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"Rules for Radicals", by Saul Alinsky

Saul Alinsky was a commuting organizer and wrote the book “Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals”, which I came across at this good short post.

Alinsky starts:

The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.

And he aims high:

Remember we are talking about revolution, not revelation; you can miss the target by shooting too high as well as too low.

A “revolution” for him means turning over existing power structures. He stresses that it’s not the same as promoting communism:

Today revolution has become synonymous with communism while capitalism is synonymous with status quo. […] We have permitted a suicidal situation to unfold wherein revolution and communism have become one. These pages are committed to splitting this political atom, separating this exclusive identification of communism with revolution.

And he thinks political change won’t come without a conflict:

All of life is partisan. There is no dispassionate objectivity. […] This raises the question: what, if any, is my ideology? What kind of ideology, if any, can an organizer have who is working in and for a free society? The prerequisite for an ideology is possession of a basic truth.

(See also Jan-Werner Müller’s criticism of meritocratic technocracy.)

However, finding one’s ideology isn’t easy:

An organizer working in and for an open society is in an ideological dilemma. To begin with, he does not have a fixed truth—truth to him is relative and changing; everything to him is relative and changing. […] In the end he has one conviction—a belief that if people have the power to act, in the long run they will, most of the time, reach the right decisions. The alternative to this would be rule by the elite— either a dictatorship or some form of a political aristocracy.


It is the schizophrenia of a free society that we outwardly espouse faith in the people but inwardly have strong doubts whether the people can be trusted.

He argues against passive pessimism, withdrawing from and accepting the world as it is and makes an optimistic case that change is possible. He then offers much advice on how to get it done.

I liked this bit:

It is a world not of angels but of angles, where men speak of moral principles but act on power principles; a world where we are always moral and our enemies always immoral; a world where “reconciliation” means that when one side gets the power and the other side gets reconciled to it, then we have reconciliation; […].

And he stresses that despite all revolutionary rhetoric, one should realize that:

I can attack my government, try to organize to change it. That’s more than I can do in Moscow, Peking, or Havana. […] Let’s keep some perspective.

And he talks a lot about the lower middle class:

If we fail to communicate with them, if we don’t encourage them to form alliances with us, they will move to the right. Maybe they will anyway, but let’s not let it happen by default.

Alinsky argues that words like “power” or “self-interest” should not be watered down, but used just like that. It’s interesting to hear Barack Obama speak and use just these words very deliberately. (And, incidentally, Alinsky was also the subject of Hillary Clinton’s undergraduate thesis.)

The role of a community organizer as the author describes it, sounds like that of a management consultant. He’s an outsider who enters a local community and wins their trust. He questions existing power structures, the ways of rationalizing how things are and the ways things are run. And he can be blamed if things don’t work out.

He stresses the need for a realistic assessment of the situation:

As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be.


Most of us view the world not as it is but as we would like it to be.

He promotes a flexible, messy approach and for embracing uncertainty, but one’s language should be firm:

A leader may struggle toward a decision and weigh the merits and demerits of a situation which is 52 per cent positive and 48 per cent negative, but once the decision is reached he must assume that his cause is 100 per cent positive and the opposition 100 per cent negative.

Alinsky writes that much of this is just reacting to external events. Only in hindsight do people assign deep reasons for why one has acted in a way:

The lesson here is that a major job of the organizer is to instantly develop the rationale for actions which have taken place by accident or impulsive anger.

The danger is that people don’t like being told that they’ve been wrong. If you now tell people to do things different, then they must have done things the wrong way before. So the organizer will seem aloof and people think he considers them dumb. And he emphasizes that you have stay within people’s experience to communicate with them:

People only understand things in terms of their experience, which means that you must get within their experience. […] I know that I have communicated with the other party when his eyes light up and he responds, “I know exactly what you mean. I had something just like that happen to me once. Let me tell you about it!”

This argument is flipped around when he talks about how to treat one’s enemies, which should be “frozen and personalized” and be made uncomfortable by going out of their experience. This reminded me of Tim Harford’s treatment of how Donald Trump hijacked his opponents OODA loop.

To avert a clash with the community, an organizer should start gently, with easy wins which he calls “cinch fights”. And – seemingly straight from Dale Carnegie – then let people figure out the important stuff themselves, so that they feel like they came up with it.

However, it’s hard to keep up the momentum:

Among the reasons is the simple fact that human beings can sustain an interest in a particular subject only over a limited period of time.

From the moment the tactician engages in conflict, his enemy is time. This should be kept in mind when one is considering boycotts.

He writes that one of the best things that can happen to a revolutionary is to be put in prison for a short while. It makes the organizer a martyr and focuses the movement. And Alinsky, who spend short sentences in jail himself, thinks that it’s a good place to get work done. The guards are dull and it strips away any distractions. But if you stay too long, new problems will arise and you will get out of touch. He suggests one to three months.

Overall, I recommend the book. It’s well written and compact. And it’s not as controversial as its title would have you believe. In fact,

The use of the adjective “controversial” to qualify the word “issue” is a meaningless redundancy. There can be no such thing as a “non-controversial” issue. When there is agreement there is no issue; issues only arise when there is disagreement or controversy.