Blackadder’s Lair

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Rules for Radicals

During last year’s election, much was made, both positively and negatively, of Barack Obama’s past work as a community organizer. Obama himself highlighted his community organizing, drawing parallels between his time organizing in Chicago and his hopes as a potential President. Others were more critical.

To learn more about the history of community organizing, I decided to read Saul Alinsky’s book Rules for Radicals.

Alinsky, who coined the term “community organizing” and in whose “Alinsky Method” Obama was trained, published Rules in 1971 as a means of imparting his experiences to a new generation of social activists and agitators. The book, which is highly readable, consists both of philosophical reflections as well as practical suggestions on how (and how not) to bring about social change.

As the dedication of the book makes clear, Alinsky is not writing from a Christian perspective, nor is the moral vision of the book entirely compatible with Christian morality. Early on, Alinsky describes Rules as a kind of Machiavelli for the Have Nots, and this description is fairly apt. As he discusses in detail in one chapter (appropriately titles ‘Of Means and Ends’) virtually any means is justified in pursuit of the organizer’s goals, though many means are only justified if they are truly necessary to achieve these goals.

For Alinsky, morality is largely a post-hoc rationalization for actions taken out of self-interest and a desire for power. As an article in last year’s New Republic on the Alinsky method describes it:

Alinsky’s contribution to community organizing was to create a set of rules, a clear-eyed and systemic approach that ordinary citizens can use to gain public power. The first and most fundamental lesson Obama learned was to reassess his understanding of power. . . [W]hen Alinsky would ask new students why they wanted to organize, they would invariably respond with selfless bromides about wanting to help others. Alinsky would then scream back at them that there was a one-word answer: “You want to organize for power!”

Galluzzo shared with me the manual he uses to train new organizers, which is little different from the version he used to train Obama in the ’80s. It is filled with workshops and chapter headings on understanding power: “power analysis,” “elements of a power organization,” “the path to power.” Galluzzo told me that many new trainees have an aversion to Alinsky’s gritty approach because they come to organizing as idealists rather than realists. But Galluzzo’s manual instructs them to get over these hang-ups.

The other fundamental lesson Obama was taught is Alinsky’s maxim that self-interest is the only principle around which to organize people. (Galluzzo’s manual goes so far as to advise trainees in block letters: “get rid of do-gooders in your church and your organization.”)

Each principle or tactic in Rules is illustrated by various historical examples, either from Alinsky’s career as an organizer, or from history. Some of his examples are fairly standard. Others are more counter-intuitive (of particular interest in this regard is a section in which Alinsky argues that Gandhi was not really a pacifist but was only using nonviolence as a political expedient). In either case, his explanations are free from any technical jargon, and whether or not one agrees with a given point it is easy to see where Alinsky is coming from.

Alinsky was also a strong proponent of working within the system, and had little but contempt for the so-called radical who seemed more interested in “freaking out the squares” than in actually accomplishing anything:

With rare exceptions, our activists and radicals are products of and rebels against our middle-class society…. it is useless self-indulgence for an activist to put his past behind him. Instead, he should realize the priceless value of his middle-class experience. His middle-class identity, his familiarity with the values and problems, are invaluable for organization of his “own people.”

Instead of the infantile dramatics of rejection, he will now begin to dissect and examine that way of life as he never has before. He will know that a “square” is no longer to be dismissed as such – instead his own approach must be square enough o get the action started… Instead of hostile rejection he is seeking bridges of communication and unity over the gaps, generation, value, or others. He will view with strategic sensitivity the nature of middle-class behavior with its hangups over rudeness or aggressive, insulting, profane actions. All this and more must be grasped and used to radicalize parts of the middle-class.

Having read Rules for Radicals casts many of Barack Obama’s statements and actions in a somewhat different light. Obama’s statement, for example, about people clinging to guns and religion is very similar to the analysis Alinsky offers in the last chapter of Rules about the rightward drift of the American lower middle class. To what extent Obama utilizes the tactics of the Alinsky Method as president of course remains to be seen. But I would recommend the book to anyone as a reference point for political life over the next four to eight years.


January 20, 2009 - Posted by | America, Democracy, Politics


  1. Sounds like this should be required reading for Catholics & Conservatives.

    Seems to me the “rules” are being used by multimillionares (HRC & BHO as well as Soros) to ensconce themselves into power over us. (Also, don’t forget all those in the Catholic church trying to “Alinsky” the Pope & magisterium so that they can take over. Sad thing is that I’ve heard rumors of the CHD funding Alinsky & Co. More’s the pity.)

    Comment by Bill Hoogsteden | January 29, 2009 | Reply

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