Proletariat: Definition & Meaning

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Feb 26, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Summary

  • The proletariat are a class of people who, in the view of Marx, compose the majority of society. They sell their ability to do work and their labor in order to survive.
  • Unlike the bourgeoisie, the proletariat do not own the means of production. Marx considered this dynamic to be one of exploitation, where the Bourgeoisie absorb the value of the goods and services that the proletariat produce without paying this value back to them.
  • Although the Marxist conception of the proletariat is one based on ownership of the means of production, later sociologists have often defined the proletariat along the lines of social class.
  • The terms embourgeoisement and proletarianization refer to processes through which employees come to own the means of production and employers come to lose these means and work for employers, respectively.
  • False Class Consciousness means the way that the proletariat are led to believe their oppression by the bourgeoise is normal, and that if they work hard they can become the bourgeoisie.

Definition

In Marxism, the proletariat is a class of people that composes the majority of society. The proletariat are distinguished from the upper class — the Bourgeoisie. In Marxism, the term Proletariat refers to the workers who are the relations of production and are oppressed by the bourgeoise minority.

Marxism Primer

The first people to write about the idea were Marx and Engels (2012), the originators of the Communist Manifesto and the populizers of communist theory.

Communist theory, according to Marx, is based on the observation that contemporary human societies are capitalist in nature and that capitalism predisposes societies to unjust systems favoring a small group of people, the ruling class bourgeoisie, over the majority, the working class proletariat.

Marx proposed that the solution to this exploitation of the proletariat was to establish a system where workers could take control of their own labor and have access to a fair share of the profits that resulted from their work.

In a capitalist society, the proletariat are legally free and separated from the means of production. The proletariat do not receive the value of their goods that their labour produces, but only the cost of subsistence.

How did Marx and Engels define the Proletariat?

The term proletariat dates back to the Latin term proletarius in reference to people who did not own the means of production. The Proletarii were people who made up a class by virtue of their lack of property ownership (Darity, 2008).

Engels illustrated the image of the proletariat as a class in his study of the working class in Manchester in 1833, which happened concurrently with Marx's discovery of the proletariat on the streets of Paris. Proletarians literally have nothing to sell but their labor power.

In an image associated more frequently with the rhetoric of radical communist organizations in the early twentieth century, they are "wage slaves," a term that connected them directly back to the idea of the proletarii in ancient Rome. In Marxism, there was no third strategy available to people under capitalism: either someone owns capital, or they work for it (Ritzer, 2016).

By 1848, the concept of the proletariat had become the center of the Communist Manifesto. Marx and Engels reached back to ancient times to legitimize the claim that class struggle is the driving force in history, even if it also implied that the contemporary struggle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat would be the last struggle that would inaugurate socialism (Darity, 2008).

However, Marx largely popularized the term. Historically, the proletariat emerged as the aristocracy began to suffer financial difficulties in the late middle ages. Many of the people who supported themselves working for the aristocracy lost their livelihoods.

The use of enclosures (such as fences), which changed how people could use land in agriculture, and denying peasants access to common lands and resources, landowners were able to transfer their land into pasture land for sheep, or sold it to farmers who could develop grain and livestock production.

The people who had subsisted on the land ceased to be able to do so – in the literal sense of proletariat, they became propertyless. At the same time, population growth skyrocketed and forced labor — such as slavery and indentured servitude — was prevalent.

Factory production also began to undermine rural industry and craft production in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Again, this created a large class of people without land or property who had to join companies — such as factories — to survive.

These people became free wage laborers who were free from both feudal ties and a source of livelihoods (Darity, 2008). Marx showed how the relationship between workers and capitalists and labor and capital is, beyond merely an economic relationship between equals, exploitative and contradictory.

Marx also believed that the bourgeoisie capitalists and the proletariat workers were directly opposed to each other. At the same time, he considered them to be partners in the sense that both capital and labor are required in production.

Marx proposed that this contradictory relationship in capitalism has class conflict built into it, leading to strikes, crises, political struggles and, ultimately, the overthrowing of bourgeois rule by the proletariat.

Proletariat vs. the Bourgeoisie

The proletariat itself has a number of characteristics. The most important of these is their lack of property and lack of ownership of the means of production.

In Marxism, products and services can only be produced when someone has access to both the means of production — all of the equipment and materials required to create goods or services, and labor. In all, these are called the factors of production (Darity, 2008).

Because they do not have access to the means of production, the proletariat must work under the bourgeoisie in order to subsist and survive. 

The proletariat, working under Marx's definition, have these characteristics:

  • They lack ownership of the means of production;

  • They constitute the majority of capitalist society;

  • They effectively sell their time and labor for subsistence;

  • In selling their time and labor for subsistence, they are not entitled to the full value of the goods and services they produce.

