By Gaither Stewart, Senior Editor Republished from Cyrano’s Journal 2008.
Editor’s Note: The article below was originally published in 2008. However, it seems appropriate to republish this (and the rest of the “definitions” series, as the need for an understanding of basic Marxism is important at this time in our history.
[Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” one of the many heroic tableaux commemorating the bourgeoisie’s struggle against the moribund feudal order. The imagery is romantic and promises a utopia of classless brotherhood, but the social organization consolidated under bourgeois rule soon showed deep cleavages between rich and poor, and a penchant for exploitation of the lower strata comparable to the ancient regime’s.]
“We are not fighting against men or a kind of politics but against the class which produces those politics and those men.” (from Dirty Hands, a political play by Jean Paul Sartre, first performed in Paris on April 2, 1948.)
“It takes a day to make a senator and ten years to make a worker.” AND, as Caligula says to the senators: “It is much easier to descend the social ladder than to climb back up.” (from the play Caligula by Albert Camus, first performed in Paris in 1945, words I include here just for fun, mockery and a hint of warning.)
(Rome) It’s a capricious irony of history that the word bourgeois, which pinpoints the capitalist class, is perceived by nearly everyone, including the bourgeois themselves, as an epithet and is almost universally rebuffed!
Generally we conceive of the bourgeois in reference to their over emphasis on form and formality, in total contrast with the image of the bohemian radical. Bourgeois characteristics include emphasis on tradition, pretentiousness, conventionality, propriety, status obsession, respectability at all costs, an affected manner of speech and an overall comportment befitting such a description. The bourgeois personality is one of seeming rather than being.
To most ears both the noun and the adjective bourgeois ring negative and evil. Both upper and lower social classes detest that person and class. Bourgeois bastard! Fucking bourgeois! No wonder few people choose to identify themselves as bourgeois, preferring “middle class” or some such.
My family discussion is a good example. For some time my wife and I have benefited from an apartment exchange with a person in a central area of Paris so that in recent years we spend several months a year there. Though I prefer Paris to my home in Rome, my individualistic Italian, French-speaking wife doesn’t share my enthusiasm. Scornfully, dismissively she charges that Parisians are too bourgeois. Too closed, too clannish. Bonjour, Madame, bonjour Monsieur, au revoir Madame, au revoir Monsieur, all day long. For her Paris is atrocious, people don’t meet each other, they’re indifferent, uninterested in relations with others, in their work, in their life. I can’t pin her down as to what she really means but she stubbornly insists that Parisians are unbearably bourgeois. Clearly the sense in which she uses “bourgeois” is the most common in the world today.
In this essay I have in mind the socio-political meaning of bourgeoisie, the morally corrupt class that Marxism equates with the capitalist class. Precisely the corrupt bandit class of the USA currently being saved by the general taxpayers in the bipartisan-endorsed Great Financial Bailout of Wall Street of 2008. Which shows again that in the eternal class struggle the bourgeoisie is almost always the evil oppressor. As history has shown time and again, the crucial distinction between bourgeoisie and proletariat is the distinction between evil—however camouflaged—and good. Yet, the modern age is known as the epoch of the bourgeoisie, that is, of capitalism.
That is the great contradiction of our epoch. Since modern revolutions eliminated monarchies and simplified the class struggle, western society has been divided into two hostile camps: the bourgeoisie, which runs things to its constant aggrandizement, at the expense of everything and everyone, and the proletariat which resists exploitation by it. The ethical pathos of Marxism is the exposure of exploitation of labor as the basis of human society.
One recalls that the bourgeoisie played a major role in the French Revolution. Since then, in the shape and form of the capitalist system, it has maintained the upper hand most everywhere, or sooner or later regained it, as in post-Communist East Europe. It has crushed the other classes and converted everyone else into wage earners. That is its nature.
For its prosperity the capitalist bourgeoisie depends on free trade. Except for down moments like today when things go haywire for free market capitalism, especially on deregulated and uncontrolled Wall Street and it turns back to the people to bail it out of the chaos it creates at regular intervals. [Note I say free trade, not fair trade, which is the way it ought to be but rarely is.]
