Bourgeois Morality


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!


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!


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.