Because I am always seeking ways to feed my ego, I have a tweetdeck column set to look for various terms, and one of them is incrementalists. As you can imagine, the term comes up mostly in contexts that have nothing to do with the book. Some of the things it brings up are pretty ugly—apparently a lot of anti-abortion people don’t like “incrementalists” who want to deny human rights to women a piece at a time instead of all at once.
But, what with the Sanders campaign* and the acrimony within the Democratic Party, the term has been coming up a lot in that context, and there is one particular misconception that I think I can actually address. I keep hearing people demanding to know what’s wrong with incremental improvements, as if that were the question. Posing it that way makes me think of some guy saying, “Well, let me see, do I want to improve things gradually, or all at once? I guess I’ll flip a coin.” It has nothing to do with how society works.
I am convinced that capitalism is driving us backward. “Incremental improvements” are not possible under conditions of the build-up of contradictions between social production and individual ownership, between world-wide economy and political nation-states, between capacity for production and profit-based distribution, between increased productivity and falling rate of profit. Rather than gaining health care in the US, it is being attacked in other countries (notably Britain). Rather than establishing peace, capitalism now requires constant war. Rather than peace at home, the police are increasingly militarized. Income disparity is getting worse. Political repression at home and abroad is on the rise. Backwardness such as white supremacy is becoming more, rather than less acceptable. Efforts to limit birth control and abortion are becoming more, rather than less common. Reactionary state governments are not only trying to work their way into our bedrooms, but into public restrooms as well. Rejection of science in public schools is increasing rather than decreasing. Rather than “spreading democracy around the world” the major imperialist powers are quelling it at home through police violence and domestic surveillance. I, rightly or wrongly, believe this is a consequence of capitalism in its death agony.
Does that mean I am against fighting for universal health care, against defending civil rights, against the fight for free and universal access to contraception and abortion, against fighting for higher pay, against fighting to end war, against attacking racism? No. It means that in my view, in order to fight for any of those things, we have to recognize that capitalism is incapable of supplying them, and so we organize the fight against them as part of the fight to organize the working class around a socialist program.
The key concept here is what Trotsky called transitional demands. A transitional demand can be defined as something that a) the working class needs, and b) capitalism is unable to provide.
You ask me, why aren’t you trying to get universal health care, a higher minimum wage, an end to police violence and war? I ask you, if capitalism is incapable of giving these, then what? Do you surrender, because preserving the profit system is more important than the needs of the people?
And here’s the kicker: sometimes we’re wrong, and capitalism can supply some of those things. In the past, it has done so by extending its life through world war, or sometimes a country can buy off its own working class at the expense of robbing and oppressing the people of other countries. But, on those occasions when capitalism is able to provide certain improvements in conditions, it has only done so with a gun to its head. People speak of the 8-hour day and welfare and medical assistance and unemployment insurance and so on in this country forgetting how hard the working class fought for those things, and how many workers died in the struggle. It is no different in other countries, including those so-called “socialist” Scandinavian countries so often held up as models we should strive to emulate. In other words, if there are reforms to be gained, they are only gained as a by-product of revolutionary tactics, never by supporting this or that capitalist politician.
Workers do not strike unless they feel they have no choice; this is ten times as true for revolution. Given how difficult the period after a revolution is, it isn’t something anyone would call for on a whim, but only because one is convinced it is the only way forward. I firmly believe that capitalism is incompatible with peace, with democracy, with social equality, with human rights. Therefore, when I fight for those things, I do so under a program that does not assume capitalism will be able to supply them, because to do so would be, essentially, to lie to the working class. The task, then, for one who believes that revolution is inevitable, is to prepare for it so that when it comes, it is victorious. And that requires spreading socialist consciousness in the working class, and it is that which guides the activity of the fight for those things the we need.
1. It is not about whether to fight for “incremental” gains, but of what the working class needs, and how to fight for it.
2. If I am correct, and capitalism is unable to meet the needs of the working people, then by fighting for small improvements in such a way that you remain committed to capitalism, you are ultimately betraying even those incremental goals that are so dear to you.
*The irony of people complaining about Sanders because he’s “not incremental enough” is something I won’t get into here.