My name is Marc Mulholland. I am a Fellow (lecturer and tutor) in the History Faculty of Oxford University. My College is St Catherine's. I come from Ireland.

This is a blog relating to my book published in 2012 by Oxford University Press, Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear: From Absolutism to Neo-Conservativism.
Now on sale here and here. If you want 20 per cent off the price, I can arrange that! Send me a message or leave a comment, and I'll tell you how.

The thesis my book is examining was rather pithily summarised by Leon Trotsky in 1939: "Wherever the proletariat appeared as an independent force, the bourgeoisie shifted to the camp of the counter-revolution. The bolder the struggle of the masses, the quicker the reactionary transformation of liberalism." [Context is here]

However, my book isn't a defence of Trotskyism, or indeed any particular ideology. It's a study of an idea that took shape in Left, Right, and Centre variations.

This blog has tid-bits not included in the book, and other thoughts that occur.

You can see book details at the
OUP website.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Who Were the Bourgeoisie? A Reactionary Definition.

In the early 1860s there was a major constitutional struggle in Prussia, between parliamentary liberals and the Royal state executive, sometimes compared in its passion and import to the English Civil War. The conservative Berliner Revue thought that the liberal demand for government responsible to the elected assembly was an attempt by the bourgeoisie to subordinate the state to their interests. In 1860 it angrily asked the question: who are these upstart “new bourgeoisie” seeking to become the “new nobility”?
The answer is provided by the membership list of the lower house of the legislature, in France as well as in Italy, in Germany as well as in Prussia. In the first place ahead of everyone else are those who have acquired a higher academic education by attending a secondary school and a university, but who have remained virtually strangers to the actual realities of life, in other words, men of abstract education which is instructive about everything and nothing. … the judical officials, the administrative officials, to a considerable extent the clergy, the physicians, the scholars, the teachers, at the higher level, the lawyers, and similar people. … [those] who have acquired a modern scholarly education, and whose spiritual sensitivity has been diminished to the extent that their intellect has been trained, in other words, the engineers, the higher technicians, the men of letters, especially the Reformed Jews of the press, and others of that sort.
[Source: Theodore S. Hamerow, The Birth of a New Europe: State and Society in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1983), pp. 187-8]

The baddies here are the over-educated without a real grasp on the realities of life. There's no mention at all of entrepreneurs in this definition. Of course, in more dispassionate analyses, 'capitalists' usually were categorised along with the bourgeoisie, though as a distinct section. The German language differentiated between Wirtschaftsbürgertum and Bildungsbürgertum – the former referring primarily to an economic category (those who lived off profits from investments or the ownership of capital), the latter to an educated and ‘free professional’ category (doctors, professors, bureaucrats etc). 

It's interesting here that the 'bourgeois' are what we now might call a 'meritocracy'. The disparaging reference to the Jews highlights that strata historically deprived of juridically advantaged estate status often led the way in a society re-configuring around marketable aptitudes rather than inherited privilege (as Mitt Romney has maladroitly but not entirely unreasonably pointed out). It's more or less the definition I use too, in the book, though without the Berliners Revue's reactionary fury, I trust.

One problem with 'meritocracy', however, is that it very easily segues into a smug, self-entitled oligarchy (as Chris Hayes argues).


  1. i would have said that the German Bildungsburgertum refers less to meritocracy than to professional classes--since the emphasis is less on personal achievement of some kind than on technical training (in culture equally as engineering)--no?

    putting it in this way, it seems to me, would take the argument out of the realm of the pseudo-objective 'rule of the intelligent' and into a more sociological argument. maybe Hayes doesn't like this because anti-meritocratic arguments are more politically exciting...?

  2. Ah, yes, that's fair. Though at least in the minds' of graduates etc, professional accreditation was evidence of their merit. They clung to the notion of 'career open to talents'.

    (Does 'meritocracy' mean 'rule of the intelligent'? It was more 'rule of the educated' in Michael Young's original satire, wasn't it?).

  3. Here's the OED:

    "Government or the holding of power by people chosen on the basis of merit (as opposed to wealth, social class, etc.); a society governed by such people or in which such people hold power; a ruling, powerful, or influential class of educated or able people. Also in extended use.
    Originally spec. with reference to ‘merit’ as assessed by a competitive educational system."

    what interests me is the distinction between those who govern on the basis of some supposed personal, individual, *inherent* superiority, vs those who govern on the basis of a technical capacity that is learned. so, maybe, technocracy vs meritocracy?