Your browser is not compatible with this application. Please use the latest version of Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Edge or Safari.

Crisis of Petty Bourgeois Radicalism

  • Share:
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Twitter
  • Share via Email
  • Share on LinkedIn

As the molecules in steel becomes agitated it results in a red hot metal. Through this process the steel becomes tempered and purified. As the metal heats up bubbles appear on the surface, and in short order many of them disappear.

Social and political movements in a sense develop in similar ways. When the social molecules become agitated it results in mass upheavals, the waves of radicalization. Class contradictions and relations sharpen up. This propels the revolutionary process. It results in new levels of mass class and socialists consciousness. There is a speedy growth of movements and organizations. They also become tempered and purified in the struggle. Such is the path of revolutionary development.

A Product of Frustration

But such moments also give birth to momentary political “bubbles.” As in steel, many of them also come and go. Some are serious movements that reflect momentary issues. They disappear when the issues are resolved. But others turn into petty-bourgeois radical expressions–petty-bourgeois reflections of the issues and the problems of the moment.

Such movements are especially a phenomenon in periods when great numbers–new waves–of people move into action. Like all sectors, the petty-bourgeois strata tend to reflect their class position when they react to the issues of the class struggle. They develop moments of great militancy. At such moments they are a source of inspiration and militancy to other sectors, including the working class. But they tend to go for short-term tactics. When this does not result in victories, for some the militancy, the enthusiasm, turns into petty-bourgeois radicalism. It is necessary to make a sharp distinction between the healthy militancy and determination expressed by non-working class sectors and the concepts of petty-bourgeois radicalism. Petty-bourgeois radicalism is a by-product of a sense of frustration.

When concepts based on unreality are bounced back by reality it results in frustration.

A secondary cause for the frustration is the occurrence of opportunist, passive tendencies and problems in the ranks of other sectors, including the working class.

The concepts, the ideas, motivating petty-bourgeois radicalism are not necessarily wrong in the abstract. Those who follow wrong concepts, in most cases, are dedicated and sincere individuals. The concepts are wrong when they do not reflect the specific reality of the moment. Therefore, the more determined such individuals are, the more damaging they can be. Good intentions and even good ideas are not enough. One of the key ingredients in a revolutionary struggle is people in mass. People do not respond to commands or to exhortations. They do not respond to ideas–even good ideas–if they do not see their self-interests involved in these ideas.

The inner laws of capitalism, the laws of exploitation, the inherent drive for profit, the contradiction between the social nature of production and the private appropriation of its products are all factors that force the victims in mass more and more to see their self-interests related to the more basic and revolutionary ideas. Policies and tactics, to be successful, must be related to this objective process. A revolutionary force must take full advantage of each new situation presented by this process. Only then can it become a revolutionary force propelling events. Tactics must be synchronized to each stage of this development.

The very essence of capitalism is class exploitation. It is exploitation of people, again in mass. The essence of any struggle is the class struggle. The central moving force is the exploited class–the working class.

Concepts of struggle not based on the above reality will sooner or later come into conflict with it. The advocates of petty-bourgeois radicalism try to by-pass this reality. They believe they can avoid the necessary and unavoidable consistent and sustained work, the work of organizing, educating, mobilizing and leading people in mass, of leading people on the level of their understanding, of their own self-interest, and in this sense reflecting the objective processes leading to a revolutionary struggle against capitalism. For this they seek to substitute radical rhetoric with general slogans, or advanced actions that have no relationship to struggles to which the masses do respond. Thus when the concepts based on unreality meet the reality of class struggle they bounce back. If such tactics are further pursued they become an obstacle to struggle. They become a destructive and divisive force. Organized groups which pursue such policies not only tend to move away from the working class but they reject mass concepts of struggle altogether.

The relationships between the objective processes and the tactics of struggle are not simple. It is an intricate process. The lines are not clean-cut and even that which is negative, in the long run, can have momentary positive influences. It is not always easy to draw the line between passivity that is motivated by opportunistic considerations and a judgment that is based on a correct, necessary tactical consideration. And it is not easy always to see the line between a militancy that is necessary to propel the struggle to new heights, or a necessary advanced position or action by a more limited force, and ill-advised actions that alienate and separate the advanced force form its mass base.

