Political influence for outsiders

Saul Alinsky wasn’t much of a theorist; he was the epitome of the literal opposite, an activist. He even admitted that he needed to be locked in prison to find time to reflect.

His much loved book Rules for Radicals is therefore filled with entertaining anecdotes (the “fart in”) and peppered with insight, but is not particularly logical. I think there is a fascinating theory contained within, though, with broader application to organisational life.

Firstly, in any political or social confrontation, the outcome will be driven by the actions of the most powerful participant. But that outcome need not be in their interest. That is, a weaker opponent can steer the powerful into delivering the outcome that those opponents want.

In most cases, the powerful are the establishment, the elite. The forces seeking change – the radicals and activists – are often weak in comparison.

So the change actually comes from the behaviour of the powerful. It’s not surprising, with all their resources and allies. It is foolish for the weak to attempt to enact change against the will of the powerful through their own limited powers and resources. But they can provoke, infuriate, goad, embarrass, irritate, bore, trick or threaten the powerful into doing what the weak want. Alinsky was a master provocateur.

Secondly, there are actually three actors in any political confrontation. Both the strong establishment and the weak radicals (the “haves” and the “have nots” in Alinsky’s words) are actually in a minority. There is a third passive actor – the ‘silent majority’ who have huge potential power but in most cases do not care about the conflict – thus ensuring the most powerful active participant remains the establishment.

To steer the powerful, the radical aims to stir this sleeping giant. This is both an asset to and a constraint on the radical. It is an asset, because the threat of waking the passive majority can goad the establishment into acting in ways that it otherwise would not wish to. A great deal of progressive change in society has come from this threat. It is a constraint, because the majority can also be easily offended and alienated by the actions of the radical. Think of the careful balancing act required of Extinction Rebellion. Fine when they are singing outside Downing Street. Not so good when they stop you getting to work on the train in the morning.

Alinsky was forceful about the need to respect the morality, ideals and customs of the majority. By all means embarrass the powerful, but don’t burn the flag. This is a lesson that many movements fail to learn. Few progressive parties achieve meaningful power by alienating conventional morals and ‘small c’ conservative opinion. New Labour got this; newer Labour didn’t. It is not as if Alinsky was particularly deferential himself; this was pure pragmatism.

So, you want to make change. I’ll assume you are not in power for now. If you are, you need a different change manual – try Kotter.

Step one: who is the most powerful agent in the scenario? It is their action that will make the change happen. What do you want them to do? Step two: understand the concerns and aspirations of the silent majority. What might rouse them against the establishment? Step three: start rousing until the establishment feel suitably threatened.

For example, in any confrontation between unions and management, the majority of workers are usually mildly sympathetic to the union but mainly uninterested. They want to get on with their jobs. If a union wants, say, a reduction in hours, it is only management who have the power to do that. How to provoke management into doing so (assuming they are unwilling)? A strike at this stage would likely get a poor turnout and alienate workers who will lose pay. It is not the actions of the weak that create change directly. But workers care about fair play. What if management was found to be victimising an innocent member of staff? The union may seek a good cause celebre: if you tolerate this, then you will be next. They may pour flames on the situation by provoking the executive in charge of negotiations with rude behaviour around the negotiating table. With any luck, the executive will make threats. Now the workers are interested. Now relations are deteriorating. Perhaps a decent compromise on working hours will defuse the situation.

The union got management to act by working the opinion of the passive majority. Note that if they had offended workers by attacking a well liked middle manager or by seeming to risk job losses, the situation could have gone the other way. A canny management team would have played the situation in reverse: this is a campaign of victimisation by the union against a decent team leader, beyond the bounds of fair play: your union activists are making you look foolish or greedy, creating bad blood where there once was harmony.

This sounds like politics, but it applies at many scales. Politics is universal. If you don’t think your organisation has radicals, an elite and a passive majority, you haven’t analysed the situation closely enough. Even Google found it had workplace activists once the majority was roused.

I’m not suggesting that confrontation is usually the right tool to get things done. Persuasion and negotiation are far better. But you may find yourself in a confrontation not of your making and it may help to understand the dynamics at play.


Alinsky had another powerful insight on the education of the powerless, which I’ll pick up in a later article.

Rules for Radicals is dated in language, in its examples and some of its preoccupations. But its insights are enduring. It is a slim volume that would reward a quick read. It was apparently a guiding force in Obama’s early community organising and US conservatives write books on how to defeat it.

For a more collaborative angle on negotiating, you might like to check out Two tips for negotiations.

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