Rules for Radicals

date Jul 2, 2016
authors Saul Alinsky
reading time 18 mins

I didn’t agree with everything in the book, but I had to read this book to understand what does extreme left-wing political activism look like.

What the generation wants?

What the present generation wants is what all generations have always wanted—a meaning, a sense of what the world and life are—a chance to strive for some sort of order.

Some timeless principles

First, there are no rules for revolution any more than there are rules for love or rules for happiness, but there are rules for radicals who want to change their world; there are certain central concepts of action in human politics that operate regardless of the scene or the time.

Realistic vs Rhetorical

These rules make the difference between being a realistic radical and being a rhetorical one who uses the tired old words and slogans, calls the police “pig” or “white fascist racist” or “motherfucker” and has so stereotyped himself that others react by saying, “Oh, he’s one of those,” and then promptly turn off.


On another level of communication, humor is essential, for through humor much is accepted that would have been rejected if presented seriously. This is a sad and lonely generation. It laughs too little, and this, too, is tragic.

Start with the current situation

As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be — it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be.


If we fail to communicate with them, if we don’t encourage them to form alliances with us, they will move to the right. Maybe they will anyway, but let’s not let it happen by default.

Revolution must have a support base

We will start with the system because there is no other place to start from except political lunacy. It is most important for those of us who want revolutionary change to understand that revolution must be preceded by reformation. To assume that a political revolution can survive without the supporting base of a popular reformation is to ask for the impossible in politics.

Learn your lessons

But the answer I gave the young radicals seemed to me the only realistic one: “Do one of three things. One, go find a wailing wall and feel sorry for yourselves. Two, go psycho and start bombing—but this will only swing people to the right. Three, learn a lesson. Go home, organize, build power and at the next convention, you be the delegates.”

Feudalism vs modern left wing politics

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.

Radicals with control

Radicals must be resilient, adaptable to shifting political circumstances, and sensitive enough to the process of action and reaction to avoid being trapped by their own tactics and forced to travel a road not of their choosing. In short, radicals must have a degree of control over the flow of events.

Meaning of revolution

If it were possible for the Have-Nots of the world to recognize and accept the idea that revolution did not inevitably mean hate and war, cold or hot, from the United States, that alone would be a great revolution in world politics and the future of man.

Revolutions go forward? Not always.

It is a series of general principles, rooted in Lincoln’s May 19, 1856, statement: “Be not deceived. Revolutions do not go backward.”


He must constantly examine life, including his own, to get some idea of what it is all about, and he must challenge and test his own findings. Irreverence, essential to questioning, is a requisite. Curiosity becomes compulsive. His most frequent word is “why?”

Probabilities vs certainties

This is fundamental in the observations and propositions which follow. At no time in any discussion or analysis of mass movements, tactics, or any other phase of the problem, can it be said that if this is done then that will result. The most we can hope to achieve is an understanding of the probabilities consequent to certain actions.


There is no such thing in life. One man’s positive is another man’s negative. The description of any procedure as “positive” or “negative” is the mark of a political illiterate.

Haves vs Have-notes

On top are the Haves with power, money, food, security, and luxury. They suffocate in their surpluses while the Have-Nots starve. Numerically the Haves have always been the fewest. The Haves want to keep things as they are and are opposed to change. Thermopolitically they are cold and determined to freeze the status quo. On the bottom are the world’s Have-Nots. On the world scene they are by far the greatest in numbers.

Change will occur with friction

Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict.


A word about my personal philosophy. It is anchored in optimism. It must be, for optimism brings with it hope, a future with a purpose, and therefore, a will to fight for a better world. Without this optimism, there is no reason to carry on. If we think of the struggle as a climb up a mountain, then we must visualize a mountain with no top.

All revolutions

Confronted with the materialistic decadence of the status quo, one should not be surprised to find that all revolutionary movements are primarily generated from spiritual values and considerations of justice, equality, peace, and brotherhood.

Consistency is not a virtue

Those who would be critical of the ethics of Lincoln’s reversal of positions have a strangely unreal picture of a static unchanging world, where one remains firm and committed to certain so-called principles or positions. In the politics of human life, consistency is not a virtue.

Using violence or non-violence?

These words more than suggest that if Gandhi had had the weapons for violent resistance and the people to use them this means would not have been so unreservedly rejected as the world would like to think. On the same point, we might note that once India had secured independence, when Nehru was faced with a dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir, he did not hesitate to use armed force. Now the power arrangements had changed. India had the guns and the trained army to use these weapons.

Using passive resistance

From a pragmatic point of view, passive resistance was not only possible, but was the most effective means that could have been selected for the end of ridding India of British control. In organizing, the major negative in the situation has to be converted into the leading positive.

