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The proletariat (from Latin proletarius, a citizen of the lowest class) is a term used to identify a lower social class; a member of such a class is proletarian. Originally it was identified as those people who had no wealth other than their sons. The term was initially used in a derogatory sense[citation needed], Karl Marx strengthened this negative connotation using it as a sociological term to refer to the working class which he chose to describe them as a population to manipulate for the consolidation of power in the hands of a centralized statist government.


Usage in Marxist theory

A 1911 Industrial Worker publication advocating industrial unionism based on a critique of capitalism.

In Marxist theory, the proletariat is the class of a capitalist society that does not have ownership of the means of production and whose only means of subsistence is to sell their labour power[1] for a wage or salary. Proletarians are wage-workers, while some refer to those who receive salaries as the salariat. For Marx, however, wage labour may involve getting a salary rather than a wage per se. Marxism sees the proletariat and bourgeoisie (capitalist class) as occupying conflicting positions, since workers automatically wish their wages to be as high as possible, while owners and their proxies wish for wages (costs) to be as low as possible.

In Marxist theory, the borders between the proletariat and some layers of the petite bourgeoisie, who rely primarily but not exclusively on self-employment at an income no different from an ordinary wage or below it; and the lumpen proletariat, who are not in legal employment; are not necessarily well defined. Intermediate positions are possible, where some wage-labor for an employer combines with self-employment. While class belonging is often hard to determine in the case of each individual person, from the standpoint of society as a whole, taken in its movement (i.e. history), the class divisions are incontestable; the easiest proof of their existence is the class struggle - strikes, for instance. While an employee may be subjectively unsure of his class belonging, when his workmates come out on strike he is objectively forced to follow one class (his workmates, i.e. the proletariat) over the other (management, i.e. the bourgeoisie). Marx makes a clear distinction between proletariat as salaried workers, which he sees a progressive class, and Lumpenproletariat, "rag-proletariat", the poorest and outcasts of the society, such as beggars, tricksters, entertainers, buskers, criminals and prostitutes, which he considers a retrograde class.[2][3] Socialist parties have often struggled over the question of whether they should seek to organize and represent all the lower classes, or just the wage-earning proletariat.

According to Marxism, capitalism is a system based on the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. This exploitation takes place as follows: the workers, who own no means of production of their own, must use the means of production that are property of others in order to produce, and, consequently, earn their living. Instead of hiring those means of production, they themselves get hired by capitalists and work for them, producing goods or services. These goods or services become the property of the capitalist, who sells them at the market.

One part of the wealth produced is used to pay the workers' wages (variable costs), another part to renew the means of production (constant costs) while the third part, surplus value is split between the capitalist's private takings (profit), and the money used to pay rents, taxes, interests, etc. Surplus value is the difference between the wealth that the proletariat produces through its work, and the wealth it consumes in order to survive and to provide labour to the capitalist companies.[4] A part of the surplus value is used to renew or increase the means of production, either in quantity or quality (i.e., it is turned into capital), and is called capitalised surplus value[5]. Other part is used for the consumption of capitalists.

The commodities that proletarians produce and capitalists sell, are valued for the amount of labour embodied in them. The same goes for the workers' labour power itself: it is valued, not for the amount of wealth it produces, but for the amount of labour necessary to produce and reproduce it. Thus the capitalists earn wealth from the labour of their employees, not as a function of their personal contribution to the productive process, which may even be null, but as a function of the juridical relation of property to the means of production. Marxists argue that new wealth is created through labour applied to natural resources.[6]

Therefore, if someone gains wealth through the monopoly of means of production, then those who work to produce that wealth do not receive the full wealth created by their labour, nor do they have a say in the use of the wealth appropriated by the proprietors of means of production. Thus, Marxists argue that capitalists make a profit by exploiting the proletariat.

Marx argued that it was the goal of the proletariat to displace the capitalist system with the dictatorship of the proletariat, abolishing the social relationships underpinning the class system and then developing into a communist society in which "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all."[7].

Other usage

Arnold J. Toynbee uses the term "internal" and "external proletariat" in his monumental "A Study of History" to describe the groups within and external to the frontiers of the state, who during the time of troubles, the World Empire and the decay of a civilization, are progressively disenfranchised, and come to have little loyalty to the survival of that civilization.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Lumpen proletariat -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia
  3. ^ Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto, part I, Bourgeois and Proletarians.
  4. ^ Marx, Karl. The Capital, volume 1, chapter 6.
  5. ^ Luxemburg, Rosa. The Accumulation of Capital. Chapter 6, Enlarged Reproduction.
  6. ^ Marx, Karl. Critique of the Gotha Programme, I.
  7. ^ Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto, part II, Proletarians and Communists


  • Hal Draper, Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, Vol. 2; The Politics of Social Classes. Monthly Review Press.

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