The proletariat (; ) is the
social class A social class is a grouping of people into a set of hierarchical social categories, the most common being the upper, middle and lower classes. Membership in a social class can for example be dependent on education, wealth, occupation, inc ...
of wage-earners, those members of a society whose only possession of significant economic value is their labour power (their capacity to work). A member of such a class is a proletarian. Marxist philosophy considers the proletariat to be exploited under
capitalism Capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit. Central characteristics of capitalism include capital accumulation, competitive markets, price system, pr ...

, forced to accept meager wages in return for operating the
means of production The means of production is a term which describes land, Work (human activity), labor and capital (economics), capital that can be used to produce products (such as goods or Service (economics), services); however, the term can also refer to anyth ...
, which belong to the class of business owners, the
bourgeoisie The bourgeoisie ( , ) is a social class, equivalent to the middle or upper middle class. They are distinguished from, and traditionally contrasted with, the proletariat by their affluence, and their great cultural and financial capital. ...

. Marx argued that this oppression gives the proletariat
common economic and political interests
common economic and political interests
that transcend national boundaries, impelling them to unite and take over power from the capitalist class, and eventually to create a
communist Communism (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally a dialect spoken in the lower Tiber area (then known as Latium) around ...

society free from class distinctions.

Roman Republic and Empire

The constituted a social class of Roman citizens who owned little or no property. The name presumably originated with the census, which Roman authorities conducted every five years to produce a register of citizens and their property, which determined their military duties and voting privileges. Those who owned 11,000 or less fell below the lowest category for military service, and their children— (offspring)—were listed instead of property; hence the name (producer of offspring). Roman citizen-soldiers paid for their own horses and arms, and fought without payment for the
, but the only military contribution of a was his children, the future Roman citizens who could colonize conquered territories. Officially, propertyless citizens were called because they were "persons registered not as to their property...but simply as to their existence as living individuals, primarily as heads () of a family." Although included in the ( Centuriate Assembly), were the lowest class, largely deprived of voting rights. Late Roman historians such as
Livy Titus Livius (; 59 BC – AD 17), known in English as Livy ( ), was a Ancient Rome, Roman historian. He wrote a monumental history of Rome and the Roman people, titled , covering the period from the earliest legends of Rome before the traditiona ...
vaguely described the as a popular assembly of early Rome composed of , voting units representing classes of citizens according to wealth. This assembly, which usually met on the to discuss public policy, designated the military duties of Roman citizens. One of the reconstructions of the features 18 of cavalry, and 170 of infantry divided into five classes by wealth, plus 5 of support personnel called , one of which represented the . In battle, the cavalry brought their horses and arms, the top infantry class full arms and armor, the next two classes less, the fourth class only spears, the fifth slings, while the assisting ''adsidui'' held no weapons. In voting, the cavalry and top infantry class were enough to decide an issue; as voting started at the top, issues were usually decided before the lower classes voted. After the
Second Punic War The Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC) was the second of Punic Wars, three wars fought between Ancient Carthage, Carthage and Roman Republic, Rome, the two main powers of the western Mediterranean Basin, Mediterranean in the 3rd century BC. For ...
in 201 BC, the Jugurthine War and various conflicts in Macedonia and Asia reduced the number of Roman family farmers, and the Republic experienced a shortage of propertied citizen soldiers. The Marian reforms of 107 BC extended military eligibility to the urban poor, and henceforth the , as paid soldiers, became the backbone of the army, which later served as the decisive force in the
fall of the Republic
fall of the Republic
and the establishment of the
Empire An empire is a "political unit" made up of several territories and peoples, "usually created by conquest, and divided between a dominant center and subordinate peripheries". The center of the empire (sometimes referred to as the metropole) ex ...


