“Rules for Radicals”, Saul Alinsky: Organising and Power

rules for radicals saul alinsky cover imageI read Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals for the wrong reason: to get a job. I had an upcoming interview for a position as an Organiser and figured it’d be good to familiarise myself with the fundamentals, to seek the blessing of the Godfather, so to speak. I’d somehow missed out on Rules for Radicals while it had been doing the rounds of the AYCC; this was my big moment. I took it in gluttonously over a handful of days: it is pure gold. What I loved? Alinsky’s disdain for non-pragmatic revolutionaries, his devoted articulation of organising’s principles, and his brilliant imagery.

Alinsky’s First Rule for Radicals: Grow Up

Alinsky is one radical cracker. His writing is an unflinching critique of power inequity in society. He strikes fear into the heart of the establishment. He even dedicated Rules for Radicals to Lucifer. But this man is no pie-in-the-sky fantasy warrior. Alinsky is a highly pragmatic strategist whose first priority is building power.

Alinsky is very clear about this. Because his ultimate motivation is making things better for the have-nots, he doesn’t get caught up in purity or absurd ideals. He realises that it is possible to be too unyielding, to be radical to the point of ineffectiveness: “We are talking about revolution, not revelation”, he writes, “you can miss the target by shooting too high as well as too low.” Being a terrific organiser, Alinsky has a vision of a better world. But he doesn’t let this interfere with the practicalities of creating change in this world: “I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be”. He is a fan of strategic compromise: “If you start with nothing, demand 100%, then compromise for 30%, you’re 30% ahead”. He is a critic of what we might call ‘inessential weirdness’, willing to be mutable to make himself relatable to new communities. On this he insists that the real radical should be willing to cut his hair if necessary, to adopt to the mores of a new community, to be willing to meet people where they are at, pointing out that “Men don’t like to step abruptly out of the security of familiar experience.” Alinsky firmly argues that the organiser should be very flexible in an effort to be effective.

Flinders Ports Environment Award, SA Young Achievers Award 2010, Peter Cheers with Joel Dignam

Me, at an awards ceremony. I get points for the suit, but probably lose points for the mutton chops.

This struck me because of its immediate relevance to my own experiences of ineffective organising. In my activism journey, I’ve been part of communities that seemed to pride themselves upon having a culture very different to the mainstream. To an extent, this makes sense. Sustainable behaviours such as cycling, composting, or vegetarianism are only beginning to broach the mainstream, but it might be important for a community to uphold these practices. Then again, some practices – particularly to do with one’s appearance – seem to lack a tangible benefit yet have an undeniable cost when it comes to strategic effectiveness. If a person you’re trying to reach might look at you and find you hard to relate to because of your appearance, something just might be wrong.

The AYCC has done a great job of not being unrelatably radical. Events are designed to make them culturally accessible, messengers are chosen to appeal to the middle of the bell curve. There is a conscious effort to make sure that grassroots groups have an open culture within which a wide range of people can feel at home. In community organising – such as the Repower Port Augusta campaign – the AYCC has been able to hold course on the target and be adaptable as necessary in order to build community power. This can be done without compromising effectiveness. In fact, as Alinsky argues, it adds to it.

Radicalism and pragmatism lie on a spectrum, so it is of course possible to aim too low in aiming to avoid aiming too high. More to the point, Alinsky’s strategy of compromising at 30% only works if you initially demand 100%. While some organisations may err too far on the side of revolution, it’s possible to err too far on the side of pragmatism. It’s important to have diversity in the movement: rebels and social change agents both have a role to play. That said, all organisers should be conscious of this balance and aiming to deliberately find a place in the movement that maximises their ability to fulfill their purpose.

Rules for Radicals is the definitive resource for organisers

In Rules for Radicals, Alinsky unflinchingly emphasises the fundamentals of organising. ‘Organising’ is worthwhile because (1) our society is not equal, there is privilege and there is oppression, & (2) oppressed communities have the means to improve their situation. This means is, simply, power. ‘Organising’ is the practise of building power by structuring energy. “Power”, in the words of Alinsky, is equivalent to “organised energy”. An organiser works with a community to change something that matters to them. The aim is not to solve the immediate problem per se, but, firstly, to empower the community by raising their belief in their ability to effect change and, secondly, to increase critical consciousness so people become better able to see that they are oppressed. As Alinsky puts it, [quote]They organise to get rid of four-legged rats and stop there; we organise to get rid of four-legged rats so we can get on to removing two-legged rats.[/quote] Alinksy outlines this approach and makes the case for it brilliantly.

A deep respect for the values of the community in which one is organising is crucial; Alinsky makes sure to highlight this. One must love the people, share their concerns, respect their fears, before being effective as an organiser. Alinsky calls it a “fundamental idea” to give “full respect to the other’s values”. He describes a successful organiser as one who has learnt, “emotionally as well as intellectually to respect the dignity of the people with whom he is working.” Alinksy’s emphasis on respect is an important foundation for honest organising.

I first realised I was an organiser early in 2011. The term had begun to filter into the AYCC, from NOI I suspect, and it helped me to make sense of what I’d been doing. In the previous 12 months there had been the odd campaign…but I hadn’t been “campaigning”. Rather, I’d been building power. I’d recruited members and run trainings. Yes, these had covered hard skills, but also the building of strategic capacity, critical consciousness, the ability to see the man behind the curtain. I’d built structures to facilitate involvement and growth, to make it easier for new people to come on board, and for committed members to take on greater responsibility. It struck me then – I had been organising.

young people in workshops learning from each other. They are organising, like in Saul Alinsky's rules for radicals!

Workshop’s at AYCC’s Power Shift 2010, Adelaide. Pictured is Isaac Astill, who, as of writing, is community organising in Queensland.

Since then I’ve been able to organise more deliberately, conscientiously building power through my work. I’ve done this better, too, particularly with a stronger understanding of the need for respect in organising. Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals has thus helped me greatly. It has elegantly structured what I know, and helped to boil organising down to its fundamentals. We all owe Alinsky one.

Alinksy’s imagery in Rules for Radicals

Alinsky also has immense skill in turning a phrase. He is a great visual communicator. This makes his writing way more effective. I thus include the below for two reasons: to pithily convey key ideas of Alinksy’s in his own words, and to give examples of excellent metaphor and imagery.

  • “[people] need a bridge to cross from their own experience to a new way.”
  • “No politician can sit on a hot issue if you make it hot enough.”
  • “It is a world not of angels but of angles”
  • “The mountain has no top, that is, it is a perpetual quest from plateau to plateau”
  • In relation to avoiding unethical means, Alinksy is skeptical of the desire to “go home with [one’s] ethical hymen intact”
  • “All effective actions require the passport of morality”
  • “mass organisation is a different animal, it is not housebroken”
  • On trying to be ethically pure while opposing the “haves”: “laughing at us they struggle in the sea of world politics, stripped to their shorts, while we flop around, fully dressed in our white tie and tails.”
  • “That wondrous quality of man that from time to time floods over the natural dams of survival and self-interest”

Goddam this man can get a message across. Alinsky is one hell of a communicator.

The Gold in Rules

Reading Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals was invaluable for me. His pithy, catchy writing, made it easy to lap up what he had to say, his ideas about pragmatism, and his commitment to and ability to communicate the fundamental tenets of organising. Alinsky walked the walk, and then he talked it, and his talking it is a great favour to those of us following his lead.


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    […] insensate destructiveness of the fossil-fuel industry. Saul Alinsky noted in Rules for Radicals (reviewed here) that “one acts decisively only in the conviction that all the angels are on one side and all […]

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