On The Pitfalls Of Petty Bourgeois Revolutionary Leadership And The Necessity Of Class Suicide
- June 1, 2022
- "[F]or the PB [Petty Bourgeois] to give true revolutionary leadership to the masses, they must be remolded through a process of class suicide; they must share the oppressed and toiling conditions of the masses and actively participate right alongside them in their struggles against those conditions and for the liberation of the people from their common class enemy."
It so happens that the unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness... will give rise to tragic mishaps.— Frantz Fanon
The Question Of The Petty Bourgeois's Revolutionary Potential
Historically, certain advantages have given the petty bourgeoisie (PB) the means of assuming leadership of revolutionary movements. Most of those PB-led struggles have failed. The looming question is why they failed, whether these failures can be rectified, and under what circumstances if any it can be done. The fundamental question is one of class: what class is genuinely revolutionary and if it isn't the PB, does this class have revolutionary potential?
There Is Only One Revolutionary Class
Karl Marx was the first to scientifically analyze political-economy giving it and its stages of development a thorough study and analysis. Building upon this work and applying it to different stages of social-economic development, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Tse Tung advanced Marx's political-economy, philosophy (Dialectical Materialism) and principles of scientific socialism, which today we call Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (MLM) or simply Maoism.
Marx began with identifying the fundamental component of capitalist production, namely the commodity, and the key human relationship and class struggle that underlie commodity relations in capitalist society, which is the struggle between the class of productive wage laborers (the proletariat) and the employing capitalist class (the bourgeoisie). From this work he was able to reveal the human relations hidden behind commodities.
Marx found that the proletariat was compelled to sell their labor power at below its actual value to the bourgeoisie in order to survive and meet its family's needs. But the bourgeoisie who performs no productive labor at all sells the commodities produced by the workers at their actual value on the market and pockets the surplus to become immensely wealthy.
This exploitative relationship leaves the proletariat to produce all the goods and services that sustain society while owning little to nothing, while the bourgeois who produces nothing owns the entire productive system and means of production (including productive land, machinery, factories, communication systems, transportation infrastructure, etc.).
Marx therefore saw that the proletariat is the only class in capitalist society whose interests are the diametric opposite of the bourgeois's, and is therefore the only class with nothing to lose and everything to gain by overthrowing the capitalist class and system. He therefore identified the proletariat as the only genuinely revolutionary class existing under capitalism.
He established that a higher and more perfect system of production would follow capitalism, namely Communism, which would do away with all class divisions and exploitation. This system was bound to come to pass because as he demonstrated all prior phases of human society had laid the basis for it.
Communism would come about through political-economy revolutions where the proletariat overthrew the bourgeoisie and its state system, and creating in its place proletarian states through which the workers in alliance with other groups who were previously oppressed would exercise its own class dictatorship over the bourgeoisie economically, politically, militarily, and culturally. This would advance societies through "the abolition of class distinctions generally, to the abolition of all the relations of production on which they rest, to the abolition of all social relations that correspond to these relations of production, to the revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations."
Except for the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871, it wasn't until after Marx's lifetime that the proletariat began seizing state power and transforming societies as he'd predicted.
This was during the era when capitalism developed in the advanced capitalist countries into its final and highest stage, namely imperialism. Lenin thoroughly studied and described this development, and went on to prove in polemics with various Marxist revisionists that imperialism didn't change the basic class contradictions of capitalism nor Marx's basic theory of political-economy, but only raised them to a higher level. He demonstrated also that imperialism's rise marked the dawn of the era of proletarian revolution that Marx had foretold. With these understandings Lenin was able to lead the Russian proletariat in making the first successful proletarian revolution just as Marx had predicted.
Understanding the class contradictions underlying capitalism, that the proletariat is the only class with interests in direct opposition to that of the bourgeoisie which makes the proletariat the only revolutionary class in capitalist society, we now turn to the petty bourgeoisie or literally the 'little bourgeoisie,' which is not a revolutionary class, does not present a revolutionary political or ideological line, and whose pretensions we must expose.
The PB is essentially an intermediary class (or sub-class) that lies between the capitalist ruling class (the 'big' bourgeoisie) and the proletariat — it is essentially a 'middle class.' As such it tends to muddle and vacillate between the opposing class interests and values of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. As Marx described it, "the petit bourgeois... is a transition class, in which the interests of two classes are simultaneously mutually blunting."
The PB consists of intellectuals, educators, doctors, lawyers, small business owners, middle and lower management and so on. They are the 'professionals' who live by mental labor and individual achievement rather than working as collective manual laborers and in the service trades and industries. What distinguishes them from the proletariat is their mental as opposed to manual labor, and their lack of ownership of the means of production distinguishes them from the bourgeoisie. But what they have in common with the proletariat is their being compelled to sell their labor power for a wage to survive, and they have reliance on individual achievement and specializing in mental labor in common with the big bourgeoisie. Therefore, based on their social-economic practice their thinking and practice fluctuates between and muddles the mutually contradictory interests of the proletariat on the one hand and the bourgeoisie on the other.
