Saul Alinsky’s 13 Tried-and-True Rules for Creating Meaningful Social Change

Saul David Alinsky died 36 years before the election of Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton's first attempt for the presidency. But many feverish screeds on social media, talk radio, and YouTube might have made one think he lurked behind these politicians like Rasputin. Spoken of by many on the right as a servant of the devil, "American Joseph Goebbels," and “dangerous harbinger of insurrection,” Alinsky developed a reputation for insidiousness that may exceed his influence, considerable though it may be.

But liberals and leftists have no special purchase on Alinsky’s legacy. As one thoughtful, eloquent pundit recently wrote, “the Right has taken Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and shoved it up where #TheResistance don’t shine.” Not long before this charming appropriation, Alinsky’s 1971 manual of political warfare found its way into the hands of some of the same Tea Party organizers who had made his name synonymous with everything they despised about the left. (See Alinsky court his Luciferian comparisons in the 1966 interview above.)

But Alinsky wrote Rules for Radicals for his demographic. From the 30s to the 70s, he organized poor, working people in Chicago and other cities and addressed countercultural and civil rights activists nationwide. The opening paragraph of the book makes it perfectly clear who his readers are:

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.

Alinsky's reference to Machiavelli sets readers up for a high degree of ruthlessness and realpolitik, and the book does not disappoint. If you’re looking for Anarchist Cookbook-level radicalism, you’d best look elsewhere. While Alinsky talked tough, in an honest Chicago way, he did not recommend violence in his manual. In the Prologue, he denounces “parts of the far left who have gone so far in the political circle that they are now all but indistinguishable from the extreme right.” In recent revolutionary violence, he writes, “we are dealing with people who are merely hiding psychosis behind a political mask.”

Rules for Radicals recommends mostly working within the system—though in the twisted way Machiavelli is reputed to have done (whether or not he’s been interpreted fairly). Below, you’ll find Alinsky’s list of 13 “Rules for Radicals,” offered with his proviso that political activism cannot be a self-serving enterprise: “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.”

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.” 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 insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty.
4. “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.
5. “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.
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.

Alinsky’s rules can and have been used for anti-democratic designs. But he defines the U.S. as a “society predicated on voluntarism.” His vision of democracy leans heavily on that of keen outside observer of early America, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French philosopher who “gravely warned,” writes Alinsky, “that unless individual citizens were regularly involved in the action of governing themselves, self-government would pass from the scene.”

Related Content:

Salman Rushdie: Machiavelli’s Bad Rap

How Machiavelli Really Thought We Should Use Power: Two Animated Videos Provide an Introduction

‘The Right of the People to Rule’: Listen to Theodore Roosevelt Speaking 100 Years Ago Today

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


by | Permalink | Comments (35) |

Support Open Culture

We're hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture's continued operation, please consider making a donation. We thank you!


Comments (35)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Jonathan Collins says:

    Lovely. The rantings of an old Bolshevik commie. Let me know when you guys post something interesting.

  • Alissa M Clough says:

    There are times when an old Bolshevik’s rantings could have helped a lot, organizing Anonymous. This is interesting. Thank you.

  • Robin Smith says:

    Good to know that right wing, christians have no interest in what other people think, feel, believe & why. Lack of intelligent, thought provoking curiosity is a hallmark of the American, drumpf adoring, right wing christians of today.

  • Jonathan Collins says:

    I don’t need to listen to Alinsky to know what a sh*t stirrer he was! Communism works! We just haven’t tried it the right way!

  • Bill W. says:

    Communist, America-hating garbage. The Left has done far more to destroy this country in the past 50 years than any ‘Right-wing Christian’ ever will. Thank god Trump’s erasing Obama and Bill Clinton’s failed legacies.

  • Mark Medellin says:

    I like how any disagreement with this author and book is always met with such powerful & well reasoned arguments! Illuminating arguments such as: Bolshevik + Democratic = BAD! Christian + Right Wing = GOOD! That really helps everyone with a genuine interest in maybe reading this book understand the difficulty of challenging the status quo. You know, part of the beauty of living in a free country like ours, is that you’re not required to read this book, and you can always just go back to the security of cherry-picking passages from that reactionary Bronze-Age fictional book you guys seem to love for the hundredth time. Remember? The one based on the oppressed carpenter who acted like a free-love radical?.

