From New World Encyclopedia
Secessio plebis, a form of protest in ancient Rome where the plebeians would leave the city, causing the economy to collapse

The proletariat (/ˌproʊlɪˈtɛəriət/; from Latin proletarius 'producing offspring') is the social class of wage-earners, those members of a society whose only possession of significant economic value is their labor power (their capacity to work). A member of such a class is a proletarian or a proletaire.

Marxist philosophy regards the proletariat under conditions of capitalism as an exploited class- forced to accept meager wages in return for operating the means of production, which belong to the class of business owners, the bourgeoisie.

Roman Republic and Empire

The proletarii 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 assēs (coins) or fewer fell below the lowest category for military service, and their children—prōlēs (offspring)—were listed instead of property; hence the name proletarius (producer of offspring). Roman citizen-soldiers paid for their own horses and arms, and fought without payment for the commonwealth, but the only military contribution of a proletarius was his children, the future Roman citizens who could colonize conquered territories. Officially, propertyless citizens were called capite censi because they were "persons registered not as to their property...but simply as to their existence as living individuals, primarily as heads (caput) of a family."[1] Arnold J. Toynbee, especially in his A Study of History, uses the word "proletariat" in this general sense of people without property or a stake in society. Toynbee focuses particularly on the generative spiritual life of the "internal proletariat" (those living within a given civil society). He also describes the "heroic" folk legends of the "external proletariat" (poorer groups living outside the borders of a civilization).[2]

Although included in the Comitia Centuriata (Centuriate Assembly), proletarii were the lowest class, largely deprived of voting rights.[1] Late Roman historians such as Livy (59 B.C.E. – 17 C.E.) vaguely described the Comitia Centuriata as a popular assembly of early Rome composed of centuriae, voting units representing classes of citizens according to wealth. This assembly, which usually met on the Campus Martius to discuss public policy, designated the military duties of Roman citizens.[3] One of the reconstructions of the Comitia Centuriata features 18 centuriae of cavalry, and 170 centuriae of infantry divided into five classes by wealth, plus 5 centuriae of support personnel called {adsidui, one of which represented the proletarii. 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.[4]

Modern use

Jean-François Millet - The man with the hoe

In the early nineteenth century, many Western European liberal scholars of 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."[5]

Swiss liberal economist and historian Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi was the first to apply the term "proletariat" to the working class created under capitalism. His writings were frequently cited by Karl Marx. Marx most likely encountered the term while studying the works of Swiss historian and political economist, Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi.[6][7][8][9]

Marxist theory

The term proletariat would likely have remained a historical relic, but it was picked up by Karl Marx in his theory of history. Marx, who studied Roman law at the Friedrich Wilhelm University of Berlin,[10] used the term proletariat in his socio-political theory (Marxism) to describe the working class in the capitalist system.

Marx argues that these relations between the owners, defined as "exploiters" and the laborers, defined as the "exploited" results in different modes of production in 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, although Marx does not clearly identify the specifics in all the previous cases, focusing instead on the transition from feudalism to capitalism.[11]

The contention within 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 identifies as the "exploiters." 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 social change. Ultimately, Marx's theory of the proletariat's struggle would eventually lead to the fall of capitalism and the emergence of a new mode of production, socialism.[11]

Definition of the proletariat

Marx defined the proletariat as the social class having no significant ownership of the means of production (factories, machines, land, mines, buildings, vehicles) and whose only means of subsistence is to sell their labor power for a wage or salary.[12] Marxist theory is dualistic. There is an oppressive ruling class and an oppressed working class. This approach does not map easily onto the existing social reality, especially under capitalism. He only vaguely defines the borders between the proletariat and adjacent social classes. The lower petty bourgeoisie, such as small shopkeepers, also rely primarily on their own labor in self-employment at an income comparable to an ordinary wage. They were in a slightly superior economic and social position to the proletariat, but shared some of the same characteristics. Intermediate positions are possible, where wage-labor for an employer combines with self-employment. In a lower position are the lumpenproletariat or "rag-proletariat", which Marx considers a retrograde class, live in the informal economy outside of legal employment: the poorest outcasts of society such as beggars, tricksters, entertainers, buskers, criminals and prostitutes.[13] Socialist parties have often argued over whether they should organize and represent all the lower classes, or only the wage-earning proletariat.

