U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Saul Alinsky, Newt Gingrich, And The Culture Wars—Conducted Transtemporally

A couple of years ago, in a “Tim’s Light Reading” entry, I mentioned Saul Alinsky. At the time I expressed some surprise upon learning that Alinsky maintained a thirty-year correspondence with the French Catholic neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain. I have three subsequent observations: (1) Have I really been putting up “light reading” posts that long? Wow. Then again, yesterday was this blog’s fifth birthday. (2) I’m _still_ amazed that Alinsky and Maritain kept in touch that long. (3) That post is the _only_ mention before today of Alinsky here at USIH. Today I am going to blow out (3) in a big way.

Why? Newt Gingrich, of course! He’s our recent bete noire, between the weblog and our USIH Facebook page. I can give you three guesses, but you’ll see Gingrich-Alinsky link in the following passages from this story (bolds mine):


Nearly 40 years after his death, Saul Alinsky’s name is back in the news, peppered throughout presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich’s speeches.

A native Chicagoan, Alinsky was “the father of community organizing,” said Sanford D. Horwitt, author of Let Them Call Me Rebel: A Biography of Saul Alinsky.”

“He invented community organizing … this very unique form of political action,” Horwitt said, adding that Alinsky believed the goal of organizing people was to give them power.

It’s that “community organizer” moniker that Gingrich is attempting to use in comparing Alinsky to President Barack Obama, who first came to Chicago as a community organizer practicing Alinsky’s model, according to historians.

After winning the South Carolina Republican primary Saturday, Gingrich referenced Obama’s “Saul Alinsky radicalism,” painting it in a negative light. …

“Newt realizes this is just an act, saying Alinsky is a dangerous radical. Gingrich is enough of a historian to know what Alinsky was about,” Horwitt said. “This is something that he is feeding to a part of the conservative right.”


And the article goes on to recount the parallel between this and Tea Party enthusiasts continually reminding us of the links between Obama and another piece of radical living history, Bill Ayers. Politicians really are good at the guilt-by-association game.

But who IS Saul Alinsky? Here’s your introduction to him from the rest of the article above (links that follow are mine):


Born in January 1909, Alinsky grew up on [Chicago’s] West Side, studied criminology at the University of Chicago and worked in state prisons before deciding he could make a bigger difference at the community level, said former Washington Post reporter Nicholas von Hoffman, who wrote Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky.

Von Hoffman, who before becoming a journalist worked alongside Alinsky from 1953 to 1962, said Alinsky fought for fair working conditions, affordable housing and any cause that “boiled down to one thing: organizing people so they have a decent shake.”

Alinsky’s tactics included tying up bank teller lines with volunteers repeatedly exchanging a $100 bill for pennies and vice versa as a way to protest banking institutions, said John Kretzmann, professor at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy. Another involved Alinsky’s followers threatening to occupy all the bathrooms atO’Hare International Airportfor an entire day. The threat alone granted Alinsky a meeting with then-Mayor Richard J. Daley, Kretzmann said.


And here’s more from “Professor Wikipedia.”

A significant portion of the entry derives from a 1972 Playboy magazine article (24, 403 words!), conducted a few months before Alinsky’s death and reproduced here. Here are a few nuggets from the Wikipedia entry, mostly from that interview*, with brief commentary, both humorous and serious:

1. Time magazine once wrote that “American democracy is being altered by Alinsky’s ideas,” and conservative author William F. Buckley said he was “very close to being an organizational genius.”

You’d think that Gingrich would appreciate Alinsky’s focus on ideas. Then again, as Ben Alpers reminded us via two funny quotes from Frank and Krugman, the rigor behind Newt’s ideas are often suspect. [BTW: Check out this post by long-time USIH blog friend and S-USIH founding member, Julian Nemeth, on Buckley, Gingrich, and Republican victimhood.]

2. Because of his strict Jewish upbringing, he was asked whether he ever encountered antisemitism while growing up in Chicago. He replied, “it was so pervasive you didn’t really even think about it; you just accepted it as a fact of life.” He considered himself to be a devout Jew until the age of 12, after which time he began to fear that his parents would force him to become a rabbi. “I went through some pretty rapid withdrawal symptoms and kicked the habit … But I’ll tell you one thing about religious identity,” he added. “Whenever anyone asks me my religion, I always say—and always will say—Jewish.”

It appears Alinksy had a Tony Judt-ish-type relationship with his religious/ethnic identity. [BTW #2 related to PhD Octopus: Check out this post by David Weinfeld on Judt.]

3. Contrary to the Chicago Tribune article above, Alinsky was an undergraduate major in archaeology. But then there’s this confusing passage from Wikipedia, apparently derived from the Playboy interview: After attending two years of graduate school he dropped out to accept work as a community organizer for the state of Illinois as a criminologist. Hmm…

4. Alinsky’s work as a community organizer attracted the attention of Adlai Stevenson: His early efforts to “turn scattered, voiceless discontent into a united protest aroused the admiration of Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, who said Alinsky’s aims ‘most faithfully reflect our ideals of brotherhood, tolerance, charity and dignity of the individual.'”