Its survival depends on unending growth [a physical impossibility in a very fragile and finite planet] and constantly expanding markets, the continual acceleration and revolutionizing of production, undemocratic political centralization and today in Europe and the USA on the massive exportation of jobs to the poor world. Meanwhile bourgeois (bandit) capitalism—again following its nature—requires and has achieved an obscene level of concentration of property and wealth in a few hands. That is its constant goal. It thrives on the incessant creation of new desires subsequently morphed into needs throughout the world, and—true to its Darwinian, amoral nature—full-scale predation of the poor and weak. In that sense the bourgeoisie is through and through both cosmopolitan and sociopathic.
Paradoxically, or perhaps inevitably, those primary requisites for the bourgeoisie’s existence provoke the resistance of the proletariat. It’s a vicious circle. In a great dialectic the survival and non-negotiable dynamic of the bourgeoisie generate the resistance that can ultimately crush it. The resistance that according to Marxist theory will someday crush it. These days, there for everyone to see, for everyone to feel, the spreading sense of unease marking its successive economic-financial crises point to the eventual demise of bourgeois, bandit capitalism.
So why has it not already happened, one must wonder? Why hasn’t it collapsed long ago? Though the bourgeoisie-capitalist class is small and the proletariat wage earners an overwhelming majority, why don’t the exploited classes rebel and rebel, revolt and revolt, again and again? Why not? The reason is clear: the exploited classes are not only victims. They are also accomplices. Half victim, half accomplice. The historical paradox. The ruling class counts on this dichotomy to maintain the system. Divide and rule. Meritocracy. Rewards for obedience. Two cars and bigger houses for staying in line. A system based on money, domination, wholesale, constant political propaganda, and fear. Religion too, but especially FEAR. Fear of fear. Fear of change. Fear, fear, fear. A fearful people is an obedient people. Today’s Americans are a sacrificed generation. Their illusion of true love has faded. Instead there is the feminine side—seduction and sex ever before us, in all its forms. But love is not the question. For love you still need illusion and innocence. And we are a disillusioned generation. All of us. Only fiction remains. And our bitterness, jealousy and fear. That’s why you need an absolute, overwhelming desire to fight back. The only (current) alternative is to flee into the mountains or the desert, 20 miles from anyplace. No banks, no commerce, no bureaucratic offices in sight. Or perhaps resort to walking the labyrinth in the Chartres Cathedral in search of the final secret, the beautiful butterfly to change things.
At the same time there is a glut of everything in the Western world. Yet vampire bourgeois capitalism cannot cut back. Staggering, careening on its crazy course, it goes after more and more growth, to survive. It needs more and more production, more markets, more and cheaper labor, more consumers (while salaries everywhere are lower and lower so that consumption decreases), more power, more of everything, clearly unachievable forever. How fast can a man run, one asked after the new world record 100-meter dash at the Beijing Olympics? 9.5 seconds? Then tomorrow, perhaps 9 seconds. Then 8. But can it go on forever, faster and faster?
Bourgeoisie, Borghesia, Burguesia, Bürgerstand. Middle class! The French word bourgeoisie, originally in reference to inhabitants of towns or bourgs, is most expressive of the class’s socio-political signification, especially in reference to the upper or merchant class, who are the capitalists. (Also in socio-political language the word bourgeois has pejorative overtones, smacking of undeserved wealth and nouveaux riches tastes.) Then (besides members of the brainwashed working class, a potent segment in America) there is their chief political support, the crutch of bourgeois capitalism: the so-called petite bourgeoisie, the class between the upper bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the shopkeeper class, the urban people, small-business, the target of populist leaders since the Roman Empire, the followers of dictators from Mussolini to Hitler, who are the flag-waving super Americans of today.
On the other hand, the European bourgeoisie is not to be confused with the American middle class. They are not the same thing. Sociologically, in the pejorative sense my wife means, both Italy and France are largely “bourgeois” North Europe is even more of the petit bourgeois category, East Europe and Latin America are by nature proletarian with a thin bourgeois-intellectual class at the top. The European bourgeoisie creates more culture, while in the USA because of social mobility (itself rapidly vanishing) culture and art can come from anywhere.
Since the rebellious years after 1968 fixed class relationships have diminished in Europe too, especially evident in Italy and the France. Europe is again rich. Life style is more bourgeois! Still, within that bourgeoisie are the most educated classes, which in the past produced also the intelligentsia wing and the revolutionary vanguard. Therefore, and in contrast with the USA, from that same European bourgeois class—also marked by set values and tradition—have emerged the movements for drastic social change.
Today with the Right winds of neo-liberalism sweeping over Europe, those times seem distant. The year 1968 belongs to another epoch. Still, the term bourgeoisie as used by the radical Left in Europe and the USA (many or most of whom are bourgeois renegades!) depicts the society the Left opposes. Yet nowhere else were whole peoples more jubilant than Europeans over America’s recent fall back on nationalizations of the core of the financial system (which despite stringent efforts the European Union has not yet succeeded in eliminating completely) in an attempt to save temporarily its economic neck and the “American way of life” and reinforce the transformation to Fascism.
One doesn’t forget easily that the bourgeoisie was guilty of permitting if not creating Fascism. The European and American bourgeoisie propped up Fascism (many astute observers have justly called it the “naked face of capitalism”) in order to preserve its own social rule. The basis of its rule, private property and capitalism, was threatened by the proletarian revolution that Western Socialists (largely emerging from the same bourgeoisie), still in the throes of nationalism, were never able to pull off. For the European upper bourgeoisie, Fascism was little more than an annoyance that saved their system. Even World War II was preferable to proletarian revolution. We are witnessing a repetition of that history in the USA today.
The close collaboration of American and European capitalism right up until World War II was a confirmation of their secret alliance sans frontières. In the immediate post-war America’s renewed alliance with the residue of Nazi Germany against Communist Russia was a resumption of the pre-war Fascist-Capitalist bond against Soviet Russia. In that sense the Fascist-Capitalist blood alliance created by the bourgeoisie of Europe and the USA protected each other against the working class.
George W. Bush’s grandfather, the late US senator Prescott Bush, was a director and shareholder of companies that profited from their involvement with the financial backers of Nazi Germany. The U.K.’s Guardian has obtained confirmation from newly discovered files in the US National Archives that a firm of which Prescott Bush was a director was involved with the financial architects of Nazism.
His business dealings, which continued until his company’s assets were seized in 1942 under the Trading with the Enemy Act, has led more than 60 years later to a civil action for damages being brought in Germany against the Bush family by two former slave labourers at Auschwitz and to a hum of pre-election controversy.
The bourgeoisie in feudal pre-revolutionary France was a specific class. Much wealthier than the lower classes, it lacked the privileges of the aristocracy against whom it made the French Revolution. It made its revolution in order to rip political power from the hands of the aristocracy and acquire its privileges. It became the new ruling class. It was never authentically egalitarian.
Since then it has incurred the hate and wrath of all other classes. Deregulation is not new. Bourgeois slogans have always been ‘no rules, no laws, all power to the middle classes.’ Compromise with other powers, yes,—especially with organized religions and various forms of “democracy”—but forever at the expense of the working classes.
In the bourgeois world anywhere and under any form of government workingmen (and peasants) are destined to remain forever workingmen and hard laborers.
“Big Bill” Haywood, sworn enemy of capitalism and tireless organizer of the working class, one of the founders of the legendary Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W), which saw the A.F.L. as essentially a “class collaborationist tool.” Consistent with this view, from its inception in 1905, the I.W.W. advocated the overthrow of the wage system, and putting workers in control of their own work lives through industrial organization, a form of early councilism.
