Reveille for Radicals
by Saul D. Alinsky

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

University of Chicago Press: 1946

228 pages November 2010

1.  Agreement
2.  The use of power

When people are brought together, or organized, they get to know each other's point of view .... Out of all this social interplay emerges a common agreement and that is the people's program. Then the other function of organization becomes important: the use of power in order to fulfill the program.

Saul D. Alinsky
"The Program"
Reveille for Radicals

Moral exhortation & generic history

Reveille for Radicals is an oddly displaced book; we may even say that its illustrative case-histories as well as its "radical" theses are disguised. From 1938 on, Saul Alinsky began working out his personal brand of "community organizing" in the infamous Back of the Yards slum in Chicago, and soon had a growing reputation. This book appeared in 1946 as a sort of manual for like-minded activists, aiming to focus their thinking while establishing himself as a movement theoretician. It is divided into two parts, with Chapters 1-3 consisting of a section titled "Call Me Rebel", and Chapters 4-11 titled "The Building of People's Organizations". These purport to be a radicals' call to action, followed by a casebook of ground-up organizing successes.

First, the title. Deploying reveille as his leading word sounds a militant tone. So soon after World War II that many of our armed forces were not yet demobilized and great battles were very fresh in the public mind, readers hardly could fail to hear in his title a trumpet call to a sleeping army to awake for battle. As for radicals, because of long shadows from the Russian Communist and German National Socialist revolutions, as well as American strikes and marches, this was far more of a fighting word, a dangerous label, than we take it for today.

I intend not to go into Alinsky's specific social reforms, but instead draw attention to the book's discussion of means and ends, with some critique of its presentation. While considering the book's broad surface, let's particularly note the throwaway lines where some major principles like buried like metallic threads in the comfortable linen.

A prose poem for radicals

The introductory section of Chapters 1-3, "Call Me Rebel", takes its title from the great pamphleteer of the American Revolution:

THESE are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. ...

Let them call me rebel, and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul by swearing allegiance to one, whose character is that of a sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man.

Thomas Paine
The American Crisis, Number 1; 19 December 1776
[widely reprinted, including in — ]
Collected Writings

Alinsky's first three chapters (plus to a degree the concluding eleventh chapter) are partly a kind of prose poem resembling the paeans to American breadth and diversity by Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg. Yet however good the people of America may be, they do not grasp the real problems of American society, or if they do see problems, they cannot find solutions. The Conservatives are part of the problem, and generally are ignored in this book. The Liberals often see problems but contemptibly lack the gumption and ability to act. The task Alinsky assigns to awakened Radicals is organization at the local or community level. Where the labor unions and others fail is to be narrowly focused. In contrast, although a proper "People's Organization" must begin with just one or two limited and practical issues, it aspires and claims to speak for a community as a whole, with a proclaimed open horizon.

We may be surprised at Alinsky's sharp critique of those on the Left who work within the strictures of existing society, whether as individuals or institutions. Even labor unions come in for a variety of criticisms, not least because they cocoon the Radical from his potential for true social-revolutionary action:

In spite of the parallel courses of organized business and organized labor, the fault with the American Radical is not that he has chosen to make his bed in the labor movement but that he is asleep in it.

"Where Is the Radical Today?"
Reveille for Radicals

However, Alinsky eventually came to recast and restate his approach to working with society as its exists, in his later book Rules for Radicals (1971).

Who builds & runs a "People's Organization"?

A People's Organization as used in Reveille for Radicals is a generic term for Saul Alinsky's sort of community action group, organized not only in and for (as with traditional social workers and settlement houses) but by the folks of a particular community, inspiring local natural leaders to come forth, and involving as many residents of the community as possible.

Here is where Alinsky's conception hits a major snag. Alinsky and most of his lieutenants are precisely outside agitators, not residents in the community, nor usually workers there (factory, grocery, office, etc.) other than in support of their calling as community organizers. His case histories are disguised, made generic, and divided to make his efforts seem notably more widespread across the country.

Sanford Horwitt, in his substantial biography of Alinsky, Let Them Call Me Rebel, devotes an entire chapter to Reveille for Radicals. On Alinsky's anecdotal case-histories:

Alinsky larded these admonishments and axioms with anecdotes drawn from his own organizing experiences. But not only did a good number of the anecdotes seem contrived to make a larger point, but the use of pseudonyms instead of real people and places added to the sense that Alinsky had infused fact with fiction to make his truths bigger and more compelling. His name for the Back of the Yards, for example, was "Across the Tracks," and the People's Organization there did battle with "the Tycoon's Department Store" and their powerful and arrogant law firm, "Van Snoot, Van Snoot, Van Snoot and Snoot."

It was true, of course, that academic sociologists sometimes used such a style .... Moreover, the University of Chicago Press ... was extremely concerned about possible libelous attacks .... Because the press's editors thought that Alinsky's book was going to be controversial, they were exceptionally fussy about avoiding any possible libel problems.

