Bourgeoisie: Definition & Meaning

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Feb 26, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Summary

  • The term bourgeoisie is one that dates back centuries, but rose to prominence with Marx's concept of the class struggle. In Marxism, the term Bourgeoisie refers to a social order dominated by the ruling or capitalist class — those who own property and, thus, the means of production.
  • According to Marx, the bourgeoisie is the ruling class in capitalist societies. That is, economic power gives access to political power.
  • The bourgeoisie, although dominant in political and cultural influence, are not necessarily wealthy.
  • Marx saw social classes as emerging and persisting out of conflict. The proletariat, in his view, were inherently in conflict with the bourgeoisie, who stood to exploit the lower classes through profiting off of owning the means of production without themselves contributing labor.
  • The term bourgeoisie has evolved beyond marxism beyond merely ownership of the means of production. For example, many Francophone countries use the term bourgeoisie to refer to stratifications between levels of intergenerational wealth.

Definition

According to Marx, the bourgeoisie, also known as the capitalist or ruling class, are those who own the means of production and monopolize wealth, and stand in contrast to the working-class proletariat majority, whose labor-power is exploited by the bourgeoisie majority.

The means of production refers to all of the equipment and materials needed to produce goods and services, apart from labor. For example, the means of production for wheat may include fields and farm tools, while the means of production for cotton shirts may include fabric, sewing machines, and storage space in a factory.

It is important to note, however, that capital (the money required to purchase machinery, raw materials, and labor) is not considered to be a direct means of production; some Marxists call it an indirect means of production.

The Emergence of the Bourgeoisie

Scholars consider there to be three phases in the development of the Bourgeoisie. These are an ascendant phase from the 18th to early 19th century, a culminating phase from the mid-19th century to World War I, and a period of differentiation, dissolution, and rebirth lasting into the late 20th century. 

The modern bourgeoisie, which took shape in the 18th and 19th centuries, enveloped several social groups. These included (Siegrist, 2007):
  1. The older urban bourgeoisie of cities and communes;

  2. Civil servants of the modern territorial state who were not part of a feudal hierarchy;

  3. Merchants, bankers, industrial entrepreneurs, and independent artisans who were able to remove themselves from the order of cooperative estates

  4. Professionals, literati, and artists;

  5. Enlightened or economically innovative portions of the landholding nobility, as well as non-noble estate owners and agriculturalists; and,

  6. Participants in freedom movements that were cultural or confessional, liberal or democratic, or regional or national.

According to Siegrist (2007), the bourgeoisie created a common language of communication and symbolism through their collaboration with the monarchs and the state. The bourgeoisie instituted various reforms and revolutions which imposed freedom of trade, religious freedom, freedom of association, freedom of speech and the press, political participation, and accountability.

The bourgeoisie gathered in circles such as free academies, scientific academies, literary circles, the media, and the reformed institutions of higher education, administration, law, legislation, and government (Siegrist, 2007).

These provided forums for the emerging bourgeoisie to criticize existing conditions, conceive of new social orders, and lay claims to dictating central functions of society. 

The Proletariat vs. the Bourgeoisie

The Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat are the two dominant classes in Marxism. Marx believed that these two classes had inherently opposed values, which would drive class conflict. 

Marx defines these classes principally by the ownership of property, not by income or status. 

In essence, this means that someone who owns the factory or the farm that others work in or on is a member of the bourgeoisie, while those who work for the owner are members of the proletariat.

Class Conflict

These are determined by distribution and consumption, which in itself reflects the production and power relations of classes. Thus, the social conditions of bourgeoisie production are defined by bourgeois property. Class, to Marx, is both a theoretical and formal relationship among individuals. 

The force that transforms someone's class membership into a struggle of classes is class interests. Marx believed that those in similar classes develop interdependence, community, and shared interests related with a common income of profit or wages. To Marx, individuals form classes to the extent that their interests position them in a struggle with the opposite class (Mandel & Mandel, 1979). 

In particular, Marx believed that the distribution of political power is dependent on power over production. Capital can confer political power, which the bourgeois class can then use to legitimize and protect their property and consequent social relations.

