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Gradualism is slow, continuous political change brought about by incremental reforms. It stands in contrast with revolutionary change, which can abruptly alter the structure of society. There are plenty of examples in history of gradual change versus abrupt change, including the reforms of the Progressive Age in the United States in contrast with the more sudden 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. In modern politics, gradualism is the doctrine that social change should be brought about within the framework of existing law — in other words, long-term goals can best be achieved by pursuing incremental steps rather than triggering the instability that accompanies abrupt change.
Revolutionary Change in Russia
German philosopher Karl Marx argued against gradualism as the way to improve the living conditions of the lower class. He believed that capitalism was inherently unstable and that the social friction that it caused would bring about its downfall. Rather than pushing for incremental change, he called for the working class to violently overthrow the existing social structure. Only then, according to Marx, could inequality between people be overcome.
Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin played the central role in putting Marx’s theories into practice. The October Revolution of 1917 was an armed insurrection in modern-day Saint Petersburg, Russia, that overthrew the existing government. The Russian Civil War broke out shortly thereafter and ended five years later, with Lenin as the leader of a communist government. Like Marx, Lenin believed that the road to socialism would not be accessible by following existing laws. The use of violence to completely and rapidly reshape society is the opposite of gradualism.
Progressive Change in the U.S.
The experience in the United States during this time was very different. Between the 1890s and 1920s, the U.S. implemented laws to address corruption, give women the right to vote and improve working conditions for poor laborers. Although some violent protests occurred, these reforms were ultimately brought about through the democratic process. Many of them became amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Arguments For and Against Gradualism
Gradualism has been the subject of political debate. Many U.S. politicians during the 1960s favored racial integration of public schools but opposed any hasty changes — they argued that a sudden end to segregation in schools would bring about costly instability and violence. Opponents of this policy, however, claimed that such gradualism put off making real change. According to them, there was no justification for continuing the policy of segregating black and white students any longer. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, it outlawed racial segregation in schools.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is gradualism in the context of political change?
Gradualism in politics refers to the belief or approach that changes should be implemented slowly, step by step, rather than through sudden or radical reforms. This strategy is often employed to ensure stability and to allow time for society to adapt to new policies or systems. Gradualism can be seen in various political systems and is often contrasted with revolutionary change, which advocates for rapid and significant transformations.
Why do some politicians and political theorists favor gradualism?
Politicians and theorists may favor gradualism because it is seen as a more pragmatic and less disruptive approach to change. Gradual implementation of policies allows for adjustments and refinements based on feedback and results, reducing the risk of unintended consequences. Additionally, gradualism can help build consensus and support for reforms, as it provides time for the public and stakeholders to understand and accept changes.
Can gradualism be effective in addressing urgent issues like climate change?
While gradualism is often criticized for being too slow to address urgent issues, it can still play a role in creating sustainable and long-term solutions. For instance, in the case of climate change, gradualism might involve phased targets for reducing emissions or incremental improvements in energy efficiency. However, many experts argue that while gradual steps are necessary, they must be part of a more ambitious and time-sensitive plan to effectively combat urgent issues like climate change.
How does gradualism compare to radicalism in achieving political goals?
Gradualism and radicalism are two ends of a spectrum in achieving political goals. Gradualism advocates for slow and steady change, believing it to be more sustainable and less likely to cause resistance. Radicalism, on the other hand, calls for swift and comprehensive change, often through dramatic actions or revolutions. While radicalism can lead to quick results, it also carries a higher risk of instability and backlash. The effectiveness of each approach depends on the specific context and the nature of the goals pursued.
Are there any historical examples where gradualism has been successfully implemented?
One historical example of successful gradualism is the British approach to decolonization after World War II. Instead of abrupt withdrawal, the British government often negotiated gradual transitions to self-government, as seen in the cases of India, Ghana, and Nigeria. This approach allowed for the establishment of stable political structures and minimized immediate chaos. Another example is the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, where gradual legal changes, such as the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, were instrumental in dismantling institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination.