Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals
by SAUL ALINSKY
A GREAT BOOK, the last book written by community organizer Saul D.
Alinsky before his death in 1972. Published in 1971, it was Alinsky's
attempt to impart his theory and methods of organizing to the current
generation of young activists, largely drawing upon his own experiences.
Alinsky wrote in the book's prologue:
"What I have to say in this book is not the arrogance of unsolicited
advice. It is the experience and counsel that so many young people have
questioned me about through all-night sessions on hundreds of campuses
in America. It is for those young radicals who are committed to the
fight, committed to life."
In the first chapter's opening paragraph, Alinsky 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 Machiavelli
for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for
the Have-Nots on how to take it away".
Outlining his strategy in organizing Alinsky writes:
"There's another reason for working inside the system. Dostoevski said
that 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 change the future. This
acceptance is the reformation essential to any revolution. To bring on
this reformation requires that the organizer work inside the system,
among not only the middle class but the 40 per cent of American families
– more than seventy million people – whose income range from $5,000 to
$10,000 a year [in 1971]. They cannot be dismissed by labeling them blue
collar or hard hat. They will not continue to be relatively passive and
slightly challenging. If we fail to communicate with them, if we don't
encourage them to form alliances with us, they will move to the right.
Maybe they will anyway, but let's not let it happen by default."
For Alinsky, organizing is the process of highlighting whatever he
believed to be wrong and convincing people they can actually do
something about it. The two are linked. If people feel they don’t have
the power to change a situation, they stop thinking about it.
According to Alinsky, the organizer — especially a paid organizer from
outside — must first overcome suspicion and establish credibility. Next
the organizer must begin the task of agitating: rubbing resentments,
fanning hostilities, and searching out controversy. This is necessary to
get people to participate. An organizer has to attack apathy and disturb
the prevailing patterns of complacent community life where people have
simply come to accept a situation. Alinsky would say, “The first step in
community organization is community disorganization.”
Through a process combining hope and resentment, the organizer tries to
create a “mass army” that brings in as many recruits as possible from
local organizations, churches, services groups, labor unions, corner
gangs, and individuals.
Alinsky provides a collection of rules to guide the process. But he
emphasizes these rules must be translated into real-life tactics that
are fluid and responsive to the situation at hand.
* 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: 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 11: 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.”
Alinsky codified and wrote a clear set of rules for community
organizing. His rules for radicals are now used as key tactics to learn
in the training of new community organizers.
In a separate chapter he suggests that the perennial question, "Does the
end justify the means?" is meaningless as it stands: the real and only
question regarding the ethics of means and ends is, and always has been,
"Does this particular end justify this particular means?"
Alinsky continues by stating several rules of the ethics of means and
* The judgment of the ethics of means is dependent upon the political position of those sitting in judgment.
* In war, the end justifies almost any means.
* Judgment must be made in the context of the times in which the action occurred and not from any other chronological vantage point.
* Concern with ethics increases with the number of means available and vice versa.
* The less important the end to be desired, the more one can afford to engage in ethical evaluations of means.
* Generally, success or failure is a mighty determinant of ethics.
* The morality of a means depends upon whether the means is being employed at a time of imminent defeat or imminent victory.
* Any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical.
* You do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral garments.
* Goals must be phrased in general terms like "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," "Of the Common Welfare," "Pursuit of Happiness," or "Bread and Peace."
These rules of the ethics of means and ends are only one chapter of his book, totally distinct from his "clear set of rules for community organizing."
* Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (1971) Random House, ISBN 0-394-44341-1; Vintage books paperback: ISBN 0-679-72113-4
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