Rules for Radicals

by: Saul Alinsky
published: 1971

I've heard so much about this book over the years, but never got around to reading it.

I've heard that it's the Bible for people like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It is true that Hillary Clinton (then Rodham) wrote her 1969, 92-page senior thesis for Wellesley College titled "There Is Only the Fight . . . ": An Analysis of the Alinsky Model (written just before his book was published; she did study with him and interview him for her thesis, though at the time she was a Goldwater Girl). What is not so clear is whether Barack Obama can be directly linked to Alinsky, other than having been a community organizer in the black neighborhoods of Chicago, one of Alinsky's favorite stomping grounds.

Alinsky did influence many Progressives and others who advocate for change, and Obama did write in his autobiography, that he knew that he could motivate people with the word, "Change."

Though Clinton would not allow Wellesley to release her thesis until relatively recently, it appears - I have not read it, only reports from others who have - that she felt Alinsky lacked consistency, that his methods were dated (he died shortly after his book was published), and that his power/conflict model was ineffective.

I'm not sure what I expected when I began to read. I think I was primed for some sort of Marxist propaganda guide, a rulebook for The Weathermen or the Black Panthers - people who didn't care who got hurt in the pursuit of their goals. To an extent, that is what I found, though not in the form of recipes for bombs or even plans for Occupying Wall Street.

In fact, the first few chapters were difficult to find fault with - which, it turns out, is part of the Alinsky methodology. Get the prospect agreeing with you right away. Interestingly, this is a method also employed by neuro-linguistic programming, and even hypnotism. Get the person to agree - so you say something that is hard to argue with, even by the most stubborn personality, and slowly begin introducing more objectionable material to a "primed" subject.

Being a stubborn personality myself, I was surprised that I was nodding and agreeing with much of those first chapters. Of course, it was written in the late 60s/early 70s, and so carries with it a sensibility of that era - the not-quite-post-Viet Nam, anti-war, birth control pill not yet available, hippies and pot smoking world of that time. Some of his locutions are quaint - "the man," "the establishment," "let it all hang out," that kind of thing.

I found myself chuckling at the prologue, though, as he tried to explain the gulf between youth and their parents. The young, he claims, were rejecting the world of their parents. You know, that world of "tranquilizers, alcohol, long-term-endurance marriages, or divorces, high blood pressure, ulcers, frustration and the disillusionment of 'the good life." They had seen idiocy on the part of their political leaders and viewed them - from their seats of vast knowledge and experience - with contempt. They wanted to "do something, to create, to be me, to 'do my own thing,' to live." They didn't expect to find answers in religion, politics, science, or any ideology. And they didn't want their parents telling them that "when they got older, they'd understand." I'm surprised that Alinsky, at his age, didn't see the wisdom of this observation, or even realize that he was embodying it in his schooling of the young and uneducated.

Alinsky explains to us that he simply ignores all of this us/them dichotomy and starts "from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be - it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be." (Emphasis added.)

Here is clue number one to understanding the philosophy. I will let that rest, and come back to it later.

A few paragraphs later he explains to us that, contrary to Obama's notion of "change," any change, "taking a new step is what people fear most. Any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people. They must feel so frustrated, so defeated, so lost, so futureless in the prevailing system that they are willing to let go of the past and chance the future."

It occurred to me, reading this, that on one level, I finally understood the enormous divide among the voting public on the subject of Obama. For him, the need for change was obvious. In his world, the frustration, loss, defeat and lack of future were a done deal. The clear next step was to offer himself as the vehicle of change - and indeed, for slightly more than half the population of the United States - he was right. The other half was appalled, as they had not yet reached the point of despair Alinsky prescribes for change to become imperative.

Alinsky also warns us that the path of the activist, the "citizen soldier," is not for the lazy or placid. "We are not here concerned with people who profess the democratic faith but yearn for the dark security of dependency where they can be spared the burden of decisions. Reluctant to grow up, or incapable of doing so, they want to remain children and be cared for by others. Those who can, should be encouraged to grow; for the others, the fault lies not in the system but in themselves." One can only wonder what Alinsky would make of the programs he did not really live to see grow to the mammoth proportions of today's economic landscape, and how he would ally himself.