The point about equality bears repeating: despite the high-sounding and immortal words, liberté, egalité, fraternité, the French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution against royal power and the aristocracy, and executed in the beginning by the “people.” The only things lacking to the “freedom” of the bourgeoisie were equal privileges and participation in the government, i.e. political power. It overthrew the king, took power and then did precious little for the sans culottes. The bourgeoisie emerged victorious. In the bourgeois capitalist world the words liberty, equality and brotherhood have remained to this day empty slogans. No more than that. The bourgeoisie has never cared or been bothered about class divisions; their ascension to power signified simply that the old ranks of privilege had been expanded to accept newcomers. Not the bearers of new oppositional values. That, in a sense, explains why the road to socialism has been so much harder.
Incidentally, the principle of “private property” so much bandied about by conservative propagandists to scare the incautious and ill-informed is a religion that has nothing to do with homeowners. It refers to ownership of the means of production: factories, fields, buildings, machinery, and money itself. That is great wealth and the political power to back it up. That religion was the economic basis of the French Revolution. That has never changed. For that same reason, the great Socialist revolution was always just around the corner, a hairsbreadth away. That again is the history of man.
Despite its grave shortcomings, the French Revolution was a great awakening. And despite its bourgeois character and the power it wielded, the communist idea kept coming to the front. According to Peter Kropotkin, in his memorable classic, The Great French Revolution, the word Socialism came into vogue chiefly in order to avoid the term Communism. Kropotkin: “Secret Communist societies became action societies, and were rigorously suppressed by the bourgeoisie.” The fearful bourgeoisie first checked the revolutionary impulse in France and soon restored the monarchy to guarantee its survival. The spirit of the French Revolution was nonetheless contagious. Kropotkin closed his major work with immortal praise for it: “The one thing certain is, that whatsoever nation enters on the path of revolution in our own day, it will be heir to all our forefathers have done in France.”
Soon Marxism came along to pinpoint and define once and for all the bourgeoisie as the exploiting class, the class that obtains its income from capital and commerce. The bourgeoisie is the ruling class in our time because it owns the means of production—land, factories and resources.
Moreover it has the means of coercion of the lower classes. By control of police and army it is able to keep in line and exploit the work of wage earners who live only from their labor. Perhaps in no other major country do Marx’s theses more concisely describe the societal line-up than in the USA today. Therefore America cannot remain forever immune to the class struggle, quiet today, deathly quiet, mute, unvoiced, but potentially explosive.
A graffiti on the walls of the Sèvres-Babylone metro station in Paris noted by French writer Michel Houellebecq—reductive, curious, ambivalent, and even permissive slogan as it is—rings like a warning, the very minimum warning, to the tiny American capitalist class, new born Christian or not: “God wanted inequalities but not injustices.”
Power in America is aware of the menace and the threat of the extension of the struggle for justice to all social classes, to el pueblo unido. Therefore the system’s perfidious use of terrorism and fear, religion, unrelenting propaganda, the American way of life and the future of our children to hoodwink the people.
Happy, united, docile, and toothless, this sanitized, scrubbed down image of the American working class (which curiously includes here highly paid professionals, such as physicians!) is the preferred vision of American capitalists and their Madison Avenue hirelings. Seen in countless venues, from print media to television, it promotes a mythical kind of social harmony normally pursued by fascist regimes.
One often hears the expression exploitation of labor. What does it mean exactly?
It’s basic. The heart of Marxism. Its validity is recognized most everywhere. The capitalist owner of the means of production pays wages and production costs and then sells the goods produced by labor, keeping for himself the difference between costs and sales. Part of his profit is Marx’s “surplus value.” It’s the size of his profit that creates inequalities. The point is the worker creates the wealth of the greedy capitalist, who squeezes the workingman up to the limit, gaining thousands of times more than the worker can earn in a lifetime. That is injustice. The owner, the entrepreneur and his executives (here we mean also the real owners and CEOs of banks and funds, of stock markets, insurance giants, holding companies and the like) gain the maximum profit without actually doing any work. And he has the bourgeois government ready to bail him out when he fucks up, which his greed causes at regular intervals. That too is exploitation of labor. That is injustice.
