Skip to content
On this page
🔥 Join our campaign to train 350 million activists!

Book: Rules for Revolutionaries

How Big Organizing Can Change Everything
17 min read
Last update: Aug 19, 2023

The book Rules for Revolutionaries describes lessons learned during the Bernie Sanders campaign. It is written by two experienced political activists, Bond and Exley, who draw on their own experiences as well as scientific research to provide a guide for revolutionaries.

Not to be confused with the book "Rules for Revolutionaries: The Capitalist Manifesto for Creating and Marketing New Products and Services".


Do not be misled by the title: this book is about a political campaign for the US democratic primaries. It is not about a 'revolution' as this word is commonly understood (a forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favour of a new system).

This book is primarily valuable for campaigners working in institutionalised contexts such as election campaigns and nonprofits. However, it also contains some useful insights for activists who do intend to start a revolution in the traditional meaning of the word.

Another thing to take into account: Activist Handbook does not regard the "rules" described in the book as rules that are universally true for all types of activism. Instead, interpet them as strategic and tactical choices that are applicable for some activists, not all.

In this article, we summarise the contents of this book. We know activists are busy people with little time to read a 200+ page book. However, if you find any of their rules as summarised below useful in your activism, we highly recommend you to read the respective chapters in their entirety, as they provides many practical tools! At the bottom of this page, you will also find a critique of the book.


  • Preface: Becky xiii

  • Preface: Zack xvii

  • Why Big Organizing 1

  • The Rules

    • 1 You Won't Get a Revolution If You Don't Ask for One 11

    • 2 The Revolution Will Not Be Handed to You on a Silver Platter 17

    • 3 The Revolution Will Not Be Staffed 25

    • 4 Fighting Racism Must Be at the Core of the Message to Everyone 36

    • 5 Get on the Phone! 41

    • 6 The Work Is Distributed. The Plan Is Centralized 49

    • 7 The Revolution Will Be Funded-by Small Donations 64

    • 8 Barnstorm! 72

    • 9 Fight the Tyranny of the Annoying 83

    • 10 Give Away Your Passwords 90

    • 11 Don't Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Big 95

    • 12 Learn the Basics of Good Management 109

    • 13 If There Are No Nurses, I Don't Want to Be Part of Your Revolution 116

    • 14 Grow Complexity by Solving Problems as They Arise 120

    • 15 Only Hire Staff Who Embrace the Rule "The Revolution Will Not Be Staffed" 133

    • 16 Best Practices Become Worst Practices 139

    • 17 The Revolution Is Not Just Bottom Up; It's Peer to Peer 145

    • 18 Repeat "Rinse and Repeat" 153

    • 19 There's No Such Thing as a Single-Issue Revolution 159

    • 20 Get Ready for the Counterrevolution (to Include Your Friends) 163

    • 21 Put Consumer Software at the Center 166

    • 22 People New to Politics Make the Best Revolutionaries 177

  • This Is How We Win 183

  • Acknowledgments 189

  • Timeline 197


Rule 1: You Won’t Get a Revolution If You Don’t Ask for One

If you promise small incremental changes, people will not think your campaign is worth their time. Movements need clear requests for solutions that match the scale of our challenges.

In addition, ask people to contribute in ways that actually help further progress towards your big goal. People are more likely to commit to big asks if they believe it makes an actual impact, than they will commit to small things they do not believe will make impact.

Rule 2: The Revolution Will Not Be Handed to You on a Silver Platter

You can't customise the revolution to your liking. You have to dare to take on big challenges. Expect big obstacles if you are fighting for big change. Often, it's in the middle of turmoil that you find the best situations for introducing radical changes.

Rule 3: The Revolution Will Not Be Staffed

If you want big change, you will never have enough money to hire enough organizers to achieve your goals. The people who care about the issue are your best resource. They can volunteer their time and skills to make things happen. A few dedicated volunteers can do as much as a paid staff member. All you need is a list of people who are ready to take action and you can start building a strong organization. Every time you hear "we do not have the capacity for that", reply: "can a team of volunteers do it?".

Example: You might be afraid to welcome too many new volunteer groups all at once, because you do not have the capacity to support them. However, a team of more experienced volunteers might be able to do that for you. Here is a way to set up such a team quickly:

"Step 1: Email a list of between one hundred and one thousand individuals selected as candidates for the team, inviting them to join a conference call. This list could be a random selection of our list, in which case I’d have to email one thousand, or it could be a list based on criteria from the database designed to target people more likely to succeed on the team.

