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‘Rules for Radicals’,
Saul D. Alinsky (1971)

In this review of ‘Rules for Radicals’ I’m not going to list those ‘rules’. Nor the oft-neglected list of ‘means and ends’. That’s because, if you read the book, that’s not the point of these lists. Alinsky’s philosophy is broader than that.

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Saul D. Alinksy is a hero to some, mostly on the left; to others, mostly on the right, he is a demon; and to the learned middle class, he is often portrayed as a divisive fermenter of conflict by describing action in terms of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.

‘Rules for Radicals’ First Edition (hardback), 1971
First Edition (hardback), 1971
‘Rules for Radicals’,
Saul D. Alinsky:

First Edition (hardback), 1971. ISBN 9780-3944-4341-6.
Download free from Archive.org

First Edition (paperback), Random House, 1972. ISBN 9780-3947-1736-4.

Vintage Books Re-issue, 1989. ISBN 9780-6797-2113-0.
Download free from Archive.org

In reality, in his own terms, he is all of these – precisely because he sought to give power to the powerless by manipulating those who would wield power over them. As he says in the first chapter:

“Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a non-existent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict.”

Saul Alinsky worked as a criminologist in the Chicago prison system. By the 1930s he moved on to political organising. Though his analytical skills may have been formed as a criminologist, his experience in the labour movement would apply those skills towards creating effective organisers.

What those who just focus on ‘the rules’ miss is that greater analytical dimension. Alinsky begins by looking at the purpose of change – where we find the oft-neglected list of ‘means and ends’; and then continues on, via ‘education’ and ‘communication’, to examine the tactical basis of power – where we find the oft-quoted list of ‘rules’. The problem is, in stripping away the ‘means’, that later list of ‘tactical rules’ cannot be clearly understood. As Alinsky says:

“Life and how you live it is the story of means and ends... Whenever we think about social change, the question of means and ends arises... To say that corrupt means corrupt the ends is to believe in the immaculate conception of ends and principles. The real arena is corrupt and bloody. Life is a corrupting process from the time a child learns to play his mother off against his father in the politics of when to go to bed; he who fears corruption fears life.”

Saul D. Alinsky image
Saul D. Alinsky

Those who fear Alinsky, and demonise his tactics, have failed to clearly read what he says. He criticises the blind dogma of Marxists as well as the blind indifference of the economic elite. At the same time, his idea of power is not based within conquest, but ultimately, in cooperation:

“A free and open society is an ongoing conflict, interrupted periodically by compromises – which then become the start for the continuation of conflict, compromise, and on ad infinitum... A society devoid of compromise is totalitarian. If I had to define a free and open society in one word, the word would be, ‘compromise’.”

A great deal of the book concentrates not on campaigns, or even where we should exist on the political spectrum. The book deals in how we educate ourselves, and then, having become self-aware of the world around us, how we find common purpose with other people.

‘Rules for Radicals’ First Edition (paperback), 1972
First Edition (paperback), 1972

As Alinsky says in relation to ‘education’:

“Socrates was an organiser. The function of an organiser is to raise questions that agitate, that break through accepted patterns. Socrates, with his goal of, ‘know thyself’, was raising internal questions within the individual that are so essential for the revolution which is external to the individual. So Socrates was creating revolutionaries. If he had been permitted to continue raising questions about the meaning of life... the internal revolution would have soon moved into the political arena. Those who tried him and sentenced him to death knew what they were doing.”

Alinsky’s focus is not just on how a person perceives the world, but the importance of understanding other people’s perceptions too; so that you can more clearly communicate with them. Those who focus on the list of ‘rules’ ignore this, and especially, his advocacy of NOT listening to his ‘rules’:

“I hesitate to spell out specific applications of these tactics... There can be no prescriptions for particular situations because the same situation rarely recurs... People, pressures, and patterns of power are variables, and a particular combination exists only in a particular time... It is the ‘principles’ that the organiser must carry with him into battle. To these he applies his imagination, and relates them tactically to specific situations.”

In the Western world today, we are stuck in what is objectively a Möbius loop; or as was succinctly said, “The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.”

I find it perplexing that contemporary activism seems to be unaware of Alinsky’s ideas. Neoliberalism has trapped the ‘popular imagination’ towards a limited set of entirely representative ends. Activism no longer seeks an open choice of political ends, merely an unappealing selection from reforming managerial outcomes.

‘Rules for Radicals’ Vintage Books Re-issue, 1989
Vintage Books Re-issue, 1989

Political change, today the preserve of a self-selecting set of middle class lobbyists, has become focussed on incremental reforms that maintain the economic status quo; seeking to solve peripheral problems, without touching the core of the system that creates them. Alinsky may have talked of the, ‘haves and have nots’. Today, ‘change’ has become a battle between ‘the haves’ and the ‘have mores’.

Alinksy’s most ignored idea, repeated throughout the book, is that an organiser must deal, “with the world as it is”. Often a situation gives rise to a ‘duality’ – two perspectives on a situation that, within the popular debate, may have equal validity. It is only by steeping outside of what is accepted or popular, by looking at the world as it actually is, that we might see which course of action is the best ‘means’ to our ‘ends’.

Fifty-one years from its publication, ‘Rules for Radicals’ remains one of the most powerful, and yet one of the most misunderstood manuals for creating change. That the world has not progressed in that time is arguably, as Shakespeare said, “not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”