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The proletariat (//; 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 labour 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.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) argued that this capitalist oppression gives the proletariat common economic and political interests that transcend national boundaries, impelling them to unite and to take over power from the capitalist class, and eventually to create a communist society free from class distinctions.
Further information: Constitution of the Roman Republic
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."[note 1]
Although included in the Comitia Centuriata (Centuriate Assembly), proletarii were the lowest class, largely deprived of voting rights. Late Roman historians such as Livy 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. 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 armour, 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.
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 Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi was the first to apply the proletariat term to the working class created under capitalism, and whose writings were frequently cited by Karl Marx. Marx most likely encountered the term while studying the works of Sismondi.
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Marx, who studied Roman law at the Friedrich Wilhelm University of Berlin, used the term proletariat in his socio-political theory (Marxism) to describe a progressive working class untainted by private property 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 (factories, machines, land, mines, buildings, vehicles) and whose only means of subsistence is to sell their labour power for a wage or salary.
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 outside of legal employment: the poorest outcasts of society such as beggars, tricksters, entertainers, buskers, criminals and prostitutes. Socialist 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 the 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 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), either in quantity or quality. The second and third parts are known as surplus value, the difference between the wealth the proletariat produce and the wealth they consume.
Marxists argue that new wealth is created through labour applied to natural resources. The commodities that proletarians produce and capitalists sell are valued not for their usefulness, but for the amount of labour embodied in them: for example, air is essential but requires no labour 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' labour power: it is valued not for the amount of wealth it produces, but for the amount of labour 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 labour, 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 proletarian's 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".
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).: 363 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.: 363 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.: 363 Exactly what constituted a proper proletarian class consciousness was subject to intellectual and political debate.: 97
Marx argued that each social class had its characteristic culture and politics. The socialist states stemming from the Russian Revolution championed and created the official version of proletarian culture.
Some[who?] have argued that this assessment has become outdated with the advent of mass education, mass communication and globalization. According to this argument, the working-class culture of capitalist countries tend to experience "prole drift" (proletarian drift), in which everything inexorably becomes commonplace and commodified. Examples include best-seller lists, films, music made to appeal to the masses, and shopping malls.
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.
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.
[...] Marx offered the classless society as the solution to the enigma of history.