Leon Trotsky

Bourgeoisie, Petty Bourgeoisie
and Proletariat

Jacobinism, Social Democracy and Fascism – The Political Programs of the Petty Bourgeoisie

(August 1932)

Written: 4 August 1932.
Source: The Militant, Vol. V No. 36 (Whole No. 132), 3 September 1932, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2014. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

Any serious analysis of the political situation must take as its point of departure the relationship between the three classes: the bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie (including the peasantry) and the proletariat.

The economically powerful big bourgeoisie, in itself, represents an infinitesimal minority of the nation. To enforce its domination, it must ensure a definite mutual relationship with the petty bourgeoisie and through its mediation, with the proletariat.

To understand the dialectic of the relationship between the three classes, we must differentiate three historical stages: at the dawn of capitalist development, when the bourgeoisie required revolutionary methods to resolve its tasks; in the period of bloom and maturation of the capitalist regime, when the bourgeoisie endowed its domination with orderly, pacific, conservative, democratic forms; finally, at the decline of capitalism, when the bourgeoisie is forced to resort to methods of civil war against the proletariat to protect its right of exploitation.

The Political Programs of the Petty Bourgeoisie

The political programs characteristic of these three stages: Jacobinism, reformist democracy (social democracy included) and Fascism are basically programs of petty bourgeois currents. This fact alone, more than anything else, shows of what tremendous – rather, of what decisive, importance the self-determination of the petty bourgeois masses of the people is for the whole fate of bourgeois society.

Nevertheless, the relationship between the bourgeoisie and its basic social support, the petty bourgeoisie, does not at all rest upon reciprocal confidence and pacific collaboration. In its mass, the petty bourgeoisie is an exploited and disfranchised class. It regards the bourgeoisie with envy and often with hatred. The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, while utilizing the support of the petty bourgeoisie, distrusts the latter, for it very correctly fears its tendency to break down the barrier’s set up for it from above.

While they were laying out and clearing the road for bourgeois development, the Jacobins engaged, at every step, in sharp clashes with the bourgeoisie. They served it in intransigent struggle against it. After they had culminated their limited historical rôle, the Jacobins fell, for the domination of capital was predestined.

For a whole series of stages, the bourgeoisie entrenched its power under the form of parliamentary democracy. Even then, not peacefully and not voluntarily. The bourgeoisie was mortally afraid of universal suffrage. But in the last instance, it succeeded, with the aid of a combination of violent measures and concessions, of privations and reforms, to subordinate within the framework of formal democracy, not only the petty bourgeoisie, but in considerable measure also the proletariat, by means of the new petty bourgeoisie – the labor aristocracy. In August 1914 the imperialist bourgeoisie was able, with the means of parliamentary democracy, to lead millions of workers and peasants into the war.

The Decline of the Democratic Forms

But precisely with the war there begins the distinct decline of capitalism and above all, of its democratic form of domination. It is now no longer a matter of new reforms and alms, but of cutting down and abolishing the old opes. Therewith the bourgeoisie comes into conflict not only with the institutions of proletarian democracy (trade unions and political parties) but also with parliamentary democracy, within the framework of which arose the labor organizations. Therefore, the campaign against “Marxism” on the one hand and against democratic parliamentarism, on the other.

But just as the summits of the liberal bourgeoisie in its time were unable, by their own force alone, to get rid of feudalism, monarchy and the church, so the magnates of finance capital are unable, by their force alone, to cope with the proletariat. They need the support of the petty bourgeoisie. For this purpose, it must be whipped up, put on its feet, mobilized, armed. But this method has its dangers. While it makes use of Fascism, the bourgeoisie nevertheless fears it. Pilsudski was forced, in May 1926, to save bourgeois society by a coup d’état directed against the traditional parties of the Polish bourgeoisie. The matter went so far that the official leader of the Polish Communist Party, Warski, who came over from Rosa Luxemburg not to Lenin, but to Stalin, took the coup d’état of Pilsudski to be the road of the “revolutionary democratic dictatorship” and called upon the workers to support Pilsudski.

At the session of the Polish Commission of the Executive Committee of the C.I. on July 2, 1926, the author of these lines said on the subject of the events in Poland:

A Few Lessons of the Pilsudski “Coup”

“Taken as a whole, the Pilsudski overthrow is the petty bourgeois, ‘plebeian’ manner of solving the burning problems of bourgeois society in its state of decomposition and decline. We have here already a direct resemblance to Italian Fascism.

“These two currents indubitably possess common features: they recruit their shock troops first of all from the petty bourgeoisie; Pilsudski as well as Mussolini worked with extra-parliamentary means, with open violence, with the methods of civil war; both were concerned, not with the destruction, but with the preservation of bourgeois society. While they raised the petty bourgeoisie on its feet, they openly aligned themselves, after the seizure of power, with the big bourgeoisie. Involuntarily, an historical generalization props up here, recalling the evaluation given by Marx of Jacobinism as the plebeian method of settling accounts with the feudal enemies of the bourgeoisie ... That was in the period of the rise of the bourgeoisie. Now we mast say, in the period of the decline of bourgeois society, the bourgeoisie again needs the “plebeian” method of resolving its no longer progressive, but entirely reactionary tasks. In this sense, Fascism is a caricature, of Jacobinism.

