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In Politics, what is Gradualism?

By James Doehring
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments
By anon262845 — On Apr 21, 2012

@Nepal2016: Did you seriously just say "Things have to be gradually implemented, but quickly." ? Think about that...

By Nepal2016 — On Oct 19, 2011

Gradualism in the United States is an interesting thing. We change Presidents every four years, and usually the makeup of Congress is different between elections.

Because of that, it is hard to have incremental change because it may not be long before an administration comes in whose goals are the exact opposite of the one before.

Because of this, timing is essential. Things have to be gradually implemented, but quickly. There's nothing worse than being halfway through a big plan and then having it get changed or scrapped altogether.

By KLR650 — On Oct 18, 2011

School integration is an interesting example. The law came upon the nation pretty quickly, and it caused a whole lot of turmoil in the states that had segregated schools.

However, some districts held off integration for many years through court fights and even outright refusing to comply with the order. You may remember the Governor of Arkansas and a whole bunch of police trying to block the door of the local White school, and the 101st Airborne soldiers on scene to enforce the order.

Some of the districts weren't integrated until well into the 70s. So, even radical change can take a long time to implement.

By horsebite — On Oct 18, 2011

There is an old story that says if you try to drop a frog in a pot full of boiling water, he'll jump out. But, if you turn it up one degree at a time he'll just sit there until he's cooked.

I have no idea why you'd want to boil a frog, but it does raise an interesting point. If you spring radical changes on people they are likely to resist. For a politician, this can mean losing their job, so this approach is often avoided. If you sneak in little, incremental changes over a period of years, people are a lot more likely to go for it.

By nextcorrea — On Oct 17, 2011

I think the biggest argument for gradualism is that revolutionary or immediate change is messy, complicated and unpredictable. It is hard to change the would or the course of a nation in a short amount of time and really bring about predictable outcomes.

We have seen that most revolutions eventually devolve into the system they tried to replace. And many revolutions fail because they are poorly planned, executed or theorized about. They are, by their very nature, passionate, and that makes them unstable. They are probably not going anywhere, but we should always strive to change the world gradually and rationally.

By jonrss — On Oct 16, 2011

Its interesting to try and think about history this way. In some cases I can see gradualism in action and would probably even advocate for it. In other cases it seems like the most consequential events happen suddenly and unexpectedly and interrupt any plans that may have already been in place.

That is one of the biggest questions facing any historian? What is the engine that is really driving things? Do things happen gradually or suddenly, and if things happen in both of these ways which is more consequential? These are questions that you can think about endlessly.

By SteamLouis — On Oct 15, 2011

We just learned about this topic in my Political Science course. The Professor talked about how a concept called 'sequentialism' is necessary for gradualism to take place.

Sequentialism says that there is a certain order or procedure for things to happen. For example, if a country wants to go from a dictatorship to a democracy, there are various steps it has to follow to get there. This is both sequentialism and gradualism.

I guess, which path we take to make a change happen depends on what we believe in. Some people believe, for example, that free and fair elections is a step towards democracy. That's why in may countries where there is conflict, international organizations try and hold free and fair elections there as soon as possible (like Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan).

But others believe that free and fair elections doesn't necessarily bring democracy. Especially if an undemocratic party wins the free and fair elections (like in Serbia after the war). This group might prefer a more rapid and revolutionary method to bring about change.

I think I'm in the latter group. I think gradualism doesn't always guarantee a change in the direction we want.

What about you?

By serenesurface — On Oct 15, 2011

Revolutions cause chaos. The change happens fast, but there are usually backlashes and the public ends up paying the price with their lives and poverty.

Gradualism doesn't do that because it gives the system and the public time to adjust to the changes and to take precautions for their well-being.

I think the European Union is a good example of this. It's been a long time since the Union was created but the policies were implemented slowly. A lot of time passed before the common currency was put in place for example. The European countries have mostly reacted really well to these changes and they've all benefited from this gradualist approach.

By candyquilt — On Oct 14, 2011

I think that gradualism is the best way to bring about change, but it will only work if that current administration is willing and capable of making these changes.

If for example, the US administration of the time had been unwilling to end segregation, gradual change would not have been possible. Revolutionary change would eventually become necessary.

So, gradualism is great, but it's not easy to get the favorable conditions to carry that out. You've got to have a democratic and just government that wants to work for the people and change the system in the people's favor, not their own. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen very often. The thousands of revolutions in world's history is there to prove it.

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