Using moral principles

Moral rationalization is indispensable at all times of action whether to justify the selection or the use of ends or means. Machiavelli’s blindness to the necessity for moral clothing to all acts and motives—he said “politics has no relation to morals”—was his major weakness. All great leaders, including Churchill, Gandhi, Lincoln, and Jefferson, always invoked “moral principles” to cover naked self-interest in the clothing of “freedom” “equality of mankind,” “a law higher than man-made law,” and so on.

Actions and morality

All effective actions require the passport of morality.

Accidental discoveries

Repeatedly, scientific discoveries have resulted from experimental research committed to ends or objectives that have little relationship with the discoveries. Work on a seemingly minor practical program has resulted in feedbacks of major creative basic ideas. J. C. Flugel notes, in Man, Morals and Society, that “… In psychology, too, we have no right to be astonished if, while dealing with a means (e.g., the cure of a neurotic symptom, the discovery of more efficient ways of learning, or the relief of industrial fatigue) we find that we have modified our attitude toward the end

Context and the use of the word

The words most common in politics have become stained with human hurts, hopes, and frustrations. All of them are loaded with popular opprobrium, and their use results in a conditioned, negative, emotional response. Even the word politics itself, which Webster says is “the science and art of government,” is generally viewed in a context of corruption. Ironically, the dictionary synonyms are “discreet; provident, diplomatic, wise.”

Should we substitute the word?

POWER The question may legitimately be raised, why not use other words—words that mean the same but are peaceful, and do not result in such negative emotional reactions? There are a number of fundamental reasons for rejecting such substitution. First, by using combinations of words such as “harnessing the energy” instead of the single word “power,” we begin to dilute the meaning; and as we use purifying synonyms,

Organizing power

It is impossible to conceive of a world devoid of power; the only choice of concepts is between organized and unorganized power. Mankind has progressed only through learning how to develop and organize instruments of power in order to achieve order, security, morality, and civilized life itself, instead of a sheer struggle for physical survival.

Who’s the enemy?

You may appeal to one self-interest to get me to the battlefront to fight; but once I am there, my prime self-interest becomes to stay alive, and if we are victorious my self-interest may, and usually does, dictate entirely unexpected goals rather than those I had before the war. For example, the United States in World War II fervently allied with Russia against Germany, Japan, and Italy, and shortly after victory fervently allied with its former enemies—Germany, Japan, and Italy—against its former ally, the U.S.S.R.

Organiser vs leader

The ego of the organizer is stronger and more monumental than the ego of the leader. The leader is driven by the desire for power, while the organizer is driven by the desire to create. The organizer is in a true sense reaching for the highest level for which man can reach—to create, to be a “great creator,” to play God.

Things to learn

The education of an organizer requires frequent long conferences on organizational problems, analysis of power patterns, communication, conflict tactics, the education and development of community leaders, and the methods of introduction of new issues. In these discussions, we have found ourselves dealing with quite a range of issues:

Curiosity and irreverence

Irreverence. Curiosity and irreverence go together. Curiosity cannot exist without the other. Curiosity asks, “Is this true?” “Just because this has always been the way, is this the best or right way of life, the best or right religion, political or economic value, morality?”


Imagination. Imagination is the inevitable partner of irreverence and curiosity. How can one be curious without being imaginative?… To the organizer, imagination is not only all this but something deeper. It is the dynamism that starts and sustains him in his whole life of action as an organizer. It ignites and feeds the force that drives him to organize for change.

Organiser and playing their part

A bit of a blurred vision of a better world. Much of an organizer’s daily work is detail, repetitive and deadly in its monotony. In the totality of things he is engaged in one small bit. It is as though as an artist he is painting a tiny leaf. It is inevitable that sooner or later he will react with “What am I doing spending my whole life just painting one little leaf?

Situations make people rude or courteous

An organizer must become sensitive to everything that is happening around him. He is always learning, and every incident teaches him something. He notices that when a bus has only a few empty seats, the crowd trying to get on will push and shove; if there are many empty seats the crowd will be courteous and considerate; and he muses that in a world of opportunities for all there would be a change in human behavior for the good. In his constant examination of life and of himself he finds himself becoming more and more of an organized personality.

Goal is to empower others

This is the basic difference between the leader and the organizer. The leader goes on to build power to fulfill his desires, to hold and wield the power for purposes both social and personal. He wants power himself. The organizer finds his goal in creation of power for others to use.


ONE CAN LACK any of the qualities of an organizer—with one exception—and still be effective and successful. That exception is the art of communication. It does not matter what you know about anything if you cannot communicate to your people. In that event you are not even a failure. You’re just not there.

