Skip to content

Summer Reading List: 12 Books To Read On Your Way To A Revolution

2017 July 2
by Greg Satell

Most of the year is pretty hectic. There are meetings, projects and meeting about projects and then maybe a conference call to discuss the next project. With all the running around, it’s hard to find any time to actually think. Summer is a welcome respite from all of the frenzy and hubbub.

While you’re finding some time to relax at the beach or somewhere else, you may get to thinking about things you don’t like in your organization, your industry or in society as a whole and how much you want things to change. After stewing for awhile, you might even get the urge to do something about it.

Of course, as I explain in my TED Talk change isn’t easy. You have to win people to your cause, motivate them to actively participate and overcome entrenched interests. That takes more than just passion, but also strategy, organization and discipline. So for this summer’s list, I’ve got a list of 12 books that will show you how to do all that and truly change the world.


Blueprint for Revolution by Srđa Popović

In 1998, a group of student activists in Serbia set out to bring down Slobodan Milošević’s brutal regime. Two years later, the Belgrade strongman was out, but their movement, called Otpor! (Resist! In Serbian) lived on. They created the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) to train activists in other countries, such as Georgia, Ukraine and Egypt.

This book, written by the Executive Director of CANVAS and Co-Founder of Otpor, is part autobiography and part instruction manual. Popović tells personal stories of his work in Serbia’s “Bulldozer Revolution” and training activists around the globe. It’s powerful, insightful and surprisingly funny.

If you are an aspiring changemaker and read only one book this summer, make it this one!


Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal, Tantum Collins, David Silverman and Chris Fussell

In 2004, General Stanley McChrystal commanded the greatest fighting force in history, with the most highly trained commandos, the most sophisticated technology and the most destructive weapons. Still, while they were winning every battle in Iraq, they were losing the war. They were fighting an enemy that they couldn’t comprehend, much less predict.

McChrystal began to understand that the problem wasn’t of resources or even of strategy, but that of agility and interoperability. He also saw that in order to defeat a network, his forces had to become a network. So the General set out to widen and deepen connections between the individual units under his command and transform them into a “team of teams.”

This is an excellent, informative and highly readable book. One of the co-authors, McChrystal’s former aide-de-camp Chris Fussell, has recently put out a follow-up, One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams.


Regional Advantage by AnnaLee Saxenian

In the 1970s, Route 128 outside of Boston was the center of the technological universe. With firms like DEC and Data General, it looked poised to dominate the nascent computer industry. Its success led to the “Massachusetts Miracle” that helped propel Michael Dukakis to a Presidential candidacy. But by the late 80’s, the mantle had passed to Silicon Valley.

In this meticulously researched book, AnnaLee Saxenian explains why. While Route 128 was focused on the success of individual firms, Silicon Valley fostered an ecosystem that proved, and continues to prove to this day, to be a constant driver of change in the world of technology and beyond. Written over 20 years ago, this book stands the test of time.


Six Degrees by Duncan Watts

Any movement for change is dependent on networks. Whether it is building networks of protesters to bring down a dictator, networking silos in your organization or building industrial ecosystems to create a regional advantage. If you want to understand how to create change, the first step is to understand networks.

Written by a pioneer in network science, Six Degrees explains the basic concepts in this fascinating and highly readable book. Watts not only brings pathbreaking insight, but is also a talented storyteller and brings the ideas to life with vivid examples and case studies. He somehow manages to make cutting edge science fun and enjoyable


Walking With The Wind by John Lewis

Often called “the conscience of the U.S. Congress” John Lewis is a paragon of moral courage and common sense. In this engrossing book, he traces his past from a childhood as a dirt-poor sharecropper’s son, to leadership in the “Nashville Movement” and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as one of the “Big Six” of civil rights.

The book is incredibly candid about not only the incredible victories in securing civil rights, but also his doubts and frustrations. Perhaps most importantly, it shows how important it is for revolutionaries to also take responsibility for governance after the major battles have been won. It’s rare that you find a book that’s so interesting, instructive and inspiring.


Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky

Saul Alinsky practically invented community organizing. Published in 1971, at the height of the counterculture, when other revolutionaries staged sit-ins or advocated violence, Alinsky pushed for creating institutions and winning small, incremental victories. He argued that it was not only conflict, but also a sense of community, that makes change happen.

