First, let’s get a handle on two terms: bourgeoisie and proletariat. Bourgeoisie comes from the French word for those who live behind walls; those who dwell in bourgs, fortified market towns. For example, in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), a book-length allegory of the Christian spiritual journey, there is a bourg—a market town—called Vanity Fair. Bunyan depicts Vanity Fair as a place where unnecessary and vain things are bought and sold, and where the pious are in danger of losing their spiritual focus–and therefore souls.
Christian suspicion and ambivalence concerning the moral value of the capitalist-oriented bourg carries into the ideas of the German philosopher and founder of Communism, Karl Marx (1818-1883). In Marxist terms, the market town-dwelling bourgeoisie represent the greedy ruling class, which is divided into: (1) the financiers and fabulously rich owners of the means of production (the haute bourgeoisie); and (2) the managers of that production—as well as the small business owners, the white-collar professionals, and those who are bureaucratic functionaries for the government (the petite bourgeoisie).
The class contrasted with the bourgeoisie is the proletariat, a word derived from the Latin proles (“children”), which was also used by ancient Roman census-takers to designate the individual—a proletarius—who had no property save his or her children. Thus, in Marxist terms, members of the proletariat have little by way of possessions beyond their children and nothing to sell but their labor. This class too is divided, consisting of: (1) urban and rural physical laborers, including the foot-soldiers who die in wars; and (2) those that are incarcerated or unemployed—the so-called “lumpenproletariat.”
For Marx, the members of the bourgeoisie maintain their control over the means of production in society, not because its members are intellectually superior to their unpropertied counterparts (the proletariat), nor because nature has otherwise endowed them for rule, but because the social-cultural system—the way it’s set-up economically and ideologically—favors them. There’s nothing natural, God-ordained, or permanent about the bourgeois arrangement of things. In actuality, there’s always an ongoing struggle for power between the economic classes of human beings, and this struggle goes on in ways that are both open and hidden. As Marx puts it in his “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” written in London in 1847 when he was 39 years old: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Marx summarizes the history of class struggles this way:
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
And this class struggle continues. According to Marx, the most recent historic round of it was won by the bourgeoisie (the commerce-oriented town-dwellers), vanquishing the structures of feudal society. We are now, according to Marx, in a bourgeois-dominated era:
The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. . . . From the serfs of the Middle Ages sprang the chartered burghers of the earliest towns. From these burgesses [citizens] the first elements of the bourgeoisie were developed.
They have a saying in Brazilian politics: “The flies change, but the shit is the same.” This is also Marx’s view. Beneath the appearance of things in any given era, keep your eye on the class struggle (the struggle for who is to control the means of economic production in society). But this struggle is not eternal; history has a direction and is coming to a head: “Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms: Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.”
Marx believes the decisive factor in history, in its broadest terms, is discovered in the “material conditions of existence” (that is, in economics), and that he has discovered the driving force of history: the class struggle. He further believes that he has identified how that struggle must play out: with the victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie. Marx, therefore, is a historical and economic determinist: “All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interests of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.”
In other words, Marx believes that he has identified the inherent instability in all previous economic arrangements (whether feudal lord in relation to surf or bourgeoisie in relation to proletariat): a minority has always ruled the majority. But, as a bucket of sloshing water must find its most natural level, so history must find its level in the masses of human beings, the rule of the majority (the proletariat). And Marx sees proletarian rule as immanent (near in coming), and it will constitute the final stage of economic history. Why? Because the bourgeois order is so obviously unstable; that is, its chief production is mass misery:
[P]aupersim develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society. . . . What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.
How, then, has the bourgeoisie maintained its control over the means and management of production for as long as it has historically if its chief production is “its own grave-diggers” (alienated, unpropertied men and women)? And how does it continue to do so? Marx sees a dozen key factors at work (all quotes are, again, from his “Manifesto”):
- The discovery of new market opportunities for Europeans going West and East. (“The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie.”)
- The industrial revolution. (“[T]he markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising. Even manufacture no longer sufficed. Thereupon, steam and machinery revolutionized industrial production.”)
- The communications revolution. (“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the barbarian, nations into civilization.”)
- Urbanization and education. (“The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.”)
- Colonialism. (“Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.”)
- Control of political parties. (“[T]he bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world-market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”)
- The monetization of all relations under the banner of free trade. (“[The bourgeoisie] has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade.”)
- Appropriation. (“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with revernt awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-labourers.”)
- Liquidation. (“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”)
- Cosmopolitanism. (“The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. . . . The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed.”)
- The creation of a globalist ideology. (“The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.”)
For Marx, this state of things simply cannot go on forever. Something has to give. “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism,” he writes in the first sentence of his “Manifesto,” and “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution” is found in his last paragraph. Like the first century Christians presuming the soon return of Jesus, Marx believes that the proletarian revolution must surely be coming to ripeness “in the womb of time” (to quote Shakespeare’s Iago in Othello). How surprised Marx would be to see the 21st century, and the resilience of the bourgeoisie.
- Tucker, Robert C. (editor). The Marx-Engels Reader (Norton, 2nd edition, 1978). The “Manifesto of the Communist Party” begins on pg. 473 of that edition.
- Claeys, Gregory and Lyman Tower Sargent (editors). The Utopia Reader (New York University Press, 1999).