Organizing the grassroots -- or organizing leaders?

Hunter Gray hunterbadbear at
Thu Sep 19 05:09:43 MDT 2002

Note by Hunterbear:

My basic vocation -- life-long -- has been that of a working organizer.
I've done this in many varied settings -- and with all sorts of people who
make up "those of the fewest alternatives.".  Although this piece is focused
primarily on two lists that I moderate [Redbadbear, Marxist] and one of
which I'm co-moderator [SocUnity], I'm obviously giving this broader

There's an old sort-of joke in Indian Country about "Native Conferences and
Conference Indians."  When the Conference arises, there are always two
givens:  Factionalism and the Unity Speech -- and often the former follows
the latter.  Well, anyway -- that's hardly the monopoly of we Natives [whose
basic unity I really would argue is inherently very strong -- even if one
has to sometimes look hard for it.]

The challenging efforts toward socialist unity in Australia [and UK] have,
naturally enough, added some fuel to comparable thinking in the 'States [and
elsewhere as well.]  Along with a multitude of others in Radical Humanity, I
certainly support Unity --  a unity based, of course, on mutual respect
between organizations and movements and very much between individuals. I
strongly feel that -- for a long, long time, of course -- most unity efforts
on the American Left at least will involve functional "inter-tribal"
alliances around a certain specific issue or a specific complex of issues.
Personally, I welcome and support reasoned -- and, again, mutually
respectful -- work in that realm.  I tend to have an ecumenical view of
things and, like most of us, I try to take seriously the words in
"Solidarity Forever."

But I much think we have to be very careful not to confuse simply
"organizing" organizational spokespersons and leaders with the  far more
fundamental and critically compelling  matter of organizing at the
grassroots -- in new turf, on the frontiers. To me, grassroots organizing --
getting and keeping people together for action and, in that context,
developing vigorous and on-going local leadership -- is the toughest, most
tedious and all-around hardest work there is in the Creation. [And it's also
the most satisfying!] But it sure as hell isn't done by press release and
wistful thinking alone. This is obviously true whether we're talking about
radical or labor or social justice community organizing or whatever good

But this -- Real Grassroots Organization -- is Genesis. No more, no less.

"Organizing" existent leaders isn't grassroots organizing -- any more than
the more pervasive matter of union mergers automatically results in the
"organization of the unorganized." Of course, with careful, deft, and
committed grassroots work,  a gathering of existent leaders [or merger] can
certainly stimulate new growth..

Sometimes the organization of existent leaders alone can be extremely
problematic over the long pull.

Over a year ago, there was an interesting discussion on the Marxist list --
then very ably moderated by John Lacny.  At his request, I posted some
critical reflections on the Saul Alinsky "top down" organizing style --
based on my own personal observations in and around the Chicago scene.  It's
part of a larger section on our website called  "CHICAGO ORGANIZING: Tough,
Cat-Clawing, Bloody  [With New Material -- Posted 6/28/01]"

I'm not seeking to confuse the problematic Alinsky approach with the
on-going and developing talk on these several lists about socialist unity in
America.  I'm aware of the dangers in "apples and oranges" mixing and even
too-close analogizing.  But -- like the Deep South -- where issues and
lessons are often writ large and very clearly, Chicago certainly offers some
very valuable insights -- and very often "warning insights  that are
frequently written literally in "blood, sweat, tears."

[Posted on Marxist list, 6/12/01.]

I'm very much interested in and encouraged by Dave Grenier's discussion of
DARE [Providence, RI], its grassroots nature and its democratic and
effective ethos.  John Lacny's  thoughtful analysis of all of this: i.e.,
healthy organizing approach vs. top-down, old-line political stuff -- "the
mass line and the "concrete victory" -- is extremely solid and very much on
target.  John mentions -- as I, too, have -- the Saul Alinsky approach.
It's about 2 am in Idaho but I have a few comments.  Even my faithful
one-half Bobcat cat and companion has gone to sleep by this computer.

The history of Chicago is wild and turbulent: a flood of ethnicities from
the four directions; racism and ethnocentrism like the leaves on trees and
the smog in the air;  pervasive Boss political traditions where
machiavellian use of race and ethnicity to create and maintain grassroots
divisions -- and, hence,  control -- is a fine  and wicked art;  traps
everywhere --especially patronage payoffs;  remote stratospheric elites like
the myriad of stars in the sky -- all of these and much, much more are
generally known.

It was in all of this, of course, that Saul Alinsky developed his basic
top-down, coalitioning and narrowly pragmatic organizing approach which
eventually became the dogma of his Industrial Areas Foundation -- and was
carried into many other urban areas.  The pioneer Alinsky effort in the old
Stockyards/Packinghouse district -- the Back of the Yards Neighborhood
Council -- was essentially built by bringing together a broad range of
existent leadership groups, some better and many worse. BYNC, run in
traditional Chicago style from the top down, initially won significant
short-range victories, was quickly courted by high up politicos and just as
quickly entered into Faustian alliances at that level. There never was a
radical vision on the Alinsky trail.