Modern use

In the early 19th century, many Western European liberal scholars — who dealt with social sciences and economics — pointed out the socio-economic similarities of the modern rapidly growing industrial worker class and the classic proletarians. One of the earliest analogies can be found in the 1807 paper of French philosopher and political scientist Hugues Felicité Robert de Lamennais. Later it was translated to English with the title "Modern Slavery". Swiss liberal economist and historian was the first to apply the proletariat term to the working class created under capitalism, and whose writings were frequently cited by
Karl Marx Karl Heinrich Marx (; 5 May 1818 – 14 March 1883) was a German philosopher, economist, historian, sociologist, political theorist, journalist, Critique of political economy, critic of political economy, and socialist revolutionary. His be ...
. Marx most likely encountered the term while studying the works of Sismondi.

Marxist theory

Marx, who studied
Roman law Roman law is the law, legal system of ancient Rome, including the legal developments spanning over a thousand years of jurisprudence, from the Twelve Tables (c. 449 BC), to the ''Corpus Juris Civilis'' (AD 529) ordered by Eastern Roman emperor J ...
at the Friedrich Wilhelm University of Berlin, used the term ''proletariat'' in his socio-political theory (
Marxism Marxism is a Left-wing politics, left-wing to Far-left politics, far-left method of socioeconomic analysis that uses a Materialism, materialist interpretation of historical development, better known as historical materialism, to understand S ...
) to describe a progressive working class untainted by
private property Private property is a legal designation for the ownership of property by non-governmental legal entities. Private property is distinguishable from public property and personal property, which is owned by a state entity, and from collective ...
and capable of revolutionary action to topple capitalism and abolish social classes, leading society to ever higher levels of prosperity and justice. Marx defined the proletariat as the social class having no significant ownership of the
means of production The means of production is a term which describes land, Work (human activity), labor and capital (economics), capital that can be used to produce products (such as goods or Service (economics), services); however, the term can also refer to anyth ...
(factories, machines, land, mines, buildings, vehicles) and whose only means of subsistence is to sell their labor power for a
wage A wage is payment made by an employer to an Worker, employee for work (human activity), work done in a specific period of time. Some examples of wage payments include wiktionary:compensatory, compensatory payments such as ''minimum wage'', ''p ...
salary A salary is a form of periodic payment from an employer to an employee, which may be specified in an employment contract. It is contrasted with piece wages, where each job, hour or other unit is paid separately, rather than on a periodic basis. ...
. Proletarians are wage-workers, while some (though not Marx himself) distinguish salaried workers as the ''salariat''. Marxist theory only vaguely defines the borders between the proletariat and adjacent social classes. In the socially superior, less progressive direction are the lower petty bourgeoisie, such as small shopkeepers, who rely primarily on self-employment at an income comparable to an ordinary wage. Intermediate positions are possible, where wage-labor for an employer combines with self-employment. In another direction, the lumpenproletariat or "rag-proletariat", which Marx considers a retrograde class, live in the
informal economy An informal economy (informal sector or grey economy) is the part of any economy that is neither taxed nor monitored by any form of government. Although the informal sector makes up a significant portion of the economies in developing countrie ...
outside of legal employment: the poorest outcasts of society such as beggars, tricksters, entertainers, buskers, criminals and prostitutes.
Socialist Socialism is a left-wing Economic ideology, economic philosophy and Political movement, movement encompassing a range of economic systems characterized by the dominance of social ownership of the means of production as opposed to Private prop ...
parties have often argued over whether they should organize and represent all the lower classes, or only the wage-earning proletariat. According to Marxism, capitalism is based on the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie: the workers, who own no means of production, must use the property of others to produce goods and services and to earn their living. Workers cannot rent the means of production (e.g. a factory or department store) to produce on their own account; rather, capitalists hire workers, and the goods or services produced become the property of the capitalist, who sells them at market. Part of the net selling price pays the workers' wages (variable costs); a second part renews the means of production (constant costs, capital investment); while the third part is consumed by the capitalist class, split between the capitalist's personal profit and fees to other owners (rents, taxes, interest on loans, etc.). The struggle over the first part (wage rates) puts the proletariat and
bourgeoisie The bourgeoisie ( , ) is a social class, equivalent to the middle or upper middle class. They are distinguished from, and traditionally contrasted with, the proletariat by their affluence, and their great cultural and financial capital. ...

