The bourgeoisie is the ruling class in capitalist society; it owns the means of production and has a decisive influence on production. It lives off of surplus value which it obtains by exploiting the labour power of the proletariat.
At the end of the 15th century the development of the trades and of commodity production enabled the first elements of the bourgeoisie to elevate themselves above the general urban population.
From the serfs of the Middle Ages sprang the chartered burghers of the earliest towns. From these burgesses the first elements of the bourgeoisie were developed
— K. Marx and F. Engels, Communist Manifesto, “”.
The bourgeois class was made up of traders, usurers, the wealthiest guild masters, and some leading elements of the countryside.
As industry, trade, and navigation developed, the bourgeoisie gradually concentrated in its hands ever-increasing wealth. The rise of the bourgeoisie coincided with the era of primary (or "primitive") accumulation of capital, which involved the expropriation of land and instruments of production from the broad masses of people and which relied heavily on colonial pillage and seizure. During this era, the conditions were created for the birth and development of the capitalist mode of production — a mass of wage workers free of personal dependence and means of production was created, and large sums of money capital were concentrated in the hands of the bourgeoisie.
The discovery (1492) and colonization of America, the discovery of a sea route to India around Africa (1498), and the expansion of trade with the colonies created a new field of activity for the incipient bourgeoisie. Guild production could no longer satisfy the growing demand for goods. The manufactory came to replace the handicraft shops, as did large-scale machine industry later, as a result of the industrial revolution that began in England in the mid-18th century and spread to Europe and North America. A new class entered the historical arena—the proletariat, which is the antagonist and gravedigger of the bourgeois class.
Struggle against feudalism
The development of capitalist production made it essential for the bourgeoisie that the political domination of the feudal lords be eliminated. Striving to put an end to the feudal fragmentation that hindered the development of trade and industry, the bourgeoisie headed, in its own class interests, the movement of the masses of the people against feudalism. The bourgeoisie came to power as a result of the bourgeois and bourgeois democratic revolutions that occurred in the countries of Western Europe and North America during the 16th to 18th centuries and in a number of other countries later on.
In the struggle against feudalism, the bourgeoisie played a historically progressive role. Under its leadership the dominance of feudal relationships was liquidated by the dictates of the objective laws of the development of productive forces. The bourgeois revolutions proceeded under the banner of the ideas of the Enlightenment; they furthered the progress of science and technology. The age-old isolation of small-scale production was destroyed; there was collectivization of labor, which as a result increased in productivity. With the development of industry the bourgeoisie subordinated the countryside to the domination of the city. It created national markets and bound all the parts of the globe into one world market through economic ties.
The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured as if out of the ground—what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?
— Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Communist Manifesto
Rise of capitalism
The rates of formation of the bourgeoisie and the degree of its influence were different in different countries: “While a rich and powerful bourgeoisie was forming in England from the 17th century and in France from the 18th century, in Germany it is possible to speak of the bourgeoisie only from the beginning of the 19th century”.
V. I. Lenin distinguished three historical epochs in the development of the bourgeoisie as a class. The first (to 1871) was the epoch of the rise and formation of the bourgeoisie, “the epoch of the rise of the bourgeoisie, of its triumph”. The second (1871-1914) was the epoch of the complete domination and the beginning of the decline of the bourgeoisie, “the epoch of transition from its progressive character toward reactionary and even ultrareactionary finance capital”. The third (from 1914) was “the epoch of imperialism and imperialist upheavals as well as of upheavals stemming from the nature of imperialism, ” when the bourgeoisie, “from a rising and progressive class has turned into a declining, decadent, internally dead, and reactionary class”.
During the period when capitalism was on the rise, the bourgeoisie of England—“the workshop of the world”—held the leading position. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the aggressive imperialist bourgeoisie of Germany began to move into first place in Europe. However, by this time the monopolistic bourgeoisie of the USA, the greatest international exploiter and chief bulwark of international reaction in the contemporary era, began to gain strength rapidly.
Competition leads to profound changes in the arrangement of forces within the bourgeois class; as a result, the highest strata of the bourgeoisie begin to play a decisive role in capitalist society. The bourgeoisie is subdivided into the industrial, commercial, banking, and rural bourgeoisies as a function of the sphere in which capital is applied. A struggle goes on between individual capitalists and layers of the bourgeoisie over the distribution of surplus value; however, the bourgeoisie acts as a single class of exploiters in opposition to the proletariat and toiling people in general.
