views updated May 08 2018


BOURGEOISIE. For much of the twentieth century, historians used the term "bourgeoisie" unselfconsciously to denote that rather vague middle group between the nobility and the masses of peasants and urban workers. The middle classes, the middling sort, the Bürgertum, the bourgeoisie; these terms were all used to describe the merchants, the guild members, the pensioners, and the elite non-nobles (professionals, financiers, and officials) who dominated much of the early modern urban landscape. They enter the European scene in the Middle Agesthe tradesmen and other urban figures who did not fit neatly into the idealized tripartite society of Three Orders: those who pray, those who fight, and those who work. These individuals worked, but they did not till the land like peasants. While some definitions of bourgeoisie include the artisan, most exclude those whose work soiled their hands. But these urban merchants and manufacturers were economically useful; they dealt in goods, and they dealt in cash. They would become Max Weber's Protestant capitalist, imbued with an ethic of ascetic capitalism, and Karl Marx's budding bourgeois class, the owners of the means of production. We see hints of this nineteenth-century meaning of bourgeoisie in earlier times; workers referred to their employers as "bourgeois," and peasants used the same term for their urban landlords.


Historians of France have led the way in trying to better understand the character and function of the early modern bourgeoisie. Steeped in a Marxist historiography that termed the French Revolution a "bourgeois revolution" fueled by class conflict between a politically aspiring bourgeoisie and a moribund aristocracy, scholars have closely examined the social class structure of Old Regime France in search of an economic and political bourgeoisie that would seize control of the Revolution's direction. But revisionist historians since the early 1970s have worked to demolish the Marxist framework, the notion of a dynamic precapitalist bourgeoisie leading a world-historical Marxian revolution. The bourgeoisie, if it existed prior to the French Revolution, they argue, was risk-adverse and keener on social mobility than class power. As soon as they earned enough money, individuals wanted to leave the bourgeoisie to become part of the nobility. Members of this group were far more attached to the trappings of status than to the accumulation of capital, the fruits of profit. Furthermore, links between the upper reaches of the bourgeoisie and the nobilitywho frequently intermarried, and socialized in the salons and academieswere so close as to render meaningless the notion of "class conflict" between aristocrat and bourgeois. The elitenoble and non-noblewas quite unified, certainly more unified than any amorphous "bourgeoisie."

This suggests the importance of social mobility to any definition of bourgeoisie. Traditionally, historians have differentiated between the upper, the middle, and the petty bourgeoisie. There was always some mobility within this group; an education and a profession, not to mention the accumulation of wealth, could move one from the ranks of the petty into the middle, or from the middle into the upper bourgeoisie. But there was also movement from the upper reaches of the bourgeoisie into the ranks of the elite. As the numbers and power of old noble families began to decline in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in a number of western European countries, many wealthy bourgeois families moved in to take their place through the purchase of land, and eventually, the purchase of venal offices, some of which conferred noble title. Social mobilityup and downblurs the boundaries between the bourgeoisie and other social groups.

These fuzzy boundaries complicate the picture considerably. Focusing on linguistic and cultural categories, Sarah Maza argues that there was no middle classno "bourgeoisie" beyond a precise set of legal meaningsin pre-Revolutionary France. According to Maza, until there is an actual discourse about the middle class, until it is named and given a social, political, moral, or historical importance, it does not exist; and thus, it did not exist in early modern France. A similar argument has been made for early modern England and for other European countries. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century sociological definitions of the bourgeoisie fit uncomfortably in early modern society, which would not have recognized the categories we impose.

Furthermore, the bourgeoisiecomposed of relatively comfortable urban dwellerswas a small segment of the population in any European country before the nineteenth century, seldom more than 10 percent of the total population, except in the commercial countries of Holland and England, where the total urban population surpassed 50 percent and 25 percent, respectively. About 20 to 30 percent of Londoners were members of the middle classes by the eighteenth century, with some 3 to 5 percent in the upper class. During the same period, about 8 percent of the French population could be considered bourgeoisbut only about 2 percent of the population counted in the upper reaches of that group. In other words, the size of the upper bourgeoisie in France was roughly equivalent to that of the nobility. The same was true in the city of Nuremburg in the sixteenth century, where rough numerical parity existed between the rich merchants of the city and the aristocracy.

Moreover, lack of real class solidarity attenuated the political importance of the bourgeoisie. Even in Great Britain, which boasted perhaps the largest and proudest middle class in Europe by 1800, the aristocracy dominated the reins of government well into the nineteenth century. If "the middle classes are always rising," as the old adage goes, their ascent had barely begun.

And yet, despite the admonitions of those who would consign the term "bourgeoisie" to the dustbin of history, historians continue to use it, as did early modern individuals themselves. But the sets of meaning that this term conveys are imprecise. Just as the boundaries between the bourgeoisie and other social classes are vague, the definition of "bourgeoisie" is equally so. Depending on context and assumptions, the historian conjures up sometimes radically different images when using the term. Definitions of "bourgeoisie" generally fall into one of four categories: legal, economic, political, and cultural.


The legal definition of bourgeoisie is both the most precise (although it varied from place to place) and the most restrictive. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, burgenses was the term applied to the inhabitants of any seigneurial territory that was granted a written coutume or charter. This charter granted privileges to the inhabitants of that territory, but the specific privileges varied from place to place, and indeed, from country to country. Sometimes those privileges were quite narrow; for example, individuals enjoying the title "Bourgeois de Bordeaux" were allowed to bring their wine into the city free of duty and had the monopoly of retail sale within the city limits. Because the privileges associated with the legal title "bourgeois" could be quite specific and quite lucrative, it was not uncommon for nobles to seek the status of "bourgeois." In general usage, however, the term "bourgeois," from medieval times through the age of the French Revolution, referred to the non-noble inhabitants of towns, citizens who enjoyed the privileges associated with living in a particular place.


The economic definition, which emphasizes the economic activity and financial standing of the bourgeoisie, is both more contentious and more compelling. It denotes the bourgeoisie as the capitalist class, the social group that emerged with towns and trade. A market-centered focus and control of commerce and capital made the bourgeoisie a potent rival to the aristocracy in a number of European countries, most notably England and the Dutch Netherlands. In the German states, the small to midsized towns, especially the trading cities on the coast, were also dominated by the merchant, craftsman, and financier. It was the rising power of the capitalist that foreshadowed the end to a European political and economic system governed by aristocrats barred from trade by the threat of dérogation loss of noble title. The bourgeoisie pioneered the commercial capitalism of the early modern era in the same way that it would spearhead the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

But not all "bourgeois" individuals were involved in trade and manufacture. The term encompasses lawyers, doctors, and non-noble officials, sometimes counted on the fringes of, or even at the center of, the elite. It also includes the so-called bourgeois vivant noblement, the "bourgeois living nobly" from the proceeds of investments and no longer required to labor for an income. While status in the early modern era was not invariably linked to wealth, wealth could go far in blurring the lines between middle class and elite, at least for those who were involved in the professions and not directly connected to the less noble function of trade. In many countriesmost notably France and Spaintrade was considered a dishonorable profession, one that any person of fortune would try to leave behind as quickly as possible. It is this desire on the part of the bourgeoisie to move out of tradethe dynamic sector of the economyand to invest in the more respectable lifestyle of land- or office-holding that calls into question Marx's vision of the rising capitalist bourgeoisie, challenging the aristocracy for economic, political, and cultural supremacy. Some historians have blamed the status-seeking French bourgeoisie for the stagnant nature of the French economy in the eighteenth century as compared to the rapidly industrializing British economy where the middle classes were less eager to disinvest from the productive sectors of the economy.


Still, the economic clout of the bourgeoisie as individuals and as a group could go far in conferring political power along with social status. Economic resources allowed bourgeois individuals to obtain professional expertise for their sons through education, as well as to purchase land from the weakened aristocracy. This phenomenon was particularly pronounced in England at the close of the Wars of the Roses (14551471), which had wiped out many of the most powerful baronial families, but it was repeated in other regions as well. The wealthy bourgeoisie, the nouveaux riches, embedded in business and administrative circles, moved into the positions of economic and political influence once held by the aristocracy and eventually supplanted them as the new aristocracy. This regeneration of the old elite with social climbers from the bourgeoisie is a common theme in early modern history. The aristocratic diarist Saint-Simon railed at the tendency of Louis XIV of France (ruled 16431715) to choose bourgeois individuals, vile men "raised from the dust," as his ministers at the expense of his traditional advisors, the nobility. Within a few generations, these "vile men" would hold sway as prestigious members of the court. A similar process took place in the Prussian bureaucracy under Frederick William I (ruled 17131740).

This would suggest a tight nexus between the rise of absolutism and the role of the bourgeoisie in early modern states. Kings bent on increasing their authority would turn to members of the bourgeoisie to serve the state and carry out the king's will at the expense of the old feudal nobility, whose wealth and regional power bases made it a constant threat to central authority. Affluent commoners, ready for the peace, rationality, and business benefits a centralizing monarch could introduce into the operations of government, eagerly supported the king against the rapacious nobility, and their educated sons entered into royal service. Recent scholarship that indicates more mutual dependence between monarchs and their nobility throws this line of analysis into question, but certainly the perception of an aggressive bourgeoisie usurping aristocratic privileges and rights was a powerful one, as the writings of Saint-Simon indicate.

But another interpretation of the political role of the early modern bourgeoisie also undermines the notion of complicity between king and merchant. The traditional social interpretation of both the English Civil War of the 1640s and the French Revolution of 1789 painted a bourgeoisie confident in its commercial importance, seeking political power commensurate with its economic power. Jürgen Habermas cites the creation of a "bourgeois public sphere" in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in which a nascent public opinion called into question the monopoly of state and clergy over political discussion. This desire for a political voice brought the bourgeoisie into conflict with aristocracy and crown, both jealous and unwilling to sacrifice political control. Accordingly, a powerful, independent, and discontented bourgeoisie was essential in bringing about revolution or parliamentary democracy or both in countries like France and England; and the absence or weakness of that same class (as in Prussia or Russia) was responsible for the prolongation of absolutist dictatorship. In the words of Barrington Moore, Jr., "No bourgeois, no democracy." The growing political awareness of the eighteenth-century bourgeoisie and the intense political partisanship linked to the effects of the French Revolution throughout Europe played a key role in shaping middle-class consciousness.


But bourgeois identity also had important cultural roots that went beyond political activism, including a belief in property, virtue, and talent as the bases for social advancement, and attachment to religious values, frugality, a work ethic, public service, and especially material comfort. The bourgeoisie is also associated with an emphasis on the conjugal family and sentimental familial relations, in contrast to the focus on lineage associated with the aristocracy. This sociocultural interpretation of the bourgeoisie, with its focus on values, attitudes, and rules of conduct, has dominated historical scholarship in recent years. This consciousness of difference, of cultural and moral superiority to the idle aristocracy and the lower-class masses, had appeared among the middle classes by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, even if a clear-cut notion of class solidarity did not yet exist.