Karl Marx used the word bourgeois to describe the social class that holds property and capital making possible exploitation. Though he recognized the bourgeoisie’s industriousness, he criticized its moral hypocrisy for its exploitation of other men. As time passed he came to use bourgeois to describe not only the class, but also its ideology: class society based on capitalism and labor. A society of the capitalist and the worker.
Members of the American middle class are marked by considerable diversity, who however tend to overlap. They prize non-conformity, innovation and independence and tend to comprise also the artistically creative part of the nation. Education is a chief indicator of middle class status. Education is fundamental to prepare members of the class for creative and leadership roles. For that reason, writers, educators, teachers, journalists, artists and the mainline media owners come chiefly from the middle class(es).
It is that middle class-bourgeoisie that has written the bulk of modern social and political history. The history most of us know best is their view of history. Now that history must be re-written. Everything must be reviewed. Everything must be revised. All of it—World Wars I and II, the “forgotten” Korean War where it all started, the Cold War, the USSR, Stalin, Iran, Iraq. Everything. Especially 911. GW Bush in power is not the same thing as Reagan who set the scene. But something changed. What has changed? That is also a mystery that must be clarified.
One change is that the real American upper middle class is shrinking in size. And from generation to generation it is becoming more elite. Sociologists instruct us that at today’s pace another generation will suffice to eliminate the class. The prohibitive costs of higher education today guarantee the manifest elitism in America and the continuity of power in the hands of the smaller and smaller and best educated upper, to a great extent capitalist class, who more and more constitute also the political class, the caste. The American middle class is the most representative of the America the world is familiar with, not very complimentary of that class in view of the widely diffused anti-Americanism in the world. Yet it is threatened with extinction.
That is, eliminated by way of a golpe. A coup d’état. Executed by elite America against mainstream America itself.
The fervor of bourgeois revolution infected Russia from the early XIX century. Originally Social Democracy developed independently of the working classes in Russia, just as in the West. But as the class struggle intensified and sharpened, Lenin and the revolutionary Socialist intellectuals came to differ from the rest. Lenin preached that the choice came down to one between “bourgeois ideology” and “Socialist ideology”. The former pointed toward reform and the creation of capitalism before social revolution. Lenin aimed at revolution, here and now, before the creation and organization of a great working class capable of making the revolution itself.
As elsewhere revolutionaries in Russia were powerfully influenced by Marx’s comments in his “Critical Notes on the King of Prussia and Social Reform” on “the feeble reaction of the German bourgeoisie to socialism” and, on the other hand, “the brilliant talents of the German proletariat for socialism.” Marx often compared the impotence of the German bourgeoisie for political revolution, responsible for the political impotence of Germany itself, with the social capacity of the German proletariat.
His social analysis of Germany has held good for 150 years! In his words, “it is entirely false that social need produces political understanding.” That sentence would apply more to the USA today than to anywhere else in the world.
Despised in America and America’s sphere of propaganda as a “breeder of tyranny”, Lenin was a tough intellectual and a shrewd student of the bourgeoisie. A relentless fighter for world revolution, Lenin was the first major political leader of the 20th Century to put Marxian insights into tactical and strategic practice.
Lenin and his Bolshevik Communists opted for the Socialist ideology. They reserved special hate for the bourgeoisie intent on maintaining its privileges at the expense of the workers. The Russian revolutionary foresight is especially meaningful in Third Millennium America. After Lenin came to power he made it clear that Russia was NOT an island of utopia. The idea of a “petit bourgeois utopia” was to remain forever anathema to Lenin and thus to the Russian Revolution. “It is a question of creating a Socialist state …. This is merely one phase through which we must pass on the way to world revolution.”
In Lenin’s mind everything anti-revolutionary was bourgeois. Bourgeois attitudes. Bourgeois ethics and morality. Bourgeois plots. Bourgeois peace. Bourgeois legality. Bourgeois reaction. Bourgeois imperialism. The bourgeoisie was not going to stop him. No hairsplitting! “We are turning more and more to the Left …. We will destroy the entire bourgeoisie, grind it to a powder.”
