They're Calling Us "Petty-Bourgeois" Again - Paul Petard

Article on the term "petit bourgeois" from "The Whinger" number 7, Fall 2008.

Submitted by Fozzie on April 27, 2022

If you keep calling people by an offensive name or keep using a particular word as a label in an abusive manner against them, there might well come a point when, rather than having to continually deny the term, they might actually turn around and adopt the term as a badge of pride, re-appropriate the word, and change its meaning into something positive.

One traditional term of abuse, still thrown around to this day on the marxist dominated left, is to denounce somebody or something as "petty-bourgeios". It is sort of a clever term of abuse as it implies a double insult. It's bad enough being accused by a marxist as being "bourgeois", who are regarded as the general class enemy. But the marxist can have a sneaky begrudging cowardly admiration for the big modern "bourgeois" as a supposedly dynamic and progressive force up to a point. But the "petty bourgeois" are merely small, and to be derided and looked down upon as simply "backward", "undeveloped", "reactionary",...

And it is a witch-hunt kind of accusation: If a marxist accuses you of being either "bourgeois" or "petty bourgeois" then, seeing as it is marxist ideology that claims a monopoly of defining these notions in the first place, you must be guilty. In the time of Stalin, in some cases the accusation of "petty bourgeois" could be equivalent to a death sentence. There is also a subtle element of cultural and ethnic prejudice latent in the accusation. Less industrialized, small trading, craft-based, and peasant peoples and cultures are being sneered at as inferior.

Anarchists and libertarians don't have a monopoly of suffering this abuse, but they have often come in for strong doses of it at the hands of hard marxists and hard marxisms. Anarchism is often denounced as a "petty bourgeois ideology". I recently had one quip thrown at me by a "dialectical" hegellian mystic saying that "If you scratch an anarchist on the surface you'll find a petty bourgeois underneath". To this it could well be replied that if you scratch a marxist on the surface you'll often find a romantic despotist underneath.

So how politically should we respond to the stalinist name calling that still carries on today, even in the 21st century? If we get labeled "petty bourgeois", or maybe "lumpen", or "peasant" in a derogatory way, because we insist on a socialism that comes with liberty and with developed self-conscious individuals, then should we just feel embarrassed and wriggle a bit? or worse, should we fall into the trap of posturing as harder and prolier than thou? Maybe instead of pleading not guilty, we should plead guilty and proud of it!

The late Albert Meltzer, who used to edit Black Flag, commented on the issue and pointed out that originally:

"..the term was "petit" (small) not "petty" that qualified the adjective ["Bourgeois"] -and meant precisely that these were not the same as bourgeoisie. The small burgher was one who had less privileges, economically, than the wealthy, but had some privileges by virtue of their craft."


"Anarchism, said Marx, was the movement of the artisan worker... not subject to factory hours and discipline, independently minded and difficult to threaten,..." and "The Paris Commune was above all a rising of the artisans who had been reduced to penury by Napoleon..." (Quotes from ANARCHISM: Arguments for and Against, by Albert Meltzer, AK Press ISBN 187317657-0)

When you actually read some bits from Marx himself on the subject of the petit bourgeois they come across as confused and self-contradictory. His most vulgar work, with Engels, was probably the Communist Manifesto, 1848, and in it we find:

"The small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants -all these sink gradually into the proletariat..."

Well many of them have been diminished and many have been pushed into various forms of wage labour over the last century and a half. But then again, globally many of them, despite encroachment, are still carrying on.

Sectors of peasants and small farmers are still a continuing necessary part of today's wider production in many parts of the world. They are still a vital necessary component in sustaining other parts of the human population as well as themselves. The vulgar Marx wants everything to conveniently reduce to a generalized bipolar two-class opposition of bourgeois versus proletarians in order to sleight-of-hand posit a unipolar universal monolithic outcome: the dictatorship of the proletariat! So he wants to get these other classes hurriedly cleaned up and conveniently swept under the carpet, but unfortunately they won't disappear.

He generalizes and romanticizes the industrial workers as the proletariat:

"...the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of modern industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product."

But the industrial workers are in fact several different classes and sectors and continuing complex production develops them to be so.

Further on:

"The medieval burgesses and the small peasant proprietors were the precursors of the modern bourgeoisie. In those countries which are but little developed, industrially and commercially, these two classes still vegetate side by side with the rising bourgeoisie."

