THE CONDITION OF PETTY-BOURGEOIS STRATA
IN MODERN SOCIETY AND THE SOCIAL TRAGEDY
OF THE “UNHAPPY CONSCIOUSNESS”
Anti-communist feeling and ideas may be regarded as a yardstick of the consciousness of the petty-bourgeois strata, and anti-communism as a facet of the policy of these strata especially when they are involved in political power.
In the 1920–1930s, as an extreme form of anti-communism, fascism brought a considerable segment of the non- proletarian mass of the working people under its influence in Spain, Italy and, especially, in Germany. It is no secret that along with the declassed strata, the urban and rural petty bourgeoisie formed the backbone of Italian and German fascism. Extremist reactionary forces continue to be activated in these countries on the same social foundation. This is also true of the radical extremist movements in the USA, Britain, Scandinavia, and partially in Arab states, India and Latin America.
Anti-communist ideological and political trends are to be observed today also in mass movements oriented mainly toward the Left-radical model—movements consisting chiefly of the urban and rural petty bourgeoisie and the marginal social strata standing close to them.
In characterizing the state of the petty bourgeoisie in capitalist society, Marx and Engels saw a traditional feature defining its social being and, consequently, its group social consciousness in its duality, which is due to its intermediate position in a developed class society. The petty bourgeois is a toiler, proprietor, bourgeois and “the people” rolled into one. He strives to “make his way in the world”, i.e., to become a big bourgeois or, at least, preserve his status as a small proprietor. But big capital brings constant pressure to bear on him, turning the small proprietor, despite his will, into a proletarian.
Against the background of the scientific and technological revolution this process is speedily gaining momentum. True, big capital can never entirely oust the petty bourgeoisie, much less since it itself requires its assistance in some areas of industry and services that are unprofitable to the monopolies, and in certain measure facilitates the permanent reproduction of the petty-bourgeois entrepreneur. To some extent this impels the latter to link his destiny with the monopolies. Nevertheless, the trend toward the systematic ousting of the small proprietor from his traditional spheres of activity, toward restricting his free entrepreneurial operations and intensifying his dependence on big capital, toward diminishing the numerical strength of the petty bourgeoisie and the relative worsening of the conditions of its existence generates utter uncertainty in the future and the accompanying existential tension. In the mind of every petty bourgeois this trend accentuates his awareness that the contradictions of his own social being have to be resolved in a desperate struggle for the preservation of the positions that he can still hold. When the possibility for retaining these positions becomes totally unreal or highly problematic, his only recourse is to press for society’s immediate and radical reorganization, which alternative would avert the proletarianization he regards as undesirable, and in the long run preserve that sum of blessings which big capital threatens to deny him. In the latter case he becomes either an arch-extremist of the fascist type or a “Left” radical-revolutionary, depending on the political situation in the world and the political climate in the given country, its political traditions, the alignment and strength of classes and parties and, last but not least, the policy of the Communists toward the petty bourgeoisie. The significance of this policy is enhanced by the fact that the spontaneous striving of a segment of the petty bourgeoisie for a radical rejection of capitalist relations and their replacement by socialist relations is not entirely unfounded.
In the programmes of the Communist and Workers’ parties of a number of countries it is noted that the establishment of socialism in these countries would conform to the vital interests of the petty bourgeoisie, interests that cannot be guaranteed by big capital. The Manifesto of the Central Committee of the French Communist Party (1968) states that owing to the conditions peculiar to France large nationalized industrial associations will develop for a long time side by side with small and medium private enterprises.
Definite forms of association between the socialist state and these enterprises will give the latter guarantees that they do not have under their present status, which is entirely dependent on the monopolies. In the Manifesto it is underscored that the contribution of private entrepreneurs to the promotion of the national economy will be essential for a long period and it will therefore be valued and encouraged.
In the Draft Theses for the 3rd Congress of the Lebanese Communist Party (1971) it is stated that the socialist power of the working class and its allies will be based on the transfer of the basic means of production and circulation to collective ownership. Nationalization will not only not affect the property of the petty bourgeoisie—artisans, small and medium producers and owners—in industry, tourism, the services industry, internal trade and of the professionals but, on the contrary, their labor and contribution to the economy, to production will be respected and acknowledged with gratitude, and they will receive every possible support, for these segments, which are numerous in the Lebanon, can make a large contribution to the national economy within the framework of planned general development and inject their dynamic energy into this plan enriching it with their experience and creative initiative.