Petty-bourgeois radicalism as a concept is now in a serious crisis. Masses have moved to new levels of political consciousness and to higher forms of strugle[sic]. Generally, petty-bourgeois radical concepts go into a crisis when working-class concepts of struggle are on the ascendancy.

An Old Problem

Petty-bourgeois radicalism is not a new phenomenon. It has emerged as a problem throughout the history of the world revolutionary movement. Petty-bourgeois radicalism has had a historic run in the recent period. The wave has touched most of the non-socialist world.

A special brand of petty-bourgeois radicalism made deep inroads and influenced the policies of the leading cadre of the Communist Party of China. Throughout its history the Maoist influence has been a petty-bourgeois radical influence. In its basic essence the cultural revolution was propelled by a mass petty-bourgeois radical sweep. This is a special brand of petty-bourgeois radicalism because it takes place in a country that is building socialism. It is a special brand because the leading core of the leadership used it as an instrument in the struggle to stay in power. It is a special brand because in China it was woven into a pattern with bourgeois nationalism. Mao’s policies have always been and are today based on mobilizing the non-working class sections. It was the destruction of the organizations and politics based on the working class that were the main objectives of the cultural revolution.

The Debray theories of revolution were an extension of these petty-bourgeois radical concepts. All variations of petty-bourgeois radicalism come into conflict with the class approach to struggle. They reject the class struggle as the vehicle for social progress. They reflect the individualism, the lack of class identification of petty-bourgeois elements generally. They reject policies and tactics that are based on mobilizing the working class–the one class history has designated as a basic contingent in the struggle for social progress. In fact, petty-bourgeois radicalism rejects the role of the one revolutionary class in society.

Thus the very premise of petty-bourgeois radicalism is that it is impossible to win the working class in the struggle against capitalism. From this it follows that mass concepts of struggle are not possible, necessary or realistic. This leads to actions based on small elite groups––or to individual action. Because this concept is not concerned with winning over masses, it promotes and condones actions that alienate masses. There is an inner logic to this path. Specific actions are taken because there is a lack of confidence in mass–in class–actions. These ill-considered actions result in widening the gap between the petty-bourgeois radical movements and the masses. This widening gap then becomes “proof” that you cannot win masses and therefore the line of conduct of these movements is justified. Each step leads to a further isolation. This is the inner logic of petty-bourgeois radicalism.

This has been the path of world Trotskyism, the classical movement of petty-bourgeois radicalism. It had its genesis with Trotsky’s rejection of the working class as a basic revolutionary force. He also substituted radical-sounding rhetoric for the class struggle. Trotskyism has remained a worldwide petty-bourgeois radical current. It remains a negative, a divisive, a disruptive current. Because of its basically incorrect position it is not surprising that in the very center of its work has been the attack, the slander, against a country where the working class is in power–the Soviet Union.

When the working class either takes other paths of struggle or when it does not move because of the influences of opportunism, petty-bourgeois radicalism becomes a more serious problem. This also has its inner logic which results in such radicalism becoming an obstacle to mobilizing and moving the working class.

Crisis and Decline

As in the US, the world wave of petty-bourgeois radicalism is now also in a crisis and in the declining phase of the present cycle. It is a world crisis of petty-bourgeois radicalism. Its policies have come up against the realities of the class struggle. Masses have gained new experiences in the fires of the class struggle. They are now rejecting petty-bourgeois concepts as divisive and impractical.

The problems in the struggle against these concepts arise because they seem radical and revolutionary. For many who are influenced by such ideas honestly believe they are the most revolutionary. But when such policies fail–when they do not result in revolutionary victories, those who honestly believe in them face a dilemma. They can go one of three ways. Some give up the struggle. They use many excuses, but in essence they accept the status quo. They move into positions of opportunism. Others, in frustration, move into isolation by accepting the path of anarchism. This path destroys cadre as a meaningful revolutionary force. But most, however, draw the correct conclusions. They move into struggles and movements based on mass concepts. They draw the necessary conclusions that one’s revolutionariness can be measured only in the framework of moving masses into struggle.