In the Leninist concept “the bourgeoisie is the class which inevitably rules under capitalism, both under a monarchy and in the most democratic republic, and which also inevitably enjoys the support of the world bourgeoisie.” He knew what he was talking about. The world bourgeoisie—Democratic, Fascist or Monarchic—never forgave or forgot the temerity, the audacity, the effrontery, of the Russian Revolution!
The Bolshevik leader had learned his lessons from the French Revolution. In his 1918 cry of “All power to the Soviets” he meant a resounding ‘No!’ to the bourgeoisie who instead demanded “All power to the Constituent Assembly.” Lenin was not about to hand over parliamentary power to a certain bourgeois counter-revolution. The resulting bloody civil war between Reds and Whites of Russia was between those two battle cries, between those two classes: the red revolutionary class and the white malignant bourgeoisie.
From that moment it was all-out attack on the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie. “Death to the bourgeoisie!”
Pravda wrote on August 31, 1918: “Workers! If you do not now destroy the bourgeoisie, it will destroy you. Prepare for a mass attack on the enemies of the Revolution….”
Then in “Catechism of a Class-conscious Proletarian” also in Pravda: “The bourgeois is our eternal enemy, forever boring from within.” The writer meant bankers, rich merchants, manufacturers and landowners, officers of the old guard, priests, White Guard reactionaries, upper bourgeois classes. The professed aim of the Red Terror was not to wage a war against individuals but to eliminate the bourgeoisie as a class.
Instructive for modern readers is Alexis de Tocqueville’s remark about France in L’Ancien Régime et La Révolution written long before Lenin was born: “For the first time perhaps since the beginning of the world one sees the upper classes so isolated and separated from all the rest that one can count their members and separate them as one separates the condemned part of the herd, and the middle classes reluctant to mix with the upper classes but on the contrary jealously trying to avoid contact with them: two symptoms which if one had understood them, would have announced for all the immensity of the revolution about to be accomplished, or rather, which was already made.”
That rings familiar, eh! I mean the separation and isolation today of America’s elitist capitalists from the rest of the people.
In his essay “The Transparency of Evil” Jean Baudrillard, unpredictable and surprising as ever, notes that each transparency raises the question of its contrary, the secret. Still, some things, he says, will simply never be visible. They will remain in the secret world and are shared in secret according to a kind of exchange different from that of the visible world. But since today everything seems to happen in the visible world, the virtual world, what happens to those things that were once secret? Step by step, delving into the secret within the secret, Baudrillard then chills you with this: they become occult, clandestine, evil. That which once was just secret becomes the evil that must be abolished. The problem is one cannot destroy them because to a certain extent the secret, like myths, is indestructible. Therefore it becomes diabolic and infects the same instruments designed to eliminate it.
I reflect on this equation of the secret, the visible and the diabolic and apply it to the subject here. Conclusion: capitalist power is the occult evil and resistance must abolish it. Our bourgeois governments profess democracy and transparency. Yet they operate in the secrecy that has morphed into evil, while continuing to boast of democracy and God.
Capitalism as an economic and social system can only work when there are new frontiers to discover. Since, as we have seen, new opportunities and eternal growth are basic requirements for capitalistic society and since they have been exhausted, I too believe America has completed its historic Manifest Destiny.
Destiny. American capitalism has long loved the word. Baudrillard recalls a story about the rules of destiny, “Death in Samarkand.” On a square of a town, Death makes a sign to a soldier, terrifying him. He runs to the king and tells him that Death made a sign to him. Therefore he was escaping immediately to Samarkand. The king summons Death and asks why he scared his captain. Death answers that he didn’t intend frightening the soldier, he just wanted to remind him that they had an appointment that evening in Samarkand.
Based in Rome, Gaither Stewart is Cyrano’s Journal’s Online’s European Correspondent and Special Editor for Foreign Affairs. His political and cultural reviews reach a multinational audience with venues spanning the globe, from the US to Western Europe, Latin America and lately, Russia (Moscow’s Pravda).