3.11 Social Classes

Ideologies of Change

How much did European society resemble the sociological description provided by Marx? At first sight, nineteenth-century Europe seems more similar to how it was in earlier centuries than it does radically new – most people were still farmers, every country but Britain was still mostly rural, and the Industrial Revolution took decades to spread beyond its British heartland. That being said, European society was undergoing significant changes, and Marx was right in identifying the new professional middle class, the bourgeoisie, as the agents of much of that change.

The term “bourgeoisie” is French for “business class.” The term originally meant, simply, “townspeople,” but over time it acquired the connotation of someone who made money from commerce, banking, or administration but did not have a noble title. The bourgeoisie made up between 15% and 20% of the population of central and western Europe by the early 1800s. The male members of the bourgeoisie were factory owners, clerks, commercial and state bureaucrats, journalists, doctors, lawyers, and everyone else who fell into that ambiguous class of “businessmen.” They were increasingly proud of their identity as “self-made” men, men whose financial success was based on intelligence, education, and competence instead of noble privilege and inheritance. Many regarded the old order as an archaic throwback, something that was both limiting their own ability to make money and society’s possibilities of further progress. At the same time, they were defined by the fact that they did not work with their hands to make a living; they were neither farmers, nor artisans, nor industrial workers.

The growth of the bourgeoisie arose from the explosion of urbanization that took place due to both industrialism and the breakdown of the old social order that started with the French Revolution. Cities, some of which grew almost 1000% in the course of the century, concentrated groups of educated professionals. It was the middle class that reaped the benefits of a growing, and increasingly complex, economy centered in the cities.

While the bourgeoisie was proud of its self-understood sobriety and work ethic, in contrast to the foppery and frivolity of the nobility, successful members of the middle class often eagerly bought as much land as they could, both in emulation of the nobles and because the right to vote in most of western Europe was tied for decades to land-ownership. In turn, nobles were wary of the middle class, especially because so many bourgeois were attracted to potentially disruptive ideologies like liberalism and, increasingly, nationalism, but over the course of the century the two classes tended to mix based on wealth. Old families of nobles may have despised the “nouveau riche,” but they still married them if they needed the money.

The bourgeoisie had certain visible things that defined them as a class, literal “status symbols.” They did not perform manual labor of any kind, and insisted on the highest standards of cleanliness and tidiness in their appearance and their homes. In turn, all but the most marginal bourgeois families employed at least one full-time servant (recruited from the working class and always paid a pittance) to maintain those standards of hygiene. If possible, bourgeois women did no paid work at all, serving instead as keepers of the home and the maintainers of the rituals of visiting and hosting that maintained their social network. Finally, the bourgeoisie socialized in private places: private clubs, the new department stores that opened in for the first time in the mid-nineteenth century, and the foyers of private homes. The working classes met in taverns (“public houses” or just “pubs” in Britain), while bourgeois men and women stayed safely inside.

Anonymous. "Isambard Kingdom Brunel at the Launching of the SS Great Eastern (sometimes called Leviathan) with John Scott Russell and Lord Derby." c. 19th century.
Anonymous. “Isambard Kingdom Brunel at the Launching of the SS Great Eastern (sometimes called Leviathan) with John Scott Russell and Lord Derby.” c. 19th century. Wikimedia. April 4, 2014.

In addition, the members of the bourgeoisie were supposed to live by certain codes of behavior. In contrast to the sexual libertinage of the old nobility, bourgeois men and women were expected to avoid extra-marital affairs (although, practically speaking, bourgeois men regularly took advantage of prostitutes). A bourgeois man was to live up to high standards of honesty and business ethics. What these concepts shared was the fear of shame– the literature of the time describing this social class is filled with references to the failure of a bourgeois to live up to these standards and being exposed to vast public humiliation.

What about the nobility? The legal structures that sustained their identity slowly but surely weakened over the course of the nineteenth century. Even more threatening than the loss of legal monopolies over land-owning, the officer corps of the army, and political status was the enormous shift in the generation of wealth away from land to commerce and industry. Relatively few noblemen had been involved in the early Industrial Revolution, thanks in large part to their traditional disdain for commerce, but by the middle of the century it was apparent that industry, banking, and commerce were eclipsing land-ownership as the major sources of wealth. Likewise, the one thing that the bourgeoisie and the working class had in common was a belief in the desirability of voting rights; by the end of the century universal male suffrage was on the horizon (or had already come to pass, as it did in France in 1871) in almost every country in Europe.

Thus, the long-term pattern of the nobility was that it came to culturally resemble the bourgeoisie. While stubbornly clinging to its titles and its claims to authority, the nobility grudgingly entered into the economic fields of the bourgeoisie and adopted the bourgeoisie’s social habits as well. The lines between the upper echelons of the bourgeoisie and the bulk of the nobility were very blurry by the end of the century, as bourgeois money funded old noble houses that had still had access to the social prestige of a title.


Working Lives. 1990. Films on Demand. 20:16.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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