Marx and the Middle Classes
First Published: Pravda May 4, 1918
Source: International Socialist Library No. 15, Revolutionary Essays by Bela Kun, B.S.P., London.
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: Chris Clayton
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive
“The internal enemy” of the proletarian Russian Revolution is constituted first and foremost by the lower middle classes. The expropriation of the expropriators being carried out at present does not represent the most serious obstacle in the path of proletarian dictatorship. In the path of the expropriation of capital the obstacles are of a purely objective nature. The small group of large capitalists has not the masses on its side, and therefore speedily becomes powerless in face of the armed proletariat. The lower middle classes of society, on the other hand, represent a considerable section of the population, especially in Russia — to say nothing of the propertied section of the peasantry. To reckon with the wishes of these lower middle classes would mean the halting half-way of the work of the Revolution: it would mean an end of the aspirations towards the destruction of capitalism.
Exactly because the lower middle-class mass is numerically large, it has retained an influence over the working-class movement. But every concession to this influence represents a departure from the Marxian standpoint, because it was precisely Marx who freed Socialism from lower middle-class adulterations.
The behaviour of the middle-class Socialist parties during the opening encounters and the final decisive struggle of the proletarian revolution doubly imposes on us the duty of recalling, on the occasion of the centenary of the birth of our first teacher, what his views were on the subject of the lower middle classes. And, though the representatives of various shades of lower middle-class Socialism are constantly referring to Marx, in reality there is no greater sacrilege than this.
After the revolution alike in Marx’s philosophical world-concept and in his views on the material conditions of social production, he shook himself free of the last vestiges of Liberalism.
“The Poverty of Philosophy,” from the economic aspect, and “The Communist Manifesto,” from the political aspect herald the final liberation of Socialism from the last lower middle-class swaddling clothes.
The founders of scientific Socialism had not had as yet the experience of a revolution, but by the path of theoretical analysis they had even then succeeded in establishing the fact that, in the progress of the revolutionary movement, the dower middle-class can display itself only as a reactionary and Utopian factor.
This lower middle-class — as “The Communist Manifesto” proclaims — “stands half-way between the proletariat and the capitalist class. Being a necessary complement of capitalist society, this class is constantly being reborn.” Composed of extremely mixed elements of the pre-capitalist epoch — the so-called “toiling intelligentsia,” the lackeys of the capitalist class — this class was to be found, in France, in Switzerland, and to a certain extent in Germany, at the advanced posts of the revolution of 1848. According to “The Communist Manifesto,“ the Communists were to support the various party groupings of these elements, while the latter were in opposition, understanding clearly, however, that if the representatives of the lower middle-class were really revolutionary in sentiment, it was only when faced with their immediate descent into the ranks of the proletariat.
These hopes of the lower middle-class, little sanguine though they were, nevertheless were completely shattered. The revolution of 1848 clearly revealed the political bankruptcy of the revolutionary section of the bourgeoisie. That revolution laid bare not only their weakness, but also how dangerous they were to the work of the revolution. During the French revolution of that year, the proletariat was crushed, not by the capitalists, but by this very lower middle-class. “The small shopkeeper,” wrote Marx in “The Class Struggle in France,” “rose up and moved against the barricades, in order to restore the movement from the street into his shop. And when the barricades had been destroyed, when the workmen had been defeated, when the shopkeepers, drunk with victory, turned back to their shops, they found their entry barred by the saviours of property, the official agents of financial capital, who met them with stern demands: ‘The bills have become overdue! Pay up, gentlemen! Pay for your premises, pay four your goods.’ The poor little shop was ruined, the poor shopkeeper was undone!”
The lower middle-class is not fit to wield power, and a long government by it is unthinkable. This, first and foremost, for economic reasons: the small shopkeeper is the debtor of the great capitalist, and must remain in dependence on him as long as there exists the system of credit — which cannot be destroyed while the domination of private property continues.
The Imperialist era of capitalist production has fully justified this view of Marx’s. If the democratisation of capital by means of joint stock companies — the wild dream of the distorters of Marxism — were an economic possibility, even then the majority of the lower middle-class shareholders would be powerless to govern society.
The roots of the dilemma created by Imperialism are to be found in the economic relations on which Imperialism is based. There are only two classes capable of governing: the class of great capitalists, and the proletariat.
Every compromise with the upper bourgeoisie is treachery to the proletarian revolution. Every compromise with the lower middle-class after the victory of the revolution would mean the restoration of the supremacy of the upper bourgeoisie — the restoration of capitalist rule.