Getting praised by Stevenson in the Forties probably wasn’t the kiss of death in relation to anti-intellectual/anti-Egghead associations. That wouldn’t occur until the 1950s, I believe.

5. When asked during an interview whether he ever considered becoming a Communist party member, he replied: “Not at any time. I’ve never joined any organization—not even the ones I’ve organized myself. I prize my own independence too much. And philosophically, I could never accept any rigid dogma or ideology, whether it’s Christianity or Marxism. One of the most important things in life is what Judge Learned Hand described as ‘that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you’re right.’ If you don’t have that, if you think you’ve got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated. The greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by such religious and political and racial fanatics, from the persecutions of the Inquisition on down to Communist purges and Nazi genocide.”

So isn’t it ironic that Gingrich, whom Alinsky would’ve no doubt called “intellectually constipated,” is holding up Obama as a president that follows the ideology of a figure who despised ideology to the point of avoiding organizations he himself organized? Isn’t it interesting to see the Culture Wars conducted transtemporally, or is this Gingrich living history in ideas? Consult with LD’s recent post on “Big Ideas,” particularly the parts on David Armitage, to make whatever sense you want of my last question.

6. And this: Alinsky described his plans in 1972 to begin to organize the white middle class across America, and the necessity of that project. He believed that what President Richard Nixon and Vice-President Spiro Agnew called “The Silent Majority” was living in frustration and despair, worried about their future,

and ripe for a turn to radical social change, to become politically-active citizens. He feared the middle class could be driven to a right-wing viewpoint, “making them ripe for the plucking by some guy on horseback promising a return to the vanished verities of yesterday.” His stated motive: “I love this goddamn country, and we’re going to take it back.”

Was Alinsky unknowingly forecasting the arrival, on the wings of the New Right, of that famous presidential hero of American Western films, Ronald Reagan? – TL


*I don’t have the time, right now, to read the whole book interview.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “Was Alinsky unknowingly forecasting the arrival, on the wings of the New Right, of that famous presidential hero of American Western films, Ronald Reagan?”

    Do you mean that metaphorically? I’m not an expert on Reagan’s filmography, but I don’t think of him as being associated with Westerns, certainly not in the way John Wayne or Clint Eastwood are, or even Jimmy Stewart.

    If you didn’t see it, you should read this article by Phil Klein which argues, persuasively if not convincingly, that Newt is the GOP’s Alinksy.


  2. Alinsky was simply repeating the point that Gore Vidal made in the Fifties when he wrote that when an American dictator came to power, he would be a smiling, clean shaven “Arthur Godfrey” and not some morose mustachioed madman.

    The mid 1970s were a time when those who were upset with the sexual, racial, and cultural transformations of the 1960s hungered for a plain spoken small town outsider who could transform Washington in the wake of the corruption of the Watergate scandal. Someone would bring in old time Christian morality, speak in racial code, and bring market based solutions to deal with Big Labor,the ossified New Deal bureaucracies and big government budgets. Of course, Saul Alinsky got it wrong. It wasn’t Ronald Reagan who started this Neoliberal paradigm, but the man from Plains himself, President Jimmy Carter.

    As for Reagan and westerns, the airport in Orange County is named after John Wayne for a reason. Reagan never measured up to “The Duke” while John Wayne lived.

  3. Tim – Congrats on a thought-provoking piece. I noticed that in showing how Buckley begot Newt, Julian adds his voice to those who’ve discerned an unchanging collective identity on the right — call it the Newt the Juke thesis. No declension here, just an essential “blueprint” reproducing itself over time.

    So there’s little disagreement between left and right on the perduring “soul” of conservatism, just a different normative valence.

    But historians will need to appropriate the lexicon of the latest scientific research, which is showing that red and blue brains are really quite different. For instance, at Live Science, Adam Hadhazy points out that for some people, there may be “an underlying biological bent to worldviews that events and experience cannot undo.” Nice that biology helps us to map the political spectrum. Fortunately, it’s not 100% genetic, so there’s some hope that nurturing can be improved, and people taught to make “smart choices.”

    One researcher suggests we have large brains so that we can solve the “problem of politics.” I hear Darwin spinning in his grave, but at least I know why giraffes have long necks, and Newt acts the way he does. But wait — I thought we had historians to explain such things. For sure, they’ll be out of business if they don’t get more “scientific,” but maybe they’re half way there in rediscovering essentialism. Is this what “big history” is about?

    Where have I heard this all before?

