The English word proletariat is derived from the Latin proletarius, first used in the sixth century BCE to designate a census category encompassing those without property, who it was supposed could only contribute their sons to the state (proles =offspring). The Latin term (and its equivalents in other languages) came to refer to the poorest class of nonslaves and to paupers. In the early nineteenth century, however, proletariat began to acquire a more precise meaning, and by the 1830s it was often used to refer to the newly emerging class of wage laborers in capitalist societies, formed by the expulsion of much of the peasantry from the land.
It is in this more precise sense of those who do not possess their own means of production, and who must therefore labor for others for a wage in order to make a living, that political philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883) began to use the term in the 1840s. Marx saw the proletariat as a “universal class,” in the sense that its social position drives it toward the overthrow of capitalist relations of production, which he believed would bring about the end of all forms of exploitation and oppression, and thus universal human emancipation.
Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: bourgeoisie and proletariat” (Gasper 2005, p. 40). The bourgeoisie, or capitalist class, consists of the relatively small number of people who own or control the means of creating wealth—including land and raw materials; mines, factories, and offices; machinery and technology—and who can employ wage laborers to work for them. Proletarians perform most of the work in capitalist economies, but they have little or no control over their work-lives or over the wealth that they produce. The relationship between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is an exploitative one because the latter is paid less than the value that its labor creates, with the surplus being kept by the bourgeoisie. While wages may rise if workers are well organized and during periods of economic growth, competition between capitalists compels employers to reduce labor costs as much as possible, particularly during recurring periods of capitalist economic crisis.
During Marx’s lifetime, wage laborers constituted a majority of the working population only in Great Britain, some other parts of northern Europe, and the northeastern seaboard of the United States, with the vast majority of the world workforce still peasants engaged in small-scale rural production. Today, by some estimates, wage laborers are a majority of the world’s population. However, it was less its size than its structural and strategic location that made the proletariat important for Marx. Marx believed that antagonism with the bourgeoisie leads proletarians to organize themselves into trade unions and other forms of association. Because workers in modern capitalism are concentrated in urban centers and in large workplaces, they have enormous social and economic power when organized, exhibited in their ability to bring whole economies to a halt through the weapon of the mass strike. By contrast, what Marx called the lumpenproletariat (literally the proletariat in rags, i.e., those sections of the population permanently or near-permanently excluded from the workforce), lacks this power and is therefore not a revolutionary class, although it is more oppressed than the proletariat. Even where wage laborers are a minority, their structural position gives them the ability to draw wider social circles into struggle under their leadership, including the majority of the peasantry.
In the course of the struggle to protect their interests, proletarians are repeatedly led to challenge bourgeois institutions (for instance, by ignoring legal restrictions on strike action) and to question the general framework of bourgeois ideas that confers legitimacy on the status quo. As the movement develops, Marxist theory contends that class-consciousness increases among workers and narrow economic demands give way to broader political ones. At the same time, divisions within the class—based on sectional interests, nationality, race, ethnicity, and so on— will tend to be overcome. If carried to a successful conclusion, this process will culminate in the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie. The proletariat will replace the bourgeoisie as society’s ruling class and begin instituting changes that will gradually lead to the elimination of class divisions entirely.
Critics generally raise two kinds of objection to Marx’s account of the proletariat. One is that the proletariat in Marx’s sense has declined in importance as capitalism has developed. It is certainly true that the structure of the workforce in developed capitalist countries has changed dramatically since the mid-nineteenth century, and the proportion of factory and manufacturing workers has been declining for decades. But while Marx often emphasized the role of the industrial proletariat, this is only one segment of the capitalist working class, and as its relative size has shrunk, the size of other segments has grown. Moreover, segments of the workforce that had not previously been regarded as parts of the working class (such as teachers and office workers), have found their work increasingly routinized and controlled by their employers, and have often unionized in response. It should also be noted that on a global scale the number of industrial workers is greater than ever, and that even in developed countries they may continue to play a disproportionately important role in the working-class movement.
The second objection is that wage laborers, at least in the advanced capitalist world, have benefited enormously from economic growth, and—even if still technically exploited—no longer have an interest in the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, if they ever did. Contemporary Marxists acknowledge the large rise in living standards, although they are likely to emphasize the role of class struggle in achieving them and the fact that they are far from evenly distributed. More importantly, they argue that the gains should not be regarded as permanent, that capitalism is inherently unstable, and that its continued turbulence will bring about new economic, social, and environmental crises. On this view, it is because such crises are unavoidable, and because they will make life for the majority of wageworkers unacceptable, that the proletariat retains its revolutionary potential.
SEE ALSO Capitalism; Lumpenproletariat; Marx, Karl; Marx, Karl; Impact on Economics; Marxism; Revolution; Surplus; Unions; Wages; Working Class
Braverman, Harry. 1974. Labor and Monopoly Capital. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Gasper, Phil, ed. 2005. The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Political Document. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Formulated out of Marx's early writings on alienation, the proletariat represented the creation, loss, and eventual re-appropriation of the central defining feature of human essence or species being, namely labour-power (see LABOUR THEORY OF VALUE). Containing as it did both the needs whose fulfilment drove history along, as well as the powers or potential required to fulfil and generate new needs, labour-power was the means through which humanity was created. Labour so conceived abolished the distinction between humanity and nature, and subordinated the latter to its service. The enslavement of this labour-power (in the form of the productive worker under capitalism generating surplus value), and its eventual liberation after the necessary passage through the various historical epochs, was the core of the historical process. It is the continuous dynamic of the development of labour-power which generates the impetus to the growth in productive forces and their transmission through history which gives that history its coherence. If history is the history of the class struggle then it is a struggle to free this labour-power, and thus also the proletariat, which epitomizes the enslavement of this labour power and whose liberation will therefore be a universal liberation. This is the basis of the Marxist theory of historical materialism.
This humanistic conception of the proletariat is in accord with the ethical thrust of all of Marx's writings, and underpins the subsequent more structurally rigid definitions gleaned from readings of Capital. It suggests that, for Marx, class was a process of becoming, both of the proletariat to maturity, and of humanity to control of its developed capacities forged through the historical process. It was not (as it subsequently became in the so-called boundary debate (see CONTRADICTORY CLASS LOCATION)) the application of rigid formulae or criteria based upon relationships to the means of production, or productive (of surplus value) versus unproductive labour distinction, or supervisory and managerial hierarchies of control or autonomy. These exercises only succeeded in identifying an ever-diminishing category of those who were meant (in Marxist theory) to be growing in size, scope, and intensity.
There are, according to Marx, historical factors which propel the proletariat to take up its historical task. The combination of capital creates for the mass of workers a common situation and common interests. The commodity fetishism, which stands in the way of the individual's attempts to gain true control over his or her ‘social interconnectedness’, is overcome through the multi-dimensional concomitant processes associated with the intensification of the class struggle, the emergence of class consciousness, and its transfer into class action. As the proletariat emerges victorious, on the wings of the proletarian dictatorship, it not only regains political control over the state but also economic and eventually moral control over its productive life-processes.
This image of the proletariat contained in Marx can only be accepted if the premisses spelled out in his ethical writings are likewise taken on board: that is, that labour-power defines humanity, its relationship to nature, and the eventual goals of human development. However, if the proletariat is taken as a paradigm of the human condition at large, then its members continue to be with us in various forms, be it as underclass or racialized minorities, and seem likely to be so for a long time to come.