Labor Theory of Value

Marx's theory depends upon his assertion that value is created solely by the amount of labor that goes into make a commodity. He calls it the "Labor Theory of Value." Marx and his followers argue that new wealth is created through labor applied to natural resources.[14] The commodities that proletarians produce and capitalists sell are valued not for their usefulness, or any intrinsic value, but for the amount of labor embodied in them. Thus, 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 (that is, owning a factory or farmland). The labor theory of value allows Marx to create a kind of "algorithm" of exploitation, although the modern theory of economics has largely discredited it.

Soviet propaganda in Moscow, 1984

According to the Labor Theory of Value, 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 the market. The capitalist system merely organizes the work and allocates that value. 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.). Since Marx argues that politics is determined by economics, his theory argues that 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), either in quantity or quality.[15] The second and third parts are known as surplus value, the difference between the wealth the proletariat produce and the wealth they consume.[12]

Theories of social change

Class conflict

In Marxist theory, at each stage of history there is a ruling class that extracts the labor power of an oppressed class for its own benefit. In capitalist societies, it is the proletariat whose labor is extracted by the capitalist.[16]

Early Marx emphasized the class conflict between capitalists and the proletariat. Marx argues that history is made by man and not destiny. The struggle over the first part (wage rates) puts the proletariat and bourgeoisie into irreconcilable conflict. Over time this conflict would lead to the proletariat achieving class consciousness. The proletariat would become aware of its historical destiny to rise up and overthrow the capitalists and usher in a socialist society not based on class. Capitalist oppression gives the proletariat common economic and political interests that transcend national boundaries,[17] impelling them to unite. This imperative is captured in the famous phrase at the end of the Communist Manifesto, "Workers of the world, unite!" For Marx, the proletariat was a progressive working class untainted by private property and capable of revolutionary action to topple capitalism and abolish social classes. Their purpose was to take over power from the capitalist class, and eventually to create a communist society free from class distinctions.[18]

Marx argued that the proletariat would inevitably displace the capitalist system with the dictatorship of the proletariat as a kind of interim state, abolishing the social relationships underpinning the class system, ultimately developing into a communist society in which "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all".[17]

Adolph Menzel - Iron rolling mill (1872-1875)

Historical Materialism

A 1911 Industrial Worker publication advocating industrial unionism based on a critique of capitalism. The proletariat "work for all" and "feed all."

In practice, Marx has two different theories of social change. This second theory, or the so-called "late Marx" presented a structural theory called Historical Materialism. A materialist, Marx believed that it was political economy that was the engine of history. In the latter theory he argues for a kind of materialist, economic determinism. The forces of production, which includes the equipment, instruments, tools, raw materials, land, knowledge and human labor required for production are the engine that drives history and determines the social order. They are what Marx calls the base. The relations of production are the set of social relations which each set of the forces of production generates. He calls these relations of production the superstructure. They include politics, government, and culture. The base determines the superstructure.

The so-called late Marx places far more emphasis on structural change driven by the "forces of history" than on the earlier Marx which focused on class conflict. While the struggle between the capitalists and the proletarians was still the central focus of the politics, it was defined as part of the superstructure, or the relations of production, which was the effect. The driving force of history, or cause, was to be found in the base, or the forces of production, was was the cause. It is technological and economic change that played the more central role.

