Virgil: Saul Alinsky on ‘Rules for Radicals’ and the 2020 Election

Saul Alinsky, a professional organizer with a strong aversion to welfare programs, is shown in this photo dated Feb. 20, 1966 on Chicago's south side where he organized the Woodlawn area to battle slum conditions. Alinsky organized the Woodlawn area to battle slum conditions. (AP Photo)
AP Photo

Editor’s note: Publius Vergilius Maro, the Roman poet known to history as Virgil, died in 19 B.C. Saul Alinsky, the American radical and inspiration to both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, died in 1972. However, for both of these legendary historical figures, their words, and their ideas, abide forever. So our Virgil had no trouble conducting this shade-to-shade interview with Alinsky.

VIRGIL: Saul, please tell us a little bit about yourself. 

ALINSKY: I was born in Chicago in 1909, and as a young man I worked for various communist causes. Beginning in the late 1930s, I chose to focus my efforts on the South Side of Chicago; I soon created the Industrial Areas Foundation to further my work as a community organizer. My organizing campaigns then spread, from coast to coast, from California to New York. And along the way, I wrote two books, Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals, which gained me an even larger following among young leftists. 

For instance, in 1968, a Wellesley College student, Hillary Rodham, wrote a 92-page senior thesis on me, titled, “There Is Only the Fight . . .” Then, more than a decade after my death in 1972, a recent graduate of Columbia University, Barack Obama, came to Chicago to work in my organization.   

Interestingly, in 2007, the Washington Post profiled both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, then running against each other for the Democratic presidential nomination, viewing them through the prism of their connection to me. The piece quoted progressive activist Marian Wright Edelman as saying, “Both Hillary and Barack reflect that understanding of community-organizing strategy. Both just know how to leverage power.” And of course, one of them was elected president, and the other came close. So as you can see: Even though I’m dead, I rest in power. 

VIRGIL: Funny you mention death and the hereafter! In your second book, Rules for Radicals, you include a dedication to … Lucifer:

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.

Kinda radical!

ALINSKY: That’s me. Deal with it. As I always said, my goal was “to rub raw the sores of discontent” and thereby force “action through agitation.” In fact, just last year, I was pleased to see that The Guardian newspaper reported that the British group Extinction Rebellion, which has staged disruptive protests all over the world on climate change, cites me as an influence.  As their co-founder said, “The essential element here is disruption. Without disruption, no one is going to give you their eyeballs.” And I think plenty of other groups follow my teachings, even if they don’t give me credit. Not bad for being dead these five decades! 

In fact, this year, 2020, I think it’s fair to say that you’ve seen a lot of my influence. Maybe you could write an epic poem about me, like The Aeneid that you wrote 2,000 years ago. You could call it the The Alinsky-eid. 

VIRGIL: I’ll have to think about that. In the meantime, do you see your influence as seen in, say, Portland? And Seattle? You were never known for violence in your lifetime.  

ALINSKY: Yes, but the Radical has to be ready to meet the moment, on the terms that seem appropriate for the moment. And sometimes, that might mean, uh, liveliness. As I also wrote, the organizer must “fan the latent hostilities.” I added that he—okay, now, maybe, she or they—“must search out controversy and issues, rather than avoid them.”  

I must say, this pronoun stuff is new to me, along with all this Cultural Marxism, but I do try to keep up.

VIRGIL: Speaking of keeping up, are you in favor of Antifa and its tactics? 

ALINSKY: As I wrote in 1946, “America was begun by its Radicals. America was built by its Radicals. The hope and future of America lies with its Radicals.” 

VIRGIL: Got it. So what do you expect to see happen in November 2020?   

ALINSKY: As I also wrote, the American people are forever divided between Revolutionaries and Tories. Joe Biden might not be much of a Revolutionary, although maybe Kamala Harris is a bit more of one; I loved it, this past June, when she said of the George Floyd protests: 

They’re not going to stop.  This is a movement.  They’re not going to stop before Election Day in November, and they’re not going to stop after Election Day.  Everyone should take note of that on both levels, that they’re not going to let up and they should not and we should not.

