Petty-bourgeois radicalism vs. working-class politics

BY:Cameron Orr| May 21, 2024
Petty-bourgeois radicalism vs. working-class politics


This piece is a contribution to the Pre-Convention Discussion for our 32nd National Convention. During Pre-Convention Discussion, all aspects of the party’s program, strategy, and tactics are up for consideration and debate. The ideas presented here are those of the author or authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Communist Party USA, its membership, or their elected leadership bodies. — Editors

A challenge facing the party in these times of growing radicalization and anger at capitalism is in struggling against the influence of petty bourgeois ideology which, alongside right-wing and liberal ideas, helps to promote division and individualism.

Middle class radicalism proliferates because of the constant emergence of new small-time capitalists, who struggle to survive under monopoly capitalism and are usually either crushed or absorbed by larger capitalists. More rarely, they are able to grow into the ranks of the mid-size or large capitalists. Petty-bourgeois radicalism is generated out of frustration with monopoly capitalism, but fears or even disdains mass, working-class-led struggle.

While it has its source in these small, new, and emerging capitalists, which help to constantly renew capitalism and capitalist ideology, it also grows within the ranks of those who may be part of the working class, but view themselves as entrepreneurs, professionals, or intellectuals. It gains traction with some among sections of the working class with higher incomes, managerial roles, or that may work in isolated environments which separate them from other workers. As a mass phenomenon spurred on by capitalism itself, petty bourgeois radicalism also seeps into the broader working class. The influence of male chauvinism and white supremacy especially encourages white and male workers to adopt a petty bourgeois outlook.

Middle class radicalism is individualistic and utopian: ideas are considered important as expressions of a person’s individuality or intellectual prowess, and ideas are considered the motive force of change in the real world. Working-class politics, on the other hand, is collective and scientific: the working class needs ideas that are effective in pushing forward its interests as a whole, and tests these ideas through organized discussion and united, collective action. Ideas that are critical of capitalism but do not help generate united action may be of interest to the petty bourgeois revolutionary but are of little use, or may even be harmful, to working class and oppressed people’s movements.

The utopianism and individualism of middle class “socialism” is connected with various problems.

A major one is its tendency to dismiss the perspectives of working-class institutions and mass organizations of oppressed people. This includes the trade union movement, civil rights organizations, and the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Often not carefully considered are the concrete circumstances in which these organizations struggle, lessons learned from experience, or the actually existing level of class and socialist consciousness within the general population.

Other problems include the petty-bourgeois tendency to use methods of struggle that rely on spontaneity and voluntarism over more organized approaches. It enjoys preaching to the choir, but avoids working to bring new forces into the struggle. It prefers polarizing, moralistic rhetoric over unifying, popular language. It seeks to unite on the basis of shared ideology rather than of shared interests. It often identifies its allies by the narrowest terms possible. It is attention seeking. Adventurist, super-revolutionary tactics are preferred over building coalitions or developing relationships in working class neighborhoods. It demands a “no compromises” approach, regardless of objective circumstances. It cannot see how quantitative changes build toward qualitative change, rejecting the tactical steps forward needed to build toward strategic breakthroughs. To sum up, it seeks shortcuts around building mass movements and creating political change.

Lenin wrote in Left Wing Communism that the petty bourgeois “easily goes to revolutionary extremes, but is incapable of perseverance, organization, discipline and steadfastness.”

When its ideas are, as Gus Hall put it, “bounced back” by reality, the petty bourgeois radical becomes dejected, and spreads its defeatist outlook.

For those newly embracing left wing and Marxist ideology, the excitement generated by exploring these new ideas tend to overshadow questions of how to apply them to struggles around immediate problems. This makes petty-bourgeois radicalism also an important tool of big business in diverting these new opponents of capitalism into narrow political trends.

The online and social media world plays a significant role in the promotion of middle class radicalism. Many people being newly radicalized today are turning to the internet and social media as a source of alternative news and ideas. These spaces have allowed many to learn about issues and struggles that are distorted or ignored by big business news channels.

However, the online world is also one where individualism and spontaneity predominate. Much of today’s online political discussions are driven by individuals unconnected with mass organizations of struggle. The capitalist class’ algorithmic control over what each person sees also channels many into ever-narrowing ideological bubbles, while giving them the impression that theirs are the ideas of the vast majority. Individualistic, friction-filled content is promoted over unifying, working-class-oriented analysis inspiring people to help build mass movements that can win.

These online political discussions have an influence on political action in the real world, and are one of the ways petty-bourgeois ideas make their way into the mass movement, creating new challenges in the struggle for working-class and all-people’s unity. Those influenced by petty bourgeois ideas may at times seek to remake the working-class institutions they join into their imagined ideal, without seeking to learn from them, especially if they lack prior experience in mass organizations engaged in concrete political battles. These factors make the party’s online engagement all the more important.

Some might argue that the CPUSA should tailor its language, policies, and approach to appeal to those being newly radicalized today, but this would be a mistake. The CPUSA needs to struggle against petty-bourgeois trends and help those who are becoming angry at capitalism to embrace working-class patterns of thinking and struggle.

Working-class politics is about building mass unity around the immediate problems facing working-class and oppressed peoples. It works to bring additional forces into the fight by building alliances and through patient, consistent outreach and relationship building. It uses popular language that seeks to convince all who can be convinced. It makes use of careful and honest analysis in order to win the most it can, and minimize its defeats in a way that allows it to rebuild its forces. It maintains a long term commitment to social progress, and confidence in its ability to realize change.

If the CPUSA can help popularize working-class ideas and approaches to struggle, we will help the working-class and all people make great strides forward in the battles ahead.


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