Tag Archives: Robert Fisher

Finale: Robert Fisher on Community Organising in the 1980s

Community Organizing in the Conservative 1980s — exciting stuff (though we’ve been through the late 1800s through 1946, the 1960s, conservative organizing in the 50s and 60s, and the 70s). The chapter opens with a fabulous quote:

We live in a society that is like a house on fire, and it’s arson. (Heather Booth, organizer, p 168)

Ah, the 1980s. My lifetime. Reagan and economic crisis, the reemergence of voluntarism, agreement amongst community activists that there has been a movement away from dissent and confrontation. There is now talk about how organizing  is no longer ‘against’, instead it is ‘for’ something, it is increasingly about establishing common ground, political partnerships, moving into development, CDCs and ’empowerment’ though seems like they are doing less of that in a radical way. But on the positive side you have ACORN and City Life staying radical, there is increased thinking about cooperatives etc

You also see the rise of the neoconservative movement building on some lessons from community organizing. Fisher writes:

The neoconservative movement, in fact, sees itself, not the New Left and new social movements, as the true proponent of “the community revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s.

They are the ones giving ‘power back to the people’ (178)

Fisher describes a process in which the IAF has shifted to faith-based organizing as part of a move to understand people need more than self-interest but continues trenchant in his critique:

The strategy of moderation, the commitment to moderates, the grounding of IAF efforts in mainstream religious institutions, and a definition of power that emphasizes relationship building leads to a politics that limits the parameters of IAF work and excludes alliances with other movement activists and organizations. It encourages IAF to work alone with its constituency and mainstream allies and avoid confronting the causes of the imbalance of power that oppresses its constituents. (196)

On the other hand, ACORN continues to follow a social justice movement model, committed to radical ideology and confrontational tactics. It has a clear political program. Its “people’s platform” emanates from–but goes beyond–neighborhood politics to integrate both a constituency and class-based mode of organizing and critique of American political economy.

There are also some new developments, a raising of critiques around the intersectionality of oppressions (my words there).

There is the founding of CTWO, the Center for Third World Organizing, where I did some training myself and love well (more about them later). Fisher describes their work as multiracial organizing and a ‘critique of the systemic, institutional bases of racism and ethnocentrism’ (197). More on them next. You have the rise of ACT-UP among others…there is actually a rise of all kinds of awesomeness in this decade, despite its bad rap.

This is a decade of new social work models developing out of a radical feminist movement — a movement I was completely unaware of, but now feel the need to explore, starting with the work of Lorraine Gutierrez, Edith Lewis on the elimination of power hierarchies and support to realize full potential, Ann Withorn and Cheryl Hyde, explorations of tensions in service delivery and social action.

In response, Fisher writes:

It is this decentering of political struggle, away from the core class struggle of the old social movements to a more diverse, polyvocal discourse of the varied new citizen initiatives, that gives current grassroots efforts such potential and such problems (207)

He accepts the importance of this, and continues

the challenges of the 1990s and beyond is for groups to learn how to maintain their identity, focus, and constituency and work together in progressive organizations that advance social justice. (209)

I am struggling with Boaventura de Sousa Santos at the moment and he is all about this in a way that is quite amazing. But more on that later.

Conclusions. Finally.

The conclusion wraps up all of this up quite well, summarizing Fisher’s understanding of the three main approaches he looks at: political activist, social welfare and neighborhood maintenance (which maybe I haven’t drawn out enough over the course of these summaries):

The political activist approach regards the community as a political entity and/ or potential power base. It focuses on obtaining, maintaining, or restructuring power. Or…is political in that its goal is to develop alternative institutions. The community’s problems, as defined by organizers, is the absence of power needed to defend the neighborhood and/ or give people more control over their lives.

