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The proletariat ( /ˌprlɪˈtɛəriət/ from Latin proletarius "producing offspring") is the class of wage-earners in an economic society whose only possession of significant material value is their labour-power (how much work they can do). [1] A member of such a class is a proletarian.

Latin Indo-European language of the Italic family

Latin is a classical language belonging to the Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. The Latin alphabet is derived from the Etruscan and Greek alphabets and ultimately from the Phoenician alphabet.

Social class Hierarchical social stratification

A social class is a set of subjectively defined concepts in the social sciences and political theory centered on models of social stratification in which people are grouped into a set of hierarchical social categories, the most common being the upper, middle and lower classes.


In Marxist theory, a dictatorship of the proletariat is for the proletariat, of the proletariat, and by the proletariat. On the Marxist view, this will endow the proletarian with the power to abolish the conditions that make a person a proletarian and, thus, build communism.

Dictatorship of the proletariat Marxist political concept

In Marxist philosophy, the dictatorship of the proletariat is a state of affairs in which the working class hold political power. Proletarian dictatorship is the intermediate stage between a capitalist economy and a communist economy, whereby the government nationalises ownership of the means of production from private to collective ownership. The socialist revolutionary Joseph Weydemeyer coined the term "dictatorship of the proletariat", which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels adopted to their philosophy and economics. The Paris Commune (1871), which controlled the capital city for two months, before being suppressed, was an example of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In Marxist philosophy, the term "Dictatorship of the bourgeoisie" is the antonym to "dictatorship of the proletariat".

Communism socialist political movement and ideology

In political and social sciences, communism is the philosophical, social, political, and economic ideology and movement whose ultimate goal is the establishment of the communist society, which is a socioeconomic order structured upon the common ownership of the means of production and the absence of social classes, money, and the state.

Proletarii of the Roman Republic

The proletarii constituted a social class of Roman citizens owning little or no property. The origin of the name is presumably linked with the census, which Roman authorities conducted every five years to produce a register of citizens and their property from which their military duties and voting privileges could be determined. For citizens with property valued 11,000 assēs or less, which was below the lowest census for military service, their children—proles (from Latin prōlēs, "offspring")—were listed instead of their property; hence, the name proletarius, "the one who produces offspring". The only contribution of a proletarius to the Roman society was seen in his ability to raise children, the future Roman citizens who can colonize new territories conquered by the Roman Republic and later by the Roman Empire. The citizens who had no property of significance 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." [2] [note 1]

Social class in ancient Rome social status of Romans, established by :ancestry (patrician or plebeian) ;census rank (ordo) based on wealth and political privilege, and/or citizenship, of which there were grades with varying rights and privileges

Social class in ancient Rome was hierarchical, but there were multiple and overlapping social hierarchies, and an individual's relative position in one might be higher or lower than in another. The status of freeborn Romans during the Republic was established by:

Census Acquiring and recording information about the members of a given population

A census is the procedure of systematically acquiring and recording information about the members of a given population. The term is used mostly in connection with national population and housing censuses; other common censuses include agriculture, business, and traffic censuses. The United Nations defines the essential features of population and housing censuses as "individual enumeration, universality within a defined territory, simultaneity and defined periodicity", and recommends that population censuses be taken at least every 10 years. United Nations recommendations also cover census topics to be collected, official definitions, classifications and other useful information to co-ordinate international practice.

As (Roman coin) bronze and copper coin from the Roman era

The as, occasionally assarius was a bronze, and later copper, coin used during the Roman Republic and Roman Empire.

A manual laborer at work in Venezuela. Manual laborers are generally considered to be part of the proletariat. Working man-obrero 2.jpg
A manual laborer at work in Venezuela. Manual laborers are generally considered to be part of the proletariat.

