Therapy for Radicals
This article is co-authored with Ryan Neugebauer

Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals

In 1971, American activist Saul Alinsky published a book called Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals. Alinsky bemoaned the fact that activists, with “no illusions about the system,” sought to “Burn the system down!” Many of these same activists had “plenty of illusions about the way to change our world.” Alinsky’s playbook on practical strategies for political activism has been appropriated not only by tacticians on the left but also by establishment politicians among liberal Democrats, such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and conservative Tea Party Republicans.

That’s an important point to keep in mind because the issues that we address in this article are applicable to anyone who seeks social change, regardless of its form or direction.

Alinsky’s discussion is, perhaps, more relevant today than it was when it was first published over a half-century ago. He writes:

Today’s generation is desperately trying to make some sense out of their lives and out of the world. … They have seen the almost unbelievable idiocy of our political leadership—in the past political leaders, ranging from the mayors to governors to the White House, were regarded with respect and almost reverence; today they are viewed with contempt. This negativism now extends to all institutions, from the police and the courts to ‘the system’ itself. We are living in a world of mass media which daily exposes society’s innate hypocrisy, its contradictions and the apparent failure of almost every facet of our social and political life. … The young are inundated with a barrage of information and facts so overwhelming that the world has come to seem an utter bedlam, which has them spinning in a frenzy, looking for … a way of life that has some meaning or sense.

Alinsky understands that the “basic requirement for the understanding of the politics of change is to recognize the world as it is.” This is the crucially important starting point of Alinsky’s “rules for radicals.” We begin our analysis with the world “as it is, not as [we] would like it to be.” There is simply “no other place to start from.” Granted, it can sometimes be very “painful to accept fully the simple fact that one begins from where one is,” given one’s assessment of the often unjust and deplorable social conditions under which we live. But “one must break free of the web of illusions one spins about life,” if one’s goal is to change that life fundamentally.

What Does It Mean to Be “Radical”?

In political spaces, the very title of our article, “Therapy for Radicals,” suggests several questions. First: What does it mean to be “radical”? Second: Why do those who identify as advocating “radical” change need “therapy”—and of what sort?

Contrary to what some standard dictionaries tell you, being a “radical” is not synonymous with being an “extremist”—whatever that means—or an advocate of “utopia” (which literally means, “no-place”). As Alinsky has shown us, radicals must begin with someplace, with the real conditions that exist.

The word “radical” is derived from the Latin word radicalis, an extension of the Latin radic- or radix, meaning “root”. Quite literally, to be radical is to go to the root. But genuine radical thinking is not reductionist in its search for “the root”. Problems in a complex social setting can only be understood within the larger contexts in which they are embedded. We will often discover that one problem is connected to a whole network of many problems, each of which is an extension and expression of the others and the system that they jointly constitute. In essence, a dialectical sensibility lies at the heart of radical thinking, strategizing, and activism (Sciabarra 1995, 1-5). Dialectics is the art of context-keeping (Sciabarra 2000, 149; 2024). It provides us with critical techniques that enable us to better process information, improve our understanding of the problems we face, and discover means by which to resolve them both systemically and dynamically.

Radical Thinking and the Cultivation of Wisdom

In seeking to identify a list of “ideal elements” necessary to the development of radical thinking, Alinsky extols the virtues of a free, active, and open mind that engages the world with curiosity, irreverence, imagination, integration, and self-organization, and that helps one to develop “an unreserved confidence in one’s ability to do what [one] believes must be done.” Moreover, in facing a difficult and often tragic world, Alinsky implores us to retain a sense of humor—indeed, we’d argue for a sense of gallows humor—when dealing with the world around us.