The word bourgeoisie comes from the word burgess, but Marx's argument isn't good enough. Marx here is trying to place the whole blame for the development of modern aggressive predominant capital on the shoulders of the peasants and artisans and their occasional small trading!!! But medieval burgesses and small peasant proprietors are never strong enough on their own to accumulate and grow into modern bourgeoisie.

It is more the case that feudal state capitalists, who already had big central accumulations, in interaction with the big monetary accumulations of aggressive independent mercantilists on the edge of European Feudal society (such as the early Venetian merchants, who already led Venetian society BEFORE north and west Europe had even fully developed as medieval feudalist!) who were the real main precursors of the modern capitalists.

Also, although they don't develop as fast as the modern bourgeois, peasants and craftspeople DO actually slowly develop over time. They will slowly develop and change their tools and techniques and patterns of working, living and reproducing. They slowly change their social relations and community structures over periods of time. If they sometimes show "revolutionary" tendencies, it is not just to do with impending "proletarianisation", but also sometimes is to do with their periodic need to overcome social obstacles to their own radical redevelopment.

Further on, Marx has to admit new petit bourgeois are continually being reproduced, but he still tries to kill them off:

"In countries where modern civilization has become fully developed, a new class of petty bourgeois has been formed, fluctuating between proletariat and bourgeoisie and ever renewing itself as a supplementary part of bourgeois society. The individual members of tjis class, however, are being constantly hurled down into the proletariat by the action of competition, and, as modern industry develops, they even see the moment approaching when they will completely disappear...."

So one moment they are coming, the next moment they are going, but then they are being redeveloped again, but although Marx wants them to disappear they never fully go away. Meanwhile, as the organic composition of industrial capital changes, and industries become more capital and technology intensive, much industrial labour is actually shed. It is shifted down into the lumpenproletariat, or it is shifted to other new classes! Even in a place like China, although industrial capitalist development will continue to grow, there will come a point where the portion of the population directly employed in the industrial development will proportionately begin to decline.

The term "proletarian" existed long before Marx used it, and previously referred simply to the lowest class of a community, or to the common people, sometimes lowly strata of agrarian workers. Marx's narrative of the modern industrial "proletariat", despite its claims to be "scientific", is essentially a romantic and idealistic spiritual narrative. No modern industrial work is completely unskilled, and the modern skilled industrial worker in practise is developed to be precisely NOT just a "proletarian". They are developed as people, and they struggle as people.

Modern skilled industrial workers must always have a small share of control of production, if they didn't the employers wouldn't have much use in employing them. So although they might not individually own the means of production they still function as small temporary conditional controllers of capital, and as a result the majority of them can in practise bargain for a small token share of the profits of capital. In practise the majority of industrial workers always tend to earn wages that are significantly above subsistence.

The long term general tendency, visible for a large part of the 20th century, has been for the majority of industrial workers to push their wages upwards. That small money surplus is a small share of capital and with it some sectors of workers have bought various forms of small property or investment. The majority of industrial workers are never strictly "without reserves" or all reduced to absolute universal dispossession, they never fully form as the one "fundamental and universal class". Workers are not only de-skilled, but many need to be re-skilled, particularized, individualized, developed as modern people, by today's capitalist production.

The individualized freely-contractual industrial money-waged labourer, who is already human variable capital in the first place, is developed as a new form of relatively impoverished and exploited modern petit bourgeois worker. Freed up from the tied and bonded communal relations of feudalism, individualization and new petit-bourgeoisification become a necessary part of the modern worker's historic development. "Proletarianisation" might be philosophically and hypothetically a very long term "fundamental" tendency for those who like that sort of thing, but the practical and prevailing tendencies (the ones that matter in life) include a new semi-bourgeoisification.

This is both a necessary and useful development, workers can get inside their petit bourgeois individual with its particular skill and thirst for freedom, and detourne it, and push it to its radical limits in opposition to predominant capital and state. If you want to go "beyond" the petit bourgeois condition and social form you have to develop it further to its limits in order to enable it to go beyond itself.

So we ARE petit bourgeois; modern newly developed petit bourgeois workers, and we should be proud of it. Now as big-beard Bakunin put it: Freedom without Socialism is privilege and injustice. So we need to fight exploitation by the capitalist and the landlord, and take back the land and productive resources. But as big-beard also put it: Socialism without Freedom is slavery and brutality. So rather than choosing the path of a grumpy repressive socialism that fears the developed individual and seeks to suppress it, we should choose the path of a sophisticated libertarian socialism, capable of accommodating and allowing space for skilled and self-conscious developed individuals as part of free communities.

Paul 2008