The book Rules for Radicals, written in 1971, has had a lasting influence on political activism right up to our present day. It was penned by Saul Alinsky, the “father of community organising”, a year before he died of a heart attack in 1972. In the book’s epigraph, Alinsky wrote,
Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgement to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history… the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer.
Though Alinsky’s words were intended to be tongue-in-cheek (he was an agnostic), they provide an important window into the life and thought of a man whose legacy endures today, mostly through this book.
So who was Saul Alinsky? Born to Russian Jewish immigrants in the slums of Chicago’s South Side, Alinsky studied sociology and criminology at the University of Chicago. Rather ironically, around the same time, he cultivated a friendship with the city’s infamous mob boss Al Capone, and also Frank Nitti, who took over from Capone.
Alinsky’s real passion was political activism. From his late 20s to the end of his life, Alinsky was involved in organising protests, founding political networks, and mentoring others about how to best agitate for political change.
To his credit, Alinsky had a genuine interest in the welfare of the ‘have-nots’, and he dedicated his life to their empowerment. But the way he saw it, social influence was a zero-sum game. If the ‘have-nots’ lacked political power, the only way this could change was by seizing it from the ‘haves’ — the economic and political elites.
Alinsky’s worldview was Machiavellian in the truest sense: he believed that the end justified even the most unscrupulous means. Pitting poor against rich and black against white was all well and good, he reasoned, so long as it achieved desired change. In the opening paragraph of Rules for Radicals, Alinsky explained the purpose of his book:
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.
Saul Alinsky was a moral relativist and a pragmatist. To him, right and wrong were not anchored in any transcendent moral code. Instead, right and wrong depended on how effectively they achieved ‘social justice’ as he saw it. “You do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral garments,” he advised in Rules for Radicals. “True revolutionaries do not flaunt their radicalism,” he wrote elsewhere, “they cut their hair, put on suits and infiltrate the system.”
Though he did not advocate violence in his manual, Alinsky talked tough in a way that reflected his Chicago upbringing and his gangster connections. His tactics were a wilful rejection of the conventions that govern civilised society. According to The Washington Post,
Alinsky was a bluff iconoclast who concluded that electoral politics offered few solutions to the have-nots marooned in working-class slums. His approach to social justice relied on generating conflict to mobilise the dispossessed.
Alinsky was proud to be numbered among the rebels and the radicals. In an interview with Playboy magazine just months before his death, he mused, “If there is an afterlife, and I have anything to say about it, I will unreservedly choose to go to hell.” When the interviewer asked why, Alinsky responded,
Hell would be heaven for me. All my life I’ve been with the have-nots. Over here, if you’re a have-not, you’re short of dough. If you’re a have-not in hell, you’re short of virtue. Once I get into hell, I’ll start organising the have-nots over there.
A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals was the subtitle Alinsky chose for his book. It is an apt description. Rules for Radicals outlines 13 directives aimed at social transformation. His purpose was not gradual change, but disruption for revolutionary ends. In Alinsky’s words, the role of an organiser is to “rub raw the resentments of the people of the community; fan the latent hostilities of many of the people to the point of overt expression”. His rules are as follows:
- Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.
- Never go outside the expertise of your people.
- Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.
- Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.
- Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.
- A good tactic is one your people enjoy.
- A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.
- Keep the pressure on. Never let up.
- The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.
- The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a 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, personalise it, and polarise it.
Most of Alinsky’s rules speak for themselves. They have been used for leverage on both sides of the political aisle, but given their revolutionary bent — and Alinsky’s far-left politics — these rules have become embedded in many left-wing political movements. In its leftward lurch, even the corporate press is increasingly making use of Alinsky’s rules. (As an example, consider rules 5, 8 and 13, and media coverage of Donald Trump.)
The Occupy movement and the climate protest group Extinction Rebellion both cite Alinsky as a notable inspiration. Black Lives Matter has no formal ties to Alinsky, but his influence on their movement is clear nonetheless. Saul Alinsky has likewise had a significant influence on both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Hillary Clinton’s honours thesis was a mostly-favourable analysis of Alinsky’s work. She interviewed him for this thesis, after which the two maintained a long-term friendship. Alinsky even offered Clinton a job, which she turned down in order to attend Yale Law School.
Before Obama entered politics, he was a community organiser in Chicago, where he was mentored by several of Alinsky’s disciples. Admiring Alinsky’s work while studying at Harvard, Obama wrote a paper that became a chapter in the book After Alinsky: Community Organising in Illinois.
Saul Alinsky was not an ideologue. He was never a member of the Communist Party. When asked about this by Playboy, Alinsky said, “I knew plenty of Communists in those days, and I worked with them on a number of projects.” He went on:
Back in the Thirties, the Communists did a hell of a lot of good work; they were in the vanguard of the labor movement and they played an important role in aiding blacks and Okies and Southern sharecroppers. Anybody who tells you he was active in progressive causes in those days and never worked with the Reds is a [expletive] liar. Their platform stood for all the right things, and unlike many liberals, they were willing to put their bodies on the line.
Alinsky also did not consider himself a Marxist, though his ideas are clearly Marxian and aligned with the movement now known as Cultural Marxism. In describing this elsewhere, I have noted that:
Today, the unmistakable cry of Cultural Marxism is that of victimhood. Put simply, the more oppressed groups you can claim membership to, the more your opinion counts and the more your demands must be met.
While seeming to promote equality, what Cultural Marxism actually inspires is a never-ending grievance between sexes, races, proclivities and other innate traits that divide us. And this is a necessary component of the Cultural Marxist philosophy, since the West’s institutions will only be supplanted if enough anger can be rallied to the cause.
There could hardly be a more accurate description for the life, work and legacy of Saul Alinsky.