Just as important is the cultivation of wisdom. If one seeks to challenge fundamentals and to engage with others, it is not enough to master vast amounts of data and information in developing one’s arguments for change. Wisdom arises by nourishing tacit components in one’s thinking (Polanyi 1966; Lavoie [1985] 2015, 103-4). As Beth Birenbaum (n.d.) tells us: “Wisdom is a complex and nuanced concept. … [It] goes beyond knowledge or information. It involves a grasp of life’s complexities, nuances, and interconnectedness. It’s the ability to see the bigger picture, the underlying patterns, and the consequences of choices.” It depends upon deepening self-knowledge and an understanding of others. It requires us to draw from and practically apply the knowledge and skills we gain over a lifetime of experience. It requires “the ability to analyze situations from multiple perspectives, identify the core issues, consider consequences, and make sound decisions based on that understanding.” As actors-in-the-world, we must “balance multiple roles,” manage and prioritize our time, overcome barriers, and adapt to new challenges. We must exhibit a “willingness to learn” and to reconsider our views when new information comes to light. “By balancing knowledge with understanding, wisdom prevents impulsive choices and cultivates long-term vision, paving the way for a more resilient and thriving future for all.”

Cognitive scientist John Vervaeke adds that wisdom is “the overcoming of self-deception” (Morgan 2024). He views wisdom as both perspectival and participatory (Vervaeke 2019a, episode 40). “Perspectival knowing” involves having a map of where you presently are. “That which is salient and standing out and what you’re focusing on is relevant and what you’re ignoring is irrelevant.” What stands out will vary, depending on the vantage points we take and the levels of generality on which we examine events, issues, and problems. By contrast, “participatory knowing” emerges from the “agent-arena relationship” in which identities are co-defined—who I am and who you are, for example (Vervaeke 2019b). We learn how to operate within that space—that is, we participate in the learning process together, within a larger context.  

Lacking touch with these forms of knowing is one of the problems with typical conspiracy theorizing, which some radicals occasionally fall into. As Elizabeth Preston (2019) observes, while it is helpful to search for patterns in human affairs, people who adopt grand “conspiracy theories are more likely to perceive patterns in random stimuli … and to infer a relationship between unrelated events.” People who adopt conspiracy theories often do so as a “coping mechanism” in the face of “anxiety, uncertainty, and a lack of control”—understandable given the times in which we live. Nevertheless, while these theories may “help people to deal with a problem that just seems too big” to process, they operate outside the realm of “participatory knowing.” They provide canned answers to problems that require evidentiary analysis, attention to detail, and an in-depth understanding of perspective and context. 

Radicals need to cultivate wisdom to better operate in the large-scale, participatory landscape of the society that we wish to change. That requires us to release ourselves from crippling dogmas and to engage in an open-ended discovery process for finding the best ways to alter the socio-political-economic landscape. Sketching out exactly what that is going to look like is beyond the scope of the present article. Nonetheless, it will have to begin by getting a clearer sense of one’s principles and what changes can and should be made at any given moment, within the overall context of the present landscape. Cultivating wisdom provides a more solid foundation from which to operate. Having that solid foundation increases confidence in one’s ability to deal with the world more sensibly, reducing problematic rigidity.

Radical Thinking and the Need for Flexibility

Since radicals begin with the world as it is, their understanding and actions are grounded in extant conditions. But being grounded does not mean being inflexible. Efficacious thinking and acting requires that we make peace with life’s uncertainties. As Barbara Branden observed: “The inability to live with uncertainty is the root of dogmatism, true belief, fanaticism.” Branden’s thought-provoking “definition of maturity is precisely the ability to live with uncertainty … perhaps even to welcome it as a challenge” (in Sciabarra 2000, 95 n20). 

Since living with uncertainty is unavoidable, Alinsky argues that radicals need to be “loose, resilient, fluid, and on the move in a society which is itself in a state of constant change. … To the extent that [we are] free from the shackles of dogma, [we] can respond to the realities of the widely different situations our society presents.”

