Bourgeois Morality

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Frank Kupka

Bourgeois Morality[1]

We asked our great friend Séverine to give us her opinion on this expired morality whose moral disorder resulting from the war has gone bankrupt and is nothing but dead weight on the new generation. 

It existed… in a world that hardly resembled this one and that I think remains one of its last witnesses.

The Third Estate, that middle class that lays claim to ancient virtues when men appeared honest and women modest, but that inevitably perverted the “Enrich yourselves!” of Guizot[2]—this morality around the end of the Second Empire seemed to be reserved only for the petite bourgeoisie, on the border of the people.

It was fighting against the three defects that long slavery had bequeathed it: ignorance, personal carelessness and drunkenness. Bad conditions to create a morality for its own use or to accept the strict and puritan one of its neighbor.

But time passed. The petite bourgeoisie was in turn won over by corruption, contaminated by love of money, the taste for consumption and the desire to be seen. And what you could have called the bourgeoisie morality, the kind of lay gospel in which the soul-searching of a good part of the country was summed up, disappeared completely.

A Fourth Order had risen up—or better, all of them, once divided into three and whom the wonderful addition of the people unwedged, were split into two halves. Nobility and bourgeoisie melted into a single bloc with almost identical instincts and aspirations: the one a zealotry for the Church and the other declared hostile to it but both agreed to support the military, the protector of traditions, sacristies and safes!

Class struggle. On the other side of the barricade, grouped together, the forces of the past united for the common defense. Over here the people: a people knowing how to read, to write and more obsessed with learning; trained in sports to care for their physical dignity; only rarely offering that spectacle of drunkenness.

What could the poor, former, petty, tidy, nitpicking bourgeoisie morality do among these formidable adversaries? They stuck to the new one, the one coming from the head like a decomposing fish; the one dropped by the decadent aristocracy in the salons of the bankers, the suppliers of the State, the grand merchants, and then little by little spread out into the more modest world of civil servants, departmental officials and retailers to end up winning over the extreme limits of the Third Estate.

Worship of force! Religion of money! Idolatry of rules and regulations as protectors of property!

Faith? Rarely. If, of all the listeners of the mass or the regulars at confession, they needed to trim away the “faithful” who only went out of habit, decorum, the desire not to be different from their peers, worry over relationships or business, fear of public opinion, or even (in the small towns without theaters) the need for distraction, the irresistible desire to show off a new dress or hat à la Paris, if they needed to clear the holy place of all these, there would not be very many people left!

The priests are well aware of this; there are even some who admit it. But the Church, which is clever, also knows that appearance is one of the foundations of reality, that duty creates the system, that number is power—which it is very careful not to exaggerate. It is enough that the building is full and the heads bowed. War has done a great deal for it as it recruits from the grieving.

No, the bourgeois morality today is founded on no ideal.

Furthermore, so that we’re not fooled, God is on the decline, despite all precedents. Otherwise they would never have dared, three months before the war, in April 1914 (a miracle with double vision!) to change in the Catechism of the diocese of Paris the text of the 5th commandment, to transform the simple and formal decree, “Thou shall not kill, [for no reason nor deliberately]”, into a tangled, conditional instruction, [“Thou shall not kill, without right nor deliberately”], where (already!) the defense of the homeland is anticipated. Otherwise, as well, they would not have dared—even with the bishops’ authorization—to force the servants of the “God of Peace” into denying their Master and his doctrine.

Not one refused, by the way. It was among the Protestants, you must know, that “conscientious objectors” rose up—and the judges who yielded.

For the Christ suspected of defeatism, embarrassed by the Gospel (which, by the way, was copiously censored many times) they substituted a lay idol, warlike, renovated, amplified, safe for the old men behind the lines, like Ugolino devouring his children or Moloch demanding fresh meat from the young prey[3]: The Homeland!

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Was it, therefore, this that the bourgeois morality could rest on from now on?

No more than on the ancient divinity. Because “a religion for the people is necessary” they had established this one, put under the Arc-de-Triomphe the remains of an unknown soldier, perhaps a German, perhaps a deserter, suddenly invested (by chance) with all virtues whereas perhaps he had all vices. And it made of this X, with the cooperation of a dependent press, the object of a “new worship”. But besides the dead, what had been the attitude of those who represent their class—seeing that their class does not obligate them to decency?

Two works are surprisingly suggestive here: the Souvenirs de Guerre, the daily writings of the painter Jacques Blanche, caustic, lively, wholly curious; and Bonnet Rose of Georges Michel who, after Epoque Tango, likewise defines the attitude of part of the ruling class. What if we add to this reading the Chercheurs d’or of Pierre Hassye, Rois de Babel of Maurice Verne, and some significant court reports from these last few years—we are completely edified.