Where the political activist approach differs most significantly from the social work approach is in its class perspective. The social work approach often seeks a class rapprochement based on a “partnership” between upper-class supporters, social welfare professions, and working- and lower-class neighborhood residents. (212)

Again we have an analysis of the positive role played by conflict in challenging structures people didn’t think they could challenge, and the ways in which this is where people find power, and how this is where class balances are actually altered. He looks a bit at ‘New Social Movement Theory’ too, challenging it in more ways than one, but particularly the idea that after the industrial revolution all organizing was factory organizing or entirely class oriented until post WWII. Sock it to them, I say.

The main lessons from the past as Fisher sees them:

  • Neighborhood organizing cuts across the political spectrum. Not inherently left or right.
  • Neighborhood organizing movements develop in a historical context that includes yet transcends local community borders. (222)
  • There is a critical interaction between neighborhoods organizing efforts, national politics, and nationwide social movements. (223) Movements can be buoyed by these larger forces or crushed.
  • Problems besetting neighborhoods demand political organization beyond the neighborhood level. (224)
  • Neighborhood organizing requires a gentle balance between organizing, leading, and educating. (225)
  • Political education must be an integral part of neighborhood organizing. (227)
  • Neighborhood organizing must create a more consciously ideological practice. (228). Must connect ‘popular, inherent ideology rooted in people’s traditions and a derived ideology, primarily external, that connects their concerns to forces and events beyond personal experience. (23)

And finally

  • An organizing ideology for our times needs to combine new demands for autonomy and identity with older ones for social justice, production for human needs rather than profit, and a spirit of connectedness and solidarity rather than competition. (232)

That’s the real trick.

[Fisher, Robert (1994) Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.]





Fisher on community organizing through the 1970s

Another post on Robert Fisher’s Let the People Decide, that starts back in 1886 (pt 1) to root this in some of the US’s history, and the last post on the 1960s…all too brief as I think about it. But time marches on, Fisher takes us through the 1970s, and it’s interesting to consider the decade from Fisher’s view. Sadly at no point does fashion enter the discourse.

The New Populism of the 1970s

The 1970s was certainly a very bad time for cities — I very much appreciate, as I say, how Fisher weaves in some of the political and economic context for the organizing that was happening. As he writes

Neoconservative strategies for urban change became commonplace. Using models of “planned shrinkage” or “triage,” officials planned to bulldoze or ignore the poorest areas of the city. (136)

And they did to a great extent, I can’t really imagine watching that, going through that..

Fisher opens a section on the roots of the New Populism with a quote from Tom Hayden, ‘The radicalism of the 1960s has become the common sense of the 1970s’. He cites Mike Miller of the Organize Training Center in SF (hi Mike!) as describing “the basic values of the new populism are the values of democracy.” Fisher continues with a full quote: “Its fundamental analysis is that “unchecked power has become concentrated in the hands of a very small number of people who are at the helm of the major corporations of the nation.”

So what does Fisher mean by populism here in this context?

While it is critical of elements of the economic system, it sees bigness and unaccountable power, rather than capitalism, as the fundamental problem. (139)

Despite Hayden’s quote, Fisher describes community organizing through this decade as working to tone down from the 1960s, to return to Alinsky and rebuild.  Given the repression and that people in power recognized Alinksy’s work as much less threatening than that say of SNCC,  such a return could be helpful in achieving concrete wins. Fisher writes that while Alinsky himself and earlier Alinskyite organizations in mid 1960s through 1970s ‘practiced ideology of equality and the tactics of non-violent confrontation of the civil rights movement’, they would come to shift over this second decade ‘from a civil rights orientation to an emphasis on negotiation and community development’ (142).

Fisher also notes the way that community organizations themselves became more conservative over time (thought he notes most organizations had a life of only around 6 years, so survival into conservatism was rare, an interesting thing to think about). TWO in Woodlawn became involved in development, built housing, ran a head start program, moved into ignoring radical roots in demanding long-term change and instead bargained to improve conditions on a very local level.