It is impossible to struggle against the incorrect concepts of petty-bourgeois radicalism without a consistent and sharp struggle against the forever present influences of Right opportunism. The pressures towards Right opportunism are the most consistent in any capitalist country. They remain the chief danger to the revolutionary movement in the broad mass organizations of the people and the working class. It is impossible to conduct a successful fight against petty-bourgeois radicalism unless there is a consistent, successful fight against the influences of Right opportunism.

Like all political currents, petty-bourgeois radicalism finds expression in the form of specific groups. But like all political currents, it also has influences in most people’s and working-class organizations.

In this past period in the United States we have witnessed the appearances of numerous petty-bourgeois radical sects. They are all now, to one degree or another, feeling the effects of the crisis of petty-bourgeois radicalism. These groups include the carious varieties of Trotskyism. They include the groups that emerged as a result of the continuous splits of the original forces in the Students for a Democratic Society. They include those that emerged because of the disintegration and the splitting of the Progressive Labor group.

In rejecting petty-bourgeois radicalism we do not need to reject or ignore the positive contributions many of these groups have made. We need not condemn individuals when we reject the concepts of petty-bourgeois radicalism.

Even in their best moments they view their work with the working class as that of missionaries. They all tend to be anti-Communist and even more specifically, anti-Soviet. On these basic class matters they join hands with the Right opportunists. This factor exposes the more basic opportunistic side of petty-bourgeois radicalism. Everyone knows it is easier to be a radical and even a “revolutionary” as long as you are anti-Communist. The enemy is never too disturbed by the most radical speeches of anyone who remains ideologically tied to capitalism by means of anti-Communism. In this sense petty-bourgeois radicalism does a very special favor to capitalism because it covers its anti-Communism and anti-Sovietism with “Left” radical phrases.

For a number of years Mao Tse-Tung gave the world’s petty-bourgeois radical groups a lift. These groups turned to Mao because his thought is the most rounded form of petty-bourgeois radicalism. That it also has its anti-working class and rabidly anti-Soviet features, of course, is no surprise.

But the most important factor of petty-bourgeois radicalism today, including its Maoist features, is that it is in crisis and in the declining phase of its cycle the world over as well as in the United States. The easy catch-all slogans have turned into empty rhetoric. Much of the motion has turned into “bubbles” that are now disappearing.

When the hothouse schemes of instant revolution meet reality they burst like balloons. When this happens petty-bourgeois radicalism blames its failures on the working class. In their frustration many of these sects turn to anarchism, which is only another form of petty-bourgeois radicalism. This is, in fact, one of the features of the present crisis of petty-bourgeois radicalism.

Petty-bourgeois radicalism as a concept rejects the basic class nature of society and the class struggle as a pivotal element in the fight for progress. It rejects the role of mass movements because it does not see its basic ingredient–the work class. A class approach to struggle is of necessity a mass approach. The petty-bourgeois radical rhetoric is a sanctuary for those who have given up the possibilities of leading masses, and in the first place the working-class masses, in struggle. It is a way of keeping a radical image when in fact one has retreated and given up the struggle.

The Story of SDS

The SDS had its birth in the ideological chambers of the Socialist Party. Its present crisis can be clearly traced to the petty-bourgeois radical views that it inherited from the parent body. This is not to negate in any way or detract from the positive contributions of the tens of thousands of young people who have come into the struggle and into the Communist Party through the activities of the SDS. This organization went through many stages of development. It moved from its open anti-working class position to accepting the role of the workers. But even then it saw that role only in relation to the SDS being the “missionary” enlightening the people called “workers”. The SDS never did understand the role of masses as the key factor in struggle.

