Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals: Know Its Lessons

As they conduct their campaigns against Mr. Trump, Barack Obama, The New York Times’  Dean Baquet, the Washington Post’s Martin Baron, David Brock of American Bridge and other progressive leadership elites all follow a game plan.  It is a game plan that has been enacted time after time for almost fifty years, and it comes from a book every activist worth his salt is familiar with, even as people outside of the progressive consciousness have barely heard of it.  That book is Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, and it first came out in May 1971, published by Random House.  When Rules for Radicals came out, The Nation in its review said, “This country's leading hell-raiser...has set down some of the rules of the game,” and The New York Times said it attacked “the high and mighty” in support of the “Have Nots.”

Rules for Radicals identifies what for Alinsky are the ideal elements for an organizer and also recommends tactics he should use.  Among the ideal elements the organizer must possess are: 1/An irreverent personality.  The organizer “is challenging, insulting, agitating, discrediting.  He stirs unrest.”  In a Feb. 15, 2017 membership mailing, Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center posits the need to “fight back” against “the barrage of hate that Donald Trump’s victory has unleashed.”  Saying “we’re at a perilous moment,” the four-page membership renewal letter cites Trump’s name twelve times, “hate” eleven times, and “neo-Nazi/swastika” five times.  2/An organized personality.  “The organizer must be well organized himself so he can be comfortable in a disorganized situation, rational in a sea of irrationalities.”  3/A “schizoid” personality.  The organizer must be a “political schizoid,” or a person who understands that his activist images are only fictions intended for their audiences, and something to be kept separate from his authentic comprehension of reality.  If he mistakes his myths for reality, the organizer can damage himself psychologically: “Only a well-organized person can split and yet stay together,” Alinsky writes, “but this is what the organizer must do.”  That some ordinary persons listening to the organizer’s fictions might believe them, and others hurt by them, is something Alinsky doesn’t address; none of the “Police War on Blacks” storyline was true, but that didn’t stop journalists from passing it on anyway, and in the demonization more than a few blacks became unfairly and unreasonably incensed, and more than a few police officers died.

Among the specific tactics Rules for Radicals recommends is that the organizer: 1/Realize that a large part of power is psychological.  “Power,” Alinsky writes, “is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.”  Power, he further says, is the power of the mass, and it amounts to brute force; “against the finesse and sophistication of the status quo, the Have Nots have always had to club their way.”  2/Polarize. Alinsky advises to “pick a target, personalize it, freeze it, and polarize it.”  “Let nothing,” he goes on, “get you off your target;” in doing this “comes a polarization, (and) … all issues must be polarized if action is to follow.”  In polarization, the organizer puts the target under a cloud as Absolute Evil, and deems him possessing of no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  To not do this, to admit something positive about the target, Alinsky calls “political idiocy.”  The media’s endless parade of stories intimating Trump’s supposed racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and Nazi and Russian connections all intend to make Trump socially unacceptable by linking him to “The Other.”  Other tactics recommended by Alinsky include “Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules;” “Keep the pressure on, with different tactics and actions, and utilize all events of the period for your purpose;” and push the foe into overreacting.  “The real action,” he writes, “is in the enemy’s reaction.  The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength.” 

Rules for Radicals is a guidebook to a certain kind of “velvet,” or slow-moving, not overtly violent revolution.  It describes how the traditionalist house, the one of supposedly greedy capitalism and selfish individualism, is to be torn down.  It presumes, without saying how it is to happen, that the progressive house, the communitarian house -- the house of enlightenment and compassion -- will be built in its place.  Few observers outside of the progressive experience know of Rules for Radicals, and fewer still have read it.  Most conservatives and Republicans, who have come under Alinskyite assault for decades, and independents and ordinary Democrats, who live in the dysfunctions and inequalities progressive memes cause, seem oblivious to the fact that a slow-moving revolution is occurring, and they play along with Alinskyite leaders and tactics, even though they may suspect something is amiss and that they are heading to someplace they’ve never been before.  When John McCain recently referenced Trump by saying that “the first thing dictators do is shut down the press,” and George Bush remarked that Trump is “not willing” to have a free press, the thing it tells you is how tragically out of touch personalities residing outside of the progressive consciousness are.

Actors should respond to the progressive memes and fictions of our day by challenging them, not by pretending they are real.  Effectively dealing with them lies in acknowledging that they don’t proceed according to rational, democratic rules; they rather amount to a quest for power conducted largely along the lines of Rules for Radicals

CC Taylor is a retired college professor from Philadelphia.