I am not judging by generalities. That would be stupid and risk being unjust. But given that only scandals impossible to cover up come to light, by the sheer number of those that do surface we can imagine how many remain in the dark.

When these people weren’t guzzling booze or fox-trotting on the mass grave of Hartmannwillerskopf[4] or elsewhere, they were carving their pound of Shylock’s flesh off the flank of the Homeland; they were trading and selling indifferently with each other, with the ally, with the neutral and with the enemy!

Well… if neither God nor Homeland, what framework does this bourgeois morality have?

Honesty? The system D[5] has dominated maybe even more behind the scenes than out front. Under the flag of the sacred Union, they devoured each other, taking whatever they could. Whoever sold anything dreamt only of exploiting the customer down to the bone, down to the guts! One person’s hunger made another’s fat!

Modesty? Let’s forget about certain establishments where “love thy neighbor” is quite exaggerated. Likewise let’s forget about that kind of hysteria during tragic times that wants to live hard and fast. Let’s stay out of all that. But in the second year, in the secret dances where “honest ladies” would nonetheless go, they had never been so scantily dressed. And the “patriotic” balls that followed were, yes, great scandals. On the street, necklines go down to the waist, skirts are over the knees and blouses (being see-through) leave nothing to the imagination.

Family? There have never been as many divorces. And for good reason! To the point that the most legitimate children cannot recognize their parents. And the parents no more so—and the public even less!

Again, what virtues remain in this shipwreck? What branch can this bourgeois morality grab onto, being that it wasn’t worth much before 1914 and is worth absolutely nothing today?

That there are good families among the bourgeoisie is certain. They mind their manners thanks to an unsoiled heredity, to traditions that good fortune has allowed them to preserve and transmit faithfully. But each, in a way, represents an individual faction, has its special Code that, except for intermarriages (which are most often disastrous for the future of the species), outside influence is bound to dissolve.

In other words, there is no common directive. If any is declared, a secret commentary annuls its effect right away.

They say to a child, “Do not kill!” but right after, “Make War!” They insist he respect the property of others, but they indoctrinate him, for example, to hate the idiots who don’t manage to “get by”, to speculate on the naivety, imprudence or needs of their neighbor. They exhort him to be good but they teach him that the first law of employers is to pay the workers as little as possible and earn triple or quadruple on their labor, fatigue and suffering.

As for the girls, it’s very simple. Given the reduction in the males, the race to a husband has never been so cruel. Well, the mothers, respectable in their own eyes, losing any sense of dignity, dress up their children as seductive as they can and tolerate, when they are not pushing them to it, the little ploys to thwart the competition and assure the “good match”.

These girls, moreover, are very shrewd and maybe this is not a bad thing. Their new eyes are quickly made to see through the norms whose greed and lack of principles the world tries to cover up. It doesn’t matter! All manhunts are the same no matter the ritual. And I sometimes felt more uncomfortable in a “proper” salon among the conspiratorial smiles than I would have been on the stage of the Folies-Bergère[6]. She who is looking to get a dinner seems more innocent to me than she who, well born and well raised, under her family’s protection, plays pretty much the same game to get her dream car!

Is it any better in less high society? Let’s see. Crafts or more precisely manual labor has fallen into disfavor. Based on the novels and films and according to the tales of a few exceptional adventurers, the parents can no longer count on anything but secretarial work to make a future for their daughters, to give them access to a higher world where the kings of the moment marry shepherd girls. On which hand? … They did not think about it enough and maybe, in the end, they didn’t dare to ask themselves too much. Life is so hard!

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The true morality will come from the new world being created in some far-off limbo and will develop through usage and will be valued by what the individual values.

Nothing good can come today from a society that is breaking apart and that is contaminated with the stench of rot and decay. It is up to the people to free themselves from a past burdened with prejudice, superstition, expectation, faith in miracles, deep dark sleep and too short dreams. We can only help it along as best we can, with all our energy and all our courage.

For, already we know that this morality will be just and beautiful, founded on the equality of the sexes, fraternity of peoples, respect of conscience and love of that Justice which is divinity without cathedrals, without altars, without priest and sacrifices—it is the highest human ideal!

 

[1] Clarté, 3 December 1921.

[2] François Guizot (1787-1874), who tried to restrict voting rights to men with property and thus others should “enrich themselves” to climb the social ladder.

[3] Ugolino is placed by Dante in the lowest hell reserved for betrayers (Canto XXIII); Moloch, a god demanding the sacrifice of children.

[4] In the Vosges in Alsace where there is a monument of WWI.

[5] I.e. typical attitude meaning fend for yourself.

[6] Famous for exotic dancing and nude women. It would later feature the celebrated Josephine Baker.