Implications beyond Marxism

The idea of the proletariat — and the predictions of Max — would come to become a major issue in the history of twentieth-century sociology.

Marx and Engels argued that the logic of capitalist development means that the bourgeoisie and proletariat classes would inevitably consolidate, meaning that the vast majority of people would become proletarians, and a small group, the bourgeoisie.

The theorists believed that the middle class, petty bourgeoisie, small producers, and retailers, would be redistributed across the ranks of the two major classes, causing their numbers to diminish. Small proprietors would become less common as they lose out in the fierce competition from large proprietors.

Additionally, Workers skilled in using hand tools would also become less common as capitalists replaced them with cheaper unskilled workers operating machines. Additionally, since the persistence of the capitalist mode of production is accompanied by economic downturns, Marx believed that wages would fall while the percentage of unemployed workers rose (Ritzer, 2016).

Later reformist Marxists believed that the growth of the proletariat would lead to the voting out of the bourgeoisie of government. Nonetheless, Marx's later work predicted the emergence on the horizon of new middle-class workers such as schoolteachers and factory inspectors.

Examples

Marx and Engels Case Studies

The image of the proletariat has had many faces throughout time. Stalinism, as promoted by the forced industrialization of the Soviet Union, saw the face of the proletariat as masculine.

Meanwhile, the West often saw the proletariat as those working for large corporations, such as Ford. Marx's original work, Das Kapital, however, paints a different picture.

His figures of the proletariat include a boy named William Wood, a 9 year old who works 15 hours a day while earning an extremely small sum — three shillings and sixpence — and Mary Anne Walkley, a 20-year-old girl who dies after working 26 hours straight with 50 girls in a room that afforded each worker a third of the cubic feet of air required for them.

Marx's proletariat, in the view of Ritzer (2016) was largely that of socially produced poverty. Engels similarly charted the condition of the working class in England in the 1840s through personal observation and authentic sources.

He postulated that there would be proletarian violence during economic downturns and maintained that each new economic crisis would be accompanied by even more violence.

Two decades after Engels, Marx sought to create a general law of capitalist accumulation through UK government statistics. While the production of coal and iron had increased, more railway tracks were in use, and exports had boomed and profits grew, the numbers on the official lists of the very poor "paupers" increased.

Into the twentieth century in the West, the working class became integrated into society following the postwar boom. Members of the traditional proletariat — factory workers — largely deunioned and became more disorganized.

Although the working class still existed — with the vast majority of people needing to sell their labor power in one way or another — these people worked a more diverse set of occupations than ever before.

Ritzer argues (2016) that, in the latter half of the twentieth century, a new category emerged: the precariat, who sought to envelop often well-qualified and highly skilled non-manual workers who were unable to find work.

As unions largely diminished, employers began to offer temporary contracts to many laborers, resulting in "precarious" employment where workers still did not own the means of production.

Embourgeoisement

In the early 1900s, Eduard Bernstein pointed out that wages had increased (year; Ultee, 2007). He pointed out the rise of better-paid skilled labor necessary for the operation and construction of machines.

He also predicted that labor unionization, the introduction of rites to vote for all adult citizens, and the increasing voting base of social democratic parties would lead to the gradual reform of capitalism.

Post World War II, revisionists predicted that rising standards of living would result in the embourgeoisement of the working class — a process where people in the proletariat become financially affluent and internalize and reproduce behaviors, norms, and values associated with the middle-class (Rinehart, 1971).

Proletarianization

The flip-size of embourgeoisement is proletarianization. In Marxism, proletarianization is the social process through which non-manual work comes increasingly to resemble manual work, and non-manual workers adopt the attitudes of the working class.

Proletarianization is seen as downward social mobility — a process that prohibits a proletarianized person from accumulating capital (Wright & Singelmann, 1982).

Evidence used to support proletarianization includes the greater unionization associated of white-collar (suit-and-tie) workers and their willingness to employ the trade union tactics traditionally associated with manual workers.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, Feb 26). Proletariat: Definition & Meaning. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/proletariat.html

References

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Lukács, G. (1971). Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat. History and class consciousness: Studies in Marxist dialectics, 137, 83-222.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1967). The communist manifesto. 1848. Trans. Samuel Moore. London: Penguin, 15.

Oppenheimer, M. (1972). The proletarianization of the professional. The Sociological Review, 20(1_suppl), 213-227.

Przeworski, A. (1977). Proletariat into a class: The process of class formation from Karl Kautsky's The Class Struggle to recent controversies. Politics & Society, 7(4), 343-401.

Rinehart, J. W. (1971). Affluence and the embourgeoisement of the working class: a critical look. Social Problems, 19(2), 149-162.

Wright, E. O., & Singelmann, J. (1982). Proletarianization in the changing American class structure. American Journal of Sociology, 88, S176-S209.