The exploiting class of the capitalist mode of production that organizes and directs the process of surplus value production and capital accumulation.
Origins and evolution
The bourgeoisie was born as a mercantile class linked to long-distance trade. The medieval merchants and money-changers used their profits to progressively take control of the guilds and craftsmen, starting the production of surplus value. It is not until the conversion of land into commodities was achieved, however, that the cycle of accumulation could be extended and society reordered around the needs derived from the reproduction of capital. The peasant masses expelled from the countryside would become the basis of the first modern proletariat and the condition that made the mass industrialization of production possible for the bourgeoisie.
From the serfs of the Middle Ages emerged the free neighbors of the first cities; from this urban layer came the first elements of the bourgeoisie.
The discovery of America and the circumnavigation of Africa offered the rising bourgeoisie a new field of activity. The markets of India and China, the colonization of America, the exchange of colonies, the multiplication of means of exchange and of goods in general gave a hitherto unknown impetus to trade, navigation and industry and thus accelerated the development of the revolutionary element of the decaying feudal society.
The old feudal or guild organization of the industry could no longer meet the demand, which was growing with the opening of new markets. Manufacturing came to take its place. The middle industrial class replaced the guild masters; the division of labor between the various guilds disappeared in the face of the division of labor within the same workshop.
But markets were steadily growing; demand was always on the rise. Manufacturing was no longer enough either. Steam and machinery revolutionized industrial production. Modern industry replaced manufacturing; the place of the middle class came to be occupied by the millionaire industrialists – heads of real industrial armies – the modern bourgeoisie. Great industry has created the world market, already prepared by the discovery of America. The world market prodigiously accelerated the development of trade, navigation and land transport. This development, in turn, influenced the rise of industry, and as industry, commerce, navigation and the railways spread, the bourgeoisie developed, multiplying its capital and relegating to second place all the classes bequeathed by the Middle Ages.
The modern bourgeoisie, as we see, is already the fruit of a long process of development, of a series of revolutions in the mode of production and change.
Each stage of the bourgeoisie’s development has been accompanied by corresponding political progress. An oppressed class under the domination of feudal lords; an armed and autonomous association in the urban commune, in some places an independent urban republic; in others, a third tributary state of the monarchy; then, during the period of manufacturing, a counterweight to the nobility in the state or absolute monarchies and, in general, a cornerstone of the great monarchies, the bourgeoisie, after the establishment of great industry and the universal market, finally conquered the exclusive hegemony of political power in the modern representative state.
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Communist Party Manifesto, 1848
Throughout the 19th century, the heart of the rising period of capitalism, as it expands the world market, the bourgeoisie will seize power in virtually every country where capitalism has become the coordinator of society. However, it will find an objective limit to its revolutionary expansion throughout the world in the size of the remaining extra-capitalist markets and their capacity to absorb and realize surplus value. Capitalism is entering its imperialist phase and the needs of accumulation are transforming its internal organization and the very form of the bourgeoisie.
What does the economic phenomenon of the joint-stock company ultimately mean? It represents, on the one hand, the unification of a number of small fortunes into one large capital for production. It represents, on the other hand, the separation of production from capitalist possession. In other words, it denotes that the capitalist mode of production has undergone a double defeat: but still on a capitalist basis.
What, then, do the statistics cited by Bernstein, according to which a growing number of shareholders are participating in capitalist enterprises, mean? The statistics show precisely this: today a capitalist company does not correspond, as before, to a single capitalist owner but to a series of capitalists. Consequently, the economic notion of “capitalist” no longer corresponds to an isolated individual. The industrial capitalist of today is a collective person, composed of hundreds, even thousands of individuals. The category of “capitalist” has become a social category. It has been “socialized”, within the framework of capitalist society.
Rosa Luxemburg. Reform or Revolution, 1901
This tendency to “socialize” the meaning of a “capitalist” will be radicalized with the entry of capitalism in decline. From 1914 onwards, the fusion of the industrial bourgeoisie around the banks and the resulting finance capital into the state, a refuge for the last remnants of the aristocracy, became a generalization of state capitalism throughout the world. Under different forms ranging from the almost total statization of national capital under the stalinist regimes to the nominal “liberalism” of the US, the bourgeoisie is transformed into a “state bourgeoisie”. Its power as a class is no longer defined by the individual ownership of the means of production, already blurred with the change in ownership structure that was the explosion of joint-stock companies, but by its collective position as manager of the state and of a national capital that is definitely no longer “contained” within its borders.