Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals

Saul Alinksy is considered the father of modern community organizing.  In the 1930s, he was a labor organizer for the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) and then turned to organizing poor people in slum areas, first in his native Chicago and then nationwide.

Saul Alinsky

His community organizations, like labor unions, existed for the purpose of putting pressure on established authorities in order to force concessions.  Alinsky sought confrontation rather than conciliation because he thought this taught poor people they were capable of exercising power.  In 1971, a year before his death at age 63, he wrote a book called Rules for Radicals in which he shared the lessons of his experience.

1.  Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.

2.  Never go outside the experience of your people.

3.  Wherever possible go outside the experience of the enemy.

4.  Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.

5.  Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.

6.  A good tactic is one your people enjoy.

7.  A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.

8.  Keep the pressure on.

9.  The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.

10.  The major premise for tactics is the deployment of operations that will maintain a constant pressure on the opposition.

11.  If you push a negative hard enough, it will break through into its counterside.

12.  The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.

13.  Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it.

Alinksy was invited to Rochester, N.Y., in the 1960s to help the black FIGHT organization in his campaign to open Eastman Kodak Co. employment to African-Americans.   In Rules for Radicals he gave an example of how his mind worked:

I suggested we buy one hundred seats for one of Rochester’s symphony concerts.  We would select a concert in which the music was relatively quiet.  The hundred blacks who would be given the tickets would be treated to a three-hour pre-concert dinner in which they would be fed nothing but baked beans, and lots of them;  then the people would go to the symphony hall — with obvious consequences.  Imagine the scene when the action began!  The concert would be over before the first movement!

Alinksy didn’t actually do this.  He may have floated a rumor that he would.  See Rule 9.  What he actually did was to get proxies from Kodak stockholders, and ask embarrassing questions and make embarrassing proposals at stockholders meetings.

Barack Obama, like Saul Alinsky, was a community organizer in Chicago, but that’s about all that they have in common.  Obama is a kind of anti-Alinsky.  Through his whole career, he has sought small step-by-step gains by showing his understanding of others’ points of view, by being willing to meet his opponents halfway and by showing that his goals did not threaten their interests.  These are the qualities that got him elected Illinois state senator, U.S. Senator and President of the United States.

Notice how Alinksy’s rules refer to “the enemy.”  I can’t remember Obama calling anyone “the enemy” except al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Click on Saul Alinsky Wiki for Alinsky’s biography.

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4 Responses to “Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals”

  1. ThinkAsTheyDoOrElse Says:

    I’m glad the comments are still open, because in the mean time Obama has actually used the word enemy:

    “In a Univision interview on Monday, the president, who campaigned in 2008 by referring not to a “Red America” or a “Blue America” but a United States of America, urged Hispanic listeners to vote in this spirit: “We’re gonna punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us.”

    Understandably, you have omitted perhaps Alinsky’s most infamous threatened stunt to shut down all the restrooms at the Chicago airport. It became known as the sh*t in.

    Another thing you could have said was that it was group of white people from progressive churches who helped bring Alinsky to Rochester. Once called Freinds of FIGHT they became Metro Act. Today there is a group called Metro Justice which likely shares some kind of history with Metro Act. There is little information of the history of Metro Justice on their website.


    • philebersole Says:

      I think the Washington Post article mischaracterizes the situation.

      The Republican leaders say this is not a time for compromise.

      President Obama keeps saying he nevertheless hopes for compromise

      President Obama has not been able to mobilize his supporters as he might have if he had been less eager to appease his opponents and more eager to keep his promises to his supporters.


    • philebersole Says:

      Your comment indicates some familiarity with Rochester. Do you live in or near this area?

      It is indeed ironic that Saul Alinksy’s FIGHT organization died out while the white (now predominantly white) support organization, Friends of FIGHT, later Metro-Act and now Metro Justice, lived on.

      The early history of Metro-Act is described in Hank Botts’ ENCOUNTER TIME and Mark Hare’s THE REMAKING OF A CITY, which are available at the Rochester Public Library and elsewhere through inter-library loan.

      Both books end in the early 1980s. Since that time Metro Justice has mellowed considerably. It does not use Alinsky-type confrontational tactics. Its activities consist of holding lectures and seminars, making statements at public meetings, issuing statements and writing letters to the editor and engaging in peaceful picketing.

      During the 1980s and 1990s, I thought of the Metro Act / Metro Justice members as nice people who did some good things, but had a distorted view of reality. The Bush administration and the Obama administration following in Bush’s footsteps made me more open to their radical critique of American institutions.

      I am not a member of Metro Justice, but I do contribute to one of its affiliated organizations, but I do contribute to Amigos for School Children, part of its Ciudad Hermana task force. They have a sister city relationship with El Sauce, a poor village in Nicaragua, and help villagers buy livestock and keep their children in school. It is the biggest bargain of all the charities to which I contribute, because virtually everything I contribute goes to El Sauce. All the administrators are volunteers and overhead is minimal.

      If you are interested in Ciudad Hermana, click on


  2. ThinkAsTheyDoOrElse Says:

    I almost forgot, Alinksky talks about how he ingratiated himself with the Chicago mob for a college project here:


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