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Bourgeois is a French word originally meaning a freeman of a burgh (town). The word evolved to mean merchants and traders, then to all persons in the broad socioeconomic spectrum between nobility and serfs. In Marxism and its derivative economic theories, bourgeoisie means the wealthy classes in a capitalist society.
In the early medieval age as cities were forming and growing, artisians and tradesmen begin to emerge as an economic force. They formed guilds and companies to conduct business and promote their own interests. These people became the bourgeoisie. In the late Middle Ages, they combined with elements of the nobility in uprooting feudalism and thence became the ruling class. In the 17th and 18th century, they supported the American revolution and French revolution in uprooting nobility.
Concepts such as personal liberties, religious and civil rights, and the freedom to live and trade all derive from bourgeois philosophies.
But the bourgeoisie were never without their detractors. Narrowmindedness, materialism, hypocrisy, opposition to change, and lack of culture were a few of the negative characteristics attributed to them by Moliere and others. The word took on negative connotations still attached to it today.
In Karl Marx's class struggle theories, bourgeoisie is defined as the class in a commodity-producing capitalist society which owns the means of production; the term is effectively the same as "capitalists." However, Marx himself distinguished between "functioning capitalists" actually managing enterprises, and "mere coupon-clippers" earning property rents or interest-income. Marxism sees the proletariat (wage laborers) and bourgeoisie as directly waging a ongoing competition in which Marx says capitalists exploit workers and workers try to resist exploitation.
In the rhetoric of several Communist parties, "bourgeois" becomes an insult; those who are perceived to collaborate with the bourgeoisie are often called its lackeys, but Marx himself primarily used the term "bourgeois" as an objective description of a social class and of a lifestyle, not as a pejorative. He admired its industriousness but excoriated it for moral hypocrisy.
Still, the use of the word by Marx's followers reinforced the word's prior negative connotations and has forever made it an insult.
References related to Marxism and its derivatives
- Hal Draper, Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, Vol. 2: The Politics of Social Classes. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979.
- Ralph Miliband, Class and class power in contemporary capitalism, in: Stanislaw Kozyr-Kowalski and Jacek Tittenbrun, On Social Differentiation. A Contribution to the Critique of Marxist Ideology, Part 2. Poznan: Adam Mickiewicz University Press, 1992, pp. 7-62.
- Ernest Mandel, Social differentiation in capitalist and postcapitalist societies, in: Stanislaw Kozyr-Kowalski and Jacek Tittenbrun, On Social Differentiation. A Contribution to the Critique of Marxist Ideology, Part 2. Poznan: Adam Mickiewicz University Press, 1992, pp. 63-91.
- Erik Olin Wright et al., The Debate on Classes. London: Verso, 1989.
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