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" The fourth estate " (1901) by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo is one of the best-known representations of the modern proletariat.

In ancient Rome, the proletariat (from Latin proles , `` the offspring '') referred to the social class of landless and propertyless wage-dependent , but not enslaved, citizens in the city-state who were not subject to tax or military service. Adopted from Latin, the term first appeared in England in the 19th century and later in other European countries, but it was not until the French Revolution that it was reluctantly used as a name for the Fourth Estate (more correctly: the subordinate, none of the three Classes belonging to the groups). Henri de Saint-Simon spoke for the first time about the class of the proletarians around 1820 . Since 1830 the term has been used to denote the pauperized lower classes, who are seen as a threat to social and political stability. This is done e.g. B. Lorenz von Stein , who sees the danger in the need of the propertyless and uneducated proletarians, “not to remain entirely without those goods that give personality its value.” Since around the middle of the 19th century, the term has primarily been used the industrial workers created as a result of the industrial revolution . According to Karl Marx , proletarians are doubly free wage laborers, people who have nothing other than their labor power, who can therefore earn the majority of their livelihood by selling their labor power alone .

From the Marxist world view, in a capitalist society they stand in irreconcilable opposition to the possessing class, the bourgeoisie .

While sociology today speaks of the new proletariat , the term proletariat itself rarely occurs in everyday language . However, the terms " Prolet " or, more recently, "Proll" derived therefrom are commonly used as swear words or discriminatory terms in everyday language . Behind this are cliché-like derogatory attributions. The term "proletarian" and especially the term "proletarian" are comparatively fuzzy and in some cases differ considerably from the term used to describe a social group in the sociological sense (class, class, milieu); They usually associate (instead of economic inequality) with more cultural evaluations, on the one hand in the sense of coarse, vulgar , uncultivated , uneducated or even barbaric or cultureless , sometimes also in contrast to intellectual , on the other hand in the sense of pretentious or coarse, not very refined Bragging about fashion items or behavior.


Returning reapers by Jakob Becker : A romantic painter's look at the rural proletariat in the 19th century

The German term proletariat comes from the Latin term proletarius . Following the original meaning of the word, proletarius means "concerning the offspring". The current meaning of the word is derived from this: The proletariat is the population group that "only supports the state with their descendants and not with their property."

The proletariat in ancient Rome

During the expansion of the Imperium Romanum , slaves were brought to Rome en masse as spoils of war and used as farm workers on large estates . Since these large farms produced much more efficiently than the small farmers, they lost their livelihood. Small farmers moved to the capital, where they lived as landless, yet free Roman citizens alongside the noble patricians and non-noble plebeians (especially farmers and artisans). Since they had nothing more than their right to vote , the proles sold this for food to the rich upper class.

The workers' proletariat of the industrial revolution

Painting “ Eisenwalzwerk ” (1872–1875) by Adolph Menzel , in the style of realism

Just like the ancient proletariat, the proletariat of the time of the industrial revolution were people who had to give up their peasant or small-scale livelihoods and moved to the cities. The reason was industrialization, starting with the textile industry . The publishing system , which is often associated with working from home , represented a pre-form of industrialization. The small craft could no longer keep up with its much more efficient production methods. On the other hand, the newly emerging factories needed workers, so that more and more of the former artisans and farmers went to the cities, giving up their land or their workshops, and became (industrial) workers , the industrial proletariat. This genesis of capitalism is described and analyzed in the 24th chapter of Karl Marx's main work Das Kapital , mostly using the example of England, where farmland was converted into sheep pasture in order to supply raw materials to wool factories or steam-powered looms that were already producing for the world market. The evicted peasants, some of them craftsmen, were forced into the emerging factories by brutal police measures and tramp laws.

They were exploited there in a hitherto unknown manner ; the daily working hours were up to 18 hours. There was no rest on Sundays and public holidays. In coal mines , cheaper women's labor and child labor became common. After long bans and struggles, these abuses ultimately led to the establishment of trade unions and the emergence of the workers' movement such as Marxism .

Proletariat after Marx

According to Karl Marx's definition, the proletariat is a new class that emerged with the development of the Industrial Revolution. While previously there were essentially relatively free craftsmen and serfs or tenant farmers who had means of production such as tools and agricultural land, the proletariat created a new class that no longer had means of production or no longer socially competitive means of production (e.g. weavers) who - in contrast to serf peasants - freely dispose of their labor. Using England as an example, Marx describes how the introduction of machine looms increased the need for wool and the prices for wool and was used to convert the farmland leased to farmers into sheep pastures to increase wool production. The peasants, driven from the farm and driven around the whole country hungry, could only survive where the emerging manufactories or factories could use this new class of dependent proletarians. According to Marx, the peculiarity of this new class and its definition consists in the “doubly free worker” - free from the means of production that enable him to support himself and free to sell their only property, themselves or, more precisely, their labor. During Marx's lifetime, the definition of the proletariat mainly included factory workers, but in principle includes all those who can earn their living exclusively or mainly only by selling their labor. This means that today's larger groups of workers such as employees, civil servants (are, according to Marx, not proletarians, since they are subject to the account of the state and not of capital, e.g. teachers: a teacher in a private school is a proletarian, in a state School, on the other hand, although he does the same job), even employed managers who carry out the functions of capitalists, by definition proletarians and at least today by far the largest class. Marx assumed that because of the increasing oligopolization and globalization of capitalism and its immanent crisis- prone nature, in particular the tendency of the rate of profit to fall in serious crises, would result in the self-liberation of the proletariat and lead to a classless society. Karl Heinz Roth speaks of the (new) proletarity in the course of a re-projecting of revolutionary practice .

