Written after the Vietnam War during peak rage against the establishment, Rules For Radicals has served as one of the manuals for liberals in achieving power, culminating in Obama’s presidency. Surprisingly, it is light on actionable steps. Instead of telling you exactly how to start a DIY revolution, it creates an activist “mood” where you can initiate your own creative steps to affect change.
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 this book we are concerned with how to create mass organizations to seize power and give it to the people; to realize the democratic dream of equality, justice, peace, cooperation, equal and full opportunities for education, full and useful employment, health, and the creation of those circumstances in which man can have the chance to live by values that give meaning to life. We are talking about a mass power organization which will change the world into a place where all men and women walk erect, 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.
I was concerned I bought a socialist manifesto, but beyond the above introduction, the politics in it were quite light. He did intend for budding socialists to implement its strategies, but it can used by anyone. Here’s what I learned from the book:
1. Keep your mob busy as you go from one issue to the next
Remember: once you organize people around something as commonly agreed upon as pollution, then an organized people is on the move. From there it’s a short and natural step to political pollution, to Pentagon pollution.
2. Activism will not work without individual sacrifice
People cannot be free unless they are willing to sacrifice some of their interests to guarantee the freedom of others. The price of democracy is the ongoing pursuit of the common good by all of the people.[…]
Self-respect arises only out of people who play an active role in solving their own crises and who are not helpless, passive, puppet-like recipients of private or public services. To give people help, while denying them a significant part in the action, contributes nothing to the development of the individual. In the deepest sense it is not giving but taking— taking their dignity. Denial of the opportunity for participation is the denial of human dignity and democracy. It will not work.
3. You’re not a have-not if you’re supported by the status quo
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.
4. There is a cycle to revolution (see Polybius cycle)
History is a relay of revolutions; the torch of idealism is carried by the revolutionary group until this group becomes an establishment, and then quietly the torch is put down to wait until a new revolutionary group picks it up for the next leg of the run. Thus the revolutionary cycle goes on.
5. History is written by the victors
There can be no such thing as a successful traitor, for if one succeeds he becomes a founding father.
6. Cover your activism with a veneer of morality
All great leaders, including Churchill, Gandhi, Lincoln, and Jefferson, always invoked “moral principles” to cover naked self-interest in the clothing of “freedom” “equality of mankind,” “a law higher than man-made law,” and so on. This even held under circumstances of national crises when it was universally assumed that the end justified any means. All effective actions require the passport of morality.
7. Confidence is half the battle
Anyone who is working against the Haves is always facing odds, and in many cases heavy odds. If he or she does not have that complete self-confidence (or call it ego) that he can win, then the battle is lost before it is even begun. I have seen so-called trained organizers go out to another city with an assignment of organizing a community of approximately 100,000 people, take one look and promptly wire in a resignation. To be able to look at a community of people and say to yourself, “I will organize them in so many weeks,” “I will take on the corporations, the press and anything else,” is to be a real organizer.
8. Agitate for multiple issues simultaneously
Not only does a single- or even a dual-issue organization condemn you to a small organization, it is axiomatic that a single-issue organization won’t last. An organization needs action as an individual needs oxygen. With only one or two issues there will certainly be a lapse of action, and then comes death. Multiple issues mean constant action and life.
9. An effective way to jump start your movement is to be declared an enemy by the establishment
The job of the organizer is to maneuver and bait the establishment so that it will publicly attack him as a “dangerous enemy.” The word “enemy” is sufficient to put the organizer on the side of the people, to identify him with the Have-Nots, but it is not enough to endow him with the special qualities that induce fear and thus give him the means to establish his own power against the establishment. Here again we find that it is power and fear that are essential to the development of faith. This need is met by the establishment’s use of the brand “dangerous,” for in that one word the establishment reveals its fear of the organizer, its fear that he represents a threat to its omnipotence. Now the organizer has his “birth certificate” and can begin.[…]
Today my notoriety and the hysterical instant reaction of the establishment not only validate my credentials of competency but also ensure automatic popular invitation.