into irreconcilable conflict, as market competition pushes wages inexorably to the minimum necessary for the workers to survive and continue working. The second part, called capitalized surplus value, is used to renew or increase the means of production (
capital Capital may refer to: Common uses * Capital city, a municipality of primary status ** List of national capitals, List of national capital cities * Capital letter, an upper-case letter Economics and social sciences * Capital (economics), the dura ...
), either in quantity or quality. The second and third parts are known as
surplus value In Marxian economics, surplus value is the difference between the amount raised through a sale of a product and the amount it cost to the owner of that product to manufacture it: i.e. the amount raised through sale of the product minus the cost ...
, the difference between the wealth the proletariat produce and the wealth they consume Marxists argue that new wealth is created through labor applied to
natural resource Natural resources are resources that are drawn from nature and used with few modifications. This includes the sources of valued characteristics such as commercial and industrial use, aesthetic value, scientific interest and cultural value. O ...
s. The commodities that proletarians produce and capitalists sell are valued not for their usefulness, but for the amount of labor embodied in them: for example, air is essential but requires no labor to produce, and is therefore free; while a diamond is much less useful, but requires hundreds of hours of mining and cutting, and is therefore expensive. The same goes for the workers' labor power: it is valued not for the amount of wealth it produces, but for the amount of labor necessary to keep the workers fed, housed, sufficiently trained, and able to raise children as new workers. On the other hand, capitalists earn their wealth not as a function of their personal labor, which may even be null, but by the juridical relation of their property to the means of production (e.g. owning a factory or farmland). Marx argues that history is made by man and not destiny. The instruments of production and the working class that use the tools in order to produce are referred to as the moving forces of society. Over time, this developed into the levels of social class where the owners of resources joined to squeeze productivity out of the individuals who depended on their labor power. Marx argues that these relations between the exploiters and exploited results in different modes of production and the successive stages in history. These modes of production in which mankind gains power over nature is distinguished into 5 different systems: the Primitive Community, Slave State, Feudal State, Capitalist System, and finally the Socialist Society. The transition between these systems were all due to an increase in civil unrest among those who felt oppressed by a higher social class. The contention with feudalism began once the merchants and guild artisans grew in numbers and power. Once they organized themselves, they began opposing the fees imposed on them by the nobles and clergy. This development led to new ideas and eventually established the Bourgeoisie class which Marx opposes. Commerce began to change the form of production and markets began to shift in order to support larger production and profits. This change led to a series of revolutions by the bourgeois which resulted in capitalism. Marx argues that this same model can and should be applied to the fight for the proletariat. Forming unions similar to how the merchants and artisans did will establish enough power to enact change. Ultimately, Marx’s theory of the proletarians struggle would eventually lead to the fall of capitalism and the emergence of a new mode of production, socialism. Marx argued that the proletariat would inevitably 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".Marx, Karl.
The Communist Manifesto ''The Communist Manifesto'', originally the ''Manifesto of the Communist Party'' (german: Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei), is a political pamphlet written by German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Commissioned by the Commu ...
, part II, Proletarians and Communists

Proletarian culture

Marx argued that each social class had its characteristic culture and politics. The socialist states stemming from the
Russian Revolution The Russian Revolution was a period of Political revolution (Trotskyism), political and social revolution that took place in the former Russian Empire which began during the First World War. This period saw Russia abolish its monarchy and ad ...
championed and created the official version of proletarian culture. This was quite different from the working-class culture of capitalist countries, which tend to experience "prole drift" (proletarian drift), in which everything inexorably becomes commonplace and commodified by means of mass production, mass selling, mass communication and mass education. Examples include best-seller lists, films, and music made to appeal to the masses, and shopping malls.

See also

* * * * * * * * * * *



Further reading

* * Hal Draper, ''Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, Vol. 2; The Politics of Social Classes''. (New York: Monthly Review Press 1978).

External links

{{Authority control Working class Socialism Marxism Marxist theory Measurements and definitions of poverty