With the development of capitalism, the contradiction between the social character of production and the private form of appropriation sharpened. The concentration of production and its growing scope was accompanied by the centralization of capital and the concentration of vast resources in the hands of, and under the control of, the ever-narrower upper strata of the bourgeois class. This process was accelerated by periodic crises of overproduction. By the early 20th century, on the basis of the processes of concentration and centralization of capital and production, free competition was becoming monopoly. The monopolistic bourgeoisie took shape as the ruling stratum of bourgeois society.
Concentration and centralization of capital ruined small, middle, and some upper capitalists. The proportion of the bourgeoisie in the gainfully employed population and the population at large of the capitalist countries decreased. In the USA, for example, in 1870 owners of enterprises and proprietors of firms (along with petit bourgeois, managers, and high officials) made up 30 percent of the employed population; by 1910 the figure was 23 percent; and in 1950 their proportion was 15.9 percent. In Great Britain, entrepreneurs made up 8.1 percent of the gainfully employed population in 1851; in 1951, they were only 2.04 percent. On the whole, the big bourgeoisie amounted to approximately 1-3 percent of the gainfully employed population in highly developed capitalist countries in the mid-20th century.
Imperialism carries with it profound changes in the structure and arrangement of forces within the bourgeois class. Finance capital, a qualitatively new form of capital, becomes dominant. Finance capital is personified in the financial oligarchy, which, relying on its combined economic power, seizes the key positions in the economy and takes possession of most of the national wealth of a country.
One of the most important features of the financial oligarchy is its control over a vast mass of other people’s capital and over the monetary means of the society through the development of the joint stock form of capital and credit institutions (banks, insurance companies, and savings banks). This control brings unprecedented monopoly superprofits. The domination of the financial oligarchy becomes still stronger as monopoly capitalism develops into state monopoly capitalism. It becomes capable of controlling not only the capital of other people, accumulated in the form of shares and other securities, but also a sizable portion of the means of the state budget, through which the fulfillment of state orders is financed.
Even within the bourgeoisie itself, a financial oligarchy is an extremely narrow circle of people, a small group of millionaires and billionaires who have seized for themselves the overwhelming portion of the national wealth of the capitalist countries. In the 1960’s, 1 percent of the property owners in the USA amassed 59 percent and 1 percent of the property owners in Britain amassed 56 percent of all capital. Directly affiliated with the financial oligarchy are the leadership of the ruling government machinery, the party political elite of the bourgeois parties and sometimes the reformist parties, and the upper military caste. This is the direct consequence of the interlacing and interlocking of the monopolies and the state.
Monopoly capital engenders the specific social layer of managers of capitalist enterprises. With the increasing importance of the function of production management and its growing scale, the reinforcement of processes of specialization and collectivization of production, the development of state monopoly capitalism, and the exacerbation of competition among the monopolies, the role of the technocracy grows. A distinctive social differentiation takes place within the technocracy. Its upper stratum merges with the financial oligarchy.
Monopolies cannot reorganize the entire capitalist economy. “Pure imperialism, without the fundamental basis of capitalism has never existed, does not exist anywhere, and never will exist.” Rushing into the most profitable branches of industry, monopoly capital leaves a relatively broad field of activity for the non-monopolistic bourgeoisie in the other branches. Many of these branches are not ripe for mass standardized production because of their technical economic characteristics, and in some the creation of large enterprises is not always economically justified (trade, everyday repairs and services, maintenance, and so forth). Moreover, some branches of production that service the large monopolies are the property of the state, local authorities, and municipalities. Through the system of monopoly prices, the financial oligarchy extracts a portion of the surplus value created in these enterprises without spending its own capital.
The reactionary role of the bourgeoisie is manifested with particular clarity under the conditions of state monopoly capitalism, which “joins the power of the monopolies with the power of the state in a single mechanism for the purpose of enriching the monopolies, suppressing the workers’ movement and national liberation struggle, saving the capitalist system, and unleashing aggressive wars” (Program of the CPSU, 1969, pp. 26-27). The most aggressive groupings of the bourgeoisie attempt to find an escape from the contradictions of imperialism in the militarization of the economy. They unleashed the first and second world wars and during the cold war threatened to plunge the world into another military catastrophe, using the means of mass annihilation and destruction. The situation as of the late 1970s was that the monopolist bourgeoisie was carrying out an aggressive foreign policy directed against the socialist countries and the national liberation movement and a reactionary domestic policy aim at to suppressing the struggle through strikes of the working class and the democratic movement of the broad masses. Neofascist parties had becoming active in some imperialist countries. The main ideological and political weapon of the monopolistic bourgeoisie was and continues to be anticommunism.
