Playboy Interview with Saul Alinsky

A Candid Conversation with the Feisty Radical Organizer


Not bad for a slum kid from the South Side of Chicago, where he was born on January 30, 1909. After working his way through the University of Chicago, Alinsky attended graduate school for two years, then dropped out to work as an Illinois state criminologist. In the mid-Thirties, as a side line, he began to work as an organizer with the then-radical C.I.O., in which he soon became a close friend and aide to John L. Lewis. Then, in 1939, he phased himself out of active participation in the labor movement and into the role of community organizer, starting in his own back yard — the Chicago slums. His efforts to turn scattered, voiceless discontent into a united protest aroused the admiration of Illinois governor Adlai E. Stevenson, who said Alinsky’s aims “most faithfully reflect our ideals of brotherhood, tolerance, charity and the dignity of the individual.” In 1940, Alinsky elicited a generous grant from liberal millionaire Marshall Field III, who provided funds to establish the Industrial Areas Foundation, which has remained Alinsky’s primary base of operation. Throughout the next decade, with Field’s financial backing, Alinsky repeated his initial success in a score of slum communities across the nation, from Kansas City and Detroit to the barrios of Southern California.






PLAYBOY: Mobilizing middle-class America would seem quite a departure for you after years of working with poverty-stricken black and white slum dwellers. Do you expect suburbia to prove fertile ground for your organizational talents?

ALINSKY: Yes, and it’s shaping up as the most challenging fight of my career, and certainly the one with the highest stakes. Remember, people are people whether they’re living in ghettos, reservations or barrios, and the suburbs are just another kind of reservation — a gilded ghetto. One thing I’ve come to realize is that any positive action for radical social change will have to be focused on the white middle class, for the simple reason that this is where the real power lies. Today, three fourths of our population is middle class, either through actual earning power or through value identification. Take the lower-lower middle class, the blue-collar or hard-hat group; there you’ve got over 70,000,000 people earning between $5000 and $10,000 a year, people who don’t consider themselves poor or lower class at all and who espouse the dominant middle class ethos even more fiercely than the rich do. For the first time in history, you have a country where the poor are in the minority, where the majority are dieting while the have-nots are going to bed hungry every night.

Christ, even if we could manage to organize all the exploited low-income groups — all the blacks, chicanos, Puerto Ricans, poor whites — and then, through some kind of organizational miracle, weld them all together into a viable coalition, what would you have? At the most optimistic estimate, 55,000,000 people by the end of this decade — but by then the total population will be over 225,000,000, of whom the overwhelming majority will be middle class. This is the so-called Silent Majority that our great Greek philosopher in Washington is trying to galvanize, and it’s here that the die will be cast and this country’s future decided for the next 50 years. Pragmatically, the only hope for genuine minority progress is to seek out allies within the majority and to organize that majority itself as part of a national movement for change. If we just give up and let the middle classes go to the likes of Agnew and Nixon by default, then you might as well call the whole ball game. But they’re still up for grabs — and we’re gonna grab ’em.




PLAYBOY: In what way?



PLAYBOY: How did you ever get into this line of work?

Interview With Alinsky, Part Three, Raw Beginnings

PLAYBOY: Were your parents politically active?

PLAYBOY: Did you encounter much antiSemitism as a child?



PLAYBOY: Did you beat up any more Polish kids?

PLAYBOY: Were you a devout Jew as a boy?

PLAYBOY: Did you rebel in areas other than religion?


PLAYBOY: Was your relationship with your father uniformly hostile?

PLAYBOY: A psychoanalytic interpretation of your life might conclude that your subsequent career as a radical was motivated more by hatred of your father than by opposition to the establishment.

PLAYBOY: How did you feel when you learned of his death?

PLAYBOY: Were you equally estranged from your mother?

PLAYBOY: Were you politically active in college?


PLAYBOY: Was sociology your major in college?

ALINSKY: God, no. I majored in archaeology, a subject that fascinated me then and still does. I really fell in love with it.

PLAYBOY: Did you plan to become a professional archaeologist?

PLAYBOY: Was it at this time that you became active in radical politics?

PLAYBOY: What did you do after graduation?




PLAYBOY: Did you continue your life of crime?

PLAYBOY: What did Capone have to say about that?

ALINSKY: Well, my reception was pretty chilly at first — I went over to the old Lexington Hotel, which was the gang’s headquarters, and I hung around the lobby and the restaurant. I’d spot one of the mobsters whose picture I’d seen in the papers and go up to him and say, “I’m Saul Alinsky, I’m studying criminology, do you mind if I hang around with you?” And he’d look me over and say, “Get lost, punk.” This happened again and again, and I began to feel I’d never get anywhere. Then one night I was sitting in the restaurant and at the next table was Big Ed Stash, a professional assassin who was the Capone mob’s top executioner. He was drinking with a bunch of his pals and he was saying, “Hey, you guys, did I ever tell you about the time I picked up that redhead in Detroit?” and he was cut off by a chorus of moans. “My God,” one guy said, “do we have to hear that one again?” I saw Big Ed’s face fall; mobsters are very sensitive, you know, very thin-skinned. And I reached over and plucked his sleeve. “Mr. Stash,” I said, “I’d love to hear that story.” His face lit up. “You would, kid?” He slapped me on the shoulder. “Here, pull up a chair. Now, this broad, see . . .” And that’s how it started.

