In a recent post I made the claim that the petty proprietor, when crushed by the larger capitalists, historically has tended to side with the proletariat. This statement, left unqualified, is incorrect! The ideological space inhabited by the petty proprietor is aligned with capital---to the death. And what happens after death, what happens when the petty proprietor is bankrupted by his or her beloved capitalism?
The political space then occupied by the petty proprietor is most mercurial.
Anyone familiar with Marx's Class Struggles in France and its sequel The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte will recall what small capital did then when threatened. It turned to any system that it believed would protect it. Indeed, history shows again and again that the political affiliation of the small proprietor is most promiscuous!
Perhaps C. Wright Mills described the petty proprietor best:
In any melee between big business and big labor, the small entrepreneurs seem to be more often on the side of business. It is as if the closer to bankruptcy they are, the more frantically they cling to their ideal..
Small business's attitude toward government, as toward labor, plays into the hands of big business ideology. In both connections, small businessmen are shock troops in the battle against labor unions and government controls.
Big government, organized labor, big business, as well as immediate competitors, prepare the soil of anxiety for small business; the ideological growth of this anxiety is thus deeply rooted in fears, which, often misplaced, are not without foundation. Big business exploits in its own interests the very anxieties it has created for small business.(1)
Gloomy, yet accurate.
Still, what happens when small business is crushed by big capital? Does the petty proprietor retain his or her illusions about diligence and creativity and all the rest---or does he and she throw in with the workers who lead the push to restrain or overthrow a business culture out of control? The results are mixed. But once completely denuded of the ideology of capitalism (through complete bankruptcy), the small business person will turn against big business (Bolshevik Revolution).
There we see that the petty proprietor will assist the revolution but that he and she must play a subordinate role. Simply put, the reason is that the proletariat can never entirely trust the petty proprietor. Lenin, who was there, deserves the last word:
Marxist theory has established...that the petty proprietor, the small master..., who, under capitalism, always suffers oppression and very frequently a most acute and rapid deterioration in his conditions of life, and even ruin, easily goes to revolutionary extremes, but is incapable of perseverance, organization, discipline and steadfastness. A petty bourgeois driven to frenzy by the horrors of capitalism is a social phenomenon which, like anarchism, is characteristic of all capitalist countries. The instability of such revolutionism, its barrenness, and its tendency to turn rapidly into submission, apathy, phantasms, and even a frenzied infatuation with one bourgeois fad or another---all this is common knowledge.(2)
Nonetheless, he goes on to advocate strategic compromises and alliances! A socialist cannot afford to ignore the ferment of the petty proprietor in times of crisis. That ferment is essential in the overall conditions that create revolutionary transformation.
But... watch your back. A word to the wise... (that's the important qualification I omitted before).
1. Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Classes, Oxford University Press 1953, pp. 52-3.
2. Lenin, '"Left Wing" Communism---An Infantile Disorder' , Selected Works vol. 3, International 1975, p. 300.