Rules for Radicals

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Rules for Radicals
AuthorSaul Alinsky
SubjectGrassroots, community organizing
PublisherRandom House
Publication date
Pages196 pp
Dewey Decimal301.5
LC ClassHN65 .A675
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Rules for Radicals
AuthorSaul Alinsky
SubjectGrassroots, community organizing
PublisherRandom House
Publication date
Pages196 pp
Dewey Decimal301.5
LC ClassHN65 .A675

Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals is the late work of community organizer Saul D. Alinsky, and his last book, published in 1971 shortly before his death. His goal for the Rules for Radicals was to create a guide for future community organizers to use in uniting low-income communities, or “Have-Nots”, in order to empower them to gain social, political, and economic equality by challenging the current agencies that promoted their inequality.[1] Within it, Alinsky compiled the lessons he had learned throughout his personal experiences of community organizing spanning from 1939-1971 and targeted these lessons at the current, new generation of radicals.[2]

Divided into ten chapters, each chapter of Rules for Radicals provides a lesson on how a community organizer can accomplish the goal of successfully uniting people into an active organization with the power to effect change on a variety of issues. Though targeted at community organization, these chapters also touch on a myriad of other issues that range from ethics, education, communication, and symbol construction to nonviolence and political philosophy.[3]

Though published for the new generation of counterculture-era organizers in 1971, Alinsky's principles have been successfully applied over the last four decades by numerous government, labor, community, and congregation-based organizations, and the main themes of his organizational methods that were elucidated upon in Rules for Radicals have been recurring elements in political campaigns in recent years.

Saul Alinsky[edit]

Saul Alinsky was born January 30, 1909 in Chicago, Illinois to Benjamin and Sarah Tannenbaum Alinsky.[4] He attended the University of Chicago as an archaeology major before beginning his career in organizing with the Congress of Industrial Organizations.[5] From the C.I.O, he went on to work in community organizing with the black ghettoes in Chicago and Oakland, for which he received much acclaim for his successful organizing tactics. He then returned to Chicago to organize the Back of the Yards neighborhood, a multi-ethnic, working-class community.[3][5] Following his work in Chicago, he organized the Industrial Areas Foundation in 1940 which he set up to train and assist community organizations across the country and which has been responsible for influencing many community leaders such as Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Alinsky became famous for not only his successful organizational tactics but also his unorthodox methods which were a result of his direct action, nonviolent conflicts. In 1972, one year after the publication of Rules for Radicals, Alinsky died as the result of a heart attack at the age of 63.[5]

Influence on Rules for Radicals[edit]

The inspiration for Rules for Radicals was drawn directly from Alinsky’s personal experiences over the course of his career as a community organizer.[1] It was also taken from the lessons he learned from his University of Chicago professor, Robert Park, who taught him to see communities as “reflections of the larger processes of an urban society”.[3] The methods he developed and practiced across the country were placed directly into the book as a guide on future community organizing for the new generation of radicals emerging from the 1960s.[3][5]

Alinsky believed heavily in collective action as a result of the work he did with the C.I.O and the Institute for Juvenile Research in Chicago where he first began to develop his own, distinct method of community organizing. Additionally, his late work with the Citizens Action Program (CAP) provided some of his most whole and conclusive practices in organizing through the empowerment of the poor, though not well-known. Saul Alinsky understood community structure and the impoverished and the importance of their empowerment as a successful element of community activism and used both as tools to create powerful, active organizations.[6] He also used shared social problems as external antagonists to “heighten local awareness of similarities among residents and their shared differences with outsiders”.[3] Ironically, this was one of Alinsky’s most powerful tools in community organizing; to bring a collective together, he would bring to light an issue that would stir up conflict with some agency to unite the group. This provided an organization with a specific “villain” to confront and made direct action easier to implement. These tactics as a result of decades of organizing efforts, along with many other lessons, were poured into Rules for Radicals to create the guidebook for community organization.[2]


The Purpose[edit]

The first chapter of Rules for Radicals states the exact purpose of the book. Alinsky began with the statement "what follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be." He continued by breaking down the class structures in America during that time and introduced the three main socioeconomic levels of society. First are the “Haves” or upper class who want to preserve the status quo, under which they possess the money and power in society. The “Haves” are the smallest group in Alinsky’s social structure, but despite this, they remain the most powerful due to the vast amount of resources available to them. The second group is the “Have-little, Want-mores” which represent the middle class, the largest class of people in America at the time. Alinsky believed this group to have the greatest potential power in the current social climate but were also the hardest to sway to a cause due to their overall contentment compared to the poorer classes. Last are the “Have-nots” or those in poverty. Alinsky saw this class as the most volatile and easy to organize and spent the majority of his career working with the “Have-nots” to implement change in communities across the United States. The discontent and general lack of resources within this class of people made presenting a common issue for them to change simpler for Alinsky because all people within a community would be unhappy with issues detrimentally affecting the entirety of the community. After introducing his socioeconomic class structure, Alinsky finished the chapter with a lesson on morality, in which he warned community organizers of the peril of wealth and material distractions from achieving greater welfare for society as a whole. The first chapter acts as a history lesson. It sets up the scenario organizers will be dealing with and explains to them the various characteristics of it.

