• Berdyaev-bourgeois
November 12, 2021

Transcriptions ③ /// Nikolai Berdyaev on the Bourgeois

The next entry in our series of transcriptions is excerpted from Nikolai Berdyaev’s Slavery and Freedom, translated from the Russian by Reginald Michael (R. M.) French. Berdyaev’s philosophical work, largely descended from the Christian existentialism of Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, is relatively unappreciated today but was influential on many of his contemporaries within and beyond his native Russia, notably fellow expatriate Lev Shestov, French philosopher and playwright Gabriel Marcel, Jacques and Raïssa Maritain (herself a Russian emigrée), Uruguayan theologian Juan Luis Segundo, and philosopher Emmanuel Mounier (who would develop and expand Berdyaev’s theory of personalism in the journal Esprit).

Expelled by the Soviets in 1922, Berdyaev settled in Paris the following year and would remain there until his death in 1948.


There is a spell and a slavery of aristocracy. But still more is there a spell and slavery of the bourgeois spirit. The bourgeois spirit is not only a social category, but it is also a spiritual category. I shall be concerned at the moment principally with the bourgeois spirit as a spiritual category. Perhaps Léon Bloy, himself a bourgeois, has done more than anyone else for the service of wisdom in his astonishing book Exégèse des lieus communs.1 The antithesis between the bourgeois spirit and socialism is very relative and does not touch the depth of the problem. Herzen very well understood that socialism can be bourgeois. The general outlook of the greater number of socialists is such that they do not even grasp the fact that there is a spiritual problem in the bourgeois spirit. The bourgeois in the metaphysical sense of the word is a man who firmly believes only in the world of visible things, which enforce recognition of themselves, and who desires to occupy a strong position in that world. He is a slave of the visible world and of the hierarchy of position established in that world. He forms his estimate of people not by what they are, but by what they have. The bourgeois is a citizen of this world, he is a king of the earth. To have conceived the idea of becoming king of the earth is to be bourgeois. In that has been his mission. The aristocratic has taken possession of the world, by the power of the sword he has promoted the organization of kingdoms. But even so he was not able to become king of the earth, a citizen of this world, for him there were limits, which he has never been able to overstep.

The bourgeois is deeply rooted in this world, he is content with the world in which he has established himself. The bourgeois has little sense of the vanity and futility of the world, and of the insignificance of the good things of this world. The bourgeois takes economic power very seriously and not infrequently worships it disinterestedly. The bourgeois lives in the finite, he is afraid of the expanse of the infinite. It is true that he acknowledges the infinity of which he desires to take cognizance. He screens himself from spiritual infinity by the finiteness of the order he has established in life. He recognizes the infinity of growth in prosperity, of the development of organized life, but this merely shackles him to finiteness. The bourgeois is a being who has no desire to transcend himself. The transcendent hampers him in settling down on earth. The bourgeois may be ‘believing’ and ‘religious’, and he even calls upon ‘faith’ and ‘religion’ to safeguard his position in the world. But the ‘religion’ of the bourgeois is always a religion of the finite, shackled to the finite, it always conceals spiritual infinity. The bourgeois is an individualist, particularly when property and money are the matter in question, but he is anti-personalist. The idea of personality is foreign to him. In reality the bourgeois is a collectivist, his consciousness, his conscience, his judgments are socialized; he is one who belongs to a group. His interests are individual, while his consciousness is collective.

