Rules for Radicals

I posted a Link Pack of opinions and discussions on Slacktivism.After some lovely discussion, one email stands out:

“I know I should be doing more, but I don’t where to start or what to do. I know what I care about, but I don’t know how to effectively do something about it. How do I advocate and get interest in important issues that go beyond the ‘like’? I feel like everyone is online... how do I get out there and rile people up offline?”

Let’s dive in a little deeper here. I LOVE this question and this summer, I had some incredible discussions at Partners in Health about how to get others out of their houses, and into the streets. I’m still trying to figure out how to do this.



With my heart set on raising awareness about the fact that 80% of the world has no access to palliative care or pain management, this problem is more relevant in my own life than ever.

One resource I can point to is a book by community organizer Saul Alinsky called Rules for Radicals. It is one of my all-time favorites and is jam-packed with tactics and thoughts on creating real change. Published in 1971, Alinsky’s words and ideas still hold weight as we seek to translate slacktivism into real and lasting change.

Rules for Radicals:

RULE 1: “Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.” Power is derived from 2 main sources – money and people. “Have-Nots” must build power from flesh and blood.

RULE 2: “Never go outside the expertise of your people.” It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone.

RULE 3: “Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.” Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty.

RULE 4: “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules.

RULE 5: “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” There is no defense. It’s irrational. It’s infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions.

RULE 6: “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.” They’ll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They’re doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones.

RULE 7: “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.” Don’t become old news.

RULE 8: “Keep the pressure on. Never let up.” Keep trying new things to keep the opposition off balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them from the flank with something new.

RULE 9: “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.” Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist.

RULE 10: “If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive.” Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog.

RULE 11: “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” Never let the enemy score points because you’re caught without a solution to the problem.

RULE 12: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions

My copy of Rules for Radicals is scribbled in, worn, highlighted, and torn to bits. Here are some of my favorite lines:

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

“From that credo of the Spanish Civil War, ‘Better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.’ This means revolution.”

“the mark of a free man is that ever-gnawing inner uncertainty as to whether or not he is right.” The consequence is that he is ever on the hunt for the causes of man’s plight and the general propositions that help to make some sense out of man’s irrational world. He must constantly examine life, including his own, to get some idea of what it is all about, and he must challenge and test his own findings. Irreverence, essential to questioning, is a requisite. Curiosity becomes compulsive. His most frequent word is “why?”.” - Justice Learned Hand

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to to nothing.” Edmund Burke

“Change means movement. Movement means friction.”

“A word about my personal philosophy. It is anchored in optimism. It must be, for optimism brings with it hope, a future with a purpose, and therefore, a will to fight for a better world. Without this optimism, there is no reason to carry on. If we think of the struggle as a climb up a mountain, then we must visualize a mountain with no top... Knowing that the mountain has no top, that it is a perpetual quest from plateau to plateau, the question arises, “Why the struggle, the conflict , the heartbreak, the danger, the sacrifice. Why the constant climb ?” Our answer is the same as that which a real mountain climber gives when he is asked why he does what he does. “Because it’s there.”

Because life is there ahead of you and either one tests oneself in its challenges or huddles in the valleys in a dreamless day-to-day existence whose only purpose is the preservation of an illusory security and safety. The latter is what the vast majority of people choose to do, fearing the adventure into the unknown. Paradoxically, they give up the dream of what may lie ahead on the heights of tomorrow for a perpetual nightmare— an endless succession of days fearing the loss of a tenuous security.

Unlike the chore of the mythic Sisyphis, this challenge is not an endless pushing up of a boulder to the top of a hill, only to have it roll back again, the chore to be repeated eternally. It is pushing the boulder up an endless mountain, but, unlike Sisyphis, we are always going further upward. And also unlike Sisyphis, each stage of the trail upward is different, newly dramatic, an adventure each time.”

“Most people go through life undergoing a series of happenings, which pass through their systems undigested. Happenings become experiences when they are digested, when they are reflected on, related to general patterns, and synthesized.”

Clarence Darrow put it on more of a self-interest basis: “I had a vivid imagination. Not only could I put myself in the other person’s place, but I could not avoid doing so. My sympathies always went out to the weak, the suffering, and the poor. Realizing their sorrows I tried to relieve them in order that I myself might be relieved.”

“Organizations are built on issues that are specific, immediate, and realizable.”

“The great American dream that reached out to the stars has been lost to the stripes. We have forgotten where we came from, we don’t know where we are, and we fear where we may be going. Afraid, we turn from the glorious adventure of the pursuit of happiness to a pursuit of an illusionary security in an ordered, stratified, striped society. Our way of life is symbolized to the world by the stripes of military force. At home we have made a mockery of being our brother’s keeper by being his jail keeper. When Americans can no longer see the stars, the times are tragic. We must believe that it is the darkness before the dawn of a beautiful new world; we will see it when we believe it.”

What do you think?

How can we use the momentum we’ve garnered online into offline spaces?

*Thanks Matt for the great email!