  • jo says:

    This is the Bible for Hillary and Barbar. So you see,
    it is allpied to take out TRUMP. A person. He’s been targeted, frozen and soon to be taken out. Do you think this will change A THING??

  • Barry Hirsh says:

    Why would you glorify and extol the poisonous tactics of a communist?

  • Barry Hirsh says:

    “Bolshevik + Democratic = BAD! Christian + Right Wing = GOOD”

    The synopsis is spot on, so why go further?

  • Barry Hirsh says:

    Oh we have an interest, alright, and when what other people think undermines our nation, our traditional way of life, our morals, our ethics and our liberty, you have no room to blame us for being angry about it.

  • Calamity jane says:

    Wow..barac and hillary have their plan all scripted out for them and are hitting POTUS TRUMP with this garbage, but our POTUS is smarter than the average bear. He too has read this and with God’s help our POTUS will overcome the evil that is haunting him

  • Nick says:

    No, we are curious, but we know what these Bolshevik Jews are about, they are Satan Worshipping Communists, and their mentality has NO place in America. Its People like you who sympathize with these dirt bags that have brought America to where we are today. Oh and Not all of us Right Wingers are Christians, many of us follow our ORIGINAL Pagan religions, not that kowtowing Christianity where we “Turn the Other Cheek”.

  • Ken Neuroth says:

    This is a Playbook that George Soros follows and the Democrats have adopted this mantra. It’s quite simple that Alinsky did not love this country. George Soros and Barack Obama have taken the Democratic party down to the depths of despair with what they’ve lost in governorships and legislative seats and also they’re pathetic donations should tell them everything they need to know about the course that they are on. There is no Democratic party of John F Kennedy and is now considered a overly Conservative Republican.

  • Geri Ungurean says:

    In the forward by Alinsky, he gives an over the shoulder acknowledgment to Lucifer – the first known rebel.

    I’m sure that Alinsky is well aquainted with him by now, although Lucifer did receive a name change when he was cast to earth: SATAN.

  • Johnny Z says:

    This is how the Left (selfish malcontents) argues and Forces others to Change the way that the Left (selfish malcontents) wants.They always couch their attacks and recruitments in benevolent sounding language and niceties while always seeking to Gain Power to control everyone else’s lives.

    When you can’t win an argument honestly and openly, attack your opponent personally and engage in every logical fallacy possible to subvert and undermine everything about your opponent personally. Don’t focus on objective, demonstrative facts, instead belittle those who use them in their argument.

    A More accurate title of this book and approach would be ‘Ways for selfish malcontents to attack and subvert others to get what they want rather than by being honest, truthful and living in objective reality with the rest of the world.’

  • Carey Clark says:

    Anything used for political gain based on lies, and the harm of others simply because you disagree with the is evil, and its based on hatred, which is easily seen by those needlessly attacking Christians in these posts. It is not my fault Alinsky defies the lie and literally dedicated his book to what is universally recognised as the embodiment of evil. Those lacking credibility and intelligence have no course but to attack character.

  • Kay Lee King-Brown says:

    Say anything you want about our President Trump, he can be offensive, and he can be rough, who cares, he fights for America….as Patton shouted, standing over the battlefields as his tanks rolls by, “Fight on you magnificent bastards.”

    So, I shout out to our President Trump, FIGHT ON YOU MAGNIFICENT BASTARD!

  • KM says:

    The article above was posted on openculture.com. Does this website have anything to do with the “Open Society” organization of George Soros???

  • KM says:

    So JOSH! Where did my posts go? The FACTS that I posted about Hillary and Obama being advocates and practitioners of Saul Alinsky? Hmmm? Oh, you refuse to post them? Well well well, you are not just a simpleminded libtard afterall. YOU ARE A DELIBERATE LIAR, AND ALINSKY PRACTITIONER YOURSELF!!

