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Rules for Radicals

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Rules for Radicals ©2001.
by Saul Alinsky
Reviewed by me - Winter 2004.

Rules for Radicals (pdf)

The Purpose

The life of man upon the earth is warfare…
Job 7:1

The Education of an Organizer

There is meaning to that cliché, "We learn from experience." Our job was to shovel those happenings back into the student's system so he could digest them into experience. During a seminar I would say, "Life is the expectation of the unexpected - the things you worry about rarely happen. Something new, the unexpected, will usually come in from outside the ball park. You're all nodding as if you understand but you really don't. What I've said are just words to you. I want you to go to your private cubbyholes and think for the next four hours. Try to remember all the things you worried about during the last years and whether they ever happened or what did happen - and then we'll talk about it."

In the Beginning

People can make judgments only on the basis of their own experiences. And the question in their minds is, "If we were in the organizer’s position, would we do what he is doing and if so, why?" Until they have an answer that is at least somewhat acceptable they find it difficult to understand and accept the organizer.


We will either find a way or make one.

– Hannibal


Once we understand the external reactions of the Haves to the challenges of the Have-Nots, then we go to the next level of examination, the anatomy of power of the Haves among themselves.

But let us go deeper into the psyche of this Goliath. The Haves possess and in turn are possessed by power. Obsessed with the fear of losing power, their every move is dictated by the idea of keeping it. The way of life of the Haves is to keep what they have and wherever possible to shore up their defenses.

This opens a new vista - not only do we have a whole class determined to keep its power and in constant conflict with the Have-Nots; at the same time, they are in conflict among themselves. Power is not static; it cannot be frozen and preserved like food; it must grow or die. Therefore, in order to keep power the status quo must get more. But from whom? There is just so much more than can be squeezed out of the Have-Nots - so the Haves must take it from each other. They are on a road from which there is no turning back. This power cannibalism of the Haves permits only temporary truces, and only when equally confronted by a common enemy. Even then there are regular breaks in the ranks, as individual units attempt to exploit the general threat for their own special benefit. Here is the vulnerable belly of the status quo.

I first learned this lesson during the 1930s depression, when the United States experienced a revolutionary upheaval in the form of a mass labor-union-organizing drive known as the C.I.O. This was the radical wing of the labor movement; it espoused industrial unionism while the conservative and archaic A.F. of L. clung to craft unionism. The position of the A.F. of L. excluded the masses of workers from union organization. The battle cry of the C.I.O. was "organize the unorganized." Very quickly the issue was joined with the gargantuan automobile industry, which was at that time an open shop, and completely unorganized. The first attack was against the behemoth of this empire, General Motors. A sit-down strike was launched against Chevrolet. John L. Lewis, then the leader of the C.I.O., told me that at the height of this sit-down strike he heard a rumor that General Motors had met with both Ford and Chrysler to advance the following proposition: "We at General Motors are fighting your battle for if the C.I.O. beats us, then you're next in line and there will be no stopping them. Now we are willing to let the C.I.O. sit in at Chevrolet until hell freezes and suffer that loss in our profits if you will hold your production of Fords and Plymouths [the price-class competitors to the Chevrolet] to your present market. On the other hand, we cannot hold out against the C.I.O. if you boost production in order to sell to all potential Chevrolet customers who will buy your products because they cannot get Chevrolets."

Lewis, who was an organizational genius with a rare insight into the power mechanics of the status quo, dismissed it with a perceptive comment. It doesn't matter whether this is a false rumor or true, he said, because neither Ford nor Chrysler could ever agree to overlook an opportunity for an immediate increase in their profits and power, shortsighted as it might be.

The internecine struggle among the Haves for their individual self-interest is as shortsighted as internecine struggle among the Have-Nots, I have on occasion remarked that I feel confident that I could persuade a millionaire on a Friday to subsidize a revolution for Saturday out of which he would make a huge profit on Sunday even though he was certain to be executed on Monday.

Once one understands this internal battle for power within the status quo, one can begin to appraise effective tactics to exploit it. It is sad to see the stupidity of inexperienced organizers who make gross errors by failing to have even an elementary appreciation of this pattern.

