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"Bourgeois" redirects here; for the composer with that name, see Derek Bourgeois.

Bourgeoisie (RP [ˌbɔː.ʒwɑːˈzi], GA [ˌbuɹ.ʒwɑˈzi]) in modern use refers to the wealthy or propertied social class in a capitalist society.


Origin of the term

Bourgeoisie is a French word. The early Anglicization "burgess" is derived from the old French burgeis (Cf. Also middle English: burgeis, burges, borges and old Dutch: burgher = the inhabitant of a borough or burgh). In the French feudal order, "bourgeois" was formally a legal category in society, defined by conditions such as length of residence and source of income.

The French term in turn seems to have derived from the Italian borghesia (from borgo = village), which in turn derives from the Greek pyrgos). A borghese was a freeman dwelling in a burgh or township. The word evolved to mean merchants and traders, and until the 19th century was mostly synonymous with the middle class (persons in the broad socioeconomic spectrum between nobility and serfs or proletarians). Then, as the power and wealth of the nobility faded in the second half of the 19th century, the bourgeoisie emerged as the new ruling class.

As the term is difficult for a native English speaker to spell or pronounce, it is not used as often in politics in English speaking countries as in other Western ones, and is not in common use in the United States. From the late nineteenth century through the Great Depression, the pronunciation "bushwah" was used in political satire portraying radical leftists.

Rise of the bourgeoisie

In the early Middle Ages, as cities were forming and growing, artisans and tradesmen begin to emerge as an economic force. They formed guilds, associations and companies to conduct business and promote their own interests. These people were the original bourgeoisie. In the late Middle Ages, they allied with fractions of the nobility in uprooting the feudalism system, gradually becoming the ruling class in industrialised nation states. In the 17th and 18th century, they generally supported the American revolution and French revolution in overthrowing the laws and privileges of the absolutist feudal order, clearing the way for the rapid expansion of commerce.

Concepts such as personal liberties, religious and civil rights, and free trade all derive from bourgeois philosophies. But the bourgeoisie was never without its critics; it was first accused of narrow-mindedness, materialism, hypocrisy, opposition to change, and lack of culture, among other things, by persons such as the playwright Molière. The earliest recorded pejorative uses of the term "bourgeois" are associated with aristocratic contempt for the lifestyle of the bourgeoisie. Successful embourgeoisement typically meant being able to retire and live on invested income.

With the expansion of commerce, trade and the market economy, the bourgeoisie grew in size, influence and power. In all industrialized countries, the aristocracy either faded away slowly or found itself overthrown by a bourgeois revolution. Thus the bourgeoisie rose to the top of the social hierarchy. This, coupled with the advances of industry, resulted in the birth of an entirely new lower class, the proletariat or working class. And, increasingly, criticisms of the bourgeoisie began to come from below.

The Marxist view

Arguably one of the most influential of the aforementioned criticisms came from Karl Marx, who attacked bourgeois political theory and its view of civil society and civilisation for what he believed to be its falsely universal concepts and institutions; in Marx's view, these concepts were only the ideology of the bourgeoisie as a new ruling class, which sought to reshape society after its own image.

Marxism defines the bourgeoisie as the social class which obtains income from ownership or trade in capital assets, or from commercial activities such as the buying and selling of commodities, wares and services. In medieval times, the bourgeois was typically a self-employed proprietor, small employer, entrepreneur, banker or merchant. In industrial capitalism, on the other hand, the bourgeoisie becomes the ruling class - which means it also owns the bulk of the means of production (land, factories, offices, capital, resources). This enables it to employ and exploit the work of a large mass of wage workers (the working class), who have no other means of livelihood than to sell their labour to property owners.

Marx himself distinguished between "functioning capitalists" actually managing enterprises, and "mere coupon-clippers" earning property rents or interest-income from financial assets or real estate ('rentier').

Marxism sees the proletariat (wage laborers) and bourgeoisie as directly waging an ongoing class struggle, in that capitalists exploit workers and workers try to resist exploitation. This exploitation takes place as follows: the workers, who own no means of production of their own, must seek employment in order to make a living. They get hired by a capitalist and work for him, producing some sort of goods or services. These goods or services then become the property of the capitalist, who sells them and gets a certain amount of money in exchange. Part of this money is used to pay workers' wages, another part is used to pay production costs, and a third part is kept by the capitalist in the form of profit (or surplus value). Thus the capitalist can earn money (profit) from the work of his employees without actually doing any work, or in excess of his own work. Marxists argue that new wealth is created through work; therefore, if someone gains wealth that he did not work for, then someone else works and does not receive the full wealth created by his work. In other words, that "someone else" is exploited. Thus, Marxists argue that capitalists make a profit by exploiting workers.

In the rhetoric of some Communist parties, "bourgeois" is sometimes used as an insult, and those who are perceived to collaborate with the bourgeoisie are called its lackeys. Marx himself primarily used the term "bourgeois", with or without sarcasm, as an objective description of a social class and of a lifestyle based on ownership of private capital, not as a pejorative. He admired the industriousness of the bourgeoisie, but criticised it for its moral hypocrisy. This attitude is shown most clearly in the Communist Manifesto.

In the view of several 20th century Marxist currents, most notably Trotskyism, the nomenklatura or ruling class in Stalinist countries preside over a system of state capitalism. The Trotskyists hold that every attempt to establish socialism on anything other than an international basis ('Socialism in one country') inevitably results in a national bourgeoise (or more accurately puts it in power since typically the reformers which will form this ruling class come already from the petite bourgeoisie), and they point to the degeneration of the Soviet Union, the betrayal of the 1927 Chinese revolution, Cuba and all such national liberation movements as examples . To anarchists, all prominent members, functionaries and leaders of any kind of state are part of this state bourgeoisie. According to these interpretations, the bourgeoisie is composed of any individuals who have exclusive control over the means of production, regardless whether this control comes in the form of private ownership or state power.

See also


  • Hal Draper, Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, Vol. 2: The Politics of Social Classes. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979.
  • Ralph Miliband, Class and class power in contemporary capitalism, in: Stanislaw Kozyr-Kowalski and Jacek Tittenbrun, On Social Differentiation. A Contribution to the Critique of Marxist Ideology, Part 2. Poznan: Adam Mickiewicz University Press, 1992, pp. 7-62.
  • Ernest Mandel, Social differentiation in capitalist and postcapitalist societies, in: Stanislaw Kozyr-Kowalski and Jacek Tittenbrun, On Social Differentiation. A Contribution to the Critique of Marxist Ideology, Part 2. Poznan: Adam Mickiewicz University Press, 1992, pp. 63-91.
  • Erik Olin Wright et al., The Debate on Classes. London: Verso, 1989.
  • Anthony Giddens, The Class Structure of the Advanced societies.

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