Petite bourgeoisie

Petite bourgeoisie (French pronunciation: [pətit buʁʒwazi]), also petty bourgeoisie (literally small bourgeoisie), is a French term (sometimes derogatory) referring to a social class comprising semi-autonomous peasantry and small-scale merchants whose politico-economic ideological stance in times of socioeconomic stability is determined by reflecting that of a haute (high) bourgeoisie, with which the petite bourgeoisie seeks to identify itself, and whose bourgeois morality it strives to imitate.[1]

The term is politico-economic, and references historical materialism. It originally denoted a sub-stratum of the middle classes in the 18th and early-19th centuries. In the mid-19th century, the pre-eminient theorist of socio-politico-economy, Karl Marx, and other Marxist theorists used the term petite bourgeoisie to identify the socio-economic stratum of the bourgeoisie that comprised small-scale capitalists such as shop-keepers and workers who manage the production, distribution, and/or exchange of commodities and/or services owned by their bourgeois employers.[2][3]


The petite bourgeoisie is economically distinct from the proletariat and the lumpenproletariat social-class strata who rely entirely on the sale of their labor-power for survival; and also are distinct from the capitalist class haute bourgeoisie (high bourgeoisie) who own the means of production, and thus can buy the labor-power of the proletariat and lumpenproletariat to work the means of production. Though the petite bourgeoisie can buy the labor of others, they typically work alongside their employees, unlike the haute bourgeoisie.

Role in fascism

Historically, Karl Marx predicted that the petite bourgeoisie were to lose in the course of economic development. In the event, R. J. B. Bosworth suggested that they were to become the political mainstay of Fascism, which political reaction was their terroristic response to the inevitable loss of power (economic, political, social) to the haute bourgeoisie.[4] Wilhelm Reich also highlighted the principal support of the rise of fascism in Germany given by the petite bourgeoisie and middle-class in The Mass Psychology of Fascism. He claimed that the middle classes were a hotbed for political reaction due to their reliance on the patriarchal family (small businesses, according to Reich, are often self-exploiting enterprises of families headed by the father, whose morality binds the family together in their somewhat precarious economic position), and the sexual repression that underlies it.[5]

Literary treatment of the petite bourgeoisie

Søren Kierkegaard wrote that "the petty bourgeois is spiritless[...] Devoid of imagination, as the petty bourgeois always is, he lives within a certain orbit of trivial experiences as to how things come about, what is possible, what usually happens, no matter whether he is a tapster or a prime minister. This is the way the petty bourgeois has lost himself and God."[6] According to him, the petite bourgeoisie exemplifies a spiritual emptiness that is rooted in an overemphasis on the worldly, rather than the inwardness of the self. However, Kierkegaard's indictment relies less on a class analysis of the petite bourgeoisie than on the perception of a worldview which was common in his middle-class milieu.

In fact, though there have been many depictions of the petite bourgeoisie in literature as well as in cartoons, based on an image of their overly conventional practicality, the realities of the petite bourgeoisie throughout the 19th century were more complex.[7] All the same, writers have been concerned with petite bourgeois morality and behavior, and have portrayed them as undesirable characters. Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People was a play written in direct response to the reception of another one of his plays for making "indecent" references to syphilis, and in general his work was considered scandalous in its disregard for the morality of the period. Later, Bertolt Brecht's concern with Nazism and his Marxist politics (see above) got him interested in exploring the petite bourgeois mind, and this interest led him to represent the petite bourgeoisie repeatedly throughout his work (one was even titled The Seven Deadly Sins of the Petite Bourgeoisie).[8]

In his book Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play [9] James C. Scott dedicates an entire chapter to describing some features of the petite bourgeoisie. First he points out the 'contempt' of this class by Marxists due to the ambiguity of their political position. He further points out that this position of 'contempt' or 'distaste' encompasses both the socialist bloc and large capitalist democracies due to the difficulty of monitoring, taxing, and policing of this class which results from complexity, variety, and mobility of activities taken on by this class. He points out the petite bourgeoisie has existed for most of civilized history and that even those who are not part of the class have to some degree desired to become small property owners due to the conferred autonomy and social standing. He continues that the desire to keep, restore land has been the leitmotif of most radically egalitarian mass movements. He argues that the petite bourgeoisie have an indispensable economic role in terms of invention and innovation, citing as an example software startups that develop ideas which are then usually bought by larger firms. He also points out that small shopkeepers provide several "unpaid" social services such as:

... informal social work, public safety, the aesthetic pleasures of an animated and interesting streetscape, a large variety of social experiences and personalized services, acquaintance networks, informal neighborhood news and gossip, a building block of social solidarity and public action, and (in the case of the smallholding peasantry) good steward-ship of the land

See also


  1. Habermas [1968] Technology and Science as Ideology quotation:
    ... Their socialization seems to have been achieved in subcultures freed from immediate economic compulsion, in which the traditions of bourgeois morality and their petit-bourgeois derivatives have lost their function.
  2. Encyclopaedia of Marxism - Glossary. Retrieved 6 March 2013.
  3. Communist Manifesto - Chapter 1 Retrieved 6 March 2013.
  4. R. J. B. Bosworth, Mussolini's Italy, p. 134 ISBN 1-59420-078-5
  5. The Mass Psychology of Fascism
  6. The Sickness Unto Death, Penguin Books, 1989, pg. 71
  7. The Petite Bourgeoisie in Europe, 1780-1914: Enterprise, Family and Independence, Geoffrey Crossic and Heinz Gerhardt-Haupt, Routledge, 1995.
  8. "'The Little House in Louisiana': The Role of the Petite Bourgeoisie in Brecht's Concept of Nazism", Brecht Unbound, Associated University Presses.
  9. Scott, James C. (2012). Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press. pp. 110–126. ISBN 978-0-691-15529-6.

Further reading

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