- The Myth of the French Bourgeoisie: An Essay on the Social Imaginary, 1750–1850
Did France have a bourgeoisie? That is the central question of Sarah Maza’s The Myth of the French Bourgeoisie, and the answer is no. In the late eighteenth century, bourgeois was a legal term that referred to those urban non-nobles who [End Page 269] were entitled to the privileges of the town. It was also working class slang, meaning “boss,” a usage that approaches the marxist definition. Bourgeois was an expression of praise only when it applied to domestic virtues; in the public sphere it became a criticism, denoting an excessive egoism and pettiness that precluded a consideration of the greater good.
As for the bourgeois role in the French revolution, Maza inverts the besieged marxist interpretation: the French bourgeoisie did not make the revolution, but were made by it. Their self-conscious entry onto the political stage began in the 1820s, as historians and politicians skillfully crafted the narrative of an active middle class who (in retrospect) had heroically waged the revolutionary struggle and thus had won the right to dominate what ultimately became the July, or bourgeois, monarchy.
The reader should by now be aware that Maza is referring not to the conditions of material existence—for even in the old regime there were people in business, in the liberal professions, in trade, in government administration, and elsewhere, whom we would think of as bourgeois—but to what Maza calls the “social imaginary,” or the manner in which people conceived of their world. In the approach taken here, “classes only exist if they are aware of their own existence, a knowledge which is inseparable from the ability to articulate an identity”; moreover, she argues that a group’s understanding of itself is “shaped by language and more specifically by narrative: in order for a group to claim a role as actor in society and polity, it must have a story or stories about itself” (p. 4). Her approach is thus centered on the extent to which human society can be said to be culturally constructed. Within this definition and approach, does she prove her case?
Her brief seems convincing for the prerevolutionary era. In the last decades of the eighteenth century, she argues, neither class struggle nor any sort of coming confrontation between noble and bourgeoisie was apparent; rather, the favored political model was the family reconciliation, embodied in the numerous sentimental plays in which, for example, nobles and peasants were revealed to be long-lost siblings. The bourgeoisie, though always “rising,” were not perceived as a social problem in themselves; instead the controversy was over “luxury,” and the growing taste for it among the entire Third Estate. And the Third Estate, in the months before the revolution, was clearly seen as a group which included both manual workers and peasants as well as members of the commercial, business, and professional classes, all of them linked by their lack of the legal privileges that defined the first two Estates.
The problems with the thesis begin with the revolution, which was characterized by a rapid transformation of the political scene and the dramatic evolution of ideology. Take, for a single example, the Garde nationale, hastily assembled in the days after the taking of the Bastille. The Guard, with units throughout the country, was composed of the economic and social elite. The members were “active citizens,” in the terminology of the first constitution, who paid enough in taxes to enable them to vote. They had the right to bear arms, in the old regime typically granted to nobles and bourgeoisie of the towns, and, after July 14, specifically denied to the working classes—or rather, denied to those who were not members of the Guard. Not surprisingly, the first, almost instinctive name given to the group was the garde bourgeoise: a name that would seem to [End Page 270] reflect an accurate match between name and thing, and thus a fairly...