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Book discussion: Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” – Part 2, The Past is Prologue

I began a discussion of Saul Alinksy’s Rules for Radicals on May 24. The next day, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, MN. In response to the killing and stoked by COVID-19 restrictions that seemed increasingly arbitrary, the country re-radicalized.

The suddenly changed social landscape shines an interesting new light in which to continue the discussion, which now moves to the Prologue of the book. Remember that the book was originally published in 1971. Richard Nixon was President. Spiro Agnew was Vice President. (He resigned in 1973.) The deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were still fresh. The evacuation of Saigon was four years away.

Alinsky writes, he tells the reader, “in desperation.” His writing addresses the radical young protagonists of that time (now past 65 years old for the most part) to dispel “illusions about the way to change our world.”

The young people who participated in the recent Cypress protest march are the grandchildren of the age cohort of the young radicals that Alinsky addressed.

Here is a paragraph that seems oddly contemporary:

The young are inundated with a barrage of information and facts so overwhelming that the world has come to seem an utter bedlam, which has them spinning in a frenzy, looking for what man has always looked for from the beginning of time, a way of life that has some meaning or sense. A way of life means a certain degree of order where things have some relationship and can be pieced together into a system that at least provides some clues to what life is about.

The US Defense Department’s ARPANet — what eventually became the Internet — was first set up in 1969. All the information in the world at our fingertips, and we are still spinning in a frenzy, seeking the meaning of life.

Alinsky falls short on the topic of the meaning of life. For those people (young, old, and in the middle) who are seeking the meaning of life in community organizing or politics — you won’t find it there. The meaning of life is found above the scrum of everyday living. Once found, it can be applied to everyday living, including but not limited to community organizing or politics.

The next paragraph, in the context of current events, made me laugh out loud at these sentences:

Today everything is so complex as to be incomprehensible. What sense does it make for men to walk on the moon while other men are waiting on welfare lines, or in Vietnam killing and dying for a corrupt dictatorship in the name of freedom?

Emily Dickinson would approve of the slant rhyme of history! No moon-walking, but a (private) space launch from Kennedy Space Center, while forced lockdowns send unemployment to never-before-seen heights (depths?) and American military personnel shadowbox with 9/11 ghost foes, or face down domestic rioters.

Every other page or so, a turn of phrase is archaic enough to trip the reader up or a statistic is enough out-of-date to give pause.

For instance, Alinsky gives an income range for blue-collar workers of $5,000 to $10,000 a year. Run those numbers through the online US Inflation Calculator and the range becomes $31,652.96 to $63,305.93.

The income range is part of an explanation of why radicals should work inside the system, “among not only the middle class but the 40 per cent of American families — more than seventy million people — whose incomes range from $5,000 to $10,000 a year.”

The reason:

They [the blue-collar workers] will not continue to be relatively passive and slightly challenging. If we fail to communicate with them, if we don’t encourage them to form alliances with us, they will move to the right. Maybe they will anyway, but let’s not let it happen by default.

They moved to the right and helped to elect Ronald Reagan as president in November 1980.

Here is a paragraph near the end of the Prologue that a Tea Partier can sympathize with:

It is not enough just to elect your candidates. You must keep the pressure on. Radicals should keep in mind Franklin D. Roosevelt’s response to a reform delegation, “Okay, you’ve convinced me. Now go on out and bring pressure on me!” Action comes from keeping the heat on. No politician can sit on a hot issue if you make it hot enough.

Political heat supplied by Tea Partiers cooled. For all their spark and flash, they have Senator Ted Cruz with a beard but without portfolio. Now the heat is coming from well-organized Black Lives Matter protests. Organizers mean to keep things at a fever pitch so they can force change.

The present-day question becomes what change they want to force, and whether to support that change.

Yes, Black lives matter. But that does not unerringly lead to unwavering support of the Black Lives Matter agenda.

I will end by quoting the last paragraph of Alinsky’s Prologue:

I salute the present generation. Hang on to one of your most precious parts of youth, laughter — don’t lose it as many of you seem to have done, you need it. Together we may find some of what we’re looking for — laughter, beauty, love, and the chance to create.

Previously in the discussion

Book discussion: Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” – Part 1, Introduction

Book discussion: Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” – Part 1, Introduction


  1. I enjoyed your article and all your articles you write. Keep them coming!

    1. Author


      Thank you for reading Orange County Breeze, and for taking the time to comment on this article.

      And thank you for your kind words.

      Stay safe, stay healthy!

      Shelley Henderson
      editor, Orange County Breeze

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