I am struggling to map the concepts of "proletariat" and "bourgeoisie" to modern life. They appear to be equivalent to "lower class" and "middle class", but today those terms are really used to distinguish "blue collar" and "white collar" jobs, and map onto family income.

My hunch is that anyone working for a full-time salary, a short-term contract or zero-hour contract is "proletariat", even if it's a really nice job. Especially since the business usually owns the product of your work (physical or intellectual). Only someone who owns a business, earns dividends and hires others to do work is bourgeoisie.

I'm not sure if self-employed consultants and investors fit neatly into these buckets. And there aren't many landed gentry left in the world. So I appreciate Marx might not map neatly onto all modern roles.

Am I correct to that a salaried, white-collar desk worker with a full-time contract (and no stock options) would fit the Marxist conception of "proletariat" even though we wouldn't call them "working class" today?

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    That's going to depend on which modern Marxist theorist you ask. Marx himself conceived the idea of a rentier capitalist, who could earn money from rent and financial interest. It should be evident that an employee making hundreds of thousands of dollars or more per year can readily acquire the real property or financial capital necessary to live off such an income in short order. He also talked about "functional capitalists" who organized the means of production. Which jobs involve organization of the means of production? I am sure that different Marxists would have different ideas.
    – Obie 2.0
    Jan 16, 2023 at 22:12
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    To extend @Obie2.0's point, a modern question is whether labor is productive. Some theorists ask not just whether one must labor in order to live, but whether one's labor is helpful to society at large. (This was in response to guaranteed jobs among other developments last century.)
    – Corbin
    Jan 17, 2023 at 16:39
  • The more time that passes, the less sense Marx makes.
    – blud
    Jan 18, 2023 at 18:23
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    @blud The more our economic, cultural and social conditions change the less sense Marx make and he'd probably be fine with that. If we continued to do the same for longer he would still be relevant.
    – haxor789
    Jan 19, 2023 at 14:54
  • @haxor789 however, they have not changed all that much in ways Marx didn't predict - just a few patches around the edges. Jan 23, 2023 at 21:54

3 Answers 3


In Marxist Class theory:

The first criterion divides a society into the owners and non-owners of means of production. In capitalism, these are capitalist (bourgeoisie) and proletariat. Finer divisions can be made, however: the most important subgroup in capitalism being petite bourgeoisie (small bourgeoisie), people who possess their own means of production but utilize it primarily by working on it themselves rather than hiring others to work on it. They include self-employed artisans, small shopkeepers, and many professionals. Jon Elster has found mention in Marx of 15 classes from various historical periods.

People who receive most of their income from property ownership rather than labor are the bourgeoisie, and for the most part, salaried workers would not fit in this category.

They would also not be part of the petite bourgeoisie for the most part, because they don't own their own means of production even though they don't hire others to work for them. The petite bourgeoisie in modern society would be people like taxi cab owner-operators, many truckers, most family farmers, and many skilled tradesmen like plumbers.

Upper middle class professional and managerial salaried office workers who have not yet acquire significant income producing property of their own (as opposed to those who are self-employed or have gained, for example, wealth from stock options in the companies where they work) are still members of the proletariat in a Marxist analysis.

From the same link, in the Marxist analysis:

Class is thus determined by property relations, not by income or status.

One would have to make a leap that Marx himself did not, to see human capital as a form of capital (contrary to the fundamental divide Marxism creates between labor and property based income), in which case one could see them as members of the petite bourgeoisie.

They are similarly not members of the Lumpenproletariat made up of people such as criminals, vagabonds, and prostitutes.

Marx largely predated the historical period in which the "upper middle class" emerged and gained economic importance.

Union-management relations law, in contrast, largely puts the upper middle class among the members and allies of "management" who are therefore forbidden from unionizing.

On the other hand, one could legitimately look at the migration of managerial and professional class salaried employees with college educations to the Democratic party in the U.S., and of self-employment working class and middle class farmers and small business owners to the Republican party in the U.S., as a validation of Marxist class theory. Also, notably, many such people including civil servants, teachers, professors, and graduate students, are unionized.