As co-authors, over the course of our respective lives, each of us has grappled with the “shackles of dogma” in different ways. Ryan’s experience with suffocating ideology began in 2014. During that year, over a five-month period, he got swept up by the ideology of “Anarcho-Capitalism”. He likes to describe it as similar to the depiction of becoming demonically possessed in horror films. Ryan was drawn to its seemingly simple consistency and perceived lack of need for centralized government authority. Got a problem? Nothing the free market can’t solve! Government action, by default, could not do better. Every problem was responded to with a simple response: free individuals coordinating in a free market through free association will solve any problem. If a given problem seems tough to solve, keep the free-market faith! 

Ryan surrounded himself online with like-minded folks, in an echo chamber of sorts, and got into a bitter disagreement with his college roommate (a self-described “Democratic Socialist” at the time) that led them to refrain from communicating for weeks, despite having beds mere feet away from one another. Additionally, Ryan would become anxious when people sent him articles and material that challenged his ideological perspective, suggesting how flimsy it really was. Ultimately, that kind of ideological moment was out-of-character for Ryan, and the self-destructive effects did not sit well with him. Through inner dialogue and reflection, taking a U.S. history course that summer, and listening to alternative views, Ryan was able to open himself to contrary perspectives, move beyond Anarcho-Capitalism, and avoid making the same dogmatic mistake with another ideology thereafter (Neugebauer 2022).      

On the other hand, Chris faced problems of a different sort. As a student in high school, his somewhat conservative views were challenged by the works of Ayn Rand. Rand’s highly charged polemical writings introduced Chris to a broad libertarian intellectual tradition. His undergraduate years at New York University allowed him to study with some of the finest Austrian school economists. By the time he reached graduate school, some of his most precious assumptions were challenged further by his exposure to the works of Marxist political theorist Bertell Ollman, with whom Chris studied for years toward the completion of his doctoral dissertation (Sciabarra 2023). Because Chris absorbed such an eclectic mix of influences, welcoming any chance to ‘think outside the box’, he often found himself at odds with people who were fellow travelers on many core issues, but who could not tolerate any deviation from their norm. Over time, Chris adopted a motto: “Take what gems you can find in each writer and/or school of thought you are exposed to; criticize that which you reject … and MOVE THE F&*K ON!” (Sciabarra 2021).

Inflexible thinking, broadly conceived, is one of the major problems for radicals. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning defines flexible thinking as “the ability to shift gears or change direction to adjust to unexpected circumstances or novel problems.” They further state that “rigid thinkers often resist change, reject redirection, or refuse to see more than one way (their way!) to solve a problem” (“Flexible Thinking …” n.d.). We can all think of examples of radicals who take the “my way or the highway” approach—what is called “all or nothing” thinking in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy—and are extremely convinced that their solution is the only one (“Cognitive Distortions …” 2023). All other perspectives and solutions are cast into the fire! This type of thinking does radicals no favors in addressing the myriad complexities of the world. Nuance is sacrificed and simplistic narratives and solutions are embraced instead (Neugebauer 2024c).   

Additionally, we recommend checking out larger lists of cognitive distortions that cover inflexible and unhelpful forms of thinking, such as “catastrophizing,” “discounting the positive,” and “personalization” (Casabianca 2022). These distortions are especially prominent in an age of mass media and the Internet (Neugebauer 2024b). They are mistakes we all make, radicals and otherwise, which hamper our ability to live free and flourishing lives while attempting to build a better world. Radicals are prone to catastrophizing things (seeing them as worse than they are) and using their perception of catastrophic problems to double down on the necessity of utilizing their solutions alone. Because of this tendency to see everything as bad—no doubt fueled by the perception of the gulf between the society desired and the society that exists—radicals are also likely to discount positive changes that have been made or the potential to make things better incrementally. Indeed, some radicals adopt the nihilistic credo of “accelerationism,” which seeks to advance horrific social conditions—“the worse, the better”—as a means of accelerating a fundamental break from the past (Carson 2021, 254-55). It’s this tendency that often promotes violence as a panacea.