There are similar provisions in the programmes of a number of other Communist parties.
However, the duality we have mentioned is not the exclusive characteristic of the petty bourgeoisie (in the strict sense of the word). Duality also characterizes the strata that modern sociological literature calls the “middle strata”, the “middle classes” or “intermediate strata”, but which it would evidently be more correct to call marginal, transient, and bracket them, since they are characterized by some “ petty-bourgeois” features, with the petty bourgeoisie (we shall also call them “petty-bourgeois strata”) without identifying them directly with the petty bourgeoisie.
The inevitable result of increasing social mobility in developed capitalist society owing to the scientific and technological revolution is that some social strata and groups that had formerly had a more or less fixed status in the social hierarchy and long-standing links with other groups and classes, and which gravitated toward the bourgeoisie, are gradually finding themselves dislodged from their customary social track, losing their traditional links and former stability and going over to a new status in society. Moreover, the concept “marginal” describes the state of this protracted and painful transition, when a group has more or less lost (or is losing) its former social status, but has not yet entirely acquired a new status, has not affiliated itself with new groups, i.e., when it is on the borderline dividing groups with their own traditional statuses, cultures, philosophies, psychological stereotypes and political orientations.
In the industrialized capitalist countries large segments of the intelligentsia (both technical and humanitarian), and the growing student body as “prospective intellectuals”, belong to these marginal strata. The changes in the status of the intelligentsia of the industrialized capitalist countries have been noted and in some measure analyses in Marxist literature over the past few years. The substance of these changes lies in the following. In the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century (approximately until the 1950s) the intelligentsia (chiefly humanitarians) comprised a relatively small segment of society and enjoyed quite considerable “ production independence”. The intellectual was not directly involved in the process of producing surplus value, and the character of his labor was unproductive. By keeping aloof from industrially organized production and, at the same time, being the master of his “implements of labor”, the intellectual was not alienated from the individual craft production that formed the basic content of his socially useful activity: from beginning to end he controlled all the technological links of the manufacture of the product created personally by him—created not “to order”, but at a “will of heart”—and was his own seller. The circumstance that he could be ruthlessly robbed by the entrepreneur with whom he ultimately entered into relations of purchase and sale, that his “inalienability” did not range beyond individual craft production and evaporated as soon as he came into contact with the market, and that his free activity was in the long run mediated by the mechanism of supply and demand in the capitalist market for goods of spiritual manufacture was either unnoticed by him or of secondary importance to him. Hence the self-awareness of this rank-and-file intellectual as a free creator rising above the struggle of parties, independent of big capital and feeling himself quite secure in his social status. Hence his sense of elitist exclusiveness that sometimes flings him to the barricades in the name of truth, but most frequently keeps him very far from the people, impels him to condescendingly serve the upper ten thousand and protect the existing system of social relations or tacitly accept it.
Today the situation is changing radically. The inadequacy of the purely economic levers of inducing the laboring mass to support the existing relations of domination and subordination and the need for exercising a direct, “scientifically” organized influence on the consciousness of this mass (by advertisements, films, television, the press, “mass” literature, the organization of sociological research, and so forth) have led to the appearance of an industry of culture organized on the latest pattern of industrial production and serviced by persons who had traditionally belonged to the category of “free-lancers”. Science’s direct invasion of industrial production, the services industry and administrative clerical work has likewise led to a considerable growth of the number of intellectuals employed in these spheres.
This could not help but generate a numerical growth of the once small segment of intellectuals and turn them into a steadily expanding social group, and, moreover, modify the character of intellectual labor and the social status of the intellectual. From a member of an elite, a narrow corporation of “free-lancers”, he has become a rank-and-file employee of a big capitalist corporation, a wage laborer working strictly by order, frequently against his inner inclinations, and riveted to a more or less definite sector of the conveyer, performing narrow functions and altogether losing the privilege of all-embracing control of the manufacture of the product created by him. Characterizing the position of the creative intelligentsia in the Western capitalist countries today, the English bourgeois sociologist T.R. Fyvel, who has studied this question, writes: “Not so long ago the picture of a writer was largely that of a free intellectual, solitary in his room with his sense of ennui or rebellion. Today 90 per cent of writers are essentially literary technicians, turning out a precisely requisitioned product for advertising, for magazine, film or television editors, taking their work and status as part of a technical team for granted.” Having ceased to be a type of solitary craftsman and having been deprived of his “implements of labor”, the intellectual has lost his erstwhile, albeit limited, power over himself, the right to control his own activity. He is losing (meaning a tendency, of course) his former social status.
