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Review of ‘The Activist’s Handbook’ and ‘Rules for Radicals’


Don’t Respond, Strategize. Shaw exhorts activists to not respond to the establishment (one example of a purely reactive strategy is to stage demonstrations at meetings chosen by the establishment) but instead to set an agenda an go on the offensive, taking actions designed to pressure the opposition to relent to the agenda. Then let them respond. This could—and the whole book could—be described as a ‘reformist’ strategy. But the right reforms, won the right way, will bring us closer and closer to fundamental and necessary changes in society. His advice includes having—and communicating—a factual, realizable alternative to the thing you’re campaigning against.

Inspiring fear and loathing in elected officials. Shaw has seen many movements work hard to elect a ‘progressive’ official only to have their agenda betrayed. He advises that elected officials, even progressives, respond to pressure, not friendship, and that a non-progressive can be pressured into doing progressive things, while a progressive official who doesn’t feel pressure can do very destructive things. The relationship between activists and elected officials should be one of fear and loathing.

Winning more than coverage in the media. Shaw emphasizes the use of investigative journalists when possible. He cautions that there is such a thing as bad publicity and warns activists not to assume a story will advance their cause. The media should be used for results, not coverage. Decide what you want from a media campaign before you start.

Direct Action. Shaw emphasizes that direct action often works, that a group employing it should be able to mobilize facts as well as bodies, that an ‘out’ should be offered to the opposition, in the form of demands that the opposition can meet that are credible and realizable to the people the action is intended to sway.

‘Rules’ talks about the importance of having multiple issues—an organization needs issues like an individual needs oxygen, it says—and gives rules for choosing tactics. There are a lot of rules and a lot of wisdom, too much to repeat here. But one important emphasis is on communication. If I’m trying to organize a Jewish community, he says, I don’t walk in eating a ham sandwich. And if long hair is impeding communication, then a radical will be the first to cut his hair. ‘Rules’ also emphasizes tactics that build the organization’s strength and numbers, pressure and divide the opposition, are fun for the people, and turn the heat up on the opposition until they have to relent. Ridicule, ‘Rules’ offers, is the most powerful weapon in a radical’s armory. Alinsky fleshes out the general concepts with stories from a lifetime of rich, even legendary, successful organizing experience.

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