Step 2: Conduct a conference call with the between ten and fifty prospective team members who typically signed up to join. I’d explain the team’s purpose, the type of work it would involve, and also the big picture of how we were running a volunteer-driven campaign that would depend on volunteer teams to function.

Step 3: If possible, give the volunteers a task to do to make it onto the team. This would weed out people who, despite the best of intentions, were not serious about doing the work. Sometimes in the beginning, however, I was too busy to set people up with a task and evaluate all the results, so I just let people get started based on a promise that they really wanted to work.

“Step 4: Invite a subset of people from the original call who seem to really want to do the work—either because they did the task or promised to—onto another call. On the second call, choose a leader (or two or three coleaders), cover more details about how to get started, and answer questions.

Step 5: Invite the team to a Slack channel or in some other way get them together so that they can productively communicate.

Step 6: Pray they will make it!”

Excerpt from Rules for Revolutionaries by Becky Bond and Zack Exley (2016)

Rule 4: Fighting Racism Must Be at the Core of the Message to Everyone

A revolution must have these essential elements: people of color and immigrants as the leaders, anti-racism and anti-xenophobia as the main values, and white people who persuade other whites to join the multiracial movement instead of succumbing to fear and hate.

Rule 5: Get on the phone!

To build stronger connections, stay updated with the situation, and solve hard problems, you need to communicate in real time even in our digital world. Good organizing means calling people every day. Use the newest tools for online meetings and scheduling to have more effective conversations with more people.

Rule 6: The Work Is Distributed. The Plan Is Centralized.

A central plan is essential for distributed organizing, even if the tasks are divided among different people. Don't just let things happen randomly, create a connected system of production. Give parts of the work from a central, strategic campaign plan to a network of volunteer leaders who can work in different places and times, and with enough numbers, to achieve specific goals that make victory possible.

Rule 7: The Revolution Will Be Funded—by Small Donations

A movement that relies on wealthy donors is doomed to fail. The people you want to mobilize are the ones you should focus on, and they will provide the necessary resources as your movement grows. Avoid becoming part of the system that exploits the people you want to help by pretending to represent them while depending on their indifference. Learn more about fundraising.

Rule 8: Barnstorm!

Mass meetings are a tool to organize people into groups and start working right away. Keep improving your method to make your meetings more effective by iterating over time. The ability to repeat your meetings is essential for growing your movement.

Rule 9: Fight the Tyranny of the Annoying

Keep your movement inclusive and welcoming by dealing with disruptive activists appropriately. Sometimes, a person with too much free time can take over a group and discourage the kind of people you want to join. Even if they have good intentions, it's better to ask them to leave your groups, and to create a healthy culture where they won't stop the revolution. Do not let a few bad apples become the reason not to trust volunteers at all.

Rule 10: Give Away Your Passwords

Don't be afraid to take chances and invite as many people as you can to join your cause and let them speak for themselves. Trusting them, with some clear boundaries, can create a community that grows.

Rule 11:Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Big

To scale up your impact, you cannot aim for perfection and depend on your existing resources. You have to delegate important tasks, training, and leadership roles to volunteers.

Rule 12: Learn the Basics of Good Management

To lead a revolution, you need good management skills. Social change is hard and slow. People care a lot and want to do their best. But you can't do it alone, you need a team. And a team needs a good management culture.

Rule 13: If There Are No Nurses, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution

Nurses are professionals who value care, empathy, and community, and they are strong supporters who can bring many others to your side. They have a practical professionalism that is honest and genuine, and they know from experience how the most critical issues of our time, such as economic justice, immigration rights, and environmental protection, can affect people's lives and health.

Rule 14: Grow Complexity by Solving Problems as They Arise

When you are part of a movement, campaign, or revolution that is successful, things are changing and growing too quickly to plan everything in advance. But to become bigger, you need to deal with more and more complex issues. You can increase complexity by finding solutions for the real problems that come up in dialogue with the leaders who are involved.

Rule 15: Only Hire Staff Who Embrace the Rule “The Revolution Will Not Be Staffed”

A good rule for revolutionaries is to respect and appreciate the volunteer leaders who are doing most of the work. When you have the chance to hire more people, avoid those who might look down on, offend, or discourage the volunteers. And if you realize you have hired someone like that, let them go as soon as possible.