If the bourgeois is a citizen of this world, the proletarian is a being who is deprived of the citizenship of this world and has no consciousness of that citizenship. There is no room for him on this earth, he must look for his place in a transformed earth. With this is connected the hope which is attached to the proletarian that he will transfigure this earth and create a new life in it. This hope in the proletarian is commonly not fulfilled, because when the proletarian is victorious he becomes a bourgeois, a citizen of this transformed world and the king of the earth. And then the same endless story begins all over again. The bourgeois is a perpetual figure in this world, he is not necessarily connected with any particular structure of society, though it is in the capitalist régime that he reaches his clearest expression and achieves his greatest triumphs. The proletarian and the bourgeois are correlatives and pass over one to the other. Already in his youthful works Marx defined the proletarian as a man in whom his human nature was estranged to the utmost. His human nature ought to be restored to him. But the easiest thing of all is to restore it to him as bourgeois nature. The proletarian wants to become a bourgeois, but to become not an individual bourgeois but a collective, that is to say, in a new social structure. Socially the proletarian is absolutely right in his quarrel with the bourgeois. But there ought not to be social opposition to the fact that he has become a bourgeois, there ought to be only spiritual opposition. Revolution against the kingdom of the bourgeois spirit is spiritual revolution. It is by no means opposed to the truth and right of the social revolution, to a change in the social position of the proletariat, but spiritually it changes and transfigures the character of that revolution. The bourgeois is a being who has been objectivized to the utmost, completely ejected into the external, in the highest degree estranged from the infinite subjectivity of human existence. Bourgeois nature is loss of freedom of spirit, the subjection of human existence to determinism. The bourgeois wants everything for himself, but from out of his own self he produces nothing in thought or speech; he possesses material property, but he has no spiritual property.

The bourgeois is an individual and at times a very inflated individual, but he is not a personality. He becomes a personality to the extent to which he gets the better of his bourgeois spirit. The essential element in the bourgeois spirit is impersonal. Every social class displays a tendency to enter the impersonal bourgeois atmosphere. The aristocrat, the proletarian, the member of the intelligentsia, many of them become bourgeois. The bourgeois cannot overcome his bourgeois nature. The bourgeois is always a slave. He is the slave of his property and of his money, he is a slave of the will to enrichment, a slave of bourgeois public opinion, a slave of social position, he is the slave of those slaves whom he exploits and of whom he lives in fear. To be bourgeois is to be unemancipated in spirit and in soul, it means the subjection of the whole of life to external determination. The bourgeois creates a realm of things, and things take control of him. He has done a frightful amount for the dizzy development of technique, and technical knowledge has control of him, he makes man a slave with the help of it.

The bourgeois has rendered services in the past, he has displayed immense initiative, he has made many discoveries, he has developed the productive powers of man, he has overcome the power of the past and turned towards the future, which presented itself to him as an endless growth of power. To the bourgeois the principal matter is not ‘whence’ but ‘whither’. Robinson Crusoe was a bourgeois in his day. But in the period of his creative youth the bourgeois was not yet a bourgeois. He settles down to the bourgeois type later on.

The fate of the bourgeois must be understood dynamically, he has not always been one and the same. That turning of the bourgeois to the future, that will to rise, that will to enrichment, to secure the first place, creates the type of the arriviste. Arrivisme is the bourgeois general outlook upon life par excellence, and it is profoundly antithetic to any form of aristocracy. There is no sense of origin in the bourgeois, he has but a poor memory of his origin and his past, as compared with the aristocrat who remembers them all too well. Chiefly he creates a vulgar luxury and makes life the slave of it. In bourgeois luxury beauty perishes. Luxury desires to make beauty the tool of riches and beauty perishes under such treatment. In bourgeois society, which is based on the power of money, luxury develops, chiefly thanks to the bourgeois love of women. Woman, the object of bourgeois desire, creates a cult of luxuriousness which knows no limit. And this is also the extreme of depersonalization, and of the loss of personal dignity. The human being in his inward existence disappears, and is replaced by an environment of luxury. Even the bodily form of man becomes artificial and it is impossible to distinguish the human face in him. The bourgeois woman for whose sake the bourgeois creates a world of fantastic luxury and commits crimes, reminds one of a doll, a creature which is a work of art. Carlyle’s philosophy of clothes must be remembered here.