The above points are technical, although some of the joking names resound with class warfare, perhaps with class envy. "Tycoon's" is condemned for its lack of community spirit, because the management doesn't worry about public relations: the "domineering" department store is popular because it always has the lowest prices in a poor neighborhood ....

There is a substantive problem, as well:

But there was another reason for Alinsky's reliance on pseudonyms. In his anecdotes and illustrations, Alinsky adopted the voices of both chronicler and political strategist of a new, progressive movement, quoting and interpreting "reports" from "organizers" in Muddy Flats, Oak Root, and Bagville — all pseudonyms for Kansas City, Kansas. There were also references to "an organizer's report from a western city" and "from a northern town". In truth, nearly all the anecdotal material came from Alinsky himself, and involved not the numerous cities implied in the text but only his projects in Chicago, Kansas City, South St. Paul, and, to a very limited extent, the Norwood section of Cleveland.

Although Alinsky presented these anecdotes straight-faced, one is somehow reminded of the old comic vaudeville act in which a lone performer becomes an entire cast of characters with a little imagination, a multitude of costumes, and a backdrop of ever-changing scenery.

Sanford D. Horwitt
"Reveille for Radicals!"
Let Them Call Me Rebel
Saul Alinsky — His Life and Legacy  (1989)

Against all evils

Thomas Sowell in A Conflict of Visions explains how the unconstrained vision works. Alinsky's soaring assertions provide a tailor-made example:

The Radical is so completely identified with mankind that he personally shares the pain, the injustice, and the sufferings of all his fellow man.

"What Is a Radical?"
Reveille for Radicals

Note the "personally shares" and "all his fellow man". This of course is an attribute of Deity. To assert such omniscient empathy in our sublunary world is dangerously arrogant. For with total empathy comes a total mandate to fix the world:

A People's Organization is a conflict group. This must be openly and fully recognized. Its sole reason for coming into being is to wage war against all evils which cause suffering and unhappiness.

"Conflict Tactics"
Reveille for Radicals

To these ends Radicals struggle to eradicate all those evils which anchor mankind in the mire of war, fear, misery, and demoralization.... The Radical is dedicated to the destruction of the roots of all fears, frustrations, and insecurity of man whether they be material or spiritual.

"What Is a Radical?"
Reveille for Radicals

This road to fix all the world is hot-paved with good intentions.

Against structure

Alinsky's style of organizing looks for weaknesses, wedge events:

The Chinese write the word "crisis" with two characters. One means danger and the other means opportunity. Together they spell "crisis".

"The Crisis"
Reveille for Radicals

What is the immediate purpose here? It is that crises create opportunities which can be exploited against the oppressive structure of society. Begin small and work up. But the interesting aspect is that Alinsky is hostile to structure itself. In a constitutional republic, its institutions and laws and the traditions and education that support them are the walls and towers to be broken down. What do we have when our existing structure is gone?

What is left, is some agglomeration or super-bloc of People's Organizations doing whatever its leaders can persuade or trick the masses to support. In other words, a shadow government of "community organizations" grows to become the effective government, without any limiting structure, without any checks and balances on its use of force "against all evils".

It must never be forgotten that the structure is not only secondary, but very much so in its relation to the substance. The structure will always be no more than a reflection of its substance. In the last analysis of our democratic faith, the answer to all of the issues facing us will be found in the masses of the people themselves, and nowhere else.

"The Crisis"
Reveille for Radicals

This is how democracy may be pushed by demagoguery into tyranny — a danger the ancient Greeks knew well.


Twenty years later, Alinsky claimed to have been in and out of jail while organizing in Kansas City in the 1940s, and written the book during those periods of incarceration:

I wrote Reveille for Radicals in that jail.

Marion Sanders
"The Professional Radical: Conversations with Saul Alinsky"
Harper's, June 1965

Sanford D. Horwitt
"Smugtown and Stardom"
Let Them Call Me Rebel

Horwitt calls Alinsky on this "tall story", but indulgently; and suggests that Alinsky wanted to buttress his credentials in the civil-rights movement. In these interviews Alinsky refers to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963). I'll add that perhaps the best-known radical book which really was written substantially in jail is Mein Kampf (1925, 1928).


There's a lot more in the book than we can examine in a reasonable space here, but I urge the curious to read the book slowly, read it closely, because among the paragraphs and pages of exhortation and case-histories are the odd line or two of wide-open license. All the fine social causes may be the justification for Alinsky's sounding the loud reveille to awaken his kind of Radicals, but it is in the still, small voice of "against all evils" that the marching orders are handed out.

Alinsky is sensitive to criticism of his good-ends-justify-any-means approach, but as he says repeatedly, the organizers' ends are good, so there really is no problem:

Their mutual goal is so good and so bright that it is not important if one must go through a few devious valleys and shadows in the struggle for the people's world.
Saul D. Alinsky
"Organizational Tactics"
Reveille for Radicals


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

S. E. Jordan's review of
A Conflict of Visions:
  Ideological Origins of Political Struggles
by Thomas Sowell

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