left behind.”

Ruin indeed, for neither is the organizer the “builder” he purports to be. Unless, of course, we mean “build” in the sense that an army munitions squadron builds bombs. The organizer comes not to build but to destroy. Oh, he talks a noble game. After all, the rules preach that the revolution is all about communication: “social justice,” “racial justice,” “economic justice,” “equality,” “living wages,” “sustainable development,” and so on. These, though, are abstractions, and Alinsky admonished acolytes from von Hoffman to Hillary Rodham to Barack Obama that abstractions don’t get people motivated, marching, and moving. The revolution is about razing, not raising. It is not defined by what it is for. It is nihilism, defined only by what it abhors: the “establishment,” the “system,” in essence, the Haves.

Alinsky studied Machiavelli and produced what he saw as the antithesis of The Prince. The former, he posited, “was written for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.” What they might do when they get it is not explained. Alinsky radicals do not know what they want, except that it will be “Change,” and it will be perfect. Contrasted to this utopia, no real human society, no matter how decent, stands a chance. It has to be destroyed.

Alinsky also stole voraciously from Marx. The contention that he did no such thing, that he was no Marxist, is another example of the organizer’s pose—designed by the master and played to pitch-perfection by the student, Obama. The feint is that Marxism is dogma, whereas the organizer rejects all dogma. Unmoored from rigid principles of any kind, he is merely engaged, we are to understand, in “a pragmatic attack on the system”—a non-ideological quest to give voice to the voiceless. Von Hoffman thus scoffs at conservatives who have purportedly imagined Marx into Rules.

The organizer is a man of action, not theory, the story goes. Consequently, von Hoffman is at pains to recount Alinsky’s derision of the unabashed communist Bill Ayers. The Weather Underground leader was the “archetypal example of petulant ego decision-making,” whose “comic-book leftism” led to the “Rumpelstiltskin politics” of terrorism—albeit, von Hotffman snarks, “without the Taliban’s skill with explosives.” “Communists,” von Hoffman maintains, were “a thorny problem” for Alinsky, and one he was willing to solve remorselessly. The trade-union trailblazer John Llewellyn Lewis (revered by the organizer as “the old Napoleonic master of power and strategy: cold, ruthless, ingenious”) even called on Alinsky, his protégé, to extract Communists from the Congress of Industrial Organizations—a confidence von Hoffman (not very) reluctantly betrays, despite having promised not to, the better to limn the Enforcer-like Alinsky, giving those rascally Reds “the choice
of leaving town or finding themselves in an ‘ash can.’”

It’s all a fable, though, just as when Obama brays, “How dare you call me a socialist!” all the while directing attention away from Van Jones behind the curtain. The organizer is not a freelancing pragmatist. He is pragmatic only within the self-imposed, carefully unstated confines of an immovable framework: the Marxist schema of society as a class struggle. Until the Have-Nots overcome the Haves (the endgame of “change”), there is no justice.

Alinsky’s implacable premise is that the “setting for the drama of change has never varied. Mankind has been and is divided into the Haves, the Have-Nots, and Have-a-Little, Want Mores.” As Horowitz explains in a new and essential pamphlet, “Barack Obama’s Rules for Revolution—the Alinsky Model,” this is virtually unfiltered Marx. Thus does the Communist Manifesto open, proclaiming that the “history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed,” locked in a permanent clash that ends, inevitably, “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” Even Alinsky’s nod to Lucifer finds roots in The Eighteenth Brumaire, in which, Horowitz notes, Marx invoked Goethe’s Mephistopheles: “Everything that exists deserves to perish.”

The salient difference is that Alinskyites don’t talk about the endgame. There is no discussion of a proletarian dictatorship on the road to universal classlessness. That would just turn people off, and the organizer’s task is to turn people on. Telling them where you want to take them would be counterproductive. The idea is to make where they are repugnant to them: “They must feel so frustrated, so defeated, so lost, so futureless in the prevailing system that they are willing to let go of the past and chance the future.” And as the Have-Nots have not, the common ruin of the contending classes—the utter destruction of the existing order, the pillage of the Haves (by, say, putting them on the hook for an inconceivable $20 trillion or so in national debt)—is social justice.