“The bourgeoisie is incapable of maintaining itself in power by the means and methods of the parliamentary state created by itself, it needs Fascism as a weapon of self-defense, at least in critical instances. Nevertheless, the bourgeoisie does not like the “plebeian” method of resolving its tasks. It was always hostile to Jacobinism, which cleared the road for the development of bourgeois society with its blood. The Fascists are immeasurably closer to the decadent bourgeoisie than the Jacobins were to the rising bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, the sober bourgeoisie does not look very favorably even upon the Fascist mode of resolving its tasks, for the concussions, although they are brought forth in the interests of bourgeois society, are linked up with dangers to it. Therefore, the opposition between Fascism and the bourgeois parties.

“The big bourgeoisie likes Fascism as little as a man with aching molars likes to have his teeth pulled. The sober circles of bourgeois society have followed with misgivings the work of the dentist Pilsudski, but in the last analysis they have become reconciled to the inevitable, though with threats, with horse-deals and all sorts of trading. Thus the petty bourgeoisie’s idol of yesterday becomes transformed into the gendarme of capital.”

To this attempt at marking out the historical place of Fascism as the political reliever of the social democracy, there was counterposed the theory of social Fascism. At first it could appear as a pretentious, blustering but harmless stupidity. Subsequent events have showed what a pernicious influence the Stalinist theory actually exercised on the entire development of the Communist International.*

* * *

Is the Alliance Between the Big and the Petty Bourgeoisie Indissoluble?

Does it follow from the historical role of Jacobinism, of democracy and of Fascism that the petty bourgeoisie is condemned to remain a tool in the hands of capital to the end of its days? If things were so, then the dictatorship of the proletariat would be impossible in a number of countries in which the petty bourgeoisie constitutes the majority of the nation

and more than that, it would be rendered extremely difficult in other countries in which the petty bourgeoisie represents an important minority. Fortunately, things are not so. The experience of the Paris Commune first showed, at least within the limits of one city, just as the experience of the October revolution has showed after it on a much larger scale and over an incomparably longer period, that the alliance of the petty bourgeoisie and the big bourgeoisie is not indissoluble. Since the petty bourgeoisie is incapable of an independent policy (that is also why the petty bourgeois “democratic dictatorship” is unrealizable) no other choice is left for it than that between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

In the epoch of the rise, the growth and the bloom of capitalism the petty bourgeoisie, despite acute outbreaks of discontent, generally marched obediently in the capitalist harness. Nor could it do anything else. But under the conditions of capitalist disintegration and of the impasse in the economic situation, the petty bourgeoisie tends, seeks, attempts to tear itself loose from the fetters of the old masters and rulers of society. It is quite capable of linking up its fate with that of the proletariat. For that, only one thing is needed: the petty bourgeoisie must acquire faith in the ability of the proletariat to lead society onto a new road. The proletariat can inspire this faith only by its strength, by the firmness of its actions, by a skillful offensive against the enemy, by the success of its revolutionary policy.

But, woe if the revolutionary party does not measure up to the height of the situation! The daily struggle of the proletariat sharpens the instability of bourgeois society. The strikes and the political disturbances aggravate the economic situation of the country. The petty bourgeoisie could reconcile itself temporarily to the growing privations, if it arrived by experience to the conviction that the proletariat is in a position to lead it onto a new road. But if the revolutionary party, in spite of a class struggle becoming incessantly more accentuated, proves time and again to be incapable of uniting the working class about it, if it vacillates, becomes confused, contradicts itself, then the petty bourgeoisie loses patience and begins to look upon the revolutionary workers as those responsible for its own misery. All the bourgeois parties, including the social democracy, turn its thoughts in this very direction. When the social crisis takes on an intolerable acuteness, a particular party appears on the scene with the direct aim of agitating the petty bourgeoisie to a white heat and of directing its hatred and its despair against the proletariat. In Germany, this historical function is fulfilled by National-Socialism, a broad current whose ideology is composed of all the putrid vapors of disintegrating bourgeois society.

The Responsibility for the Growth of Fascism

The principal political responsibility for the growth of Fascism rests, of course, on the shoulders of the social democracy. Ever since the imperialist war, the labors of this party have been reduced to uprooting from the consciousness of the proletariat the idea of independent politics, to implanting within it the belief in the eternity of capitalism and to forcing it to its knees time and again before the decadent bourgeoisie. The petty bourgeoisie can only follow the worker when it sees in him the new master. The social democracy teaches the worker to be a lackey. The petty bourgeoisie will not follow a lackey. The politics of reformism deprive the proletariat of the possibility of leading the plebeian masses of the petty bourgeoisie and thereby alone convert the latter into cannon fodder for Fascism.

Politically, however, the question is not settled for us with the responsibility of the social democracy. Ever since the beginning of the war we have denounced this party as the agency of the imperialist bourgeoisie within the ranks of the proletariat. Out of this new orientation of the revolutionary Marxists arose the Third International. Its task consisted in uniting the proletariat under the banner of the revolution and thereby to secure for it the directing influence over the oppressed masses of the petty bourgeoisie in the towns and on the countryside.

The post-war period, in Germany more than anywhere else, was an epoch of economic impasse and of civil war. The international conditions as well as the domestic ones pushed the country imperiously on the road to socialism. Every step of the social democracy revealed its decadence and its impotence, the reactionary import of its politics, the venality of its leaders. What other conditions are needed for the development of the Communist party? And yet, after the first few years of significant successes, German Communism entered into an era of vacillations, zigzags, alternating turns to opportunism and adventurism. The centrist bureaucracy has systematically weakened the proletarian vanguard and prevented it from bringing the class under its leadership. Therewith, it has robbed the proletariat as a whole of the possibility of drawing under its direction the oppressed masses of the petty bourgeoisie. The Stalinist bureaucracy bears the direct and immediate responsibility for the growth of Fascism before the proletarian vanguard.

Prinkipo, August 4, 1932

L. Trotsky

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