Confusion in communication

I was trying to explain to two staff organizers in training how their problems in their community arose because they had gone outside the experience of their people: that when you go outside anyone’s experience not only do you not communicate, you cause confusion.

Talking within people’s actual experience

In mass organization, you can’t go outside of people’s actual experience. I’ve been asked, for example, why I never talk to a Catholic priest or a Protestant minister or a rabbi in terms of the Judaeo-Christian ethic or the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount. I never talk in those terms. Instead I approach them on the basis of their own self-interest, the welfare of their Church, even its physical property.

Organiser and community

Another maxim in effective communication is that people have to make their own decisions. It isn’t just that Moses couldn’t tell God what God should do; no organizer can tell a community, either, what to do.

Leadership and dependency

As time goes on and education proceeds, the leadership becomes increasingly sophisticated. The organizer recedes from the local circle of decision-makers. His response to questions about what he thinks becomes a non-directive counter question, “What do you think?” His job becomes one of weaning the group away from any dependency upon him. Then his job is done.

Don’t agree with martyrdom for change to take place - but wierdly enough this pattern has been true throughout history

It is what was implicit in the reputed statement of that organizational genius Samuel Adams, at the time when he was allegedly planning the Boston Massacre; he was quoted as saying that there ought to be no less than three or four killed so that we will have martyrs for the Revolution, but there must be no more than ten, because after you get beyond that number we no longer have martyrs but simply a sewage problem.

Powerless and curiosity

But here you see that the first requirement for communication and education is for people to have a reason for knowing. It is the creation of the instrument or the circumstances of power that provides the reason and makes knowledge essential. Remember, too, that a powerless people will not be purposefully curious about life, and that they then cease being alive.

Don’t agree about stirring up

An organizer must stir up dissatisfaction and discontent; provide a channel into which the people can angrily pour their frustrations. He must create a mechanism that can drain off the underlying guilt for having accepted the previous situation for so long a time.


An issue is something you can do something about, but as long as you feel powerless and unable to do anything about it, all you have is a bad scene. The people resign themselves to a rationalization: it’s that kind of world, it’s a crumby world,

Policy and power

policy follows power. Through action, persuasion, and communication the organizer makes it clear that organization will give them the power, the ability, the strength, the force to be able to do something about these particular problems.

Organisations and action

Organizations must be based on many issues. Organizations need action as an individual needs oxygen. The cessation of action brings death to the organization through factionalism and inaction, through dialogues and conferences that are actually a form of rigor mortis rather than life. It is impossible to maintain constant action on a single issue.

Single issue vs multiple issue

Furthermore, a single issue drastically limits your appeal, where multiple issues would draw in the many potential members essential to the building of a broad, mass-based organization.

Complex communities

Many issues mean many members. Communities are not economic organizations like labor unions, with specific economic issues; they are as complex as life itself.


TACTICS MEANS doing what you can with what you have. Tactics are those consciously deliberate acts by which human beings live with each other and deal with the world around them. In the world of give and take, tactics is the art of how to take and how to give.

Dealing with power tactics and community experience

Always remember the first rule of power tactics: Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have. The second rule is: Never go outside the experience of your people. When an action or tactic is outside the experience of the people, the result is confusion, fear, and retreat. It also means a collapse of communication, as we have noted. The third rule is: Wherever possible go outside of the experience of the enemy. Here you want to cause confusion, fear, and retreat.

Irrational anger

It should be remembered that you can threaten the enemy and get away with it. You can insult and annoy him, but the one thing that is unforgivable and that is certain to get him to react is to laugh at him. This causes an irrational anger.

History repeats

There can be no prescriptions for particular situations because the same situation rarely recurs, any more than history repeats itself. People, pressures, and patterns of power are variables, and a particular combination exists only in a particular time—even then the variables are constantly in a state of flux. Tactics must be understood as specific applications of the rules and principles that I have listed above. It is the principles that the organizer must carry with him in battle. To these he applies his imagination, and he relates them tactically to specific situations.


The resources of the Have-Nots are (1) no money and (2) lots of people. All right, let’s start from there. People can show their power by voting. What else? Well, they have physical bodies. How can they use them? Now a melange of ideas begins to appear. Use the power of the law by making the establishment obey its own rules. Go outside the experience of the enemy, stay inside the experience of your people. Emphasize tactics that your people will enjoy.


Timing is to tactics what it is to everything in life—the difference between success and failure. I don’t mean the timing of the start of a tactic—that is important certainly, but as has been stated repeatedly, life does not usually afford the tactician the luxury of time or place when the conflict is engaged.