Of Means and Ends[edit]

In the second chapter of Rules for Radicals, Alinsky proposed a new question for community organizers to consider when bringing activist groups together. Normally when looking to achieve a certain goal, organizers would ask “do the ends justify the means?” Alinsky stated that the real question for what methods are acceptable for accomplishing a goal should be “does this particular end justify this particular means?” His purpose here, and for the rest of the chapter, is to delve into goal setting and achievement for community organizing. As a strong proponent for direct action tactics, Alinsky held to the idea that unorthodox methods for affecting change were acceptable. If the actions undertaken brought to light the problem a community was facing, then the means used were acceptable. He believed that once a particular goal is set, the means necessary to achieve it, given the community involved, become more apparent and easier to discern if appropriate or not.

A Word about Words[edit]

Alinsky’s take on power, self-interest, ego, compromise, and conflict is the focus of this chapter. Alinsky feared that the words that would become an important part of an organizer's lexicon would be misinterpreted to hold negative connotations. In the third chapter, he addressed these specific words and the negativity they are often associated with. Alinsky warned that in order to be effective, the utilization and communication of each of these topics would be paramount to the organizer. He took these ideas one by one and discussed how each can be used for influence as a tool of unity both by the organizer and by those who make up the organization. For each one he presented a case of what the world and the community would look like if an area was devoid of these factors.

The Education of an Organizer[edit]

Whereas the previous sections were devoted to how to create community organizations, "The Education of an Organizer" looks at what creates the leader of these groups. Alinsky discussed the importance of education, leadership, and origin for a potential organizer as they are defining factors of who a person is, and he noted that in order to successfully organize within a community, the organizer must make small adaptions in their characteristics to fit that community. However, the real education for an organizer, according to Saul Alinsky, come from learning from experiences. He created the book to act as a guide and primer to organizing, but he remarked that was its only purpose. He believed that what makes a good organizer is the ability to analyze situations and learn from mistakes. Alinsky wanted organizers to not lean on Rules for Radicals as a crutch, but instead utilize it as a resource for planning and organizing. From there, it would be up to the organizer to learn from the community how to adapt the tactics and structure of organization to that particular group. Alinsky believed that anyone could be an effective organizer if they applied his lessons, which were based on his own experiences. He saw many people he trained fail because they learned his lessons but did not know how to learn from them. He believed that only by applying his lessons and learning from the experience of that application could someone understand how to effectively unite people together around common causes.


In Alinsky’s simplest and least philosophical chapter, he described what he believed to be the most basic and crucial tool of organizing: communication. Devoid of idealism and moral lessons, this chapter is the most clear cut lesson in the entire book. Alinsky went into specific examples of communication and stressed just how imperative solid and open communication between an organizer and his organization really is. On this issue, he stated:

"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."

He further discussed the maxims of good communication and how to apply them to the community within which an organizer is operating. Succinct and direct, Alinsky used this section to stress the significance of being an effective communicator if someone is trying to bring about change for a community.

In the Beginning[edit]

Within this section can be found the steps a new community organizer must take to become successful after being placed within an area. Most important is for the organizer to establish his or hers identity. Alinsky stated this as an important step in organizing because it is what allows the organizer to be accepted by the community. If the organizer cannot establish a solid identity as a leader and positive force, the community will not have faith in the organizer nor will they follow instructions. For this reason, Alinsky instructed new organizers to first convince preexisting community leaders to support them. From there, gaining the faith of the rest of the community would not be as difficult. Once this is accomplished, the organizer can use his group to bring about change for the issue he or she is addressing.


The tactics he proposed are based metaphorically on the eyes, ears, and nose of the opponent. If you have organized a vast, mass-based people's organization, you can parade it visibly before the enemy and openly show your power. If your organization is smaller in numbers, then appeal to the "ears": conceal the members in the dark but raise a din and clamor that will make the listener believe that your organization numbers many more than it does. Lastly, if your organization is too tiny even for noise, stink up the place.

