Saturday, 29 March 2008

Warning: this blog posting is petty bourgeois

The left can be a pretty cultish place. Not in the sense that it's filled with cults (though it is), but simply that being on that wing of politics involves inheriting a bunch of sub-cultural tics that look downright odd to mere mortals. My girlfriend cannot get over "comrade", for instance. Why do we insist on calling each other comrade all the time? It's like a bad film from the 1930s.

Of course, we press on regardless, often - even mostly - with good reason. Comrade is the only proper word for an equal companion in an ultimately life-or-death struggle. If it sounds a little weird to postmodern ears, it's only because this latest and most spiritually desolate stage of capitalism has made any notion of collective struggle a matter for 1970s nostalgia, and to sound weird before such philistinism is nothing other than a pleasure and a duty.

There is at least one case, however, where the tradition - such as it is - needs serious uprooting.

On the letters page of this week's Worker, one Robert Clough has a few stabs at me for being mean to that nice man Raul Castro. He claims at the end, rather grandly, to have discovered the "material basis" for my distaste for Cuban "socialism" (as Lenin said, oh please don't laugh!). it is "the privileged position of an upper section of the working class in the oldest imperialist country in the world, and the resultant tendency amongst this stratum towards a petty bourgeois political standpoint."

Let's get to the point - what the fuck is a "petty bourgeois political standpoint"?

And you do hear it a lot, don't you? Everybody is a petty bourgeois radical on the left - or at least, everybody else is. Anarchists call Lenin a petty bourgeois deviant leading the workers to an authoritarian hell - Leninists call anarchists petty bourgeois voluntarists. Orthodox trotskyists call Pabloites, Cliffites, and every other damn political species petty bourgeois, which is held to explain their enthusiasm for Stalinoid nationalists (Pabloites), their refusal to be sufficiently "defencist" with regards to the "degenerated/deformed workers states" (Cliffites), and sundry deviations and betrayals (everybody else).

The thing with the petty bourgeosie is that they're a class fraction perpetually "on the way out", so to speak - while bourgeois states usually attempt, with varying degrees of success, to artificially sustain this fraction, through appropriation and redistribution of a certain portion of the gross surplus value in the form of tax breaks, subsidies and indirect means (eg denial of planning permission for supermarkets), the tendency is for the petty bourgeoisie to occupy a very insecure position in society. They're neither one thing or the other.

So, what are petty bourgeois politics? On a very banal level, one can expect shopkeepers to support political measures which will keep them in business - but just as communism does not follow from wage demands, the fully-articulated positions that one associates with the petty bourgeoisie do not follow from a requirement for subsidies. The result is that, beyond a certain minimal anti-corporate standpoint, the petty-bourgeois is objectively rudderless. The concrete conjuncture in which she finds herself overdetermines her political standpoint - she may be a fascist, a communist, a Thatcherite, a social democrat, a liberal, a Pabloite, a Cliffite, even (sorry boys and girls) an Ortho-trot. In short, every political position is petty-bourgeois, which is another way of saying that none are.

So, the accusation I face - that I express, through a failure to defend a nationalist-stalinist tourist trap with a nice health service, a petty bourgeois political standpoint - is the ultimate non-statement.

Is there a political cuss-word to be had out of that unfortunate class fraction? Yes. There is a defining characteristic of petty-bourgeois politics - its heterogeneity, not just at any given time, but through time as well. A good petty-bourgeois will swing wildly from position to position, thinking with his gut rather than his brain. This phenomenon can be observed in the existing left - notably the Cliffites, but also the Pabloites and the Healy strain of Trotskyitis. Even now, we should be wary of thinking this 'proves' anything. This is an essentially descriptive epithet, not a theoretical one. It does not follow in any meaningful sense that Cliffism naturally tends towards a petty bourgeois base, still less that it represents anything like the objective political interests of the petty bourgeoisie. If we call John Rees a petty bourgeois leftist, we mean in an impressionistic and polemical way that his methods remind us of that class fraction, or we are talking bland waffle.

Conclusion: enough with this "petty bourgeois" shite, comrades!