This conditioning creates an outlook in the PB that is inconsistent, individualistic, opportunistic, disparaging of manual labor, and a tendency to elevate intellectual work (and the role of ideas) above manual work (and the role of practice). This gives rise to the tendency prevalent in even 'radical' PB elements towards intellectualizing and endlessly theorizing political struggle as opposed to bringing it down to the level of solving problems through practical application and joining the ranks of the manual laborers.
The Failures Of Petty Bourgeois Revolutionary Leaders
The leadership of past revolutionary struggles, especially those in Amerika, fell to PB (or middle class) intellectuals due to their privileged access to resources that enabled them to receive academic training and to study widely. This also comports with the bourgeois's view of intellectual labor being superior to manual labor, and their prejudice against manual laborers which many among the PB share. Hence workers and other poor and marginalized people are denied these resources and the leisure time to use them for intellectual development and study. Armed with the understanding that the PB is not a revolutionary class, we already grasp why revolutions led by this class have consistently failed. But let's look at this deeper because there have been successful revolutions led by PB elements; in fact Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, and many others were from this class. So what enabled them to give authentic revolutionary leadership to workers and the oppressed where their class generally cannot do this.
Mao Tse-Tung, whose leadership of the Chinese revolution met with extraordinary successes while many others failed abysmally, explained that when revolution fails it's the fault of the leadership, the vanguard. Many of those failed revolutions were led by PB intellectuals who, unlike Mao, refused to base themselves among the oppressed masses that they presumed to lead, so they maintained the class interests, the material desires, and values of the privileged class they came from.
Mao was a Marxist-Leninist, and like Karl Marx, V.I. Lenin and others who embraced the genuine Marxist line and not revisionism, he recognized that unless the PB broke with their privileged lifestyle and the resultant values of their class conditioning, they could never truly share the interests of the workers and peasants in totally overthrowing the capitalist system and class relations.
Mao understood that, "[i]n class society everyone lives as a member of a particular class, and every kind of thinking, without exception, is stamped with a brand of class." As he expressed, "anything that is truly of the masses must necessarily be led by the proletariat," and "we must necessarily take the class stand of the proletariat and not the petty bourgeoisie." This understanding formed the "guiding principle" of Marx's own studies. Namely that:
In the social production of their existence [people] enter into definite, necessary relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production corresponding to a determinate stage of development of the material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life-process in general. It is not the social consciousness of [people] that determines their being, but on the contrary it is their social being that determines their consciousness.
So, the way people think is determined in large part by their activities day-after-day within the productive system of society. The practice and conditioned values of the PB run counter to the interests of the working class, because it is muddled by the values and prejudices of the bourgeois ruling class. Lenin recognized that as a result, "even the most revolutionary petty bourgeoisie cannot want what the class conscious proletariat want...."
Most PB intellectuals are unwilling to make the necessary connections with the workers and other oppressed groups to break with their class conditioning and interests and truly ally themselves with the masses. This process of "class suicide" is itself a tedious and difficult struggle. Mao described his own experience with it:
If you want the masses to understand you, if you want to be one with the masses, you must make up your mind to undergo a long and even painful process of tempering. Here I might mention the experience of how my own feelings changed. I began as a student and at school acquired the ways of a student. I then used to feel it undignified to do even a little manual labor…. At that time I felt that intellectuals were the only clean people in the world, while in comparison workers and peasants were dirty. I did not mind wearing the clothes of other intellectuals, believing them clean, but I would not put on clothes belonging to a worker or peasant, believing them dirty. But after I became a revolutionary and lived with the workers and peasants and soldiers of the revolutionary army, I gradually came to know them well, and they gradually came to know me too. It was then, and only then, that I fundamentally changed the bourgeois feelings implanted in me in the bourgeois schools. I came to feel that compared with the workers and peasants the un-remolded intellectuals were not clean and that, in the last analysis, the workers and peasants were the cleanest people, and even though their hands were soiled and their feet smeared with cow dung, they were really cleaner than the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois intellectuals. That is what is meant by a change in feelings, a change from one class to another.
Based on having committed class suicide and developing a distinct connection with the oppressed masses, Mao went deeper than others before him in devising a revolutionary line and party style that was explicitly based on the masses which he aptly called the "Mass Line." His organizational approach to revolutionary struggle is studied and has been recognized by the U.S. military to be the most advanced model, and the most difficult to counter, because it mobilizes an entire population and unites them with their leadership against it's enemy.