The rules[edit]

  1. “Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have."
  2. “Never go outside the expertise of your people.”
  3. “Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.”
  4. “Make the enemy live up to its 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. Never let up.”
  9. “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.”
  10. "The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition."
  11. “If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive.”
  12. “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.”
  13. “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”

The Genesis of Tactic Proxy[edit]

After introducing his main tactics for community organizing, Alinsky discussed how they should be implemented in a community. He believed that "accident, unpredictable reactions to your own actions, necessity and improvisation dictate direction and nature of tactics." In short, he knew that the use of his tactics could bring about unintended effects, and the best organizers would adapt and use those side effects to the advantage of the organization. Alinsky warned organizers about rigidly holding to the tactics they developed for their community to implement. He knew that accidental reactions would occur following actions taken by a community, and the organizer would have to adjust the tactics used to match possible side effects and unpredictable reactions. When discussing how to prepare a community's plans for these unintended effects, Alinsky asserted that free, open-ended communication between the organizer and the community was necessary. Also, he told organizers to be curious and sensitive to opportunities that may arise in the unintended effects of implemented tactics, to adapt organizational methods to the climate within which the organizer operates.

The Way Ahead[edit]

The last section covers Alinsky’s analysis of the white, middle class in America—the class he believed could potentially hold the most money and power in the future. During the 1960s and 1970s, the middle class represented a massive proportion of the U.S. population known as the"silent majority". Alinsky believed that in the future, the organization of middle class communities would be much more important than that of lower income areas. He believed that by organizing the middle class, he could unite the most powerful socioeconomic unit in the country. With their power, implementing policy change and direct action tactics would be much more effective because of the availability of resources the middle class held compared to areas where poverty was more prevalent. He analyzed this class by population and income and addressed the importance of organizing them towards social welfare as the next big step in moving America towards a more equitable society.


In Rules for Radicals, several themes persist throughout Alinsky’s lessons to future community organizers. The most notable is his use of symbol construction to strengthen the unity within an organization.[3] Often, he would draw on loyalty to a particular church or religious affiliation to create a firmly structured organization with which to operate. The reason being that symbols by which communities could identify themselves created strongly structured organizations that were easier to mobilize in implementing direct action.Once the community was united behind a common symbol, Alinsky would find a common enemy for the community to be united against.

The use of common enemy against a community was done to promote another theme of Rules for Radicals, nonviolent conflict as a uniting element in communities.[7] Alinsky would find an external antagonist to turn into a common enemy for the community within which he was operating. Often, this enemy would be a local politician or agency that had some involvement with activity that was causing detriment to the community. His goal was to unite a group through conflict with an external antagonist. Once the enemy was established, the community would come together in opposition of it. This management of conflict heightened awareness within the community as to the similarities its members shared as well as what differentiated them from those outside of their organization.[3] The use of conflict also allowed for the goal of the group to be clearly defined. With an established external antagonist, the community’s goal would be to defeat that enemy, whether it be a politician, policy, or opposing agency.[3]

Symbol construction helped to promote structured organization, this allowed for nonviolent conflict through another strong element in Alinsky’s teaching, direct action. Direct action created conflict situations that further established the unity of the community and promoted the accomplishment of achieving the community’s goal of defeating their common enemy.[2] It also brought issues the community was battling to the public eye. Alinsky encouraged over-the-top public demonstrations throughout Rules for Radicals that could not be ignored, and these tactics enabled his organization to progress their goals faster than through normal bureaucratic processes.[3]

Lastly, the main theme throughout Rules for Radicals and Alinsky’s work was empowerment of the poor.[6] Alinsky used symbol construction and nonviolent conflict to create a structured organization with a clearly defined goal that could take direct action against a common enemy. At this point, Alinsky would withdraw from the organization to allow their progress to be powered by the community itself, not by Alinsky.[3] This empowered the organizations he worked with to create change for whatever issue they were battling.[2] Symbol construction, nonviolent conflict, direct action, and empowerment of the poor were the main themes of Alinsky’s work in organizer, and whether reading Rules for Radicals, or examining his work directly, they can be distinctly observed within every community he organized.


