It is fifty years this June since the American leftish activist Saul Alinsky died. Gareth Stevens revisits his classic handbook of pragmatic advice for those organising positive social change. 

I found out about Saul D Alinsky’s incredibly important book Rules for Radicals from an unlikely source. The CEO and publisher of Harbour Times, a business, policy and diplomacy newspaper in Hong Kong, hosted a session that aimed to introduce Alinsky’s ideas to an apparently ‘demographically mixed’ group. In fact, a more apt term to describe the people that turned up that day would be ‘polarised.’ Sharply polarised.

The event was marketed like this (I am paraphrasing) … If you are in the business of sticking it to the man from a limited power base, you need this book to help you organise yourself. Alternatively, if some people are trying to organise themselves against you… then be assured that they will have read Alinsky and so you need to read it too!!

I took a group of sixth-form students to hear about this book and it was a revelation (not least because the room was full of a bizarre mixture of well-heeled establishment corporates and ragtail anarchists and pro-democracy activists).

Some background…


Published in 1971, the year before his death, Alinsky dedicated this work to the individual he described as the ‘first radical known to man,’ Lucifer! Curiously, Hilary Clinton wrote a 92-page thesis at Wellesley College extolling the activist’s strategies and principles as set down in this book. Later Clinton turned down the offer of a job from Alinsky, to take up her place to study Law at Yale. Having said that, she and her husband followed Alinsky’s ‘rules’ in their journey to accrue power and diminish their political opponents countless times. And so, whilst this work is ostensibly to support the downtrodden in their perennial struggle with those who hold power, the rules therein have been appropriated by many to hold onto and extend their power base against those more deserving of it. 

Ironic, given that Alinsky wrote in the book’s first paragraph: “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.” 


Tellingly, it is the small print strapline on the cover that gets us nearer to an understanding of what this book is really about: ‘A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals.’ It is this emphasis on practicalities and realistic (non-violent) change that concerned Alinsky. He had worked as a community activist mainly in the Chicago area between 1939 and 1971, helping low-income groups to organize themselves to acquire more social, political, legal, and/or economic power. The lessons he learned during that period are summarized in this, his last work. He said that too often those in the epicentre of a struggle were too passionate and emotionally involved to be wholly rational and strategic. Alinsky’s strength came not only from the wealth of his experience, but from his ability to be dispassionate and detached when planning campaigns. He couldn’t support every cause in person and so he wrote the book. Although often branded as a communist, this experienced activist never signed up to any political organization and is on record as saying that extremism on the left was too close to that on the right.

He believed that subscribing to one ideology led to people being overly doctrinaire and dogmatic; it stopped them questioning and shifted their attention from social justice in the form of practical deeds for the welfare of people to abstract words and ideas.

His words still resonate: “People cannot be free unless they are willing to sacrifice some of their interests to guarantee the freedom of others. The price of democracy is the ongoing pursuit of the common good by all of the people.” 

The book is brilliantly written and splices depth of analysis with accessibility. It is recommended to anyone who is in any way involved in the struggle to shift power or to controvert the ‘top-down’ political model. The system that is still, after fifty years, screwing everything up.

An interview with Alinsky can be found on YouTube and a free PDF of the book is available online.


So, fifty years on, here are his 13 rules for radicals:

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

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

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

4. “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” If their 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.

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

6. “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.

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

8. “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.

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

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.

11. “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.

12. “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.

13. “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.

We hope you have enjoyed reading this article. The future of our volunteer led, non-profit publication would be far more secure with the aid of a small donation. You can also support local journalism by becoming a friend of HIP. It only takes a minute and we would be very grateful.