Because class relations are political, the mature capitalist society's government is primarily concerned with the interests of the bourgeoisie. Additionally, the intellectual basis of the state rule — the ideas that justify the use of state power and its distribution — are those of the ruling class.

Hence, both intellectual and social culture are, in the view of Marx, merely constructions that rest on top of the relations between those who do and do not own the means of production.

Marx believed that the division between classes would widen over time, and that the conditions of the exploited working class would deteriorate to the extent that the social structure collapses.

He saw this "proletarian revolution" as wiping away the idea of class. Since political power to protect the bourgeoisie would become unnecessary in this scenario, he believed that political authority and the state would diminish (Mandel & Mandel, 1979). 

Implications in Marxism

Bourgeoisie Culture

Marx perceived Politics and political power to be effects of the divisions that occured between the bourgeoisie and industrial workers (Mandel & Mandel, 1979).  Similarly, he argued that the culture of a society is dominated by the values of the ruling class, who superimpose their own system of values into how each social class lives, regardless of the results, socially and economically, that practicing these values has on them. 

One aspect of bourgeoisie culture that has been criticized by intellectuals such as Walter Benjamin (year) is conspicuous consumption — in particular, in how the shopping culture of the petite bourgeoisie established the sitting room as the center of personal and family life: central to which, a culture of prestige through conspicuous material consumption. 

This prestigious conspicuous consumption culture concentrated, according to Benjamin, on mass-produced luxury goods. For example, an early 19th century bourgeois house may contain hand-painted porcelain, machine-printed cotton fabrics and wallpaper, and stainless steel.

These, Benjamin thought, had some utility as well as prestige. However, by the latter part of the 19th century, Benjamin considers bourgeoisie consumption to take a different turn altogether, remodeled to display wealth rather than for practical utility (Mandel & Mandel, 1979). 

Bourgeoisie Values

Max Weber (Swidler, 1973) argued that bourgeois values are dependent on Rationalism. More modern sociologists have considered "progressive" middle-class values, such as individualism, autonomy, gender equality, and innovation, as a transposition of the Victorian bourgeoisie system of social values to the United States. 

The bourgeoisie improved its own chances of gaining favorable positions in a system of material, social, political, and cultural inequality, Siegrist (2007) argues, by generalizing its own understandings of law. The bourgeoisie class considered itself to be in opposition to the nobility and clergy, instead claiming to represent the general public and valuing dynamism and orientation toward achievement over birth. 

Implications beyond Marxism

According to Marx and Engels, the Bourgeoisie were thought to arise in Europe around the 12th century within, strictly, city limits (Siegrist, 2007). Typically, the word bourgeoisie is used now in reference to the feelings of materialism in the description of the middle class.

Twentieth century historians used the word bourgeoisie to denote people who work as merchants, non-nobles, pensioners, officials, and financiers. However, in the strictly Marxist sense, the bourgeoisie represents those who own the means of production.

They earn profits by deriving work from workers, while the workers sell their ability to work and their labor for a wage. Meanwhile, these workers were the "working class" who run industries and factories. 

Marx's history saw the bourgeoisie as a politically progressive social class during the 17th and 18th centuries who supported both the principles of constitutional government and natural rights and the claims of divine right that nobles had used as justifications for their rule during Feudalism.

Marx believed that the English Civil War, the American War of Independence, and the French Revolutions were each motivated in part by a desire by the bourgeoisie to rid themselves of feudal and royal intrusion into their personal freedoms, commercial abilities, and the ownership of property.

At the time, members of the bourgeoisie included those in the more educated middle class, such as doctors, lawyers, and merchants. In their promotion of liberalism and religious and civil liberties for themselves and those of lower social classes, the bourgeoisie played a progressive role in Western societies (Siegrist, 2007).

Nonetheless, by the end of the Industrial Revolution, Marx saw the expansion of the Bourgeoisie as causing its stratification based on levels of business activity and economic function. Namely, this strategy birthed the haute and petite bourgeoisie.

