13 Rules for Radicals to Gain Power

Barack Obama used the ideas on his path to the US presidency. Hilary Clinton wrote her thesis on his work. And grassroots movements, from both the left and now the right, treat his work as the template for action.  

Yet many people have never heard of the American Saul Alinsky. He is thought to be the founder of modern community organizing and wrote one of the most influential works on setting up grassroots movements: the 1971 book Rules For Radicals. The basic philosophy was to give power to the have-nots. In his introduction, he wrote: 

‘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.’

The book goes on to give lessons on how to take power away from the ‘haves’. Naturally, it was heavily used by the countercultural movement in the 1970s but has increasingly been used in mainstream political campaigns. Perhaps the most enduring part of the book is Alinsky’s 13 rules for radicals. Here they are with some of his additional notes: 

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. 

2.        ‘Never go outside the expertise of your people.’the result is confusion, fear, and retreat. 

3.       ‘Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.’Here you want to cause confusion, fear, and retreat. 

4.       ‘Make the enemy live up to its 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. 

5.       ‘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. 

6.       ‘A good tactic is one your people enjoy.’If your people are not having a ball doing it, there is something very wrong with the tactic. 

7.       ‘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. 

8.        ‘Keep the pressure on. Never let up.’ [Use] different tactics and actions, and utilize all events of the period for your purpose. 

9.       ‘The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.’ 

10.   ‘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. It should be remembered not only that the action is in the reaction but that action is itself the consequence of reaction and of reaction to the reaction, ad infinitum. The pressure produces the reaction, and constant pressure sustains action. 

11.    ‘If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside [positive].’ This is based on the principle that every positive has its negative. We have already seen the conversion of the negative into the positive, in Mahatma Gandhi’s development of the tactic of passive resistance. 

12.    ‘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.’ 

13.   ‘Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.’the opposition must be singled out as the target and “frozen.”…in a complex, interrelated, urban society, it becomes increasingly difficult to single out who is to blame for any particular evil. There is a constant…passing of the buck. …Obviously there is no point to tactics unless one has a target upon which to center the attacks… If an organization permits responsibility to be diffused and distributed in a number of areas, attack becomes impossible. 

So the next time you see a political movement or campaign in action, compare their tactics to the list above and you’ll know how you are being manipulated! 



→ Who Is Saul Alinsky?

Saul Alinsky was an activist who contributed heavily to pragmatic radicalism. He is known for his left-leaning politics and activism. Despite being an extremely controversial figure, Alinsky is still referenced regularly in modern political debates.

→ How Did Saul Alinsky Die?

Saul Alinsky died at the age of 63 from a heart attack. The heart attack happened when he was walking near his home in California. He was survived by his third wife Irene McInnis. He also had two children from a previous marriage.

→ What Is Saul Alinsky Known For?

Saul Alinsky is known for his contributions to the political left. Alinsky was a part of numerous community organizations, including The Woodlawn Organization and FIGHT. He is also known as an acclaimed author, primarily for writing the highly controversial Rules for Radicals.

→ Was Alinsky A Communist?

Alinsky was someone who heavily identified with the far-left side of politics. While he was a self-professed radical, he never identified as a communist or even a socialist. While he was never targeted for being a communist, he has been highly criticized by the right.

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