This chapter opens with a quote from ACORN  president Steve McDonald:

Some people say what does ACORN want? The answer is simple: We want sufficient power in our cities  and states to speak–and be heard–and heeded–for the interest of the majority of citizens. We want to participate in community and civil affairs, not as second class citizens because we don’t drive Rolls Royces, but as men and women committed to a better future where our concerns are met with justice and dignity; where wealth, race and religion are insufficient excuses to prevent equal participation and impact in government; where any person can protect his or her family and join with others in community strength; and where, as ACORN’s slogan goes, “the People Shall Rule.” That is what ACORN wants. Nothing more and nothing less.
–Steve McDonald, ACORN president, quoted p 145

He describes the central program of community organizing in this decade:

The essence of neo-Alinskyism in the 1970s was to develop more political organizations rooted in neighborhoods, grounded in local concerns, and focused on winning concrete gains. The goal was to advance social and economic democracy, empower people, and challenge power relations within and beyond the neighborhood.

There were many such organizations, most of them able to

acknowledge that fundamental social change in this country demands a multi-issue, multiclass, multiracial, national effort that rests on grassroots organizing but goes beyond the neighborhood or community units. (146)

These are organizations that broke away from the IAF model, which Fisher argues had become highly professionalized and large-scale. Of course, this mode  has continued in parallel, and been most successful in Mexican-American communities of the South West, where churches remained very strong and were willing to play a role in local issues.

I definitely need to read more about Fred Ross, who worked with Alinsky but shifted the model in important ways, as he emphasized door-to-door, issue organizing (and Cesar Chavez of course). He also inspired the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), and out of this came Wade Rathke who would start up ACORN to avoid what we saw as weaknesses of NWRO which often divided neighbors

The ACORN Model as summarised by Fisher:

  1. You, the organizer, are sent to a community — you don’t come with an issue, but openly organize for social and economic justice for low and moderate income people
  2. Develop internal contacts. Get people’s name, go to their homes for talks.
  3. Organize the first house meeting. Want it to be representative of the community, under 12 people. This will become a committee, begin to identify issues (149)
  4. Promote the organization. Go door to door with organizing committee, engage people.
  5. Honor the organizing process. Do not make assumptions, remain open, create index files on people you meet.
  6. Identify an issue. This should appeal to most people, it doesn’t matter the issue, but that people get involved, the organizer presents options and way to deal with it
  7. Hold a neighborhood meeting. Big event, invite everyone you have contact with. Get membership — ‘The dues are significant not only because they provide some funding but, more important, because people relate differently to an organization that they own. (151)

Fisher’s critique — that they still tended to stay away from issues that would ‘jeopardise a victory’. Like racism… The thinking was very much like that of Alinsky’s, and organizers avoided issues that undermined unity and clouded the focus on the “real enemy.” (151)

Winning, noted by some, was an ‘obsession’ with ACORN.

ACORN also moved towards electoral politics, to hold power rather than just pressuring those in power. As Fisher writes, there was also:

a strong tendency in ACORN and related efforts to remain staff intensive, to see the organizer as an “expert” who practices a method, almost a “science,” of organizing. In some projects grassroots participation tended to appear only at selected and critical times–at mass meetings, direct actions, and elections… (153)

Political education was de-emphasized, pragmatism made the rule, the goal to move from one victory to the next rather than moving more slowly through a process of education. This probably isn’t entirely fair to many local chapters, but I only worked with them very tangentially in LA. This theme of electoral power has certainly been picked up by other groups though.

I have his book on ACORN sitting in a stack, not sure when I’ll get a chance to read it, but hopefully not before too long.

It can’t be ignored, of course, that some of these  ideas have also been taken up by more right-wing neighbourhood groups like ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights) in Boston with their ‘a,b,c’ program: antiabortion, antibusing, anticommunism. A working class organization but affiliated with business. Although seen as aberrations, Fisher writes that these were the other side of populism without conscious political education. He’s probably right about that.

Alinsky style and tactics were also taken up by community development organizations through this decade and into the next, but Fisher notes how they tended to become steadily more conservative both in tactics and vision as they established themselves. Having only known the well established versions, I’d certainly agree that this was true in many, but not all cases.