Time in Jail

At the same time, the revolutionary leaders should make certain that their publicized violations of the regulations are so selected that their jail terms are relatively brief, from one day to two months. The trouble with a long jail sentence is that (a) a revolutionary is removed from action for such an extended period of time that he loses touch, and (b) if you are gone long enough everybody forgets about you. Life goes on, new issues arise, and new leaders appear; however, a periodic removal from circulation by being jailed is an essential element in the development of the revolutionary. The one problem that the revolutionary cannot cope with by himself is that he must now and then have an opportunity to reflect and synthesize his thoughts. To gain that privacy in which he can try to make sense out of what he is doing, why he is doing it, where he is going, what has been wrong with what he has done, what he should have done and above all to see the relationships of all the episodes and acts as they tie in to a general pattern, the most convenient and accessible solution is jail. It is here that he begins to develop a philosophy. It is here that he begins to shape long-term goals, intermediate goals, and a self-analysis of tactics as tied to his own personality. It is here that he is emancipated from the slavery of action wherein he was compelled to think from act to act. Now he can look at the totality of his actions and the reactions of the enemy from a fairly detached position.

Every revolutionary leader of consequence has had to undergo these withdrawals from the arena of action. Without such opportunities, he goes from one tactic and one action to another, but most of them are almost terminal tactics in themselves; he never has a chance to think through an overall synthesis, and he burns himself out. He becomes, in fact, nothing more than a temporary irritant. The prophets of the Old Testament and the New found their opportunity for synthesis by voluntarily removing themselves to the wilderness. It was after they emerged that they began propagandizing their philosophies. Often a revolutionary finds that he cannot voluntarily detach himself, since the pressure of events and action do not permit him that luxury; furthermore, a revolutionary or a man of action does not have the sedentary frame of mind that is part of the personality of a research scholar. He finds it very difficult to sit quietly and think and write. Even when provided with a voluntary situation of that kind he will react by trying to escape the job of thinking and writing. He will do anything to avoid it.

Jail provides just the opposite circumstances. You have no phones and, except for an hour or so a day, no visitors. Your jailers are rough, unsociable, and generally so dull that you wouldn't want to talk to them anyway. You find yourself in a physical drabness and confinement, which you desperately try to escape. Since there is no physical escape you are driven to erase your surroundings imaginatively: you escape into thinking and writing. It was through periodic imprisonment that the basis for my first publication and the first orderly philosophical arrangement of my ideas and goals occurred.


The Genesis of Tactic Proxy

The proxy tactic was born in Rochester, New York, in the conflict between Eastman Kodak and the black ghetto organization called FIGHT our foundation had helped to organize. The issues* of the conflict are not relevant to the present subject except that a vice-president of Kodak assigned to negotiate with FIGHT reached an agreement with FIGHT, and that seemed to close the matter. Enter the first accident, for Kodak then repudiated its own vice president and the agreement he had made. This re-opened the battle. If Kodak had not reneged, the issue would have ended there.

Now necessity moved in. As the lines were drawn for battle it became clear that the usual strategy of demonstrations and confrontations would be unavailing. While Kodak's buildings and administration were in Rochester, its real life was throughout its American and overseas markets. Demonstrations might be embarrassing and inconvenient, but they would not be the tactic to force an agreement. It wasn't Rochester that Eastman Kodak was concerned about. Their image in that community could always be sustained by sheer financial power. Their vulnerability was throughout the nation and overseas.

* Those involved in the Kodak-FIGHT battle knew that there was one issue -"Would Kodak or any other corporation recognize FIGHT as the bargaining agent for the black ghetto of Rochester, New York?" Once Kodak recognized FIGHT as representing the black ghetto, we could come to the table to negotiate on all other issues, including the employment of more blacks. Kodak's recognition of FIGHT would result in other corporations following suit and this would lead to other programs and other issues. Kodak's subsequent recognition of FIGHT caused Xerox to do the same and resulted in the launching of a black-owned and black-manned factory by FIGHT called FIGHTON in collaboration with the Xerox Corporation.

We then began looking for appropriate tactics. An economic boycott was rejected because of Kodak's overwhelming domination of the film-negative market. Thus a call for an economic boycott would be asking the American people to stop taking pictures, which obviously would not work as long as babies were being born, children were graduating, having birthday parties, getting married, going on picnics and so forth. The idea of boycott did evoke thoughts of checking out the Sherman Anti-Trust Act against them at some point. Other wild ideas were tossed about. *

* The National Observer, July 17, 1967: "Civil-rights activists have devised a major new plan to bring pressure on some of the nation's biggest corporations, The National Observer learned last week. These activists plan to wage proxy battles-hoping to push management into providing more jobs for poor whites and Negroes. ...
"‘The Eastman Kodak case was the guidepost. It was not until the late-blooming proxy battle that Rochester's FIGHT made headway. Before the proxy fight, there were few ways in which pressure could be brought on the dominant international photography company.
"’Eastman Kodak wasn't worried about what FIGHT could do, and I don't blame them,’ Mr. Alinsky says.’A boycott was out of the question. That would be like asking everyone to stop taking pictures. This called for a new kind of tactic, and we hit on one.
"‘We had all kinds of plans. We had heard that Queen Elizabeth owned Kodak stock. So we were considering throwing up a picket line around Buckingham Palace in London, and charging that the changing of the guard was a conspiracy to encourage picture-taking. But we didn't have time to follow this or a lot of other things up. If we have time to plan a campaign, it could be much more effective.'
"The thought of the Buckingham Palace picket line may seem ludicrous, but it is typical of Alinsky methods - attention-getting and outrageous to the point of amusement. His basic philosophy, as he has often stated, is that the poor, who lack the money or authority to challenge the 'power structure,’ must use the only weapon they have at their command - people and publicity."


