“Incremental Improvement” vs transitional demands

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.

To summarize:
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.

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25 thoughts on ““Incremental Improvement” vs transitional demands”

  1. Is the request from the revolutionary leaders to capital during the transition made to illustrate that capital won’t or can’t meet the request, thus educating the working class? How to ensure that a broad swath of the working class learn of the request, and capital’s subsequent response or lack thereof? Surely not relying on corporate-controlled mainstream media sources…

  2. Kragar: Good question. (Translation: I should have been clearer). The revolutionary party fights within the working class for its program, which program includes, for example, 30 for 40 (30 hours week for 40 hours pay) to fight unemployment, free universal health care, an end to homelessness, free universal higher education. The fight is to convince broader and broader layers of workers that these are things they deserve and require and can achieve, and that capitalism cannot supply them, thus making them more aware of the contradiction between what they need and what the system can supply, while simultaneously showing that there is a revolutionary way forward. Some workers respond to some aspects of the program, some to none of it, and the most advanced to most or all of it. As the crisis of capitalism deepens, these slogans make more and more sense to broader and broader layers.

    As for getting the message out, it involves legwork: being there at strikes (as the WSWS is currently involved in the Verizon strike), plus its own press or online resources, and trying to reach people through those.

    Did that clarify it at all?

  3. I think one can be committed to democracy without being committed to capitalism… and I do view it as far, far more likely to get results. Revolutions are messy chaotic affairs, easily hijacked, unpredictable. Democracy, is a predictable if slow method, and it means if you get enough supporters, you can and will get your way, you just need to convince enough people to do so.

  4. ZeroiaSD: If the bosses won’t give you a 10% wage increase without a strike, during which they likely bringing in thugs and cops to break the picket line, what makes you think they will give up everything they own without a fight? Has any class ever surrendered its property and privileges to another class peacefully? Ever?

  5. ZeroiaSD, IMO democracy as we understand it today isn’t a system of government. It’s a means of selecting who will govern you, usually from a slate of very bad choices. As such democracy is not inconsistent with fascism or Stalinism or Chavezism or corporatism or any other government that arose from manipulating uneducated voters to form a temporary majority in order to develop a power base.

    That doesn’t mean democracy is necessarily bad, but it’s not an end in itself because it can promote any arbitrarily bad government you like including the worst in history. And of course the American system is only weakly and distantly democratic because of the obscenely unfair system of primaries and the even more grotesque application of money for media control during the general elections.

  6. Steven, when I first started reading your political ideas, I thought they made sense in the context of your assumptions. I thought other assumptions might work better, and over time we’d get a better sense of what was actually workable.

    I didn’t like it that you seemed so completely sure of your ideas which fit some historical contexts but which might not fit our current context. With experience we would find out what actually works.

    I hate to say it, but with time I find your ideas make more and more sense for here and now.

  7. skzb: I’m not saying without a fight. Definitely struggle, definitely press. Strike, struggle, use tools, any tool, every tool. But if you don’t get everything today, that doesn’t mean you’ve lost, it can put you in a better position to fight tomorrow. If you can only get some gain, take it, then *keep fighting*.Do a strike, if you can’t get a 10% raise, get a 6%, take the win, and in the process you tell everyone a strike can *work*, and have your eye forward on the next opportunity. If the only thing you can win is another tool, then don’t throw it away, take it and horde it up for the next round. If it takes you three strikes to get what you want by getting a smaller amount each time, so be it, you won, it just took time. That’s incrementalism. It’s not settling for a little, it’s making a gain and building on it.

    And sometimes even acting with incrementalism in mind ends up breaking a wall down and things go faster than expected- it’s all about grabbing what you can, when you can, and if that’s a moderate win, ok, plan for next time to get more, and if there’s an opportunity for a lot, take it all without any guilt, but don’t turn down progress because it’s not enough progress.

