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Recently, The Chronicle of Higher Education asked 22 scholars to recommend books that speak to the recent campus protests. The contributors are an academic who’s who and include the anthropologists Lila Abu-Lughod and Nicholas Dirks; Omer Bartov, a leading authority on the Holocaust and genocide; the cultural critics and essayists Andrew Delbanco, Merve Emre and Laura Kipnis; the legal scholars Noah Feldman, Randall Kennedy and Samuel Moyn; the historians of U.S. social movements Michael Kazin and Robin D. G. Kelley; the philosopher and ethicist Martha C. Nussbaum; and the postcolonial literary theorist and feminist critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

I found their suggestions fascinating. They range from Steven Kelman’s Push Comes to Shove, a 1970 study of the institutional, political and personal psychological dynamics behind the escalation of student protests in the late 1960s, to studies of Palestinian history and poetic and political expression.

Among the references most immediately relevant to today’s protests are:

  • If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution by Vincent Bevins, which asks why the leaderless, social media–aligned protests of the 2010s—from the Arab Spring to Gezi Park in Türkiye, from Ukraine’s Euromaidan to student rebellions in Chile and Hong Kong—produced no significant structural reforms.
  • Domenico Losurdo’s Non-Violence: A History Beyond the Myth, which challenges romanticized views of the power of nonviolent civil disobedience and underscores the complexity and contingency of nonviolent resistance. This book deconstructs the myth that nonviolence is a universally effective strategy. Losurdo points out that nonviolent movements have sometimes succeeded due to external factors, such as the presence of a sympathetic audience or the threat of violence lurking in the background, rather than purely through nonviolent means.

Losurdo suggests that the tendency to morally privilege nonviolence can be paternalistic and dismissive of the legitimate grievances and struggles of oppressed peoples who may resort to violence out of necessity. Many readers, however, will find his conclusion troubling: that the best outcome would be a multipolar world in which China and Russia would have a bigger voice.

Surely, the most important recommendation is Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. You don’t need to be a historian to recognize that many recent campus protests today have followed the Alinsky playbook.

I’d urge campus leaders, students and faculty members to read (or reread) Alinsky’s works, which are as relevant today as when he first wrote them. Studying his writings might better equip higher ed stakeholders to understand the power dynamics of today’s protests and, in the case of activists, organize more effectively and advocate more successfully for meaningful change.

Engaging with Alinsky’s work can encourage critical thinking about how power structures operate and individuals’ roles in challenging and changing these structures. And, of course, for activists, Alinsky’s texts provide practical tools for mobilizing communities, building coalitions and advocating for change.

And maybe, just maybe, these works might teach campus stakeholders how to foster better communication, promote dialogue, negotiate differences and resolve disputes.

Alinsky, the Chicago community organizer who was born in 1909 and died in 1972, is best known as a pioneer in grassroots organizing. Often regarded as the founder of modern community organizing, he developed strategies and tactics that have been widely adopted by social activists around the world.

His goal—organizing marginalized communities to fight for social justice and effect change—was to be achieved by empowering ordinary people to take collective action against institutional power structures. He authored two influential books, Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1971), which laid out his principles and strategies for effective organizing:

  • Empowering the disenfranchised. Mobilizing ordinary people, particularly those who are marginalized or disenfranchised, to fight for their rights and interests.
  • Building organizations. Creating strong, community-based organizations that can sustain long-term efforts and provide a unified voice for advocacy.
  • Direct action. Using direct, nonviolent action to confront and challenge power structures. This includes protests, strikes, sit-ins and other forms of civil disobedience.
  • Tactics and strategy. Putting pressure on those in power. These include targeting individuals in positions of authority, personalizing issues and using creative and disruptive methods to draw attention to causes.
  • Pragmatism. Encouraging activists to be flexible, opportunistic and to use whatever means necessary (within ethical bounds) to achieve their goals.
  • A focus on local issues. Organizing should start with issues that directly affected people’s lives, making the fight relatable and urgent for the community involved.