Despite the effective nature of the lessons passed down in Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky has received some criticism for the methods and ideas he presented within his primer. First, it has been noted that much of his instruction has only been effective in urban, low-income areas.[8] This has led some social scientists, such as Robert Pruger and Harry Specht, to criticize his broad statement that Rules for Radicals is a tool for organizing all low-income people. Further, his use of artificially stimulated conflict has been criticized for its ineffectiveness in areas that thrive on unity.[8] In fact, in several Chicago areas in which he worked, his use of conflict backfired, and the community was unable to achieve the policy adjustments they were seeking.[2]

Much of the philosophy of community organization found in Rules for Radicals has also come under question as being overly ideological. Alinsky believed in allowing the community to determine its exact goal. He would produce an enemy for them to conflict with, but the purpose of the conflict was ultimately left up to the community. This idea has been criticized due to the conflicting opinions that can often be present within a group.[8] Alinsky’s belief that an organization can create a goal to accomplish is viewed as highly optimistic and contradictory to his creation of an external antagonist. By producing a common enemy, Alinsky is creating a goal for the community, the defeat of that enemy. To say that the community will create their own goal seems backwards considering Alinsky creates the goal of defeating the enemy. Thus, his belief can be seen as too ideological and contradictory because the organization may turn the goal of defeating the common enemy he produced into their main purpose.[8]


The scope of influence for Rules for Radicals is a far-reaching one as it is a compilation of the tactics of Saul Alinsky. It has been many direct influences in policymaking and organization for various communities and agency groups, as well as indirect influences found in politicians, activists educated by Alinsky and the IAF, and other grassroots movements.

Direct Impact[edit]

Despite his passing in 1971, Alinsky’s influence has carried through time to help spawn the creation of numerous other organizations and policy changes since his death. Rules for Radicals was a direct influence that helped to form the United Neighborhood Organization which came to prominence in the early 1980s.[3] Its founders Greg Galluzzo, Mary Gonzales, and Pater Martinez were all students of Alinsky’s who carried the tactics he left in his primer forward in organizing Chicago neighborhoods.[3] The work of UNO helped to vastly improve the hygiene and sanitation situations for southeastern Chicago as well as to improve education standards there as well.[3] Additionally, the founders of Organization of the North East in Chicago during the 1970s also applied Alinsky’s principles to organize multiethnic neighborhoods in order to give the area greater political representation.[3]

The teachings found in Rules for Radicals have also been dispersed by many of Alinsky’s students who not only undertook their own community organizing endeavors, but also taught numerous other grassroots movements the tactics they had been taught. Direct students of Alinsky’s such as Edward T. Chambers took the lessons of Rules for Radicals to help form the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Queens Citizens Organization, and the Communities Organized for Public Service. The most notable of these is the IAF which served as a teaching ground for many community organizers based on Alinsky’s tactics. Another student of Alinsky’s, Ernest Cortez, rose to prominence in the late 1970s in San Antonio while organizing Hispanic neighborhoods. His use of congregation-based organizing received much acclaim as a popular method of Alinsky’s by utilizing “preexisting solidary neighborhood elements, especially church groups, so that the constituent units are organizations, not individuals.”[6] This congregation-based organizing and symbol construction was taught to him by Edward Chambers and the IAF during his time studying under both.

The methods and teachings of Rules for Radicals have also been linked to the Mid America Institute, the National People's Action, the National Training and Information Center, the Pacific Institute for Community Organizations, and the Community Service Organization.[6]

Later Influence[edit]

Additionally, the methods taken from Rules for Radicals have also been prevalent in modern, American politics. Newt Gingrich’s most recent primary campaign was noted for featuring strong elements of Alinsky’s organizing techniques.[6] The use of congregation-based organizing has been linked to Jesse Jackson when he was organizing his own political campaign.[9]

Publication data[edit]


  1. ^ a b Rules for Radicals, by Saul Alinsky
  2. ^ a b c d e Trolander, Judith (September 1982). "Social Change: Settlement Houses and Saul Alinsky, 1939-1965". University of Chicago Press. 3 56: 346. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Reitzes, Donald; Dietrich Reitzes (Summer 1987). "Alinsky in the 1980s: Two Contemporary Chicago Community Organizations". Midwest Sociological Society. 2 28: 265. 
  4. ^ Horwitt, Sanford D. (1989). Let them call me rebel: Saul Alinsky, his life and legacy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 3–9. ISBN 0-394-57243-2.
  5. ^ a b c d a b c d e f g h i j k l m n "Playboy Interview: Saul Alinsky". Playboy Magazine. March 1972.
  6. ^ a b c d e McCarthy, John. "Review: The Alinsky Legacy". Catholic University Press. 
  7. ^ Marhsall, Dale (June 1976). "Review: Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals". American Political Science Association 70 (2): 620. Retrieved 5 April 2013. 
  8. ^ a b c d Pruger, Robert; Haary Specht (June 1969). "Assessing Theoretical Models of Community Organization Practice: Alinsky as a Case in Point". Social Service Review 43 (2): 123. JSTOR 30020552. 
  9. ^ Swarts, Heidei (Fall 2011). "Drawing New Symbolic Boundaries Over Old Symbolic Boundaries: Forging Social Movement". Sociological Perspective 54 (3): 453. Retrieved 1 April 2013.