petite bourgeoisie

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petite bourgeoisie

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Petite Bourgeoisie


the class of petty urban and rural proprietors who live exclusively or primarily by their own labor. Under capitalism, the petite bourgeoisie lies between the two main classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The petite bourgeoisie is not homogeneous in its property status. Its upper strata are close to the bourgeoisie, but the living conditions of its lower strata are sometimes materially worse than those of many skilled workers in large enterprises. No matter how bad his material condition, the petit bourgeois is distinguished from the worker by his private ownership of the means of production. Although what is owned may be of negligible proportions, including perhaps only the place of work and tools, in all cases it constitutes the basis of production and the main source of liveli-hood of the petit bourgeois. The class affiliation of the petit bourgeois is determined by his role in the capitalist market not as the seller of his own labor power but as the seller of the goods and services he has produced.

When a petty proprietor makes the transition to the status of a proletarian, work for wages becomes his main source of livelihood. If, however, the petty proprietor becomes a capitalist, his own labor becomes a secondary source of income, and the appropriated, unpaid labor of another person, the primary source. The vast majority of agricultural producers—small and middle peasants and farmers—belong to the rural petite bourgeoisie. Artisans, small tradesmen, and owners of small-scale urban enterprises make up the urban petite bourgeoisie.

The petite bourgeoisie originated and developed with the emergence and development of commodity production. Even under the slaveholding system, when commodity relations were very poorly developed, there were free farmers and artisans who produced products for sale as well as for their own consumption. Under feudalism, the great majority of the peasants were serfs, and farming had an essentially subsistence or semisubsistence character. At the same time, however, there were small independent producers who sold some of the agricultural goods they produced on the market in order to obtain the goods they needed. The independent artisans of the free towns produced almost entirely for the market.

As feudal relations were eliminated, commodity production developed, and the small producers of the towns and the countryside assumed a dominant position among the gainfully employed population. With the development of capitalism, the petite bourgeoisie remained a very important part of the gainfully employed population, but its economic role gradually decreased as small-scale production gave way to large-scale production, as a consequence of the growing concentration and centralization of production and capital.

The petite bourgeoisie represents the small-scale commodity sector of the economy. Its role in the agriculture of the developed capitalist countries is rapidly declining. The technological revolution in the agricultural production of these countries after World War II (1939–45) accelerated the concentration of production and capital in the hands of large-scale agricultural entrepreneurs and contributed to the rapid penetration of agricultural production by monopoly capital and the strengthening of the monopolies’ control over this sector of the economy. The increasing concentration of production has been accompanied by redoubled competition, which has ruined hundreds of thousands of small and middle peasants and farmers. For example, in France the number of farms with areas of less than 1 hectare (ha) decreased by 37.6 percent between 1955 and 1963; the number of farms of 1–2 ha, by 37.7 percent; the number of farms of 2–5 ha, by 27.9 percent; the number of farms of 5–10 ha, by 23.6 percent; and the number of farms of 10–20 ha, by 9.6 percent. In the USA the number of small and middle-sized farms decreased by 2.5 million between 1950 and 1970.

The displacement of small-scale production in the cities is evident from the systematic decline in the proportion of goods produced by small-scale enterprises and from the decrease in the number of owners of such enterprises. In 1956 there were 748,-000 handicraft enterprises in the Federal Republic of Germany; in 1968 there were 627,000. This represents a decline of 16 percent. However, despite the enormous concentration of production and capital and despite shifts in the economic structure of capitalist society, small-scale production continues to exist both in agriculture and in other branches of the economy, including industry, construction, transportation, trade, and the service industries.

In the developed capitalist countries, the overwhelming majority of small-scale enterprises are concentrated in retail trade and the service industries. Small-scale enterprises are financially and commercially dependent on large firms and retain only illusory independence.