The experience of the revolution of 1848 completely confirmed Marx in his conviction that the revolution can blazon on its banner these watchwords only: the complete overthrow of all sections of the capitalist class, and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Within the framework of capitalist society, the lower middle-class is immortal. Not only do small traders and small producers, worshippers of the principle of private property and credit, inevitably ensure the existence of parasites on the social organism, as being causes of the dissipation and waste of social labour; but also from out of their midst there appear the bearers of a special philosophy, directed for the purpose of restraining the proletarian revolution.
“The lower middle-class,” in Marx’s words, “has no special class interests. Its liberation does not entail a break with the system of private property. Being unfitted for an independent part in the class struggle, it considers every decisive class struggle a blow at the community. The conditions of his own personal freedom, which do not entail a departure from the system of private property, are, in the eyes of the member of the lower middle-class, those under which the whole of society can be saved.”
And this is the very reason why the lower middle-class masses are the most dangerous enemies of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They represent a very strong section of society. Their special interests are absolutely incompatible with the economic disturbances which are the inevitable accompaniment of transitional periods.
The disturbance of credit cuts the ground from under their feet. They begin shouting for order, for the strengthening of credit, in such a way that every concession to them leads in effect to a complete restoration of the old order.
The bearers of middle-class philosophy, who took up their stand as critics of capitalism in the working-class movement at the time when that movement was still in the stage merely of a critical attitude towards capitalism, and who brought in with them a peculiarly lower middle-class outlook, feel disillusioned when the era of decisive battle arrives. Their supremacy in the realm of ideas can continue no longer; while it is beyond their powers to free themselves from the lower middle-class-world-concept.
This is what Marx says in his “Eighteenth Brumaire,” in which he gives a masterly analysis of this lower middle-class outlook, on the subject of these “representatives” of the Labour movement — or, to speak more correctly, of these leeches which have attached themselves to it:
“By their upbringing and individual position, the former can be as far apart from the latter as heaven and earth. What makes them the spokesmen of the lower middle class is the fact that their thoughts do not leave the path in which the latter’s whole life moves, and that therefore they come, by a theoretical road, to the same problems and solutions as the lower middle class reaches in actual life. Such, in general, is the relation between the political and literary representatives of a class and the class itself.”
Marx was merciless in dealing with this kind of poisoners of proletarian class-consciousness. The whole Labour movement ought to be the same. With the weapons of ridicule and hatred he fought against the “heroes” of the French social democracy of the time — the political movement which represented an unlawful union between the lower middle class and the proletariat.
He wished to separate the Labour movement from all lower middle class elements, because the lower middle class attitude — attachment to the idea of private property, more or less open striving to uphold credit, terror of every fundamental social disturbance — is in practice the greatest internal enemy of the proletariat and the proletarian revolution.
A proletarian dictatorship that betrays a readiness to make concessions to the lower middle class is threatened with destruction.
A working class struggling against the bourgeoisie “from below” escapes this peril more easily than a victorious proletariat. A proletariat fighting “from above,” possessing State power, and grappling with the problems of organisation of production, is in a much more difficult position than a proletariat which has not yet attained victory. The working class itself is not yet free from all lower middle class habits of mind, while the mass of middle class parasites which lived on the back of the old order is now, equally ready to live on the back of the proletarian State.
The crushing of counter-revolution in Russia shows that, here too, the time has come when, as Marx says in “The Civil War in France,” all sections of the bourgeoisie except the great capitalists — “shopkeepers, tradesmen, merchants” recognise that the proletariat is the only class capable of initiative in the sphere of social reconstruction. This means, however, that the same section of the lower middle class which “offered up the workers as a sacrifice to their creditors” will once again attempt to come to an agreement with its creditors.
While the lower middle class exists, it is not capable of renouncing itself, even if it does submit to the proletariat. Though incapable of independent resistance, it will nevertheless try by roundabout ways to distort the meaning and the aims of the Revolution.
If it once manages, under whatsoever disguise, to reappear in the arena of the workers’ struggle, it will use all its energies to the end that it may remain the proprietor of its little shop, and the client of capitalism. It demands first of all “the re-establishment of credit” — but this cry is, for the lower middle class, only “a disguised form of the cry for the re-establishment of private property.”
The Revolution, when celebrating the centenary of Marx’s birth, will not forget the sentence he passed on the lower middle class.