Considered a classic today, Rules for Radicals provides a blueprint for anyone who wants to make a difference in their community, their industry and throughout society. Although considered to be a left wing icon, its influence has been so great that it was used as an operating manual for the conservative Tea Party movement that emerged after the financial crisis in 2009.


The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson

The Tea Party has undoubtedly been one of the most powerful political movements of our time. Emerging seemingly out of nowhere, it quickly became a force to be reckoned with in American society, driving policy decisions through effective campaigning at a grassroots level. Few political movements have won such pervasive influence so quickly.

Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, both academics at Harvard, spent a year researching the Tea Party, analyzing demographics and conducting extensive interviews with activists. The result is a penetrating study that breaks stereotypes and brings understanding to this quintessential 21st century phenomenon.


This Is an Uprising by Mark Engler and Paul Engler

On the other end of the political spectrum, liberal activists Mark Engler and Paul Engler provide extensive background from historical figures such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King as well as insights from recent movements such as Occupy and Black Lives Matter. Thoroughly researched, it provides a great overview of how movements succeed — and fail.

This one isn’t for everybody and the authors take no great pains to conceal their political bias. Still, if you’re looking for a far reaching review of both contemporary and historical movements, as well as the academic literature that helps drive them, you can’t do much better than this book.


Small Acts of Resistance by Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson

During the Poland’s Solidarity movement in 1982, a boycott was organized against the government’s propaganda-laden evening news. The problem with the boycott was obvious. How do you show others that you’re not watching TV?

The residents of Świdnik, a small city near Lublin, found a way. Instead of watching the news at 7:30, they all went for an evening walk, many carrying their TV sets in carriages and wheelbarrows. Before long, the practice spread to other Polish cities and the boycott turned into a rousing success.

You’ll be amazed at all the ingenious ways to that activists think up to defy the powers oppose them in this delightful book. It’s amazingly instructive, as well as a lot of fun!


The Autobiographies of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela

For all the scholarship and theorizing that has been focused on social movements and what it takes to create transformational change, there is no substitute for a first hand account. These autobiographies by three famous icons are candid, insightful and wonderful reads.


So that’s my list for this summer. I hope you found a few that peaked your interest. Also, as a special bonus, here’s my TED talk about my personal experience with revolution and how I learned about changing the world.


An earlier version of this article first appeared in

4 Responses leave one →
  1. July 7, 2017

    Small acts is a work of pure genius and – although it was way ahead of its time – I think we can see some of this attitude appearing in British life at least.

    I think you’ve probably always had a streak of this in the States, but for us Brits it’s quite a new thing.

    Anyway, thanks for the list – some nice choices.

    Hasta la victoire guys…

  2. July 7, 2017

    Yes! It’s a wonderful book!

    – Greg

  3. July 9, 2017

    Dear Greg,

    It’s clear why you refer to occupy as a failed organisation in terms of this Ted talk, but in terms of the bigger picture it might be useful to lose the term “failed”:
    1. because not all organisations need to last a long time to have a huge impact. I believe history will show occupy’s 99/1% idea will have a massive effect on the world. ( I was not a member by the way, you have not hurt my feelings 🙂 )
    2. By disbursing occupy have spread their message to many new organisations.
    3. More organisations and so more change potential will arise if we develop a culture that has a broader concept of what a success looks like.

    It would be a fascinating book to follow the genesis of the idea and track its influence, how far has it got, what change has the idea influenced so far, as a meme is it still alive or has it morphed into something new?

  4. July 9, 2017


    I see your point, but don’t really see how Occupy achieved any significant objectives, especially considering the millions of man-hours that went into it. I agree that it brought some much needed attention to certain issues, but that’s not really any sort of tangible success. You can achieve the same thing with a TV campaign for far lower cost.

    However, I think the greatest indictment of the Occupy campaign is that the failures were completely foreseeable and avoidable. In fact, I know that about two dozen key activists met with CANVAS trainers, but refused to listen to hard won lessons learned from previous — and successful — movements. They preferred making points to figuring out how they could actually make a difference..

    So yes, I believe that Occupy was a failure and will continue to use that term as long as I see that it fits.

    – Greg

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS