Rules for Radicals

A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals By Saul Alinsky

Annie Windholz
3 min readFeb 17, 2018

I can’t say Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals was one of my favorite books. While the concept is intriguing (literally a handbook for radical organizers), the content seemed really far from radical. I know this book was written in the 70s, but come on, anytime you mention a ton of Socrates and Freud and Aristotle with the occasional Gandhi as your points of reference, we’ve got a problem. I don’t care how radical you think your politics are — if you’re forgetting the radical women leaders that have been present all through history (and were definitely present in the 70s) then your politics need some major overhaul. Literally the first time a woman was mentioned in the book was about 1/4 of the way through when Alinsky made a sex joke which he thought to be “the great equalizer” (from the point of view of cis-hetero-men).

But I digress. I admit that I skimmed the book a bit once I found his politics to be unsavory. I’m sure some of the organizing tools he provides are helpful, such as:

“Action comes from keeping the heat on. No politician can sit on a hot issue if you make it hot enough.”

One of the major problems I see with Alinsky, but also what I can see as being a strength in his organizing- is over confidence in himself and his own point of view. At one point he posits that the community organizer must have an infectious world view and personality that spreads to the people around them. I believe this is a good idea, as long as the world view of the organizer encouraging others to be their authentic selves- otherwise you are just creating a dictatorship of opinion and making people into tools in your egotistical machine. Which, I guess, is why Rules for Radicals has been compared to the diametrical opposite to the Machiavelli’s The Prince. While The Prince informs “The Haves” to keep power, Rules for Radicals attempts to inform the “Have Nots” how to take power away from those in power. In doing this,

“A bit of a blurred vision of a better world. Much of an organizer’s daily work is detail, repetitive and deadly in its monotony. In the totality of things he is engaged in one small bit. It is as though as an artist he is painting a tiny leaf. It is inevitable that sooner or later he will react with “What am I doing spending my whole life just painting one little leaf? The hell with it, I quit.” What keeps him going is a blurred vision of a great mural where other artists — organizers — are painting their bits, and each piece is essential to the total.”

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Annie Windholz

midwestern librarian, writer, activist