Definition of the proletariat according to Immanuel Wallerstein

After Wallerstein characterizes the bourgeoisie by the fact that it has added value which it has not generated itself and is in a position to invest it in capital goods, the result for the proletariat is that it consists of those who have earned parts of what they have earned Giving added value to others. Receiving wages is not in itself a feature of the proletariat. Because the producer creates the value that he does not keep as a whole, but gives it to someone else in part or in whole, for which he in turn receives nothing or goods or wages depending on the type of work. Thus, under capitalism, there is a structural polarity between the bourgeoisie on the one hand and the proletariat on the other.

Wallerstein characterizes the process of proletarianization through the spread of wage labor in the course of the historical development of the capitalist world economy. This is explained by the fact that capitalism's inherent need for expansion regularly has to overcome bottlenecks due to a lack of global demand, and one way of overcoming such bottlenecks is the spread of wage labor. This increases the share of surplus value that the producer retains and which he consequently has at his disposal for consumption . Global demand increases accordingly. Steady expansion can only be achieved through wages, since these generate demand.

Wage labor is also of political importance. Because as wages rise, so do the formal rights of the proletarians and with them their class consciousness. However, this only happens up to a certain point, until the proletarian becomes in fact a bourgeois.

Competing terms for the term "proletariat"

The terms “proletariat” and “working class” are used particularly heavily in the Marxist context and associate exploitation realities and aspirations for emancipation (through reform or revolution ). The concept of class is sharply demarcated from the concept of social status from the start . Since the first half of the 20th century, the concept of class has also been seen in competition with the concept of class and, since the second half of the 20th century, in addition to and / or competition with the concept of social milieu . In relation to the proletariat, the competing - if not congruent - terms are fourth estate, lower class and working class. It is z. Sometimes differentiated between traditional and untraditional working class milieu. With Gerhard Schulze , they are replaced by a harmonious environment and an entertainment environment, i.e. milieus that are more strongly characterized by leisure activities and lifestyle choices. For a few years now, the concept of the new lower class has also appeared in the discussion , which is now being introduced more from the left.

Instead of “proletarians”, the less negative term “factory worker” was used in the 19th century. In the 1950s there were also approaches that viewed the class antagonism as entirely out of date. You spoke of the leveled medium-sized company . On the other hand, at the beginning of the 21st century, a new discussion of the term precariat started.

See also


  • Götz Briefs: The industrial proletariat. In: Grundriss der Sozialökonomik. IX. Department: The Social System of Capitalism. 1st part, Tübingen 1926, pp. 142-240.
  • Werner Conze: From the 'rabble' to the 'proletariat'. Social-historical prerequisites for socialism in Germany. In: Hans-Ulrich Wehler (Hrsg.): Modern German social history. Cologne 1973.
  • Peter Decker, Konrad Hecker: The proletariat. Politically emancipated - socially disciplined - globally exploited - nationalistically depraved - the great career of the wage class is coming to its just end . GegenStandpunkt Verlag, Munich 2002, ISBN 3-929211-05-X .
  • Marianne Feuersenger (Ed.): Is there still a proletariat? With contributions by Hans Paul Bahrdt , Walter Dirks , Walter Maria Guggenheimer , Paul Jostock , Burkart Lutz and Heinz Theo Risse. Documentation of a series of broadcasts by Bayerischer Rundfunk . European Publishing House, Frankfurt am Main 1962.
  • Chris Harman : Workers of the World - The Working Class in the 21st Century. Translation from English by Thomas Walter. Edition aurora, Frankfurt am Main, ISBN 3-934536-08-5 .
  • Karl Heinz Roth : The new class relations and the perspective of the left - weaknesses and strengths of an overdue discussion proposal. In: Karl Heinz Roth (ed.): The return of proletarity. Documentation of the debate. Cologne 1994.
  • Edward P. Thompson : The Origin of the English Working Class . 2 volumes, Frankfurt am Main 1987. Original: The Making of the English Working Class (1963, reprinted as Penguin Book 1980).
  • Michael Vester : The emergence of the proletariat as a learning process. The emergence of anti-capitalist theory and practice in England 1792–1848 . Frankfurt am Main 1970.

Individual evidence

  1. Werner Conze: Proletariat, Proletarians. In: Historical Dictionary of Philosophy. Volume 7, 1989, Col. 1458.
  2. wikt: proletarius
  3. Immanuel Wallerstein: The class conflict in the capitalist world economy. In: Etienne Balibar, Immanuel Wallerstein: Race, Class, Nation. Ambivalent identities. Hamburg 1998, pp. 141–153.
  4. Dieter Schäfer : Aspects of the economic history of Würzburg from the end of the Old Empire to the present. Problems, projects, developments, markets, factories, firms, branches, employment, entrepreneurs and the role of the city in two centuries. In: Ulrich Wagner (Hrsg.): History of the city of Würzburg. 4 volumes, Volume I-III / 2, Theiss, Stuttgart 2001-2007; III / 1–2: From the transition to Bavaria to the 21st century. Volume 2, 2007, ISBN 978-3-8062-1478-9 , pp. 1321 f., Note 75.

Web links

Wiktionary: Proletariat  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations