By Ralph Benko, Contributor to

January 6, 2012


Saul Alinsky, author of Rules for Radicals, was one of the 20th Century’s most iconic provocateurs. “Alinskyite” has become a banal epithet on the Right. Many conservative politicians routinely link Barack Obama with Alinsky.

Obama and Alinsky never met. Alinsky died of a heart attack in 1972 when Barack Obama was around 11 years old and living in Jakarta or Honolulu. Extensive research has failed to uncover even a single reference by Obama to Alinsky. A short essay by Obama was compiled into a book entitled After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois. It concludes:

In return, organizing teaches as nothing else does the beauty and strength of everyday people. Through the songs of the church and the talk on the stoops, through the hundreds of individual stories of coming up from the South and finding any job that would pay, of raising families on threadbare budgets, of losing some children to drugs and watching others earn degrees and land jobs their parents could never aspire to — it is through these stories and songs of dashed hopes and powers of endurance, of ugliness and strife, subtlety and laughter, that organizers can shape a sense of community not only for others, but for themselves.

Vintage Obama … far more lyrical than Alinsky.

Alinsky was an aggressively anti-communist, anti-big government, populist with a healthy contempt for liberals. He seemingly would be more at home in the Tea Party than the Democratic Party. Jacques Maritain, Pope Paul VI’s mentor and prominent drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights called Alinsky “one of the few really great men of our century.”

Rules for Radicals, popular lore aside, is not dedicated to Lucifer, but to “Irene” — Saul’s wife and soulmate. Alinsky considered the highest good to be human dignity. Rules for Radicals, p. 122:

We learn, when we respect the dignity of the people, that they cannot be denied the elementary right to participate fully in the solutions to their own problems. Self-respect arises only out of people who play an active role in solving their own crises and who are not helpless, passive, puppet-like recipients of private or public services.

Alinsky can be thought of as of “the non-socialist left” as described by his biographer Sandy Horwitt. Alinsky resembles Thomas Paine and was an inveterate enemy of Leninists.

Obama is no Alinsky. Would that he were!

One of Alinsky’s main successors is Arnie Graf. Mark Shields privately describes Graf as belonging in “the social justice hall of fame.” Graf briefly mentored young Barack Obama, a memory recently shared with this columnist (some of which also was recorded by the National Journal’s Will Englund).

In 1986, young Barack Obama came to a national training, conducted in California by Alinsky’s legacy organization, the Industrial Areas Foundation. Over 100 young people attended. Graf was a trainer there. He ended up having three personal conversations with young Obama.

The first was about growing up in an intact, loving, interracial family. Graf’s own wife is African American, they were raising two biracial children, very successfully. Obama keenly questioned Graf about how they were raising their children, how the children understood their racial identity.

Obama himself, of course, had grown up in cultures — Hawaii, Indonesia — without black/white racial polarization and when at age 11 he landed in Kansas he spent his Middle and High School years with very few African Americans.

Both Graf’s, observant Jewish, and his wife’s, North Carolina, extended families were very accepting of the marriage. Their racially blended grandchildren got, as Graf says, “a loving embrace from both sides.” Obama got a glimpse of how it could have been, under different circumstances, for him.

The next conversation with Obama had to do with the Civil Rights Movement (the birthday of whose icon, Dr. Martin Luther King we celebrate today). Obama had been too young to participate. Graf, beginning at age 19, had been part of it. Obama was ardent to learn what it had been like. Graf shared his experiences.

The final, brief, discussion between Obama and Graf was a farewell. There are significant differences between movement politics, community organizing, and being part of the system. Obama let Graf know that he was not interested in being an organizer. He hoped to become a great civil rights lawyer or a judge.

Obama chose to be a political leader, not a community organizer. There are a few lingering echoes of Alinsky’s work in Obama’s camp. The campaign’s Camp Obama training manual primarily was written by Harvard’s Marshall Ganz (who also had injected these principles into the Dean campaign). One of Alinsky’s organizers was the great Fred Ross, Sr. Ross, who trained Ganz, had written an iconic training manual. This was the blueprint for Camp Obama’s manual.

Graf, who has not seen Obama again, emphasizes how much respect Americans have earned for having elected an African American president. This is no small matter. Yet he is disappointed that Obama had “a Roosevelt moment” in which he could have produced a genuine transformation and did not.

Graf appears as furious about the elevation of Immalt, Geithner, Summers and other titans of finance to the levers of power in this administration as are the most ardent and articulate libertarians. Graf believes that giving financial capitalism primacy in a culture is unbalanced. And that the president could have — and, if re-elected, still could — put the Market, Civic, and State sectors into better balance. Some of his critique of Wall Street reminds one of Adam Smith’s famous observation: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

The nonsocialist left admires, rather than berates, businesspeople, especially manufacturers. Graf offers a distinction between productive (manufacturing) and predatory (asset stripping) capitalism. This appears to lean more conservative populist than either libertarian or socialist. It seems driven by an ethic of developing protocols that will raise productivity, and thus demand for higher skilled, higher paying, jobs, without driving up taxes, cost of labor, or cost of other inputs.

All without federal government controls. Graf believes that we have an opportunity to get away from the notion that the economy, fundamentally, is the financial sector. It is his belief that subsidized education, vocational education, and underwritten community college education could be an important key to a vibrant private sector economy — which he fully supports.

This column has pointed to the divisions among the tribes of the left, pointing to the “populist humanitarian” labor and ethnic (and, yes, community organizer) left in contradistinction to the doctrinaire elitist “nomenklatura” left. Graf’s very attitude implies that there might be something to this hypothesis.

Graf is not anti-capitalist, not even anti-Wall Street. He’s anti-oligarch — and so is the authentic free market right. The loopy idea of the humanitarian populist left and right making common cause against the privileged elites of Wall Street and Washington … in a crusade for equal opportunity and a Kennedyesque rising tide to lift all boats ... may not be completely far fetched.

And if that should happen?

Memo to President Obama: Arnie Graf surely would take you back … and put you into a profession of far greater dignity than that of mere president: one in which you may inculcate self-respect… out of people who play an active role in solving their own crises and who are not helpless, passive, puppet-like recipients of private or public services.

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