Defined by Karl Marx as a ‘transitional class’, in which the interests of the major classes of capitalist society (the bourgeoisie and the proletariat) meet and become blurred, the petite bourgeoisie is located between these two classes in terms of its interests as well as its social situation. It represents a distinctive form of social organization in which petty productive property is mixed with, and owned by, family labour. Small shopkeepers and self-employed artisans are the archetypes.
Marx derides what he sees as the petit-bourgeois self-delusion that, because it combines both employment and ownership of the means of production, it somehow represents the solution to the class struggle. This class was progressive in a limited sense, as witnessed by its claims at various times for co-operatives, credit institutions, and progressive taxation, as a consequence of felt oppression at the hands of the bourgeoisie. However, these were (in terms of the Marxist view of history) strictly limited demands, just as the ideological representatives of this class have been constrained by their own problems and solutions (see Marx 's essay on ‘The Class Struggles in France 1848–1850’).
This traditional ‘petty’ bourgeoisie (the widespread adoption of the pejorative epithet speaks volumes about the limitations of Marxism), discussed by Marx in his own writings, was replaced by the ‘new petty bourgeoisie’ identified by Marxist writers such as Nicos Poulantzas, and consisting of engineers, supervisors, and other modern additions to the class structure who, on the basis of ideological, political, and economic criteria, are unproductive wage-earners but who are none the less carriers of ideological domination. Erik Olin Wright, for his part, found small employers to occupy a contradictory class location between the petty bourgeoisie proper and the bourgeoisie itself. The application of a whole range of criteria extracted from Marx's writings does little to eradicate the essentially derogatory meaning of the term.
According to Marx, concentration and centralization of capital was eventually to throw the petty bourgeoisie into the ranks of the increasingly immiserated working class, just as the peasantry were to become proletarianized despite their attachment to the land. However, the urge to self-employment, to own the means of livelihood, coupled with the growth of the services sector and the persistence of ‘shopkeepers’, mean that this class continues to defy not only elimination but also neat categorization into the proletariat, the middle class, or salariat, and as such it is usually accorded the status of a survival from a previous era. The values that its members are commonly deemed to represent—of entrepreneurship at the grassroots level, self-help, individualism, family, and careful husbanding of resources—mean that, however buffeted by recessions and mounting bankruptcies, the petite bourgeoisie continues to provide a stereotyped model of past virtues. However, research suggests that it is here to stay, since the tendencies of modern capitalist society seem to have no uniform effects on its situation: in some countries its position is weakening, while in others it is numerically and politically in the ascendant (see F. Bechhofer and B. Elliott (eds.), The Petite Bourgeoisie: Comparative Studies of the Uneasy Stratum, 1981).