This situation in small-scale enterprises is the consequence of the existence under capitalism of a relative overpopulation in the city and in the countryside—that is, people who find some source of income in the possession of their own enterprise, no matter how small. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, thousands of small businessmen went bankrupt in all the developed capitalist countries, but thousands of others opened new small-scale enterprises. Because it is subject to continuous social-class differentiation, the contemporary petite bourgeoisie is the most unstable group in the population of the capitalist countries. The economic conditions of its way of life leave an imprint on the psychology and ideology of the members of the petite bourgeoisie. In connection with this, Marx wrote: ’The petit bourgeois … is made up of ’on the one hand’ and ’on the other hand.’ He is thus in his economic interests, and therefore also in his politics and in his religious, scientific, and artistic views. He is thus in ethics, he is thus in everything. He is the embodiment of contradiction” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol, 16, p. 31).

The petit bourgeois is simultaneously a proprietor and a toiler. As a toiler, he sympathizes with the working class, and in many respects he is in solidarity with it in the struggle for a better life. This engenders in the petite bourgeoisie support for democracy, the aspiration for justice and equality, and hostility toward large-scale capital and the monopolies. As a property owner, however, the petit bourgeois envies the status and wealth of the bourgeois and strives to realize his dreams of breaking into the privileged minority. Thus, property ownership leads to the petite bourgeoisie’s characteristic conservatism, its spirit of philistinism, its individualism, and its fear of communism, which is believed to encroach on small-scale ownership. Because the petit bourgeois is a petty proprietor, he has to be highly resourceful and opportunistic. The petty character of his operations and his limited contacts with the outside world narrow his horizons. Of all the social classes, the petite bourgeoisie is the most devoted to outmoded customs and traditions and is inclined toward all kinds of nationalistic tendencies. Generally, the petite bourgeoisie seeks to evade acute class conflicts insofar as it is possible to avoid involvement in politics. As a result, during a period of major sociopolitical conflicts, the petite bourgeoisie, by attempting to maintain a “middle line” in politics, in fact unwittingly and inevitably vacillates between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat (Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 32, p. 344).

Because of its political narrowness, the petite bourgeoisie easily yields to the demagoguery of the most reactionary circles of the bourgeoisie. Thus, in its efforts to win over the mass of petty proprietors, fascism (particularly in Germany and Italy) was unstinting in its promises. On the one hand, it gambled on the needs of the petite bourgeoisie and seemingly appealed to its sense of justice and equality. On the other hand, it played upon the basest prejudices of the petite bourgeoisie, in particular, its striving for profit and its tendency toward nationalism.

The petite bourgeoisie may be a radical and revolutionary force, as well as a conservative and reactionary one. History provides examples of several revolts and uprisings of the peasant and urban petite bourgeoisie. There have been instances when the petite bourgeoisie, won over by the proletariat, has acted as its ally. The petit bourgeois masses always have and always will contribute their illusions, weaknesses, and errors to the revolutionary movement. But, as Lenin pointed out, it is much more important for the cause of revolution that the petite bourgeoisie objectively attacks capital.

The ideas, views, and conceptions of the petite bourgeoisie are reflected in economic and sociopolitical literature. The most prominent 19th-century exponents of the class ideology of the petite bourgeoisie were J. C. L. Sismondi and Proudhon. In prerevolutionary Russia, the Socialist Revolutionaries (SR’s) were its chief proponents. Under contemporary state-monopoly capitalism, many anti-Marxist theories and conceptions, ranging from those of the extreme right to those of the extreme left, are tinged with petit bourgeois ideas. Maoism is an expression of petit bourgeois ideology. Other essentially petit bourgeois theories include “democratic socialism” and “market socialism,” which treat socialism as a “mixed economy,” attempt to fit capitalist relations of production and exchange into socialist society, and reject the class struggle and socialist revolution. Petit bourgeois views of society are reflected in the works of exponents of the liberal bourgeois and Social Democratic orientations in social thought. “A petit bourgeois driven to frenzy by the horrors of capitalism,” wrote Lenin, “is a social phenomenon which, like anarchism, is characteristic of all capitalist countries. The instability of such revolutionism, its barrenness, and its tendency to turn rapidly into submission, apathy, phantasms, and even a frenzied infatuation with one bourgeois fad or another—all this is common knowledge” (ibid., vol. 41, pp. 14–15).