Still, "bourgeois values" were never uncontested, even in the nineteenth century, often heralded as the golden age of the western European bourgeoisie when its ideology triumphed across class lines. Aristocrats were notoriously contemptuous of the bourgeois values of thrift, acquisitiveness, and morality. They ridiculed the lack of culture and refinement, the crudeness, the avariciousness, the "shopkeeper mentality" of the bourgeoisie. They saved their sharpest barbs for the upwardly mobile, the individual who was trying to buy his way up the social ladder, but whose lack of blood and breeding would forever mark him as bourgeois. Molière's Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (1671) underlines aristocratic disdain for the wealthy parvenu. And the lower classes, who might have looked to emulate certain characteristics of their bourgeois betters, saw them as calculating, exploitative, and cruel.

Those who give weight to the sociocultural interpretation of the bourgeoisie often underline gender relations within this social group. The ideology of domesticity, which emerged by the eighteenth century, emphasized the importance of harmonious familial relations, a moral private life, prescribed gender roles, and the celebration of the home as a haven from the rational, but heartless, world of the market. The consolidation of bourgeois class status was marked by the movement of women out of family businesses and into the home. Women were central to maintaining the standing of bourgeois families, in creating a moral center for the family and a suitable home with the necessary material comforts.


The early modern bourgeoisie emerge as a contradictory group. They are the dynamic protocapitalists, trading and running manufacturing enterprises, working as lawyers and doctors in the liberal professions, running town and state as government officials; they are the status-conscious upwardly mobile, looking only to accumulate enough wealth to invest in land and venal offices and to withdraw from productive activity. They are toadies of absolute monarchs, imposing centralized governments throughout Europe; they are bold political actors, demanding an end to monarchical despotism and a role in the political process. They are a group that values thrift, order, religious principles, industriousness, gender-appropriate behavior, and material comforts; they are a small-minded, petty, and greedy group whose base roots can never be camouflaged, even if their wealth propels them into a higher social category. These contradictory images cannot be resolved, but contradictions are normal within a group as large and as loosely defined as the early modern bourgeoisie.

Despite the self-confidence and belief in the values of hard work and honesty that were part of bourgeois identity, anxiety also permeated the self-image of the early modern bourgeoisie. The status of these individuals was hard-won and was not undergirded by the security of noble title. While we focus on the success stories, downward mobility was at least as common a phenomenon as upward mobility. A merchant could lose his fortune; a lawyer could lose his clients; an official could face dismissal by his ruler. No social safety net existed to protect him. Work, frugality, and reputation were all that stood between the bourgeois and the downward slide to social oblivion. That anxiety may explain his attachment to the conservative values we consider "bourgeois," often long after he had left the middle classes behind.

See also Ancien Régime ; Aristocracy ; Capitalism ; Cities and Urban Life ; Class, Status, and Order ; Law: Lawyers ; Mobility, Social.


Adams, Christine. A Taste for Comfort and Status: A Bourgeois Family in Eighteenth-Century France. University Park, Pa., 2000.

Barber, Bernard, and Elinor G. Barber, eds. European Social Class: Stability and Change. New York, 1965.

Barber, Elinor G. The Bourgeoisie in Eighteenth-Century France. Princeton, 1955.

Braudel, Fernand. Civilization and Capitalism, 15th18th Century. 3 vols. Translated by Siân Reynolds. New York, 19821984.

Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 17801850. Rev. ed. London and New York, 2002.

Earle, Peter. The Making of the English Middle Class: Business, Society and Family Life in London, 16601730. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1989.

Garrioch, David. The Formation of the Parisian Bourgeoisie, 16901830. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1996.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, Mass., 1989.

Hunt, Margaret R. The Middling Sort: Commerce, Gender, and the Family in England, 16801780. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1996.

Huppert, George. Les Bourgeois Gentilshommes: An Essay on the Definition of Elites in Renaissance France. Chicago, 1977.

Jones, Colin. "Bourgeois Revolution Revivified: 1789 and Social Change." In Rewriting the French Revolution, edited by Colin Lucas, pp. 69118. Oxford, 1991.

Lucas, Colin. "Nobles, Bourgeois, and the Origins of the French Revolution." Past and Present 60 (August 1973): 84126.

Maza, Sarah. "Luxury, Morality, and Social Change: Why There Was No Middle-Class Consciousness in Prerevolutionary France." Journal of Modern History 69 (June 1997): 199229.

Moore, Barrington, Jr. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Boston, 1966.

Sperber, Jonathan. "Bürger, Bürgertum, Bürgerlichkeit, Bürgerliche Gesellschaft: Studies of the German (Upper) Middle Class and Its Sociocultural World." Journal of Modern History 69 (June 1997): 271297.

Christine Adams


views updated May 29 2018




The long existence of the term bourgeoisie in the various European languages and the multiplicity of meanings it took on over time, beginning in the Middle Ages and in different historical and geographic contexts, make a comparative study of this group throughout Europe in the twentieth century particularly problematic. For ease of translation from country to country, we here limit ourselves to a minimalist definition that identifies this group with the upper, nonaristocratic strata of society possessing wealth, income, and/or educational levels that are clearly above average. According to Jürgen Kocka, the bourgeoisie would then represent, depending on the country, from 5 to 15 percent of the population at the beginning of the twentieth century, depending on whether or not we include the petty bourgeoisie and the middle classes. Beyond a definition of the term, three main historiographic debates still remain unresolved.

First, there is the classic debate over the internal unity or diversity of this group: in light of geographic divisions (rural/urban bourgeoisie, capital cities/provinces, etc.), or divisions in terms of education, religion, wealth, and power, can we still speak of a unified class, as in the Marxist vulgate that dominated the social discourse on this topic for a large part of the period? In fact, if one includes in this group, alongside the most important business leaders, the upper echelons of the liberal professions, high-level state employees, and rural notables, the answer becomes dubious at best, given the divergences in lifestyle and standard of living, as well as cultural values and ideological choices, that become increasingly pronounced as one moves southward and eastward into Europe, where these educated bourgeois groups have a strong foothold and sometimes play an essential political role and enjoy higher prestige than members of the economic bourgeoisie.

The second debate concerns the persistence and relevance of the use of such a definition, a legacy of the nineteenth century, throughout the twentieth century, when the structures of the economy, governments, educational systems, relations between the sexes and family life, political boundaries, ideologies, wars, and political upheavals have radically changed the social situation in Europe by comparison with the eve of World War I. This is why many social historians or specialists in the social sciences have preferred, since 1930–1950, to coin new terms that are more abstract or closer to the specific traditions of each nation, rather than reuse vocabulary that is strongly marked by the legacy of the controversies and representations of the nineteenth century: elites, dominant class, establishment, managers, technocrats, senior management or chief executives, upper middle classes, and high-income groups (or, more banally, the "rich," "nouveaux riches," etc.) are among the many notions proposed as more flexible or less connoted alternatives to the terminology inherited from the previous century.

The third debate is even more political. Because most European countries went through horrendous experiences in the twentieth century, many works of social or political history have been tempted to "bring to trial" and assign responsibility to the privileged groups within the societies involved—and therefore to the most important of these groups, the bourgeoisie, the source of the main elites in power—in connection with the failures, errors, or complicities with the extremist regimes that have left a permanent mark on some European states. This "history-as-trial" is no doubt especially prevalent for the first half of the twentieth century, owing to the magnitude of the catastrophes and the influence of Marxism on a part of European historiography. But it is also present for the second half of the century, when it assumes more sophisticated forms with the emergence of new forms of critical sociology, focused on new forms of domination and on the development of new types of inequality, as a result of the calling into question of the welfare state, globalization, and the neoliberal policies of the last twenty years of the twentieth century, which revived the values and discourse of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie of free enterprise.

Many of the issues cited above are far from being resolved and will require from historians, especially for the second half of the twentieth century, many more comparative studies to move beyond polemics and simplifications. With such highly charged and recent topics, the social historian cannot completely cut himself off from the world of which he is a part; the interpretation he proposes can thus be only provisional and imperfect.


The conventional image of the European bourgeoisie just before World War I goes hand in hand with the retrospectively constructed myth of the Belle Epoque. It is the apogee of this class that is presumed to have gradually gained ascendancy over other privileged groups (in particular the remains of the aristocracy) and imbued societies with its cultural values and ideological goals (liberalism, the national and patriotic ideal, a preoccupation with accumulating wealth, the spirit of enterprise, individual success, the passing on of a family legacy, the ascetic morality of accumulating wealth, etc.). This classic reading, which corresponds primarily to the societies of France and England, northern Italy, northern Europe, and the western part of Germany, was strongly contested by Arno Mayer (1981) in an essay that was controversial but nonetheless provided the impetus for a good deal of research, with its emphasis on "the persistence of the Old Regime" and on the substantial weight that the aristocracy and groups and values associated with it still carries in central and Eastern Europe (and even in England and southern Europe). In these more traditional areas of Europe, such factors influenced even the modern bourgeoisie, which was restricted to the margins of the political domain. We cannot completely concur with all of the analyses and consequences of Arno Mayer's interpretation, but his provocative hypothesis was beneficial in that it forced historians, in particular in Germany and central Europe, to conceptualize the particularities of the bourgeoisies of this region in terms other than those of the model postulated as being "normal" and "universal" by Marxists and by liberals from the French and English bourgeoisie.

In Germany and Austria-Hungary especially, bourgeois groups remained strongly imbued with the preeminence of hierarchies defined by the monarchical state and by a prestige scale in which service to the state, especially the army, strongly linked to aristocratic values (the code of honor, dueling), remained more influential than the cult of material profit. Even the industrialists, financiers, and members of the liberal professions who in France, England, the Netherlands, and elsewhere were the transmitters of liberal and individualistic values were caught up in this system of older representations. This did not prevent the emergence of a very dynamic economic grand bourgeoisie in the German Empire and in part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its wealth (cf. the Krupp, Thyssen, and Siemens families, the German and Austrian branches of the Rothschilds, the Wittgenstein family, etc.) and successes were on a par with those of its western counterparts, but its specific characteristics explain the particular difficulties of the bourgeoisies of eastern and southern Europe in adapting to the upheavals produced by World War I and the interwar period.


The effects of the First World War and the interwar years on the bourgeoisies of Europe were eminently contradictory. On the one hand, in those countries where the bourgeoisie was subordinate to nobles who remained influential in political, social, and cultural life, the defeats of monarchies and empires forever ruined the old ruling classes on every level—political, symbolic, economic, and social. This was the case in the Weimar Republic and in the Austrian, Czech, and Hungarian republics. On the other hand, the wartime economy had supported the birth and rapid expansion of new commercial and industrial businesses and had promoted or considerably enriched new bourgeois strata that had profited from government commissions or the new interventionist economic conditions. The topic of the "nouveaux riches" and war profiteers was almost ubiquitous and led to the denunciation of a new plutocracy and to increasingly virulent anti-Semitism with the arrival of the economic crisis of the 1930s (in Germany, Austria, Hungary, and France, for example).

In the defeated countries, the new ruling elites came in part from the recent bourgeoisie, but sometimes, whether in the short or long term, they also came from socialist, communist, or populist parties with antiaristocratic or even antibourgeois ideologies that used the suffering of the people, the errors of former leaders, or the multiple economic and financial disruptions caused by the war and the interwar period to contest the old social order and promote egalitarian measures. Such measures affected not just the former elites but also some bourgeois strata. Even in the victorious countries, where the liberal bourgeoisie was already dominant in every realm (France, Great Britain, and Italy), the economic, monetary, and financial disorder undermined the former certainties of this group. It split into a traditionalist wing, which sought to restore the liberal, pre-1914 situation, and a modernist wing (instead composed of high-level state employees, engineers, technocrats, or managers) that advocated a new approach to managing the economy, government, and social relations, and which sometimes drew its inspiration from the American model. Major social movements (strikes in Great Britain in the 1920s, activism by worker councils and rural strikes in Italy from 1918 to 1920, revolutionary and counterrevolutionary unrest in Germany from 1918 to 1923, mass strikes in France from 1919 to 1920 and then in May–June 1936) challenged the authority of business elites and even the political and social order. An entire pessimistic discourse and a negative or critical image of the bourgeoisie spread throughout Europe; this explains the reactions of fear among the bourgeoisie that led some fractions, including degreed professionals, to form alliances with the fascist extreme Right.

This contrasting picture should not mask the fact that overall, the various bourgeois strata, although they had had to make concessions to challenging forces, had essentially maintained their pre-1914 privileges. New taxes (income tax in France, legislated in 1914; heavier income and estate taxes in England); new social relations in businesses, imposed by collective negotiations instituted by the state (e.g., in France and Germany) or by the power of labor unions (Great Britain); the emergence of the welfare state (social insurance, unemployment compensation); and educational or political reforms (wider access to secondary and university education for the new social classes, the extension of suffrage to women and to social groups previously excluded in some countries) were adopted very gradually and very unevenly. In some cases (the United Kingdom after 1930, Germany after 1931, fascist Italy, Austria under the authoritarian corporatist regime from 1934, and France after the end of the Popular Front in 1938), swings of the political pendulum in the other direction, abetted by the division of the parties of the left and international tensions, allowed these concessions to be called into question or even completely abolished and restored the power of business elites by reining in or suppressing the labor unions. At the same time, the development of new, mass-consumption or high-technology industries and the expansion of the service sector opened the way for new entrepreneurs, managers, or engineers who had become executive-level managers or high-level state employees in the new economic and social administrations to enter the bourgeoisie or the grand bourgeoisie.

Statistical data demonstrate the narrowing of some economic gaps (in income and, to a lesser extent, wealth) by comparison with the prewar period, owing mostly to inflationary phenomena, the collapse of some investments made by prewar investors (Russian loans, war loans, etc.), or the forced liquidation of the legacies of some families affected by wartime losses. Some aspects of the former bourgeois lifestyle were therefore permanently changed: fewer households employed domestic help and fewer people lived off private income; some women and girls from bourgeois families were forced to seek employment; and families became concerned with providing even heirs with training and university degrees, for fear of a loss of social position. The feminization of some professions (teaching, medicine, qualified administrative jobs) aroused antifeminist reactions and even, during the crisis years, discriminatory measures, both in authoritarian or fascist countries and in liberal democracies, where "women's liberation" was identified with the decay of the bourgeois family and blamed for falling birthrates and unemployment among young university graduates.

Other statistics relating to social mobility, the recruitment of various elites, and practices of marital alliances, however, attest to the relative permanence of the old patterns of class reproduction that privileged the various categories from bourgeois backgrounds for access to the higher professions and social positions.

The ascendancy to power of anti-Semitic or Nazi-ideology–inspired regimes did, however, profoundly affect a specific fraction of the bourgeoisie and middle classes that had experienced a spectacular ascent in Europe in the nineteenth century—those of the Jewish faith or tradition. Even before the putting into effect of the "final solution," anarchic or legal "Aryanization" measures allowed for the expropriation of property and businesses held by Jewish businessmen, to the benefit not only of the new leaders or supporters of Nazi or fascist regimes, but also of members of the bourgeoisie and the middle classes affiliated with the dominant religions. The latter cynically used the persecution of Jews to exact social revenge against competitors, often more prosperous than they, whose success in banking, business, commerce, and the liberal professions created all the more resentment during a period of acute economic difficulties, especially in Germany, Austria, and Hungary, and slightly later in France under the Vichy regime and during the anti-Semitic phase of the fascist regime in Italy. Even those members of the Jewish bourgeoisie who, by paying significant sums to the anti-Semitic states, had been able to escape the worst by emigrating, were rarely or only very belatedly able to recover their property or social standing after 1945.


To all appearances, the period after 1945 had certain analogies with the period after 1918 for the bourgeoisies of Europe. The liberal economy and the social categories defending it were even more destabilized than after World War I. More than half the Continent came under Soviet control, and state-run economies replaced liberal capitalism in these areas. Communist Party cadres, often from humble backgrounds, held the leadership positions in all sectors (business, administration, and political and intellectual life). The bourgeoisies in these countries lost their fortunes, their businesses, and sometimes their lives (in purges), and they were forced into exile or had to make do with low-level jobs while their children faced discrimination in gaining access to higher education. In Western Europe, where coalitions on the left, sometimes allied with the Communists, were in power at the end of the 1940s, major structural reforms and postwar shortages gave the state a growing role in the economy while fiscal legislation and social security systems sought to reduce inequalities in income between the bourgeoisie and other groups. Through nationalizations in key sectors, especially in France, Italy, Austria, and the United Kingdom, the former bourgeois dynasties or founding heads of companies were replaced by technocrats and engineers from business or from the administrative and political elites. In the countries affected by fascism, Nazism, and collaboration, some important business leaders with links to the fallen regimes were brought to trial, and some of them were subjected to heavy sanctions: in Germany, Alfried Krupp, the executives of IG Farben, and the financier Friedrich Flick; in France, Louis Renault, Marius Berliet, and so forth.

This antibourgeois and anticapitalist climate was fairly short-lived, however: by 1947–1950 American influence via the Cold War and the Marshall Plan, the return to power of markedly more conservative political coalitions, and the rise of consumerism after years of shortages restored to the foreground a new, American-inspired social model that reached its apogee in the 1960s: the society of mass consumption and free enterprise. Since it coincided with a break in social and sexual mores from patterns inherited from the nineteenth century, many observers have interpreted this juncture as the birth of a new society based on credit instead of savings; a constant rise in the standard of living; the obliteration of the old classes in favor of a vast middle class bounded by a small group of the very wealthy and a small margin of the poor; and the emancipation of women, who were gaining access to new bourgeois professions. In this view, the old bourgeoisie, committed to accruing wealth and to frugality, thus gave way to new groups, mainly salaried workers, oriented toward consumption and short-term enjoyment of their growing incomes, gaining access to high-level positions in big businesses whose individual owners were no longer identifiable due to the dilution of the pool of shareholders. At the same time, mass access to and the standardization of higher education in most European countries beginning in the 1960s seemingly obliterated another of the old bourgeoisie's privileges of cultural standing and opened high-level public- and private-sector jobs to the middle classes.

Of course, the prosperity of the period of full employment did not eliminate wage inequalities (although it tended to reduce them), nor did it eliminate all forms of frustration among workers (as attested to by major labor strikes in the 1960s and 1970s in France, Italy, and England) or in other categories (for example, the student movements that mainly emerged from the middle classes, or the recurring discontent of farmers and small merchants in the face of state intervention). But the new welfare states, increasingly generous thanks to prosperity or because of social pressures, and low unemployment created the illusion that the once very large inequalities between the bourgeoisie and other groups would eventually disappear for good, especially in the countries of northern Europe, which implemented the strongest measures of wealth redistribution and the heaviest tax rates.

In the dominant discourse of the time, merit and competence were the only acknowledged justifications for status, power, or income: a bourgeoisie composed of owners and business executives was succeeded by a group of career managers, selected from within big businesses, or technocrats from the administration or nationalized businesses, depending on how large a role the state played in a given economy (Germany and England vs. France and Italy). At the same time, development of the service sector and urbanization multiplied the number of high-level, qualified, and well-paying jobs seen as the guarantee of social promotion for the middle classes or of the possibility of starting new small and midsize businesses without a large amount of capital.

This optimistic and modernist sociology was very quickly challenged by more critical analyses from the end of the 1960s. They emphasized the persistence of older phenomena and indeed a renaissance of new groups that were more similar to the old forms of the bourgeoisie than to more recent ones. Even in those countries most affected by state control, like France, England, and Italy, some old industrial and financial dynasties were able to survive the upheavals or to redirect their wealth into dynamic new sectors. Out of the one hundred largest Italian businesses from 1950 to 1970, almost half remained under family control. Members of the de Wendel family, after the collapse and subsequent nationalization of the major steel-producing groups in France, pooled their indemnities to establish a holding company that invested in several different sectors. Its main representative, Ernest-Antoine Seillière, even became president of the most important French employers' association in 1997.

At the same time, consumer society encouraged the rise of new sectors and new family firms that grew very large and even expanded internationally: for example, the supermarket chain Carrefour, founded by the Defforey and Fournier families at the end of the 1950s, or clothing businesses in central and northeastern Italy, such as the Benetton firm, founded in the 1960s by four brothers and a sister. In Germany in the 1970s, despite the reconstitution of some giant businesses, small and midsize family-type businesses still employed more than 70 percent of salaried workers. Even if consideration is limited to the largest businesses, family control, which recalls the bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, endured to a significant degree: 17 percent of the one hundred largest companies in Germany, 46 percent of the largest businesses in the Netherlands, 33 percent of the one hundred largest Swiss companies, and, in France, 50 percent of the two hundred largest companies during the 1970s were family-controlled.

Moreover, the opening of higher education to new, more modest social strata did not erase more subtle class hierarchies between academic tracks (law, commercial studies, engineering training, or medicine vs. letters, sciences, or short vocational-technical courses) where more of the heirs of bourgeois families tended to be concentrated. Such tracks ensured income and markedly more remunerative careers after graduation. In some countries, private schooling, more expensive and socially or culturally elitist, shielded boys and girls from bourgeois families, beginning in adolescence, from the mixed social milieu of standard secondary education (for example, the public schools in England, posh private and/or Catholic schools in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain). Studies of the elites show that virtually everywhere, one-third of their members come from the upper classes (old bourgeoisie), more than one-third from the middle classes (recent bourgeoisie), and less than one-third from more modest backgrounds.