10. Make your followers believe that you are the agent of change
The organizer’s job is to inseminate an invitation for himself, to agitate, introduce ideas, get people pregnant with hope and a desire for change and to identify you as the person most qualified for this purpose.
11. Poor people don’t understand democracy
Many times, contact with low-income groups does not fire one with enthusiasm for the political gospel of democracy. This disillusionment comes partly because we romanticize the poor in a way we romanticize other sectors of society, and partly because when you talk with any people you find yourselves confronted with clichés, a variety of superficial, stereotyped responses, and a general lack of information.
12. Solving one problem begets another, but don’t tell your followers that
Something else that comes with experience is the knowledge that the resolution of a particular problem will bring on another problem. The organizer may know this, but he doesn’t mention it; if he did he would invite, and encounter, a feeling of futility on the part of the others. “Why bother doing this if it means another problem? We fight and win and what have we won? So let’s forget it.”
13. Show people, in the most visceral terms, how they are being screwed
14. Stoke citizen anger and then point out a logical solution that has worked in the past to solve the problem they are facing
Through action, persuasion, and communication the organizer makes it clear that organization will give them the power, the ability, the strength, the force to be able to do something about these particular problems.[…]
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.
15. You can not force a negotiation with the establishment without power
16. Those with power will not cede to your demands based on goodwill alone—they must feel threatened
Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.[…]
The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.[…]
Remember the rule— the threat is often more effective than the tactic itself, but only if you are so organized that the establishment knows not only that you have the power to execute the tactic but that you definitely will. You can’t do much bluffing in this game; if you’re ever caught bluffing, forget about ever using threats in the future.
18. Make fun of your opponent
Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.
19. Move fast without getting bogged down
A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag. Man can sustain militant interest in any issue for only a limited time, after which it becomes a ritualistic commitment, like going to church on Sunday mornings. New issues and crises are always developing, and one’s reaction becomes, “Well, my heart bleeds for those people and I’m all for the boycott, but after all there are other important things in life”— and there it goes.
20. Have a plan for when your opponent relents
The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. You cannot risk being trapped by the enemy in his sudden agreement with your demand and saying “You’re right— we don’t know what to do about this issue. Now you tell us.”
21. Focus your attack a human or corporation, not an idea
The other important point in the choosing of a target is that it must be a personification, not something general and abstract such as a community’s segregated practices or a major corporation or City Hall. It is not possible to develop the necessary hostility against, say, City Hall, which after all is a concrete, physical, inanimate structure, or against a corporation, which has no soul or identity, or a public school administration, which again is an inanimate system.
22. Don’t be rigid
There can be no prescriptions for particular situations because the same situation rarely recurs, any more than history repeats itself. People, pressures, and patterns of power are variables, and a particular combination exists only in a particular time—even then the variables are constantly in a state of flux.
23. Power is in constant flux
Power is not static; it cannot be frozen and preserved like food; it must grow or die. Therefore, in order to keep power the status quo must get more. But from whom? There is just so much more than can be squeezed out of the Have-Nots— so the Haves must take it from each other.
When your fight is against a culture, it becomes difficult to identify an activist action you can take, but if Alinksy was alive, he’d recommend finding specific individuals who are engaged in the behavior that you believe is harmful. The individual is weak—attack them one at a time.
Another interesting point that Alinksy brings up is to announce your intentions beforehand, something that is the opposite of what you find in war strategy. Tell your enemy what you will do if they don’t stop and watch them plead for negotiation. As long as you can back up your threat, you may be able to affect change without even doing anything.
Even if you disagree with Alinksy’s politics, you must concede he had a powerful grasp on how to chip away at power bases. What’s incredible is that within only one generation, the status quo has been replaced by the politicians who represent those that Alinksy advocated for. They even used many of his techniques. His side won, but if his own writing is any indication, it’s not hard to remove them from the top.
Read More: “Rules For Radicals” on Amazon