Although included in one of the five support centuriae of the Comitia Centuriata (English: Centuriate Assembly), proletarii were largely deprived of their voting rights due to their low social status caused by their lack of "even the minimum property required for the lowest class" [3] and a class-based hierarchy of the Comitia Centuriata. The late Roman historians, such as Livy, not without some uncertainty, understood the Comitia Centuriata to be one of three forms of popular assembly of early Rome composed of centuriae, the voting units whose members represented a class of citizens according to the value of their property. This assembly, which usually met on the Campus Martius to discuss public policy issues, was also used as a means of designating military duties demanded of Roman citizens. [4] One of 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 . The top infantry class assembled with full arms and armor; the next two classes brought arms and armor, but less and lesser; the fourth class only spears; the fifth slings. In voting, the cavalry and top infantry class were enough to decide an issue; as voting started at the top, an issue might be decided before the lower classes voted. [5] In the last centuries of the Roman Republic (509–44 BC), the Comitia Centuriata became impotent as a political body, which further eroded already minuscule political power the proletarii might have had in the Roman society.

Centuria is a Latin term denoting military units consisting of (originally) 100 men. The size of the century changed over time and from the first century B.C.E. throughout most of the empire the standard size of a centuria was 80 men.

Centuriate Assembly

The Centuriate Assembly of the Roman Republic was one of the three voting assemblies in the Roman constitution. It was named the Centuriate Assembly as it originally divided Roman citizens into groups of one hundred men by classes. The Centuries originally reflected military status, but later reflected the wealth of their members. The Centuries gathered into the Centuriate Assembly for legislative, electoral, and judicial purposes. The majority of votes in any Century decided how that Century voted. Each Century received one vote, regardless of how many electors each Century held. Once a majority of Centuries voted in the same way on a given measure, the voting ended, and the matter was decided. Only the Centuriate Assembly could declare war or elect the highest-ranking Roman Magistrates: "'Consuls", "Praetors" and "Censors". The Centuriate Assembly could also pass a law that granted constitutional command authority, or "Imperium", to Consuls and Praetors, and Censorial powers to Censors. In addition, the Centuriate Assembly served as the highest court of appeal in certain judicial cases, and ratified the results of a Census.

Livy Roman historian

Titus Livius – simply rendered as Livy in English – was a Roman historian. He wrote a monumental history of Rome and the Roman people – Ab Urbe Condita Libri – covering the period from the earliest legends of Rome before the traditional foundation in 753 BC through the reign of Augustus in Livy's own lifetime. He was on familiar terms with members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and even in friendship with Augustus, whose young grandnephew, the future emperor Claudius, he exhorted to take up the writing of history.

Following a series of wars the Roman Republic engaged since the closing of the Second Punic War (218–201 BC), such as the Jugurthine War and conflicts in Macedonia and Asia, the significant reduction in the number of Roman family farmers had resulted in the shortage of people whose property qualified them to perform the citizenry's military duty to Rome. [6] As a result of the Marian reforms initiated in 107 BC by the Roman general Gaius Marius (157–86), the proletarii became the backbone of the Roman army. [7]

Second Punic War second war between the Roman Republic and Carthage, fought between 218 and 201 BCE

The Second Punic War, also referred to as The Hannibalic War and by the Romans the War Against Hannibal, was the second of three wars between Carthage and the Roman Republic, with the participation of Greek polities and Numidian and Iberian forces on both sides. It was one of the deadliest human conflicts of ancient times. Fought across the entire Western Mediterranean region for 17 years and regarded by ancient historians as the greatest war in history, it was waged with unparalleled resources, skill, and hatred. It saw hundreds of thousands killed, some of the most lethal battles in military history, the destruction of cities, and massacres and enslavements of civilian populations and prisoners of war by both sides.

Jugurthine War conflict

The Jugurthine War took place in 112–106 BC, between Rome and Jugurtha of Numidia, a kingdom on the north African coast approximating to modern Algeria. Jugurtha was the nephew and adopted son of Micipsa, King of Numidia, whom he succeeded on the throne, overcoming his rivals through assassination, war, and bribery.