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Prayer to the Nameless

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severine10

Prayer to the Nameless[1]

     In your devastated temple, before your forbidden altar, here I am bending my knees in homage, O Divine!, stretching out my hands to call for help, O Venerable!, lifting up my heart as an offering, my whole being filled with ardent fervor, throbbing with ultimate hope, O Protector!

The barbarians passed by here—all the barbarians! They made your mutilated image disappear, snatched away your symbols, pillaged what recalled your influence, your good deeds… and our pious worship. The sacred wood was snatched away by the maddened horde, the sacred birds, with their throats’ cut, sang their final languid song with a death rattle.

And your name was banned, Eternal! It could never again be pronounced except in a whisper between scattered servants, your believers reduced to silence—all those who would keep invincible faith in the secret of their soul. But every voice that tried to whisper it was stifled. Whoever tried to follow your path was despised, struck down with anathema… you became the “enemy”, O Charitable!

A few, however, ventured this far. These flowers that time has dried were brought by women; these slabs of broken text bear witness to the perseverance of some writers; these inscriptions on the walls, clumsy and naïve, say that simple people, at the height of suffering, could not be denied by you, O Comforter!

The marble was broken, the walls cracked under the pounding arms, the doors smashed in and through the fissured dome the waters of heaven fell… And you never looked so majestic and desirable as in this degradation, this distress, this poverty. They gave you, Goddess, the appeal of ostracism, the irresistible allure that persecution bestows. The last flame has not yet burned on your altar. The shadows daring to come to you down hard roads are no longer so stealthy. The mystery of the night is no longer crossed by secret passages. Antigone[2] raises her veil in the nascent dawn to disobey men—and obey the gods!

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Listen, Serenity, to the hymn of a heart that gives its most precious days to you, its blazing summers, its autumns full of splendor. Because it costs dearly to serve you, it allows me to proudly claim my title to disgrace.

I have celebrated you the best I could. And it seems to me today that my words were poor, my efforts frail, my praises weak—seeing that we did not save you, O So Precious! It is only now that we can know what you are, what you are worth, what you represent for mortals in the play of their destinies.

Nothing is without you! The stones of Decalion[3] would not change into humans. The touch of your bare feet made the ground sprout in abundance, prosperity and joy…

Wherever you go, the harvest grows, turns golden, remains whole, without a stalk twisted and without a seed lost… the sacred bread!

Wherever you smile, the vines bend under the weight of grapes, amber colored, scarlet colored, where the daily drops are caught—wine, the comfort of man!

Wherever you sing, the bowers dare to mate, from port to starboard shaking their rosy freight.

Wherever you reign, there is the song of hammers, productive activity, art flourishing, thought soaring, the good fight for the coming of better times, the struggle for truth, the march toward more justice!

They did not know you, Immortal, in that they knew you without understanding, they lived under your reed scepter without appreciating its lightness, without admiring enough your true face, magnanimous and magnificent.

They know now… They know that you are the flavor of fruits, the scent of flowers, the taste of wheat, the bloom of roses, the gold of the sun and the gentleness of night—since nothing of all this would exist without you.

You carry in yourself all the good: the calm of sleep, the security of love, the solidity of home. Outside of you is nothing but insecurity, absence, grief, ruin and death…

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And you are beautiful, oh so beautiful, more than words can say, so white, so pure, so full of gentleness. In you are summed up the mother, sister, spouse, daughter, seeing that by your very presence you ensure the happiness of all tenderness. The smallest, the most innocent sense that your aegis covers them; toward you the baby bird stretches out its beak—it doesn’t see it is under your wings—and the little lamb rubs against your linen robe.

O Goddess, thanks to you the barn is full and the stable stocked, the attic overflows and the cellar is packed. You who take pleasure in marriage bells and baptisms. Divinity of farmers, artisans, lovers and mothers, for those who work, those who love, may you be favorable.

It won’t last forever, your dark exile… They hear, far off in the distant, like a soft, silky flight. Even the stones of the half-destroyed temple are moving and vibrating. Here I am standing—all ears… Is it you who are approaching me? Will you come down soon from the heavenly depths to appear, luminous, to all those who are waiting for you and hoping for you, O Liberator!

 

[1] Journal du Peuple, 1 January 1917, a homage to peace.

[2] Daughter of Oedipus who defied Creon, ruler of Thebes, to bury her brother Polynices.

[3] Son of Prometheus who repopulated the Earth with his wife Pyrrha after a great flood by throwing stones behind his shoulder to form people.

22-Horrors of War

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Ce qu'il faut dire--Censored

22-Horrors of War

In February 1905 Séverine published an article in Je Sais Tout entitled “The Horrors of War” in which she meticulously enumerates the deaths produced by the ensemble of wars in the 19th century. In France and abroad it totaled 15 million casualties during the “century of progress”, more than 400 a day. The battle of Mukden alone (the largest battle fought before World War I) cost 42,000 Japanese lives and 50,000 Russians that would weigh in at 8 million kilos of human meat, including the bones.