Alinsky’s ultimate goal was to create a more just and equitable society by empowering the poor and marginalized to gain power and influence over the conditions affecting their lives. He sought to challenge and change the power dynamics in society, making institutions more responsive and accountable to the needs of all people, particularly the disadvantaged.

Here are some notable quotations from Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals:

  • On the importance of community organizing: “The only answer to organized money is organized people.”
  • On power and change: “Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict.”
  • On the role of organizers: “A good organizer is a social arsonist who goes around setting people on fire.”
  • On the tactics of organizing: “The most effective means are whatever will achieve the desired results.”
  • On the necessity of conflict: “Conflict is the essential core of a free and open society. If one were to project these values into a utopia, the utopia would be a curious and lifeless Eden with no conflicts and therefore no real freedom.”
  • On the importance of relationships: “If people feel they don’t count, then they don’t act. If they don’t act, the way for the exploiting minority to keep power is easy.”
  • On the power of people: “People hunger for drama and adventure, for a breath of life in a dreary, drab existence. This hunger must be met by organizing people around the burning issues of the times.”

Here are some key quotations from Rules for Radicals:

  • On the role of psychology and perception in power: “Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.”
  • Push your opponents into unfamiliar territory: “Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.”
  • Undermine and delegitimize your opponents’ moral authority: “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.”
  • Place persistent pressure on your opponents: “Keep the pressure on.”
  • Leverage threats: “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.”
  • Wear down your adversaries: “The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.”

By studying the Alinsky rule book, it becomes easier to understand the dynamics of protests on and off campus that involve confrontation, polarization, escalation, negotiation and, in a number of instances, police intervention or a negotiated settlement.

  • Encampments. Modeled on the examples from the 1930s (like the Bonus Army and the UAW sit-down strikes) and Resurrection City in 1968, the American Indian Movement occupation of Alcatraz in 1969–71, the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp (1981–2000) and the Occupy movement, the purpose is to create a physical and highly visible presence that is difficult for the public and authorities to ignore and to foster a sense of community and solidarity among protesters. By disrupting normal activities, encampments seek to force negotiations. They also serve a symbolic purpose, in this case, symbolizing occupation of Palestinian lands.
  • Targeting individual administrators. Following Alinsky’s rule to “pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it,” protesters often focus on specific individuals. This personalized approach aims to create a clear antagonist in the eyes of the public and rally support for their cause. This tactic has also been adopted by House Republicans.
  • Fostering division among faculty and administrators. Protests have led to divisions among various campus stakeholders, as some support the student demands, some oppose their goals or tactics and still others express frustration over administrators’ response to the protests.

While Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals have been influential in the field of community organizing and activism, these books have also faced criticism from various quarters.

One complaint is that his approach is unethical, with the ends justifying the means. Detractors say that tactics that are effective can also be morally questionable. His approach, in the eyes of his critics, is manipulative, divisive and overly aggressive and hostile, making constructive dialogue and compromise more difficult.

Another critique is that Alinsky’s emphasis on immediate, tactical victories lacks a long-term vision for systemic change, responding to current issues rather than proactively building long-term solutions or alternative structures.

There’s also the charge that Alinsky takes an overly cynical view of power. By concentrating on power and tactics, his approach fails to acknowledge the importance of cooperation, empathy and shared values in creating a more just vision of the future.

In addition, there’s the claim that Alinsky’s approach downplays the risk of backlash. The confrontational and polarizing tactics he advocates can provoke strong counterreactions from opponents, undermining broad public support. Alinsky’s methods, detractors charge, have contributed to the increasing polarization and coarsening of political discourse and the divisive and adversarial nature of contemporary politics.

While Alinsky’s tactics can be effective in drawing attention to issues and forcing action, there is a need for a balance between confrontation and dialogue. Effective activism often requires a combination of pressure tactics and constructive engagement to achieve lasting change.

At the same time, the most successful movements build broad-based coalitions that include a wide range of stakeholders, from students and faculty to alumni and community members. This inclusivity can help mitigate the divisive effects of protests and create a more united front for advocacy.