PLAYBOY: Why would professional criminals confide their secrets to an outsider?



PLAYBOY: How long were you an honorary member of the mob?


PLAYBOY: It was also pretty cynical and manipulative.

PLAYBOY: Why were you getting bored this time?


PLAYBOY: Did you agitate for penal reform while you were at Joliet?

ALINSKY: There wasn’t much I could do, because as a state criminologist, I wasn’t directly involved in the actual prison administration. Oh, I made a lot of speeches all over the place telling well meaning people that the whole system wasn’t working, that rehabilitation was a joke and our prisons wer vanguard of the 14th Century, and they all applauded enthusiastically and went home with their souls cleansed — and did nothing. Those speeches got me a reputation as a troublemaker, too. You know, all the experts in criminology and all the textbooks agreed that the primary causes of crime were social conditions — things like poor housing, racial discrimination, economic insecurity, unemployment — but if you ever suggested doing something to correct the root causes instead of locking up the results, you were considered something of a kook. A number of times my superiors called me aside and said, “Look, Saul, don’t sound off like that. People will think you’re a Red or something.” Finally, I quit Joliet and took a job with the Institute for Juvenile Research, one of those outfits that were always studying the causes of juvenile delinquency, making surveys of all the kids in cold-water tenements with rats nibbling their toes and nothing to eat — and then discovering the solution: camping trips and some shit they called character building. Frankly, I considered that job pretty much a sinecure to free me for more important work.

PLAYBOY: Such as?

PLAYBOY: How close was the country to revolution during the Depression?



PLAYBOY: You sound a little nostalgic.

ALINSKY: Yeah, those were exciting days to be alive in. And goddamn violent days, too. Whenever people wail to me about all the violence and disorder in American life today, I tell them to take a hard look back at the Thirties. At one time, you had thousands of American veterans encamped along the Anacostia petitioning the Government for a subsistence bonus until they were driven out at bayonet point by the Army, led by “I shall return” MacArthur. Negroes were being lynched regularly in the South as the first stirrings of black opposition began to be felt, and many of the white civil rights organizers and labor agitators who had started to work with them were tarred, feathered, castrated — or killed. Most Southern politicians were members of the Ku Klux Klan and had no compunction about boasting of it.


PLAYBOY: When did you involve yourself full time in the radical movement?


PLAYBOY: What was your first organizational effort?

PLAYBOY: Why did you pick the Back of the Yards district as your first target?


PLAYBOY: How did you go about organizing a community like Back of the Yards?



PLAYBOY: How did you win the backing of the community at large?


PLAYBOY: What tactics did you use?




PLAYBOY: Were you right?

PLAYBOY: How does a self-styled outside agitator like yourself get accepted in the community he plans to organize?




PLAYBOY: Spokesmen for the New Left contend that this process of accommodation renders piecemeal reforms meaningless, and that the overthrow and replacement of the system itself is the only means of ensuring meaningful social progress. How would you answer them?



PLAYBOY: What was your next organizational effort after your success in Back of the Yards?

PLAYBOY: Did you run into much trouble yourself?


PLAYBOY: It also removes you from active participation in your cause.


PLAYBOY: Where did you go after Kansas City?


PLAYBOY: What did you do after the war?

ALINSKY: I went back to community-organization work, crisscrossing the country, working in slums in New York and Detroit and Buffalo and in Mexican barrios in California and the Southwest. Reveille for Radicals became the number one best seller, and that helped drum up more support for our work, but then the Cold War began to freeze and McCarthyism started sweeping the country, making any radical activity increasingly difficult. In those days everybody who challenged the establishment was branded a Communist, and the radical movement began to disintegrate under the pressure.

PLAYBOY: What was your own relationship with the Communist Party?


PLAYBOY: Did you consider becoming a party member prior to the Nazi-Soviet Pact?


PLAYBOY: Did the McCarthy era affect you personally?


PLAYBOY: What was your major organizational effort of this period?




PLAYBOY: Were the tactics you employed in Woodlawn different from those you would have used in a white slum?


PLAYBOY: And coercion.





PLAYBOY: Why did your shit-in never take place?

PLAYBOY: No one could accuse you of orthodoxy in your tactics.


PLAYBOY: What was your next organizational target after Woodlawn?


PLAYBOY: Was your reception as hostile as your advance publicity?










PLAYBOY: Do you think much about death?

PLAYBOY: Having accepted your own mortality, do you believe in any kind of afterlife?


PLAYBOY: Why them?

The interview was published in the March 1972 issue of Playboy. This is republished here in its entirety. Alinsky died June 12, 1972.