Rule 16: Best Practices Become Worst Practices

Our world is always changing, so what worked well before might not work well now. Don't stick to the same old ways of doing things. Keep checking if they are still good or not, and be ready to change them or get rid of them if something else works better.

Rule 17: The Revolution Is Not Just Bottom Up; It’s Peer to Peer

A successful movement empowers its leaders from the grassroots to collaborate as equals in a framework that helps them achieve their goals and grow. Your supporters have many skills and backgrounds; respecting them as equals is the best way to encourage them to take on leadership roles; working with them as you would with paid staff is the best way to retain them as leaders while enhancing their abilities.

Rule 18: Repeat “Rinse and Repeat”

To change the world, you need a lot of people working together with the right tools. You should teach your supporters some simple and effective methods that they can use over and over again to achieve your common goals. But that's not enough. You also need to find a way to keep growing your movement with new people.


  • Rinse and repeat: In the Bernie Sanders campaign, the campaign team identified calling potential voters as the most impactful action volunteers could engage with. Everyone could log into an online system from home, in the bus or anywhere else and start calling voters using a script.

  • Repeat: During so-called 'barnstorms', big events of 50-100 people, they motivated new people to either host a small call event (getting together in a living room to call potential voters together, 10-20 percent of the room), or to participate in one (70-80 percent of the room). They trained volunteers to organise these barnstorms.

Rule 19: There’s No Such Thing as a Single-Issue Revolution

The revolution concerns everything. The people belong to communities that face various problems, and our fights are interrelated. That's why the revolution cannot be limited to one issue. Moreover, it will require all of us, each driven by the issues that directly affect us, collaborating to build the revolution. Learn more about intersectionality.

Rule 20: Get Ready for the Counterrevolution (to Include Your Friends)

When you are working for big change, and you are close to success, many people - even some you thought were on your side - will try to stop you. You will be shocked, puzzled, and waste time and energy if you are not ready f or the backlash.

Rule 21: Put Consumer Software at the Center

The way we use software on our devices has changed how we manage our lives and connect with others, and it is the new area where organizing can work or fail. With good use, tools that are free or cheap and open to everyone can make things easier and help teams collaborate across time and space for common goals. A bit of custom code can fill any important gaps that come up. Check out our tools chapter for more information.

Rule 22: People New to Politics Make the Best Revolutionaries

A growing movement attracts many people who are new to politics. Don't burden these eager leaders with outdated ideas from previous movements. We are not winning enough with our current leaders, so we should welcome more and new leaders.


Improve this section: The following section is an adaptation of a review written by Amanda Tattersall. This section is not written in the usual style and language of Activist Handbook, taking the perspective of a single person.

We encourage you to rewrite this section. Feel free to add other perspectives. Just click the blue edit bottom on the bottom right to get started!

You have probably heard of Rules for Radicals, an old but still living set of strategies designed for changing the world, written by the grandfather of community organising – Saul Alinsky.

It is that book, or at least its title, that inspired Becky Bond and Zack Exley to write Rules for Revolutionaries following their whirlwind experience working on the Bernie Sanders US Primary Campaign in 2016.

The book is a fast past narrative of that campaign. It is an insiders guide to how they built one of the most expansive field campaigns in US political history. The book documents the way in which these skilled campaigners cleverly intersected digital campaigning, volunteer field efforts, “revolutionary” phone banking alongside some old-school community organising.

But, there are some fundamental weaknesses in the argument it presents. My motivation in writing this review is to caution campaigners, organisers and activists to not take these so called “rules” as gospel.

I have called the review “Tactics for Mobilisers” for a reason. It’s based on my two fundamental critiques of the book.

  • My first concern is that the book’s “rules” can be better described as “tactics” for campaigning.

  • Secondly, I argue that while the book argues that it’s strategy is one of “revolution,” it is much better understood as describing the more familiar strategy of mobilisation.

Tactics, not rules

Lets start with the book’s claim about being a list of “rules.” It’s always bold to borrow from a giant like Saul Alinsky. Bond and Exley’s title bravely makes an allusion to the book Rules for Radicals, and in doing so they imply that they might speaking with the same authority. The 1972 Rules for Radicals is one of the most potent texts about social change written in modern times. This is not because of its occasionally offensive manner or exaggerated stories, but because it sought to identify universal lessons for how we work in public life that can be transported across different contexts. The “Rules” weren’t statements like “hold a rally in this way”, they were more a fundamental commentary about public life – borrowing from social psychology, theology, philosophy, public action and political theory. Alinsky’s rules were statements like “if you push a negative hard enough it will push through and become a positive” or “ power is not only what you have but what your target thinks you have.” The Rules were necessarily obtuse. They required active discussion and translation to make them work. That’s the point of rules; they require interpretation, deep thinking, collective analysis.

