Rules for Radicals 1: The Prologue

What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.

Saul Alinsky

Rules for Radicals

This is the beginning of a promised (and late) series of posts discussing Saul Alinsky's 1971 book Rules for Radicals. Alinsky started out in community organizing in the 1930s, working in Chicago's infamous "Back of the Yards" neighborhood. Rules for Radicals is a how-to guide for organizing, based on the knowledge and experience Alinsky accumulated during the course of his career.

If you want a measure of just how effective Alinsky was at bringing about real grassroots change, you need look no farther than Rep. Michele Bachmann's now infamous Hardball appearance on Friday:

REP. BACHMANN: I think the people that Barack Obama has been associating with are anti-American, by and large, the people who are radical leftists. That's the real question about Barack Obama -- Saul Alinsky, one of his teachers, you might say, out of the Chicago area; Tony Rezko, who is an associate also.

Bachmann also provides a wonderful example of just how effective some of the tactics Alinsky pioneered. In the few days since she engaged in her reprehensible rant, her opponent raised almost three quarters of a million dollars, almost all from netroots sources. After seeing the influx in grassroots cash, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee decided to get involved, too, to the tune of $1,000,000, and now Bachmann has a real problem on her hands. (You can show your own disgust with Bachmann's attitude by adding to El Tinklenberg's total either through his own website, or through the ActBlue site. Every little bit helps - I kicked in $5.)

The Bachmann example brings me to the reason that I think it's important for people interested in science to take a close look at Alinsky's ideas: the online tools that we have access to can make it amazingly easy for small groups of committed individuals to make a difference, but only if they're used effectively. There have been a number of occasions when we have been extremely effective, but there have also been a number of opportunities that have been missed.

I'll get into more detail about why I think Alinsky and community organizing are important for those of us who are interested in science, and want to change the way scientific issues are dealt with in another post. For now, let's start looking at what we can learn from Alinsky.

I wasn't planning to discuss the book's prologue, but as I worked my way through it, it became very clear to me that there are a number of points in there that really need to be discussed, and sooner rather than later. Several of the points that Alinsky raises are likely to be at least moderately controversial with some of the readers (and bloggers) here.

The first few pages of the prologue are addressed to the radicals of the (then still very active) mass movements of the 1960s, and talk largely about the disillusionment that so many people had (and have) with modern society. Much of what he had to say there is still (sadly) very relevant today, but I'm going to skip over it for now. It's easy material to empathize with, but I'm not sure it's going to be the most productive to discuss. (If you disagree, by all means use the comment thread at the bottom of this post to talk about it.)

For the moment, I'm also going to skip over pages xviii and xix. I'm going to come back to those pages a bit later on in this post, but I'd rather not start with the two most sensitive topics that are going to come up - framing and religion.

Instead, let's start out by talking about the need for patience and steady action. Alinsky writes:

Our youth are impatient with the preliminaries that are essential to purposeful action. Effective organization is thwarted by the desire for instant and dramatic change, or as I have phrased it elsewhere the demand for revelation rather than revolution. It's the kind of thing that we see in play writing; the first act introduces the characters and the plot, in the second act the plot and characters are developed as the play strives to hold the audience's attention. In the final act good and evil have their dramatic confrontation and resolution. The present generation wants to go right into the third act, skipping the first two, in which case there is no play, nothing but confrontation for confrontation's sake - a flare-up and back to darkness. To build a powerful organization takes time. It is tedious, but that's the way the game is played - if you want to play and not just yell, "Kill the umpire."


We will start with the system because there is no other place to start from except political lunacy. It is most important for those of us who want revolutionary change to understand that revolution must be preceded by reformation. To assume that a political revolution can survive without the supporting base of a popular reformation is to ask for the impossible in politics.


At first glance, it might seem to be unrealistic to suggest that there are benefits to a slow approach when we're talking about how to use the Power of the Interwebs to make changes. The internet hasn't just made it possible to communicate faster - communicating faster has, in many ways, become what the internet is about. The all-day news networks created the 24-hour news cycle, and stories on blogs have a half-life of about 24 minutes.

I'm not saying that the speed of online communication is a bad thing - it's not. It allows us to do things that would have been beyond our wildest dreams ten years ago. Some of those things are pretty damn amazing - earlier this week a longshot Congressional candidate that almost nobody outside Minnesota had ever heard of raised 450K in 24 hours, just because his opponent went on television and insulted millions of Americans. But some of the things are pretty damn frightening, too - earlier this week a longshot Congressional candidate that almost nobody outside Minnesota had ever heard of raised 450K in 24 hours, just because his opponent went on television and insulted millions of Americans.

The thing about the speed, though, is that it's just tool. It's not a bridge, it's a hammer. The ability to put together a massive response to a problem on half and hour's notice is important, but it's not the only thing that's needed. I think that if we look at any of the most successful examples of online intervention, we'll find that there is some form of that reformational infrastructure in place.

As we go through the book, we'll get into detail on how to get the organizational framework set up.

I've put off the more controversial examples as long as I can, so let's talk about framing:

Remember we are talking about revolution, not revelation; you can miss the target by shooting too high as well as too low. First, there are no rules for revolution any more than there are rules for love or rules for happiness, but there are rules for radicals who want to change their world; there are certain central concepts of action in human politics that operate regardless of the scene or the time. To know these is basic to a pragmatic attack on the system. These rules make the difference between being a realistic radical and being a rhetorical one who uses the tired old words and slogans... and has so stereotyped himself that others react by saying, "Oh, he's one of those," and then promptly turn off.

