The Rule of the Small Middle Class
Rule of the Small Middle Class , Justice, 14th October 1893, p.4 & 5.
Reprinted in E. Belfort Bax, Essays In Socialism, New & Old, 1907, pp.39-43.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
The word Democracy covers a multitude of false conceptions. Democracy is supposed by many to he necessarily progressive and Socialistic in tendency. It is often thought that were the Democracy supreme, one would at once have made the great step towards Socialism or Social-Democracy. This idea, of course, lies at the basis of the belief in the referendum. Now, those who hold the view as to the perfection of the Democracy and its counsels, if only uncontaminated by the evil influences of the aristocrat and the wealthier bourgeois, would do well to pause and ask themselves of what the Democracy, as at present constituted, consists. For the Democracy is like the ten commandments – a “rummy lot.”
The Democracy is generally supposed to consist of all outside the traditional governing classes the aristocratic and plutocratic sections of the community. The position of the professional and intellectual classes, as a whole, might be considered doubtful; but as, to a large extent, hangers-on of the extreme wealthy section, in the shape of lawyers, higher functionaries, fashionable doctors, journalists – it is, for the sake of the argument, safer to exclude them in the lump (notwithstanding that many of them do not answer to this description) from the Democracy, or the “people.” There remains, therefore, only that portion of the community whose academic education has been limited, or nil, and whose means, generally speaking, are equally limited – during, at least, the greater part of their lives. Now, what is the nature of the main body of the population – called, and properly called, par excellence, the Democracy or the People? It really consists of several classes, all having an economic tendency to gravitate towards a centre, it is true, but often having present aspirations tending in quite different directions. We have within the pale of the Democracy (1) the clerk class; (2) the small shop-keeping class, (3) the domestic servant class, (4) the struggling artist, musician, actor, author, journalist class – or, in other words, the Bohemian class, (5) the Lumpen Proletariat or quasi-vagabond class, (b) the labouring or producing class proper – the skilled and unskilled workmen, including the agricultural labourers.
The Democracy, or the “people” is made up of, at least, all these elements. They all tend to gravitate economically towards the proletariat proper, but their actual sympathies are various. The peasant proprietary class, such an important factor in many parts of the Continent, fails, of course, in Great Britain altogether. The proletariat proper, the class which bears the future Socialist world in its womb, by no means at present everywhere outweighs, numerically, all the other classes. On the contrary, so far as I am aware, this is only the case in Great Britain and some of the North American States, and even in these countries the majority is not large. Now, as before said, the bulk of the non-proletarian sections of the Democracy are by no means proletarian or Social-Democratic, even in their instincts, let alone socialistic in their convictions. The predominating – or, at all events, most influential – elements in the non-proletarian democracy is what, for brevity, I have, rather loosely, termed the clerk and shop-keeping class; in other words, they who are, or who hope to become small capitalists, the small middle-class (Petite Bourgeoisie, Spiessbürger). This last section of the “people,” or the “democracy,” is, as such, the most formidable, because the most subtle, enemy the Socialist movement has to contend with. The snobbery of the Lackey class is obvious; the class itself is not so numerous, and has little influence. The Lumpen-proletariat class, that class which has no regular calling or means of livelihood, has, properly speaking, no politics. Danger from it can only arise when any considerable number of its members tack themselves on to the Socialist movement as Communist-Anarchists, making foolish, would-be extreme revolutionary, speeches, and still more foolish terrorist attempts. In this case its treacherous and unstable character makes it the mine from which reactionary parties dig their police-spies and provocative agents, and an element on which they can generally rely as buyable in any revolutionary crisis.
The “bohemian” class, in its various grades, though also non-political in general, is, as far as it goes, revolutionary in tendency, though without any definite aim. But the small capitalist class, in its various ramifications, has a more or less instinctive, but none the less definite, political and ethical creed. This creed, needless to say, is the outcome of its economic position. The latter presents it with an enemy behind and an enemy in front. The enemy behind is the remains of aristocratic or land owning privilege, together with most forms of bureaucratic (official) and plutocratic privilege. This enemy is common to itself and the rest of the democracy, including the proletariat. But it has also an enemy in front, the kernel of the working-classes to wit, the social-revolutionary proletariat, with the aim of which its own position is no less irreconcilable than that of the aristocratic-plutocratic section. The aim of the small capitalist, and of him who hopes to become one, is security and free play under the most advantageous conditions for his small capital to operate. On this account the little bourgeois constitutionally hates landlords and all forms of aristocratic and bureaucratic privilege as absorbing his profits, and as parasitic on the only class which for him has indefeasible rights to existence – the small middle-class, as incarnate in the “respectable tradesman.” For the same reason he looks with no very friendly eye on very big capitalists, especially the big financiers, the Jay Gould and others who make him lose his money. He is, in short, a thoroughgoing Radical if he is plucky and thorough, if he gets timid he is a Liberal, who thinks things must go slowly, or possibly a Tory-Democrat.
But what you may know him best by is his religion and ethics. In this country he is generally a Nonconformist, and always a moral man – that is, he has a nonconformist conscience – who goes in for the closing of public-houses, the suppression of the male sex, the prohibition of gambling, and the general abolition of all that is not business or the kind of edification productive of men like himself. He objects to the Prince of Wales, not so much as such, but on the ground that he plays baccarat (about the most harmless occupation on which he could be engaged). He believes in thrift, and in strict economy in administration. He is eminently practical in his politics, the mainspring of his action being the reduction of the rates and the promotion of trade in the district. Now this is the type of creature of which consists what is called the nonconformist vote, the vote for which the parliamentary candidate is prepared if necessary to sell his immortal soul. Owing to its numerical diffusion, democratic measures have at present a tendency to throw the weight of power into the hands of this class. And here lies the danger spoken of. For the sake of winning working-class support, it is possible the small capitalist may make certain concessions to the proletarian movement, but as a class the small bourgeoisie will never be anything more than “Nonconformist conscience.” It has as much reason to dread Socialism as any other possessing class, while its lack of education and of ideal aspiration of any kind makes it the one class outside the proletariat which furnishes least individual recruits to the cause of Socialism. The professional classes have supplied plenty of individual sympathisers and workers for the movement, but the “respectable tradesman,” how many of him join the SDF?
