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The Myth of the French Bourgeoisie: An Essay on the Social Imaginary, 1750-1850.

The Myth of the French Bourgeoisie: An Essay on the Social Imaginary, 1750-1850. By Sarah Maza (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003. x plus 255 pp. $39.95).

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 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 reflect an accurate match between name and thing, and thus a fairly clear idea, even this early, of what "bourgeois" meant.

And what are we to do with statements such as this one, from Girondin Jerome Petion, from early 1791? "The bourgeoisie," he wrote, "that numerous and wealthy class, has broken from the peuple; it thinks itself superior to them, on a par with the aristocracy which disdains it and waits only for the best time to humiliate it" (p.99). In the statement the bourgeois Petion (who implicitly distanced himself from the group), recognized a distinct "bourgeoisie" in both political and economic terms; and, just as significantly, he implied a recent change--the bourgeoisie "has broken"--that again suggests the rapid political evolution that occurred.

One of the most significant nuances of this issue, to which Maza draws repeated attention, is the concept of "bourgeois" as a political rather than economic term--the bourgeoisie as a talented new group of imperial administrators; the liberal bourgeoisie as the challengers to the noble/ecclesiastical hegemony, the role they played in the Restoration; finally the bourgeoisie as the new "aristocracy of wealth" (as working class activists came to view them) in the July Monarchy, who had in turn to be overthrown. But all of these concepts again suggest a distinct thing--the bourgeoisie--itself, and the existence of at least a rough social and economic congruence with that view.

So count this reader, at least, as not quite convinced. Nevertheless this work, from the author, most recently, of Private Lives and Public Affairs (University of California Press), is clearly written and wide-ranging in its approach, and provides a skillful introduction to many historiographical questions. Its readers will inevitably become far more careful about conflating economic with political terms without further examination. And it is always enjoyable to revisit the French Revolution, especially in good company.

Jill Harsin

Colgate University
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Harsin, Jill
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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