Rules for Radicals (1971) is a book by that provides a guide for grassroots organizers and activists who pursue political change and “social justice”.
- Power is neither good nor bad, but necessary to enact change in the world
- The rich and powerful manipulate the poors to keep the status quo
- The poor and “Have-Nots” are mentally disempowered, and deep down think they are “less worthy” than the powerful ones
About the Author:
Saul D. Alinsky was an American community activist and left-wing political theorist. He helped organize poor communities to press demands and gain concessions from landlords, politicians, bankers and business leaders.
The central theme of Rules For Radicals is the empowerment of the lower classes by almost any means.
Becuase of that “anything goes” approach, Alinsky can come across as a rather extreme and divisive figure.
He champions the use of collective action, strategies, and techniques to tilt the supposedly unfair power structures in favor of the have-nots.
But that includes revolutions and any type of power move.
He says of his own book:
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.
In Alinsky’s political view, that is “social justice”.
And from that self-appointed moral high ground, he outlines approaches and strategies for activists to mobilize and lead communities to foster that social justice.
Learn Power Dynamics
Alinsky emphasizes the importance of understanding power dynamics to organize and lead effective change.
Learn more about power dynamics:
Alinsky argues that power is neither good or bad.
Instead, power is a neutral force that can be used for both good and bad purposes.
And he says that organizers must understand the sources of power in society and know how to maneuver them, recruit them, or put pressure on them to achieve their goals.
The Powerful Frame “Revolution” Negatively To Maintain Power
From the Haves, on the other hand, there has come an unceasing flood of literature justifying the status quo.
Religious, economic, social, political, and legal tracts endlessly attack all revolutionary ideas and action for change as immoral, fallacious and against God, country, and mother.
These literary sedations by the status quo include the threat that, since all such movements are unpatriotic, subversive, spawned in hell and reptilian in their creeping insidiousness, dire punishments will be meted out to their supporters.
Morals Are Tools of Manipulation
Justice, morality, law, and order, are mere words when used by the Haves, which justify and secure their status quo.
Learn more about manipulation:
The Have-Notes Are Mentally Disempowered
There is much wisdom and truth in these words:
The Have-Nots have a limited faith in the worth of their own judgments. They still look to the judgments of the Haves. They respect the strength of the upper class and they believe that the Haves are more intelligent, more competent, and endowed with “something special.” Distance has a way of enhancing power, so that respect becomes tinged with reverence.
This is not just about the “Have-Nots”, but generally for anyone who isn’t yet mentally empowered.
We teach mental empowerment in Power University.
11 Rules For Radicals
The author obviously didn’t work too hard to make these easy to understand:
- Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have. Hide your true numbers and make others think you have more
- Never go outside the experience of your people, ie.: talk to them in a way they understand
- Whenever possible, go outside the experience of your enemy to confuse him
- Make enemies live up to their own book of rules, since they can “no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity”
- Use ridicule to infuriate your enemy, which then reacts to your advantage
- Use tactics your people enjoy, so they’ll partake
- A tactic that drags on for too long becomes a drag, so switch things up
- Keep the pressure on, never let up
- The threat is more terrifying than the thing itself.
- The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain constant pressure upon the opposition.
- If you push a negative hard and deep enough, it will break through into its counterside.
- The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.
- Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. Avoid attacking abstract entities such as businesses or bureaucracies. Instead, identify a responsible individual and go after him
Personally and frankly, I found these rules poorly thought-through.
They may have good principles and strategies behind them, but they aren’t well conceptualized.
And far from clear upon first reading them.
There is a reason why The 48 Laws of Power became a best-seller, and Rules for Radicals did not.
Greene packaged his “laws” in a way that they make sense and are easy to understand at the title level, are easy to remember, and sell well.
Saul Alinsky did not.
Let people come up with their own answers to increase buy-in and follow-through
Another maxim in effective communication is that people have to make their own decisions.
Much of the time, though, the organizer will have a pretty good idea of what the community should be doing, and he will want to suggest, maneuver, and persuade the community toward that action. He will not ever seem to tell the community what to do; instead, he will use loaded questions.
Shock people with a power move to gain their respect
Says the author talking to a group of Indians:
ME: No, I don’t know what you mean. Furthermore, I think that that’s just a pile of shit. Do you believe it yourself?
This brought a shocked silence. It should be noted that I was not being profane purely for the sake of being profane, I was doing this purposefully. If I had responded in a tactful way, saying, “Well, I don’t quite understand what you mean, “we would have been off for a ride around the rhetorical ranch for the next thirty days. Here profanity became literally an up-against-the-wall bulldozer.
And this was the reaction of the Indians:
“When Mr. Alinsky told us we were full of shit, that was the first time a white man has really talked to us as equals—you would never say that to us. You would always say ‘Well, I can see your point of view but I’m a little confused,’ and stuff like that. In other words you treat us as children.”
On how to pressure politicians:
No politician can sit on a hot issue if you make it hot enough.
On the revolutionary spirit:
in the spirit of that credo of the Spanish Civil War, ‘Better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.’ This means revolution.
Political realism shows a not-so-appealing world:
Political realists see the world as it is: an arena of power politics moved primarily by perceived immediate self-interests, where morality is rhetorical rationale for expedient action and self-interest.
It is a world not of angels but of angles, where men speak of moral principles but act on power principles
- The genius of the author may get lost in his political bias
- Some anger and hostility permeate the book
- Revolutions are framed as mostly good, but if your goal is to improve, revolutions are at best a coin toss
- Several golden nuggets
- Dispassionate look into human nature
Rules for Radicals is an interesting book with some good concepts, several golden nuggets of social strategy, and a heavy left-leaning political bias.
The author seems to have a good grasp on power dynamics, and yet fails to realize that the “Have-Nots” may not be any better than the “Haves” if they had the power.
In many instances, they may be worse, since the “Haves” tend to be more driven and ambitious, and hence tend to achieve significant goals that can benefit all.
Overall, it’s a good book if you can look beyond the political extremism.
However, unless you’re already a pro when it comes to social strategies and self-development, chances are you can find some better resources to prioritize above Rules for Radicals.