Rules for Radicals: lessons from Saul Alinsky’s influential 1971 treatise

The ends justify the means.

The Machiavellian concept became associated with communist revolutionaries and then was revived again among 1960s-era countercultural activists. In recent decades, movements across the political spectrum have taken it up. Many return to a classic of the form.

Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” is a guidebook for social and political organizers, written in 1971 in response to the rise of McCarthyism and its suppression of radical thought. Alinsky begins by acknowledging that the world is not always how we would like it to be, and that as organizers, it is our job to start from where things are and work towards change. He emphasizes the importance of building bridges and creating alliances, as well as the need for self-reflection and an understanding that we may not always be right. Alinsky advises organizers to be aware of the power dynamics at play and to use any means necessary to achieve their goals, as long as they are ethical and have a moral foundation. He also stresses the importance of communication and being able to connect with and mobilize the “have-nots” in order to bring about real change. Alinsky’s book is often referred to as a “The Prince” for the disadvantaged, offering strategies and tactics for those working towards social and political revolution.

Many view the book as controversial, as Alinsky, an avowed progressive and nationally-recognized labor community organizer, outlines tactics that any movement could take hold. I found it informative and foundational. My notes are below.

My notes:

  • Mccarythism squashed a generation of radicals so this book was gift to a new generation emerging
  • “These are the days when man has his hands on the sublime while he is up to his hips in the muck of madness.”
  • “As an organizer, I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be.”
  • On middle income earners, “If we fail to communicate with them, if we don’t encourage them to form alliances with us, they will move to the right”
  • “The revolution was effected before the war commenced,” John Adams. Revolutionaries build bridges so others can follow.
  • “A revolution without a prior reformation would collapse or become a totalitarian tyranny”
  • He writes this is The Prince for have-nots
  • Niels Bohr: “Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation, but as a question.”
  • Revolution and communism has become one because Marxwas the most prominent writer on revolution but it didn’t by have yo be that way
  • Lincoln: “Be not deceived. Revolutions do not go backward.” May 19, 1856
  • Justice Billings Learned Hand said “the mark of a free man is that ever knowing inner uncertainty as to whether or not he is right.”
  • “Democracy is not an end but the best means toward achieving these values”
  • We must know as Machiavelli wrote “what men do and not what they ought to do”
  • “it is a world not of angels but of angles“
  • Henry James wrote “lLife is, in fact, a battle. Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting, but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally unhappy. But the world as it stands is no narrow illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of the night; we wake up to it, forever and ever; and we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it.”
  • Benjamin Disraeli said “political life must be taken as you find it”
  • The author argues that there are the haves and the have nots, and “have some, want more”
  • Heraclitus in Fragments wrote “ The waking have one world in common; sleepers have each a private world of his own.”
  • In Alice in Wonderland Tigerlily explain to Alice that the flowers talk because they make hard beds of ground but “in most gardens they make the beds too soft – so that the flowers are always asleep”
  • “History is a relay of revolutions.”
  • Defeatists always say either “ we agree with the end but not the means“ or “this is not the time“
  • “One’s concerns with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with one’s personal interest in the issue. When we are not directly concerned our morality overflows.”
  • La Rochefoucauld: “We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others.”
  • Churchill explained to a secretary why he sided with the Soviet communists against the Nazis: “ if Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”
  • Everyone’s means look different to someone else, and in a later time
  • Sam Adams used anti Irish bigotry to discredit Patrick Carr testimony that the Boston massacre was led by the townspeople. It was opportunistic bigotry to British but effective. After the Revolution Adams wanted excursion for shays Rebellion
  • If Gandhi had guns and the people to use them, would he have?
  • “All effective actions require the passport of morality.”
  • Whitman said “the goal once named cannot be countermanded.”
  • “A people asking ‘why’ are beginning to rebel.” 72
  • Great radical organizers must hold “a bit of a blurred vision of a better world “like a large mural that they’re only painting a small leaf of but know another artist will fill in the rest
  • Most important organizer quality is communication
  • The organizer wants to be called an enemy by the Haves so the Have Nots see them in their side
  • To answer the question “who asked you to come here,: the community organizer must be able to answer “you did”
  • “One of the great problems in the beginning of an organization is often that the people do not know what they want.”
  • “Why start figuring out how you were going to spend $1 million if you do not have $1 million or ever going to have $1 million“
  • The community organizer “acts as the septic tank in the early stages – he gets all the shit.” all early credit must go to the local community and all blame will go to the outside community organizer
  • “The organizer’s job is to begin to build confidence and hope in the idea of organization and thus within the community people themselves: to win limited victories, each of which will build confidence…” 114
  • Author tells the story of his early organizing days at Back of the Yards community, they protest and demand the Infant Welfare Society come help them with infant mortality, even though the very neighborhood had pushed that group out because a rumor spread that they were sharing birth control information. The author says demonstrating a victory even though that nonprofit always wanted to be there with a powerful tactic
  • “All change means the disorganization of the old and organization of the new. This is why the organizer is immediately confronted with conflict.”
  • The organizer commands attention, then highlight what others have done to solve the problem and then questions and challenges them into a course of action
  • “No one can negotiate without the power to compel negotiation“ 119
  • The organizer help the community transition individual problems into collective issues that can be addressed
  • The constant guiding star of the organizer is in those words “the dignity of the individual”
  • “Ineffective organizational experience is as much an educational process for the organizer as it is for the people with whom he is working.” Don’t assume you know the answers
  • “Tactics mean doing what you can with what you have.”
  • “Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have”. Power comes from money and power, without much money we use physical bodies to show power
  • “Pick a target freeze it personalize it and polarize it. “ In complex overlapping bureaucracies do you have to pick one public facing figure to focus your organizing on even if he tries to shift the blame on others. The ones who defend your target will out themselves. Focus on people not companies
  • He argues humor is an effective tool for getting fence sitters and people in the middle ground to your side. Getting people to laugh at your opponent rises them to “irrational anger. Famously when he arrived in Rochester New York to organize against Eastman Kodak, he was asked why was he “meddling in the black ghetto after everything Kodak done.“ Author was quoted as saying “As far as I know the only thing Eastman Kodak has done of the race issue in America has been to introduce color film”
  • Author would take black residents to picket outside white suburban slum lord home to generate negotiating power. (Landlord faced pressure from his own neighbors)
  • Every organization must have two or three stool pigeons who are trusted. “The stool pigeons are invaluable as trustworthy lines of the communication to the establishment”
  • Paul of Tarsus wrote to the Corinthians “Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament — not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter killeth,”
  • “A conflict that drags on too long becomes a drag,” so use tactics with time deadlines built in
  • On May 1 1967, Kodak hosts a shareholder’s meeting in Flemington, NJ. Alinsky organizes a proxy battle
  • On May 12 1970, Stanford Trustees voted their 24,000 shares of General Motors stock in favor of management, disregarding Stanford student proposals. In contrast to the University of Pennsylvania’s 29,000 shares. Harvard use the Stanford track for 287000 shares an MIT with it 291,500 shares
  • Author predicts that publicly-traded proxy battles would be powerful for people over corporations: why didn’t his prediction happen? (In part the rise of passive index funds, I assume)

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