One of my favorite quotations from Emma Goldman is “Ask for work. If they won't give it to you, ask for bread. If they deny you that, take it!” One of my favorite scenes in a movie is the one in Modern Times when Paulette Goddard, The Gamine, jumps on the truck and throws bananas to other street children as the caption declares “She refused to be hungry”. What leftist could resist heroic women like that and the advocacy of direct action on behalf of others when it is necessary? It stirs my blood just thinking about it. “Refused to be hungry,” I love that phrase.
But notice that Goldman quote, it has a progression; work, bread, direct action. If you think about The Gamine’s radical food distribution program you have to assume that what is shown is the end phase, that other means of getting food weren’t permitted.
Incrementalism is a word that arouses the contempt of many leftists, and sometimes incrementalism has been nothing more than an excuse to do nothing, or at least not as much as could be done. But flipping incrementalism over, there is the side that is at least as ineffective because it insists on immediately having it all. Neither has been what the left needs, both have prevented progress. Almost every time you look carefully at what is presented as instant achievement of our aims, you will see that it was the result of a long period of preparation.
What we need isn’t a program of either/or. What we need isn’t really a program. We have to always be on the look out, to intelligently access the possibilities and take advantage of our opportunities. We have to face when conditions indicate that we are going to have to choose between what is possible now and what we will have to keep working towards. That is the kind of incrementalism that I’m advocating here. If you don’t like that word, you can try opportunism or practicality.
The only thing we can realistically insist on is that any progress is forward and that we never stop pushing in that direction. There’s no celestial railroad available in politics, we’ve got to take every step as it comes, all uphill, lots of turns, lots of bumps, few rest stops.
CODA: Someone who read this on my blog asked if what I’m calling for is balance. No. Not necessarily. What we need to do is win. We need to put our agenda into law, make changes in those laws as experience shows it to be necessary and to improve life. We have to always have that goal, to improve life. If something called balance can do that effectively at some times, that’s what we need. If balance won’t work in some instance then we don’t need it in that case.
I’ll have more to say about ‘balance’ as a standard operating setting soon.