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.”

Note: This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared on our site in 2017. In this moment of protest, we’re bring­ing it back.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Noam Chom­sky Explains the Best Way for Ordi­nary Peo­ple to Make Change in the World, Even When It Seems Daunt­ing

Read the CIA’s Sim­ple Sab­o­tage Field Man­u­al: A Time­less Guide to Sub­vert­ing Any Orga­ni­za­tion with “Pur­pose­ful Stu­pid­i­ty” (1944)

David Byrne Curates a Playlist of Great Protest Songs Writ­ten Over the Past 60 Years: Stream Them Online

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

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Comments (4)
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  • Moses says:

    The arti­cle title says mean­ing­ful change. Mean­ing­ful can be neg­a­tive as well as pos­i­tive. The con­di­tion of the black fam­i­ly has dete­ri­o­rat­ed since the great soci­ety as shown in the per­cent­age of one par­ent house­holds. Judg­ing peo­ple by the con­tent of their char­ac­ter has been replaced by iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics. The def­i­n­i­tion of protest now includes arson and loot­ing in the large­ly pro­gres­sive cities. As a British states­man said, “How­ev­er beau­ti­ful the strat­e­gy, you should occa­sion­al­ly look at the results.”

  • Normal Human says:

    Only a left­ist nut cen­ter like Closed­Cul­ture could look at Alin­sky’s anti-human sen­ti­ments as some­thing pos­i­tive. Typ­i­cal of the hard, hard left: advo­cate things that result in the ruin of soci­ety, then want to be an elit­ist, safe in your gat­ed com­mu­ni­ties away from the results.

  • BR549 says:

    Giv­ing the Left any con­trol of soci­ety is like giv­ing the fam­i­ly car keys to a 10 year old just because he can now man­age to get his tip­py-toes on the ped­als.

    It says noth­ing about under­stand­ing the rules of the road, per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty, or poten­tial lia­bil­i­ty.

    After hav­ing trashed a soci­ety, left­ies would just say, “Well, I guess we have to rebuild,” and not once look back for his­tor­i­cal back­ground. Rather than deal with the com­plex­i­ties of keep­ing an advanced soci­ety on the rails, left­ies are sat­is­fied with going back to square one, .… over and over again.

  • Judy says:

    Sad­ly this man and his cor­rupt cohorts believe they are the only ones that are capa­ble of run­ning any­thing. They have tak­en decades to infil­trate Amer­i­ca and the world with theft, cor­rup­tion, steal­ing resources, buy­ing off medias, cre­at­ing wars pay­ing both sides then installing a Com­mu­nist dic­ta­tor of their choice.
    They want world depop­u­la­tion, NWO and com­plete con­trol of every mind and life. He ded­i­cat­ed his book to Lucifer which speaks vol­umes of why mil­lions of kids go miss­ing year­ly. Ancient prac­tice of sac­ri­fic­ing is alive and well in their com­mu­ni­ty as is can­ni­bal­ism.
    William Tomp­kins a NASA engi­neer told Ker­ry Cas­sidy in an inter­view while Trump was Pres­i­dent that the four Pres­i­dents before Trump were Rep­til­ian shapeshifters. They are run­ning the world and are in high posi­tions. Evil exists but so does­n’t God. As soon as we take him back the soon­er this cur­rent night­mare ends. Out of Shad­ows Doc­u­men­tary by Mike Smith in excel­lent. Fight­ing Monarch is price­less.

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