The “Rules” in Rules for Revolutionaries do not pass this test. They are instead tactical observations about running a big (electoral) campaign. Don’t get me wrong, they include great tactical observations about how a campaign can be won – but they are not more than that. Rules like “get on the phone,” “the revolution will be funded by small donations” and “barnstorm” are explicitly tactical. That’s not bad. They are a great guide for campaigners who want to run a participatory phone banking system or to organise people into teams using face-to-face town hall meetings. But they aren’t “Rules.” They aren’t concepts that are open to contextual interpretation. They aren’t ideas that can be explored and improved when discussed. They are surface level descriptors of a strategy that was recently implemented. Indeed, I would worry if they were rules because they are internally contradictory and sometimes a little self-righteous.

Take the “Rule” – “the work is distributed, the plan is centralised.” This is an argument for highly coordinated campaigns. That makes total sense in an electoral context where you have one objective – a candidate’s win – over a whole nation. It makes no sense, however, when it comes to running the climate movement. Climate issues don’t operate at a single scale – they run from the neighbourhood, to the state, the nation, the global and to corporations– all have potential targets and there are thousands of potential, integrated campaign strategies. If you “centralised” climate strategy you would risk loosing many of your leaders (at best) if not totally pissing them off. Imagining climate campaigners deciding they were going to centrally coordinate the Standing Rock campaign. Wait, don’t imagine that! Take another example from the US, the amazing living wage campaigns that have raised minimum wages for over 20 years are not “centralised.” They are decentralised to cities and municipalities and only now are scaling out to capture some corporate giants like McDonalds. They would have failed if someone had tried to centrally coordinate all of them from Washington. Yet the Rules for Revolutionaries “rule” argues that this should have been done!

There is a universal rule about how to stage the geography of a campaign, but it doesn’t take a position in favour of “coordination and centralisation” over “localism and autonomy.” The universal is to simply recognise that every campaign has to handle the tension between “coordination versus autonomy” and needs to trade off that tension in how it runs its campaign (Tattersall 2010). Tending towards coordination makes central planning easier, and long term volunteer engagement harder. Tending towards autonomy makes planning more diffuse but meaningful volunteerism easier. Choosing which strategy a campaign needs to emphasise depends on the changing dynamics of the campaign.

The weakness of Bond and Exley’s “rule” played out in the Sanders campaign, if you put it in a longer term context. While the centralisation was able to effectively produce good mobilisation when motivated by a clear electoral goal and a series of transferable tactics, the campaign did not sustain volunteer engagement in an ongoing campaign infrastructure. As Marshall Ganz has noted – it didn’t build long term organising structures, which then lead to the dissipation of the large numbers of people who were initially engaged (Ganz, 2017).

Mobilisation, not revolutionary

This is a useful segue to my second major concern with the text – and that is its claim about presenting a “revolutionary” method. That too is a bold claim and in the book it is mixed up with a whole bunch of fairly pejorative phases like “big organising” versus “small organising.”

When you call something “revolutionary” you are making a claim that it is new and extremely powerful. The trouble is that the book doesn’t live up to either of these claims. What they describe as new is something I recognise as an older tradition – called mobilising. What they describe as powerful is sadly something that didn’t last (sadly like most mobilising strategies).

Both of these gaps reveal that the authors misunderstand community organising. Indeed the book creates quite a few “strawmen” in order to argue that the Sander’s campaign is something new and different, as compared to the “old ways” of Alinsky style organising.

It’s worth running through some of these gaps.

Firstly, there is nothing new about contrasting face-to-face community organising (“old organising”) and fast paced turn out (“big organising). What is frustrating is that Bond and Exley selectively interpret history to create hard and fast contrasts in this space. For every historical example they use, like Fight for 15 or Black Lives Matter, they use it to prove that big is “better” than small. Sadly there is some inaccuracy and inexperience revealed in their categories. They awkwardly use the term “one on one” to describe relational meetings – yet no community organiser would describe a meeting as “on” someone else (Bond, Exley 2016, 76)! Exley puts union organising and broad-based IAF organising in the same category. As a former union organiser then broad-based community organiser I can categorically tell you they aren’t very similar. What is similar about them is they seek to build organisations, which is a point that is under-explained in the book.