In time, Alinsky moved on into other pastures with his "model" and BYNC,
bereft of any substantive grassroots involvement and vigour, degenerated
[under  Alinsky's protégé Joe Meegan] into an increasingly reactionary
appendage of the Democratic machine.  Although in time, Alinsky denounced
BYNC as a "Frankenstein," his basic  flaw -- organizing existent leaders and
Visionless short-term pragmatism [often devoid of a moral foundation and
context] , led to a situation where  many of his subsequent efforts  --
e.g., The Woodlawn Organization --followed the same progression of the BYNC:
tub-thumping coalitioning of leaders, short-term victories, political
alliances and payoffs, ossification and corruption.  And Alinsky has had
many imitators.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was privileged to play the  key
directive role in a very large-scale grassroots community organizing effort
on the bloody Chicago South/Southwest Side from the late 1960s  into the
1970s.  Starting at the most basic level, the house-to-house city block, and
working primarily but not completely with racial minorities, we organized
around 300 block clubs plus related groups in two large grassroots umbrella
organizations.  In a wild and cat-clawing melee that went on and on, we had
to fight the Daley Machine, the Republicans, racists and realtors, police at
all levels, some gangs, urban renewal, part of the Catholic Church, and Joe
Meegan and his Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council [and much more.]
Red-baiting was prevalent, our offices were set afire, our organizers framed
up [we had solidly effective volunteer lawyers.] Violence was rife
everywhere.   We struck a good balance between the grassroots and the
organizers' involvement -- with the tilt going very strongly with the
grassroots.  And we struck a pretty good workable balance between pragmatic
[with a reasonably moral foundation and framework!] short term "civic
improvement" stuff and longer-term visionary goals.  [From the safe, far
edges we were picked at by some uninvolved Progressive Labor elements as not
being explicitly radical enough but this was purely mosquito sniping.] Early
on, I bailed out several key leaders of the Disciples youth gang who had
been cruelly assaulted by "riot" police.  From that point on, the
Disciples  -- a grassroots approach in its own right -- provided us with
considerable protection and much support. And, in due course, our own
fast-developing grassroots  block club organizational work joined, in one
ward, with the Disciples and, together, we ousted the Daley alderman and
installed a Black woman Independent Democrat.  One of the internal
organizational provisions grassroots people wisely insisted on was a
prohibition against serving as an organizational officer and as a paid
[e.g., assistant precinct captain] operative of any [but basically we're
talking about Democratic] political party. All of this has lived on and,
over the years, the community people themselves took on more and more of a
direct organizing role -- moving grassroots efforts effectively into new

Our efforts on the Chicago South/Southwest side weren't perfect.  There was
factionalism, back-biting, power struggles.  But, these were  vigorous
grassroots organizations and there was an essential solidarity.  They worked
and they've lived effectively.

Here and there, there were examples of Alinsky projects in which an ignited
grassroots , often with younger idealistic organizers, could take  things
over -- and , at least to some extent, turn the initial top-down
organizational effort around "toward the Sun" and democracy. These tended to
be rare because of much of the founding baggage and people proved heavily

In due course, I had direct and acrimonious contact with a very key Alinsky
honcho over many of these issues. At a large inter-tribal urban/reservation
Native conference held on the Mill Lacs Chippewa reservation in Northern
Minnesota, I and a colleague, Bill Redcloud,  conducted a workshop on Native
American community organization -- and accountability to the Indian
community.  When that was done, we went over and sat in on another workshop
being conducted by the late Alinsky's successor, Ed Chambers from Industrial
Areas Foundation.  Everyone was Indian except Chambers [who did not know
me.]  His approach  seemed even more elitist and rigid to me than that of
his  prophet.  Initially, I said nothing, just listened. When an elderly
Chippewa man very politely questioned whether this kind of an approach would
fit Native situations, Chambers simply and rudely hammered him down,
indicating the Alinsky approach was a proven one for all people. The room
grew quiet and very tense.  At that point, I arose and did [fairly civil]
battle. Chambers, taken aback by someone who had warred against Joe Meegan
and BYNC, reddened and floundered but maintained his rigidity.  We debated
heatedly and I carried things well.  Chambers abruptly declared a break in
the workshop and, when it resumed, he was immediately attacked  verbally by
young Indians who then forced him physically from the room and then from the
conference itself.

There is always something worse and, in Chicago, Jesse Jackson's very
top -down Operation Push -- a  largely empty, Daley-captured entity with
much verbal militancy and nothing beyond the end of the old-line Democratic
leash -- would be it.  Alinsky, at least,  in his own way, was a  fighter.

The DARE effort in Rhode Island sounds great to me --  and it strikes, as do
John Lacny's  solidly analytical reflections, a strong note of resonance
with me.  Effective  social justice organizing has to be fundamentally
grassroots in nature; has to build enduring and increasing grassroots power;
has to generate vigorous grassroots leadership; has to maintain a sensible
focus on the here-and-now and, concurrently, on the Better World Over The
Mountains Yonder -- and keep those two critical dimensions integrally
related to one another and each rooted solidly in the grassroots.  That's
what makes any "Save the World" endeavour -- labor, civil rights, community
organization, whatever -- strong, sharp, vital.  And, to its enemies,

Time to hit the sack.  In Solidarity -

Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]

Hunter Gray  [Hunterbear] (strawberry socialism)
Protected by Na´shdo´i´ba´i´

PLEASE clip all extraneous text before replying to a message.

More information about the Marxism mailing list