Gramsci, Alinsky & the Left

Gramsci, Alinsky & the Left

“Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches and the media by transforming the consciousness of society” – Antonio Gramsci

“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters” – Antonio Gramsci

“Every State is a dictatorship” – Antonio Gramsci

Our nation has been pushed inexorably towards the left for decades. Has this been caused by a simple evolutionary process – a normal outcome of a wealthy and successful society falling into middle age? Or does it have some deeper cause – a more active agent of change?

This question seems to of particular relevance today as the Cultural Wars have broken open – Progressives in near-hysteria, protests ongoing. Watching these events unfold I am reminded of a simple truth.

The present always has a past.

The Dialectic Process was created by Georg Hegel. The Dialectic Process was used as a process to describe change. Hegel, a social philosopher, used the Dialectic Process to describe how societies could come to a state of more rational, elevated thinking.

Karl Marx took Hegel’s idea of the Dialectic Process and changed it subtly. Marx used it as a process to describe social change. There are three key parts to the Dialectic Process:

The first is the Thesis – or Starting Point. A better term might be the Status Quo – where we are today.

Marx believed that in order for things to change there would have to be some form of opposition to the Status Quo. This opposition is the second part – the Antithesis – or the mechanism for change. It is the people and ideas that do not support the status quo – the opposing group.

When the Thesis and the Antithesis meet – or clash – you have the third component – Synthesis. Another word for Synthesis might be Revolution. Marx believed that Synthesis was Progress – a necessary confrontation that would allow for society to emerge as a better place for most people involved.

Marx believed the Dialectic Process to be a true process – an important distinction – as a true Process does not end – it is ongoing. In other words, once we reach Synthesis the process will start again. Synthesis will now become the Thesis – the Status Quo. And new Opposition will arise.

And that – in very simplistic terms – is how Marx perceived society progressing over time.

Marx also established the two basic divisions of a society – the “structure” or economic base that gives rise to the two classes – worker and capital owner; and the “superstructure” of institutions and beliefs that surrounds the economic base.

Antonio Gramsci, a Marxist theorist and a founding member of the Communist Party of Italy, took this societal division a step further when he broke the “superstructure” into coercive (governmental, legal) and non-coercive (church, school, political party) elements. Gramsci defined the non-coercive elements as “civil society”. So Gramsci saw society as being comprised of three elements: the economic base, the coercive element and the non-coercive element.

Gramsci then created the Theory of Cultural Hegemony – the way in which nations use cultural institutions to maintain power in capitalist societies. In Gramsci’s view, the governing class – in order to succeed, maintain power and the status quo – must persuade those being governed to accept and even embrace the social, moral and political values held by the governing class. This is a subtle but crucial distinction. Gramsci felt that the ruling class’ primary method of control came from the non-coercive element. The coercive element was only used as a last resort.

Hegemony, Gramsci believed, was created through society’s institutions – the family, church, schools, economy, universities and government. These institutions were the bonds that cemented the ruled to the rulers.

His answer – his response – to Cultural Hegemony was exceedingly simple. Turn the process back on the governing hierarchy. Change the way institutions work – change the family, church, school – change social norms and beliefs. This would require the introduction of an entirely new set of values and beliefs – a new morality. It would also be slow.

Gramsci embraced gradualism – a policy of gradual reform as a means to his end. He recognized that his process must be lengthy, methodical and persistent. He advocated evolution over revolution – or as he put it “a long march through the institutions”. A slow transformation from within.

Gramsci targeted several specific societal areas as a means to promote his quiet revolution. One primary target was schools. Gramsci was opposed to the vocational schools springing up in Italy. Instead, he advocated “to create a single type of formative school which would take the child up to the threshold of his choice of job, forming him during this time as a person capable of thinking, studying and ruling – or controlling those who rule”.

This fed into Gramsci’s concept of an intellectual. Gramsci noted that “All men are intellectuals, but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals”. He felt that each societal group gave rise to its own set of “organic” intellectuals – doctors, professors, clergy, managers –  and it was these he felt were needed in order to promote real change. To achieve counter-hegemony Gramsci required not only traditional intellectuals – like himself – but the organic intellectuals – everyday professionals – working class intellectuals – to come to his cause.