Mao required that all Party members of every rank participate on political work alongside the common people, and the general educational process required them to spend a period of time living with the peasants participating in work alongside them, while peasants and workers were brought to the universities to be instructed in academics. He also required that schools be set up in the rural areas for the peasants who otherwise lived too far from the cities to have access to the universities.
Many today, especially those living in the advanced capitalist centers, who call themselves Maoists and are good at articulating the mass line, are PB elements who still fail and resist committing class suicide, which is the first step in their ability to actually apply the Maoists mass line in revolutionary leadership.
Karl Marx actually set the earliest example of committing class suicide and identifying with the masses in giving them revolutionary leadership.
During his lifetime capitalism and revolutionary struggle against it were in their early stages of development, the concept of a vanguard party of class conscious and committed revolutionaries had not developed yet. Lenin would later develop the vanguard party strategy, which Mao would later refine by applying the mass line to it. But Marx, like Mao who came later, shared the lifestyle of the workers and oppressed setting the example for those from privileged society who presume to lead the masses in revolutionary struggle.
When living in London for example Marx's daily routine consisted of holding a story hour on the steps of the tenement house where he lived for the street children and those too young for the factories. He'd then go off to the British museum to study and write and in the evenings joined the workers at the pubs where they went to socialize at the end of the work day.
The workers didn't have a lot of leisure time to study and talk about important questions, and supported guys like Marx who could use this time most effectively, by buying his pamphlets and drinks so they could pick his brain and learn from him. He was their teacher and leader and is still remembered and loved by workers in London today.
Every year workers have a pub crawl visiting all the different pubs where Marx used to go. They drink a pint in each making toasts in his honor and end up at his grave site.
But because he lived in poverty alongside the workers, drank, and several of his children died of preventable diseases, he has been ridiculed by PB intellectuals. They deride him as a bum because he put his brain to the service of the workers instead of using it to make money. They don't understand, (and don't want to), what it means to live your politics, to be a revolutionary intellectual as Marx was.
V.I. Lenin set much the same example. Trained as a lawyer, he lived and struggled alongside the impoverished and exploited workers and peasants, whom he led in the successful struggle to overthrow the Russian Czar and capitalists, and create the first socialist state. His approach to revolutionary leadership was that the leaders must reside and organize wherever the oppressed masses lived and met.
His fellow Bolshevik, recalled Lenin's approach:
Comrade Lenin's main idea was that we had to remain with the working class and not coop ourselves up exclusively in the underground and turn into a narrow circle. If the workers are in the trade unions we must be there too; if we can send just one man into the Czar's Duma then we shall; let him tell the workers the truth and we can publish his speeches in pamphlets. If something can be done for the workers in the workers' clubs then we shall be there. We have to use every legal opportunity, so as not to divorce ourselves from the masses.
Even Joseph Stalin, who is falsely portrayed by the capitalist powers and their propagandists as having been an absolutist dictator, understood this. He observed:
In order to guide correctly, the experience of the leaders must be supplemented by the experience of the party masses, by the experience of the working class, by the experience of the toilers, by the experience of the so-called 'small people.'
And when is this possible?
It is possible only if the leaders are closely connected with the masses, if they are bound up with the Party masses, with the working class, with the peasantry, with the working intellectuals.
Contacts with the masses, the strengthening of these contacts, readiness to listen to the voices of the masses — in this lie the strength and impregnability of Bolshevik leadership.
It may be taken as a rule that so long as Bolsheviks keep contact with the broad masses of the people, they will be invincible. And, contrariwise it is sufficient for Bolsheviks to break away from the masses and lose contact with them, to become covered with bureaucratic rust, for them to lose all their strength and become converted into nonentities.
In the system of mythology of the ancient Greeks there was one famous hero, Antaeus, who, as mythology declares, was the son of Poseidon, the god of the sea, and Gaea, the goddess of the earth. He was particularly attached to his mother, who bore him, fed him and brought him up so that there was no hero whom this Antaeus did not vanquish. He was considered to be an invincible hero. Wherein lay his strength? It lay in the fact that every time he was hard-pushed in a struggle with an opponent, he touched the earth, his mother, who had borne him and fed him, and thus regained new strength.
But nevertheless, he had a weak spot — the danger of being separated from the earth. His enemies took account of this weakness of his and waited for him. And an enemy was found who took advantage of this weakness and vanquished him. This was Hercules. But how did Hercules defeat him? He tore him from the earth, raised him in the air, deprived him of the possibility of touching the earth, and thus throttled him in the air.
I think the Bolsheviks remind us of Antaeus, the hero of Greek mythology. Like Antaeus, they are strong in keeping contact with their mother, with the masses, who bore them, fed them, and educated them. And as long as they keep contact with their mother, with the people, they have every chance of remaining invincible.
This is the key to the invincibility of Bolshevik leadership.