Marx saw a positive mission for the bourgeois, that is the development of material productive forces, and also a negative, even a criminal rôle, the exploitation of the proletariat. But to him the bourgeois was an exclusively social category and he looked no deeper. The bourgeois has an insurmountable tendency to create a world of fancy which enslaves man, and causes the disintegration of the world of true realities. The bourgeois’ most fantastic creation, the most unreal, the most uncanny and horrible in its unreality–is the kingdom of money. And this kingdom of money in which all real substance disappears, possesses a terrible power, holds a terrible sway over human life, sets up governments and overthrows them, makes wars, enslaves the labouring masses, gives rise to unemployment and destitution, renders the life of people who are successful in this kingdom more and more fantastic. Léon Bloy was right. Money is a mystery, there is something mystical in the power of money. The kingdom of money, the extreme of impersonality makes even property itself fictitious, Marx was right in saying that capitalism destroys personal property.

* * *

The bourgeois has a particular attitude to property. The problem of the bourgeois is a problem of the relation between ‘being’ and ‘having’. The bourgeois is defined not by what he is but by what he has. By this criterion he also forms his judgment of other people. The bourgeois has property, money, wealth, the means of production, a position in society. But that property with which he has to such an extent grown together, does not constitute his personality, that is, it does not make him what he is. Personality is what a man is, and that is left remaining when he possesses nothing at all. Personality cannot depend upon property, upon capital. But property must depend upon personality, it ought to be personal property. The repudiation of the bourgeois capitalist structure of society is not the repudiation of all property, it is rather the assertion of the personal property which is lost in that structure. But personal property is property which belongs to labor and is authentic property. Property is inadmissible if it becomes an instrument of enslavement and oppression of man by man. Property considered in its reality from the point of view of personality cannot be the creation of the state or of society. The state and society cannot be a subject in relation to property, for it cannot be a subject at all. The transference of property to them is objectivization. The state and society are merely a middleman, a regulator, a guarantor, which ought to prevent property from becoming an instrument of exploitation. The individual man cannot be an absolute owner of property, neither can society, nor the state. Property is in this respect like sovereignty. The absolute sovereignty of a monarch cannot be transferred to the people, all sovereignty must be limited and overcome. Absolute property cannot be transferred from a private person to the state and society. This would mean the creation of a new tyranny and slavery. Property is by its very nature limited and relative, it has only a functional significance in relation to personality. The only permissible and real form of property is possession. One can approve property only as possession, no more than that. Property is always relative to man, it is functional, human, it exists for man. There is nothing whatever sacred about property, it is man that is sacred.

The bourgeois world has given another twist to the meaning of property, it enslaves man to property, it defines its relation to man in terms of property. And here we meet with an astounding phenomenon. The opponents of socialism, the defenders of the capitalist structure of society are fond of saying that the freedom and independence of man are linked with property. Take his property away from a man, hand his property over to society or to the state and man becomes a slave, he loses all independence. But if that is true, it is a terrible condemnation of the bourgeois capitalist structure of society which deprives the greater part of the people of property. It recognizes that the proletariat is in a servile condition and is devoid of all independence. If property is the guarantee of a man’s freedom and independence, then every man, everyone without exception, ought to possess property, it is not admissible that a proletariat should exist. It is a judgment which does not square with bourgeois property, which is a source of slavery and oppression. But the bourgeois wants property only for himself, as the source of his own freedom and independence. He knows no other freedom than that which is conferred by property.

Property has a double rôle to play. Personal property can be a guarantee of freedom and independence, but on the other hand property may make a man a slave, a slave of the material world, a slave of objects. Ownership always loses more and more of its individual character. Such is the character of money, the great enslaver of a man and of mankind. Money is a symbol of impersonality. Money is an impersonal bartering of anything for anything. Even the bourgeois in spite of having his own proper name as the owner of property, ceases to exist and is replaced by the label of the firm. In the kingdom of money, which is entirely unreal and a paper kingdom of figures and bank account books, it is unknown who is the owner and of what he is the owner. Man is more and more transferred from a real kingdom to a fictitious kingdom. The horror of the kingdom of money is twofold, the power of money is not only an outrage upon the poor and destitute, it is also the plunging of human existence into the fantastic and the visionary. The kingdom of the bourgeois ends in the triumph of fiction over reality. Fiction is the extreme expression of the objectivization of human existence. Reality is connected not with the objective, as is often supposed, but precisely with the subjective. Subject not object is the firstborn.

