[Marxism] Bourgeois versus capitalist

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Oct 24 18:15:35 MDT 2005

With all due respect to my good friend Nestor, I don't believe that Marx 
made such a distinction. The terms bourgeoisie and capitalist were 
interchangeable. Ellen Meiksins Wood makes such a distinction as well in 
"Origins of Capitalism". If anybody can successfully explain what she is 
trying to say, you will be my guest at one of NYC's better cheap restaurants.


[A]ccording to both Pirenne and his predecessors, commerce revived with the 
growth of cities and the liberation of merchants. Here we come to one of 
the most common assumptions associated with the commercialization model, 
the association of capitalism with cities­indeed, the assumption that 
cities are from the beginning capitalism in embryo. In Europe, the argument 
goes, cities emerged with distinctive and unprecedented autonomy, cities 
devoted to trade and dominated by an autonomous burgher (or bourgeois) 
class which was to free itself once and for all from the fetters of the old 
cultural constraints and political parasitism. This liberation of the urban 
economy, of commercial activity and mercantile rationality, accompanied by 
the inevitable improvements in techniques of production which evidently 
follow from the emancipation of trade, was apparently enough to account for 
the rise of modern capitalism.

All these explanations have in common certain assumptions about the 
continuity of trade and markets, from their earliest manifestations in 
exchange to their maturity in modern industrial capitalism. The age-old 
practice of commercial profit-taking in the form of "buying cheap and 
selling dear" is not, in these accounts, fundamentally different from 
capitalist exchange and accumulation through the appropriation of surplus 

There also tends to be another common theme in these histories of 
capitalism: the bourgeois as agent of progress. We have become so used to 
the identification of bourgeois with capitalist that the presuppositions 
secreted in this conflation have become invisible to us. The burgher or 
bourgeois is, by definition, a town-dweller. Beyond that, specifically in 
its French form, the word used to mean nothing more than someone of 
non-noble status who, while he worked for a living, did not generally dirty 
his hands and used his mind more than his body in his work. That old usage 
tells us nothing about capitalism, and is likely to refer to a 
professional, an office-holder, or an intellectual no less than to a 
merchant. In the slippage from town-dweller to capitalist via the merchant 
which occurs in the later uses of "bourgeois," we can follow the logic of 
the commercialization model: the ancient town-dweller gives way to the 
medieval burgher, who in turn develops seamlessly into the modern 
capitalist. As a famous historian has sardonically described this process, 
history is the perennial rise of the middle classes.

This is not to say that all historians who subscribe to such models have 
failed to acknowledge that capitalism represents a historical break or 
transformation of one kind or another. It is true that some have tended to 
find not just trade but a bit of capitalism itself almost everywhere, 
especially in Greek and Roman antiquity, always just waiting to be released 
from extraneous impediments. But even they have generally insisted on a 
major shift from the economic principles of feudalism to the new 
rationality of "commercial society," or capitalism. People have often 
talked, for example, about the transition from a "natural" economy to a 
money economy, or even from production for use to production for exchange. 
Yet if there is a major transformation in these historical accounts, it is 
not in the nature of trade and markets themselves. The change is rather in 
what happens to the forces and institutions­political, legal, cultural, and 
ideological, as well as technological­that have impeded the natural 
evolution of trade and the maturation of markets.

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