Lastly, radicals are likely to become very personally wrapped up in their ideology by wearing shirts with radical symbols or flying ideological flags (not that there’s anything wrong with these gestures). But by making their ideology a prominent part of their identity, they are more likely to take things personally or react aggressively when their ideology is questioned or criticized. To criticize the ideology is to criticize the person. In all cases, the answer is to widen one’s thinking, reduce the fusion of one’s politics with one’s identity, and properly situate oneself in the world to gain an accurate view of its strengths and weaknesses to more effectively change it, without losing oneself in the process. In striving for freedom for all, we should not sacrifice our own personal flourishing (Neugebauer 2024a).  

Indeed, no matter how committed we are to certain principles, we do ourselves a disservice if we so completely identify with a political agenda that it usurps our personal capacity to flourish. We’ve seen too many high-minded people become so obsessed with changing the world that both their exalted ideals and their own sense of personal identity get eroded over time. They start to reflect the darkness that they oppose, for as Friedrich Nietzsche (1886) warned: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” 

Radical Critiques and Alternatives to the Status Quo

Friedrich Hayek ([1956] 1980, 130) argued that “it must be our privilege to be radical.” But to be radical requires a recognition of the limitations of our knowledge and our own place within the system we seek to transform. We do not exist outside that system. We cannot approach that system from an Archimedean standpoint. We are neither in a ‘state of nature’ nor at the ‘end of history’. The world is not a blank slate, and we cannot make it so. Karl Popper’s repudiation of ‘canvas-cleaning’ frameworks is relevant here. Any attempt to wipe the slate clean—or, more pointedly, to ‘clean’ the slate with the blood of countless innocents—substitutes one form of oppression for another (see Popper [1962] 1971, 167-68).

As Alinsky maintains, “To assume that a political revolution can survive without the supporting base of a popular reformation is to ask for the impossible in politics. … All change means disorganization of the old and organization of the new. … The price of a successful attack [on the status quo] is a constructive alternative.” Or as the I.W.W. once declared, radicals seek to form “the structure of the new society within the shell of the old” (The I.W.W.: What it is, and What it is Not 1920). 

But embracing constructive alternatives, even those that seem unrealistic or “utopian” given the conditions that exist, requires non-totalizing strategies that avoid the pitfalls of top-down “totalizing utopian frameworks” (Novak 2022). Such non-totalizing strategies might involve the building of so-called “parallel institutions”, that is, bottom-up, voluntarily created community-organized agencies that pool their resources in the achievement of common goals (Thompson 2018). It might also involve working within established institutions, even with disparate groups, on an ad hoc basis. We must be open to acting simultaneously within systems and outside them if our goal is to affect a shift in the culture and in social, political, and economic policies.

Just as we must avoid ‘totalizing’ approaches, so too must we avoid ‘atomizing’ ones, given that interconnections exist among events, issues, and problems. It is a difficult practical task to gather and evaluate concrete evidence to trace the nature of those interconnections. Moreover, like Hayek, Alinsky emphasizes the reality of unintended consequences, observing that “in the world as it is, the solution of each problem inevitably creates a new one.” Because “everything is functionally interrelated,” Alinsky warns that we must avoid the danger of segmenting and isolating the issues before us. And though there are times we wish we could strike a match that ‘burns down the system’ or that there was a button we might push to change things in one fell swoop, it must be understood that oppression exists across multiple modalities. It can only be upended over time with alternatives that nourish fundamentally different forms of social relations

On this issue, philosopher André Gorz has introduced the helpful notion of “non-reformist reforms,” which repudiates the binary opposition between those who seek gradual steps toward change and those who advocate a sharp break with the existing order. For Gorz, it is important to develop strategies that make concrete gains. These provide transitional steps toward a fundamental alteration of the system. Incremental shifts have the potential to alter the power dynamics away from established elites (Engler and Engler 2021; Carson 2021, 248). Indeed, throughout history, even when there have been apparent ‘breaks’ with the past, any revolution that is relatively successful is by necessity, an evolution. Just as radicals require persistence, so too must they develop patience. 

