The Discovery of the Bourgeoisie

The Bohemians, Joanna Richardson,  A.S. Barnes, 1969

The 1830 Revolution in France, Pamela Pilbeam, St Martin’s Press, 1991

Bourgeois doesn’t mean a citizen with the rights of the city. A duke may be bourgeois in the indirect sense in which the word has been used for the past thirty years or so. Bourgeois, in France, means roughly the same as philistine in Germany, and it means everyone, whatever his position, who is not initiated in the arts or doesn’t understand them. Once upon a time…. it was enough to be pink-cheeked and clean-shaven, with a square shirt-collar, and a stove-pipe hat, to be apostrophized with this injurious epithet.

(Theophile Gautier, in Le Moniteur universel, Dec. 31, 1855;  Richardson,  p. 52.)

Before Marx were the bousingots.  According to Pilbeam, the political factions of the 1830 revolution were not class-conscious, and to the extent that class lines can be detected between them, they did not match the distinctions described by Marx.  She also concludes that the streetfighters who made this and later 19th century revolutions happen were never the beneficiaries of the revolutions. Gautier’s anti-bourgeois convictions were not political, and the political bousingots were not really progressive.

The bourgeois and the bousingot are enemy twins, and, and you can’t have one without the other. The bousingots usually lose, and the cagy ones  jump ship (as Gautier did). But the bourgeoisie always produces more of them.

Gautier’s bouzingos (his spelling) were mostly just literary dissidents. The slightly later street-fighting bousingots were urban artisans and undifferentiated political rebels.  Their enemy, the newly-discovered bourgeoisie, has pretty much dominated France ever since.

We miss that in the United States, because what we go to France for is avant-gardists, not  ordinary folk. Two generations of American college students have learned that France is populated primarily by existentialists, surrealists, symbolists, Marxists, decadent aristocrats, bohemians, and so on — but no!. The petty bourgeoisie dominating France is the pettiest of them all.

“Bousingot”:  not in your dictionaries.

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Published in: on March 17, 2010 at 2:39 pm  Comments (3)  

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  1. The concept of the bourgeois is clearly indicated by Rousseau. Not only are economic classes discussed by Aristotle, his politics are driven by economic class almost as much as Marx. If you look at the turmoil within a typical medieval city-state, there will be the following classes:

    1. titled aristocracy (generally, these will be expelled from the city early in it’s development)
    2. the “great” guilds – generally, these are the guilds of bankers, cloth merchants, lawyers/notaries and physicians. Also, those burgers who focus on owning real estate.
    3. the “minor” guilds – skilled labor
    4. guild-less persons (unskilled laborers)

    It’s actually typical for each class to form a distinct and different class identity very early on. Some cities have strife between the great and minor guilds as early as the thirteenth century.

  2. You’ve found one of the Straussian ideas that most turned me off to the school, the true-believer idea that everything was already there in Aristotle, Plato, and a few others, because they were Wise.

    Marxists talk the same way. I imagine that Hegelians do. Freudians do, up to a point. A lot of lesser schools likewise.

    It may be necessary that there be disciples to make this presumption in order to make sure that a thinker is given a complete and respectful reading, but I would never want to be one of those people. If there ever was a Marxist who wrote something called “Places where Marx went wrong” or “Things Marx didn’t know about”, that would be my favorite Marxist.

    I suppose that when Strauss started out almost a century ago in a Marxist and modernist age his ploy was legitimate and perhaps necessary, since most scholars accepted rather casual dismissals of Aristotle at all. But that was then.

    And more to my point, Strauss was a German ideologue (in his own words in 1932, a fascist)in an age of toxic German ideology. I call it The German Seriousness and I’m against it.

    I think that the American academy went very wrong when it Germanized between the world wars and after WWII. We imported far too much militant dogmatism from a nation which had just done its best to destroy civilization. As far as I’m concerned Strauss, Hayek, and Popper (the ultimate winners here in the US) were as bad as Adorno and Heidegger.

    As far as the topic goes, yes, Aristotle knew about class. But did he have an adequate understanding of the bourgeois liberal societies that came into being during the 18th and 19th centuries? I doubt it, and how could he be blamed for not understanding something that didn’t exist in his time?

    As for the Gautier quote, my point is that Gautier in 1825 or 1830 was anti-bourgeois, but had a mostly stylistic definition of the word, with no apparent political or social content, but was at the same time loosely and briefly associated with a mass political class-conscious working class movement whose class understanding, by Marx’s definition, was actually retrograde and feudal. (The Pilbeam book argues this.)

    So at that point you have two anti-bourgeois movements already, even though neither had much understanding of what was going on and the link between them was tenuous. And much the same alliance was there at the Paris Commune, Weimar, and so on.

  3. Aristotle doesn’t spend too much time on the bourgeoisie because he believes the most relevant class, politically, are the gentlemen (the mid to lower end of the titled aristocracy as well as those commoners who also live off their rural estates). In rural economies (i.e., the bulk of human existence until a few hundred years ago), this focus seems to be correct. Gentlemen are motivated by honor, so if you are a philosopher and wish to convince them to be better, you talk about bravery, sports, fine houses, lineage and so on.

    Notice that the philosophers themselves don’t actually care very much about most of these things. There’s not THAT much difference between the gentlemen and the burghers, it’s just the then-situation of the economy. The philosophers work on convincing the burghers (if such things are needed) through their influence on the learned professions (in fact, the vast majority of philosophers themselves made their own livings by working in the learned professions).

    The concept of the bourgeoisie in modernity really is from Rousseau.


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