Empowering People, Not Elites
Interview with Saul Alinsky, Concluded
Saul Alinsky is, along with Thomas Paine, Henry George, and Dorothy Day, one of the great American leaders of the nonsocialist left.
Response to our earlier article dealing with Alinsky has been so great that we worked to obtain this extensive interview with him, conducted by Playboy magazine in 1972. It is, by far, the most detailed conversation with Alinsky that we know of. The interview has been appearing in weekly installments here at The Progress Report.
Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six Part Seven Part Eight Part Nine Part Ten Part Eleven Part TwelveFinal Thoughts
PLAYBOY: You seem optimistic. But most radicals and some liberals have expressed fear that we're heading into a new era of repression and privacy invasion. Are their fears exaggerated, or is there a real danger of America becoming a police state?
ALINSKY: Of course there's that danger, as this whole national fetish for law and order indicates. But the thing to do isn't to succumb to despair and just sit in a corner wailing, but to go out and fight those fascist trends and build a mass constituency that will support progressive causes. Otherwise all your moaning about a police state will just be a self-fulfilling prophecy. That's one of the reasons I'm directing all my efforts today to organizing the middle class, because that's the arena where the future of this country will be decided. And I'm convinced that once the middle class recognizes its real enemy -- the megacorporations that control the country and pull the strings on puppets like Nixon and Connally -- it will mobilize as one of the most effective instruments for social change this country has ever known. And once mobilized, it will be natural for it to seek out allies among the other disenfranchised -- blacks, chicanos, poor whites.
It's to that cause I plan to devote the remaining years of my life. It won't be easy, but we can win. No matter how bad things may look at a given time, you can't ever give up. We're living in one of the most exciting periods of human history, when new hopes and dreams are crystallizing even as the old certainties and values are dissolving. It's a time of great danger, but also of tremendous potential. My own hopes and dreams still burn as brightly in 1972 as they did in 1942. A couple of years ago I sat down to write a new introduction to Reveille for Radicals, which was first published in 1946, and I started to write: "As I look back upon my youth. . . ." But the words stuck, because I don't really feel a day older. I guess having been out in the front lines of conflict for most of my life, I just haven't had the time to grow older. Anyway, death usually comes suddenly and unexpectedly to people in my line of work, so I don't worry about it. I'm just starting my 60s now and I suppose one of these days I'll cop it -- one way or another -- but until then I'll keep on working and fighting and having myself a hell of a good time.
PLAYBOY: Do you think much about death?
ALINSKY: No, not anymore. There was a period when I did, but then suddenly it came to me, not as an intellectual abstraction. but as a deep gut revelation, that someday I was going to die. That might sound silly, because it's so obvious, but there are very few people under 40 who realize that there is really a final cutoff point to their existence, that no matter what they do their light is someday going to be snuffed out. But once you accept your own mortality on the deepest level, your life can take on a whole new meaning. If you've learned anything about life, you won't care any more about how much money you've got or what people think of you, or whether you're successful or unsuccessful, important or insignificant. You just care about living every day to the full, drinking in every new experience and sensation as eagerly as a child, and with the same sense of wonder.
PLAYBOY: Having accepted your own mortality, do you believe in any kind of afterlife?
ALINSKY: Sometimes it seems to me that the question people should ask is not "Is there life after death?" but "Is there life after birth?" I don't know whether there's anything after this or not. I haven't seen the evidence one way or the other and I don't think anybody else has either. But I do know that man's obsession with the question comes out of his stubborn refusal to face up to his own mortality. Let's say that if there is an afterlife, and I have anything to say about it, I will unreservedly choose to go to hell.
ALINSKY: Hell would be heaven for me. All my life I've been with the have-nots. Over here, if you're a have-not, you're short of dough. If you're a have-not in hell, you're short of virtue. Once I get into hell, I'll start organizing the have-nots over there.
PLAYBOY: Why them?
ALINSKY: They're my kind of people.
Saul Alinsky died a few months later, on June 12, 1972.
Alinsky's first book, Reveille for Radicals
Alinsky's second and final book, Rules for Radicals
Alinsky's biography is available here
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