    I feel not going for gains in favor of an ideal hurts one’s ability to get into a position to get more gains. A gain improves your position. Involvement and success shows people you can win, and gets you more people to support you because they believe you can win, until you win. Be anti-incrementalism, and you don’t grow your strength for your next fight- if you don’t big win today, then you don’t even have better odds of winning tomorrow, because you aren’t stronger, you may be weaker. Get a win today, and the fence sitters sit up and say, “Hey, maybe we can change things.” And maybe even some of your foes may just go “Hey, maybe this isn’t so bad, maybe I don’t have to fight this so hard,” or just be like a frog in boiling water and not notice when you’ve pushed them into defeat.

    I mean, when I look at civil rights- Black rights, women’s rights, gay rights, transgender rights. They all got there by fighting inch by inch. And they gained major gains they almost certainly wouldn’t if they were too caught up in the ideal to accept gains. The victories there were not won by insisting on a big all-or-nothing clash, they were about building groundwork and smaller wins in preparation for the big fights, so that when the big fights came, it was less a crapshoot and more an organized machine that knew how to win.

    There’s far more success in history from fighting inch by inch and building movements than there is in purity that is only satisfied with total victory. Total victory is the goal, not the method, and the important thing is getting there any way you can.

  8. “There’s far more success in history from fighting inch by inch and building movements than there is in purity that is only satisfied with total victory.”

    That turns out not to be the case. The “inch by inch” gains have, on the contrary, only come as a by-product of a fight that threatened revolution. See all of the examples in the OP.

  9. skzb: At the same time, those who threaten revolution and reject incremental wins lose. They cut themselves out of victory, out of progress. And the situations I mention were all progress won inch-by-inch, and that is by no means a complete list. They changed the public perception with small wins. Even ones that end up with big wins, usually got into that position with an overlooked chain of small wins.

    That’s what incrementalism is- it’s not not-going for big wins, it’s taking everything you can, building strength. If you don’t have the strength to big win today, then your threats of revolution are hollow, and you won’t get small wins or big wins. If you have the strength win small today, then you use it so you can win big tomorrow.

    Aiming for the top is good. Cutting off small progress or trying to only rely on all-or-nothing, results in sound and fury amounting to nothing. See the Tea Party. This is what I worry with a lot of Bernie supporters- They’re going to throw the dice, and because they lost today- because they were in truth the minority and did not have the people to win- that rather than try and build up to that, they’re going to go home and leave whoever comes next to have to build from the ground floor rather than off of their progress.

  10. “At the same time, those who threaten revolution and reject incremental wins lose.” Never have so far.

  11. skzb–

    Yes, your response filled in some gaps for me, thanks. I have been studying the mainstream media intensely since about 2001, and I see the ways the range of acceptable debate is controlled. I would be concerned that the revolutionary demands would be absolutely ignored, and any mainstream media person who tried to report on them deemed to have committed career suicide. Makes sense that direct actions and alternative information sources would be key to getting the message out.

  12. It took 50 or 60 years for the oligarchs and their GOP toadies to make things this bad. It might take many years to turn that around completely. It takes dedication and continued and relentless pressure.

    Right now, it can be easily argued that the oligarchs have gone so far that they have actually reduced their profits in the name of making the working class miserable. That is a tool that can be used.

    They also are afraid of instability, and strikes or possible revolts would cause instability. That is another tool to be used.

    Educating people to not join the military will hurt the perpetual war. Another tool.

    This will likely be a long fight.

  13. It seems like the “Cycle of revolution” bears a lot of resemblance to the classic cycle of abuse. The abusers (capitalists, the Oligarchy) try to claim more and more power while adding less and less until the abused (the working class) finds conditions intolerable and lashes out to reclaim the power they have given away.
    Unfortunately, to this point in time, it has been a continuing repeating cycle. Marx was astute in identifying it as such and proposed an end state in which the abusers are removed from the equation. That seems desirable but exactly how to get to that goal is ill-defined. I’m not sure it is even possible to define a fully successful transition period.
    In more current terms, we can look at this as a singularity event. We can see what things look like on this side and where we want to go but the nature of the actual event is obscure. In these terms, it can also be argued that the nature of the post singularity is also obscured and influenced by the nature of the singularity itself.