During the period of the early bourgeois democratic revolutions, before the proletariat had developed into an independent political force, the petite bourgeoisie supported the revolutionary bourgeoisie. The peasantry and the urban petite bourgeoisie were the moving force behind the English Revolution of the 17th century and behind the Great French Revolution. In the bourgeois democratic revolutions of the period of imperialism, increasingly substantial strata of the petite bourgeoisie began to support the working class. This was true of the Revolution of 1905–07 and the February Revolution of 1917 in Russia, as well as the November Revolution of 1918 in Germany. In the Great October Socialist Revolution and the socialist revolutions in the countries of Europe and Asia, the proletariat led broad strata of the toiling peasants and the urban petite bourgeoisie.

The aggravation of the general crisis of capitalism has created the conditions for the formation in the capitalist countries of broad anti-imperialist coalitions that will include the petite bourgeoisie, because the peasantry, the intelligentsia, and the petite and middle bourgeoisie, as well as the working class, have a vital interest in the abolition of the rule of the monopolies. In the developing nations, small-scale production, which provides most of the agricultural and industrial output, is an important factor in economic development. Even in countries that are at a middle level of economic development, there are entire branches of industry (food, clothing, leather footwear, wood products, and furniture, for example), in which most of the output comes from enterprises with no more than three or four employees. For example, in India in the mid-20th century small-scale enterprises produced more than 50 percent of the sugar and about 75 per-cent of the rice, and workshops produced 15–16 times as many shoes as large factories. In addition to the large number of petty proprietors and their families whose livelihood is connected with this form of production, millions of wage laborers in the developing countries are employed by small-scale enterprises. In all these countries the petit bourgeois masses—primarily peasants —constitute a direct revolutionary force that joins the recently formed working class in the antifeudal, anti-imperialist national democratic revolution.

The petite bourgeoisie continues to exist in the transitional period from capitalism to socialism. The experience of socialist construction in the USSR and other socialist countries demonstrates the possibility and necessity of broadly enlisting peasant farms and small-scale enterprises in the process of organization into socialist cooperatives. Lenin considered the definition of the correct politics of the working class with respect to the petite bourgeoisie one of the most important and most difficult tasks of socialist construction. “The abolition of classes … also means abolishing the small commodity producers, and they cannot be ousted, or crushed; we must learn to live with them. They can (and must) be transformed and reeducated only by means of very prolonged, slow, and cautious organizational work” (ibid., p. 27). The owners of small-scale enterprises are given financial support and aid by the people’s power through the provision of raw materials and fuel. At the same time, seeking to ensure the least “painful” transition from backward forms of production to more advanced large-scale mechanized ones, the socialist state encourages the merger of individual small producers in cooperatives and of small-scale enterprises in larger production artels and associations. Thus, the conditions are prepared for the gradual transformation of artisans, small tradesmen, and other petty proprietors into toilers in socialist society.


Marx, K. Vosemnadtsatoe briumera Lui Bonaparta. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 8.
Marx, K. Grazhdanskaia voina vo Frantsii. Ibid., vol. 17.
Marx, K. “Teorii pribavochnoi stoimosti” (vol. 4 of Das Kapital ). Ibid., vol. 26.
Lenin, V. I. Chto takoe “druz’ia naroda” i kak oni voiuiutprotiv sotsialdemokratov? Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 1.
Lenin, V. I. Ekonomicheskoe soderzhanie narodnichestva i kritika ego v knige g. Struve. Ibid., vol. 1.
Lenin, v. I. “Marksizm i revizionizm.” Ibid., vol. 17.
Lenin, V. I. “Tsennye priznaniia Pitirima Sorokina.” Ibid., vol. 37.
Lenin, V. I. Detskaia bolezn’ “levizny” v kommunizme. Ibid., vol. 41.
Gorodskie srednie sloi sovremennogo kapitalisticheskogo obshchestva. Moscow, 1963. Chapter 2.
Savel’ev, N. A. Melkoe proizvodstvo v Indii. Moscow, 1964.
Kochevrin, lu. B. Malyi biznes v SSHA. Moscow, 1965.
Nadel’, S. N. Sotsial’naia struktura sovremennoi kapitalisticheskoi derevni. Moscow, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.