  4. @Varad, Brian, and Bill: Thanks for the comments! I posted this yesterday, but my attention has been called to other things since. My apologies to all for bearing with a little sloppy editing, which I’ve tried to clean up since.

    @Varad: I did mean metaphorically. Though I know that the “The Duke” and others rule “Westerns,” I’m pretty sure that Reagan had roles in many during his early days. Here’s a line from his IMDB page: “Ironically, Reagan became a poor-man’s James Stewart in the early 1950s, appearing in westerns, but they were mostly B-pictures. He dd not have the acting chops of the great Stewart.”

    @Brian: But Carter didn’t ride horses, so far as I know! But your larger point about corporate liberalism is well taken.

    @Bill: So the Culture Wars are/were/will be (nearly) biologically determined?! We’re hardwired for them (mostly)? That would be both comforting and disturbing, if true. But it always seems to turn out that we’re more free than we want to believe, don’t you think? History, at least, puts on display great variability in human outcomes. We’re more wily, cagey, and crafty than we realize.

    Thanks again to all. I’ll continue the conversation, if and when you want. – TL

  5. Tim – Thanks for the comment. I was making an effort to be wily – if the declension thesis doesn’t work for the history of conservatism, then perhaps the right has an unchanging character, so that Buckley can be said to “beget” Newt. [“Newt the Juke” was an attempted clever allusion to the Richard Dugdale study of 1874, which claimed to find that criminality ran in the Jukes family.]

    As you know, essentialist views are often ambiguous [eg, is race biological, ethnic, cultural, etc], but some “x” is seen to account for contuinity. I was suprised to run into the idea that some people believe red and blue differences are literally biological.

    That got me wondering what weird convergence might be going on with history’s “turn” [a re-turn, to be sure, and not the first one] to accounts that might be seen as arguably essentialist in some sense. This would be a temptation for those doing “big history,” tho I certaiinly don’t mean to disparage the whole drift.

    Isn’t it interesting how people tend to naturalize and thus universalize the conditions of their moment. I think Marx had something to say about that.

  6. @Bill: You totally out-obscured me with the Juke reference! I had never heard of that, or at least don’t remember it from my prior reading.

    I think one could write a big, long history of an idea without treating in an essentialist fashion. The question, I guess, is how _thick_ of a thread is the historian tracing. One could be a “thin threader” as opposed to positing thick, burly ropes of essentialist connections. It seems to me that Armitage, as reported in LD’s post, left room for maneuvering. We’ll have to watch how it plays out—if it is really a trend and not merely a moment of convergence. – TL

  7. Tim – I intended only to raise the issue of essentialism as something to explore, eg, in relation to current debates about “the conservative movement” — not to suggest that a long or otherwise big history of ideas would necessarily fall into that trap. The secondary point was that if some historians today seem inclined in that direction, it might indicate some sort of convergence with those who would actually naturalize political identities.

    The Jukes are referenced in Hofstadter, Social Darwinism, 161. And of course professor Wiki has addressed the topic.

    I like your metaphor of thicker and thinner threads, which evokes both Geertz and Rawls, and having recently read your “Lovejovian Roots” article in JHI, I can see where you’re coming from. I’m not sure how the essentialism issue relates, so I’ll just toss the metaphor back – thick or thin, essentialism would imply strong threads.

    I was interested in your reference to Armitage and a possible “neo-Lovejovianism school,” in part because you’ve mentioned Lovejoy a number of times, in connection with Dan Wickberg and Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen, who might also be a “neo-.” [By the way, his “Towards a Philosophy of the History of Thought?” Journal of the Philosophy of History 3, 2009, is worth looking at too.]

    In doing a little searching on Armitage, I encountered a helpful discussion in “Interchange: Nationalism and Internationalism in the Era of the Civil War,” JAH Sept 2011, which included Charles Maier, Tom Bender and others as well as Armitage. Farther back, there’s his “Greater Britain: A Useful Category for Analysis?” AHR April 1999.

    Of course this all bears on recent blog discussion about what “big history” might mean, and your efforts to introduce the topic of transnational history.

  8. @Bill,

    Understood on your conservatism-essentialism link, which connects to the USIH weblog conversations about Corey Robin.

    I’ve tried to acquire issues of the *Journal of the Philosophy of History*, but have been unsuccessful. So I’ve given up on it until I’m associated with a different school than Monmouth (which will hopefully be by August, somehow someway).

    I guess essentialism relates to the history of ideas, in a strong/thick thread way, because the historian-author _sees_ some connection—an idea/topic relation.

    On “neo-Lovejovianism,” I guess there can only be a “neo” if the school died out and then was retooled. Do we know when the old “Lovejoy School” died out? Who carried on in that vein (other than M.J. Adler!) between the 1950s and today? What late twentieth-century historians operated in Lovejovian fashion? Any who contributed to IHN? Or were they considered philosophers who respected, and operated in, a history of philosophy framework?

    – TL

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