  14. I think of it more as a spiral than a cycle. Yes, revolutions in the past have resulted in the oppressed continuing to be oppressed, but we’ve meanwhile gained democratic rights, moved toward equality, and increased the productive forces each time. Each revolution involves progress. That kind of “incrementalism” I’m comfortable with.

  15. Kind of like a spiral–but maybe even more like quantized electron states. Rather than a continuous spiral, there are discrete jumps throughout history. At a particular energy level (economic system) some small incremental changes can be made, but to get to the next level requires a discrete break from the last level.
    I kind of like that mental image–a general slow spiral upward with jumps between levels. Of course, what can jump up can also fall down–again, the capitalist/oligarchs want to suck the energy out of the system for their own use and send progress back down.

  16. Yeah, that seems right, except I think it has less to do with the desire of oligarchs than the position they find themselves in. Oligarchies don’t happen unless a class feels sufficiently threatened that it fears it can’t hold onto power using cheaper methods (repressive governments are expensive governments).

  17. skzb,

    I think you do an excellent job of laying out the problem, or perhaps a series of problems. What I am not clear on is why you think an economic system is to blame.

    Has there ever been an economic system which, when held by a large body such as a major nation, has been just?

    I do not see any example in history. Every real-world system has the same major problem, it is organized and enforced by people. People of every class have shown that they are governed by greed and corruption.

    Exceptions to this are in two categories:
    1) Very small groups consisting only of volunteers can operate for a short time in peaceful community. This is exemplified in any number of small economic or religious communities that have been formed. Their maximum life-cycle appears to be three generations.
    2) Those who are oppressed tend to seek equality, but only so long as they are oppressed. This has even been the rich in a few very brief periods in history, such as the French reign of terror.

    To be clear, I am talking about groups. There are individuals who seek true equality and even when power is thrust upon them (or won by them, in the less common situation) maintain that view. However, such individuals are rare and their successors inevitably become increasingly corrupt.

    If you believe that revolution is the answer, then you must consider, revolution unto what? Have you devised a scheme by which men in power will not become corrupt?

    Whatever the system in place it is easy to point fingers and say that the system is corrupt. But history has shown that any system that relies on people has always become corrupt (unless it didn’t last long enough to matter).


  18. skzb:True–oligarchs arrive at their position and then fear losing it. This brings up a pattern of thought that I see fairly often–the “self made man” belief. Basically, that they achieved everything on their own and so deserve all the benefits. This is, of course, false as their achievements are embedded within the framework of society as a whole and rest to a large extent upon the efforts of the workers they employed.

  19. skzb:”Has any class ever surrendered its property and privileges to another class peacefully? Ever?”
    Would the Revolution Tranquille in Quebec count as one?

  20. Jacob4Jesus: “Has there ever been an economic system which, when held by a large body such as a major nation, has been just?” This is an excellent point, as it gets us to the question of method, which I believe is at the heart of the matter. You speak of an abstract “economic system” and then again the abstraction “justice” and counterpoise them.

    I am not, to be clear, against making abstractions–I do it all the time, and so does everyone else; we call it “thinking.” But what struck in the way you formulated the question is that it treats both an economic system and justice as if they were static.

    Capitalism is an economic system, but instead of thinking of it in that abstract sense, let us look at American capitalism in the mid 19th Century. It is tremendously contradictory: cruelty and poverty within the ghettos of New York, genocide among the native populations, but at the same time, it was forced to free slaves, to remove property restrictions on voting. It also tremendously increased the productive forces, creating the possibility of people able to spend less time working. It led to universal male suffrage, then universal adult suffrage, vastly increased public education, and inscribed on its banner “justice for all” which, even though never accomplished, inspired many to try for it, with good and important results. Capitalism in the early 21st Century has become the opposite, taking away many of those things it was once able to provide.

    My point is, when looking at economic systems and justice, let us look at them in historical context, and, above all, try to discern the *movement*. I do not claim socialism is the be-all and end-all of economic systems, rather, that it resolves the contradictions of capitalism, and creates new contradictions at a higher level providing for an increase in justice and equality.

