The modern bourgeoisie, reads the famous encomium in the Communist Manifesto, ‘has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions . . . agglomerated population, centralized means of production . . . conjured whole peoples out of the ground’footnote* Pyramids, aqueducts, cathedrals; conducted, agglomerated, centralized . . . Clearly, for Marx and Engels, the ‘revolutionary role’ of the bourgeoisie lies in what this class has done. But there is also another, more intangible reason for their praise:
Three distinct semantic fields are interwoven in these feverish paragraphs. The first concerns the period that precedes the advent of the bourgeoisie, when the nature of social relations was concealed by a variety of deceptions: ‘idylls’, ‘veils’, ‘ecstasies’, ‘enthusiasms’, ‘holies’, ‘fervours’, ‘sentimentalisms’ and ‘prejudices’. Once in power, however—second passage—the new ruling class has ruthlessly scattered these shadows: it has ‘put an end to idyllic relations’, ‘torn asunder’, ‘drowned’, ‘stripped’, ‘reduced’, ‘swept away’ and ‘profaned’. Whence—finally—the new episteme of the bourgeois age: ‘naked self-interest’, ‘icy calculation’, ‘sober senses’, ‘facing one’s real conditions’, ‘naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation’. Instead of hiding its rule behind a host of symbolic delusions, the bourgeoisie forces all of society to face the truth about itself. It is the first realistic class of human history.
Naked self-interest. The masterpiece of the bourgeois century (Figure 1) ‘looks at the viewer’, writes T. J. Clark, ‘in a way which obliges him to imagine a whole fabric . . . of offers, places, payments, particular powers, and status which is still open to negotiation’.footnote2 Negotiation: the perfect word. Though Olympia is lying down, indolent, and as if doing nothing, she is actually working: she has raised her head, and has turned around to assess a potential customer—the viewer of the painting—with that intent gaze that is so hard to hold. Naked, shameless, direct. Look, by contrast, at Ingres’s Vénus Anadyomène (Figure 2), with her ‘looking which is not quite looking’ (Clark again), implicitly suggesting the idea that ‘the nude hides nothing because there is nothing to hide’.footnote3 It was precisely the ‘philistine sentimentalism’ of such paintings that Olympia set out to unmask: unmistakably, she is hiding her genitalia with her hand. Realism, indeed.