Thursday, March 26, 2009

Alinsky and Maritain

There has been a lot of discussion lately about Saul Alinsky, a very influential social thinker who wrote Rules for Radicals, and who also has played a major role in the development of the thinking of our current president; but what few know is that Alinsky carried on a lengthy correspondence with one of the most influential Catholic thinkers of that period, Jacques Maritain (often described as an ultraconservative Catholic), and it was clearly a correspondence of conversion.

There is a wonderful book of their 26 years of correspondence, The Philosopher and the Provocateur: The Correspondence of Jacques Maritain and Saul Alinsky, which reveal a very close friendship that was built clearly on the understanding, by Maritain, that Alinsky was a man of very good intent and substantial skills who could be converted to Catholicism.

Maritain understood that everyone, with a foundation of good will, can be redeemed, and he spent many years attempting to convert Alinsky, and who knows what good came of that relationship and what bad was prevented.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction of the book of their correspondence, by the editor Bernard Doering.

“During his wartime exile in America, Maritain met Alinsky some time after the founding of the Back of the Yards Council, probably through George N. Schuster, former editor of Commonweal, later chairman of the board of trustees of Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation and, at the time, president of Hunter College where Maritain had given the inaugural address for the Free French University in exile (Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes) of which he was later elected president. In spite of the radial differences in their personalities and educational backgrounds, Maritain was immediately attracted to this truculent genius of social reform, and the two men recognized their profound intellectual affinities. Whenever they met they spent long hours exploring the democratic dream of people working out their own destiny. Both accepted democracy as the best form of government. As Alinsky tried to share with Maritain his ideas about what it is to be a free citizen in a democratic society, about the right of free association of citizens to undertake action and organize institutions to determine their own destiny, about the necessity of community organizations as mediating structures between the individual and the state, structures that help the government do what it is supposed to do, and as Maritain explained painstakingly to Alinsky his ideas about the distinction between the individual and the person, the primacy of the individual conscience in a religiously and politically pluralist democracy, about the primacy of the common good, about the source of authority residing in the people, who accord that authority to the government that acts in their name, each recognized in the other a truly kindred soul.” (pp xviii-xix)