This makes the condition of the intellectual in developed capitalist society dual and contradictory, and brings it very close to the condition traditionally ascribed to the petty bourgeoisie. The intellectual is being proletarianized, becoming a wage laborer, a “partial worker”, and his social being is drawing close to that of the modern industrial proletarian. But while he is no longer a bourgeois, he is neither a proletarian in the true sense of the word—he still enjoys some privileges, has not broken off all links with the traditional stereotypes of the “free” intellectual, and still thinks in his former, mostly archaic, categories. He is on the borderline, as it were, of different social groups and, as a petty bourgeois, links the preservation of his privileges either with a struggle to retrieve the positions he has lost or, when he sees that these positions cannot be retrieved, with radical changes of the social relations that no longer satisfy him.
The student body in the industrialized capitalist countries is in an analogous situation, and the more the students follow the behavior pattern of the present intelligentsia the more profoundly they become aware of the fact that in the immediate future they are destined to share the lot of the proletarianized intellectual.
Indicative in this context is a leaflet circulated by Sorbonne students in May 1968: “Formerly we were a tiny minority of future privileged persons. Today we are a much too large ’minority’... . Such is the contradiction in which we, sons of the bourgeoisie, have been placed. We are no longer certain of our future status as leaders. This is the mainspring of our revolutionary spirit. . . . Henceforth we are working people like all the others.”
The duality of the social being of the petty bourgeoisie and the marginal strata determines the duality, i.e., the internal fragmentation, contradictory character, of their social consciousness. Marx noted in this connection that “the petty bourgeois is composed of on-the-one-hand and on-the- other-hand. This is so in his economic interests and therefore in his politics, in his religious, scientific and artistic views. So in his morals, in everything”. This duality makes the member of the petty-bourgeois strata both a conservative, inasmuch as he defends his social status, and a revolutionary, inasmuch as he is being deprived of that status; he is both an adherent and an opponent of social change.
The instability of the petty-bourgeois strata’s social status generates a sense of general instability, vacillation and a feeling that the world they live in has been plunged into tragedy. This forms a specific of their group consciousness, of their “petty-bourgeois consciousness”. This typical “ unhappy consciousness” (Hegel), which earlier and more acutely, than any other group consciousness, pinpoints the contradictions of the modern social world on both the quotidian (commonplace) and theoretical (ideological) levels and in crisis situations appeals for an immediate and radical solution of these contradictions.
Since as a factor revolutionizing the petty-bourgeois consciousness the transition to the ranks of the proletariat is today becoming a mass phenomenon, revolution-oriented radicalism rather than conservatism is becoming the dominant factor of this consciousness. But while identifying himself with the “new proletarian” and advocating revolution, the mass representative of the petty-bourgeois strata is unable to make a complete and final break with his bourgeois views and adopt the views of the proletariat. For that reason, while insisting on revolution he behaves as a petty bourgeois socialist vacillating by nature but aggressive by necessity, capable of drastic switches from activity to passivity, from optimism to pessimism, from an apologia to criticism.
These specifics of the consciousness of the petty-bourgeois strata determine their contradictory nature and their dual and vacillating attitude to the theory and practice of communism. The petty bourgeois does not accept communism, which abolishes private property, but at the same time appeals to it because it abolishes big capital and rejects the relations of domination and subordination.
Today it would be imprudent to belittle the danger of Right-wing petty-bourgeois criticism of communism and the possibility of extreme Right-wing trends gaining ground among the petty-bourgeois strata. That danger exists. Nonetheless, it must be noted that the social processes taking place in the world today (the scientific and technological revolution, science’s conversion into a direct productive force, the development of the national liberation movement and the accompanying emergence of the peasant and petty- bourgeois masses on the historical scene) are intensifying the Left-radical orientation of the petty-bourgeois and marginal strata in both the industrialized and the developing countries. In this context, “Left” criticism of the theory and practice of communism, which is seen quite clearly in the pronouncements of Left-radical leaders championing the interest and feeling of the petty-bourgeois strata, is now mounting to prominence. They include the ideologists and leaders of the American and European New Lefts, the Maoists, the guerrillas, and the Left-radical groups that had formed in some Communist parties some years ago and then broke away from them not only theoretically and politically, but also organizationally (a typical example being the “II Manifesto” group in Italy).