Rules For Radicals



SAUL ALINSKY died in 1972, but his 1971 book, Rules For Radicals, has inspired thousands of activists – including Barack Obama. “Community Organisers”, from Chicago to Christchurch, have applied Alinsky’s ideas with considerable success – especially in low-income urban communities. Forty-four years on, however, the optimism and confidence that fueled the radical campaigns of the 1970s is much less in evidence, and the power of the government institutions and private corporations against which Alinsky preached his gospel of radical resistance has grown exponentially.

When Rules For Radicals was being written, progressivism, both in the USA and around the world, was on a roll. The “counter-culture” of the 1960s had shaken the confidence of the Establishment to the point where it had begun to question how long its ability to “manufacture consent” could endure. Mass movements from below were forcing the issues of racial and gender equality onto the political agenda. Likewise, the new environmental movement. The latter’s power was demonstrated in 1971 by the astonishing public response to the first “Earth Day”.

Corporate America’s fears were not allayed when their Republican President, Richard Nixon, responded to the electorate’s concerns about industrial pollution by setting up the Environmental Protection Agency, and by shepherding a swag of bills designed to protect the environment through Congress.

By 1974, the situation was even worse. Progressive America had driven Nixon from office, and leading members of the Democratic Party were drafting a bill mandating massive federal intervention in the US economy to guarantee full employment. The year before, in the United Kingdom, the Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, beset by a nationwide miners’ strike, had appealed to the British electorate for an answer to the question: “Who Governs Britain?” The response he’d been hoping for was: “You do, Prime Minister!” What he got was much closer to “The unions – you Tory git!” Clearly, something had to be done.

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In many ways The Crisis of Democracy: On the Governability of Democracies, a 1975 report, written by Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, and Joji Watanuki, for the Trilateral Commission, was Corporate America’s answer to Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals. According to the report, the lesson to be drawn from the 1960s is that the “impulse of democracy is to make government less powerful and more active, to increase its functions, and to decrease its authority”. The result was “governments overloaded with participants and demands”. What was needed, according to Crozier et al, was for the political stage to become much less crowded: “balance is to be restored between governmental activity and governmental authority”.

Complementing The Crisis of Democracy is the document which has come to be known as The Powell Memorandum. Written in 1971 by Lewis F. Powell, a corporate lawyer and tobacco industry lobbyist (later to become a Justice of the US Supreme Court) to Eugene Syndor at the US Chamber of Commerce, the document (originally entitled The Attack on the American Free Enterprise System) is, essentially, a call-to-arms to the people who ran US capitalism in the 1970s. The Left, Powell argued, had stolen a whole series of marches on the Right, and were now poised to undermine the entire system. Powell was in no doubt as to the sources of this left-wing subversion: “The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism came from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians.” If these voices couldn’t be silenced, Powell advised, then, at the very least they should be drowned out.

The British geographer, anthropologist, and fierce critic of the culture of Late Capitalism, David Harvey, has argued that the advance of what we now call Neoliberalism can be traced back to The Powell Memorandum. Many of the think tanks still informing the global free market counter-revolution: the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, for example, were propelled into existence by Powell’s infamous missive.

Alinsky condensed the subject matter of his “pragmatic primer for realistic radicals” into 13 basic rules. These are listed below – accompanied by commentaries informed by the 44 intervening years of steadily expanding neoliberal hegemony:

  1. “Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.” Power is derived from 2 main sources – money and people. “Have-Nots” must build power from flesh and blood.

Still true. But activists should never forget that one of the most important things that money buys is the expertise and technology to get inside the heads of the “Have-Nots”. The “enemy” you see may not be the enemy they see.

  1. “Never go outside the expertise of your people.” It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone.

Forty-four years of “dumbing down” has emptied the well of popular expertise to an alarming degree. People’s security in their own knowledge – and hence their backbone – may be harder to locate than you think.

  1. “Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.” Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty.

One of the results of The Powell Memorandum has been a burgeoning of the expertise available to the “enemy”. That’s what think tanks are for: to increase the security, confidence and certainty of the powers-that-be. 

  1. “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules.

Rules? What are they?

  1. “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” There is no defense. It’s irrational. It’s infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions.

But ridicule is a two-edged sword – a weapon the “enemy” mastered long ago. Just think of the front-page headlines of The Sun, or Paddy Gower. On the other hand, you could think of John Stewart and be reassured that, in the right hands, ridicule can still be a very powerful force for Good. 

  1. “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.” They’ll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They’re doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones. 

Except that, these days, the thing people enjoy doing most is clicking “Like” on Facebook and taking selfies!

  1. “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.” Don’t become old news.

Even more true today than it was in 1971. With a 24-hour news cycle, “dragging on” can be measured in minutes.

  1. “Keep the pressure on. Never let up.” Keep trying new things to keep the opposition off balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them from the flank with something new.

Absolutely sound advice. Now, if we could just come up with a tactic nobody’s used before!

  1. “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.” Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist.

 And PR firms can dream up consequences that activists would rather not think about.

  1. “The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.” It is this unceasing pressure that results in the reactions from the opposition that are essential for the success of the campaign.