No one was more dogmatic than Alinsky in diagnosing the capitalist establishment as incorrigibly racist, rapacious, and corrupting, or in the conviction that revolution is the only cure. These core conceits drove his life’s work—that’s what he called it, “the work.” And without these principles, the Alinsky organizer, the Herald of Change, has no purpose. A builder seeks harmony; the organizer sows discord and makes no apologies for it. An organizer, von Hoffman avers, is “an agitator.” If he can’t agitate, he withdraws. Absent a rabble to rouse, Alinsky saw no point in proceeding. “When you have unanimity before the fact, before people are organized,” von Hoffman expounds, “there could be no change, no reform, no progress. Unanimity is for after the struggle has been waged.” (In grand Alinsky style, the preceding is offered as this Boswell’s refutation of claims that his Dr. Johnson was “wedded to divisiveness.”)

Once you understand the organizer’s game, everything else falls into place. He is in a duel to the death with unprecedented prosperity: a system in which the entrenched interests are formidable, in which the vast middle is more interested in being an entrenched interest than a revolutionary, and in which the riff-raff—with unemployment “insurance” now stretching 99 weeks and “poverty” measured by how few flat-screen TVs one can afford—have yet to realize how bad they have it. With the odds stacked against him, the organizer needs one thing and one thing alone: power. For organizing is not about improving the lives of the destitute. Saving them, von Hoffman observes, is a drain on the organizer’s sparse resources and energy. And for all the high-minded twaddle about democracy, it, too, turns out to be readily dispensable. “Democracy,” wrote Alinsky, “is not an end; it is the best political means available toward the achievement of [the organizer’s] values.” The organizer’s highest value is empowering the organizer.

This is done not “by any means necessary” but by any means that concretely advance the cause. Alinsky did not help Lewis remove the Communists because he was anti-Communist. True, he was not a big-C Communist himself—he quipped that it was because he had a sense of humor, but it was actually because the Communists, beholden as they were to the flawed Soviet Union, were not radical enough for the Chicago nihilist. Alinsky, however, admired Communists and found them in general to be committed, effective confederates (which is why Lewis had installed them in the first place). They were purged because Communists were unpopular and, contemplating a break with fdr’s coalition, Lewis could not afford to appear as if he were toeing the Communist line. It was strictly a cold power calculation.

Similarly, Alinsky did not hold the Weathermen in contempt because of their goals. He shared their goals. His objection was that the cause was set back by their “pointless sure-loser confrontations” and wanton violence—as contrasted with the purposeful, opportunistic intimidation of gangland ash-making or the “direct action” favored by the now-infamous acorn (the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now).

Alinsky saw radical terrorists much the way the sophisticated Muslim Brotherhood regards the heedless al Qaeda. There is nothing wrong with lawlessness, even violence, per se. The laws, after all, are wrought by the establishment in order to preserve itself; there is no morality in honoring them. The question is always utility: as a practical matter, do the benefits to be extorted outweigh the likely blowback? The greater the illegality, the less likely it is to help matters in the long-run—especially when the radical is operating outside the system. That’s why it is much more effective to bore in from the inside. Bill Ayers, reinvented as a college professor—and by his own account, still the same radical, the same “small-c” communist, he has always been—found the “democratic” cause could be advanced far better by exploiting the classroom than by exploding the building.

Von Hoffman recounts a classic example of the organizer’s art of infiltration. In 1961, an Alinsky organization in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood crafted a rent strike against powerful landlords. Knowing the action was illegal, they’d paved the way by registering voters and otherwise demonstrating to local politicians that they could “be troublesome on election day.” The landlords went to court with the law on their side, but now “they faced a hostile, politically controlled judge who had been instructed to grant the striking tenants postponements from now to the end of time.” With the writing on the wall, the landlords caved. This was Alinsky’s way. No tactics are off the board, but they must be thoughtfully deployed.

Regarding tactics, a mainstay was the politics of personal destruction. The most notorious of Alinsky’s Rules, number thirteen, reads, “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Von Hoffman concedes that this “is used as an example of Saul’s ruthlessness,” but far from contesting this characteristic, he justifies it as necessary because “no campaign can be won by attacking impersonal abstractions.” Remarkably, this comes after von Hoffman, having catalogued his mentor’s serial strong-armings, claims “astonish[ment] that anyone can read Rules for Radicals and not realize that its author was consumed by the demands of ethics.” Right. In Alinskyan ethics, lying, cheating, and knocking heads are all on the menu, however much von Hoffman now wrings his hands over them. (Violence is terrible, he admits at one point, but you have to understand how bad things were in the 1940s; von Hoffman recalls hoping not to be grilled about his motives, since he and Alinsky would sometimes have to deceive those they purported to be serving; and so on.) Good versus evil is plainly not for the faint of heart.