The Way Ahead

They look at the unemployed poor as parasitical dependents, recipients of a vast variety of massive public programs all paid for by them, "the public." They see the poor going to colleges with the waiving of admission requirements and given special financial aid. In many cases the lower middle class were denied the opportunity of college by these very circumstances. Their bitterness is compounded by their also paying taxes for these colleges, for increased public services, fire, police, public health, and welfare. They hear the poor demanding welfare as "rights." To them this is insult on top of injury.

Seeking some meaning in life, they turn to an extreme chauvinism and become defenders of the "American" faith. Now they even develop rationalizations for a life of futility and frustration. "It's the Red menace!" Now they are not only the most vociferous in their espousal of law and order but ripe victims for such as demagogic George Wallace, the John Birch Society, and the Red-menace perennials.

Insecure in this fast-changing world, they cling to illusory fixed points - which are very real to them. Even conversation is charted toward fixing your position in the world: "I don't want to argue with you, just tell me what our flag means to you?" or "What do you think of those college punks who never worked a day in their lives?" They use revealing adjectives such as "outside agitators" or "troublemakers" and other "When did you last beat your wife?" questions.

On the other side they see the middle middle class and the upper middle class assuming a liberal, democratic, holier-than-thou position, and attacking the bigotry of the employed poor. They see that through all kinds of tax evasion devices the middle middle and upper middle can elude their share of the tax burdens - so that most of it comes back (as they see it) upon themselves, the lower middle class.

They see a United States Senate in which approximately one-third are millionaires and the rest with rare exception very wealthy. The bill requiring full public disclosure of senators' financial interests and prophetically titled Senate Bill 1993 (which is probably the year it will finally be passed) is "in committee," they see, and then they say to themselves, "The government represents the upper class but not us."

Many of the lower middle class are members of labor unions, churches, bowling clubs, fraternal, service, and nationality organizations. They are organizations and people that must be worked with as one would work with any other part of our population - with respect, understanding, and sympathy.

To reject them is to lose them by default. They will not shrivel and disappear. You can't switch channels and get rid of them. This is what you have been doing in your radicalized dream world but they are here and will be. If we don't win them Wallace or Spiro T. Nixon will. Never doubt it that the voice may be Agnew's but the words, the vindictive smearing, is Nixon's. There never was a vice-president who didn't either faithfully serve as his superior's faithful sounding board or else be silent.

Remember that even if you cannot win over the lower middle-class, at least parts of them must be persuaded to where there is at least communication, then to a series of partial agreements and a willingness to abstain from hard opposition as changes take place. They have their role to play in the essential prelude of reformation, in their acceptance that the ways of the past with its promises for the future no longer work and we must move ahead where we move to may not be definite or certain, but move we must.

People must be "reformed" – so they cannot be de-formed into dependency and driven through desperation to dictatorship and the death of freedom. The "silent majority," now, are hurt, bitter, suspicious, feeling rejected and at bay. This sick condition in many ways is as explosive as the current race crisis. Their fears and frustrations at their helplessness are mounting to a point of a political paranoia which can demonize people to turn to the law of survival in the narrowest sense. These emotions can go either to the far right of totalitarianism or forward to Act II of the American Revolution.

The issues of 1972 would be those of 1776, "No Taxation Without Representation." To have real representation would involve public funds being available for campaign costs so that the members of the lower middle class can campaign for political office. This can be an issue for mobilization among the lower middle class and substantial sectors of the middle middle class.

The rest of the middle class, with few exceptions, reside in suburbia, living in illusions of partial escape. Being more literate, they are even more lost. Nothing seems to make sense. They thought that a split-level house in the suburbs, two cars, two color TVs, country club membership, a bank account, children in good prep schools and then in college, and they had it made. They got it - only to discover that they didn't have it. Many have lost their children - they dropped out of sight into something called the generation gap. They have seen values they held sacred sneered at and found themselves ridiculed as squares or relics of a dead world. The frenetic scene around them is so bewildering as to induce them to either drop out into a private world, the nonexistent past, sick with its own form of social schizophrenia - or to face it and move into action. If one wants to act, the dilemma is how and where; there is no "when?" with time running out, the time is obviously now.

