Saul Alinsky

Few know it today, but Chicago was the birthplace of a powerful grassroots social movement that changed political activism in this country. “Community Organizing” was pioneered in Chicago’s old stockyards neighborhood by the soberly realistic, unabashedly radical Saul Alinsky.

Alinsky pioneered community organizing. Until then, organizing was mostly done within trade unions or for specific causes. Alinsky was the first to organize within an area. He started in the Back of the Yards meatpacking area of Chicago in the 30’s, mobilizing the mostly eastern European immigrants into a cohesive unit. One of his main goals always was to create new organizers who came out of the community.

He started training schools for organizers, one of which recruited a young crop picker from California named Cesar Chavez. He invented the stock proxy ploy of buying a few shares, then raising Hell at the stockholders meetings. His Rules for Radicals has influenced generations of organizers.


There can be no such thing as a successful traitor, for if one succeeds he becomes a founding father.

Revolution by the have-nots has a way of inducing a moral revelation among the haves.

Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.

The first thing you’ve got to do in a community is listen, not talk.

One’s concern with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with one’s personal interest in the issue … Any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical.

I could persuade a millionaire on a Friday to subsidize a revolution for Saturday out of which he would make a huge profit on Sunday even though he was certain to be executed on Monday.

Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict.

From the dedication to Rules for Radicals.

Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer.

Some of his rules for radicals were

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.

The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.

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

Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.

A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.

Wherever possible go outside of the experience of the enemy.

Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.

  • Thanks; we could use another Saul Alinsky.

    Your first quote (“There can be no such thing as a successful traitor, for if one succeeds he becomes a founding father.”) is of course a paraphrase of the famous epigram by Elizabethan courtier John Harrington: “Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”

    Playboy published an interview with Alinsky shortly before his death in 1972 (available online through the Wikipedia entry on Alinsky). He talks about a shift from organizing the poor to organizing the middle class:

    “Christ, even if we could manage to organize all the exploited low-income groups — all the blacks, chicanos, Puerto Ricans, poor whites — and then, through some kind of organizational miracle, weld them all together into a viable coalition, what would you have? At the most optimistic estimate, 55,000,000 people by the end of this decade — but by then the total population will be over 225,000,000, of whom the overwhelming majority will be middle class. This is the so-called Silent Majority that our great Greek philosopher in Washington is trying to galvanize, and it’s here that the die will be cast and this country’s future decided for the next 50 years. Pragmatically, the only hope for genuine minority progress is to seek out allies within the majority and to organize that majority itself as part of a national movement for change. If we just give up and let the middle classes go to the likes of Agnew and Nixon by default, then you might as well call the whole ball game. But they’re still up for grabs — and we’re gonna grab ’em.”

    Well, we didn’t grab ’em. The went on to re-elect Nixon that fall, then Reagan, Bush I & Bush II, with hardly-inspiring Carter & Clinton intervals.

  • Saul Alinsky’s legacy: a professional non-profit “social change” bureaucracy, beholden to capitalist foundation donors and the Democratic party. A cynical pragmatism as a cover for the rejection of the revolutionary historical mission of the working class. No wonder the Ford Foundation loved him so much.

  • Bob

    What his organizations may have become (like United Farm Workers too) doesn’t reflect what he was about.

    In fact, he was once asked if Back of the Yards became a sellout, what should be done, he said, start another organization, keep the struggle going.

  • I think someone (maybe me) needs to do a thorough critical review of Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” and other cynical reformist tracts in that vein. Suffice to say that Alinsky believed that by putting enough “pressure” on the government, it could grant reforms incrementally that would lead to socialism. This is classic reformism and as always, it has ended in failure ad disaster for the workers. That is why the Ford Foundation loves Saul Alinsky. I think either you are a reformist at heart, Bob, or you have absorbed some misleading lies put out by Alinsky partisans (of whom there are many, mostly foundation-funded non-profit bureaucrats who find a “radical” veneer to be useful at a certain point in their careers.)

  • Madison Dines

    Important to note, for those who’ve read Alinsky, he talks about power and revolution based on where you live. In India, the Indians had no guns to use against the British. Which was why passive resistance worked there. In Russia, it took seizure of government and banks. In Cuba, guerilla warfare to root out the Batista military. And in America where revolution can only come through the will of the people, Alinsky is the only practical, as well as successful, radical. You could never convince half of America to fight and die to root out corporate control of their government. It would take a Bush dictatorship to accomplish that. Alinsky was right to say that the New Left is completely ineffective. There are institutions that cannot be torn down. You don’t have a government that is opressing you so bad that you can’t talk about how much you hate it. You can still vote certain leaders out of power. You can limit (albeit not remove) corporate control with campaign finance reform. Unless our country became a dictatorship, our economy collapsed, or corporate malfeasance grew so bad that people started assassinating their CEOs, a traditional revolution would never happen. It doesn’t work. It has never worked. We already had a revolution, and until individuals feel that it is time for a new one, you’re just going to be police bullet fodder if you decide to have a revolution. Alinsky was totally right. And while I used to be like you, thinking that violence or overthrow was the only way, I realized how stupid that was. Number one, how am I going to get enough guns to take down the world’s largest military? Number two, how am I going to convince enough people that they are worth fighting against? Number three, how would the CIA not be on to my antics the entire time and the moment I bought my first assault rifle, swoop in, and carry me off to a secret torture prison in Eastern Europe?

    I want, and Alinsky wanted just as much revolution as any of you, but he realized that you have to settle for ‘some’revolution, or ‘no’ revolution. In America, and really, in the structure of politics everywhere, you will never, ever get it all. Don’t settle for none out of principle.

    The Left should behave the same way as the Right. Naked power is the ultimate goal, and only with power can you do anything. They are more effective and dominate this country, only because they are shrewd and realize that politics of principle are incompetent. America is a country founded on self-interest, that justified it’s right to exist through the ideals of freedom and democracy, and has never, ever come to embody that. You use principle, or you claim principle to be yours in order to achieve something practical. There is nothing principled that works in government. You take your naked self-interest (and indeed, the working-class controlling the means of production is naked self-interest) and you hide it with the horrible injustices of your enemy, while covering yourself in the white cloak of idealism. Lady Liberty is just a hairy, naked woman covered in a fancy dress.

    Power will be the only thing that helps the working-class. And right now, they have no power. No incentive, no revolutionary ideals, nothing but this notion that the American Dream works, and will work for them if they work hard enough. They don’t know the truth, and they won’t know the truth until they have a taste of political power. Saul Alinsky gave them power, all the communities he worked in, and in doing so he did a million times more good than any ‘principled’ New Left head-in-the-sky idealist. Because while they talk the talk, Alinsky would walk the walk.

    Read Rules For Radicals. I highly recommend it, it’s eye-opening. And start walking damnit!

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