This was also a decade of growing numbers of women getting involved and moving into leadership. There was also a growing realisation that successful organizing not actually built on self-interest alone, but also idealism and the implementation of people’s own vision.

But more on that, surprisingly, in the 1980s.

[Fisher, Robert (1994) Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.]






Robert Fisher on Community Organizing: the glorious 1960s

Part 2 on Robert Fisher’s great book on Community Organizing (read part 1 from 1886 to 1946 here). This might be the best part, the most inspiring at least, because weren’t the 60s amazing? We have won so much since then and I wouldn’t want to go back, but that feeling that revolution could come tomorrow?

Damn, I wouldn’t mind that at all.

The Neighborhood Organizing “Revolution” of the 1960s

Another great quote from Malcolm X:

I, for one, believe that if you give people a thorough understanding of what it is that confronts them, and the basic causes that produce it, they’ll create their own program; and when the people create a program, you get action. When their “leaders” create programs you get no action. (98)

I find it hopeful, even if I will never believe revolution is right around the corner, that there is a steady progression in how we come together to change the world, and that the issues encountered through one struggle inspires new, and often better responses to carry the struggle forward. Fisher writes:

As preceding chapters have demonstrated, the stop-gap solutions and tenuous class and race relations of one decade often become the central problem and basis for change in the next. And each new situation seems to breed new forms of neighborhood organization activity. (98)

I think he’s right, we have come a long way, and it feels good to look back to these years and see the seeds there, things I took for granted but that were invented, tested, put into action. The chapter looks at ‘the quasi-anarchist experiments’ of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) — I’ve ben reading all kinds about the first (Ransby and Cobb and Morris and Zinn and others). Fisher writes:

The groups were important innovators in a new style of community organizing, but only one of many types of grassroots efforts during the decade. (99)

He notes how geographical shift to suburbs meant poverty invisible to those living outside city center, which allows poverty to be redefined as a “black problem” both because of its concentration, but also because African Americans are leading the fight back. This connection between the spatialities of segregation, white privilege and struggle are so important, and I think finally through the new Movement for Black Lives and #BlackLivesMatter, much more of this is being explored. But at the same time as there was a spatial separation of elites, the NAACP and SCLC tended towards an elite way of working (and for the NAACP always had, with some exceptions amongst the branches), despite King’s vision of democracy. The youth entering the movement opened it all up and made it more participatory through student sit-ins and freedom rides.

Fisher notes that like Alinksy, SNCC and SDS called themselves “nonideological”:

they advocated  in their words and behavior a moral revolt and nonconformity…rejected liberal faith in modest reforms…emphasis on direct action and the formation of locally autonomous, insurgent community organizations…rejected all centralized, bureaucratic, hierarchical forms…

They moved away from concerns with organization and power, and

substituted an all-embracing political credo that emphasized democratic action and relationships, processes and values. “participatory democracy,” they called it. “Let the People Decide.” (107)

The common ‘ingredients’ of these approaches (I love these lists):

  1. Be a catalyst, not a leader
  2. Let the people decide
  3. Develop loose organizational structures – to encourage maximum participation, consensus decision making (108)
  4. Establish places in the community free of external restraints – development of community unions open to all. My favourite idea, why don’t we have a million of these?
  5. Develop indigenous leaders
  6. Create supportive personal relationships (109)

A lot of those ideas are still part of the canon, along with some new additions. Many of them to deal with the shit gender dynamics that Fisher notes were still in operation here, with women doing much of the work while ‘men always remained center stage and dominated the organizations.’ (113) That picture at the top of the post was carefully chosen to make sure I don’t feel too much nostalgia.

