I recently re-read the book Rules for Radicals, by Saul Alinsky. This book had originally been a spark in my interest in community organizing over five years ago. Alinsky, according to wikipedia, is consider the father of community organizing. He was fairly notorious from the 1930’s to the 1960’s for his organizing of labor and union groups to civil rights involvement. And his book is full of great and creative stories of his organizing days.
The truth is, Alinsky was way more radical then I could ever hope to be. He seemed to be a man of solid convictions, but also steadfastly committed to getting the job done. Here’s a powerful statement:
…in action, one does not always enjoy the luxury of a decision that is consistent both with one’s individual conscience and the good of mankind. The choice must always be for the latter. Action is for mass salvation and not for the individual’s
personal salvation. He who sacrifices the mass good for his personal conscience has a peculiar conception of “personal salvation”; he doesn’t care enough for people to be “corrupted” for them. -p. 25
Wow, that is a challenging statement. He basically argues that any means is acceptable if it reaches your end. He uses Gandhi as an example, arguing that Gandhi was only non-violent because that was the best means to reach the end, and that after they won power from the British, Gandhi then was willing to use force (or at least didn’t argue against it) in maintaining that power.
Alinsky’s creative action and threats have included everything from tying up the bathrooms at O’hare to organizing proxies of stockholders to influence huge corporations. He was notorious for being one step ahead, and I hope I can glean some of his wisdom in future organizing.
Here are his rules for Tactics, which is a major component of the book:
Rule 1: Power is not only what you have, but what an opponent thinks you have. If your organization is small, hide your numbers in the dark and raise a din that will make everyone think you have many more people than you do.
Rule 2: Never go outside the experience of your people.
The result is confusion, fear, and retreat.
Rule 3: Whenever possible, go outside the experience of an opponent. Here you want to cause confusion, fear, and retreat.
Rule 4: Make opponents 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.”
Rule 5: Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It’s hard to counterattack ridicule, and it infuriates the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage.
Rule 6: A good tactic is one your people enjoy. “If your people aren’t having a ball doing it, there is something very wrong with the tactic.”
Rule 7: A tactic that drags on for too long becomes a drag. Commitment may become ritualistic as people turn to other issues.
Rule 8: Keep the pressure on. Use different tactics and actions and use all events of the period for your purpose. “The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition. It is this that will cause the opposition to react to your advantage.”
Rule 9: The threat is more terrifying than the thing itself. When Alinsky leaked word that large numbers of poor people were going to tie up the washrooms of O’Hare Airport, Chicago city authorities quickly agreed to act on a longstanding commitment to a ghetto organization. They imagined the mayhem as thousands of passengers poured off airplanes to discover every washroom occupied. Then they imagined the international embarrassment and the damage to the city’s reputation.
Rule 10: The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. Avoid being trapped by an opponent or an interviewer who says, “Okay, what would you do?”
Rule 11: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it. Don’t try to attack abstract corporations or bureaucracies. Identify a responsible individual. Ignore attempts to shift or spread the blame.
Some obviously need some explaining, but for that you’ll have to pick up the book. Enjoy.
“The fact is that it is not man’s “better nature” but his self-interest that demands that he be his brother’s keeper. We now live in a world where no man can have a loaf of bread while his neighbor has none. If he does not share his bread, he dare not sleep, for his neighbor will kill him. To eat and sleep in safety man must do the right thing, if for seemingly the wrong reasons, and be in practice his brother’s keeper.”