[Marxism] Petty-bourgeois

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Wed Aug 18 10:30:10 MDT 2004

Well, just to clarify, I don't intend to throw out the baby with the
bathwater, my contention has always been that people have often been
mistaken about where the baby is in the bathwater, which means that at least
five possibilities exist:

- the baby is saved, the bathwater is thrown out.
- the water is thrown out, but the baby remains sitting alone in the empty
- the baby is thrown out with the bathwater, intentionally (it was a bastard
child or a girl, and so on).
- the baby is thrown out with the bathwater, unintentionally and
- the aim was to save the baby, but it was tragically thrown out with the
bathwater anyway, because people were too blind or forgetful or negligent to
locate the baby in the bathwater.

My reference to Mark as professor is not intended as abandoning comradely
relations, but something else. It is perfectly admissible for a professor to
moot questions for discussion, but one can reasonably expect that s/he has
at least some idea of possible answers and can articulate his motive for
mooting the questions. If that remains absent or obscure, the suspicion
arises that it's just a playful diversion, not to be taken very seriously in
terms of investing time in discussing it.

As I have stated many times, I don't consider myself a Marxist but a
socialist. The central concern of a socialist is the "social question"
unresolved by capitalism as a highly contradictory social system, and a
socialist aspires to create liberty, equality and fraternity (or solidarity)
in a specific way, based on a scientific appraisal of the real possibilities
or conditions for achieving it, and a specific belief about the agency by
which it can be achieved.

The attempt however to systematise the whole thought of Marx into one
doctrine, and promulgate it as a political prescription or alternative,
causes mainly a pack of trouble, whatever good things might also come out of
it. This attempt is mainly due to the influence of Engels, Kautsky and
Lenin, considered the heirs of Marx in their time.

But as regards Lenin, his thought centres completely on the conquest of
political power, and therefore he frequently tries to have it both ways with
Marxism: on the one hand, he insists on the closest orthodoxy to Marx's
text, elaborated as doctrine, when it suits him, on the other he freely
interprets or elaborates Marx's text when it suits him.

Since Marx wrote a lot, since there are plenty lacunae in his thought, and
since he evolved his ideas in a way which wasn't always perfectly
consistent, there's plenty scope there. But basically what lies behind
Lenin's orthodoxy is the conquest of power, the resolute will to fight for
class power. If however we focus completely on the question of orthodoxy,
the whole question of what might be a suitable or ethically defensible way
for socialists to acquire or maintain power in our own time is overlooked.

I don't personally think that Marx's own concept of class is outdated at
all, that's true maybe only if you consider the billion of the world
population living in the richest countries. If you looked at the five
billion living in poorer countries, then Marx's allegedly antiquated
descriptions (such as evoked for example by Hal Draper in volume 2 of his
magnum opus) could often be almost literally applied. From the point of view
of the 5 billion inhabitants of poorer countries, the 1 billion in richer
countries might well look petty-bourgeois and bourgeois - and with some
qualitative and quantitative justification, given the real disparities in
lifestyles and material wealth available for use and consumption.

The more substantive question, concerns what class position really means
nowadays, for people's lives and social behaviour, what reference to class
can explain, and how it explains it, and what conclusions we can
legitimately draw from it.

For orthodox Marxism, the answers are simple, straightforward and already
known. There is the bourgeoisie, there is the proletariat, no further
questions asked. So no profound investigation is really necessary, no
linguistic scrutiny. It's obvious and Marxism identifies with marvellous
simplicity was the problem really is, there.

For unorthodox followers of Marx, class relations evolve and change,
requiring new analyses at least every decade. Unorthodox followers of Marx
take his advice, "think for yourself, be on your way, and for the rest don't
be distracted in your quest". They open up a gigantic terrain of political
innovation, which Marxism as a closed system permits only in matters of

What is most typical of ideological interpretations of class, is that they
shift to and fro between class as explanandum (that which must be explained)
and class as explanans (that which explains). The effect of this ideological
approach is to typify, inventorise or stereotype the components of the class
hierarchy as "the way things are", rather than how they might be changed or
are changing. The result is a vicious circle of interlocking tautologies.

Ideology, at least in its pure forms, always culminates in a hypostasis of
thought, a locking-down of thinking into constancy. After all, if social
consciousness generally responds to social existence, and if social
consciousness normally trails behind social existence except when in special
situations it suddenly catches up, then social consciousness is
intrinsically conservative, i.e. the rapidity and frequency of conscious
change has human limits.

The ideological explanation of class offered by orthodox Marxism cannot
however itself lead directly to genuine political class consciousness,
because it doesn't lead to a genuine growth of awareness, but rather to the
justification of an awareness or a reality to which it refers.

Consequently, a more intelligent socialist has to consider how the
understanding of class relations is itself formed in all its respects. In
codifying class in a complete set of political categories, orthodox Marxism
provided a quick and convenient short-hand to describe the connections
between political policies and the social forces to which those policies
referred. That's undoubtedly useful for many purposes.

The problem is really that if this shorthand is accepted as the only "true
language" for expressing these things, then at one stroke a large number of
assumptions are subscribed to which foreclose the possibility of fully
understanding the reality of the real life and motion of social classes. If
classes are a self-evident explanatory device, we inquire no more into the
raison d'etre of the concept.

Thus Mark Lause's query is perfectly valid, it's just that I think he hasn't
contributed very much yet to answering it.

Well... anyway that's just a quick summary of some results I reached twenty
years ago when thinking about the topic.


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