The Power of Chewing Gum: My 1983 Assessment of Saul Alinsky's Tactics
March 26, 2010
I wrote this in 1983 as an introduction to a symposium I edited, Tactics of Christian Resistance. I have not changed my mind.
Saul Alinsky was one of the really effective humanistic radicals of the 1960s. He did not throw bombs. He did not spout rhetoric. He simply taught people how to use the bureaucracies' own red tape to tie them up in knots. This is why he was so effective, and why his book, Rules For Radicals (1972), is so useful for an understanding of the principles of successful resistance, despite its humanistic bias. His words are worth considering:
Let us in the name of radical pragmatism not forget that in our system with all its repressions we can still speak out and denounce the administration, attack its policies, work to build an opposition political base. True, there is still government harassment, but there still is that relative freedom to fight. I can attack my government, try to organize to change it. That's more than I can do in Moscow, Peking, or Havana. Remember the reaction of the Red Guard to the "cultural revolution" and the fate of the Chinese college students. Just a few of the violent episodes of bombings or a courtroom shootout that we have experienced here would have resulted in a sweeping purge and mass executions in Russia, China, or Cuba. Let us keep some perspective.
We will start with the system because there is no other place to start from except political lunacy. It is most important for those of us who want revolutionary change to understand that revolution must be preceded by reformation. To assume that a political revolution can survive without a supporting base of popular reformation is to ask for the impossible in politics.
Men don't like to step abruptly out of the security of familiar experience; they need a bridge to cross from their own experience to a new way. A revolutionary organizer must shake up the prevailing patterns of their lives -- agitate, create disenchantment and discontent with the current values, to produce, if not a passion for change, at least a passive, affirmative, non-challenging climate.
"The revolution was effected before the war commenced; John Adams wrote. "The Revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people. . . . This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people was the real American Revolution." A revolution without a prior reformation would collapse or become a totalitarian tyranny.
If a humanist like Alinsky understood this about the nature of man and social change, we Christians should at least give heed to his conclusions concerning tactics. Not bombs but protests and petitions. Not guns but getting people involved in dragging their feet. We need a positive program of changing people's minds about God, man, and law; about family, church, and State, not to mention the economy's We also need a negative program of successful resistance techniques that will get the State off our backs long enough for us to go about the work of positive reformation. Meanwhile, we can gum up the works. That literally happened under Alinsky. Some Christian college was foolish enough to allow students to invite him to speak on campus. A group of disgruntled students met with him after his speech. "How can we change this place? We can't do anything. We can't smoke, dance, go to movies, or drink beer. About all we can do is chew gum." Alinsky told them, "Then gum is your answer."
He told them to get 200 or 300 students to buy two packs of gum each. Chew both packs simultaneously every day, and then spit out the wads on campus walks. As he said, 'Why, with five hundred wads of gum I could paralyze Chicago, stop all the traffic in the Loop." He told them to keep it up until the rules were loosened or abolished. The tactic worked. Two weeks later all the rules were lifted. One new rule was substituted: no gum on campus.
That college administration was weak. Its leaders really did not believe in their own standards. They could have immediately banned gum from the campus the second day, with immediate expulsion as the penalty for anyone caught chew-ing it. But this would have made them look ridiculous to people on the outside. Expelling kids for chewing gum, when other campuses are being bombed by student radicals? The outsiders would never have seen the hundreds of wads of dried gum on the walkways every morning. Bureaucrats never ever want to look ridiculous. They capitulated. They were, in short, fearful bureaucrats. So are most of the people who will give Christians trouble over the next two decades.
We can learn from Alinsky. We must learn how to gum up the works. We must create a new, hypothetical society, "Gummit," which sounds a lot like "Guvmint."
Here are Alinsky's thirteen tactical rules:
Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.
Never go outside the experience of your people.
Wherever possible go outside the experience of the enemy.
Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.
Ridicule is man's most potent weapon.
A good tactic is one your people enjoy.
A tactic that drags on too long is a drag.
Keep the pressure on.
The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.
The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.
If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counter side.
The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.
Pick the target, freeze it, personalize and polarize it.