Rand (1975, viii) once declared: “Anyone who fights for the future, lives in it today.” The radical project demands much of those who adhere to it. We draw strength from those who share our values, who join us in the struggle for a better world, even as we strive, to the best of our ability, to achieve personal authenticity by practicing the very ideals we extol. Considering our own context helps us to understand our limitations and to fulfill our potential—serving not only a social cause, but our own personal flourishing. These are among the most therapeutic lessons to be learned by any approach honorable enough to call itself radical. 


We would like to thank Eric Fleischmann, Roderick T. Long, and Kevin Carson for their helpful suggestions. The usual caveats apply. 


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Birenbaum, Beth. n.d. “Wisdom: Definition, Benefits, & Quotes.” Berkeley Well-Being Institute.

Carson, Kevin. 2021. Exodus: General Idea of the Revolution in the XXI Century. Center for a Stateless Society.

Casabianca, Sandra Silva. 2022. “15 Cognitive Distortions to Blame for Negative Thinking.” PsychCentral (11 January).

Cognitive Distortions: All-or-Nothing Thinking.” 2023. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Los Angeles (4 October). 

Engler, Mark and Paul Engler. 2021. “André Gorz’s Non-Reformist Reforms Show How We Can Transform the World Today.” Jacobin (22 July).

Flexible Thinking and Adjusting Expectations.” n.d. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning

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The I.W.W.: What it is and What it is Not. 1920. Chicago: Industrial Workers of the World.

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Neugebauer, Ryan. 2022. “Market, State, and Anarchy: A Dialectical Left-Libertarian Perspective.” Center for a Stateless Society (25 April).

Neugebauer, Ryan. 2024a. “Personal Flourishing for Everyone: A Commentary on Human Flourishing Accompanied by 25 People Exploring Personal Flourishing for Themselves.” Medium (3 March).

Neugebauer, Ryan. 2024b. “Sifting through the Noise: Thinking and Engaging in the Age of Mass Media and the Internet.” Medium (11 March).

Neugebauer, Ryan. 2024c. “A Review of William James’s Pluralism: An Antidote for Contemporary Extremism and Absolutism by Wayne Viney.” Medium (11 June).

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1886. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Chapter IV (Apophthegms and Interludes), no. 146

Novak, Mikayla. 2022. “Conceptions of Utopia in Modern Liberal Thought: Is There a Liberal Utopia?Utopian Studies 33, no. 1: 144-60.

Polanyi, Michael. 1966. The Tacit Dimension. London and New York: Routledge and Kegan-Paul.

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Preston, Elizabeth. 2019. “Psychology and the Allure of Conspiracy Theories.” Undark (27 February). 

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Rand, Ayn. 1975. The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature. 2d rev. ed. New York: New American Library.

Sciabarra, Chris Matthew. 1995. Marx, Hayek, and Utopia. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Sciabarra, Chris Matthew. 2000. Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Sciabarra, Chris Matthew. 2021. “DWR (1): Take What You Want and Move the F&*K On!Notablog (7 November).

Sciabarra, Chris Matthew. 2023. “The Challenges of Becoming: Looking Back—and Ahead.” Medium (17 April).

Sciabarra, Chris Matthew. 2024. “It Really Does Depend on the Context.” Center for a Stateless Society (19 February).

Thompson, Clarence. 2018. “So … What is a Parallel Institution Anyway?The Flying University Project (11 November).

Vervaeke, John. 2019a. Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. 50-episode course. YouTube. Transcripts of these lectures can be found here. We quote from Episode 40, “Wisdom and Rationality.” A forthcoming book based on this series is due to be published in 2024.

Vervaeke, John. 2019b. “The View from Above: A Transformation of Perspectival and Participatory Knowledge.” Modern Stoicism (12 October).

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