I'm not sure if self-employed consultants and investors fit neatly into these buckets.

Investors, even if they don't make huge money from doing so, are clearly members of the bourgeoisie in a Marxist analysis. Self-employed consultants would generally be members of the proletariat except to the extent that the consulting was capital intensive, in which case they might be members of the petite bourgeoisie.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Jan 21, 2023 at 22:56
  • Try not to conflate the capitalist with the bourgeoisie (which is more of a social capitalist), of which the self employed is (the former and not the latter) in that Marx would consider the proletariat an entrepreneur with copyright, reasonable margins, and exclusionary plausible use. A social capitalist bourgeoisie would use a W2, a petite bourgeoisie would have trade secrets, and a proletariat will use neither if they can help it. Earning labor by wage instead of a scope of work doesn't make one a proletariat, earning by deflationary corpus does. Once again the proletariat discredits itself. Jan 23, 2023 at 15:31

These terms are not used to "to distinguish "blue collar" and "white collar" jobs, and map onto family income." as you write.

If I have a burger stand, working there myself but also hire a single helper part time to peel me potatos, I am a bourgeoisie in terms of Marxism, worth sending to Siberia right now in terms of Stalinism. If I work at Microsoft and fly to space for holidays like Charles Simonyi, I am "intelligentsia" at worst, but this was not considered a real class, so my true class would likely be proletariat anyway.

While proletariat is mostly seen as poor, and bourgeoisie as rich, it does not actually matter how rich I am. It only matters what kind of work relations do I have. If I own the means of production and hire workers to work on these means, I am bourgeoisie. If I own the land and hire workers to work on it, I am a "kulak" (wealthy peasant), and also an ideal candidate for Siberia. If I only work on my land I am a peasant. If I own a forge and only work there myself as a smith, also likely okay as long as I hand my forge to the Kolchoz (collective farm) immediately. However, any hired worker in my forge would change my status into "petty bourgeois".

Marxism does put separately a "worker aristocrat" group that get high qualified, well paid jobs, where Charles Simonyi likely belongs. True Marxist would say that these belong to minority and have no much impact on anything. Bourgeoisies create this social category artificially, to split the working class and create there confusion. They - U! - will never succeed!

Being from the former Soviet Union, I have learned these things in depth and width at the university, even if my specialty had nothing to do with them. It could be other (maybe better) explanations on how does the society work, but as much as Marxism is considered, here you are.

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    why do you bring up Stalinism? Jan 17, 2023 at 16:43
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    Repressions have been applied as "per class", hence classifying into classes was between the core concepts of Stalinism. The classification was Marxism based, or at least that the PR wrote. Here want to say, many actually quite poor and hard working people where classified as bourgeois, and not at random but strictly by criteria.
    – Stančikas
    Jan 17, 2023 at 16:45
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    The question doesn't talk about Stalinism. Jan 17, 2023 at 16:48
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    @user253751 I'd say that Stalin as a person isn't important here. Think about it only as a metaphor for any agent that wants to impose such a woefully inadequate economical classification upon a society.
    – Gábor
    Jan 17, 2023 at 22:15
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    The question I would ask about bringing in Stalin is, "how does this improve the explanation?" I'm not seeing here how it does. (Though I do fully understand having an intense dislike of Stalin, and how this might affect your opinions on things that Stalin ostensibly promoted.)
    – cjs
    Jan 18, 2023 at 12:49

Yes it doesn't refer to income, but rather to the way in which people generate that income and the property relation concerning that. The proletariat does it through labor, the bourgeoisie through ownership of the means of production and letting other people work for them. That being said, if you'd look at these groups ones you've drawn the line though, you would still likely have had found similar results of economic outcome and social status.

However the actual poor, unemployed, unsteady employed, working poor, individual service workers and others who struggle to stay alive, he would have grouped outside of the two classes as "Lumpenproletariat" who he categorized as unreliable and lacking the class consciousness of the proletariat and which are thus detrimental to the workers revolution.

