Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals: a refresher

Saul Alinsky wouldn't be caught dead in a balaclava

Saul Alinsky wouldn’t be caught dead in a balaclava


Our post of yesterday, dusting off the dust-up about the Emma Goldman files, reminded me that a lot of people who are now dead were significantly more intelligent about radicalism than many of the (unnamed) prominent radicals of today.

Saul Alinsky was one of those people.

His 1971 book Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals contained within it 11 principles of such staggering simplicity, elegance, and effectiveness that ever rulebook since has had to compare itself to them, generally unfavourably. You can download the entire text as a PDF from the New American Chamber of Commerce, which tells me some employee was probably being a bit passive-aggressive and a lot awesome one slow afternoon in the office and he plopped it on their server. I could be wrong: an association of business organizations could well have lost its collective Capitalist mind and just decided to empower revolution, #OpMayhem-style. A lot of people who wear suits every day loved Fight Club, right?

Weirdly, Alinsky is having a Renaissance among the far right-wing, having been featured by Glenn Beck, John Hawkins, and others as ways to push back against what they perceive as a Liberal/Left Establishment.

In the book, Alinsky sets forth the principles of a successful radical. I guarantee you that you won’t like them all, whether you’re a radical or a conservative, but that you will have to admit they’re pretty effective. As a Vancouver critic writes in The Citizen’s Handbook, those who walk the path of Collaboration tend to find him over the hill, but the plain fact is that he and his ilk would be over the hill and on to the next mountain range before the Collaborators could even agree how they all felt about the existence of the hill. Professors have pointed out that his tactics are most effective in urban, low-income areas; thanks to income inequality, in the four decades since the book came out there are vastly more urban poor than there used to be, both as a percentage of population and as an absolute number.

Saul Alinsky was all about results. And in his long career as a radical, he was quite staggeringly effective at getting them, too.

And so, in the name of Alinskyian efficiency, here are those 11 principles, stripped to their essentials:

What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. 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.

Rule 1: Power is not only what you have, but what an opponent thinks you have. If your organization is small, hide your numbers in the dark and raise a din that will make everyone think you have many more people than you do.

Rule 2: Never go outside the experience of your people.
The result is confusion, fear, and retreat.

Rule 3: Whenever possible, go outside the experience of an opponent. Here you want to cause confusion, fear, and retreat.

Rule 4: Make opponents live up to their own book of rules. “You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.”

Rule 5: Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It’s hard to counterattack ridicule, and it infuriates the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage.

Rule 6: A good tactic is one your people enjoy. “If your people aren’t having a ball doing it, there is something very wrong with the tactic.”

Rule 7: A tactic that drags on for too long becomes a drag. Commitment may become ritualistic as people turn to other issues.

Rule 8: Keep the pressure on. Use different tactics and actions and use all events of the period for your purpose. “The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition. It is this that will cause the opposition to react to your advantage.”

Rule 9: The threat is more terrifying than the thing itself. When Alinsky leaked word that large numbers of poor people were going to tie up the washrooms of O’Hare Airport, Chicago city authorities quickly agreed to act on a longstanding commitment to a ghetto organization. They imagined the mayhem as thousands of passengers poured off airplanes to discover every washroom occupied. Then they imagined the international embarrassment and the damage to the city’s reputation.

Rule 10: “If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive.” Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog.

Rule 11: The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. Avoid being trapped by an opponent or an interviewer who says, “Okay, what would you do?”

Rule 12: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it. Don’t try to attack abstract corporations or bureaucracies. Identify a responsible individual. Ignore attempts to shift or spread the blame.

According to Alinsky, the main job of the organizer is to bait an opponent into reacting. “The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength.”



Featured Image of Saul Alinsky by Brett Tatman, who describes him as Obama’s political mentor on Flickr. Obama would have been a lot more effective if he HAD listened to Alinsky.

Categories: Activism, Books, Manifestos, Politics, Radicals, Revolution, Saul Alinsky

3 replies

  1. You lost me at Rule #7. This is all very game theory. The idea of “going outside the experience” reminds me of something I just read. Timothy Leary’s _Change Your Brain_, a weird little pamphlet from 1988 (!) by a publisher called Ronin, out of Berkeley, CA. Anyway, one of the core ideas is to think of our various roles in society as “games”. They have rules. You play the role of say, “father” in the family game. Or “wife” in the marriage game. Then there is the science game, the healing game, the knowledge game. As Leary says: “[They] are our proudest accomplishments, but only as long as they are seen as games. When they go beyond this point, the trouble begins: the emergence of experts, professionals, priests, technocrats, status-bound engineers. At this point, games that began with the goal of decreasing human helplessness end up increasing it.”

    Here it is in a nutshell:

    “Cultural stability is maintained by preventing people from seeing that the Roles, Rules, Goals, Rituals, Language, and Values of society are game structures.”

    “The most effective approach to behavior change is applied neurologic or self-programmed brain-change. Identify the game structures of the event. Make sure that you do not apply the rules and concepts of other games to this situation. Move directly to solve a problem. A person who can stand outside or above his/her culture can cut through games-rules to what is most relevant to survival and peace of mind.”



  2. Well, I guess I was saying that even revolution is a “game” of sorts. And these tactics are akin to the conventional “rules” of radicalism. Not saying they aren’t really valuable. Was just sort of idly musing on what it takes to really be a “radical”. Pretty sure that anything that seems like radicalism these days gets very quickly co-opted by the status quo. It gets monetized, or made marketable, or just absorbed. Guess you constantly need to remain vigilant about co-option and shift your tactics all the time. In other words, you need to keep creatively breaking or re-writing the rules.

    And never for a minute did I think you weren’t very familiar with game theory. ;)


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