Proletariat: Meaning, Rise and Nature

After reading this article you will learn about Proletariat:

1. Meaning of Proletariat

2. Rise of Proletariat

3. Nature of Proletariat as a Class.

Meaning of Proletariat:

The term proletariat has its origin in Rome. When the Roman state was at the pinnacle of its power and glory, its citizens were chiefly divided into two classes owners and non-owners of property.

The owners paid direct taxes to the state, whereas the non-owners had not the capacity in financial term to pay taxes. They gave the state their children. In Latin, children or offspring mean “proles”.

“Prole­tarians”, writes Ryazanoff, “constituted that class of citizens who owned nothing but the arms of their body and the children of their loins”.

The proletarians of ancient Rome had nothing but their own children to offer. From this the modern term is derived. Today we mean by proletarian a man who has nothing but his labour power to sell.

He is not the owner of any means of production. The proletarian of ancient Rome had neither freedom nor education. The proletarians were the hopeless fellows of Roman society. But the proletarians of our society are in a better position.

Bourgeois system provides for them an education with which they can fight against the injustice. In the background of this analysis we can define proletarian.

D. Ryazanoff, the celebrated interpreter of Manifesto, offers us the following definition of proletariat:

“The proletariat is that class of society whose means of livelihood entirely depends on the sale of its labour, and not on the profits derived from capital whose weal and woe, whose life and death, whose whole existence depend on the demand for labour, depend on the alterations of good times and bad, on the fluctuations which are the outcome of unbridled competition. The proletariat or class of proletarians, is, in a word, the working class of the nineteenth century”.

Proletarians, poor people, or working classes, do not mean the same thing. In the history of the development of capitalism the term proletarian has a special significance and meaning. However, the definition given by Ryazanoff is treated by both Marxists and non-Marxists as more or less standard.

Rise of Proletariat:

The Industrial Revolution in England took place in the second half of the eighteenth century and the proletariat class can reasonably be called the product of this Revolution. Before the industrialization there were poor people, but they were different from the modern proletariat. The series of scientific and technological discoveries rendered the age-old tools and machines irrelevant for an industrialized society of Europe.

The introduction of new machines threw the users from jobs which made them unemployed. Again, since the installation of these machines required a fabulous amount of capital, only the wealthy persons could lay out the new machines.

The other side of the picture was that the workers had no access to means of production. The invention of machinery handed over industry to the great capitalists. The society was automatically divided into two broad groups one was the owner of the means of production and the other was the worker who had labour to sell.

The rapid progress of industrialisation was the primary cause of the rise of proletariat as a separate class. The number of proletarians swelled day after day due to the impact of rapid industrialisation.

The manufacturing industry developed, peasants and workers of the rural area flocked to the city in search of new jobs because they had already lost jobs in rural areas. They had only their labour power for sale.

The expansion of the labour market threw the workers into keen competition among themselves, which was fully exploited by the capitalists. They paid mini­mum wage. The proletarians are different from peasants in the sense that the latter were owners of certain amount of means of production while the former were not.

Nature of Proletariat as a Class:

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx said, “The Roman proletariat lived at the expense of society, whereas modern society lives at the expense of the proletariat.”

The only recognition of a modern proletarian is he sells his labour- power to the capitalist and, in exchange of that he gets a certain amount of money which is called wage. But this wage is insufficient for his livelihood.

The capitalists earn profit from the sale of commodities produced by the proletarians. The whole structure of capitalist society stands on this unearned income or surplus value. To put it in other words, the proletariat is the producer of surplus value.

Marx, in several of his works, mentions the proletariat as a universal class. Scholars hold the view that Marx, of course, is not the inventor of the term. Analysing the nature of bureaucracy and also its role the German philosopher Hegel used the phrase universal class. To Hegel bureaucracy was the universal class. But Marx does not recognize it as a universal class. To him, proletariat is really a universal class.

He analyses the universal class in the background of dialectics. In the process of social development there emerge at different stages new classes. The new generation welcomes this new class.

Marx says that at a particular stage of social development a particular class may be the universal class. But in the next stage that class may not be entitled to that status. In Hegel’s time bureaucracy was the universal class. But the development of capitalism completely changed the economic and political scene of society.

The bureaucracy is no longer a dominant or universal class. That place, according to Marx, has been occupied by the proletariat. He further says that throughout history the process of rise and decline of classes continues.

In Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right Marx has elaborately dealt with the concept of the universal class. Here he has said that, that class is to be called universal which represents the entire society and imbues it with new ideas and imagination. It must have definite objectives and look after the interests of the whole society.

It must demonstrate the ways how to emancipate the society from the evils and, if necessary, it shall fight for the general welfare of the people. In The German Ideology Marx said that while a class is fighting or revolting, it is not doing that as a class, but as a representative of the society.

In the words of Avineri “only because he sees in the proletariat, the contemporary and final, realisation of universality, does Marx endow the proletariat with a historical significance and mission?” It is here to be noted that Marx’s conception of proletariat is all-embracing.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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