Saul Alinsky’s ‘Rules for Radicals’ and 5 Other Unexpected Political Interpretations of Famous Books


Saul Alinsky, the community organizer and author of the book Rules for Radicals, was born on this day in 1909. If you haven’t been involved in political activism, you might recognize Alinsky’s name from the 2008 presidential election, when he was cited over and over as an influence on Barack Obama. A year later, it was reported that leaders in the Tea Party had also started using Alinsky’s book for their own organizational needs. Probably not what the author had in mind. But Alinsky’s isn’t the only book that has been used for political purposes they may not have been intended to serve; here are five others that have been interpreted in ways that range from inspiring to horrifying.

The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli

The Italian diplomat and political theorist’s 16th-century treatise has been used by everyone from politicians to business leaders as a guide to gaining and keeping power. So it should come as no surprise that infamous mob bosses Carlo Gambino and John Gotti were also students of Machiavelli’s famous work. If you’re going to run a crime family, it couldn’t hurt to have the philosophical grounding to do it.

The Kingdom of God Is Within You, Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy is remembered as one of the great novelists of all time, but this book — the result of 30 years’ worth of Christian-anarchist thought — was one of the biggest influences on Mohandas Gandhi’s quest for Indian freedom through nonviolent civil disobedience.

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

If you haven’t heard libertarians from Senator Rand Paul (who claims he wasn’t named after the author) to Whole Foods CEO John Mackey apply this genuinely bad book — or, more generally, Rand’s Objectivist philosophy — to what they do, then you probably haven’t been paying attention to the news for the last few years.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

We hear Bradbury’s classic invoked every time there’s a new book-banning incident. But this is apparently a case of large-scale misinterpretation. According to Bradbury, the novelis actually more concerned with television ruining literature than the government banning books.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche

You know who was a huge fan of Nietzsche’s most well-known work, and believed he could make all that superman stuff come true? Adolf Hitler. Big fan of this book. And if you know anything about Nietzsche, you realize how uncomfortable that would have made him.