[boor-zhwah-zee; Fr. boor-zhwa-zee]
bourgeoisie, originally the name for the inhabitants of walled towns in medieval France; as artisans and craftsmen, the bourgeoisie occupied a socioeconomic position between the peasants and the landlords in the countryside. The term was extended to include the middle class of France and subsequently of other nations. The word bourgeois has also long been used to imply an outlook associated with materialism, narrowness, and lack of culture—these characteristics were early satirized by Molière and have continued to be a subject of literary analysis.

Origins and Rise

The bourgeoisie as a historical phenomenon did not begin to emerge until the development of medieval cities as centers for trade and commerce in Central and Western Europe, beginning in the 11th cent. The bourgeoisie, or merchants and artisans, began to organize themselves into corporations as a result of their conflict with the landed proprietors. At the end of the Middle Ages, under the early national monarchies in Western Europe, the bourgeoisie found it in their interests to support the throne against the feudal disorder of competing local authorities. In England and the Netherlands, the bourgeoisie was the driving force in uprooting feudalism in the late 16th and early 17th cent.

In the 17th and 18th cent., the bourgeoisie supported principles of constitutionality and natural right, against the claims of divine right and against the privileges held by nobles and prelates. The English, American, and French revolutions derived partly from the desire of the bourgeoisie to rid itself of feudal trammels and royal encroachments on personal liberty and on the rights of trade and property. In the 19th cent., the bourgeoisie, triumphantly propounding liberalism, gained political rights as well as religious and civil liberties. Thus modern Western society, in its political and also in its cultural aspects, owes much to bourgeois activities and philosophy.

Subsequent to the Industrial Revolution, the class greatly expanded, and differences within it became more distinct, notably between the high bourgeois (industrialists and bankers) and the petty bourgeois (tradesmen and white-collar workers). By the end of the 19th cent., the capitalists (the original bourgeois) tended to be associated with a widened upper class, while the spread of technology and technical occupations was opening the bourgeoisie to entry from below.

In Marxism

Within Karl Marx's theory of class struggle, the bourgeoisie plays a significant role. By overthrowing the feudal system it is seen as an originally progressive force that later becomes a reactionary force as it tries to prevent the ascendency of the proletariat (wage earners) in order to maintain its own position of predominance. Some writers argue that Marx's theory fails because he did not foresee the rise of a new, expanded middle class of professionals and managers, which, although they are wage earners, do not fit easily into his definition of the proletariat.


See H. Pirenne, Medieval Cities (1952) and Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe (1956); D. Johnson, ed., Class and Social Development (1982); P. Gay, The Bourgeois Experience (Vol. I-V, 1984-98).

Bourgeoisie (RP , GA /ˌbʊ(r).ʒwɑˈzi/) is a classification used in analyzing human societies to describe a social class of people. The bourgeoisie are members of the upper or merchant class, whose status or power comes from employment, education, and wealth. They are distinguished from those whose power comes from being born into an aristocratic family. The term petite bourgeoisie (also petty bourgeoisie) is used to describe the class below the bourgeoisie but above the proletariat (usually independent operators with a small number of employees). The term "urban haute bourgeois" was coined by Whit Stillman to describe American upper-class WASPs, who had been seen capturing more and more social and economic capital.

Usage and definitions

The term, bourgeoisie, is widely used in many non-English speaking countries as an approximate equivalent of upper class (found in the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels).

In common usage the term has pejorative connotations suggesting either undeserved wealth, or lifestyles, tastes, and opinions that lack the sophistication of the rich or the authenticity of the intellectual or the poor. It is rare for people in the English speaking world to identify themselves as members of the bourgeoisie, although many self-identify as middle class. On the other hand some would self-identify as proletarians. In reality many members of this class are transitory as Marx had originally argued. In the United States, where social class affiliation lacks some of the structure and rules of many other nations, "bourgeoisie" is sometimes used to refer to those seen as being either upper class or upper middle class.

Bourgeoisie is a French word that was borrowed directly into English in the specific sense described above. In the French feudal order pre-revolution, "bourgeois" was a class of citizens who were wealthier members of the Third Estate, but were overtaxed and had none of the privileges which the aristocracy held (however many bourgeois bought their way into nobility; see Venal Office).

Bourgeoisie were defined by conditions such as length of residence and source of income. 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.

The French word bourgeois evolved from the Old French word burgeis, meaning "an inhabitant of a town" (cf. Middle English burgeis, Middle Dutch burgher and German Bürger). The Old French word burgeis is derived from bourg, meaning a market town or medieval village, itself derived from Late Latin burgus, meaning "fortress

Rise of the bourgeoisie

In the late Middle Ages, as cities were emerging, artisans and tradesmen began to emerge as both a physical and 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 (the 14th and 15th centuries), they were the highest guildsmen and artisans, as evidenced in their ability to pay the fines for breaking sumptuary laws, and by paying to be called citizens of the city in which they lived or the ability to be called bourgeoisie. In fact the King of France granted nobility to all of the bourgeoisie of Paris in the late fourteenth century. They eventually allied with the kings in uprooting the feudalist system.

After the Middle Ages and going into the renaissance they were 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 and the establishment of a capitalist society.

The bourgeoisie was never without its critics; it was first accused of narrow-mindedness, materialism, hypocrisy, and lack of culture, among other things, by persons such as the playwright Truldière and the novelist Flaubert, who denounced its supposed banality and mercenary aspirations. 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, owning 39,000 of the 50,000 venal offices. 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.

The Marxist view

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 culture for believing these concepts and institutions to be universally true; 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) as well as the means of coercion (national armed forces, prison systems, court systems). Ownership of the means of production enables it to employ and exploit the work of a large mass of wage workers (the working class), also known as the industrial middle class, who have no other means of livelihood than to sell their labour to property owners; while control over the means of coercion allows intervention during challenges from below.

Marx distinguished between "functioning capitalists" actually managing enterprises, and others merely earning property rents or interest-income from financial assets or real estate (rentiers).

Marxism sees the proletariat (wage labourers) 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 in Marxist terms). Thus the capitalist can earn money by selling the surplus (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. In this way, the capitalist might turn a large profit by exploiting workers.

Other uses

In the rhetoric of some Communist parties, "bourgeois" is sometimes used as a pejorative, and those who are perceived to collaborate with the bourgeoisie are called its lackeys. Socialists, especially Marxists have multiple uses for the term: the original meaning, the social class of capitalists, and the pejorative. When something or someone is described as bourgeois it generally lacks authenticity, is superficial and/or is counterrevolutionary.

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 commended the industriousness of the bourgeoisie, but criticised it for its moral hypocrisy. This attitude is shown most clearly in the Communist Manifesto. He also used it to describe the ideology of this class; for example, he called its conception of freedom "bourgeois freedom" and opposed it to what he considered more substantive forms of freedom. He also wrote of bourgeois independence, individuality, property, family, etc.; in each case he referred to conceptions of these ideals which are compatible with condoning the existence of a class society.

In the view of some 20th century Marxist currents, the nomenklatura or lower state bureaucrats in "communist states" were or are a state bourgeoisie presiding over a system of state capitalism. To some schools of 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 of whether this control comes in the form of private ownership or state power.

In urban pop culture, the word bourgeoisie is shortened to "bougie." The word is often used by working class African Americans who accuse more successful black people of selling out. A music track by the songwriting and recording artist duo Ashford & Simpson specifically mentions this, actually being titled Bourgie Bourgie.

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, 1981.
  • Mark Timmerman

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