  • DK54 says:

    Sun Tsu “Know your enemy.” Nice to read their playbook. If more people were aware of it maybe they wouldn’t be so gullible. I especially liked Rule #8 because we have seen it in recent use. BLM, Anti-fa, and now March of Our Lives, one continuous attack after another.

  • Lizabeth Garrett says:

    Amen!

  • Ron says:

    Now that everyone uses these rules society will go nowhere. Well done Saul, you taught everyone how to be a pouty loud mouthed child. What an ignoramus.

  • Michele Horn says:

    right on target. if you dont mind im gonna use your quote

  • H.William Penny says:

    Reading the comments above makes me sad. To know that I live in a country where in 2018, people still feel that hate and bigotry is good, right and proper.

    Your rhetoric and hate mongering is the same back and forth with people who originally fled to the Americas to be free of tyranny and oppression. Only to get here an kill & plunder. Commit the very atrocities they themselves risks life and limb to get away from.

    Now in 2018, 450 years later the colonizer mentality is alive and well.FACT: If you are not an American Indian then you are a product of an ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT.

    Their was no vetting, no screening of any kind. The germs and disease brought he by the colonists almost wiped out the population of the indeginous people. Fact: The medicines created by the American Indians saved there lives. The thanks was the systemic extermination of the buffalo and in turn many of the tribes of the Indian nation.

    All this is based on the very idea that one group is better than the other. That somehow if we disagree we should be silenced. That Donald Trump with save you. By his own actions if your honest.

    #45 only cares about people who praise him, if you disagree you are the enemy.If you feel you ate not being treated fairly in this Society, you have the right to be upset. But to practice hate, breeds more hate.This thinking Leeds to one place.

    If you are a racist or harbor racial bias towards someone. Consider having a conversation with the other side you might find you have allot more in common than the differences you have.

    When you feel like your rights are being taken away and somehow you ate being made to feel less than? Understand that is how Jews, Blacks, Hispanic and other minorities feel everyday. And the ones who have assimilated in the framework of America my only advice is to never forget your history. America was built on bigotry and racial inequality.But, that doesn’t mean that is where we have live?

    Finally. you all..even the pagan worship, has the right to his/her own opinion. However, you don’t have the right to your own FACTS!

    Peace and Blessings to you all

  • Al Karasek says:

    He may have been a “free love” carpenter. But not in the sense you describe. Love in that sense meant discipline to do the right thing
    Not lawlessness questioning all authority

  • Philip Huckin says:

    Bolsheviks were not Christian, they weren’t even atheist although that’s what they pretended to be – they were responsible for the deaths of millions of Christians across the former Soviet Union which the European Union is slowly but surely becoming today.

  • Mick Hugh says:

    As I wait to leave work and vote on this Tuesday, November 6, 2018, I say “you are spot on, you magnificent bastard”. Trump 2020 MAGA

  • PaulG says:

    “people who originally fled to the Americas to be free of tyranny and oppression. Only to get here an kill & plunder. Commit the very atrocities they themselves risks life and limb to get away from”

    SO, apparently you don’t actually read REAL history, but delve deeply into the revisionist history, akin to historical ‘yellow journalism’ if not outright fiction.

    “If you are not an American Indian then you are a product of an ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT.”
    Just one example validating my previous assertion. Actual American history is so much more complex and nuanced than THAT, including the fact that, by your standards “native Americans” who ALL came here by crossing over ice and land bridges from Russia/Siberia (validated through DNA studies), aren’t actually “native” either. Oh, the horrors! A “Russian” invasion. THEY certainly didn’t seek approval of laws or indigenous peoples of that day. Shame on those “illegals” posing as “native”.

    “When you feel like your rights are being taken away and somehow you ate being made to feel less than? Understand that is how Jews, Blacks, Hispanic and other minorities feel everyday.”
    And we all STILL wonder why they continue to vote in their masters, their oppressors, their racist overlords: the members of the democrat party.

