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Bourgeoisie, originally, the free residents of European towns during the Middle Ages. The bourgeoisie later became synonymous with the middle class.


The term was first applied to those inhabitants of medieval towns in France who occupied a position somewhere between the peasants and the landowning nobility; soon it was extended to the middle class of other nations. These people were usually merch ants, tradespeople, and artisans and later bankers and entrepreneurs. With the development of medieval cities as centers of commerce, the bourgeoisie began to emerge as an important socio-economic class. Frequently they banded together into corporati ons or guilds to protect their mutual interests from the more powerful landed gentry.

The end of the Middle Ages saw the rise of the nation-states of western Europe, with power concentrated in the hands of ruling monarchs. The bourgeoisie generally supported the throne in its struggle against the feudal order, thereby increasing their own influence in the emerging nations. As the feudal society was transformed into the early capitalist society of Europe, the bourgeoisie were the spearhead of progress in industry and science and of social change.

By the 17th century, this middle class was supporting principles of natural rights and constitutional government against the theories of divine right and privilege of the sovereign and the nobility. Thus, members of the bourgeoisie led the English re volution of the 17th century and the American and French revolutions of the late 18th century. These revolutions helped to establish political rights and personal liberty for all free men.

The Bourgeoisie and Marxist Theory

The burgeoning Industrial Revolution of the 19th century brought about some of the most significant changes in economic history—the development of mechanical power and the factory system and the subsequent growth of urban centers. By then the bourgeo is class had expanded greatly. Distinct differences arose between the original bourgeoisie the capitalists—and the growing numbers of petty bourgeoisie the shopkeepers and technical and clerical workers. The capitalists tended to be the owners and ma nagers of industries and to associate themselves with the upper classes.

At this time Karl Marx developed his theory of the class struggle. Marx considered the bourgeoisie capitalist class—that is, the employers—a reactionary force that maintains a position of supremacy by holding back the advancement of the proletariat o r working class. He predicted that the proletariat would one day rise up to replace the bourgeoisie as the dominant economic class by taking over the means of production (see Communism).

Modern Times

Today the term bourgeoisie is rarely used except by economic historians. It is generally interchangeable with the term middle class. In modern society this group is composed of professionals, white-collar workers, farmers, and the like, all far remov ed from the capitalist class of Marxist theory.