Chinese Revolution

The problem for Marxism was that revolutions based on his ideology occurred not in advanced capitalist societies, as his theory predicts, but in underdeveloped, agrarian societies like Russia and China. During the Chinese revolution, the concept of the proletariat emphasized having a proletarian class consciousness, rather than having proletarian social attributes (such as being an industrial worker).[19] In this way of defining the proletariat, a proletarian class consciousness could be developed through a subjective standpoint with political education supplied by the Communist Party. This conception of the proletariat allowed for a Marxist theoretical framing under which the Chinese revolution could address the relative weakness of industrial working classes in China.[19] Exactly what constituted a proper proletarian class consciousness was subject to intellectual and political debate.[19]


Marxists from the early twentieth century until contemporary times have wrestled with the fact that the proletarian revolution in advanced capitalist states that Marx predicted has not occurred. The first key figure to address this problem was Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci was one of the first Marxists to develop a theory to explain this anomaly between theory and existing reality. Others, like the members of the Frankfurt School would follow.

Capitalism, Gramsci suggested, maintained control not just through violence and political/economic coercion, that is, through their control of the means of production, but also through ideology. The bourgeoisie developed a hegemonic culture, which propagated its own values and norms so that they became the "common sense" values of all. People in the working-class (and other classes) identified their own good with the good of the bourgeois state and helped to maintain the status quo rather than revolting against it.