That’s the spirit of permanent revolution that we need!  

In the meantime, without a doubt, Trump is a Tory. Yes, he’s different from the conservative stereotype in some ways, but still, he’s a Republican. So I know which side my people will be on. And no matter what happens in the balloting on November 3, I expect that the struggle will continue well past Election Day—as Radicals and Revolutionaries take to the streets in greater numbers than they have already. As you know, since you’ve read my work, I laid out some principles, or rules, for this sort of direct action. 

VIRGIL: Yes. In fact, I looked up your “Rules” and found that you listed 13 of them. So let’s go through these Rules, one by one.

ALINSKY: Glad to. 

VIRGIL: Number One: “Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.”  

ALINSKY: That’s a good one, because you want to keep the enemy guessing. Just on September 17, I saw this headline in Breitbart: “Soros-Backed Coalition Preparing for Post-Election Day Chaos—‘We’re Going to Fight Like Hell.’”

VIRGIL: You read Breitbart? 

ALINSKY: Sure. As I said, if you’re going to outthink, and out-psych, the enemy, you have to know what the enemy is thinking. So when we throw around the name of George Soros, we are sure that Soros evokes fears on the right, because he has, after all, donated at least $32 billion to left-wing causes. So you get, you know, right-wing memes such as the Eye of Soros, and all that, straight from Sauron in Lord of the Rings. Now the truth is that, just as Sauron was defeated in the Tolkien story, so, too, Soros has been defeated, many times, including in the U.S. in 2016. And yet if right-wingers are afraid of him, good. Hell, Soros has even spooked Fox News into censoring Newt Gingrich when he mentioned Soros’s name. So if Republicans are spooked by a phantom menace, well, good—let them be spooked.  

VIRGIL: Oh my, you’re being pretty candid.  

ALINSKY: Actually, you don’t know whether or not I’m lying to you, because the need to tell the truth to imperialists such as yourself—you were, after all, a tool of the Emperor Augustus Caesar—is hardly a part of the Revolutionary credo. But I like talking, so continue. 

VIRGIL: Hmmm, all right then. Let’s go to Number Two: “Never go outside the expertise of your people.”

ALINSKY: Fortunately, we have lots of expertise, and not just in the streets. We have lawyers, and we have money. And crazy as it might seem, every time I look around, I see a new seven-figure front group—I mean group—dedicated to undermining Trump. Just on the 17th, I read about a group that I’d never heard of, American Oversight, which has gotten all the files and e-mails from the U.S. Postal Service, especially as they relate to that fascist, Louis DeJoy. Conveniently enough, all the information ended up with the Washington Post. I’m sure more dope will come spilling out soon.  

So you see, we have the streets—and we also have the suites. We have Al Sharpton and Soros, together, on the same side. Actually, I saw a little bit of that high-low alliance when I was alive, when Marshall Field, the Chicago department-store magnate, funded my early work, but I never thought I’d see this much overclass money flowing to the underclass—I wish I’d lived longer to really enjoy it.   

VIRGIL: Ah, yes, Saul, you did come to enjoy life, didn’t you? After all, you passed away in Carmel, California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Not bad!  

ALINSKY: My mission was to afflict the comfortable. I never said that I, myself, should be afflicted. I worked hard for my comfort. But that’s enough about how I practiced my life—let’s get back to what I preached.  

VIRGIL:  Got it. Here’s Number Three: “Whenever possible go outside the expertise of the enemy.”

ALINSKY: That one’s interesting, because our legal armada has clearly bested Trump in the courtrooms.  

To cite just one of many examples in this election year, Biden and the Democrats have gone to court and just gotten the Green Party knocked off the ballot in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. What does that mean? It means no more situations such as in 2000, and 2016, when Green Party candidates siphoned off popular votes, and thus electoral votes, in key states for the Democrats. Now it looks like the Green Party will be on the ballot in only about half the states, most of which aren’t in contention this November. So good work, legal comrades!  