Alinsky’s books lay out his philosophy, strategies and tactics for grassroots organizing. His goal is to empower marginalized communities to advance social justice. His core theme is the promotion of democracy through active participation—or what the Port Huron Statement of 1962 called “participatory democracy.” Alinsky believes that true democracy can only be achieved when people are actively engaged in the political process and have the power to influence decisions that affect their lives.

Isn’t the time ripe for a serious, engaged discussion of Alinsky’s arguments from all political perspectives? Why not use his work to prompt discussion, debate, critical thinking and deeper exploration?

Let’s look at nine sets of questions that Alinsky’s writings raise:

  1. Alinsky insists that the dominant moral system of a particular society justifies or rationalizes the existing distribution of power. Consider asking students how the dominant moral system in American society today shapes our understanding of power and justice. To what extent does it justify the existing distribution of power? What are the implications for activists and organizers who seek to challenge these power structures?
  2. It’s often said that participatory democracy demands too much of ordinary people. Or as Oscar Wilde reportedly said, “The trouble with socialism is that it takes too many evenings.” Students might discuss the following questions: Participatory democracy requires active engagement from citizens. Do you think this level of participation is realistic and sustainable for most people? Why or why not? What are the benefits and drawbacks of participatory democracy compared to representative democracy? How can we encourage broader participation without overwhelming individuals? Are there ways to make participatory democracy more accessible and manageable for ordinary people?
  3. Activists and organizers often position themselves as champions of the oppressed. However, is there a risk that they might impose their own values and priorities on the communities they aim to help? How can they avoid this? How can organizers ensure they are truly representing the needs and desires of the communities they serve? Can the students provide examples of both successful and problematic organizing efforts?
  4. According to Alinsky, the purpose of activism is to advance human rights. What conflicts arise when collective rights and individual rights clash? How can legal, ethical and social systems balance competing rights?
  5. Advocates of change often face the challenge of bridging various social divides—rooted in class, gender, ideology, partisan politics, race and ethnicity—while also advocating for specific interests. What strategies can be used to build coalitions across diverse groups? What should happen when the interests of groups conflict How important is it to respect the dignity, sincerity and humanity of one’s opponents when advocating for a particular agenda? Can you provide examples of successful advocacy efforts that managed to bridge significant divides?
  6. When, if ever, is it productive to delegitimize existing leadership in the pursuit of social change? What are the potential risks and benefits? How does delegitimizing leadership impact the morale and cohesion of a movement? Are there alternative strategies to delegitimizing leadership that might be more effective? What historical examples illustrate the consequences of delegitimizing leadership?
  7. Conflict and confrontation are often seen as necessary tools for producing change. However, can education and bridge building be equally or more effective? How do we balance these approaches? What are the benefits and drawbacks of using conflict and confrontation as tactics? Can the students provide examples where education and bridge building led to significant change? How might activists integrate both confrontational and educational strategies in their efforts?
  8. What should be the role of leaders in change-making organizations? How can they balance guiding the movement while empowering others? How do effective leaders foster a sense of ownership and agency among members of their organization? What qualities are essential for leaders in social movements? Can the students think of leaders who exemplify these qualities and what can we learn from their leadership styles?
  9. When advocating for change, is it more effective to appeal to people’s self-interest or their sense of altruism? How do we decide which approach to use? What are the advantages and disadvantages of appealing to self-interest? How can appeals to altruism be effectively framed to inspire action? Are there situations where a combination of both approaches is necessary?

By using prompts like these, faculty members can foster a rich and nuanced discussion that engages students with Alinsky’s ideas and their implications for contemporary activism. The goal is to encourage students to think critically about activist tactics and the role of organizers and also to consider the ethics of activism, strategies for social change, empowerment of the marginalized and balancing pragmatism and idealism.

I can’t think of issues that are more timely and urgent—or that are better suited for academic debate.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational and Equitable Experience.