To counter the notion that bourgeois values represented natural or normal values for society, the working class needed to develop a culture of its own. Lenin, representing the traditional Marxist view, held that culture was ancillary to political objectives, but for Gramsci, it was fundamental to the attainment of power that cultural hegemony be achieved first. He argued that the proletariat needed to develop its own cultural hegemony to counteract that of the bourgeoisie.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Adolf Berger, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law (Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society, 1953), 351, 380, 657.
  2. Arnold Toynbee, "Disintegration of Civilizations, part one" in A Study of History, Vol.5 (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1934.), 58–194, 194–337. Retrieved September 30, 2023.
  3. Titus Livius, Ab urbe condita, 1, 43; the first five books translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt as Livy, The Early History of Rome (Penguin 1960, 1971), 81–82.
  4. Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic (Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1999, ISBN 978-0198150688), 55–61.
  5. Félicité Robert de Lamennais, Modern Slavery, trans. William James Linton (J. Watson, 1840), 9. Retrieved September 24, 2023.
  6. Paul Ekins, and Manfred Max-Neef, Real Life Economics (London, U.K.: Routledge, 2006, ISBN 978-1134896110), 91–93.
  7. Robert B. Ekelund, Jr. and F. Hébert, A History of Economic Theory and Method: Fifth Edition (Salem, WI: Waveland Press, 2006, ISBN 978-1577664864), 226.
  8. Mark A. Lutz, Economics for the Common Good: Two Centuries of Economic Thought in the Humanist Tradition (London, U.K.: Routledge, 1999, ISBN 978-0415143134), 55–57.
  9. Gareth Stedman Jones, "Saint-Simon and the Liberal origins of the Socialist critique of Political Economy," in La France et l'Angleterre au XIXe siècle. Échanges, représentations, comparisons, eds., Sylvie Aprile and Fabrice Bensimon (Paris, FR: Créaphis, 2006, ISBN 978-2913610743), 21–47.
  10. Cf., Sidney Hook, Marx and the Marxists (Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1955), 13.
  11. 11.0 11.1 M. Rius, Marx for beginners (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2003, ISBN 978-0375714610).
  12. 12.0 12.1 Karl Marx, Capital, volume 1, chapter 6: The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power] Marxist Internet Archive. Retrieved September 22, 2023.
  13. Karl Marx, "Bourgeois and Proletarians," Marxist Internet Archive. Retrieved September 22, 2023.
  14. Karl Marx, "Critique of the Gotha Programme, I.," Marxist Internet Archive. Retrieved September 22, 2023.
  15. Rosa Luxemburg, "The Accumulation of Capital: Chapter 6, Enlarged Reproduction," Marxist Internet Archive. Retrieved September 22, 2023.
  16. Ernesto Screpanti, "Measures of Exploitation," in Labour and Value: Rethinking Marx's Theory of Exploitation (Cambridge, U.K.: Open Book Publishers, 2019, ISBN 978-1783747825. "Marx's value theory is a complex doctrine in which three different kinds of speculation coalesce: a philosophy aimed at proving that value is created by a labour substance; an explanation of the social relations of production in capitalism; and a method for measuring exploitation."
  17. 17.0 17.1 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, "Proletarians and Communists," in The Communist Manifesto (1848; Long Beach, WA: The Floating Press, 2009, ISBN 978-1775412434). Retrieved September 30, 2023. "The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties [...]: [...] In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.
  18. Raymond Aron, "The Myth of the Revolution," in The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955, London, U.K.: Routledge, 2017, ISBN 978-1351478120), 56. Retrieved September 30, 2023. "[...] Marx offered the classless society as the solution to the enigma of history.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Xiang Cai, Revolution and its narratives: China's socialist literary and cultural imaginaries (1949-1966) eds., Rebecca E. Karl, Xueping Zhong (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016, ISBN 978-0822374619), 97, 363.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Aron, Raymond. The Opium of the Intellectuals. London, U.K.: Routledge, 2017 (original 1955). ISBN 978-1351478120
  • Berger, Adolf. Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law. Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society, 1953.
  • Cai, Xiang. Revolution and its narratives: China's socialist literary and cultural imaginaries (1949-1966) eds., Rebecca E. Karl, Xueping Zhong. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0822374619
  • de Lamennais, Félicité Robert. Modern Slavery, trans. William James Linton. J. Watson, 1840. Retrieved September 24, 2023.
  • Ekelund, Jr. Robert B., and F. Hébert. A History of Economic Theory and Method: Fifth Edition. Salem, WI: Waveland Press, 2006. ISBN 978-1577664864
  • Ekins, Paul, and Manfred Max-Neef. Real Life Economics. London, U.K.: Routledge, 2006. ISBN 978-1134896110
  • Fussell, Paul. Class: A Guide Through the American Status System.. New York, NY: Ballantine, 1992. ISBN 978-0345318169
  • Hook, Sidney. Marx and the Marxists. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1955.
  • Jones, Gareth Stedman. "Saint-Simon and the Liberal origins of the Socialist critique of Political Economy," in La France et l'Angleterre au XIXe siècle. Échanges, représentations, comparisons, eds., Sylvie Aprile and Fabrice Bensimon. Paris, FR: Créaphis, 2006. ISBN 978-2913610743
  • Lintott, Andrew. The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0198150688
  • Lutz, Mark A. Economics for the Common Good: Two Centuries of Economic Thought in the Humanist Tradition. London, U.K.: Routledge, 1999. ISBN 978-0415143134
  • Luxemburg, Rosa. "The Accumulation of Capital: Chapter 6, Enlarged Reproduction," Marxist Internet Archive. Retrieved September 22, 2023.
  • Marx, Karl. "The Communist Manifesto, part II, Proletarians and Communists," Marxist Internet Archive. Retrieved September 24, 2023.
  • Marx, Karl. "Bourgeois and Proletarians," Marxist Internet Archive. Retrieved September 22, 2023.
  • Marx, Karl. "Critique of the Gotha Programme, I.," Marxist Internet Archive. Retrieved September 22, 2023.
  • Marx, Karl. Capital, volume 1, chapter 6: The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power] Marxist Internet Archive. Retrieved September 22, 2023.
  • Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Long Beach, WA: The Floating Press, 2009 (original 1848). ISBN 978-1775412434
  • Rius, M. Marx for beginners. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2003. ISBN 978-0375714610.
  • Screpanti, Ernesto. Labour and Value: Rethinking Marx's Theory of Exploitation. Cambridge, U.K.: Open Book Publishers, 2019. ISBN 978-1783747825
  • Toynbee, Arnold. A Study of History, Vol.5.. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1934.

Further reading

  • Blackledge, Paul. "Why workers can change the world," Socialist Review (December 2011). Retrieved September 30, 2023.
  • Draper, Hal. Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, Vol. 2; The Politics of Social Classes. New York, NY: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 1978. ISBN 978-0853455660


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