The problem today is that any group of activists involved in the “development of operations” will almost certainly be placed under intense surveillance by the SIS, the GCSB, ODESC and Police Intelligence. Eliciting the reaction that you want from the “opposition” is much harder when they know exactly what you’re planning. 

  1. “If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive.” Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog.

Alinsky was wrong about this even in 1971. Police violence against demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago led to an outpouring of public support for – not against – the Chicago Police. The “Great Silent Majority” is an evil beast.

  1. “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” Never let the enemy score points because you’re caught without a solution to the problem.

This was what let down the Occupy movement. They gave us the symbol of the “1 Percent”, but they didn’t give us a solution to the psychopathology of Finance Capitalism.

  1. “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.

Read Rule 13 again, and ask yourself if this hasn’t been the exact tactic employed against us by the political representatives of Neoliberalism since the late 1970s. Except that Alinsky was wrong about institutions – they’re every bit as easy to hurt as people.

The hardest thing for those of us who remember when Rules For Radicals was new, is coming to terms with the fact that the bastards beat us with our own weapons.


  1. Activism is needed now more than ever. We can see all the signs that the system is collapsing – now let’s push it over!
    Point 12 is the essential one for us now. We need alternative ideas that capture the imagination and counter the stale old argument that there is no alternative. There are heaps of alternatives!
    What about the Universal Basic Income? Green currencies? Building resilience and understanding of sustainability in the community?
    We need to grow the ideas and the visions and get then out there in our communities at grass roots level, it’s the only way to counter the mind numbing propaganda of the establishment.
    TPP Action has shown what can be done – people love to get out there and say NO WAY!

  2. Yes, they seized the initiative, it was the biggest con ever perpetuated. Market fundamentalism (ie “neoliberalism”) is a blatant FRAUD, dreamt up in the manner that you describe. After 30-plus years of this fraudulent system, we are a lot worse of, the evidence is clear.

    The question now is…. how do we seize back the initiative, given that 30 years of constant indoctrination has left the majority of people actually believing in the lies!

    Maybe it is too late, and all we can do is quietly prepare ourselves to survive the inevitable collapse that is obviously coming? Because, the big collapse is definitely going to happen,nothing is more certain.

  3. Meh. Who cares. Society has become so dumb and insane that any victory would be pyrrhic. Particpation in politics is a sign of mental defect these days.

  4. Neoliberalism=Theft by Stealth

    We the taxpayer lost the BNZ, The Rural Bank, Telecom, the Forestry Corporation, the Railways and numerous other Government entities all sold for chickenfeed to right wing Tory businessmen. It has given the Government of the day a quick fix or a quick shot of heroin, however the long term loss and the loss of value to the taxpayer has been huge.

    The average NZer does not realise what has actually been going on, the country balance sheet would definitely be alot stronger if we had held onto these assets and managed them properly.

  5. Don’t forget censorship of a simple working class blokes opinion who may differ from your own [banning the working man from eating meat, what will the champions of the working class think of next I wonder???]

    Shame, I thought you were better than that Trotter.
    Oh well – guess I thought wrong

    [Jamie, if you’re here to participate and offer rational views, that’s fine. If you’re going to troll with comments like the one above, you will find your welcome here is pretty shortlived. – ScarletMod]

    • Hey sock puppet, nobody here is interested in the flame war you are trying to start, to disrupt our discussion. Scuttle back to your Crosby-Textor masters, and tell them their time is nearly up.

  6. Jamie, you silly little boy. Everyone knows you can have your meat! But eat your veg as well, or no pudding for you, buster! Then go do your homework and tidy your room!

  7. “This was what let down the Occupy movement. They gave us the symbol of the “1 Percent”, but they didn’t give us a solution to the psychopathology of Finance Capitalism.”

    As with the anti-summit movement before it, both the form and messaging of Occupy offered plenty of solutions; abolition of rents; free sharing of knowledge and information; communal gathering, preparation and sharing of food; nonviolent but determined resistance; non-judgmental unity across many social strata; free hugs. Workshops held at Occupy discussed many other solutions already being practiced by other social movements; permaculture, complementary currencies, free code software, intentional communities, co-housing, free universities, community gardens, community-supported agriculture (CSA), and many more.

    David Graeber’s book ‘The Democracy Project’ argues that the most important message of Occupy was that propping up representative “democracy” cannot save, and that there is an urgent need for the restoration of deep democracy; open participation, extreme transparency, consensus decisions made in popular assemblies. Many practical tools for facilitating this were inspired by Occupy, including DemocracyOS and Loomio.

    As Graeber argues again and again in his writing, one of the simplest and most effective ways to defend capitalism is to convince people that any suggested alternative can’t work, and any opposition movement was a failure, even when it succeeded beyond its wild dreams. This is certainly true of Occupy.

  8. Unfortunately, Chris, it appears that you’re right. Paul Salinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” can be applied by Neo-liberals as much as the Left.

    Even building a corrupted version of a “mass movement” – by turning thoughtful, engaged Citizens into distracted, disengaged Consumers – is possible.

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