There are enormous basic changes ahead. We cannot continue or last in the nihilistic absurdities of our time where nothing we do makes sense. The scene around us compels us to look away quickly, if we are to cling to any sanity. We are the age of pollution, progressively burying ourselves in our own waste. We announce that our water is contaminated by our own excrement, insecticides, and detergents, and then do nothing. Even a half-witted people, if sane, would long since have done the simple and obvious - ban all detergents, develop new non-polluting insecticides, and immediately build waste-disposal units. Apparently we would rather be corpses in clean shirts. We prefer a strangling ring of dirty air to a "ring around the collar." Until the last, we’ll be buried in bright white shirts. Our persistent use of our present insecticides may well ensure that the insects shall inherit the world.

Compound this with a daily record of now we are in Cambodia, now we are out, now we are not in it just over it with our bombers, we will not get involved there as in Vietnam but we can't get out of Vietnam without safeguarding Cambodia, we're doing this but really the other, with no other clue to all this madness except the half helpful comment from the White House, "Don't listen to what we say, just watch what we do," half-helpful only because either statements or actions are sufficient to make us freeze into bewilderment and stunned disbelief. It is in such times that we are haunted by the old maxim, "Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make ludicrous."

The middle classes are numb, bewildered, scared into silence. They don't know what, if anything, they can do. This is the job for today's radical - to fan the embers of hopelessness into a flame to fight. To say, "You cannot cop out as have many of my generation!" "You cannot turn away - look at it - let us change it together!" "Look at us. We are your children. Let us not abandon each other for then we are all lost. Together we can change it for what we want. Let's start here and there - let's go!"

It is a job first of bringing hope and doing what every organizer must do with all people, all classes, places, and times - communicate the means or tactics whereby the people can feel that they have the power to do this and that and on. To a great extent the middle class of today feels more defeated and lost than do our poor.

So you return to the suburban scene of your middle class with its variety of organizations from PTAs to League of Women Voters, consumer groups, churches, and clubs. The job is to search out the leaders in these various activities, identify their major issues, find areas of common agreement, and excite their imagination with tactics that can introduce drama and adventure into the tedium of middle-class life.

Tactics must begin within the experience of the middle class, accepting their aversion to rudeness, vulgarity, and conflict. Start them easy, don't scare them off. The opposition's reactions will provide the "education" or radicalization of the middle class. It does it every time. Tactics here, as already described, will develop in the flow of action and reaction. The chance for organization for action on pollution, inflation, Vietnam, violence, race, taxes, and other issues, is all about us. Tactics such as stock proxies and others are waiting to be hurled into the attack.

The revolution must manifest itself in the corporate sector by the corporations' realistic appraisal of conditions in the nation. The corporations must forget their nonsense about "private sectors." It is not just that government contracts and subsidies have long since blurred the line between public and private sectors, but that every American individual or corporation is public as well as private; public in that we are Americans and concerned about our national welfare. We have a double commitment and corporations had better recognize this for the sake of their own survival. Poverty, discrimination, disease, crime - everything is as much a concern of the corporation as is profits. The days when corporate public relations worked to keep the corporation out of controversy, days of playing it safe, of not offending Democratic or Republican customers, advertisers or associates - those days are done. If the same predatory drives for profits can be partially transmuted for progress, then we will have opened a whole new ball game. I suggest here that this new policy will give its executives a reason for what they are doing - a chance for a meaningful life.

A major battle will be pitched on quality and prices of consumer goods, targeting particularly on the massive misleading advertising campaigns, the costs of which are passed on to the consumer. It will be the people against Madison Avenue or "The Battle of Bunkum Hill."

Any timetable would be speculation but the writing of middle-class organization had better be on the walls by 1972.

The human cry of the second revolution is one for a meaning, a purpose for life - a cause to live for and if need be die for. Tom Paine's words, "These are the times that try men's souls," are more relevant to Part II of the American Revolution than the beginning. This is literally the revolution of the soul.

The great American dream that reached out to the stars has been lost to the stripes. We have forgotten where we came from, we don't know where we are, and we fear where we may be going. Afraid, we turn from the glorious adventure of the pursuit of happiness to a pursuit of an illusionary security in an ordered, stratified, striped society. Our way of life is symbolized to the world by the stripes of military force. At home we have made a mockery of being our brother's keeper by being his jail keeper. When Americans can no longer see the stars, the times are tragic. We must believe that it is the darkness before the dawn of a beautiful new world; we will see it when we believe it.