    “If you feel you ate not being treated fairly in this Society, you have the right to be upset. But to practice hate, breeds more hate.”
    And again, we wonder why anyone continues to support democrats, “the party of hate” – the one that CONTINUALLY
    – pits one group against another: e.g. various “minorities” – why would anyone call them that, except to make them feel small; making a point of turning skin pigment into “race” (there is only ONE race, but different cultures and ethnicities) pitting “white” against “black” against…
    – seek to create false inequalities where there actually are none (e.g. ‘gender wage gap’ myth)…
    – enact policies to KEEP the different “races” in their appropriate economic “plantations”, with just enough “subsistence” to stay afloat, with DISINCENTIVES towards improving their own lot, and INCENTIVES to stay where they are – all the time continuing to blame “the others” (like businesses, which actually create jobs, or people who work, save, invest) for the plight of the “minority” situation.

    Ah well. I’m sure my words are wasted, since you’ve made up your mind based on a DIFFERENT SET OF FACTS, than the ones that actually took place. Too bad. But it’s not too late to cast off the blinders and LEARN. Hope you will.

    Good luck!

  • Kathryn says:

    You are obviously hanging out in the wrong places. I am a conservative and a Christian. I do care. I find that more leftists are close-minded to other thought. I was a liberal – in my 20s. I’m older now, and have reached what I term ‘common sense’. I don’t call people names (ergo drumpf). I am constantly learning. I do know that ‘free stuff’ isn’t really free. There is always a cost. But I think your blanket statement that a whole group of people don’t have an interest in what others think, believe or feel is a little bit funny, as you’re categorizing a whole group of people as being exactly what you are showing. Feel free to contact me and have a rational chat sometime, or not. Up to you.

  • Kathryn says:

    Please tell me that is satire. Every dictator throughout history says just what you did. It has never worked. It has a lot to do with human nature, I think.

  • Tristan Chambers says:

    This guy reminds me of Steve Bannon. Now I know where he probably got his tactics from. The most uncanny part is that Bannon has been quoted as saying many times “Better to reign in hell …” after Milton’s depiction of Lucifer. Apparently Alinky’s book “Rules For Radicals” was popular among tea party activists. I wonder if any of the rabid commentators on this page know these things. They can be gleaned from a few minutes of googling if one is willing to actually read and inform oneself.

    Both Alinsky and Bannon make me uncomfortable. The “outside enemy” approach seems unhealthy to me. The ends justifying the means, gives me the creeps. We must acknowledge though that Alinsky is working and thinking in a time where trust and love were shattered by political assassinations and ruthless acts of subversion and violence by the CIA/FBI and US military against both foreigners and even American citizens (COINTELPRO etc.). These were dark times ethically and morally that perhaps called for the sober “realpolitik” outlook we see in Alinksy’s opinions. Can our society move beyond to a more trusting a respectful dialog? That depends on whether we are willing to abandon our warlike postures and instead start asking “how are you neighbor?” If not, then you better read this book, whether you’re a leftist or a right winger because you’re going to need it.

  • Gr. Vo. says:

    The Rantings of an old fool who is followed by raging leftists today. Get with it.

  • Gr. Vo. says:

    Good to know that the left will do ANYTHING deceptive and unruly to impose thier NWO ideals on everyone, and to agendanize thier so called “enlightened” way. Screw the constitution. And anyone who dares disagree with thier fantastical, child like utopianism.
    These radical leftist boobs will get what they deserve.

  • Gr. Vo. says:

    Because American Indians NEVER EVER slaughtered and killed each other off of thier own warring faction kind, before the evil white man arrived.

    By the way, brevity is the soul of wit. REMEMBER COVINGTON!!!!!

  • mrd says:

    Secret Combinations – Scriptures have always warned of these tactics.

    An organization of people bound together by oaths to carry out the evil purposes of the group. The father of lies stirreth up the children of men unto secret combinations, 2 Ne. 9:9. Satan put it into the hearts of the people to form secret oaths and covenants, Hel. 6:21–31. The Lord worketh not in secret combinations, Ether 8:19. Nations that uphold secret combinations shall be destroyed, Ether 8:22–23. They did reject all the words of the prophets, because of their secret society, Ether 11:22.

Leave a Reply

Quantcast