Saul Alinsky and Catholic Social Teaching

Saul Alinsky and Catholic Social Teaching October 9, 2020

This post got started because of a what I suspect is a very bad movie.  Someone on a Facebook group I belong to was touting a new movie on gender ideology as a “must see” event.   I quickly googled the film and the directors and could not find much about them (except they are are EWTN a lot) but I did find that they made a previous movie:  A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, a documentary about the late Saul Alinsky.  I remembered when this particular movie came out, since it was part of a general moral panic among conservatives about Alinsky and the influence of his principles for community organizing, summarized in his posthumous book, Rules for Radicals.   I watched a couple clips and read about the film, and went away convinced, as I recently put it, that the movie was a hatchet job that conflated progressive thought in America with the spectre of communism.

But, as part of a commbox exchange about Alinsky, I went looking for a more nuanced discussion of his life and work.  I found a nice article, and in it I found a quote from his first work, Reveille for Radicals.  This book was intended to be a summary of his political philosophy, a self-described radical.  He wrote:

The Radical believes that all peoples should have a high standard of food, housing, and health … The Radical places human rights far above property rights. He is for universal, free public education and recognizes this as fundamental to the democratic way of life … The Radical believes completely in real equality of opportunity for all peoples regardless of race, color, or creed. He insists on full employment for economic security but is just as insistent that man’s work should not only provide economic security but also be such as to satisfy the creative desires within all men.

Reading this, it all sounded familiar:  everything this self-described radical said he stood for is solidly supported by Catholic social teaching, and has been for a long time.  I have been blogging about my close reading of papal social encyclicals:  see here, here, and here.  (I am wicked behind in my posts on Pacem in Terris–please stand by!) So every principle he was advocating for is not just not contrary to Catholic teaching, but is central to it.  Let me illustrate this point by point:

Food, housing and health:  Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services.  (Pacem in Terris, 11)

Universal free public education:  He has the natural right to share in the benefits of culture, and hence to receive a good general education, and a technical or professional training consistent with the degree of educational development in his own country.  (Pacem in Terris, 13)

Fundamental to the democratic way of life: A natural consequence of men’s dignity is unquestionably their right to take an active part in government… (Pacem in Terris, 73)

Real equality of opportunity for all peoples: If a workman’s wages be sufficient to enable him comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children, he will find it easy…. [to] secure a modest source of income….The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners. (Rerum Novarum 46)

In the economic sphere, it is evident that a man has the inherent right not only to be given the opportunity to work, but also to be allowed the exercise of personal initiative in the work he does. (Pacem in Terris 18)

Consequently, if the whole structure and organization of an economic system is such as to compromise human dignity, to lessen a man’s sense of responsibility or rob him of opportunity for exercising personal initiative, then such a system, We maintain, is altogether unjust—no matter how much wealth it produces, or how justly and equitably such wealth is distributed. (Mater et Magistra, 83)

Regardless of race, color, or creed:   As a human person he is entitled to the legal protection of his rights, and such protection must be effective, unbiased, and strictly just. (Pacem in Terris 27)

States must be governed by truth. Truth calls for the elimination of every trace of racial discrimination (Pacem in Terris 86)

Women are gaining an increasing awareness of their natural dignity. Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, they are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons. (Pacem in Terris, 41)

Also among man’s rights is that of being able to worship God in accordance with the right dictates of his own conscience, and to profess his religion both in private and in public. (Pacem in Terris, 14)

Full employment for economic security:  But another point, scarcely less important, and especially vital in our times, must not be overlooked: namely, that the opportunity to work be provided to those who are able and willing to work (Quadragesimo Anno, 74)

Any adjustment between wages and profits must take into account the demands of the common good of the particular country and of the whole human family….What are these demands? On the national level they include: employment of the greatest possible number of workers… (Mater et Magistra 78-79)

Work should not only provide economic security but also…satisfy the creative desires within all men:  Labor…is not a mere commodity. On the contrary, the worker’s human dignity in it must be recognized. (Quadragesimo Anno, 83)

The government is also required to show no less energy and efficiency in the matter of providing opportunities for suitable employment….It must make sure that working men are paid a just and equitable wage, and are allowed a sense of responsibility in the industrial concerns for which they work.  (Pacem in Terris, 64)

It should be stated at the outset that in the economic order first place must be given to the personal initiative of private citizens working either as individuals or in association with each other in various ways for the furtherance of common interests.  (Mater et Magistra, 51)

What conclusion do I want to draw from this extensive enumeration of the parallels between Catholic social teaching and the beliefs of Saul Alinksy?   Primarily, that any attempt to tar him as a “communist”, “socialist” or “Marxist”, risks rejecting core Catholic beliefs.  As Pope John XXIII made clear, these teachings are not add-ons to the faith:

We must reaffirm most strongly that this Catholic social doctrine is an integral part of the Christian conception of life. (Mater et Magistra, 222)

Thus, any attempt to criticize Alinsky or his work must proceed with a great deal more nuance, lest you throw out the baby with the bathwater.  One approach would be to follow the argument of Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno, when he described developments in socialism thus:

Socialism inclines toward and in a certain measure approaches the truths which Christian tradition has always held sacred; for it cannot be denied that its demands at times come very near those that Christian reformers of society justly insist upon…[But] Socialism, like all errors, contains some truth…it is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. (Quadragesimo Anno 113, 120)

So to critique him, one would need to take apart his work and find out what his foundational principles really are.  This approach is much harder, and is not conducive to demagoguery.  On the other hand, it would be more fruitful.  It would avoid name calling and erroneous (often silly) stereotypes of “Marxism”–which is now pretty much used as a slur for any idea on the Left, no matter what its intellectual pedigree.  There are many non-Marxist and anti-Marxist schools of thought on the Left, and Alinsky denied that he was either a Communist or a Marxist.  What little I have read of his ideas place him more in the decentralized socialist tradition or anarchist schools of thought.

It would also bring to light areas of agreement, points where-in fruitful dialog could occur.  In the long period between the French Revolution and Vatican II, the Church turned its back on modernity, rejecting it in its entirety.  (See, for instance, the Syllabus of Errors.)  It was the genius of the Council to realize that there was much good in the modern world which the Church should embrace, even as it tried to correct its errors.   Such dialogue would create understanding and a basis for mutual collaboration.  As Pope John XXIII put it:

In their economic and social activities, Catholics often come into contact with others who do not share their view of life. In such circumstances, they must, of course, bear themselves as Catholics and do nothing to compromise religion and morality. Yet at the same time they should show themselves animated by a spirit of understanding and unselfishness, ready to cooperate loyally in achieving objects which are good in themselves, or can be turned to good. (Mater et Magistra, 239)

To conclude, let me be clear:  I am not an uncritical fan of Saul Alinsky.  In practice, his rules for community organizing often embrace an “ends justify the means” approach which can be destructive.  And not all community organizing needs to be read through the lens of power politics.   But I really cannot abide the sort of shoddy, unreflective attacks upon him that have become commonplace–they only serve to reinforce prejudice and stereotypes, and ultimately make it that much harder to discuss the radical ideas which are at the heart of Catholic social teaching.   To steal a line from one of my kids, it really rustles my jimmies.


Cover image:  Saul Alinsky, from Wikimedia Commons.

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