Bond and Exley use the terms “old organising” and “big organising”, but using the traditional terms “organising” and “mobilising” would have better served them. That is what they are describing. Using the term “big organising” confuses the reader. After all, what they describe in the book is how, inspired by an extraordinary candidate, they mobilised thousands of people to work in groups, to undertake fairly simple tasks (mainly phone banking) to turnout people for a primary election.

If they had used less pejorative terms they might have had a more sophisticated analysis. A better way to analyse the difference between organising and mobilising is to say that you need both. The argument, dare I say “rule,” is that there is a time to organise and a time to mobilise. Indeed, any sophisticated analysis of Fight for 15 shows that it was the robust interconnection of one to one work, alongside mass turn out, that made the campaign sing. Indeed, even the Bernie campaign used both one to one organising strategies alongside their mobilising work (for instance much of their phone banking strategy tried to use principles from broad-based organising). Dare I say it, the Sanders campaign used both old organising and big organising!

However, it is also true that both organising and mobilising are not beyond critique. Indeed its quite clear that we aren’t winning and we have some learning to do.

There is a critique to be had of Alinsky style organising. Having set up Australia’s first Alinsky style organisation – the Sydney Alliance – I know too well how hard it can be to turn deep, relational work into campaigns that can move enough people and power to transform the city. We struggled to develop mass action over time. It never felt like we had the time or space to do that work alongside our commitment to putting leaders in charge and training them to lead our work. Indeed, I am currently doing a post-doctoral fellowship exploring this question of what it might take to build bigger organising strategies using a relational approach.

That said, mobilising (so called “big organising”) is riddled with problems too. I felt it in the 2003 Walk against the War movement against the War in Iraq, where in Sydney we had 500 000 people rally against the War, yet they slowly dissipated. We deployed much tactical mastery, including trialling some of the earliest digital organising techniques ever used for activism in Australia, but after the heat went out of the issue and the war went ahead, people’s interest in political activity went too.

This is precisely what happened with the Bernie campaign. While there was passionate interest in his candidacy, when the “heat went out of the issue” and Clinton became inevitable, the people left. The problem is that mobilisation (or “big organising”) uses the issue to organise the people – and when the issue changes and fails, then the people leave. The advantage of community organising (old organising) is that relationships and a broad set of interests engage leaders, and so even if the issues change the people stick around. The obvious sweet spot is having enough people “organised” so that you can “mobilise” a larger number of people around issues – but still – when the issue changes the “organised” group is still committed to ongoing action.

Mobilising strategies are also limited in how they treat people. People are often seen as a deployable army rather than as leaders who have the capacity to create their own destiny. The book, at times, falls victim to the language of seeing leaders as people who “act for you” not “with you.” Bond and Exley argue that you want to find tactics that you can “rinse and repeat.” The idea is that if you find a tactic that volunteers can do and is useful, you just repeat it over and over again. While its understandable that a highly scalable campaign needs patterns of work, the way this is explained in the book raises alarm bells. It implies that “the little people” are out there doing the rinsing and repeating, while the important people sit back and do the important work. It feels mechanical and machine line – it doesn’t feel very dignified let alone revolutionary.

I have strong opinions about this book, and one of them is – its worth a read. This is an interesting tale of a fascinating campaign where a lot of brilliant and creative tactics were used. But you need to take it, and its “rules” with a grain of salt. Don’t hold the categories it presents as “the truth” – bring a critical eye to what you read and use that curious posture to think about the kinds of creative, imaginative, deep and broad organising strategies we need to create a better world.

  • The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century by Pam Chamberlain (2008)

  • Doing Democracy: A Guide to Effective Citizen Action by David Cobb and Jason McQuinn (2001)

  • Get Up, Stand Up: A Guide to Activism, Leadership, and Change by Peter Dreier (2013)

  • The New Activist's Handbook: A Primer for the 1990s and Beyond by Randy Shaw (1995)

  • Street Politics: The Local Fight for Global Justice by Mark Day (2007)

  • Taking on the System: Strategies for Making Change in an Unforgiving World by Bill Moyer (2015)

External resources


Work from the following resources was reused on this page:

We're building the Wikipedia for activists

And you can help us. Join our our international team, or start a local group of writers.

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike logo
You can reuse this content!
Just make sure to give attribution to Activist Handbook and read our licence for the details. Want to use our logo? Read our design guide.
All our work is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence, unless otherwise noted.
Improve this page!