Who are the bourgeoisie and the proletariat?

Photo by Igal Ness on Unsplash

Karl Marx and Friedreich Engels wrote extensively on issues of class. We define “class” as, “a system of power based on wealth, income, and status that creates an unequal distribution of society’s resources” (Guest A-32). Specifically, they saw two classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie is the upper minority who owns companies and property and who already has enough money to invest in more money-making endeavors. The proletariat is the working majority who, lacking excess wealth, must sell their labor to the bourgeoisie for a basic income.

Kenneth Guest’s textbook on cultural anthropology asks students,

“Can you apply Marx’s understanding of class to a fast-food restaurant? The median full-time salary for a fast-food worker is $16,278 with no benefits. The store manager, who makes close to $40,000 annually plus benefits, serves the owner by ensuring that the most surplus labor value possible can be extracted from the workers (PayScale 2015).”

To help put Guest’s point in perspective, while McDonald’s paid full-time workers $16,278 annually with no benefits, the company reported $25 billion in earnings in 2015. Of those earnings, the corporation paid $9.4 billion to shareholders (people who own stock in McDonald’s but do not necessarily work for the company). In order to own a share of McDonald’s stock, you need to pay about $150–200 per share (a price not possible for someone making $16,278 with no benefits). The reality is that richer people who can afford to purchase shares of McDonald’s stock but are not necessarily offering their own labor to the company are annually profiting off of the hourly labor of employees who are not offered a living salary or benefits in exchange.

To further help you understand exactly who benefits from the profit generated by the stock market, you can refer to the New York Times’ 2018 reporting that revealed that the richest 10% of Americans own 84% of the stock market (Cohen 2018).

Marx and Engels used specific language in their work to describe what we call the “class struggle (competition between the rich and poor for resources). In Marxism, the term “means of production” is used to refer to the money-making property that the bourgeoisie owns (land, factories, raw materials, machinery, money to invest). The term “modes of production” is used to reflect the methods that society uses to create things (which requires combining the means of production with the labor of the working class). In the Marxist sense, when labor is commodified (sold for a wage or salary) we sell our potential impact to improve our communities to a more powerful group seeking to amass wealth. As a result, the unequal distribution of power and the production of ideas continues.


Explore the below topics to better understand how social scientists examine culture and society through a Marxist lens:

Marxist Basics

Religion and Capitalism

What does “The Opium of the People” mean?

Marxism and Anthropology

Marxism and Feminism


Works Cited

“Anthropology for the 21st Century.” Essentials of Cultural Anthropology: a Toolkit for a Global Age, by Kenneth J. Guest, W. W. Norton and Company, 2020.

Beverley, James A. Religions A-Z. Thomas Nelson, 2005.

Bloch, Maurice. Marxism and Anthropology The History of a Relationship. Taylor and Francis, 2013.

Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Kuper, Adam. Anthropology and Anthropologists: the Modern British School. Routledge, 2014.

Mascia-Lees, Frances E. Gender & Difference in a Globalizing World: Twenty-First Century Anthropology. Waveland Press, 2010.

McCurdy, David W., et al. Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology. Pearson, 2016.

Moore, Jerry D. Visions of Culture: an Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

Roseberry, William (1988). “Political Economy”. Annual Review of Anthropology.

Stein, Rebecca, and Stein, Phillip. Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft. 3rd Ed.

Stocking, George W. Race, Culture, and Evolution.

Wallerstein, Immanuel (2004). World-systems analysis: an introduction (5. print. ed.). Durham: Duke University Press.

Winick, Charles. Dictionary of Anthropology. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2014.


This text is part of “Beliefs” an open-source textbook on “The Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion.” Written and recorded on Soundcloud by Amanda Zunner-Keating and edited by Ben Shepard for Los Angeles Valley College. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles

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