Yet, the organizer’s first responsibility is always to master his circumstances as they are, not as he wishes they were. Getting too far out in front of your public, being too obviously a leader rather than a mere member of a swelling consensus for change, these things can be fatal. The organizer is not a dreamer but a disciplined operative. Patience is his most essential attribute. He builds organizations as a power tactic because organizations can achieve more than lone-wolf activists and “liberal” scolds, whom Alinsky dismissed as “soft” and passive. But to be effective, organizations must be nurtured, and they must function. Otherwise the best you get is “periodic mass euphoria around a charismatic leader,” as Alinsky put it in 1965 while scalding the ham-handed civil-rights movement under Martin Luther King, Jr. Such euphoria “is not an organization. It’s just the initial stage of agitation”—a lesson that prompts von Hoffman’s conclusion that “King is revered today but Alinsky is more useful.”

For an organization to function, its leader must stay within the experience of those he would lead. Upon bringing aboard the green, fire-breathing von Hoffman in 1953, Alinsky’s first directions—after deadpanning that the youngster’s shoestring “El Comité Latino Americano” was “a bucket of shit”—were that he “get a haircut and a decent suit.” People may go where the radical wants to take them, but the organizer knows they will resist the prospect of being led there by a radical. The wolf cannot appear as a wolf.

He must, rather, master “the art of communication,” which means he “communicates within the experience of his audience,” affecting “full respect to the other’s values.” He doesn’t, for example, burn the American flag—he holds that “it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag itself remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations.” This isn’t because he actually cares about America’s hopes and aspirations. Those he seeks to lead care about them, however inchoately, and the successful organizer must connect with his audience’s self-interest. If he plays this game of misdirection well enough, the organizer progresses from pressuring the political class, to partnering with the political class, and finally to leading the political class. At each stage, by working within the system to destroy the system, the organizer increases his destructive capacity.

As a young Alinsky acolyte, Barack Obama worked closely with acorn, schooling operatives of an organization now infamous for its Marxist platform, “direct action” tactics, and rampant election fraud. In a fleeting treatment of the recently discredited organization, von Hoffman allows that acorn may have been “inspired” by Alinsky—you think?—and that its “cheekiness, truculence, and imaginative tactical tropes” have an Alinskyan touch. In any event, Obama represented acorn as a lawyer, successfully weakening voter registration requirements, which laxity acorn proceeded to exploit by flooding the rolls with fake names. acorn energetically supported Obama’s successful political campaigns. As president, in turn, Obama leads a Justice Department that has studiously reversed Bush administration efforts to curb voter fraud and intimidation.

Meantime, the President berates “fat-cat bankers”—the same ones his acorn associates pressured into making the ruinous sub-prime mortgage loans that necessitated their bail-out. To squeeze them into slashing pay, Obama summoned bank ceos to a White House dressing down, admonishing that “my administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.” To rationalize expanding government control over the financial sector, he had his Treasury Secretary gather together the top executives of the nation’s nine largest banks and goad them (in terms worthy of the Godfather) to accept government capital infusions, whether they wanted the money or not, or risk the wrath of regulators. In muscling in on the auto industry, the administration skirted the bankruptcy laws, orchestrating a takeover of General Motors in which bondholders were robbed blind in order to reward the President’s supporters at the United Auto Workers. And as public outcry over the Gulf oil disaster mounted, Obama summoned BP executives to a White House sweat-session in the ominous presence of his Attorney General; when the parties emerged, BP had been brow-beaten into ponying up a staggering $20 billion escrow fund to be doled out by an administration flunky, Kenneth Feinberg—a leftwing lawyer previously designated the president’s “czar” to police executive compensation at companies bailed out by the government.

The fox has made it to the hen house. The old master would be proud.

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[1]Radical, by Nicholas von Hoffman; Nation Books, 256 pages, $25.95.

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