Crowded With Hippies: Saul Alinsky

Tonight I am watching this 2-part NFB documentary about Saul Alinsky. I read Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals 2 years ago and I’m still coming to terms with what he had to say. I suspect most of the Anglo-American Left has been doing the same since it was written. Alinsky’s left-Machiavellian approach is deeply unsettling, but also his greatest insight. Frankly I started watching this expecting it to be another long set of discussions about largely irrelevant debates only of interest to historians (as many NFB archival interviews are). Yet, as this timely article has noticed, Alinsky’s ideas still have a relevance for today.

The first part of the films is Alinsky debating with a Canadian youth radical group trying to test out Alinsky’s ideas. What it reveals is that Alinsky was something of an asshole at times when he deemed it necessary, alongside having an abrasive character. Its arguable that by this point in his life Alinsky got over-confident, but his confrontational attitude clearly has a motive and a reason to its rhyme. The discussion continues to be relevant: Alinsky debates culture, progress and other ideas. Theres a moment at which some of the arguments, and the critical theory-informed politics about notions of challenging the logic of ‘climing the mountain of progress’ clash with Alinsky’s approach. He argues against alternative institutions and communities, using this fantastic argument:

“The desert was so damn crowded with hippies back in the early days of Christianity people went up to the mountains to hide”

If anything, the second part is even more controversial. Alinsky debates with First Nations activists about whether they should ‘crawl in the white gutter’. This kind of debate would just be unacceptable now given the influence of postcolonial theory and the struggle of the very groups he’s debating with, certainly a lot of what Alinsky says is dubious. But he also has a refreshing frankness, and its obvious he means what he says out of compassion and a care for humanity.

Final Point: There’s a short comparison between Paulo Freire and Alinsky online. I disagree with a lot of what it says about the compatability of the two but its worth a look.

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