Furthermore, at the same time, our media partners have launched a campaign to persuade people that the Green Party is in the pocket of Putin—and it’s working! The Greens are always on the defensive now.  

Meanwhile, the crypto-Republican effort to get Kanye West on the ballot has been pitiful; as of now, he’s only on the ballot in five states. The Republicans were obviously hoping to get West on the ballot in more states, so as to steal away black votes from Biden, but it’s not happening.  

Yet even as Republicans were failing to bolster fringe parties that might drain away votes from Biden, they weren’t paying attention to the fringe party positioned to drain away votes from Trump. 

VIRGIL: What party is that?

ALINSKY: The Libertarian Party, of course. For most libertarian voters, their second choice is the Republican Party, so it makes a difference whether the L.P. is on the ballot, or not. And in fact, the Libertarian Party is on the ballot in 45 states, with hopes to get on the ballot in all 50 this year. That has to hurt Trump.   

VIRGIL: Number Four is “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.”

ALINSKY: This is a good one, because it shows how important it is to pay attention to everything. That is, all the fine print that goes into the rulebook. Let me illustrate: Back in 2011, President Obama signed Executive Order 13583, aimed at “Establishing a Coordinated Government-wide Initiative to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce.” As he put it in that EO—I love reading about left-wing victories:

I am directing executive departments and agencies to develop and implement a more comprehensive, integrated, and strategic focus on diversity and inclusion as a key component of their human resources strategies.

Translated, that means providing funding for all the equity and social justice programs that right-wingers hate so much. And yet here’s the funny thing: The federal government has been funding all these programs for the better part of a decade, when Republicans had control of Congress, and, as well, including most of the Trump presidency. And yet Republicans never noticed!  

VIRGIL: Ah, yes, this issue of funding for “anti-racism” education blew up only in the last few weeks, mostly thanks to whistle-blowing by a smart young conservative, Chris Rufo. 

ALINSKY: But the fact that the issue has blown up only recently means, again, that all this was going on, unnoticed, for the past three-and-a-half years! During that time, how many millions of dollars went into the war chests of the left? So the Trump people were, in effect, operating according to the Obama playbook— fattening up all my allies, and those blockheads didn’t even know it!

VIRGIL: But they’ve stopped it now. 

ALINSKY: Maybe. On September 4, Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget issued a memorandum ordering federal agencies to “cease and desist” from funding “divisive, un-American propaganda training sessions.” Heh heh. A bit late for these right-wingers to notice.    

Yet still, even now, Trump has not issued an Executive Order repealing Obama’s Executive Order. So what will happen when some bureaucrat somewhere keeps funding the same anti-racism curricula? Will the Trump people be on their toes? Will they have the legal standing, and the mojo, to stop career civil servants—what you might call the Deep State—from doing what they wish? There are rules and laws and procedures concerning how funding works, contracts and so forth, and it’s obvious that the left has a handle on how to move these levers of power and funding—and the right doesn’t. So we’ll have to see if anything is truly, actually, defunded, at least anytime soon. My bet is “no.” 

VIRGIL: Hmmm. Here’s Number Five of your Rules: “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. There is no defense. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.”

ALINSKY: One word: Trump. Two words: Stephen Colbert. Three words: Saturday Night Live. Four words: Orange Man Bad Hitler. Five words: The rest of the memes.

VIRGIL: Okay, but the anti-Trump onslaught is so relentless and, frankly, so not funny, that I wonder if it’s working. Sounds like these leftists are just preaching, with little actual humor, to the choir—a choir that never liked Trump anyway.  

ALINSKY: Yes, you might be right about that, but I’ll jump ahead to Number Six of my Rules: “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.” My people enjoy bashing Trump. So let ’em have their fun.  

VIRGIL: Okay, but then there’s Rule Seven, which states, “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.”

ALINSKY: Yes, and in that same paragraph, I added that the Radical must be “constantly inventing new and better tactics.” So there’s a challenge there. I think you’ll see a lot more creativity in the next few months, as we take the Trump people by surprise.  