  21. Capitalism isn’t a form of government as you say. Though big business and the big banks are pretty much in complete control of our government which is supposed to be a representative republic. We seem to be rapidly becoming a fascist police state. People like Trump, the GOP and most democrats are simply puppets controlled by campaign donations and blackmail. We see that the CIA and FBI are arms of this fascist shadow government.

    This same shadow government that conducts false flag operations to keep the country in fear of the other so we can have perpetual war. A shadow government that is willing to sacrifice any number of “little people” for their gains. How the banks and the wealthy collude to steal money from everybody else. How race is used to keep both blacks and whites under submission.

    Big banks are forcing “austerity” laws upon most of the world, making poverty much worse. But that is part of the goal, to make everybody but them, poor and powerless. It is beyond economics, it is psychopathic.

    I don’t know that anyone needs Marxist ideology to figure those things out. It might even get in the way because it focuses too much on the political interaction of the worker vs the employer, when the scope is larger than that. It is a conflict between the people in the shadow government (which includes the super wealthy, but also others) and everybody else, regardless of how they make a living or even which country they are in.

    So the task at hand requires education of everybody not part of the elite, as to how they are being used, abused and ignored. How their legal rights are ignored and how they are forced to work for subsistence wages in too many cases. To somehow get various minorities (e.g. Blacks vs Whites) to realize that their conflict has been engineered to cause them to fight each other rather than the shadow government that is firing up the hatreds.

    I know I don’t need Marxism to see these things happening.

  22. “At the same time, those who threaten revolution and reject incremental wins lose.”
    ‘Never have so far.’

    I’m unclear how the deep philosophy of incremental wins applies to the real world.

    People are trying to apply it to things like Clinton saying she will support a $12 minimum wage instead of $15, and then they say we should settle for $12 because it’s an incremental win.

    Somehow to me that sounds more like you’re about to go on strike for $1/hour more, and a company manager shows up and says “Listen, I happen to know you can’t possibly get $1/hour, but here’s the deal — ask for 40 cents an hour and I will represent you and try to get you 40 cents an hour, and whatever deal I can get for you is the best deal you’re going to get. For gods sake don’t go on strike or else management will fire me and send you somebody who will do terrible things to you.”

    And then a few vocal union members or shills start arguing for it. “40 cents is an incremental improvement. We need to take it, and then later after Clinton is gone we can ask for more.”

    “We can’t go on strike. It’s fine for you members who have money saved up, but look at how hard it would be for the poor members who have nothing. It’s evil to take the paychecks out of their pockets. No strike, ever.”

    “We have to support Clinton because if the really bad manager replaces her, things will get really terrible. We’ll lose all the gains we made over the last 40 years. We have to keep the good-guy manager intervening with management or terrible things will happen.”

    If you get into a conflict, there are times it makes sense to call a truce, accept temporary gains (or even temporary losses if you gain by the reprieve), and fight later.

    There are times when it makes sense to accept a peace agreement, figuring that you have no prospect of winning unless there is some fundamental change in the situation that you cannot predict will happen.

    I think it makes sense to start out by asking for what you want, and not tailor your position to what the enemy is likely to accept. You can negotiate down but it’s harder to negotiate up.

    Say your union needs $1/hour. But to placate management you demand only 30 cents/hour. Management refuses. You go on strike.

    After a few months management starts saying “Just think how long it would take you to recover what you’ve already lost, even if you were to get another 30 cents/hour. This is a big waste of time, you made a giant mistake and it’s hurting you. You will have to give in before we do, eventually. Why not give in now?”

  23. The examples show the result of poor negotiating skills. If you NEED a $1 increase, ask for $2 or $3. Then when they offer half, you can take it and management can save face by bragging to the board of directors how they cut down what the union was asking.

    Management will always come back with a low ball offer.

  24. “The examples show the result of poor negotiating skills. If you NEED a $1 increase, ask for $2 or $3. Then when they offer half, you can take it and management can save face by bragging to the board of directors how they cut down what the union was asking.”

    Yes, agreed.

    You don’t negotiate yourself down ahead of time. You don’t say that incremental progress means you should let Clinton bargain you down before you even ask anybody else for what you want.

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