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New Left Review I/167, January-February 1988


Immanuel Wallerstein

The Bourgeois(ie) as Concept and Reality

Définir le bourgeois? Nous ne serions pas d’accord.

Ernest Labrousse (1955)

In the mythology of the modern world, the quintessential protagonist is the bourgeois. [*] This article was originally given as the Byrn History Lecture, Vanderbilt University, 23 March 1987. Hero for some, villain for others, the inspiration or lure for most, he has been the shaper of the present and the destroyer of the past. In English, we tend to avoid the term ‘bourgeois’, preferring in general the locution ‘middle class’ (or classes). It is a small irony that despite the vaunted individualism of Anglo-Saxon thought, there is no convenient singular form for ‘middle class(es)’. We are told by the linguists that the term appeared for the first time in Latin form, burgensis, in 1007 and is recorded in French as burgeis as of 1100. It originally designated the inhabitant of a bourg, an urban area, but an inhabitant who was ‘free’. [1] G. Matoré, Le vocabulaire et la société médiévale, Paris 1985, p. 292. Free, however, from what? Free from the obligations that were the social cement and the economic nexus of a feudal system. The bourgeois was not a peasant or serf, but he was also not a noble.

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