The national bourgeoisie under colonialism and neocolonialism
In a number of countries where tribal relations and vestiges of slavery and feudalism persist, the national bourgeoisie can still play a progressive role to a certain extent. This was demonstrated by the experience of the historical development of the countries of Asia and Africa which, after World War II (1939-45), cast off their colonial fetters and embarked on the path of independent development, continuing the struggle for the consolidation of their state sovereignty and for economic self-dependence. In some of the developing countries, the national bourgeoisie became the ruling class, endowed with political power and the corresponding economic privileges. Basing itself on state power, it was able to counterpose national interests and its own class interests to international monopoly capital. But, while taking certain steps to frustrate the neocolonialist schemes of the imperialist monopolies, the national bourgeoisie simultaneously falls back on the aid of the imperialist monopolies in the area of economic development and in the struggle to strengthen its own class rule. The inconstant and contradictory nature of the class position of the national bourgeoisie is also linked to the intensifying processes of intraclass differentiation—that is, economic stratification and a change in its social aspect. As a result of external and internal influences, the development of the bourgeoisie becomes ever more complex and contradictory. In some countries, the general weakening of imperialism results in the contraction of the economic and social base of bourgeois national enterprise; in other countries, where imperialism has managed to strengthen its positions, the national bourgeoisie joins ranks with the forces of reaction.
Social differentiation develops in the countries that have liberated themselves. The conflict sharpens between the working class, peasantry, and other democratic forces, including patriotic-minded strata of the petit bourgeoisie, and, on the other hand, imperialism and the forces of internal reaction, and those elements of the national bourgeoisie that are inclined more and more to make a deal with imperialism
— Official Soviet source, Mezhdunarodnoe Soveshchanie kommunisticheskikh i rabochikh partii: Dokumenty i materialy, Moscow, 1969, pp. 311-12.
The Bourgeoisie circa 1984
(from A Dictionary of Scientific Communism)
The concentration and centralisation of production have ruined a lot of small, middle and some big capitalists, thus reducing the proportion of bourgeoisie in the gainfully employed population and the entire population in the capitalist countries. The bourgeoisie makes up less than 1 per cent of the employed population in the developed capitalist countries. Having turned from an erstwhile rather numerous class into a superconcentrated, scanty, ruling elite, bourgeoisie has strengthened its economic and political positions in society. As different forms of state-monopoly capitalism developed and the scientific and technological revolution advanced, bourgeoisie became stratified. Small capitalists constitute a stratum—the biggest in number and the smallest in power—of owners of small industrial and commercial firms and service enterprises, as well as the agricultural bourgeoisie, exploiting a small number of wage-labourers (from 4 to 50). Some ruined small capitalists join the petty bourgeoisie, who live by their own labour, or become employees. The middle bourgeoisie includes owners of bigger enterprises (employing from 50 to 500 workers). The big bourgeoisie employs thousands of wage workers, while the scanty monopoly bourgeoisie—the tycoons of trusts, corporations and banks—in fact exploit the toiling people not only of their countries, but of other countries too. The leading position within the state-monopoly bourgeoisie is held by the financial oligarchy—the proprietors of major industrial, bank, insurance, transport and commercial monopolies. This part of the bourgeoisie holds the key positions in the economic and political life of the capitalist countries. In fact, it determines the domestic and foreign policy of the capitalist states in its own interests and is mainly to blame for the social hardships of the working people. Many small, middle and some big capitalists have virtually become subcontractors of monopolies and have lost their independence. All this, coupled with the unequal distribution of profits, increases the gap between the interests of the 21 monopoly bourgeoisie and those of the non-monopoly bourgeoisie The financial oligarchy and the monopolistic top layer, which on many issues loses the support of small and middle capitalists, join ranks with, or often even include in their ranks, big landowners, latifundistas, managers, bourgeois politicians, party and trade-union bosses, high government officials, representatives of the army, police and the secret service (the military clique). A number of countries are witnessing the growth of the military-industrial complex, i. e. the alliance between military-industrial monopolies, reactionary top brass circles and the state bureaucracy. The present-day monopoly bourgeoisie makes increasingly broad use of the state in its own class interests along with the methods of programming and forecasting production, the state funding of scientific and technological progress, military production, and imperialist integration. Yet all of this does not make it possible for bourgeoisie to control the forces of anarchy on the capitalist market, or to keep the deepening contradictions at bay. The decay of bourgeoisie is manifest in the growth of parasitism, corruption, moral degradation, and political adventurism, bordering on criminality within its ranks. The social gulf between the monopoly bourgeoisie and the mass of the toiling people is becoming ever wider and deeper.
