The enemy is strong, as trade unionists used to say, and it takes cunning, courage, and resolve to win—all of which Saul Alinsky had in profusion. He’s appeared in the news in recent years due to the election of Barack Obama, formerly a community organizer like Alinsky, also from Chicago, and even allegedly influenced by Alinsky. And then there’s the Tea Party, with the likes of Dick Armey deploring Alinsky’s values but openly purloining his tactics. So along comes Radical, a new biography—or rather, homage—by prolific author and journalist Nicholas von Hoffman, formerly one of Alinsky’s political organizers. Digressive, ruminative, and crammed with anecdotes, this portrait of Alinsky gives an authentic feel for the milieu of a mid-20th century radical. “For Saul defeat was not a learning experience. It was a disaster,” Hoffman writes, and: “If a cause is worth fighting for, Saul would repeat, you have a responsibility to prevail.” From his anti-delinquency work in Illinois’ Joliet Prison to his creation of the Back Yards Neighborhood Council in Chicago’s slaughterhouse district in 1939 to his partnerships with socially engaged figures in the Catholic Church to the Rochester, N.Y., fart-in in the 1960s, Alinsky fought like his heroes, particularly John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers. “The middle class life, the loss of which the nation was to suffer in the crash of 2007, came about in no small measure thanks to the organizational drives by Lewis,” Hoffman writes. In that era of Lewis, Samuel Gompers, and Walter Reuther, three giants of American unionism, Alinsky most appreciated Lewis’ approach to recruiting labor organizers: “For Lewis it was communist organizers or no organizers. The trick was to take the Daily Worker (the Communist newspaper) out of their coat pockets, so people did now know who they were.” When questioned, Alinsky said of the party, “I did not join because I had a sense of humor.” While he may have had uses for Communists, he had none for social workers. Whether they worked in Chicago’s vast African-American ghetto or its ferociously divided white ethnic enclaves, where Jews wouldn’t speak to Poles and Lithuanians wouldn’t marry Slovenians, Alinsky regarded all social workers except Jane Addams of Hull House as useless. He concurred with his friend and novelist James T. Farrell: “A sociologist is someone who needs a twenty-thousand dollar research grant to find a whorehouse.” The problem, Alinsky believed, was that social workers were bureaucrats, beholden to the power structure and, as such, never truly in tune with the needs of the people. Organizers like Alinsky, on the other hand, never forgot whom they were assisting or contesting. “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it,” reads rule No. 13 from Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, perhaps his most fabled and contentious precept. Of course, Alinsky also knew that “the best threats are made by anonymously inserting them into the other side’s imagination.” But in Hoffman’s book, Alinsky is hardly anonymous. Rather, he emerges as a fighter who was tough, crafty, persistent, vital, and, above all, larger-than-life.