While the haute bourgeoisie consisted of bankers and industrialists, the petite bourgeoisie was constituted of tradesmen and white-collar workers. For example, a blacksmith who owns his own shop and the tools in it may be considered to be part of the petite bourgeoisie, especially in a situation where he is still working in his shop, contributing his own labor to the production of his products.

By the end of the 19th century, however, the haute bourgeoisie, or the capitalist class, had ascended to the upper ranks of society, while the development of technology and technical occupations allowed those from the working class to rise to the lower strata of the bourgeoisie — however, this was not particularly common (Siegrist, 2007). 

Examples

The bourgeoisie, both in the Marxist sense and elsewhere, encompasses a wide array of professions and social statuses. On a broad level, Marx divided his bourgeoisie into the haute, or high bourgeoisie and the petite, or small bourgeoisie. Scholars have made various distinctions between various layers of class status within the bourgeoisie. 

French Bourgeoisie

For example, in many Francophone countries, the bourgeoisie is considered to consist of five evolving social layers: the petite, moyen, grande, haute, and ancienne bourgeoisie.

Petite bourgeoisie, are the equivalent to what many would call the modern-day lower middle class — a social class between the middle and lower classes.

The moyenne, or middle, bourgeoisie, contains people who have solid incomes and assets, but not the historical legacy of those whose assets have been established intergenerationally. This is equivalent to the British and American upper-middle classes.

The grande, or great, bourgeoisie are families that have been bourgeois for several generations. These families may intermarry with aristocracy and are often known in the city where they reside and may have contributed to a region's history.

The haute bourgeoisie, meanwhile, is composed of even longer-standing bourgeoisie families. The intergenerational wealth of these families is often contrasted with that of the nouveau riche.

Finally, the ancienne (old) bourgeoisie is a newer term, first coined by Rene Remond (yeaR), that denotes those who lie between the aristocracy and the middle class. Often, these families acquired their status during the "Ancien Regime," and have held onto it for 400 or 500 years (Remond, 2013).

The Educated vs. Capitalist Bourgeoisie

In addition to differentiating between how long families have been in the bourgeoisie, some scholars have drawn further lines between those who are bourgeoisie on virtue of their education and those who are simply on the basis of their wealth. Again, in a purely Marxist sense, one's status in the bourgeoisie depends mainly on the ownership of the means of production, not on wealth or income. 

The most notable example of the educated bourgeoisie are the intelligentsia. The so-called intelligentsia are a class of highly educated people who remain engaged in personal intellectual pursuits through their lives. Intelligentsia can include academics, artists, writers, and journalists. Although these members may not be particularly wealthy, they may view themselves as bourgeoisie on virtue of their connections to prestigious institutions and those who have powerful spheres of intellectual influence. 

In contrast, entrepreneurs or capitalists are bourgeoisie in the classic sense. In Marx's view, this class acquires the means of production and then gains wealth through exploiting workers, in the form of compensating them less than the value of the goods that they produce (Sagarra, 2017).

What is the Difference between Bourgeois and Bourgeoisie?

Bourgeoisie is a word derived from French that functions as a noun, and refers to a society’s middle class, generally described as the group of people between the affluent upper class and the poor working class (writingexplained.org).

Bourgeois is also a French loanword that refers to the middle class. Unlike bourgeoisie, however, it can also refer to an individual belonging to the middle class, and be employed as an adjective to denote traits of the middle class.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, Feb 26). Bourgeoisie : Definition & Meaning. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/bourgeoisie-capitalist-class.html

References

Mandel, E., & Mandel, E. (1979). Introduction to Marxism. Ink Links.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1967). The communist manifesto. 1848. Trans. Samuel Moore. London: Penguin, 15.

Rémond, A. (2013). Un jeune homme est passé. Média Diffusion.

Sagarra, E. (2017). The bourgeoisie. In A Social History of Germany 1648-1914 (pp. 253-262). Routledge.

Siegrist, E. (2007). Bourgeoisie, History of. in Ritzer, G. (Ed.). Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology.

Swidler, A. (1973). The concept of rationality in the work of Max Weber. Sociological Inquiry, 43(1), 35-42.