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Building Organizations or Creating Movements? How Two Theories on Change Can Work Together

Saul Alinsky swore by building organizations, not movements. But would he break his own rules today?

Photo Credit: Marinkapm; Screenshot /


Although Saul Alinsky, the founding father of modern community organizing in the United States, passed away in 1972, he is still invoked by the right as a dangerous harbinger of looming insurrection. And although his landmark book, “Rules for Radicals,” is now nearly 45 years old, the principles that emerged from Alinsky’s work have influenced every generation of community organizers that has come since.

The most lasting of Alinsky’s prescriptions are not his well-known tactical guidelines — “ridicule is man’s most potent weapon” or “power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.” Rather, they are embedded in a set of organizational practices and predispositions, a defined approach to building power at the level of local communities. Hang around social movements for a while and you will no doubt be exposed to the laws of Chicago-style community organizing: “Don’t talk ideology, just issues. No electoral politics. Build organizations, not movements ... Focus on neighborhoods and on concrete, winnable goals.”

Veteran labor writer David Moberg recently offered this list when reflecting on the work of National People’s Action, or NPA, one of today’s leading coalitions of community-based groups. Given that NPA’s dynamic executive director, George Goehl, was trained by Shel Trapp — a prominent Alinsky disciple — it is no surprise that traditional community organizing principles are still reflected in the bottom-up, door-to-door methodologies of NPA affiliates in 14 states.

At the same time, under Goehl’s leadership, National People’s Action is also doing many things differently. His coalition is now embracing a big-picture vision (talking about cooperative ownership of business and public control of finance), and it is making forays into electoral politics (forming a lobbying arm to do legislative advocacy and possibly even to run candidates). In pushing beyond Alinsky’s traditional rules, Goehl is motivated not only to win concrete reforms within the existing political system but to develop, Moberg writes, the “vision, strategy, and full arsenal of political weapons needed to roll back decades of corporate conservative victories and to create a more democratic economy and government.”

Goehl’s ambition is not unique. Other community organizers who experienced the Occupy movement were impressed by the massive momentum for change it created — even if much of its force proved fleeting. Efforts such as the 99% Spring and Occupy Our Homes were steps by community-based groups toward integrating their traditional organizing models with the social movement energy that had blossomed in Zuccotti Park and beyond.

The desire to re-examine maxims such as “build organizations, not movements” is an exciting development — one that opens the door to interaction between those focused on building long-term “people’s organizations,” as Alinsky called them, and those exploring the dynamics of strategic nonviolence and disruptive mass mobilization.

It is also one that Alinsky himself may well have supported.

Looking back at the origins of many foundational principles associated with the Alinskyite organizing tradition, it becomes clear that some were not as deeply rooted in the founder’s thinking as others — and that he might have pressed for reconsideration of certain commandments that have grown hallowed since the 1960s. These discrepancies raise an intriguing question: If Alinsky were alive today, would he be breaking his own rules?

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In recent years, Saul Alinsky has become known for of his connections to prominent figures inside Washington, D.C. In the 1980s, Barack Obama cut his political teeth as an organizer in an Alinskyite community organization, an initiative on the South Side of Chicago known as the Developing Communities Project. Hillary Clinton’s undergraduate thesis at Wellesley College was entitled, “There is Only the Fight: An Analysis of the Alinsky Model.” Because of these links, Glenn Beck featured Alinsky prominently on his maps of leftist conspiracy in America, and Newt Gingrich regularly used the organizer as a foil on the campaign trail in 2012.