Gender issues (and race for damn sure, and homophobia, and etc) must have damaged the strength of the movement. Fisher notes another three principal factors that hurt their efforts up to 1965. The first, the decimated state of the left and the absence of any national program to provide support, so they had to rebuild from scratch. I am divided on that as a negative factor actually, after my experiences here in the UK. The second is the difficulties in building a ‘leaderless’ movement of ‘organizers’. Fisher writes:

It is critical in community organizing to provide leadership, to do organization building, and to teach leadership and rudimentary organizational skills, but most new lefters though this ran counter to the idea of letting the people decide. (116)

I am rather fascinated by that because I can see where they were coming from ideologically, but it seems so clear that direct democracy in practice is something that is learned, that you improve with practice, that takes skill to make work effectively in a way that ensures everyone’s voice is heard, everyone can speak, everyone has power. That shit is hard. Anyway.  He describes the third factor as the ‘sheer physical and emotional drain of organizing’ (117). That shit is real too.

But undoubtedly these have had a big impact on the developing  models for community organizing.

The 1960s also brought the Great Society, it’s organizing projects and its Community Action Agencies. An attempt to buy out revolution really. Fisher describes the havoc that government funds caused, thrown at community organizations to try and quell the disorder that was beginning to effect economic and political centers, He writes:

The Great Society, however, was more than a traditional liberal reform program to palliate and co-opt mass insurgency. It sought not only to defuse protest from below but to reincorporate African-Americans into the political process and thereby solidify their support for the Democratic party. It sought in essence to create new black political organizations in the inner cities and the rural South that would strengthen black political involvement and electoral participation. (122)

And in many ways it succeeded. The theme of a Black elite co-opted by the establishment and becoming part of the foot holding people down, well, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation does a brilliant job at looking at that. And this is long, so the 1970s are continued next post.

[Fisher, Robert (1994) Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.]


Robert Fisher on Community Organizing in America — 1886 through 1946

I read Robert Fisher’s Let the People Decide years ago now, and after all I’ve read in the meantime appreciated it more and more this time around. I love the long view of historical struggle, the historical framework it is set into. The importance of contextualising the massive influence of Alinsky — taking him in the round and not as a kind of straw man — while developing our understanding of how things need to grow and change, and where they have done so. It’s an interesting timeline, there is so so much in here I didn’t know, had not even heard of. I suppose my own research has thrown up other vibrant traditions of grassroots community-based organizing through the 1930s and the war years, primarily in the African American Community that I missed a bit, but this begins to open up the deep histories of struggle we can look to in the US. I particularly love the drawing out of lessons for contemporary struggle…

I’ve based my posts around his periodisations, so we start in the 1880s up through the Great Depression

Social Welfare Neighborhood Organizing, 1886-1929

This connects to the Social Settlement movement in the UK — 1884 saw the founding of Toynbee House in East London by two students at Oxford (and still standing as a community space and centre today, though it has changed with the times). It promoted the need for those who wished to work with a community to actually live — usually embracing some level of poverty — within it. Still a problematic and often patronising idea, but a step up from mandating improvements from comfort in stately surroundings miles away. It  inspiring similar settlements across the UK and in the US. Most famous is probably Hull House, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. I’ve been meaning to read more about Hull House but not worked myself up to it, precisely because this is my general view of those participating in this movement:

Settlement workers got involved in neighborhood organizations out of a mixed bag of sympathy, fear, guilt, social concern, and a desire to give purpose to their own lives. (8)

And also for this reason:

They sought harmony within an unjust economic framework — liberal reformers not ready to challenge the economic roots of poverty (10)

They still, for the most part, blamed the poor for their own poverty and worked around programmes of skills trainings, moral uplift, birth control in the way that leaves you feeling disgusted because it’s more about preventing mucky poor people from reproducing, rather than supporting capable women to take control of their lives and choices.

Seeing only deficits, such models were often insensitive to existing networks — yet Fisher notes how poor communities continued to be organized outside of these top-down elitist structures.  Churches, synagogues, mutual benefit associations, and ethnic, labor and political organizations continued to thrive alongside informal networks of support. (13)

Out of and in response to the Settlement Movement, which I knew of, came the Community Center Movement, which I did not.  It was driven by people who wanted something more effective and widespread and with more bottom-up from local communities. It reached its peak between 1907-1915, yet still struggled with top-down programming, and it remained primarily managed by the elite. As WWI started, many such community centre’s actually began to drive patriotism and work with the government to track ‘subversives’ among ethnic and radical populations, effectively bringing the whole thing to a halt. (21)

I very much loved the deep look at the Cincinnati Social Unit Plan — a unique community-based child welfare program created by Wilbur and Elsie Phillips under a Socialist mayor (!). It attempted to put real power in the hands of mothers for deciding priorities and support needs, and showed real success in improving health and making concrete changes in people’s lives. However, the fall of the mayor meant the programme was defunded and fell apart.

