V. I.   Lenin

A Characterisation of Economic Romanticism




The Petty-Bourgeois Character of Romanticism

The idealisation of small production reveals to us another typical feature of romanticist and Narodnik criticism, namely, its petty-bourgeois character. We have seen that the French and the Russian romanticists are unanimous in converting small production into a “social organisation,” into a “form of production,” and in contrasting it to capitalism. We have also seen that this contrasting of one to the other is nothing but the expression of an extremely superficial understanding, that it is the artificial and incorrect singling out of one form of commodity economy (large-scale industrial capital) and condemnation of it, while utopianly idealising another form of the same commodity economy (small production). The misfortune of both the European romanticists of the early nineteenth century and of the Russian romanticists of the late nineteenth century is that they invent for themselves a sort of abstract small production existing outside of the social relations of production, and overlook the trifling circumstance that this small production actually exists in an environment of commodity production—this applies both to the small economy on the European continent in the 1820s and to Russian peasant economy in the 1890s. Actually, the small producer,   whom the romanticists and the Narodniks place on a pedestal, is therefore a petty bourgeois who exists in the same antagonistic relations as every other member of capitalist society, and who also defends his interests by means of a struggle which, on the one hand, is constantly creating a small minority of big bourgeois, and on the other, pushes the majority into the ranks of the proletariat. Actually, as everybody sees and knows, there are no small producers who do not stand between these two opposite classes, and this middle position necessarily determines the specific character of the petty bourgeoisie, its dual character, its two-facedness, its gravitation towards the minority which has emerged from the struggle successfully, its hostility towards the “failures,” i.e., the majority. The more commodity economy develops, the more strongly and sharply do these qualities stand out, and the more evident does it become that the idealisation of small production merely expresses a reactionary, petty-bourgeois point of view.

We must make no mistake about the meaning of these terms, which the author of A Critique of Some of the Propositions of Political Economy applied specifically to Sismondi. These terms do not at all mean that Sismondi defends the backward petty bourgeois. Nowhere does Sismondi defend them: he wants to take the point of view of the labouring classes in general, he expresses his sympathy for all the members of these classes, he is pleased, for example, with factory legislation, he attacks capitalism and exposes its contradictions. In a word, his point of view is exactly the same as that of the modern Narodniks.

The question is: on what grounds, then, is he described as a petty bourgeois? On the grounds that he does not understand the connection between small production (which he idealises) and big capital (which he attacks). On the grounds that he does not see that his beloved small producer, the peasant, is in reality becoming a petty bourgeois. We must never forget the following explanation about reducing the theories of various authors to the interests and points of view of different classes:

“Only one must not form the narrow-minded notion that the petty bourgeoisie, on principle, wishes to enforce an egoistic class interest. Rather, it believes that the special   conditions of its emancipation are the general conditions within the frame of which alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided. Just as little must one imagine that the democratic representatives are in deed all shopkeepers or enthusiastic champions of shop-keepers. According to their education and their individual position they may be as far apart as heaven from earth. What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically. This is, in general, the relationship between the political and literary representatives of a class and the class they represent” (Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, translated into Russian by Bazarov and Stepanov, pp. 179–80).[3]

Hence, those Narodniks who think that the sole object of referring to petty-bourgeois character is to say some thing exceptionally venomous, that it is simply a polemical ruse, cut a very comical figure. By this attitude they reveal their misconception of the general views of their opponents, and chiefly their misconception of the basis of that very criticism of capitalism with which they all “agree,” and of the way in which it differs from sentimental and petty-bourgeois criticism. The mere fact that they strive so hard to evade the very problem of these latter forms of criticism, of their existence in Western Europe, of their relation to the scientific criticism, clearly shows why the Narodniks do not want to understand this difference.[1]

Let us explain the above with an example. In the bibliographical section of Russkaya Mysl[4] for 1896, No. 5 (p. 229, et seq.), it is stated that among the intelligentsia “a group has lately appeared and is growing with amazing rapidity” which in principle is unreservedly hostile to Narodism. The reviewer points in the briefest outline to the causes and character of this hostility, and one can not but note with appreciation that he gives quite correctly the gist of the point of view hostile to Narodism.[2] The reviewer does not share this point of view. He does not understand that the ideas of class interests, etc., should compel us to deny “people’s ideals” (“simply people’s but not Narodnik”; ibid., p. 229), which he says, are the welfare, freedom and consciousness of the peasantry, i.e., of the majority of the population.

“We shall be told, of course, as others have been told,” says the reviewer, “that the ideals of the peasant author” (this is a reference to the wishes expressed by a certain peasant) “are petty-bourgeois and that, therefore, to this day our literature has represented and defended the interests of the petty bourgeoisie. But this is simply a bogey, and who, except those possessing the world outlook and mental habits of a Zamoskvorechye merchant’s wife, can be frightened by such a bogey?. . .”