Because they did not understand the class struggle they tended to reject all concepts of unity, including a unified front of the forces opposing capitalism. This comes from the very nature of petty-bourgeois existence. These sectors do not see themselves as being exploited or oppressed as a class. They do not react to oppression as a class. Unity, a unified front are class-mass concepts. The SDS, even in its best days, rejected these concepts and tended to organize their own actions, asking others to “join them” or “support them.” When they could not have their way they very often boycotted many important mas actions against the U.S. aggression in Vietnam.

Underpressure they constantly slipped into anti-Communist positions. Petty-bourgeois radicalism by its very nature–its class essence being, as it is, that of a group between two basic classes–cannot for long sustain a united organization. Its concept of “participatory democracy” was, in a way, a recognition of this fact. As the working-class upsurge has developed and the class concepts of the struggle have moved into the forefront, petty-bourgeois radicalism has also been evident in the policies of accepting racism. This has been justified by statements like, “We will fight for black-white unity when we have socialism.” For white Americans not to fight racism at all times is racism.

Most who took part in the SDS and the actions that it organized have drawn the correct conclusions. These forces have tended to reject the petty-bourgeois radical concepts. But some, as we know, have moved into channels of anarchism and individual actions. When one is convinced that mass struggles will not achieve results, anarchistic actions seem a realistic way out. Fictitious “communiqués from the underground” threatening violence are infantile. Acts of individual terror at a moment when mass actions and movements are possible and necessary, are actions in the service of reaction. They are damaging to the revolutionary movement. These “communiqués from the underground” and other threats of violence become the most convenient cover for acts of violence by police provocateurs, by enemy agents. Police agents blow up buildings–but the blame is placed on the “Left radical movement.” The fictitious “communiqués from the underground” threatening violence become the canopies under which the enemy conspires to create new Reichstag fire situations.

Another of the petty-bourgeois radical groups now in crisis is the group called Progressive Labor. It got a start as a splinter from the New York City Communist Party. When the Supreme Court upheld the McCarran Act and said the Communist Party was ordered to register its members, finances and officers, a small group in the Party panicked. The Party overwhelmingly decided to stand up and fight. This splinter group was a part of those who fought for a policy of liquidating the Communist Party. They called for its dissolution.

When the Party rejected this they set up their own little group. But right from the beginning it was stamped with their opportunism. Their liquidationist, opportunistic tendency continued in their own organization. They tried to hide and by-pass the anti-Communist barrage from the enemy behind a name that said nothing about socialism or communism. Opportunism has been their hallmark. Now life has caught up with their brand of petty-bourgeois radicalism. It has remained a sect becoming ever more isolated–and now the sect has split asunder.

The basically opportunistic approach of Progressive Labor led it along the path of rabid anti-Sovietism. This is opportunism because it is a concession to the central ideological pillar of U.S. imperialism. This same opportunism has led Progressive Labor to compromise with the same struggle against racism under radical phrases and even in the name of the working class. It has followed a policy of accommodation and conciliation with racism. Because of its racist and white chauvinist practices the Black and Puerto Rican members have either been expelled or left the group.

The various Trotskyite sects continue as of old. They continue their splitting tactics in our mass movements, as is clearly shown in their latest efforts to set up a peace movement under their control. Momentarily some of these groups have made some gains. They are carefully covering up their real Trotskyite policies. But the Trotskyite sects are also in a crisis. They are also isolated. Their splitting tactics in all movements flow from their basic petty-bourgeois radical essence. Working-class consciousness leads to concepts of class unity. It leads to rejecting tactics that lead to disunity. Petty-bourgeois radicalism does not see the concept of class or mass struggles. From this it follows that it does not see the need for class unity. It reflects the individualism of its class nature.

Petty-bourgeois radicalism is a political trend. It is this political trend that is in a crisis. Militant currents, radical trends, the revolutionary process–these are not in a crisis. They are features of the mass upheavals. Marxism-Leninism is not in a crisis. It is the growing, the most consistent revolutionary current. It is not in a crisis because it reflects and is changing reality. It is the revolutionary current.