Rome's military was always tightly keyed to its political system. In the Roman kingdom the social standing of a person impacted both his political and military roles. The political system was from an early date based upon competition within the ruling elite. Senators in the Republic competed fiercely for public office, the most coveted of which was the post of Consul. Two were elected each year to head the government of the state, and would be assigned a consular army and an area in which to campaign. From Gaius Marius and Sulla onwards, control of the army began to be tied into the political ambitions of individuals, leading to the political triumvirate of the 1st century BC and its military resolution. The late Republic and Empire was increasingly plagued by usurpations led by or supported by the military, leading to the crisis of the third century in the late empire.

Modern era reintroduction of Proletariat and Proletarian terms

In the era of early 19th century, many Western European liberal scholars - who dealt with social sciences and economics - pointed out the socio-economic similarieties of the modern rapidly growing industrial worker class and the classic ancient 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". [8]

Hugues Felicité Robert de Lamennais French priest, philosopher and political theorist

Hugues-Félicité Robert de Lamennais was a French Catholic priest, philosopher and political theorist. He was one of the most influential intellectuals of Restoration France. Lamennais is considered the forerunner of liberal Catholicism and social Catholicism.

Swiss liberal economist and historian Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi , was the first who applied the proletariat term to the working class created under capitalism, and whose writings were frequently cited by Marx. Marx most likely encountered the Proletariat term while studying the works of Sismondi. [9] [10] [11] [12]

Marxist theory

Karl Marx, who studied Roman law at the Friedrich Wilhelm University of Berlin, [13] used the term proletariat in his socio-political theory of Marxism to describe a working class unadulterated by private property and capable of a revolutionary action to topple capitalism in order to create classless society. In Marxist theory, the proletariat is the social class that does not have ownership of the means of production and whose only means of subsistence is to sell their labor power [14] for a wage or salary. Proletarians are wage-workers, while some refer to those who receive salaries as the salariat. For Marx, however, wage labor 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.

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

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 lumpenproletariat, 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. Marx makes a clear distinction between proletariat as salaried workers, which he sees as 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. [15] [16] 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 to survive and to provide labor to the capitalist companies. [17] 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 capitalized surplus value. [18] What remains is consumed by the capitalist class.

The commodities that proletarians produce and capitalists sell are valued for the amount of labor embodied in them. The same goes for the workers' labor power itself: it is valued, not for the amount of wealth it produces, but for the amount of labor necessary to produce and reproduce it. Thus the capitalists earn wealth from the labor 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 labor applied to natural resources. [19]

Marx argued that the proletariat would 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". [20]

Prole drift

Prole drift, short for proletarian drift, is the tendency in advanced industrialized societies for everything inexorably to become proletarianized, or to become commonplace and commodified. This trend is attributed to mass production, mass selling, mass communication and mass education. Examples include best-seller lists, films and music that must appeal to the masses, and shopping malls. [21]

See also


  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). Compare Toynbee, A Study of History (Oxford University 1934–1961), 12 volumes, in Volume V Disintegration of Civilizations, part one (1939) at 58–194 (internal proletariat), and at 194–337 (external proletariat).

Related Research Articles

Anti-capitalism political ideology

Anti-capitalism encompasses a wide variety of movements, ideas and attitudes that oppose capitalism. Anti-capitalists, in the strict sense of the word, are those who wish to replace capitalism with another type of economic system.

In economics and sociology, the means of production are physical and non-financial inputs used in the production of economic value. These include raw materials, facilities, machinery and tools used in the production of goods and services. In the terminology of classical economics, the means of production are the "factors of production" minus financial and human capital.

Marxs theory of alienation

Karl Marx's theory of alienation describes the estrangement (Entfremdung) of people from aspects of their Gattungswesen ("species-essence") as a consequence of living in a society of stratified social classes. The alienation from the self is a consequence of being a mechanistic part of a social class, the condition of which estranges a person from their humanity.

Marxist feminism

Marxist feminism is feminism focused on investigating and explaining the ways in which women are oppressed through systems of capitalism and private property. According to Marxist feminists, women's liberation can only be achieved through a radical restructuring of the current capitalist economy, in which, they contend, much of women's labor is uncompensated.

