Saul Alinsky: Rules for Radicals

I’ve had Rules for Radicals referred to me by several people and sources, on both sides of the political spectrum. It’s billed as a canonical work on political organizing.
Alinsky published the book in 1971, after over three decades of organizing in impoverished and powerless communities.
The political philosophy, from a leftist of Alinsky’s times, can be shredded any number of ways, and it’s not worth bothering.
What’s interesting about the book is the material on tactics.
The book gives interesting historical context for the confrontational, theatrical 60s activist tactics. I was always puzzled by the demonstrations and teach-ins among the left when I was in school. These rituals seemed unlikely to change anyone’s mind, and seemed more like excuses for the like-minded to party or commiserate. Michael Moore comes from the tradition of provocative activist theater — bother and confuse the powers that be, and they might notice and relent.
The communities Alinsky worked with had nothing, and the powers-that-were were not listening. Shock tactics worked at the time. The powers-that-were did notice, and did give in.
Alinsky himself makes the point that tactics need to change with the times, and expresses frustration that his followers borrowed his tactics, rather than his principles. By 1971, Alinsky notes, sit-ins had lost the power to shock and persuade, and calling cops “pigs” didn’t do anyone any good.
Many of Alinsky’s principles themselves are sensible. Communicate within the experience of the people you’re talking to. If they don’t have the experience, create the experience. Stay within the experience of your community, and work outside of the experience of your opponents. Build a group on multiple issues. Build tactics on the opportunities and choices in front of you.
But Alinsky’s experience is bounded by his work with the poor and powerless. He would come in, help a community solve some desperate problems, and then head on to the next battle. Once the unions, or an African-American community (name the group) gained power, the next step is to use that power. Alinsky never stayed long enough, it seems, to understand the set of tactics to use if you are more than powerless.
Perhaps you demonize the enemy if you’re fighting against the meat-packing plant that offers a perverse parody of health care. But if you use those tactics in neighborhood disputes, you may “win”, but your neighborhood loses.

6 thoughts on “Saul Alinsky: Rules for Radicals”

  1. I always keep this book in mind while I organize.
    Meet people where they are.
    What do you mean, “your neighborhood loses” ?
    Saul Alinsky’s model would have thought about most appropriate tactics.

  2. “Meet people where they are” is good.
    Regarding the neighborhood: if you have good relationships and different opinions, you can probably reach an agreement long before resorting to ridicule and shock tactics.
    A community group whose communication is mostly mockery, vitriol and theatrics probably isn’t getting much done.
    Not that Alinsky would have disagreed.

  3. Adina, I was influenced by Alinsky, and the book contract I had with MIT Press was for something I pitched as an online version of Rules for Radicals, though it didn’t exactly come out that way. I came to see a division in my own thinking between support for democratic activism, which is about giving everyone a voice, and advocacy, which supports specific goals, where the end justifies the means, and where democracy is an obstacle, not a solution. (This is why I’m suspicious when I hear the word democracy from activists or politicians, because I know for the most part they’re into partisan thinking or advocacy, and democracy is not what they’re about.)

  4. Does anybody see evidence of Alansky’s book in the Clinton agenda, part. Hillary? Hill did her thesis on him, and sometimes I see him in her tactics.

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