Also one thing to keep in mind is that when Marx was around the economy consisted largely of the primary (agriculture and raw material) and the secondary (industries and manufacturing products) economic sector. Making a shift from the primary towards the secondary sector. That is, he saw and predicted that the individual manufacturers and small producers of raw material will be pushed out of business by the industrial producers who can do it faster (due to machines), cheaper (due to a decreased amount of labor) and more reliable (due to machines). And so production of goods will move from unique and individual to collective and standardized. So you had this alienation from labor, previously people made a whole product from start to finish now they only produce one part of it and the product quite literally doesn't bear the name of the creator anymore, but the name of the company owner (brand).

And so he saw this productive wage labor (in the sense that they produce something), as the new dominating form of labor. The freelance producer was on it's way out and the service industry was likely not significant yet, so the focus was on the industrial worker.

And for that group owning the means of production or not, was quite significant. They could operate the means of production and produce the necessities of their society by themselves, in fact they already did that, but their socio-economic and political status was still that of an underclass. While the production is collective, the distribution of power, agency, capital, work and rewards in that collective is massively unequal.

So it's not entirely unreasonable to ask the question whether white collar workers were even fully included in that classification or whether they were just treated as an edge case. Like sure you could abstract the classification and speak about "petty bourgeoisie" and "worker aristocracy" as bourgeoisie and proletariat, but at some point this becomes quite questionable.

I mean the petit bourgeoisie was never meant to last or be significant according to Marx, who apparently firmly believed in the potential of the industrial revolution to wipe out all small producers. So either the petit bourgeoisie would become regular bourgeoisie or drop down to proletariat or lumpenproletariat. So they held out a lot longer than they were supposed to. Not to mention that the industrialized production and the standardization wasn't all as great as anticipated. Sometimes you need unique and specialized production and the more optimized the process is, the harder it is to "just change it". So a lot more companies survived in a niche than what was anticipated by Marx.

Likewise the "service sector" was probably largely insignificant at the time and is now the single largest and most heterogeneous economic sector. Which ranges from "Lumpenproletariat" to industrial wage workers who are not hired directly but just "on demand", to clerks, mind workers all the way up to the management and CEOs. Which span a huge group of people who are hardly in similar economic, social and political relations. So it takes a lot of mental gymnastics to argue that CEOs and upper management are in the same class as the person cleaning the toilets. Despite being wage workers rather than capital owners they themselves are responsible for hiring and firing people and take a share of the bounty of the exploitation of people below them in the food chain and if they wanted they could even use their capital to become an owner. Or just in general how for many of these people the "means of production" become a lot more nebulous. Like for explicit service jobs and not masked "non-contract" employments the source of income is the existence of rich people who can afford that service. So preserving a well of upper class who spends money lavishly is what keeps many people in business. So if workers took over the means of production they'd be screwed. They are technically lumpenproletariat.

So the more people are pushed away from the primary and secondary sectors the more they are further alienated from labor and the source of their existence. In Western countries these things might even be totally moved to other countries. Like there are thriving countries who are purely service no agriculture not production at all.

So on the one hand it's the single largest sector, makes up the new mode of labor. On the other hand the description of proletariat doesn't really fit.

Though you could still argue that the abstraction sorta kinda could be applied as people in employment still have a different perspective in terms of agency over their own work, which would differentiate the truly petit bourgeoisie from the "pseudo-self-employed" you know your uber driver or freelancer who basically works as an employee for just one company but because that employer wants to avoid social security and other benefits related to a contract they just hire them ondemand as a "self-employed entrepreneur" when in reality it's just a shady scheme to avoid paying people.

So you can argue that the owner/worker distinction still kinda sorta implies, but it's questionable as to whether you're still talking about the same thing that Marx referred to or whether we are already progressed further and thus are talking about different categories. I mean he himself argue that previous societies also had class relations. So just because you can make out a class relation doesn't mean you're talking about the same economic conditions.

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