This happened despite the Phillips’ ongoing attempt to distance themselves from the mayor’s socialism in claiming that that their work was not political. Fisher also notes despite the successes of the programme, they still failed to fully escape elitism, which ensured they were not able to sink deep enough roots in the community they were working in, preventing the community from feeling a full sense of ownership of the programme that could have led to a fight to preserve it under a new mayor.

Lesson, this shit is political and you will need people’s support to keep it going through hard times.

Radical Neighborhood Organizing 1929-1946

Starts with Langston Hughes’ poem to a landlord — few better places to start:

Landlord, landlord,
My roof has sprung a leak.
Don’t you ‘member I told you about it
Way last week?

Landlord, landlord,
These steps is broken down.
When you come up yourself
It’s a wonder you don’t fall down.

Ten Bucks you say I owe you?
Ten Bucks you say is due?
Well, that’s Ten Bucks more’n I’l pay you
Till you fix this house up new.

What? You gonna get eviction orders?
You gonna cut off my heat?
You gonna take my furniture and
Throw it in the street?

Um-huh! You talking high and mighty.
Talk on-till you get through.
You ain’t gonna be able to say a word
If I land my fist on you.

Police! Police!
Come and get this man!
He’s trying to ruin the government
And overturn the land!

Copper’s whistle!
Patrol bell!
Precinct Station.
Iron cell.
Headlines in press:

Some things never change. But the 1930s were some time to be alive. Fisher writes:

Neighborhood organizing in the 1930s was characterized not only by its radicalism but by this dual concern of building an insurgent movement at both the national and local levels. (38)

I think perhaps we’re approaching this level again. There is a long, very interesting discussion of the radical work of the Communist Party at this time — a small proportion of community organizing but a very visible one, and quite influential in tactics and strategy. But this difference is key between the Party’s organizing of the period and what would come to be known as community organizing:

Most activists now see the primary goal of neighborhood organizing as awakening people to a sense of their own power. the Communists saw neighborhood work as a means of recruiting people into a national organization. (39)

But still, the Unemployed Councils? They would divide up a city or rural area into sections and then send organizers there to get to it, build a council that began to organize and implement direct actions, stop evictions, face down bailiffs, force up relief centres. They did some amazing things. But always controlled by the Comintern. Underground for a long time, the party came out in the open in late 1920s to organize the unemployed and racial minorities until the 1935 switch to popular front. But until then they did some brilliant things. In 1930, they decided on a:

four-pronged “bread and  butter” strategy focused on relief, housing, race, and “translocal” issues…issues outside the community which would concern neighborhood residents. (43)

Key issues basic to life itself, but tied into wider struggle through the ‘translocal’ aspect — in Harlem, for example, support for the Scottsboro boys was just one of these, along with anti-lynching legislation, and opposition to Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. They had tremendous successes in the early days across the country. Fisher notes that in Detroit, the unemployed councils succeeded in stopping practically all evictions through direct action.

I also love the party’s insistence on complete equality between whites and people of colour in these years, with the party line being:

…the struggle of white workers would never succeed unless workers of all races were included as equal participants (45)

In some ways the shift to the Popular Front strategy and new focus on anti-fascist struggle and union organising was important, but it left hanging all of the work already started. Above all, eradicating racism was left to the side, and members were ordered to abandon work on the councils by 1939. But while it lasted, Fisher argues the CPUSA was successful because it:

emphasized organizational discipline, defined local issues in a national and international context, linked community struggles with those in the workplace, developed alliances between black and white workers, and offered a thorough political analysis of the problems community people faced. Such accomplishments by radicals had rarely been seen before in this country. (49)

