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International Socialist Review, Fall 1957


Webster’s as a Mirror


From International Socialist Review, Vol.18 No.4, Fall 1957, p.127.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Henry R. Luce’s remarks on The Character of the Businessman at a recent international conference of 1,800 businessmen were considered of sufficient inspirational significance to the business world, apparently, to deserve reprinting in the August issue of the lush ($1.25) Fortune magazine of which Luce is Editor-in-Chief. Among the tycoon’s personal anecdotes, we liked the following:

“Perhaps the first thing to be said is that, at most times and places, the businessman has not been an attractive figure. The word ‘bourgeois’ springs to mind. I was shocked the other day when I looked up the meaning of the word in Webster’s dictionary. Let me say that I consider myself a burgeois. And here is what I read about myself in Webster’s dictionary:

Bourgeois: 1. Characteristic of the middle class. Hence: a Engrossed in material things; Philistine; often, conservative; hidebound, b Colloq. Common; boorish; stupid, c Capitalistic.’

“A shock indeed: to look into the mirror of a dictionary and find such an ugly face. I and my ancestors and nearly everyone I know in America – what are we? We are bourgeois and hence ‘engrossed in material things, hidebound, common, boorish, stupid, capitalistic.’ Now, if I had read that in a Communist manifesto, I would have paid no attention. But there is that dreadful, ugly portrait of a businessman right in an American dictionary.

“In my dismay I rushed like a wounded child to the scholars. How could this be? I had been proud of my bourgeois ancestors. Was it not they who overthrew feudalism, formed the great nation-states of Europe under kings and emperors, and then overthrew the kings and emperors when kings and emperors stood in the way of human progress? Were not the burghers identified for five hundred years – in France, in Holland, and elsewhere – with the rise of the cities and their civilization, with parliamentary rule, with liberty under law, with exploration and discovery, with science and literacy?”

The scholars came to the “rescue” of the wounded and dismayed member of the Morgan circle, evidently just in time for the speech, and he learned from them, particularly the French Dominican Father Bruckberger, “that it was indeed Communists – Karl Marx himself and the Communist Manifesto – that finally made ‘bourgeois’ a dirty, stinking word.”

Besides that, the word “bourgeois” has, according to evidence gathered by the scholarly Catholic Father, an opposite meaning for Europeans and Americans because of “just about the deepest difference” in experiences the past three centuries.

“And, of course, in America we do not actually use the word ‘bourgeois’ – except in little literary reviews; in America we say ‘middle class.’ We are a middle-class country. We have always tended to be that – and now at last we are. We are a middle-class, that is to say a classless, country.”

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