Gramsci looked towards the United States and noted that a true Marxist “uprising of the workers” would never be successful there. It would require an undermining of the culture – of the morality and norms – of the United States first. It would require a changing of the culture – by intellectuals and those of influence. But it would also require something else. As noted by Gramsci; “the mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organizer, “permanent persuader” and not just a simple orator”. Gramsci felt the movement would require a more subversive, directly participating element – community organizers.

It would also require the media.

Gramsci’s ideas came to the United States not through his own person – Gramsci died in confinement after being jailed by Mussolini – but through the Frankfurt School. George Lukacs – a fellow Marxist with similar ideas to Gramsci – had gained fame as a Marxist theorist through the publication of his book History and Class Consciousness. Lukacs’ interaction with another Marxist, Felix Weil, led to the founding of the Institute of Social Research – which became known as the Frankfurt School – a Marxism think-tank. When Hitler rose to power in 1933, the Institute moved to New York where it became affiliated with Columbia University in 1935.

When World War II reached America, some of the most prominent members ended up working in the U.S. government, including Herbert Marcuse, who actually became a key figure in the OSS – the predecessor to the CIA. Others, including Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno moved to Hollywood. Marcuse enjoyed a true rise to fame in the 1960’s with his book Eros and Civilization. It was Marcuse who coined the phrase “Make love, not war”. Theodor Adorno wrote the influential book The Authoritarian Personality which argued that anyone who defended traditional culture was a Fascist. That last sentence should have particular relevance today.

The Frankfurt School employed a technique invented by Horkheimer called Critical Theory – a social theory oriented toward critiquing and changing society as a whole. The point of the theory is to criticize every traditional social institution – and to specifically avoid offering any alternatives – as a means to breaking down Western Culture. A better, alternative way is never to be offered – only criticism. While at Columbia, the Frankfurt School shifted their focus from Critical Theory directed at German society to Critical Theory directed at American society. Though they did not coin the term, Critical Theory provided the origin of Political Correctness. As noted by Raymond V. Raehn, “Political Correctness seeks to impose a uniformity of thought and behavior on all Americans and is therefore totalitarian in nature”. In reality it is Cultural Marxism. For a more complete discussion of the History of Political Correctness see here.

The goal of the Frankfurt School was to move America gradually to the Left using the precepts of Gramsci’s Counter Hegemony and the practice of Critical Theory. Changing the Culture of America through Gramsci’s “long march through the institutions”.

Has this process worked?

In 1958, W. Cleon Skousen authored his famous book The Naked Communist. In it, Skousen listed what he perceived as the “Current Communist Goals”. There were 45 goals in total. They can be viewed here. I have highlighted some of them below:

  • Develop the illusion that total disarmament by the United States would be a demonstration of moral strength.
  • Promote the U.N. as the only hope for mankind. If its charter is rewritten, demand that it be set up as a one-world government with its own independent armed forces.
  • Capture one or both of the political parties in the United States.
  • Use technical decisions of the courts to weaken basic American institutions by claiming their activities violate civil rights.
  • Get control of the schools. Use them as transmission belts for socialism and current Communist propaganda. Soften the curriculum. Get control of teachers’ associations. Put the party line in textbooks.
  • Gain control of all student newspapers.
  • Use student riots to foment public protests against programs or organizations which are under Communist attack.
  • Infiltrate the press. Get control of book-review assignments, editorial writing, and policymaking positions.
  • Gain control of key positions in radio, TV, and motion pictures.
  • Eliminate prayer or any phase of religious expression in the schools on the ground that it violates the principle of “separation of church and state.”
  • Discredit the American Constitution by calling it inadequate, old-fashioned, out of step with modern needs, a hindrance to cooperation between nations on a worldwide basis.
  • Discredit the American Founding Fathers. Present them as selfish aristocrats who had no concern for the “common man.”
  • Support any socialist movement to give centralized control over any part of the culture–education, social agencies, welfare programs, mental health clinics, etc.
  • Discredit the family as an institution. Encourage promiscuity and easy divorce.
  • Overthrow all colonial governments before native populations are ready for self-government.

I leave it to the reader to decide how much current relevance – and progress – are found in these “goals” written in 1958.