Errors? Lots:

political opportunism, its interest in the needs of the Soviet Union over those of American workers, and its autocratic organizational structure, which quashed the type of criticism necessary to prevent ideological and tactical errors… abandonment of African Americans… (49)

There was, however, a developing understanding of organizing and movement. Fisher writes:

There is a complementary relationship between social movement and community organizing. Local organizing oriented to social change can exist without a movement, but it will not thrive for very long. When a movement develops, however, community organizations often ride the wave of mass support. (52)

Out of this ferment Saul Alinsky would emerge, already organising with the CIO through these radical 1930s, already grappling with these connections (more in Alinsky’s own words can be found here). Fisher emphasises the continuities in struggle — Alinsky would apply his work with the CIO to the Back of the Yards neighborhood in a way that Fisher describes as ‘a kind of “trade union in the social factory”‘. While he would later describe himself as an “urban populist”, Alinsky started out in his student days involved in the CP ‘in typical Popular Front terms, as a “professional antifascist.”‘ (56)

As I say, I really like how this contextualises Alinsky’s insights into, and codification of, community organizing. This particularly draws out how the weaknesses of the communist party’s work in its accountability to Moscow rather than to local people almost certainly influenced Alinsky’s move towards a ‘non-ideological’ standpoint which is now where much critique of his methodologies is pointed.

Fisher describes what he believes to be the five essential elements to ‘Alinskyism’, recognizing of course that this simplifies it all a bit, always dangerous:

  1. The professional organizer is the catalyst for social change. They need to be well-trained, creative, help to make democracy happen.
  2. The task is to build a democratic community-based organization. Democracy as self-determination, people make the decisions about the things that effect them. The organizer is catalyst for this, not the leader.
  3. The goal is to win power. ‘Power is the sine qua non of Alinsky organizing. … Neighborhood organizations are seen as the interest groups of the powerless and unorganized.’ (53) This is ultimately based on self-interest.
  4. Any tactics necessary should be used. I like Fisher’s list: ‘Negotiation, arbitration, protests and demonstrations; boycotts, strikes, and mass meetings; picketing, raising hell, being diplomatic, and being willing to use anything that might work… (54)
  5. A people’s organization must be pragmatic and nonideological. Alinsky believed ideological organizations were undermined because ‘their organizers came with preconceived ideals, goals and strategies; they did not let neighborhood people make decisions… Only the progressive ideology that people developed themselves would last.’ (55)

Fisher continues:

Alinsky grounded his pragmatism in the promise of pluralism. He believed that the economic and political system could work for working-class people if they could reach the bargaining-tables of power. (55)

You know that idea’s come in for a lot of critique.

His Back of the Yards campaigning was pretty impressive, and out of it developed some lessons I recognize well: do your homework before the community meeting (you’ll have already talked to everyone to know where they stand, you don’t want no surprises), build the organization by winning victories, use service delivery if you need it but the primary goal is social change.

Of course you also have the Alinsky signature, conflict:

which raised strategy and tactics to paramount importance in community organizing, above and beyond questions of ideology, goals, and even democratic structure. (61)

And beautiful as the Back of the Yards struggle was, it became racist and reactionary, and Alinsky himself came to call this community a hell hole of hate as they fought to keep African Americans out. This perhaps highlights the weaknesses of an organization that puts process over goals, and only discusses tactical questions. Such a strategy only makes sense if the only problem is a lack of power, rather than deeper issues around capitalism itself and how that articulates with race, class, gender and etc. Fisher describes the older Alinsky as essentially cool with liberal capitalism, someone who loved FDR, believed in this ‘interest-group model of democracy’ and did not question capitalism itself. (64) Arguably the lesson here, is that we do need to grapple with ideological understandings, while also some practical focus on building movement and winning things. We can’t forget how important — and how possible — winning things actually is. The struggle is how to tie that into a programme for truly radical transformative social change that can only take place over the long-term.

[Fisher, Robert (1994) Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.]