Varnished over with hypocrisy which finds its expression in ostentatiously favouring every ascetic movement that does not touch the root principle of profit-mongering, with its head in its day-books, and its soul in its till; the small middle-class in its various sections is the great obstacle which will have to be suppressed before we can hope to see even the inauguration of the Socialist world. It must be destroyed or materially crippled as a class before real progress can be made. In many parts of the continent the Jew has been a useful aid to evolution in helping to make mutton-broth (economically speaking) of the “respectable tradesman” and his congeners. But on the continent the peasant proprietor, who may now be reckoned as part of the petite bourgeoisie, just as the landlord with us may be reckoned as part of the big capitalist class, is a potent factor in retarding the process. Agriculture in Europe is not sufficiently developed to be carried on otherwise than almost entirely on a small scale, and thus the peasant class continues, in spite of usurers Jew and Christian.
With us here in England, however, it is somewhat different. We have no peasant proprietary class, and the small middle-class stands practically on its own feet. Hence the crippling of this class, the reduction of its members to the position of proletarians would abolish an element in our midst which, while with a show of reason claiming to be “advanced” on one of its sides will, in the long run always join with capital as against labour, and is, especially dangerous owing to its capacity for drawing red herrings across the track of Socialist progress.
The truth of what is here said is illustrated is :he case of a country like Switzerland, where the small middle-class is in complete possession of the political power. There you have none of the evils incidental to larger bureaucratic and plutocratic political systems. You have juridical and political equality in theory perfect. You have a humane and excellent penal system. The big capitalist by no means monopolises all the influence in public life. If he becomes too big public opinion rather frowns on him than otherwise.
But is Switzerland, until quite recently, Social Democracy has been a mere tolerated tail of the Democratic movement, that is, the movement of the small middle-class and peasantry. Now that the town proletariat is increasing, and above all, is becoming organised, matters are of course looking up. But it is still very difficult for the Swiss Socialists to act efficiently in the political sense, independently of the Democratic party. In fact, considering the disproportion of the proletarian population to the small capitalists and peasants, it speaks wonders for the organisation that Social-Democracy holds the position in Switzerland that it does.
For the rest, one has in Switzerland, the beau ideal of the small middle-class state the side on which it has advanced beyond the great bureaucratic states where the big Bourgeois dominates, and the side where it becomes reactionary, and is as anti-socialist as the most retrograde monarchy. The “people” is sovereign in Switzerland, but the “people” is predominantly “small middle-class.” “Respectable tradesmen,” and commercialised peasants, or the friends and relations of “respectable tradesmen,” and commercialised peasants, fill nearly all responsible positions. As a consequence the power of the tradesman is practically unlimited. For a customer to successfully dispute an extortionate claim made by a tradesman is undreamed of. The law gives the house landlord powers which make him a small despot over his tenants. One of the ruling passions of the small middle-class, personal gossip of the back-biting description, permeates society. Everybody knows what his neighbour is doing, and often what he or she is not doing. Persons in a responsible position do not disdain to become “old women” (klatschweiber) in this respect. Like opium eating with the Chinese the passion for this becomes so strong with the small middle-class mind as at times to completely dominate the whole man. We see the same phenomenon mutatis mutandis in the espionage of the non-conformist conscience in our provincial towns. The “respectable tradesman” and his class will never put off the “old woman” in this respect so long as he remains a “respectable tradesman.” Again, just as the parsimony of the “respectable tradesman” is seen in our own local governing bodies and school-boards in refusing public libraries, etc., so in Switzerland you find it in a curtailment of expenditure, in a slipshod judicial procedure which in some cantons to save the expense of producing witnesses allows a deposition to be taken at a distance and dispenses at the option of the judiciary with that great and only safeguard of accused persons, cross-examination.
I would urge in short, on Socialists, the desirability of not forgetting that in spite of its use at times as an auxiliary in the attack on aristocratic, plutocratic, and bureaucratic privileges, the small middle-class democracy, as a distinct factor in political and social life; is quite as much “the enemy” as the more obviously hostile classes. Unfortunately, many labour leaders are themselves immured in small-middle-class ideas. The revolutionary democracy, it must never be lost sight of, is, properly speaking, the organised working-class.. In the centre of this class, the whole of which is, by virtue of its economic position, Socialist in tendency i.e., unconsciously Socialist, stands the modern Social-Democratic or Socialist party, the party which alone has attained to a clear consciousness of the economic goal of labour action – political and trade union – and of its ultimate aim in the entire transformation of human society.
E. Belfort Bax
1. During the 19th and early 20th century the French term “bourgeoisie” and the German term “Bürgertum” were rendered as “middle class” in English (the class between the aristocracy and the poor, i.e. the working class, the peasantry etc.) - hence the term used by Bax as the title of this piece, “small middle class” for the French “petit bourgeoisie” and the German “Kleinbürgertum”. In modern Marxist writings in English this term is now rendered as “petty bourgeoisie”. This should be borne in mind when reading this piece.
Last updated on 13.1.2006