Séverine was a pacifist from day one. Over the past ten years her speaking engagements had brought her to many pacifist conferences where her convictions defended the young conscientious objectors and criticized the “Sacred Union.” More than just stupid, war was absurd. How else could the assassination of an exotic archduke in a distant country unleash the infernal machine?   Could anything stem the tide of coming war?

Jean Jaurès, the Socialist leader, was also fiercely antimilitaristic and tried to bring a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Franco-German hostilities. Still stinging from the defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, many French were unwilling to back down as the nationalists beat the drums of war. Jaurès declared that in case of war he would call for a general strike. Could such a dangerous opposition be allowed to continue? No, they killed him on July 31 1914, the very day that he had declared, “If the mobilization is made, I’ll be assassinated.” Shot in the back through the window of the brasserie Croissant. That bullet marked the end of all hopes for a peaceful solution and silenced the countless voices that had risen up against the danger. On 3 August the war began. The next day they held the funeral for Jaurès, Séverine sat in the front row before giving her speech. If this man had lived could he have changed the course of history?

Raoul Villain, the nationalist assassin of Jean Jaurès was acquitted on 29 March 1919—an injustice as bleak and blatant as the murder of Sacco and Vanzetti in the United States.

Ordinary life in the country stopped. Social activity disappeared, including in the intellectual spheres where all kinds of voices used to shout out against social injustice. The factories went from making satin and lace to making bombs, bayonets and bullets. In 1914 there were 15,000 women working in the factories. By 1918 there were 1,500,000. Séverine wondered if they and all their counterparts in Germany could end the war by just folding their arms and refusing to work. But could they really do that when they had to feed their children as the men (4 million of them) were shipped off to the slaughter?

All revolutionary papers were suppressed at the outbreak of the war and those that remained were censored by the government. Meticulous civil servants armed with scissors haunted the editorial offices dissecting the copy being composed and cutting into it right there. Many words here and there and often entire paragraphs, anything suspicious or dangerous was expunged, especially if it invoked the enemy Germany, as did the horse-drawn carriage called a berlin. The “blanks” that invaded the papers became almost as meaningful as the words. Reading the news became a puzzle game trying to find the missing pieces.

Most journalists submitted without too much of a fight. But Séverine refused to become a spokeswoman for an institutional lie and support the official lunacy. As her bosses rejected her pacifism and refused to print anything subversive, they required her to talk about harmless subjects far from war. On the other hand, she started meeting secretly with others who opposed the war. Professors, lawyers, journalists, in strictly private meetings, embarked on a forbidden adventure almost as exciting as the Padlewski affair[1], trying to bring the bloody slaughter to an end. At 60 years old she began to find her old pugnacity. The stronger the enemy, the more fiercely she fought. And wasn’t she always known as the mother of lost causes.

Some pacifists refused to be silenced or stay in the wings. Hélène Brion was a teacher in Pantin. Militant socialist, feminist, pacifist, she was charged under the law of August 5 1914 for “propaganda destined to favor the enemy and to exercise a harmful influence on the morale of the army.” Likewise, she had expressed “defeatism” by diffusing three socialist brochures. Séverine had only met her once at the anniversary of the Commune in 1912 but appreciated her speech. She was asked to act as witness for the accused alongside Marguerite Durand. She accepted and transformed into a defense lawyer. The verdict was three years of prison and revocation of her post as teacher. For being a pacifist.

Séverine was still wearing the black mourning clothes for the death of her mother in 1913 and will continue to wear them for the millions of dead.

Workers did not stay silent either. In May 1917 the seamstresses went on strike demanding the English workweek and a salary increase for cost of living. On May 18 there were 10,000 of them on the streets, chanting while marching toward the union house. The next days they were joined by all kinds of manufacturing workers. By the end of the month the Parisian strikers numbered more than 35,000 and all their demands were met despite the serious, responsible people saying it was not the appropriate time.

When the war finally came to an end in November 1918, there were nine million dead on the battlefield, 1.5 million for France alone. Repopulation became more crucial than ever, so they gave the women working in factories a bonus for babies: 200 F for a boy and 100 F for a girl. Why the difference? Obviously, Séverine said, it’s for the next war. And with her usual insight she watched the people stretching out their docile necks, ready for the knife.

She had always refused to be elected for prizes, like the Legion of Honor, several times. But on one instance she accepted a nomination. In 1919 her candidature was presented for the Nobel Peace Prize. The jury preferred the American President Woodrow Wilson, a much more diplomatic choice.

[1] See 10-Soldiers and Spies