Downfall of the bourgeoisie
History has confirmed the prognosis of Marx regarding the inevitability of the degeneration and downfall of bourgeois civilization under the weight of the crimes it has committed. This follows from the economic essence of capitalism, the fundamental law of which is the production of surplus value. Marx pointed out that there is no crime capital would not commit in order to increase its profits. The most complete and villainous manifestation of the criminal nature of bourgeois rule was embodied in fascism and the system it created of the mass extermination of people, based on genocide and a revival of slavery. The most reactionary strata of monopoly capital urge the use of fascist methods. Through the creation of so-called military-industrial complexes, they strive for total militarization and the suppression of all democratic liberties. The maniacs of militarism threaten humanity with annihilation through rocket and nuclear war.
The class whose goal and calling in life is the production of profit for its own enrichment is doomed to decay. Amorality, corruption, and gangsterism flourish in the social life of the most developed capitalist countries. In the end, the material ideal of the “society of consumption” advanced by bourgeois economists and sociologists is reduced to the establishment of “satisfied slavery, ” which leads to spiritual impoverishment and the decay of morals. Contemporary bourgeois culture brings the disintegration of literature and art and the renunciation of the realistic depiction of reality; it is used to propagate hatred of mankind and immorality.
The working class and its communist vanguard emerge as the bearers of the ideas of social progress, which express the best hopes of humanity; they rally the peoples of the world in the struggle against imperialism.
The struggle against imperialism, ” states the Document of the International Conference of Communist and Workers’ Parties (June 1969), “is a long, stubborn, and difficult one. Sharp class battles are inevitable in the future. It is necessary to intensify the offensive against the positions of imperialism and domestic reaction. The victory of the revolutionary and progressive forces is inevitable.
— Official Soviet source, Mezhdunarodnoe Soveshchanie kommunisticheskikh i rabochikh partii: Dokumenty i materialy, Moscow, 1969, p. 330.
The Chairman and CEO of McDonald's, as well as the board of directors and major shareholders of the company, are bourgeoisie. This is because they own the private property that is the McDonald's buildings and cooking equipment, and hire workers to produce and sell burgers for them. The workers are not bourgeoisie, as they do not own any of the buildings or equipment, even if they might have some small share of MCD stock.
A landlord using a house or land to rent to individuals or businesses is considered bourgeoisie. This is distinct from a person who owns multiple houses, but who does not give any of them out for rent. This is because the landlord extracts capital through the property - money, which can then be used to buy more houses, which will then accumulate more capital, and so-on.
A home-owner who hires a contractor to do work on their property (such as landscapers, plumbers, etc.) are not bourgeoisie. This is because they are not extracting capital from e.g. the landscaper. However, a capitalist landscaping company is - as while a person might pay the landscaper a fee, they are actually giving the money to the company, and not the worker. The owners of the company then decide how to compensate the worker, usually taking the major cut for themselves. The home-owner is simply paying for a service.
A small-time business owner, such as an individual or family that owns a business or 1 rental property are considered bourgeoisie. However, they are what is known as petite - or 'petty' - bourgeoisie. Because they generally do not posses political power on the same scale as the 'major' bourgeoisie (as e.g. shown by the contrast between the owners of ExxonMobil lobbying for war vs a small family in a local take-out place trying to make ends meet), Marxists often do not hold as major antagonisms towards them. They are, however, still often exploiting the labor of other workers, (or potentially their own or that of their family), and as such, are welcomed to become class-traitors in order to liberate themselves and their workers.
- "Bourgeoisie". The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979).
- The reference from Great Soviet Encyclopedia is: “Manifest Kommunisticheskoi partii.” In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 4, p. 425
- F. Engels, ibid., p. 48
- Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 26, p. 143
- ibid., pp. 143, 145-46
- Lenin, ibid., vol. 38, p. 151.
- Bourgeoisie [dead link] A Dictionary of Scientific Communism
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