Wednesday Oct 04

EXCERPT - Occupation Organizer: A Critical History of Community Organizing in America

In February 2017, as I was conducting ethnographic research in Chicago for my PhD, I visited the home of an organizer named Patrick, on the city’s South Side.[1] A Chicago native who was raised Catholic and became active in Catholic youth organizations, Patrick worked as a senior staff member for the IAF throughout the 1970s. He went on to become a consultant in organizational development, a diversity project manager in a large philanthropic foundation, and an educator for school principals at a public university. When I interviewed him, he was long retired. On the table in the living room, where we talked for several hours, Patrick had carefully arranged two piles of books. The first consisted of books on community organizing—Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals (1946), The Professional Radical (1965), and Rules for Radicals (1971); two biographies of the man, The Radical Vision of Saul Alinsky by P. David Finks (1984) and Sanford Horwitt’s Let Them Call Me Rebel; and two books written by Alinsky’s successors at the helm of the IAF, Edward Chambers and Michael Gecan.

The other pile was far more bewildering. It comprised three management books that Patrick had often used in his career: Leading Change (1996), by John Kotter, the self-proclaimed “world’s foremost expert on business leadership” and a professor at the Harvard Business School; Leadership on the Line (2002), a best-seller written by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, two Harvard Kennedy School of Government faculty members; and management consultant Jim Collins’s Good to Great (2001). Patrick picked up Leading Change and explained, “[This is] one of the clearest descriptions of organizing for change . . . that I’ve ever seen, and it aligns almost perfectly with what I have done as an organizer.” He opened it to a page he had earmarked with a post-it note and, with his index finger skimming down the page, he laid out Kotter’s “eight-step process for leading change.” He then grabbed Leadership on the Line, and he said, “To me, as an organizer, I read this and I think, ‘Alinsky could have written this book.’”[2]

The whole situation floored me. Why did Patrick think that Saul Alinsky should sit next to a pile of books written by business leadership experts and management consultants? Why should he insist that Alinsky could have written them? And why did he do and say all that while positively identifying as an organizer? Without even taking into account the ridiculous right-wing narrative that Alinsky was a radical evil genius, nothing in the dominant story about him being one of the greatest champions of grassroots democracy could help me make sense of this puzzling interaction. In the literature written by Alinsky enthusiasts, Patrick’s pile of management books simply does not exist.

Of course, there are a number of books that have voiced serious criticisms of Alinsky’s work and legacy and debunked the myths and fantasies surrounding him. In his masterful account of the rise and fall of the United Farm Workers (UFW), educator Frank Bardacke argues that there is a coherent body of thought that he calls “Alinskyism.” He defines this approach as “a codified discipline, with core theoretical propositions, recognized heresies, disciples, fallen neophytes, and splits. It is a political theory, with the emphasis on the political, and Alinsky is the grand theorist.”[3] Under the guise of what Alinsky presented as a pragmatic, nonideological worldview, “so many of his ideas are taken straight from the almost invisible ideology that we live and breathe: the ideology of American democracy.”[4]

More recently, in a book that has become a must-read for many on the left, Jane McAlevey also turns the romanticized view about Alinsky on its head. After warning that “talking about Alinsky can be just as tricky as talking about Marx” because “there is what they wrote, and what they did, and what has been done by their followers,” McAlevey contends that Alinsky did not engage in “organizing,” which develops long-lasting working-class power by engaging with workers comprehensively, both in the workplace and in the community, but in shallow “mobilizing,” which fails to grasp workers’ “organic ties” to their communities. Alinsky has usurped the “organizer” title; instead, “he was a mobilizer, outside the factories.”[5]

Bardacke and McAlevey zero in on Alinsky’s contradictions: the ideological impetus behind his professed aversion for ideology, the flawed portrait of the organizer as a lonesome cowboy that he painted throughout his career. Despite its undeniable merits, the more accurate picture they paint leaves little room for the pile of management books, however. To put it differently, if you follow Bardacke’s and McAlevey’s lines of criticism, you can vaguely guess that Alinsky-style practices were not fully aligned with fostering self-activity and self-organization of the oppressed, that their underlying politics are not necessarily radical in themselves, but you cannot satisfactorily account for the link with management consulting and organizational development that made so much sense to Patrick. You cannot explain why he decided to juxtapose the two piles of books next to one another or why he claimed that, “as an organizer,” he thought that Alinsky could have written the management ones.

Patrick is not the only one who praised Alinsky as a pioneer in management consulting. John Sheridan, a major professional union buster who trained hundreds of his colleagues from the 1970s on and who was considered “the contemporary dean of antilabor consulting” in the 1990s, cited Alinsky as someone who deeply influenced his work.[6] Similarly, Art Kleiner, a management thinker and long-time editor-in-chief of the management journal strategy+business, dedicated an entire chapter to Alinsky in his book on the “heretics” who “reinvented corporate management.”[7] Although these takes on Alinsky have not made it into the dominant narrative around Alinsky’s career, they offer essential insights on Patrick’s decision to stack a second pile of management books: the professional dimension of the organizer’s work.

Clément Petitjean is a professor of American History at the Sorbonne in Paris. Occupation Organizer is available from Haymarket Press at


[1] The name is a pseudonym. Some of the names of the organizers I interviewed have been changed for anonymity purposes.

[2] Patrick, interview with author, February 10, 2017.

[3] Bardacke, Trampling Out the Vintage, 68.

[4] Bardacke, 79.

[5] Jane McAlevey, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 27-70.

[6] David Moberg, “Union Buster,” Chicago Reader, July 23, 1992,

[7] Art Kleiner, The Age of Heretics: A History of the Radical Thinkers Who Reinvented Corporate Management (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008).