The seeds of new, subtler inequalities and these early signs of a new breed of "bourgeois conquerors" were further confirmed and accentuated during the 1980s and 1990s. Because of the lasting high rates of unemployment that took hold in most European countries after the two "oil crises," with the opening up of economic exchanges (via European unification and free-trade agreements), and the collapse of some old sectors (textiles, steel, shipbuilding, and mining), power relations between wage-earners and management, between salaried executives and shareholders, and between nationalized states and multinational corporations, were inverted. Neoliberal ideology, inspired by Friedrich von Hayek (1899–1992), and the monetarism of the Chicago School, which saw the stagflation of the 1970s as an illustration of their theories on the harmful influence of the state's economic role and of Keynesian policies, gradually gained ascendancy in public discourse. They inspired some governments—in the United Kingdom (the Margaret Thatcher government from 1979), the United States (the administration of Ronald Reagan), and then, increasingly, in continental Europe, with the return of majorities of the right or the influence of the European Commission's directives on free trade: in the Netherlands, Italy, during certain periods in France (1986–1988, 1993–1997), Germany (the Helmut Kohl government from 1982), Spain (the JoséMaría Aznar government), and even the countries of central Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.

This discourse and politics marked a striking return to the values, behaviors, and discourses of the liberal bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century: glorification of enterprise, risk, bosses, and the laws of the market; stigmatization of the weak and those on public assistance; rehabilitation of profit and wealth as signs of social success and renewed emphasis on the efficiency and value of managers. Privatizations, the suppression of state monopolies, cuts in income taxes and taxes on businesses, access to property (housing, secondary residences, financial stocks) for the majority of the middle and upper classes, and the opening of borders were supposed to re-create a market freed from previous constraints and foster a new, enterprise-based bourgeoisie, freed from state control, that employed "flexible" salaried workers as in the nineteenth century.

Socially, this new trend was expressed in the emergence of new, very quickly made fortunes in finance, computers, new technologies, mass distribution, and the media; in increasing inequalities in income, first in the United Kingdom and then on the Continent; in the return of shareholders' interests to the foreground (often, British and U.S. pension funds required very high returns on the capital); and in the loss of prestige associated with political power and the national state. The collusion of this new, financial or industrial bourgeoisie with the highest levels of administration or politics was nonetheless increasingly visible, in the form of lobbies to the European Commission, the co-opting of former high-level state employees onto boards of directors, and appropriation of the mainstream media. To illustrate the latter, one may cite the paradigmatic case of Silvio Berlusconi, in Italy, who built his fortune in real estate and then the media before rising to the height of political power, or that of the Bouygues family in France, which, thanks in part to political backing from the highest levels of government, moved from public works into the media and telecommunications. Increasingly, the careers of the bourgeois elites combined public and private sectors, politics and business, following a norm similar to that of the United States.

The historian of contemporary society, however, must be wary of the illusion of perpetual newness produced by the partial images promulgated by newspapers and the media that influence his view of the most recent period, as well as the illusions created by studies in the social sciences, which always lag behind the current reality because there is no real way to investigate these circles that preserve or have the means to create a manipulated public image of themselves. The most general statistics make it possible to document, although with variations depending on the date of the implementation of neoliberal policies, increases in income gaps and, especially, inheritances over the last twenty years: the phenomenon is more pronounced in the United Kingdom than in the Scandinavian countries, with France, Italy, and Germany in an intermediate position but becoming more similar to the English pattern at the end of the 1990s. Moreover, the figures probably significantly underestimate the realities because it has become increasingly difficult to monitor such statistics with the liberalization and internationalization of financial flows and the proliferation of tax havens.

Measuring the proportion of heirs or monied newcomers (or parvenus) in the contemporary bourgeoisie is also very difficult since, by definition, the process is always ongoing and everything depends on the definitions adopted of the groups under consideration. The list of the largest fortunes that many European papers have taken to publishing, following the American model, give an exaggerated impression of instability and renewal of the topmost levels of the grand bourgeoisie. When one broadens the scale of analysis, the dazzling successes of some (which may not last more than one generation, or even less, as demonstrated by the resounding fall of men and women presented as models of success a short time earlier) are found in the midst of a far greater number of less visible, but more enduring, family or dynastic fortunes. Like the bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, which appropriated the status symbols of the old aristocracy, the new grand bourgeoisie of the end of the twentieth century, despite the modernist discourse surrounding it, adopted strategies of distinction and conspicuous consumption quite similar to those of its predecessors from the "leisure class": opulent country houses, hunting, yachts, racing stables, charitable or artistic foundations, luxurious vacations away from the crowds of the ordinary middle classes, rapid and costly means of transportation (private jets and helicopters in the place of the luxury train or top-of-the-line automobile of 1900). Similarly, the desire to pass wealth on to heirs and to provide them with a private and/or elite education, often in an international setting, is a mark of continuity with the old bourgeoisie.

Of course, there are cultural nuances, depending on the country, sector of activity, the oldness of the family, public lifestyle, and religious tradition. The grand bourgeoisie in early-twenty-first-century Germany is markedly less visible and ostentatious than the parvenus and new money in Italy, the United Kingdom, or France, where the influence of the aristocratic model is apparent in marriages and lifestyles. In centralized countries, the concentration of the different types of high-profile elites and bourgeoisies in the capital cities facilitates social mixing and exchanges and media coverage, and thus promotes visibility of the rich and nouveaux riches. The influence of the American model also comes into play to varying degrees, depending on how old the autochthonous bourgeois culture is.

A final problem remains: beyond this highest strata of the bourgeoisie, whose similarities to the grand bourgeoisie of the beginning of the twentieth century (with the addition of internationalization and the increasingly active role of women) outweigh differences between them, is the term bourgeoisie still valid to encompass the middle classes with elevated income, educational levels, or jobs, whose importance in the working population obviously has no equivalent in earlier periods because of changes in the structure of jobs and businesses and because of mass access to standardized higher education? Contrary to simplistic theories on middle-class societies, the most recent research shows persistent national characteristics within intermediate groups and increasing internal differentiation within them according to type of capital (economic, cultural, social, or symbolic) or job status (salaried employee, independent contractor, or member of the liberal professions). These differences are also linked to the history of social representations and the social classifications of each country, and to divides across these groups, depending on whether individuals are more closely linked to the state or to the private sector; on whether their current position depends more on their personal trajectory (and their academic or professional success) or on economic and social family heritage; on their religious or political affiliation; or sex or national origin. In phases marked by prosperity and the success of neoliberal policies, the upper middle classes have supported such policies because they seemed to promise increased wealth for all (via stock purchases, individualized benefits packages offered by employers) or new, well-paid jobs in the emerging sectors of the "new economy," services, and finance. However, as soon as a recession or the bursting of a speculative bubble, bankruptcies, or embezzlement exposed the social limits of the advantages to be derived from them or cast doubts on the abilities of managers, these categories learned through experience what separated them from the ruling groups. The latter retained real power over the capital, which produced very high returns and sheltered them, in contrast to the ordinary middle classes, from the risks of unemployment because, thanks to stock options or departure bonuses, they could quickly amass a fortune to be passed down to their heirs. For the majority of high-level salaried employees, membership in privileged circles was only partial and only valid during their own lifetime; it guaranteed neither the perpetuity of their status nor the family's future, owing to the intensity of each new generation's race for qualifications and the opening up of international competition for jobs.

From this point of view, neoliberalism reinstated in the representations of the upper socioeconomic groups the same incentives and anxieties that had characterized them before World War I: on the one hand, the idea that opportunities are available to all and that the current bourgeois groups remain open, as demonstrated by the highly publicized successes of entrepreneurs, executives, high-level state employees, stars, and so forth, who "started from nothing"; on the other hand, these ascents, even to very high levels, remain precarious without family or political networks, as indicated by some sensational cases in which captains of industry who yesterday were heaped with praise find themselves financially ruined or charged with wrongdoing. At the same time, because of increased life expectancies, both in the upper middle classes and the grand bourgeoisie of inherited wealth, this return of the "bourgeois conquerors" as a societal ideal goes hand in hand with the development of a sort of new ideal of hedonism and living off private income that rivals that of the Belle Epoque. Insofar as the main stockholders of very large companies are often pension funds that require very large returns on their capital, the new capitalism at the start of the twenty-first century has the paradoxical aim of ensuring a certain standard of living or comfortable retirement for a growing fraction not only of holders of revenues from capital, but above all, individuals entitled to full retirement, drawn mainly from the upper middle classes, who are members of these funds. Indirectly, then, pressure from the oldest, most financially secure generations is exerted on ordinary wage-earners and young workers, who are hard hit by the new, increasingly rigid management rules for the businesses (social or fiscal "dumping," flexibility, the intensification of work, globalization, etc.) whose performance provides livelihood, via pension funds, for the growing ranks of those living off interest income.

See alsoAristocracy; Capitalism; Consumption; Economic Miracle; Working Class.


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Christophe Charle


views updated May 14 2018


economic modernization
middle-class professionals
education and the bourgeoisie
bourgeois wives and families
bourgeois culture
bourgeois consumers
politics and the bourgeoisie

In 1800 the traditional division of society into "orders" or "estates" was rapidly giving way to concepts of class. The bourgeoisie straddled this change. The term bourgeoisie, no longer used to describe part of an order, became interchangeable with middle classes to embrace all economically secure groups between the nobility and urban and rural workers. Writers also divided the "bourgeoisie" or "middle classes" into upper, middle, and lower segments. The language of class described socioeconomic status, political convictions and hostilities, and educational and cultural attitudes, including the self-conscious awareness of belonging to a particular strata in society. The term soon became one of abuse in the nineteenth century, much used by socialist critics such as Karl Marx (1818–1883).

By the early nineteenth century the bourgeoisie was expanding both in scope and scale. It included professionals, notably lawyers, doctors, and engineers; civil servants; and landowners; as well as businessmen, bankers, and industrialists. The size and growth of the bourgeoisie, never recorded with any precision, depended on the extent of economic modernization, the development of the professions, and above all the bureaucratization of the state. By the end of the century the category had become much broader, embracing nearly all non-manual workers, including clerks in local government and in large manufacturing units.

In 1800, France—the richest, most industrialized, most centralized country—probably had the largest bourgeoisie in continental Europe. About one million of the twenty-nine million counted as well-off bourgeois, while another nine million who belonged to artisan and shopkeeper families, would be thought of as lower middle class. By 1900, 50 percent of the population of Paris would have considered itself bourgeois, if office workers are included with all the other groups.

Because Italy was slow to industrialize, the entrepreneurial bourgeoisie there remained tiny and was limited to northern cities such as Milan, where in 1838 the manufacturing and commercial elite of the city numbered in excess of 1,000, plus dominant professionals, including 500 engineers and 170 lawyers. Russia had a small and fragmented bourgeoisie, partly due to the survival of serfdom until 1861, the slowness of industrialization, and the dominance of foreign money in capitalist development. Around 1800 roughly 2 percent of Russians were judged to be middle class, by 1900, 10 percent.