Still, this was not exactly what I expected to read - but by now, I was definitely curious to see where he would go with this philosophy. I both loved (see the paragraph above) and was made nervous by (see the quote with my emphasis) what I had found so far. To explain why I was made nervous by the quote about change, the beginning of the next chapter will explain.

Alinksy writes, "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 Marchiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away."

If you don't find the above concerning, I probably won't be able to explain it, but I will do my best. We all have a vision of Utopia, whether we've bothered to imagine it, or managed to articulate it. We create it, to the best of our ability, in the way we live our lives on a day to day basis. For my mom, it was a highly regularized schedule, and a neat and tidy environment. (Sorry, mom!) For another person, it might be complete immersion in the arts: books, films, theater, music. For yet another, a lively, noisy, family-filled house with plenty of food and laughter might be the Perfect Life - while another might find perfection only at the office. The problem is, of course, we don't all agree about what the ideal world is. Thus came the American way, in which every individual was free to follow his passion, his ideal. The limiting factors were his powers and abilities, and the degree to which his pursuit of happiness impinged upon his neighbor. Yes, we tended to group around others of like sensibilities, and yes, our Founding Fathers did seem to have "Nature" and its apparent rules in mind when they urged freedom and the pursuit of happiness (and could not possibly have foreseen the monkey wrench technology would toss into that elemental Rule Book). But by and large, the idea that I be subject to your notion of what's best for me was not what the Great Experiment was all about.

In that same quote is the second warning gong I heard while reading: the Haves versus the Have-Nots. Alinsky makes an assumption that the Have-Nots are obliged to try to take "it" away from the Haves. He makes no distinction between the Haves who have earned it, and the Haves who have stumbled upon it or perhaps inherited it. If I work very hard, save, invest wisely, do without, and accumulate wealth, I have become a Have. Is it now the right, no, obligation, of the Have-Nots to grab it from me? A question to be asked.

Alinsky admits that his book is a manual, neither capitalist nor communist (he finds fault with both models) but simply a "revolutionary handbook." His opening quote is from from the Book of Job: "The life of man upon earth is warfare..." and he believes this, most sincerely. Life is simply The Revolution. Apres moi, The Counterrevolution. And on, and on, and on.

"My aim here," he writes, "is to suggest how to organize for power: how to get it and to use it. I will argue that the failure to use power for a more equitable distribution of the means of life for all people signals the end of the revolution and the start of the counterrevolution.

"...All life is partisan. There is no dispassionate objectivity. The revolutionary ideology is not  confined to a specific limited formula. It is a series of general principles, rooted in Lincoln's May 19, 1856 statement: 'Be not deceived. Revolutions do not go backward.'"

Alinsky admits that he does not have an ideology. Ideology doesn't even really figure into what he's doing, what his life is about. "An organizer working in and for an open society...does not have a fixed truth - truth to him is relative and changing; everything to him is relative and changing."

Next, Alinsky moves on to Ends and Means. I will sum this mighty discussion up with: yes. The Ends, do justify the Means, however painful and violent, as long as the Ends are not for personal gain, but for the group's benefit. Of course, you decide what the group needs, as the organizer.

Ethics are determined by two things: whether what you are doing will get you where you want to go, and whether you are winning or losing. You do what you have to do to get where you want to go. (He endorsed dropping the bomb on Hiroshima.) Moreover, the smart organizer/radical will clothe what he has done in the costume of morality, whatever that takes.

He reminds us that the Haves will have stacked the moral and legal decks against the Have-Nots. The Haves objective is to keep things as they are - so they will create a system that makes that happen. The Have-Nots will of necessity appeal to "a law higher than man-made law," until they get what they want (power), when they will enact laws that protect what they now have.