Marxism economic and sociopolitical worldview based on the works of Karl Marx

Marxism is a theory and method of working-class self-emancipation. As a theory, it relies on a method of socioeconomic analysis that views class relations and social conflict using a materialist interpretation of historical development and takes a dialectical view of social transformation. It originates from the works of 19th-century German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.


In Marxism, proletarianization is the social process whereby people move from being either an employer, unemployed or self-employed, to being employed as wage labor by an employer. Proletarianization is often seen as the most important form of downward social mobility.

Marxian class theory asserts that an individual’s position within a class hierarchy is determined by their role in the production process, and argues that political and ideological consciousness is determined by class position. A class is those who share common economic interests, are conscious of those interests, and engage in collective action which advances those interests. Within Marxian class theory, the structure of the production process forms the basis of class construction.

Free association (Marxism and anarchism)

Free association, also known as free association of producers, is a relationship among individuals where there is no state, social class, authority, or private ownership of means of production. Once private property is abolished, individuals are no longer deprived of access to means of production, thus enabling them to freely associate without social constraint to produce and reproduce their own conditions of existence and fulfill their individual and creative needs and desires. The term is used by anarchists and Marxists and is often considered a defining feature of a fully developed communist society.

Immiseration thesis

In Marxist theory and Marxian economics, the immiseration thesis is derived from Karl Marx's analysis of economic development in capitalism, implying that the nature of capitalist production stabilizes real wages, reducing wage growth relative to total value creation in the economy, leading to worsening alienation in the workplace.


Lumpenproletariat is a term used primarily by Marxist theorists to describe the underclass devoid of class consciousness. Coined by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the 1840s, they used it to refer to the "unthinking" lower strata of society exploited by reactionary and counter-revolutionary forces, particularly in the context of the revolutions of 1848. They dismissed its revolutionary potential and contrasted it with the proletariat. Among other groups criminals, vagabonds, and prostitutes are usually included in this category.

Working class those employed in lower tier jobs

The working class comprises those engaged in waged or salaried labour, especially in manual-labour occupations and industrial work. Working-class occupations include blue-collar jobs, some white-collar jobs, and most pink-collar jobs. Members of the working class rely for their income exclusively upon their earnings from wage labour; thus, according to the more inclusive definitions, the category can include almost all of the working population of industrialized economies, as well as those employed in the urban areas of non-industrialized economies or in the rural workforce.

In Karl Marx's critique of political economy and subsequent Marxian analyses, the capitalist mode of production refers to the systems of organizing production and distribution within capitalist societies. Private money-making in various forms preceded the development of the capitalist mode of production as such. The capitalist mode of production proper, based on wage-labour and private ownership of the means of production and on industrial technology, began to grow rapidly in Western Europe from the Industrial Revolution, later extending to most of the world.

Classical Marxism economic, philosophical, and sociological theories expounded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Classical Marxism refers to the economic, philosophical and sociological theories expounded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as contrasted with later developments in Marxism, especially Leninism and Marxism–Leninism.

<i>Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844</i> literary work by Karl Marx

Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 are a series of notes written between April and August 1844 by Karl Marx. Not published by Marx during his lifetime, they were first released in 1932 by researchers in the Soviet Union.

Socialist mode of production

In Marxist theory, socialism refers to a specific historical phase of economic development and its corresponding set of social relations that emerge from capitalism in the schema of historical materialism. The Marxist definition of socialism is an economic transition where the sole criterion for production is use-value and therefore the law of value no longer directs economic activity. Marxist production for use is coordinated through conscious economic planning, while distribution of products is based on the principle of to each according to his contribution. The social relations of socialism are characterized by the proletariat effectively controlling the means of production, either through cooperative enterprises or by public ownership or private artisanal tools and self-management, so that social surplus goes to the working class, and hence society as a whole. Karl Marx himself did not use the term "socialism" to refer to this development, but rather called it a communist society that has not yet reached its "higher-stage." The term "socialism" was popularized during the Russian Revolution by Vladimir Lenin.

