Primers for Polemicists – Comparing Rules from Harries and Alinsky

… a core concept in Communication Skills and Atlas109


Owen Harries and Saul Alinsky

Concept description

On his Persuasion Blog, Steve Booth-Butterfield has a post subtitled “Rules from the Right and Rules from the Left in the never ending battle of polemics” which compares the 12 rules in Owen Harries’ Primer for Polemicists, published in 1984, with the 13 rules in Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, published in 1971.

Owen Harries’ 12 rules in Primer for Polemicists

Rule 1: Forget about trying to convert your adversary.
Rule 2: Pay great attention to the agenda of the debate.
Rule 3: Preaching to the converted, far from being a superfluous activity, is vital.
Rule 4: Never forget the uncommitted: almost invariably, they constitute the vast majority.
Rule 5: Be aware that, at least potentially, you are addressing multiple audiences.
Rule 6: Be prepared to go around the block many times.
Rule 7: Shave with Occam’s razor.
Rule 8: Be very careful in your use of examples and historical analogies.
Rule 9: When bolstering the authority of what you are saying by the use of quotation, give preference wherever possible to sources which are not identified with your case.
Rule 10: Avoid trading in motives as an alternative to rebutting the opposing case.
Rule 11: Emulate the iceberg.
Rule 12: Know your enemy.

Saul Alinsky’s 13 rules in Rules for Radicals

Rule 1. Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.
Rule 2. Never go outside the expertise of your people.
Rule 3. Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy. Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty.
Rule 4. Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules. You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.
Rule 5. Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.  It is almost impossible to counteract ridicule.  Also it infuriates the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage.
Rule 6. A good tactic is one your people enjoy.
Rule 7. A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.
Rule 8. Keep the pressure on, with different tactics and actions, and utilize all events of the period for your purpose.
Rule 9. The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.
Rule 10. The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.
Rule 11. If you push a negative hard and deep enough, it will break through into its counterside . . . every positive has its negative.
Rules 12. The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.
Rule 13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.

Booth-Butterfield’s conclusion

Although he notes that he is biased philosophically toward the Alinsky orientation, Booth-Butterfield finds the orientation of Harries’ rules more consistent with his view of persuasion, because most of them are driven by “It’s about the Other Guy, Stupid.” By contrast, Alinsky is frequently more focused on “You and Us and how We think and feel and act” as persuasion sources. He finds that although Alinsky’s rules have something to say about the Other Guy (ridicule, pressure), he seems more worried about his teammates’ loyalty, endurance, and motivation while Harries assumes it.


Steve Booth-Butterfield, Persuasion Blog, at, accessed 21 January 2016. The full Harries article can be found at Owen Harries, “Primer for Polemicists,” Commentary, September 1984, pp. 57-60, at, and reproduced by the Libertarian Alliance in 1991 at, accessed 21 January 2016.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Persuading in Communication Skills and  Atlas109 Leadership and Communication Skills.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 14 September 2017.

Image: AlinksyDefeater’s Blog at and Lowry Institute at, accessed 21 January 2016.