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Rules For Radicals by Saul D. Alinsky

Saul Alinsky

Reviewed by:
On May 23, 2012
Last modified:September 29, 2012


Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals a practical manual of tactics for breaking down civil society in order to radically reform it according to the Community Organizer's design.

Rules For Radicals by Saul AlinskyThe subtitle of Alinsky’s manifesto is: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals.   That is what this book is, a practical manual of tactics for breaking down civil society.  Power is Alinsky’s god. He has no concrete objectives, but to disrupt and destroy.  Alinsky as much as says so at several points in the book.  He advocates avoiding concentration on single issues because they don’t have wide enough appeal, and because single issues can be resolved.  The issue de jour doesn’t really matter, it’s all about power, and who will wield it.  And who better to wield it than the puppeteer masquerading as a “community organizer.”

Alinsky starts Rules for Radicals by recognizing the search for meaning which typifies human nature.  He completely dismisses a religion based on principles or absolutes as unattainable and therefore untenable.  Instead he postulates that,

all values are relative, fluid, and changing …

Instead of meaning, Alinsky proposes a life of hedonistic pragmatism where he purports to adhere to a calculus of “fairness” based on taking from the “Haves” to give the “Have Nots.”  He admits that there is no end to this struggle.

In Reveille for Radicals I described an incident in which the government of Mexico once decided to pay tribute to Mexican mothers.  A proclamation was issued that every mother whose sewing machine was being held by the Montde Piedad (the National Pawn Shop of Mexico) should have her machine returned as a gift on Mothers’ Day.  There was tremendous joy over the occasion.  Here was a gift being made outright, without any participation on the part of the recipients. Inside of three weeks, the exact same number of sewing machines was back in the pawn shop.

In another anecdote about some protests that occurred in Woodlawn,

Throughout the tirade, it never occurred to any of the angry leaders that the city’s new policy granted all five demands for which the Woodlawn Organization began.  They were fighting for hamburger; now they wanted filet mignon; so it goes.  And why not?

If you read between the lines, it’s clear that all Alinsky really cares about is the exercise of power.  This is ironic in a way, because toward the beginning of the book he goes through a well-reasoned discourse on the ends justifying the means.  His cold-blooded pragmatism is precisely where one would expect an amoral individual to conclude.  The irony comes in because for Alinsky, the process of acquiring power is the real goal.  There is no other objective. Thus the means that Alinsky is willing to twist and bend are actually all that is significant.

He doesn’t really give a damn about any of the issues he advocates.  In fact if there is no source of contention, he’ll create one and justify it in the name of change.

Alinsky either fails to convey any sort of compassion, or doesn’t care.   The book drips with condescension for the beleaguered masses he supposedly serves. They are but stupid children who just want to be told what to do.  He’s looking for a few good organizers to lead them.

We are not concerned here with people who profess the democratic faith but yearn for the dark security of dependency where they can be spared the burden of decisions.  Reluctant to grow up, or incapable of doing so, they want to remain children and be cared for by others.

Throughout Rules for Radicals, Alinsky coaches would be organizers on manipulating their communities as well as those demonized as enemies.  Like a vampire in a gothic novel, Alinsky explains that the organizer must be invited (carried over the threshhold, if you will) as the first step in establishing themselves as a legitimate force in the community.

He must be invited by a significant sector of the local population, their churches, street organizations, social clubs, or other groups.

Obviously, Rules for Radicals is not without its insights.  The chapter on tactics reminded this reviewer of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.  The completely candid and unvarnished way in which Alinsky puts forth his “rules” is chilling and indicative of a clever mind completely devoid of moral character.

Alinsky’s fourth rule of power tactics is acknowledgment of the disadvantage a moral position places upon those on the right who seek to operate under some semblance of civility:

Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.  You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.

Alinsky is not talking about the Bible here.  Instead he refers to the every day rules of society, whether they are regulations for school children, or airport sanitation.  He recognizes that such laws are put in place to handle the exceptional deviation from normally accepted behavior, rather than designed for enforcement on a mass scale.

In one example, Alinsky talks about a protest where black children in an inner city school district were encouraged to be continually absent.  The normal regulation for such behavior was to expel the children. Alinsky’s goal was to put the district in the untenable position of expelling all of the black students or having to accept their actions.

Ironically, the only answer to Alinsky’s tactics is totalitarian tyranny.

Continuing to channel Screwtape, Alinsky explains his twelfth rule of being prepared to win.

You cannot risk being trapped by the enemy in his sudden agreement with your demand  and saying, “You’re right – we don’t know what to do about this issue.  Now you tell us.”

Rule Twelve presages Rule Thirteen – Demonization of the opponent, or as Alinsky put it:

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

Alinsky was not a nice man.  The reader can detect the palpable pride in Alinsky’s proud admission that

… an encounter with me or my associates was not going to be an academic dialog.

For Alinsky, there is no such thing as truth.  There is only means.  Truth is whatever he needed it to be for a given situation.

Sound familiar?

1 comment

1 Gail Thiele { 05.25.12 at 9:11 am }

Sure it sounds familiar. We hear it every time Obama opens his mouth…and Jay Carney…and Van Jones… and Andy Sterne, etc. This is their playbook.


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