<i>Das Kapital</i> Book by Karl Marx

Das Kapital, also called Capital. A Critique of Political Economy by Karl Marx is a foundational theoretical text in materialist philosophy, economics and politics. Marx aimed to reveal the economic patterns underpinning the capitalist mode of production in contrast to classical political economists such as Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill. While Marx did not live to publish the planned second and third parts, they were both completed from his notes and published after his death by his colleague Friedrich Engels. Das Kapital is the most cited book in the social sciences published before 1950.

Collectivist anarchism is a revolutionary anarchist doctrine that advocates the abolition of both the state and private ownership of the means of production as it instead envisions the means of production being owned collectively and controlled and managed by the producers themselves.

In the theoretical works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and subsequent Marxist writers, socialization is the process of transforming the act of producing and distributing goods and services from a solitary to a social relationship and collective endeavor. With the development of capitalism, production becomes centralized in firms and increasingly mechanized in contrast to the pre-capitalist modes of production where the act of production was a largely solitary act performed by individuals. Socialization occurs due to centralization of capital in industries where there are increasing returns to scale and a deepening of the division of labor and the specialization in skills necessary for increasingly complex forms of production and value creation. Progressive socialization of the forces of production under capitalism eventually comes into conflict with the persistence of relations of production based on private property; this contradiction between socialized production and private appropriation of the social product forms the impetus for the socialization of property relations (socialism).


  1. proletariat. Accessed: 6 June 2013.
  2. Adolf Berger, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society 1953) at 380; 657.
  3. Berger, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law (1953) at 351; 657 (quote).
  4. Titus Livius (c.59 BC – AD 17), Ab urbe condita , 1, 43; the first five books translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt as Livy, The Early History of Rome (Penguin 1960, 1971) at 81–82.
  5. Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic (Oxford University 1999) at 55–61, re the Comitia Centuriata.
  6. Cf., Theodor Mommsen, Römisches Geschichte (1854–1856), 3 volumes; translated as History of Rome (1862–1866), 4 volumes; reprint (The Free Press 1957) at vol. III: 48–55 (Mommsen's Bk. III, ch. XI toward end).
  7. H. H. Scullard, Gracchi to Nero. A History of Rome from 133 BC to AD 68 (London: Methuen 1959, 4th ed. 1976) at 51–52.
  8. Félicité Robert de Lamennais: Modern Slavery (1840)
  9. Ekins, Paul; Max-Neef, Manfred (2006). Real Life Economics. Routledge. pp. 91–93.
  10. Ekelund Jr, Robert B.; Hébert, Robert F. (2006). A History of Economic Theory and Method: Fifth Edition. Waveland Press. p. 226.
  11. Lutz, Mark A. (2002). Economics for the Common Good: Two Centuries of Economic Thought in the Humanist Tradition. Routledge. pp. 55–57.
  12. Stedman Jones, Gareth (2006). "Saint-Simon and the Liberal origins of the Socialist critique of Political Economy". In Aprile, Sylvie; Bensimon, Fabrice. La France et l'Angleterre au XIXe siècle. Échanges, représentations, comparaisons. Créaphis. pp. 21–47.
  13. Cf., Sidney Hook, Marx and the Marxists (Princeton: Van Nostrand 1955) at 13.
  14. Marx, Karl (1887). "Chapter Six: The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power". In Frederick Engels. Das Kapital, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie[Capital: Critique of Political Economy]. Moscow: Progress Publishers. Retrieved 10 February 2013.
  15. Lumpen proletariat – Britannica Online Encyclopedia
  16. Marx, Karl (February 1848). "Bourgeois and Proletarians". Manifesto of the Communist Party. Progress Publishers. Retrieved 10 February 2013.
  17. Marx, Karl. The Capital, volume 1, chapter 6.
  18. Luxemburg, Rosa. The Accumulation of Capital. Chapter 6, Enlarged Reproduction,
  19. Marx, Karl. Critique of the Gotha Programme, I.
  20. Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto, part II, Proletarians and Communists
  21. Fussell, Paul (October 1992). Class, A Guide Through the American Status System. New York: Ballantine. ISBN   978-0-345-31816-9.

Further reading