Indeed as power was consolidated more and more into a small circle at the head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) — a circle that included Stalin — and the CPSU moved further away from its mass base becoming increasingly bureaucratic, Stalin challenged these developments and attempted three times to resign from the CPSU out of protest, but was voted down by the Central Committee.
Because he didn't grasp that class struggle continues even under socialism after the capitalist class has lost state power nor the mass line that Mao was developing in China, he was never able to mobilize the masses to resist the elitists and resurgent capitalists who were consolidating power at the head of the CPSU and state, forces that ultimately took power upon his death.
Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral And Huey P. Newton
Several PB Marxist-Leninist Afrikan revolutionary nationalist leaders, recognized the essential need to commit class suicide and base themselves and their cadre among the masses in order to lead successful revolutionary struggles. Among them were Frantz Fanon in Algeria and Amilcar Cabral in Guinea Bissau.
Frantz Fanon, a native of Martinique, who is hailed as having written the 'bible' of Afrikan anti-colonial struggle, The Wretched of the Earth, expressed his recognition of this principle in the quote taken from his book at the heading of this article.
Trained as a psychiatrist, Fanon joined the struggle of the Algerian people against French colonialism and put his psychiatric training to the service of the Algerian masses and their anti-colonial revolution. He also became the preeminent revolutionary theorist that inspired and informed anti-colonial revolutions around the world, including here in Amerika.
His analyses actually formed the core of Huey P. Newton's strategy of founding and organizing the original Black Panther Party (BPP) in the U.S. Like Lenin and Mao, Huey struggled against the isolationist lines and practice of PB intellectuals seeking to lead the Black revolutionary movement in the U.S., and left the college campus where many of them remained to form the BPP within the oppressed Black communities.
Amilcar Cabral was a Marxist-Leninist and the primary leader and strategist of the anti-colonial struggle in Guinea Bissau. He founded the PAIGC, the revolutionary nationalist Party, that led Guinea Bissau's successful anti-colonial resistance against Portugal's brutal colonial rule.
Trained as an agronomist under the colonial state, Cabral analyzed the classes in Guinea Bissau in his 1964 article, "Brief Analysis of the Social Structure in Guinea," and saw that there was no other class that could lead the liberation struggle or seize and operate state power once Portugal was expelled except the Afrikan petty bourgeois, of which he was a member.
Like Mao, he explicitly recognized the only way for members of this class to genuinely lead the struggle in the interests of the exploited masses was to commit class suicide. He stated:
The petty bourgeoisie can either ally itself with imperialism and the reactionary strata in its own country to try and preserve itself as a petty bourgeoisie, or ally itself with the workers and peasants, who must themselves take power or control power to make the revolution....
[To] remain [honest and] identified with the fundamental interests of the popular masses... [the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie] may have to commit class suicide, but it will not lose; by sacrificing itself, but in the condition of workers or peasants. In speaking of honesty I am not trying to establish moral criteria for judging the role of the petty bourgeoisie when it is in power; what I mean by honesty, is total commitment and total identification with the toiling masses.
So we see from a number of examples drawn from genuine and successful revolutionary leaders who were committed to and loved by the masses (and accordingly were despised and vilified by the capitalist imperialists and their propagandists), for the PB to give true revolutionary leadership to the masses, they must be remolded through a process of class suicide; they must share the oppressed and toiling conditions of the masses and actively participate right alongside them in their struggles against those conditions and for the liberation of the people from their common class enemy.
History also shows us that it has consistently been the un-remolded PB (those who have not committed class suicide) within the revolutionary movements that have betrayed those struggles with revisionist politics and ideology, who as would-be and formerly revolutionary comrades have proven to be the die-hard enemies of the proletariat. From the liberal bourgeoisie that massacred the Communards in Paris, to the liberals, Social Democrats and Mensheviks against whom the Russian Revolution was waged. To the formerly revolutionary Kuomintang in China who repeatedly moved under imperialist support to betray and exterminate the Communists, to the formerly revolutionary SPD that suppressed the German Revolution (Spartacists) and set the state firmly in the path of the Nazi's rise to power. To the bloody repression of the Naxalite Rebellion in India by the Communist Party of India. The restoration of capitalism in Russia, China, Albania and so on was the work of the right wing of the revolutionary leadership and movement, as was the betrayal of the Maoist Revolution in Nepal.
Marx, Lenin, Mao and others who actually committed class suicide and united in day-to-day lived struggle with the laboring masses understood this about the PB, and it is why they enjoined us to not be liberal nor to allow the PB and its contentions to be given sway. The class basis of the ideological and political line is what makes the fundamental difference between revolutionary versus reactionary, revisionist, liberal and fundamentally bourgeois teaching and practice.
It is because PB tendencies continue to evidence themselves in revolutionary work in Amerika and even in the RIBPP that we have raised these issues and call on all genuine revolutionary elements to struggle against them.
Dare to Struggle Dare to Win!
All Power to the People!