VIRGIL: Like what?  

ALINSKY: Well, look, just on Friday night, the 18th, when the news broke that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died, thousands of people converged on the steps of the Supreme Court building in D.C. to light candles, say prayers, and otherwise mourn her passing. There was a bit too much sacredness and religion there for my taste, but the show of force was only potential force—it was entirely peaceful. See? The activist left can surprise people.  And in the meantime, I see that both Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are saying that “nothing is off the table,” action-wise. Oh, to be a fly on the wall in their meetings!  I think I’d like a lot of what I’d be hearing.

Of course, the next protest could be, uh, livelier, as Michael Moore is calling for–I read that, too, in Breitbart. We’ll just have to see. Stay tuned, as they say, because you never know what will happen. That’s how you stay fresh.

VIRGIL: Yes, I was just reading in Breitbart about how “blue check” tweeters were threatening violence if Trump and Mitch McConnell try to fill Ginsburg’s seat.

ALINSKY: See? We contain multitudes—always something new! Keep ’em guessing! Look, even when I was active in life, there was always more than one game to be played. It wasn’t as if the poor people in Chicago who I was working with didn’t have the right to vote—they did. But I gave them another venue for power, namely, taking it to the streets. It was a dual-track thing: political action, and direct action. We could see both in re: Ginsburg.

VIRGIL: Now to Rule Eight: “Keep the pressure on.”

ALINSKY: As the Romans said, Res Ipsa Loquitur—“The thing speaks for itself.” 

VIRGIL: Got it. Now to Nine: “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.”

ALINSKY: Ask yourself: How many Republicans have caved because they’re afraid of being called a name by the New York Times? Or because they fear being ostracized from polite society, especially in Washington, DC? Many, that’s how many. In particular, how many Republican judges turn liberal as they spend more time on the bench, especially inside the Washington Beltway? That’s the effect of keeping the pressure on.  

For instance, when Linda Greenhouse was the Supreme Court reporter for the Times, always pushing the justices to move left, they used to joke about the “Greenhouse Effect,” as in, at least some of the Republican appointees wouldn’t want to antagonize her, so they’d vote liberal. Yet the truth is, Linda didn’t have any real power, other than a word or two—and words don’t break bones—and yet words were enough. That is, it was enough to bluff many conservatives.  

VIRGIL: This one, Rule Ten, is similar to Rule Eight: “The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.”

ALINSKY: Yes, but it helps to have a coordinated operation, so that the pressure never lets up. I’ll bet the Biden people, the Democratic Party, and the left have a dozen war rooms in Washington alone, always making sure that Trump and the Republicans are feeling the pressure.  

VIRGIL: That takes money.

ALINSKY: Yes, and we’ve got plenty. As I said, there’s always a new NGO—the Center for this, the Democracy Alliance for that—being funded by some Trump-hating fatcat. Little do they know…

VIRGIL: What’s that? Know what?  

ALINSKY: Uh, nothing. Let’s keep going. My Number Eleven is, “If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counter-side; this is based on the principle that every positive has its negative.” And that means, we must realize that the real action is your opponent’s reaction. So keep probing and pushing! And be ready, if something breaks, to pick up the pieces.  

VIRGIL: Okay, and Number Twelve is, “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.”

Alinsky: That means have a plan for what to do when you win. And I’ll admit: When I think of Biden, I worry about that one. Of course, Harris… 

VIRGIL: Lastly, we come to Number Thirteen: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” 

ALINSKY: That’s easy. Trump. For the next two months, he’s all we need. And if the election turns into a mess, as we all think it will, then Trump’ll be the rallying cry for the left—the man the left loves to hate. 

VIRGIL: Of course, Trump has plenty of supporters, too. 

ALINSKY: That’s true. So we could see some pretty wild times, as we prepare to storm the Winter Palace—oops, I mean, surround the White House. 

VIRGIL: Wild times, indeed.

ALINSKY: We’re ready. Are you?  


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