The failure of many of our younger activists to understand the art of communication has been disastrous. Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates within the experience of his audience - and gives full respect to the other's values - would have ruled out attacks on the American flag. The responsible organizer would have known that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America's hopes and aspirations, and he would have conveyed this message to his audience.


If the real radical finds that having long hair sets up psychological barriers to communication and organization, he cuts his hair. If I were organizing in an orthodox Jewish community I would not walk in there eating a ham sandwich, unless I wanted to be rejected so I could have an excuse to cop out. My "thing" if I want to organize, is solid communication with the people in the community. Lacking communication I am in reality silent; throughout history silence has been regarded as assent - in this case assent to the system.

As an organizer, I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be - it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it into what we think it should be. That means working in the system.

(p. xix)

Some of you are probably going to read that and think that it bears a suspicious resemblance to the whole "framing" thing. That's because it does.

What I think we need to do is separate out the basic concept of framing - which I'm going to define here as nothing more or less than "communicating within the experience of your audience" - from the way that the term was applied in previous science blogging debates, and how it's typically understood by those of us who read science blogs.

Rightly or wrongly - and that's a tangent that I'm not going to go anywhere near - framing has become understood more or less as a combination of "spin", "present your argument in a way that your audience will like", and "whatever you do, don't ever piss anyone off". Those concepts are very different from the idea of communicating within the experience of your audience, and the likely effect of that version of framing is very different from what organizing sets out to achieve: a fundamental shift in what people find to be generally acceptable.

I wouldn't be surprised if some people look at some of the phrases in the passages I quoted ("full respect to the other's values" and "eating a ham sandwich" in particular) and raise, again, the question of whether or not aggressively promoting atheism hurts the cause of scientific communications. That's a discussion that I'd rather not have, although I expect that I may not have much choice.

If we do have that discussion, I think there's one point that we really need to keep clear: if you argue that someone should stop talking about atheism because it makes things harder for you to talk about science, you are basically assuming that talking about science is clearly more important and that other causes need to take a back seat until those goals (whatever they might be) are accomplished. I'm not sure that assumption is entirely safe.

At this point, I think I've talked enough - I'd love to see a good discussion about any of these points. A little later on (either today or tomorrow), I'm going to add a second thread that will focus more on how these things relate to science in particular. On Monday, I'll put up a new post that will focus on chapter one.

6 responses so far

  • justawriter says:

    Actually, Alinsky echoed the common criticism of framing later in the book when he says the organizer should not try to fake it. He relates a story (page 70 in the edition on about going to a Mexican-American organization and they serve him a special Mexican dinner. Halfway through he declares that he hates Mexican food and asks if they eat it because they like it or because they have to. The group's leaders appreciated his honesty because they were used to being condescended to by anglo do-gooders who would praise the meal even though they visibly disliked it. The presentation of framing has come across as saying one should condescend or even outright lie to an audience in order to get its support. Alinsky continues that there is a line between honesty and rudeness, but emphasizes that to lie to your audience is a worse breach of respect than being rude.

  • Paul Murray says:

    Machiavelli's The Prince and The Discourses were an expose on how power really works, in an age where eveyone pretended that power was given by God. That's why the church banned them.
    They are a great read. The discourses is broken into short sections, and very dip-into-able. My translation is a omnibus paperback published by Faber.

  • JakeS says:

    The overriding feel of the prologue (and probably the rest of the book will turn out this way) was an insight into the attitudes and events of the sixties and seventies...with many disturbing and optimistic parallels to today.

  • Ian Rhett says:

    I wrote a song 4 years ago about being labeled "Unamerican" for standing up for what I believe in, which over the last 8 years has been fairly contrary to bush dogma. I can't believe/am sad that this song is still relevant today.
    "(Didn't Know I Was) Unamerican"

  • QA's Mom says:

    As an organizer I don't use the term framing. I talk about cutting the issue, which to me means nothing more than explaining why its in someone's interest to pay attention and move an issue forward.
    You start where they are
    So when talking to a mom or dad about why their child should be taught science rather than creationism, I might start with the things like how the scientific method equips their child to develop critical thinking skills or that without it their child is not going to get into medical school.
    I would never lie about my religious beliefs (or lack thereof) but I wouldn't use them as my lead argument either.
    If confronted I would probably tell the person that I respect them but disagree and continue. (I don't change my mind when someone belittles me or calls me names, and I doubt anyone else does either).
    If they're impossible to reason with, I would move on. You don't need to convince everyone. You only need critical mass, which is generally a small vocal minority, combined with a larger more passive group of folks who generally won't actively support you but who also won't sabotage you either.

  • Crudely Wrott says:

    By virtue of shrill and unresolved argument and much pointing and waving, the idea of "framing" one's point of view or opinion has been poisoned. Not fatally but to no good end.
    I was taught, and at the time thought how sensible the lesson was, that in order to make a convincing argument you needed a framework of definitions and a sense of how things relate. Finding agreeable terms is not an easy task. It is also a task that is amenable to misapprehension and abuse.
    Finding common ground can frequently be a time consuming process. It is rarely a sudden phenomenon. Though not familiar with him, I would think that part of Alinsky's thinking with respect to processes would be to recognize the importance of a multi-generational point of view. And of being prepared to invest that much time.
    Like stepping back a couple million miles and getting a wider view.
    Looking forward to more installments.