Strongly spoken! But let us hear what he has to say further:

“... The basic criterion, both of the conditions of human intercourse and of deliberate social measures, is not economic categories, borrowed, moreover, from conditions alien to the country, and formed under different circumstances, but the happiness and welfare, material and spiritual, of the majority of the population. And if a certain mode of life, and certain measures for maintaining and developing this mode of life, lead to this happiness, call them petty-bourgeois, or what you will, it will not alter the situation: they—this mode of life and these measures—will   still be essentially progressive, and for that very reason will represent the highest ideal attainable by society under existing conditions and in its present state” (ibid., pp. 229 30, author’s italics).

Does the reviewer really not see that in the heat of controversy he has jumped over the problem?

Although the accusation that Narodism is petty-bourgeois is described by him with supreme severity as “simply a bogey,” he produces no proof of this assertion, except the following incredibly amazing proposition: “The criterion . . . is not economic categories, but the happiness of the majority.” Why, this is the same as saying: the criterion of the weather is not meteorological observations, but the way the majority feels! What, we ask, are these “economic categories” if not the scientific formulation of the population’s conditions of economy and life, and moreover, not of the “population” in general, but of definite groups of the population, which occupy a definite place under the present system of social economy? By opposing the highly abstract idea of “the happiness of the majority” to “economic categories,” the reviewer simply strikes out the entire development of social science since the end of the last century and reverts to naïve rationalistic speculation, which ignores the existence and the development of definite social relationships. With one stroke of the pen he wipes out all that the human mind, in its attempt to understand social phenomena, has achieved at the price of centuries of searching! And after thus relieving himself of all scientific encumbrances, the reviewer believes the problem is solved. Indeed, he bluntly concludes: “If a certain mode of life . . . leads to this happiness, call it what you will, it will not alter the situation.” What do you think of that? But the whole question was: what mode of life? The author himself had only just said that those who regarded peasant economy as a special mode of life (“people’s production,” or whatever you like to call it) were opposed by others who asserted that it is not a special mode of life, but just the ordinary petty-bourgeois mode of life, similar to that of every other kind of small production in a country of commodity production and capitalism. If it automatically follows from the former   view that “this mode of life” (“people’s production”) “leads to happiness,” then it also automatically follows from the latter view that “this mode of life” (the petty-bourgeois mode) leads to capitalism and to nothing else, leads to the “majority of the population” being forced into the ranks of the proletariat and to the conversion of the minority into a rural (or industrial) bourgeoisie. Is it not obvious that the reviewer fired a shot into the air, and amidst the noise of the shot took as proven exactly what is denied by the second view, which is so unkindly declared to be “simply a bogey”?

Had he wanted to examine the second view seriously, he obviously should have proved one of two things: either that “petty bourgeoisie” is a wrong scientific category, that one can conceive of capitalism and commodity economy without a petty bourgeoisie (as indeed the Narodniks actually do, and thereby completely revert to Sismondi’s point of view), or that this category is inapplicable to Russia, i.e., that here we have neither capitalism nor the prevalence of commodity economy, that the small producers do not become commodity producers, that the above-mentioned process of ousting the majority and of strengthening the “independence” of the minority is not taking place among them. Now, however, having seen that he treats the reference to the petty-bourgeois character of Narodism simply as a desire to “offend” the Narodniks, and having read the above-quoted phrase about the “bogey,” we involuntarily recall the well-known utterance: “Pray, Kit Kitych![5] Who would offend you? You yourself can offend anybody!”


[1] For example, Ephrucy wrote two articles on the subject of “how Sismondi regarded the growth of capitalism” (Russkoye Bogatstvo, No. 7, p. 139), and yet absolutely failed to understand exactly how Sismondi did regard it. Russkoye Bogatstvo’s contributor did not notice Sismondi’s petty-bourgeois point of view. But since Ephrucy is undoubtedly familiar with Sismondi; since he (as we shall see later) is familiar with that very representative of the modern theory who characterised Sismondi in that way; since he, too, wishes to “agree” with this representative of the new theory—his failure to understand acquires a quite definite significance. The Narodnik could not see in the romanticist what he does not see in himself. —Lenin

[2] It sounds very strange, of course, to praise a man for correctly conveying somebody else’s ideas!! But what would you have? Among the ordinary controversialists of Russkoye Bogatstvo and of the old Novoye Slovo, Messrs. Krivenko and Vorontsov, such a method of controversy is indeed a rare exception. —Lenin

[3] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. I, Moscow, 1958, p. 275.

[4] Russkaya Mysl (Russian Thought)—a monthly literary and political journal published in Moscow from 1880 to 1918; up to 1905 it was liberal Narodnik in trend. In the nineties, during the polemic between the Marxists and the liberal Narodniks, the editors of the journal, while adhering to the Narodnik outlook, occasionally allowed articles by Marxists to be published in its columns. Items by the progressive writers A. M. Gorky, V. G. Kprolenko; D. N. Mamin-Sibiryak, G. I. Uspensky, A. P. Chekhov, and others were published in the journal’s literature section.

After the 1905 Revolution, Russkaya Mysl became the organ of the Right wing of the Cadet Party, and was edited by P. B. Struve. It was closed down in the middle of 1918.

[5] Kit Kitych—the nickname of Tit Titych, a rich merchant, one of the characters in A. N. Ostrovsky’s comedy Shouldering Another’s Troubles. Lenin gives this epithet to the capitalist money bags.

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