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  • The Political Populism of Saul Alinsky and Broad Based Organizing
  • Luke Bretherton (bio)


This essay contends that broad-based community organizing is best framed as an extension and development of American populism. To make this link it is necessary to focus on how the 'dean' of community organising, Saul Alinsky, drew on and developed key aspects of American populism. The link between Alinsky and populism is conceptual, genealogical, and sociological and a taproot that community organizing shares with certain elements of the civil rights movement and other forms of grassroots activism, both democratic and authoritarian.1 However, there are good reasons for refusing such a linkage when it comes to Alinsky. Not least among these is the consistent failure and lack of relationship between the constituency that formed the Populist movement and the People's Party of the 1890s (primarily 'yeoman' farmers in alliance with miners and railroad workers) and the urban and predominantly Catholic industrial workers of that era, a lack of relationship that is central to the failure of the People's Party to break the duopoly of the Republicans and Democrats and establish itself as a third force in American politics.2 Yet it was precisely among the urban industrial workers that Alinsky developed his craft as an organizer. However, like the Populists, Alinsky consistently and insistently drew conceptually on the Jeffersonian tradition of democracy, which was for him a key reference point in his teaching and writing, combining these with Biblical analogies and allusions. [End Page 261]

The first section examines the relationship between Alinsky and John L. Lewis to make the case that both were of the 'populist persuasion.' Drawing on the work of Michael Kazin, four key themes of American populism are identified and related to the work of both Lewis and Alinsky. The second section establishes the sociological and conceptual links between Alinsky's vision and practice of community organising and American populism by attending to the political program of the nineteenth century Populists. The third section locates both community organizing and American populism within Karl Polanyi's account of how laissez-faire capitalism inherently provokes counter-movements. This leads into the fourth and fifth section where various ways of defining populism are considered and a constructive account of political and anti-political populism is developed as an analytical framework that helps give a nuanced reading of the seemingly contradictory dynamics at work in both populism and community organizing.

The Genealogical Link

If Jeffersonian republicanism interwoven with religious frames of reference represents the conceptual point of connection between American populism and community organising, John L. Lewis represents the genealogical one. Michael Kazin argues that John L. Lewis should be interpreted as of what he calls the 'populist persuasion.' Lewis steered a middle path between capitalism and both socialism and communism. In 1933, he told a Senate committee on labor relations: "American labor . . . stand[s] between the rapacity of the robber barons of industry of America and the lustful rage of the communists, who would lay waste to our traditions and our institutions with the fire and sword."3 The key point to note here is the valuation given to 'our traditions and our institutions,' a valuation that directly contrasts with the class based analysis of socialism and Marxism that viewed the sundering of people's traditional communal and place-based ties as the prerequisite of freedom and political agency. For example, Marx and Engels saw tradition as a great retarding force, which industrialisation enabled liberation from and which thus laid the groundwork for the formation of the proletariat and thence the true liberation of consciousness. Such disdain for tradition has been a common feature of most left wing and liberal political theories. 4 In contrast, like the Populists before him and like Alinsky after him, Lewis worked with the values and traditions of the people not against them. Populist discursive themes were the well-spring Lewis drew on by which [End Page 262] to steer his middle course. These themes came to fruition in the Populist movement and have been deployed in a multiplicity of ways in the ongoing tradition of American populism.

Kazin identifies four themes that shaped Populist discourse and...


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pp. 261-278
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