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Enterprise & Society 5.1 (2004) 136-138

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Sarah Maza. The Myth of the French Bourgeoisie: An Essay on the Social Imaginary, 1750-1850. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. x + 255 pp. ISBN 0-674-01046-9, $39.95 (cloth).

The central question of this book is why it is that a bourgeois identity has never assumed lasting prominence in French society, culture, or politics. Sarah Maza argues that this absence is a central element of French national identity and that its roots can be traced back to the revolutionary century. Although there were many individuals of middling status during this period, no group identifying itself as the bourgeoisie ever articulated its identity as against other groups. Moreover, as suggested most clearly by the political weaknesses of the "bourgeois monarch" Louis Napoleon, attempts to construct a political discourse around the bourgeoisie failed because the concept had little purchase as a meaningful political or social category.

The Myth of the French Bourgeoisie addresses two primary audiences. Historians of France will read it because it offers a "big" argument about the nature of French society and politics during the revolutionary era, one that falls within the revisionist framework, stressing the continuities that underlie the tumultuous events of the Revolution itself and particularly those associated with the emergence of a strong centralized state. A broader group of historians, however, [End Page 136] should read it for the method and substance of Maza's argument about class. Her approach, influenced by the linguistic turn, is to uncover the stories through which people construct the "social imaginary." Here her analysis draws on the work of a group of British historians—including Gareth Steadman-Jones, Dror Wahrman, and Patrick Joyce—who have explored, in a largely critical fashion, theusefulness of class for understanding British society during this same historical period. Like these scholars, Maza focuses primarily on the political narrative; her analysis explores the ways in which both the central actors and the broader society used social terminology and how that language shaped the construction of particular social identities.

Maza's argument has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as those of her British counterparts. The most notable weakness is the triumphal tone of some of her conclusions about the bourgeoisie, for the class whose existence Maza disproves is something of a straw man. More fundamentally, it is not clear that her thesis fully addresses the implications of France's economic development in the period from 1750 to 1850. We know from the work of historians of both consumption and production that France had a vibrant consumer culture in the eighteenth century, and that exploitative relationships developed between workers and employers despite the late arrival of fully fledged industrial capitalism. Maza acknowledges this evidence of significant economic and social change but concludes that its relationship to the existence of a bourgeois identity is highly problematic. However, by focusing on the political nation, her argument overlooks what this evidence suggests about changes in lived experience and social identities at the level of the region or community.

If these concerns suggest that Maza pays less attention to "the social" than she promises in the introduction, they serve to highlight the importance of the political question around which her book is organized. Given that social and economic change has the potential to find expression in the political arena, why did bourgeois identity have so little grip on the social imagination of the French? On this question, Maza clearly is on the right track, and her insights are significant, for she is able to show that a national identity built around the social ideals of "antimaterialism, civic service, a transcendent state, and an undivided people" (p. 13) was defined in opposition to the bourgeoisie. Particularly interesting is her argument that the political role often ascribed to the bourgeoisie was expressed instead in an ethic of service to the state and manifested itself in the birth and articulation of an extensive, differentiated, and professionalized bureaucracy. Maza traces the roots of this ethic of public service...


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