The French Revolution of 1789 helped define the bourgeoisie as a social and political class, particularly the abolition of the privileges of clergy and nobility (the First and Second Estates) on the night of 4 August 1789 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen later that month. The traditional professional, official, and landowning bourgeoisie gained most from the Revolution in land and politics and in the state bureaucracy. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792–1814/15) ensured that similar social changes occurred in the huge amounts of Europe that France conquered. As in France, the bourgeoisie bought confiscated church land and acquired jobs in the state bureaucracy.

economic modernization

Economic modernization also increased both the size and political power of the bourgeoisie. In Russia the extravagant lifestyle of the nobility and their decreasing willingness to engage in trade and industry led to the rapid decline of some families. Long before the emancipation of the 1860s, ambitious serfs began to gain their freedom and establish themselves in the cotton industry, banking, and trade. Families such as the Morozovs, transformed from serf ribbon sellers into a commercial and industrial bourgeoisie, dominated the government of St. Petersburg and Moscow in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Elsewhere the high profile of cotton and railway kings encouraged the view that a capitalist bourgeoisie was taking power. In Britain, publicists like Samuel Smiles (1812–1904) eagerly created the idea that entrepreneurial growth liberated society from old bonds, offering new opportunities for the "self-made" man. In the mid-eighteenth century the brewer, Whitbread, bought big estates and a seat in Parliament. In 1830 and 1831 successively, two bankers, Jacques Laffitte and Casimir-Pierre Périer, were (briefly) chief ministers in France. Marx assumed that their elevation showed that the 1830 Revolution had replaced the nobility with a financial aristocracy, but entrepreneurs were never dominant in politics.

Economic "modernization" did not produce the social and political change some commentators feared and others welcomed. The revolutionaries in France in the 1790s raged first about "aristos," then about the bourgeoisie. Heads of families, many of them noble, who emigrated during the Revolution lost some land, but the proportion of noble-owned land fell by only 5 percent to 20 percent. The nobility was still the richest group in France well into the second half of the nineteenth century. The revolutionaries abolished nobility in the 1790s, but Napoleon created new titles, and in 1814 a hereditary Chamber of Peers shared legislative power with an elected Chamber. From 1831 no new hereditary titles were created in France, but families continued to luxuriate in the social snobbery of the plethora that survived, and to invent new ones. Both before and after 1789 French nobles and bourgeois shared political and economic power. In Prussia nobles retained control of the top jobs in the state and army throughout the century, alongside some newer bourgeois families whose fortunes had been made in banking, trade, and industry. In Russia tsars continued to appoint nobles as provincial governors, senior bureaucrats, and army officers. In addition, much of the investment for railway construction and rapid industrial growth in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century came from French, British, and German banks and did not stimulate the growth of the native middle class. Thus in 1914 the Russian middle class was tiny, fragmented, and in no position to claim a substantial role in government.

In Britain the power and wealth of the aristocracy actually increased in the nineteenth century. Land was the basis of their wealth, then there were the considerable rewards of patronage; government office; and industrial, business, and other financial investments. Although the middle class grew in size and influence, Britain was supremely dominated by aristocratic, rather than bourgeois entrepreneurial groups, to an extent unmatched elsewhere in Europe.

middle-class professionals

Elsewhere it was the landed and professional middle classes, already established in state service, whose numbers and influence increased most rapidly in the century. The real bourgeois revolution was not so much a consequence of industrialization, as of the increase in the power of the state and the consequent vast growth in the number of official appointments at all levels from menial to managerial. This growth was achieved at a cost. In the eighteenth century those who ran the judiciary in France, Prussia, and elsewhere had a degree of autonomy. Faced with defeat by successful French armies in the 1800s, European rulers accelerated their efforts to centralize and modernize the apparatus of the state, bringing previously semiautonomous professional bodies under their control.

Professionals responded by asserting that they were a service elite imbued with social duty and honor. The size and character of existing professions altered, and new jobs jostled for recognition as professions. The need for definition became acute as traditional fee-earning professionals were joined by salaried sectors, the first being the expanding army of bureaucrats. They led the way by defining a new professional ideal in which public esteem rather than independence was the prime feature.

The professions began to demand specific educational prerequisites for acolytes and standardized training under their corporate control. A profession became an increasingly closed corporation, limiting membership to protect "standards," but also to defend the income of existing members and to ensure that access to the professions was restricted to the wealthy. In France in the 1860s, 80 percent of law students were upper middle class. It was common for sons to follow fathers as lawyers or doctors.

Ironically, protecting their professions allowed states' power to increase. The newly required certificates of secondary education were taught and examined in state-run institutions. In Prussia, degree courses were officially validated, and no one could practice as a lawyer without a state appointment. In the early nineteenth century changes in the Prussian legal system made it the norm that after ten to twelve years of expensive legal training, a man had to spend nearly as long again working unpaid within the courts before he could hope to secure an official post. Even then his prospects for promotion were less than they had been a generation earlier. In France although lawyers could practice without an official post, they complained that the rationalization, standardization, and centralization involved in creating a single legal system for France in the 1790s reduced their autonomy.

Leading professionals remained critics of the state in the years up to 1848, and not entirely for selfish reasons. In Prussia and other German states members of the judiciary were prominent in demands for written constitutions on the model of the French constitution of 1814. Such individuals took the lead in the 1848 revolution. But partly because they were alarmed at the scale of popular unrest their protest engendered, lawyers

were subsequently mostly transformed into faithful and obedient servants of autocracy. Their reward was employment; job opportunities in the German bureaucracy increased and from the early 1880s the growth was astronomical as lawyers were allowed to practice privately.

Bourgeois doctors had key roles in movements for social reform and in the 1848 republic in France. Their politicization was ethical and altruistic. A generation of European doctors was appalled at the social effects of industrial and urban change. In England in 1830 Dr. James Phillips Kay (later Kay-Shuttleworth) drew attention to the plight of women and children cotton operatives. In France Drs. Louis-René Villermé and Eugène Buret wrote influential commentaries, the first detailing conditions among workers, especially women and children, in all of the textile industries, the second comparing their circumstances in England and France. Villermé, although sympathetic to capitalism, drew up the first French legislation restricting child labor. Republican socialist doctors like Ange Guépin in Nantes and Tissot Raspail in Paris set up free clinics to help the poor. However, doctors were drawn into an expanding state bureaucracy, vaccinating children against smallpox, taking part in state health insurance schemes, and so on.

education and the bourgeoisie

Education was crucial to the growth, definition, and development of middle-class groups. The huge expansion of education during the century was the product of middle-class initiative and was mainly for their benefit. Secondary and tertiary education were formalized by the introduction of state-administered secondary leaving certificates as well as certificates for specialized tertiary colleges. Revolutionary France led the way. Much criticized church-run secondary establishments were replaced by lycées providing a secular, state education. In 1808 the baccalaureate, or secondary leaving examination, was introduced. The failings of existing universities were compensated for by the creation of high-level colleges for aspiring state engineers, civil servants, and army officers. Other states imitated the French example.

Such secondary and tertiary education was strictly limited to the elite by cost and content: high fees and obligatory Latin. There were some scholarships to the Napoleonic lycées in France, but they were available mainly to sons of officials and army officers. Secondary school-leaving certificates, such as the new baccalaureate in France and the abitur in Germany, were rarely completed by pupils from poorer families. They became prerequisites for professional training and access to higher education.

Secondary education was enjoyed by a tiny bourgeois minority. In France roughly 60 percent of candidates, constituting 0.5 percent of the age cohort, successfully passed the baccalaureate. From 1812 secondary education in the German states consisted of annual examinations that had to be repeated if the student failed, culminating in the abitur. In 1820, one thousand boys passed the abitur. By 1830 this number had doubled, but was to fall subsequently due to a panic that there was a glut of qualified men, who were likely to be disaffected. Only in 1860 did the figure rise again to two thousand. In Germany in 1870 only 0.8 percent of nineteen-year-olds had the abitur; in 1911, 1.2 percent. As in France and elsewhere, many pupils left without the abitur, or attended other schools teaching the far less prestigious modern-scientific abitur.

The secondary syllabus, whether in a British public school, a French lycée, or a gymnasium in Germany, Italy, or Russia, was almost 50 percent Latin and Greek. In a Prussian gymnasium typically 46 percent of the time was spent on Latin and Greek, 17.5 percent on math, physics, and philosophy, and 4 percent was devoted to French. Until well into the second half of the nineteenth century only the classical secondary schools were allowed to prepare pupils for the leaving certificate. Middle-class families often preferred classical secondary education that would have no direct career significance, even when more modern scientific and technical alternatives emerged later in the century. There was a common assumption that unmitigated scientific learning bred socially discontented citizens, even revolutionaries. Classical learning conferred status. In some countries, Russia for instance, it gave automatic exemption from military service and a position in the Table of Ranks, the elite system developed by Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century that led, through state service, to noble rank. In 1879 German civil engineers objected when graduates of nonclassical secondary schools qualified for their branch of state service, not because the engineers needed Latin, but because they claimed the classics built character and added status. The upper layers of the middle class tried to use education to define themselves and create an impermeable barrier to social advance from below.

Education was a tool manipulated by the middle classes to control others. Primary schools trained the lower-middle class and urban and rural workers to accept their station in life. Pupils could not transfer from a primary to a secondary school. Primary schooling provided basic learning in the preferred national language and taught obedience to the state. Technical schools provided the chance to "advance" to foreman status; teacher-training colleges allowed sons and daughters of the lower classes to become primary-school teachers. Education was defined by gender as well as class. Until almost the end of the century girls were confined to primary education, often delivered by nuns.

bourgeois wives and families

The family was honored as the basic social unit. Monogamous, lifelong marriage was the norm. Families were essentially patriarchal. In France the authority of the father was enhanced by the Civil Code (1804). A wife lost control over the dowry she brought to a marriage; if she worked, her income was paid to her husband; she could not hold a bank account without her husband's consent; her husband could dictate where she lived. In 1816 the law permitting divorce, in place since 1792, was abolished and not restored until 1884.

A wife had less status than her children, and even by the end of the century reforms were modest. French inheritance laws were more favorable than elsewhere, sharing property among all surviving offspring, regardless of sex. In reality wealthy bourgeois families, like the aristocracy, practiced male primogeniture. Middle-class women only had a chance of independence if they were widowed. However the wife was the queen bee, managing home and servants and developing social contacts, vital to reinforce the social standing and marriageability of the family. Women were often idealized as the spiritual and moral force within the family. The Roman Catholic cult of the Virgin Mary served to intensify this notion, vital because women were the main churchgoers. Women organized religious charities and creèches (day nurseries), giving them a busy public existence. In the artisan economy, when workshops adjoined the home, wives helped run the business. As larger units, department stores, and factories developed, pressures of scale introduced professional managers, excluding wives, and sometimes husbands, from the day-to-day running of the business.