That all is not going very well with property is to be seen from the fact that people shift their gaze in an odd manner if the subject of their property or money is referred to, they feel awkward and uncomfortable. It would be unfair to say that the bourgeois is always covetous and thinks about nothing but profits. The bourgeois can be an entirely disinterested person and by no means egoistic, he may have a disinterested love for the bourgeois spirit, even a disinterested love of money and profit is possible. Max Weber has sufficiently shown that in the early stages of capitalism there existed what he calls ‘innerweltliche Askese’. The bourgeois may be an ascetic and by no means think about personal pleasure and satisfaction and the amenities of life, he may be a man of ideas. It is true also to say that the life of the bourgeois is happy. The sages of the whole world have at all times said that riches and wealth do not bestow happiness, this has become common ground. To me it is a fact of the first importance that the bourgeois is himself a slave and that he makes slaves of others. Impersonal power enslaves, and both the bourgeois and the proletarian are under the sway of it, it is a power which ejects human existence into the world of objects. The bourgeois may be a great philanthropist and benefactor, he may be, and commonly is, a defender of normal standards. But the power to dominate demoralizes the bourgeois. Every dominating class becomes demoralized. And domination which results from the possession of money demoralizes more than anything else.

It is naïve to suppose that the bourgeois can be overcome and eliminated simply by a change in the structure of society, for example, by replacing the capitalist order by socialism or communism. The bourgeois is eternal, he will remain to the end of time, he is transformed and adapted to new conditions. The bourgeois may become a communist, or the communist become a bourgeois. It is a question not of social structure, but of structure of soul. It does not follow from this, of course, that there is no need to alter the social structure. But it is not to be believed that the social structure will automatically create a new man. Socialism and communism may be bourgeois in spirit. Socialism and communism may give effect to just and equitable distribution of the bourgeois spirit! The bourgeois does not seriously believe in the existence of the other world, he does not believe in it even when he makes a formal profession of some religious faith. For him the quality of religion is measured by the services which it renders to the organization of this world and to the conservation of his position in this world. The bourgeois will risk no sacrifice of anything in this world for the sake of the other world.

The bourgeois is fond of saying that the world is perishing and coming to an end when an end comes to his economic power, when his property is shaken, when working men demand a change in their position. But this is only ad hoc rhetoric. The bourgeois has no feeling for the end and the last judgment. He is a stranger to the eschatological perspective, and has no feeling for eschatological problems. There is something revolutionary in eschatology, a notification of the end of the bourgeois sway of mediocrity. The bourgeois believes in the endlessness of his power and shows hatred of everything which reminds him of the end. And at the same time he figures as one of the ends of world history. The world will come to an end partly from the fact that the bourgeois exists; if there were no such person as he, the world might pass over into eternity. The bourgeois does not want an end, he wants to remain in an unending middle position and precisely for that reason there will be an end. The bourgeois wishes for a quantitative infinity, but he does not wish for qualitative infinity, which is eternity. The realization of the bourgeois spirit, which takes place along various lines, is opposed to the realization of personality. But the bourgeois remains a man, the image of God remains in him, he is simply a sinful man who takes his sin as a norm, and he must be treated as a man, as a potential personality. It is impious to regard the bourgeois exclusively as an enemy who is meant to be exterminated. This is what is done by those who wish to take his place and themselves become new bourgeois in the course of social upheavals. Bourgeois domination and the bourgeois spirit must be combated, wherever they may appear. But one must not become like a bourgeois and regard him as a means to an end. The bourgeois is a traitor to his humanity, but one must not betray humanity in one’s relation to him.

  1. The first complete English translation, by Louis Cancelmi, was published earlier this year by Wiseblood Books.

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