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.