“The end is what you want, the means is how you get it” – Saul Alinsky

“In the beginning the organizer’s first job is to create the issues or problems.” – Saul Alinsky

“Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon” – Saul Alinsky

Saul Alinsky was an American democratic socialist. He is considered to be the founder of modern community organization. In 1946, Alinsky wrote Reveille for Radicals, a text on community organizing. In 1971, he wrote his most famous work, Rules for Radicals. Alinsky worked closely with Chicago’s Communist Party but was careful to never formally join the party. Alinsky noted in Reveille that “Communism itself is irrelevant. The issue is whether they are on our side”. I see Alinsky as a Neo-Marxist, one who was heavily influenced by Gramsci and gradualism. Alinsky’s famous 13 Rules can be found here. Several that have always stood out as particularly relevant are:

  • “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules.”
  • “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.”
  • “Keep the pressure on. Never let up.”
  • “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.”

One of Alinsky’s stated goals was “radicalization of the middle class”. To this end Alinsky suggested that “goals must be phrased in general terms like Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Of the Common Welfare, and Pursuit of Happiness.” Alinsky also saw that organizers must cloak their causes in morality. “Moral rationalization is indispensable to all kinds of action, whether to justify the selection or the use of ends or means…All great leaders invoked moral principles to cover naked self-interest in the clothing of freedom, and the equality of mankind.”

Alinsky believed in change as a tool, but like Marx and his Dialectic Process, Alinsky also believed change was the goal.

Hillary Clinton wrote her college thesis on Alinsky and interviewed him several times during her research. Alinsky later offered her a job which she declined. How close they really were is not completely known, but they kept up a correspondence – until his death in 1972. In what was likely her final letter to Alinsky, Clinton noted; “I have just had my one-thousandth conversation about Reveille [for Radicals] and need some new material to throw at people. You are being rediscovered again as the New Left-type politicos are finally beginning to think seriously about the hard work and mechanics of organizing.”

One of these New Left-types ultimately became our president. Barack Obama never met Alinsky, who died when Obama was only 11 years old. But several of Obama’s community organizer mentors were Alinsky disciples – Jerry Kellman, John McKnight and Mike Kruglik. As far as I can tell, Obama was first introduced to Alinsky in the 1980s when Obama joined the Gamaliel Foundation – an outgrowth of the Alinsky movement – as a community organizer. Obama briefly trained in Los Angeles at Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation. Obama also had close ties to the Midwest Academy – a training academy for radical activists. The Midwest Academy worked closely with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and incorporated both the Alinsky method along with Marxist teachings. Both websites are worth a quick visit. In 2008 Letter to the Boston Globe, David Alinsky – Saul’s son – noted the following:

“Obama’s training in Chicago by the great community organizers is showing its effectiveness…the method of my late father always works to get the message out. I am proud to see that my father’s model for organizing is being applied successfully beyond local community organizing to affect the Democratic campaign in 2008.”

Obama’s mantra was “Change”. Anyone who has read Reveille for Radicals or Rules for Radicals can quickly see where that catchphrase originated from. Change ran through everything Alinsky did or wrote. As I noted earlier – Change was Alinsky’s entire goal.

David Brock, in his 1996 biography, “The Seduction of Hillary Rodham,” referred to Clinton as “Alinsky’s daughter”. Despite obvious ties, Clinton devoted only a single paragraph to Alinsky in her memoir Living History – noting that while she agreed with some of his ideas, “we had a fundamental disagreement. He believed you could change the system only from the outside. I didn’t…my decision was an expression of my belief that the system could be changed from within.” Notably, in 1993, at the request of the Clinton Presidency, her college thesis was sealed by Wellesley College until 2001. Overall, her thesis is not that controversial but an interesting summation of Alinsky’s tactics can be found on page 20. Perhaps the greatest takeaway is that while Clinton sometimes criticizes Alinsky’s methods, nowhere does she criticize his goals. As Jen Kuznicki from Conservative Review noted; “the best way to put Hillary’s philosophy is what she told the Black Lives Matter movement”;

“I don’t believe you change hearts, you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.”

Hillary has been referred to as Alinsky’s daughter. Perhaps. I would then argue that Alinsky was Obama’s grandfather. But I think their true heritage – the lineage of the Left – leads straight back to Antonio Gramsci.

The present always has a past…


An excellent article “Why There is a Culture War: Gramsci and Tocqueville in America” by John Fonte of the Hoover Institution is a worthwhile and enlightening read

Quotes taken from – Gramsci, A. – Selections from the Prison Notebooks & Alinsky, S. – Reveille for Radicals & Rules for Radicals

Categories: New Order

About Author