Bourgeois sexual morality was gender and class specific. An active sex drive, exercised with servants or prostitutes long before marriage, was held to be an essential feature of masculinity. Unmarried bourgeois women were supposed to be uninterested in sex. The French Civil Code imposed penal sanctions on an adulterous wife, but tolerated her spouse's mistresses. The poor were reckoned to be without morality, although whether prostitutes were supposed to be driven solely by financial need, or were thought to have sexual appetites because they were nearer to the animal kingdom, was never clear.

bourgeois culture

Culture was another area where the middle classes imposed their values. Art galleries, museums, theaters, concert halls, and libraries were built by governments, local authorities, and sometimes by private associations of wealthy citizens. The first public art gallery was opened in Vienna in 1781, in Paris the Louvre opened in 1793. The National Gallery in London was launched in 1823, when the Austrians repaid their war loan. Soon municipal pride demanded that every substantial town have its own gallery/museum. Such "rational recreation" was the preserve of the bourgeoisie; the poor were excluded, either by price or by a variety of strategies. The British Museum, which opened in 1759, demanded a letter requesting admission.

Royal and noble private collectors of art were joined by the most wealthy bourgeois, who bought at annual salons, or by direct commission. Industrialists and businessmen in northern England amassed impressive collections of art. A prosperous dry-salter in Manchester, William Hardman, owned paintings by Titian, Canaletto, Veronese, Ruisdael, Rembrandt, Wilson, Wright, and Fuseli. A family of Manchester cotton manufacturers, the Ashtons, owned a collection that included Constable, Turner, Collins, Holman Hunt, Egg, and Leighton. Thomas Holloway, a manufacturer of patent medicines not only collected Constable, Turner, Holman Hunt, and other fashionable artists but also endowed a women's college that became part of the University of London, as well as a sanatorium. Similar examples can be cited throughout Europe. In Moscow a small number of former serfs who had become millionaires amassed art collections. The present outstanding collection of impressionist art in the Tretyakov Gallery is the result of such enterprise. Savva Morozov helped to found the Moscow Art Theater.

The middle classes busied themselves running academies and literary societies such as the Literary and Philosophical Society (Manchester, 1781; Leeds, 1819). Mechanics' Institutes and Schools of Design were popular. They organized art exhibitions and concerts. In Manchester there were Gentlemen's Concerts, and Hermann Leo, a calico printer, intitiated Charles Hallé's long-lasting orchestral association with the city in 1848. In Leeds the musical association organized recitals in members' homes.

Middle-class observers poured scorn on the preferred leisure activities of workers—music halls, prizefights, and public hangings. Middle-class pressure groups made the second and third of these illegal in Britain in 1868, and music halls were subject to constant criticism because they combined food and entertainment with, worst of all, strong drink. In Britain bourgeois temperance and Sunday Observance societies bustled around to ensure that the working classes did not enjoy their very limited leisure. During the nineteenth century municipalities and private charities run by the middle classes began to try to "civilize" working people by creating public reading rooms and libraries and providing housing, hospitals, and clinics.


For those with money, leisure was a way of life. Until the improvement of roads and especially the construction of railways that made even distant places easily accessible, the European bourgeois family would spend the summer in spa towns such as Bath. Town centers were developed with luxury housing and public gardens where the wealthy could "promenade" safely for hours, discussing marriages (and more informal liaisons) and maybe business. Elegant and commodious assembly rooms were built with space to show off fashionable clothes, to see, and even more important, to be seen. Leisure activities, theater companies, exhibitions, and even waxworks adapted by touring to capture this temporarily static captive market. Madame Tussaud, who brought her collection of wax royals and revolutionary deaths' heads from Paris in 1802 spent the next thirty-three years touring Britain and Ireland with a fleet of touring caravans displaying the Tussaud's logo in gold letters. As soon as there was a dip in profits in Brighton she would move on with her growing collection of coronation displays and executed villains.

The railway revolutionized leisure and entertainment. It put Brighton a mere two hours from London. Although the cost was still substantial—in 1862 the price of a ticket was only one-third less than a coach ticket in 1820—far more people made the trip. On Easter Monday 1862, 132,000 people took the Brighton train. The "season" was dead. The middle classes went to Brighton for a day, indeed it became so crowded that the very rich abandoned the place. Theater companies and others began to travel far less. The railway meant that customers rather than the entertainment did the traveling. At first most of this traveling was limited to the comfortably off, although special excursion trains allowed workers to go on day trips to the sea. Third-class carriages were not introduced until the 1870s.

As travel became less a mark of prosperity, the rich began to tour farther. Queen Victoria set the trend when she decamped from the royal pavilion in Brighton, but she set her sights modestly on the Isle of Wight. Others mimicked the aristocratic "grand tour" of earlier times by venturing abroad. Normandy became popular with the British, but the Mediterranean was soon more chic. The tourist population of Nice rose from 575 in the winter of 1815 to 5,000 by 1861. There were fifty hotels in the city, twenty more than in 1847.

The concept that leisure should be built into the working life of the less wealthy middle classes developed. Annual seaside holidays within Britain became the norm. Thomas Cook led the way. The first Cook excursions were to the Great Exhibition of 1851. Also, government legislation gradually limited the working day. In Britain a ten-hour working day for women and children became the law in 1847, France followed for workers in mechanized factories in 1848, and for women in 1904. Some firms introduced half-day work for Saturdays. In 1870 a Bank Holiday Act was passed in Britain, and paid holidays were gradually introduced. Gradually, leisure ceased to be the preserve of the bourgeoisie.

bourgeois consumers

In recent years historians have suggested that the bourgeoisie were united less as a producing than as a consuming class. With increasing prosperity bourgeois women became the spearhead of a consumer society. The epicenter was the department store that provided for, or invented, all domestic needs. For the first time one store could provide clothes, shoes, hats, and underwear for the entire family, plus bedding, towels, furniture, jewelry, cosmetics, and even food. The first department stores opened in the 1860s. In Paris, the capital of culture at the time, the most famous, the Bon Marché was the first,

opened by Aristide Boucicaut and his wife in 1869. It served as Émile Zola's model for Au Bonheur des Dames (1883), in which he tried "to create the poetry of modern activity."

Department stores revolutionized mere shopping, creating a new culture of consumption. The main customers were bourgeois ladies, attracted by the safety, respectability, comfort, cleanliness, and elegance of the buildings, which were well lit and fitted. Stores stressed that ladies could visit their stores knowing that nothing would jar their feminine sensibility and moral uprightness. The department store was a freely available public space, but the female customers were reassured that it was a home-away-from-home that they could visit alone, unlike a theater or concert hall, where it was assumed ladies would have a male escort.

The stores did far more than satisfy the needs of their customers, they also taught them what they ought to buy. In the later years of the century the catalogs of these "palaces of purchasing" shaped the standards of the middle-class home. They taught those who aspired to be more middle class the ground rules of the game. The stores and their catalogs cultivated a fantasy of culture, decorating the departments to turn them into an enchanting fairy-land of design, color, and light. The shopper was invited to move from her own mundane domestic existence to a dream world of exciting drapery, mirrors, entrancing perfumes, and endlessly courteous staff. Department stores presented themselves as the peak of modernity. Technical advances facilitated this process, whether it was plate-glass windows to replace earlier tiny panes of glass, or gas and later electric lighting. This was still luxury consumption for a small elite, but with the appealing illusion of democratic availability.

politics and the bourgeoisie

The middle classes organized themselves into, and excluded the poor from, a vast range of associations, from cultural and sporting to political. The most successful associations from which workers and also women were excluded were representative assemblies. The liberal bourgeoisie tried to manage their rulers and contain the potential subversive poor by asserting the principle of the sovereignty of the nation in elections. The French revolutionaries experimented unsuccessfully with representative institutions in the 1790s but soon acquired a dictatorial emperor instead. After the Napoleonic Wars, British radicals demanded reform of the House of Commons, and the French argued over voting rights within a constitution modeled to some degree on that of Britain. Campaigns for suffrage reform were mainly the initiative of middle-class reformers. In Britain the Chartist movement of the 1830s and 1840s, backed by some members of the lower-middle classes, artisans, and better-off factory workers, pressed for a democratic electorate as did societies like the mainly middle-class Friends of the People in France. The French enfranchised all adult males after the 1848 revolution, and in 1867 all male householders got the vote in Britain. Elected assemblies at all levels, municipal to national, gradually became the norm in all countries. Until 1919 none rivaled the French by enfranchising all adult males. Few worried that the 50 percent of adults who happened to be female had no vote.

The extension of the right to vote tended to perpetuate traditional elites. In Britain the Reform Act of 1832 had no impact on the composition of Parliament. In 1840, 80 percent of members still represented the landed interest and the proportion of bourgeois entrepreneurs—97 members out of 658, or about 14 percent—was the same as at the end of the eighteenth century. Perhaps this was unsurprising, given the limited nature of the legislation. However, the same was true in France, even after the introduction of universal male suffrage in 1848. In 1861 the new united Italy adopted a 40-lira tax qualification for voters, which produced an electorate comparable to that of France before 1848. The Italian ruling elite was not only wealthy, it was also almost exclusively northern. Universal male suffrage had to wait until 1919. Frederick William IV of Prussia (r. 1840–1861) established in 1849 a graded suffrage for the elected Landtag, which allowed the richest 18 percent of taxpayers to elect two-thirds of the new legislative assembly he created. This system was retained for the assemblies of some of the individual states after unification. The Reichstag, the representative assembly for the whole German Empire created in 1871, was elected by all adult males, but it exercised little power. When elected local councils, zemstvos, were set up in Russia in the 1860s and an imperial parliament or Duma after the 1905 revolution, an even narrower hierarchical voting system was inaugurated. Elected assemblies only began to make a role for themselves in Russia during World War I. Unsurprisingly, in an age of unpaid MPs, assemblies tended to be staffed by, as well as represent the interests of, wealthy bourgeois elites. However, by 1914 the socialists were the largest single group in both the German Reichstag and the French assembly, and a growing, though a very divided, number in Italy. In the German Reichstag a majority of both socialist voters and a substantial number of assembly members were workers, a situation aided by a modest salary from the Social Democratic Party (SPD), thirty years before Reichstag members were paid by the state. However in excess of half of the SPD members in the Reichstag (122 out of 215) were journalists. In France and Italy the proportion of lower-middle-class voters was much higher, and the assembly members were predominantly middle class, with leaders often from the legal profession.