There is much more between these opening chapters - communication, what words mean (the meaning of "is"), the personal characteristics of a good organizer, the care, feeding and education of a radical - before we get to those famous Tactics that you've probably heard discussed, both pro and con, when the work of Saul Alinsky is referred to. In much of what he writes, you can see the seeds of the success and failure of many an organizer and radical (particularly his warning against egotism stands out for our political leaders). There is no question but that he understands human nature, particularly the less savory side.

Here then, is the famous tactical prescription for radical change:
1. Power is not only what you have, but what "the enemy" thinks you have. (Lie and deceive - bluff. March the same few thousand - or was it hundred? - men back and forth between two hills to make it look like 100,000. The enemy will run in terror.)
2. Never go outside the experience of your people. (Do not send your candidate out duck hunting when he's never held a gun before!)
3. Wherever possible, go outside the experience of the enemy. (Do invite your opponent duck hunting when he's never held a gun before.)
4. Make the enemy live up to his own book of rules. (This one is utterly brilliant, and of course, as we have seen again and again, devastating, particularly to any party or individual who tries to out-moralize the opposition. On a political level, for example, the Republicans fail when they try to claim moral superiority in the sexual arena and then get caught - literally - with their pants down in the back room at a church rally; the Democrats look foolish when they preach share-the-wealth green conservation and live in 10,000 square foot houses and take private jets to $250,000 a pop speaking engagements.)
5. Ridicule is a man's most potent weapon. (And when you find your opponent failing to live up to his rule book - pull out that ridicule!)
6. A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.
7. A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag. Change tactics frequently!
8. Keep the pressure on. (Politically own a TV station, like Fox or MSNBC, and then just keep running with the story about Ebola or what The Koch Brothers did this week - no doubt created and loosed Ebola.)
9. A threat is usually more terrifying that the thing itself.
10. The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition. (In other words, organize your people so that as one tactic wears thin or is overcome, another is ready to take its place - ceaselessly, relentlessly.)
11. If you push a negative hard and deep enough, it will break through into its counterside; this is based on the principle that every positive has its negative.
12. The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. (If "the enemy" agrees, be ready to switch to another problem.)
13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. (This is perhaps Alinsky's most famous and most visible rule - think of Sarah Palin, and you will see this in action. Remarkably, the quote most people "know" of Palin's is that "she could see Russia from her back yard." Which, of course, she never said, but rather Tina Fey said in a Saturday Night Live skit mocking her ill-considered yet true comment that you could see Russia from Alaska. Yet a surprising - and troubling - number of people are certain Palin said this. Or, think Harry Reid and the edited clips of him reciting "The Koch Brothers," ad infinitum, making him look silly and one-track.)

One thing I hadn't expected as I began to read was to find the amusing Alinsky - the way he used a sense of humor to defeat "the enemy." In one episode, he suggested that to create difficulty for Kodak, when he was in Rochester trying to unionize the company, that The Movement buy 100 tickets to the symphony (a big cause of Kodak's), then dress up 100 blacks, feed them a meal of beans, and send them into the symphony to make another sound of music to accompany the musicians on stage. It's hard not to laugh at the idea, or to see where it would be difficult to find a serious way to object to any particular feature of the activity.

I definitely came late to this particular party, as it seems anyone who is in the political or motivational arena now read this book with their mother's milk, and the tactics are so well known as to perhaps have lost some effectiveness. Yet even when it's obvious what is being done, it is difficult to know exactly what to do to combat them, they are so universal, and appeal so directly to human pride and human nature.

While, as noted above, I can't agree with the Ends as outlined by Alinsky - believing as I do that we must each create our own Ideal Life and not have someone else choose it for us - I can't disagree with the general effectiveness (which is not to say ethical nature) of his Means. He certainly understood this, or it's doubtful that he would have risked writing them down and sharing them with the world.

Whatever your politics, this book should be required reading, if only so that we can understand and recognize what we are often watching as we regard the ebb and flow of influence in the world around us.


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