Throughout the century middle-class groups were concerned that radicals and socialists would exploit the very evident social and economic inequalities that increased as a result of modern industrialization. Marx preached inevitable bourgeois, then proletarian revolution as the ultimate consequence of capitalist development. However although the century was punctuated with revolutions in 1830, 1848, and in 1871 in Paris, tensions were defused by social insurance schemes, private and state-run, by the legalization of trade unions, and by the provision of state-organized education. The development of parliamentary institutions created the illusion of consultation and democratic control, and the promotion of nationalist and imperialistic sentiments stimulated the illusion of all social groups sharing common goals. The Socialist International's demand for international proletarian solidarity in 1914 went unheard.

The gap between rich and poor widened. This was most visible at the top. In Britain in 1803 the top 2 percent owned 20 percent of the wealth of the country; by 1867 they owned 40 percent. Wealth had always corresponded closely to power. The elites of the nineteenth century institutionalized the equation by demanding tax qualifications for voters, while pretending to eliminate privilege. Hierarchically structured education systems, professions, and assemblies of all sorts plus improved policing, military control, and the monitoring and managing of public opinion allowed a narrow section of society to dominate. One should take care, however, not to assume that this was a "bourgeois" century. In most states aristocratic families maintained their economic, social, and political control.

To what extent did shared attitudes to education and social values give the bourgeoisie common political ideas? Liberalism is often spoken of as the creed of the middle classes. In reality, although many members of the middle classes may have favored somewhat elitist, rather than democratic, political systems, the middle classes ranged among all political formations and attitudes, from right wing to socialists, from nationalist to internationalist, and from laissez-faire to more protectionist economic ideas.

This dissection of "the bourgeoisie" has revealed the diversity and huge range of occupations, income, and attitudes within the bourgeoisie. Middle-class groups came nearest to unity in ideas on education, on the family, on the role of women, and on culture. They were farthest apart on politics. If bourgeois liberalism had been a reality instead of a myth and a convenient shorthand, the liberals in the Prussian Landtag would have united to secure liberal constitutional as well as economic objectives in return for their concurrence with the chancellor Otto von Bismarck's cynical manipulation of nationalist sentiments; the constitutional monarchy would have triumphed over fascism in Italy; and the Russian Revolution would have been avoided. Class did not correspond to political interest and identity.

See alsoAristocracy; Capitalism; Cities and Towns; Class and Social Relations; Education; Housing; Marriage and Family; Peasants; Professions; Working Class.


Blackbourn, David, and Richard J. Evans, eds. The German Bourgeoisie: Essays on the Social History of the German Middle Class from the Late Eighteenth Century to the Early Twentieth Century. London, 1991.

Crossick, Geoffrey, and Heinz-Gerhard Haupt, eds. Shopkeepers and Master-Artisans in Nineteenth-Century Europe. London and New York, 1984.

Davis, John A. Italy in the Nineteenth Century, 1796–1900. Oxford, U.K., 2000.

Evans, Eric J. The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain, 1783–1870. London, 1983.

Harrison, Carol E. The Bourgeois Citizen in Nineteenth-Century France: Gender, Sociability, and the Uses of Emulation. Oxford, U.K., 1999.

Marsden, Gordon, ed. Victorian Values: Personalities and Perspectives in Nineteenth-Century Society. New York, 1990.

Maza, Sarah. The Myth of the French Bourgeoisie : An Essay on the Social Imaginary, 1750–1850. Cambridge, Mass., 2003.

Miller, Michael. The Bon Marché: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store, 1869–1920. London, 1981.

Pilbeam, Pamela. The Middle Classes in Europe, 1789–1914: France, Germany, Italy, and Russia. Basingstoke, U.K., 1990.

——. "From Orders to Classes: European Society in the Nineteenth Century." In The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern Europe, edited by T. C. W. Blanning. Oxford, U.K., 1996.

——. Madame Tussaud and the History of Waxworks. London, 2003.

Raeff, Marc. Understanding Imperial Russia: State and Society in the Ancien Regime. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. New York, 1984.

Rieber, Alfred J. Merchants and Entrepreneurs in Imperial Russia. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1982.

Schwartz, Vanessa. Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris. Berkeley, Calif., 1998.

Wahrman, Dror. Imagining the Middle Class: The Political Representation of Class in Britain, c.1780–1840. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.

Williams, Rosalind H. Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth-Century France. Berkeley, Calif., 1982.

Pamela Pilbeam


views updated May 14 2018



In classical Marxian theory, bourgeoisie refers to the ruling class of capitalist society. Superseding the feudal aristocracy, its origins have been traced to a relatively early stage in capitalist development, when it was defined by ownership of the means of production. Since the 1800s the functions of management and ownership have become separated, however. As this has occurred, the explanatory value of the term bourgeoisie has become attenuated, particularly in discussions of advanced or late capitalism in the era of finance.

In French, bourgeoisie originally referred to the society of free men in towns, implying a citizen subject to civil law. The German political philosopher Karl Marx (18181882) and his collaborator, the German socialist Friedrich (also spelled Frederick) Engels (18201895), understood the bourgeoisie to have emerged from the class of chartered burghers in medieval towns, and in their works they trace the development of this class through several stages, from relative oppression under the feudal nobility, to militarized self-governing associations, to independent republics and taxable estates. They also linked the rise of this class to the simplification of class antagonism into a fundamentally binary opposition between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Marx never described the actual composition of the bourgeoisie as completely as he described the proletariat, and often the term appears to be interchangeable with capitalist.

The factors facilitating the rise of the bourgeoisie were both economic and geopolitical, and these two were related. In Marxs analysis, the drive to accumulation inherent in capitalism must be understood in terms of two kinds of capital, including constant capital (the value of the means of production) and variable capital (the value of labor power). Any expansion in total capital requires a growth in variable capital, which is generally achieved through the enhancement of technological means enabling the increased productivity of labor. A contradiction lies at the heart of this relation, however, for the variable portion of the capital grows more slowly than does the constant portion. This is overcome, says Marx, by increasing the scale of production; the larger the enterprise, the more capacity for accumulation it will have.

The process is, nonetheless, not linear. To begin with, the drive to accumulation generates competition among different capitalists. The result is a complex dialectic between accumulation and concentration, as well as centralization. In this environment, large-scale capital is not only advantaged in relation to smaller capital, because it can control more labor, but it grows at the expense of smaller capital. Such centralization is made possible by the credit system. Moreover, as the economist Rudolf Hilferding has argued, it is the merging of banking and industrial capital that permits and actualizes this centralizating dynamicthough not without countervailing pressures.

Through the credit system, the idle money that accumulates in the course of production is gathered together and made available for investment in production. Time is of the essence here, for the period during which money is not invested in production is, from the perspective of capital, lost. What the banks do, then, is permit enterprises to keep their own money in production, while still being able to draw on it for enhancement or expansion when opportunity arises. When assisted by banking institutions, the corporations no longer have to keep their money in reserve for such opportunities. There is, then, a phantomatic extension of the corporation through credit.

At the same time, other institutions, such as the stock market, permit the creation of joint-stock companies in which collectivities rather than individuals come to function as owners. This special institution, as Hilferding termed it, provides a market for titles to interest, or fictitious capital (1981, pp. 107180). Money is transformed into productive capital through the stock market because the shareholders only expect a return on the yield of the company, and their sale of title does not lead to a withdrawal of money from the corporations productive machinery.

In this sense, the shareholder is not an owner of the means of production. He is, rather, representative of a new kind of capitalist, a money capitalist, defined by Hilferding as one liberated from the status of industrial entrepreneur. Like the manager, his actions serve the interests of the company and hence of corporate capital, but only in an extremely mediated fashion. Accordingly, many thinkers, most notably Nicos Poulantzas, argue for a reconceptualization of the bourgeoisie as a class defined not by ownership of the means of production but by the function of economic control. Others have disputed this and have preferred to see managers as special kinds of wage laborers.

With the rise of the stock market, and speculation more generally, the creation of value appears to become increasingly separated from the question of production. Initially, this market sought to attract large-scale capital, accumulated by members of a relatively conventional bourgeoisie. Other institutions, such as mutual funds, have extended this process however and, consequently, helped to disseminate the capitalist ideal even among those who are merely wage laborers. They represent a profound cultural transformation and may perhaps help explain the subversion of class consciousness in social milieus defined by financialization. Nonetheless, it is important to understand that industrial capital continues to play a crucial rule even in financialized contexts, and the vast majority of the worlds labor remains engaged within it, even though a disproportionate amount of value is produced in and by financial capital.

The forces that would ultimately lead to the political and social transformation of capitalism were, Hilferding thought, internal to capitalism itself. Other, liberal theorists agreed, though for different reasons. Adolf Berle, for example, saw the concentration and centralization of capital in the huge corporations of the United States in the mid-twentieth century as a direct product of joint stock organization. But while relying upon state regulation, which, for example, provides tax incentives for philanthropic giving, Berle argued that the new corporations themselves assumed a quasi-political role. He argued further that the greatest incentive to corporate growth and rationalization is the threat of competition from state enterprises. Corporate investment in local infrastructural development and education as well as international diplomacy carried out by corporate representatives constitutes, for Berle, the hallmark of a specifically American form of corporatist capitalism whose defining attribute is its antipathy to statism.

Berles conception of what might be termed, in an idiom coined by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, corporate governmentality may be contrasted to Marxs original conception of the relationship between bourgeois political and economic form. Marx had argued that the bourgeoisie assumed economic predominance partly through its development of a political form capable of representing its interests, namely bourgeois democracy. Although a national entity, the bourgeois democratic state was nonetheless made possible only by the reordering of local economies in colonial territoriesto produce markets for European goods and to permit the extraction of natural resources for processing in metropolitan centers or, later, to serve as export processing zones. Hilferding went so far as to argue that the inhibiting influences of cartelization and protectionism within European states could only be overcome by outward expansion, and hence that the development of European capital led inevitably to imperialism, a thesis shared in different ways by both the Russian Communist thinkers Nikolay Bukharin (18881938) and Vladimir Lenin (18701924).

Toward the end of the twentieth century, economic theorists began to observe a rupture in the relationship between nation-states and corporate capital, and a super-session of the bourgeois nation-state by regional trade bodies and economic consortia (such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, the European Union, and the G8) that, while backed by the governmental authority of nation-states, attempt to ensure that domestic protectionism, which might have been deployed by national capital, does not inhibit the expansion of capital, per se. As Hilferding anticipated, financial institutions have assumed an increasingly dominant role in such contexts, and access to credit has become a significant index of economic power for both corporations and individual persons. The development of a sphere of value-creation relatively unmoored from production, through currency trading, real estate speculation, and derivatives trading, suggests that the old bourgeoisie has not only been liberated from the function of industrial entrepreneur but that the money capitalist has become the new bearer of capitals own self-interest.

SEE ALSO Capitalism; European Union; G8 Countries; Globalization, Social and Economic Aspects of; Marx, Karl; Marxism; North American Free Trade Agreement; Poulantzas, Nicos


Berle, Adolf. 1932. The Modern Corporation and Private Property. New York: Commerce Clearing House.

Berle, Adolf. 1954. The Twentieth-Century Capitalist Revolution. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Hilferding, Rudolf. 1981. Finance Capital: A Study of the Latest Phase of Capitalist Development. Trans. Morris Watnick and Sam Gordon. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Mandel, Ernest. 1978. Late Capitalism. Trans. Joris de Bres. New York: Verso.

Marx, Karl. 1978. The Class Struggles in France, 18481850. In Karl Marx, Frederick Engels: Collected Works, Vol. 10, 45145. New York: International Publishers. (Orig. pub. 1850).

Marx, Karl. 1992. Capital. Vols. 1 and 3. Ed. and intro. C. J. Arthur. London: Lawrence and Wishart. (Orig. pub. 1867, 1885, 1894).

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. 1998. The Communist Manifesto. New York: Verso. (Orig. pub. 1848).

Poulantzas, Nicos. 1978. Classes in Contemporary Capitalism. Trans. David Fernbach. New York: Verso.

Rosalind C. Morris


views updated May 23 2018

bourgeoisie Originally a sixteenth-century French term referring to the body of urban freemen, which gradually became interchangeable with the term capitalist class, especially amongst Marxists. Current usage refers to the owners of the means of production in capitalist societies—although, because of the decomposition of capital, the term now has doctrinaire connotations and appears slightly dated.

Among non-Marxists, the applicability of the term in more advanced capitalist countries has been regularly questioned, especially since the 1930s. For example, Adolf A. Berle and Gardiner C. Means (The Modern Corporation and Private Property, 1932) argued that because of the separation between ownership and control which became apparent in larger American corporations during the 1930s, economic power was beginning to pass from the owner-entrepreneurs (capitalists) to the managers. Similar and again highly influential arguments appeared in the 1950s (see, for example, Daniel Bell's article on the decline of family capitalism which is reprinted in his The End of Ideology, 1960), and again in the 1960s, when in his book The New Industrial State (1967) John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term ‘technostructure’ to refer to the institutional rather than personal nature of power in modern economies. According to Galbraith, the rise of the modern corporation has replaced the entrepreneur, as an identifiable individual and as a directing force in the enterprise, by a collective ‘guiding intelligence’ embracing all those functionaries located between the levels of senior management and junior staff (the technocracy), who contribute to group decision-making for and on behalf of the organization which they form.

More recently, this change in analytical focus has gained still greater momentum with the development of the subdiscipline of business history, and in particular the appearance of Alfred D. Chandler's studies of organizational change in large American companies (see, for example, his The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business, 1977
). The summation of this whole line of argument probably came with the publication of Bell's The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), with its claim that the new centrality of knowledge in the production process had changed not only the distribution of economic power, but also its very nature.

Concerning the issue of ownership more specifically, scholars (and of course some politicians) have claimed that the ever-wider dispersion of shares and the accompanying increase in the proportion of shares owned by pension funds and other financial intermediaries, have both transformed and made more democratic the structure of ownership in advanced capitalist societies (see, for example, P. F. Drucker 's The Unseen Revolution, 1976

The response of Marxists, and those that agree with them on this issue, has been twofold. On the one hand, it has been argued that empirical studies demonstrate that the powers of individual owners have not declined much, and certainly not as radically as has been claimed. On the contrary, according to these researchers, the more widespread share ownership only means that it is now often possible to have a very significant impact on the manner in which the still very considerable powers of boards of directors are exercised (for example with regard to investment decisions), whilst owning only a single-figure percentage of the shares. Moreover, as has been argued more recently by those interested in ownership networks, because of the power that comes with the ownership of relatively small parcels of shares, and especially if these shares are in large, market-dominating companies, it is possible that their owners may come to exercise power far beyond the confines of their base company, either through that company's holdings, or as owners on their own account. (See, for example, the article by B. Mintz and and M. Schwartz in S. Zukin and and P. DiMaggio ( eds.) , Structures of Capital, 1990
, or J. Scott's Who Rules Britain?, 1990.)

The second thrust of the Marxist response to arguments about ownership and control has been more theoretical, and comprises a claim that the issue of personal versus institutional ownership only presents problems because of a residual humanism in much Marxist thinking, a tendency which requires one to give theoretical priority to the identification of the concrete bearers of property relations (that is, specific individuals), rather than (following Marx's sixth thesis on Feuerbach) to the identification of the social relations of possession, control, and title that constitute these bearers themselves. If the latter are given theoretical priority, then because the bearers so constituted may be either humans or institutions one may talk of the existence of something called a capitalist class, if not necessarily of a clearly defined body of people recognizable as a bourgeoisie, regardless of the concrete nature of, or relations between, its bearers (see, for example, A. Woodiwiss , Social Theory after Postmodernism, 1990


views updated May 18 2018


All Renaissance societies were hierarchical, with some groups or classes having higher status than others. The bourgeoisie was the class of burghers, the respectable master craftsworkers, shopkeepers, and merchants who formed the backbone of urban society. Laws determined who had burgher status. However, unofficial social standards set aside certain members of the bourgeoisie as an urban elite*—a small group that controlled a great deal of wealth and political influence.

The law gave burghers certain political and social privileges. For example, only they could become full members of guilds*. Some towns gave legal protection to their burghers when they traveled to other areas. If one of them became involved in a dispute, the town would stand for him or her in court. Burghers also took part in cultural events in their cities, such as processions and plays. In the 1520s, Amsterdam opened an orphanage specifically for the children of burghers. Burghers supplied the manpower for urban militias*, and some took positions in government.

Despite these privileges, only a few burghers enjoyed high social status. These were often members of old and respected families. Other factors linked to high status were wealth, public office, and professional positions (especially in the field of law). The urban elites guarded their position by choosing their members carefully. In some places, such as Venice, laws gave members of certain families the right to participate in government, keeping outsiders from joining the elite. Central and northern Italy and part of southern Germany adopted similar standards in the 1500s. "Golden books" listed the names of all male members of elite families, not including illegitimate* children. However, in some German towns, outsiders successfully challenged the dominance of old families.

Economic change sometimes affected social status. In England, some trading families rose to the elite as they built wealth. However, a loss of wealth did not necessarily mean a loss of status. When the economies of Spain and Italy slowed in the early 1600s, elite families' fortunes shrank, but their social position stayed the same.

Members of the elite struggled to distance themselves from those of lower social ranking. They lived in certain areas within each city and married only within their own social group. Sumptuary laws, which specified what clothing people of different classes could wear, attempted to stop the lower classes from imitating the dress of the elites. Other laws limited the size of celebrations among the lower classes. However, members of the elite were often willing to use their social status to help their "inferiors." They took lower-status children as godchildren, acted as guardians of widows and orphans, and sponsored people who applied for burgher status. Such actions helped them earn the support of the lower classes, a useful political asset.

The elites often imitated the lifestyles of the aristocracy*. They might spend money on luxuries, adopt coats of arms*, or use formal titles when addressing each other. In Italy and Spain nobles settled in towns and joined the local elite. In England and other places, members of the nobility and the elite intermarried. However, the elite remained separate from the aristocracy. Nobles suspected elites of social climbing, and elites did not always trust the nobles completely. Elites had strong loyalties to their towns, many of which had histories of clashes with nobles.

(See alsoAristocracy; Cities and Urban Life; Clothing; Guilds; Luxury; Social Status. )

* elite

privileged group; upper class

* guild

association of craft and trade owners and workers that set standards for and represented the interests of its members

* militia

army of citizens who may be called into action in times of emergency

* illegitimate

refers to a child born outside of marriage

* aristocracy

privileged upper classes of society; nobles or the nobility

* coat of arms

set of symbols used to represent a noble family

Léon Bourgeois

views updated May 23 2018

Léon Bourgeois

The French statesman Léon Bourgeois (1851-1925) was one of the earliest proponents of the League of Nations and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920.

Léon Bourgeois was born on May 29, 1851, in Paris. He studied law in Paris and entered the civil service in 1876. By 1887 he was prefect of police for the department of the Seine.

Bourgeois's political career began in 1888, when he represented the Marne Department in the Chamber of Deputies. He established a reputation as one of the young leaders of the Radicals in the Chamber. From 1888 to 1895 he urged a number of social and economic reforms and established an independent position that was not identified with the old Radical program. He served as a Cabinet minister in several governments before 1895.

Because of his emphasis on a specific and comprehensive program of reform as constituting the very essence of radicalism, Bourgeois gained support from the left and organized a government. On Nov. 1, 1895, he became premier. As a result of opposition in the conservative Senate against any plan of social reform, a constitutional struggle developed over the Senate's right to veto budgetary supply, and Bourgeois was forced to resign on April 21, 1896.

The program of Bourgeois's government centered on reforms specifically directed toward the underprivileged: a progressive income tax, the extension of pension plans and of social security, and insurance programs. Bourgeois and his program were not socialist, though this accusation was leveled against him many times. His government was unable to achieve any of its specific goals, but it did encourage the cause of reform and was the first government to be supported by the Socialists.

Bourgeois served as head of the French delegations to the First and Second Hague Conferences in 1899 and 1907, where, according to a colleague, he "expressed commonplace thoughts in a mellow voice." He was elected to the Senate in 1905. In 1916 and 1917 he was for a time minister of labor in Aristide Briand's wartime Cabinet. Bourgeois was president of the Senate from 1920 to 1923.

Bourgeois had been one of the original proponents of a league of nations. When the Paris Peace Conference took up the question in 1919, the French government designated him as the representative to the special committee whose task was the drafting of the Covenant of the League of Nations. When the League was in operation, he became the chief representative for France and served in both the Council and Assembly.

In 1923 Bourgeois gave up his position in the League because of illness. He died at his country estate near Épernay on Sept. 25, 1925.

Further Reading

Guy Chapman, The Third Republic of France (1962), includes a scholarly evaluation of Bourgeois's political influence as well as some biographical information. See also Edward Mead Earle, ed., Modern France: Problems of the Third and Fourth Republic (1951). H. Schück and others, Nobel: The Man and His Prizes (1950; 2d ed. 1962), and Mortimer Lipsky, Quest for Peace: The Story of the Nobel Award (1966), discuss Bourgeois's work for peace. □


views updated May 18 2018

bourgeoisie (middle class) Term originally applied to artisans and craftsmen who lived in medieval French towns. Up to the late 18th century it was a propertied but relatively unprivileged class, often of urban merchants and tradesmen, who helped speed the decline of the feudal system. The 19th-century advent of capitalism led to the expansion of the bourgeoisie and its division into the high (industrialists and financiers) and petty (tradesmen, clerical workers) bourgeoisie.


views updated May 14 2018


bourgeois collectively or as a class, the French middle class, 1707; also extended to other nationalities.

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