In Marxist theory and analysis, the proletariat is a social category that is a central topic of analysis and discussion. Nevertheless, confusion abounds among Marxists over what exactly the proletariat is. In fact, much to the consternation of many normative Marxists, RAIM has developed a line which unequivocally states that a majority of the workers of First World oppressor nations are not part of the proletariat.
For most contemporary Marxists, the proletariat is a group of people which ‘owns nothing but its own labor-power, which it must sell to the bourgeoisie in order to survive.’ This is merely technical language for ‘all workers.’ For us, this definition is too broad and vague. After all, many First World workers accumulate plenty of commodities, some of them appreciable such as homes. In hard times, they can always re-sell their stuff. More to the point, if the proletariat is ‘all workers,’ then the term ‘proletariat’ is itself looted of its meaning, becoming a signifier of oppression only, and the reification of a highly heterogeneous group. Not surprisingly, efforts by such Marxists to organize the ‘proletariat’ as ‘all workers’ have met with consistent failure and often earned the animosity and dismissal of gender- and nationally-oppressed peoples.
Ignoring the modern Marxists for a moment, Engels described the proletariat as:
“The proletariat is that class in society which lives entirely from the sale of its labor and does not draw profit from any kind of capital; whose weal and woe, whose life and death, whose sole existence depends on the demand for labor – hence, on the changing state of business, on the vagaries of unbridled competition.”
By this definition, for example, workers who invest into a 401k or pension (thus investing into and earning a profit from capital) can’t technically be part of the proletariat. In 2012, 46% of employees in the US participated in such workplace retirement plans while 61% were eligible. This alone casts doubt on the typical Marxist line on ‘all workers’ or the whole ‘working-class’ being the proletariat.
So what then is the proletariat?
First of all, the proletariat is a class. A class is a group of people brought together and defined by their relationship to other groups within a mode of production. In the case of capitalism, classes are defined by their relationship to the accumulation of capital. The proletariat is the class of people whose labor is the source of value, their exploitation being the engine and a primary source (along with nature) of capital expansion.
Not every member of the proletariat need be engaged in wage labor all the time; there exists the uniquely capitalist need for ‘a reserve army of labor’ only intermittently supplying formal labor-power. Nevertheless, the proletariat consists of a group whose members’ exploited labor forms the basis of profit for the class of capital owners, the bourgeoisie.
Why is the proletariat significant?
According to orthodox Marxism, the proletariat was structurally, strategically, and increasingly subjectively poised to seize the means of production, economically liquidate the bourgeoisie, and transform the economy into one based on rational planning and the absence of antagonistically divided groups (i.e., classes) in the mode of production.
While today’s conditions are somewhat different than in Marx’s day, notably the ossification of structures of colonialism into imperialist parasitism, the basic significance of the proletariat as the exploited class is the same. It has the ability to collectively engage in the ‘passive action’ of withdrawing its labor from the capitalist system through not simply striking, but also by building dual power, anti-hegemonic institutions, and socialist economics systems. In doing so the proletariat transforms itself into its own ruling class via the resolution of its antagonistic relationship with the bourgeoisie.
So why are a majority of oppressor nation workers in countries like the United States, Israel, and Australia not part of the proletariat? Simply put, they are not exploited.
Value is based on the quantity of abstract labor-time. Value is described as containing labor-time in abstract because it is based on a temporal social average, which in today’s world-economy must include the labor of all workers globally, from the children in African mines, to teenage girls in Asian sweatshop workers, to First World and metropole retail workers, to highly parasitical ‘surplus’ workers in the sales and finance sectors, among others.
Exploitation, then, is the supplying of a given quantity of labor within the labor process for a lesser amount (in the form of wages and other renumeration) in return. Due to the unequal structure of capital accumulation under imperialism, some workers are paid a price (wage) for labor-power (concrete labor) which is representationally greater than an equal quantity of abstract labor (value). Such a situation can exist only in a system of structural divisions among workers and the existence of steep wage scaling. This type of situation, which was never investigated by Marx or Engels, is readily apparent today.
When we say there is no white proletariat, for example, this does not preclude the notion that some workers of the white nation might be exploited. Instead, such exploited white workers do not themselves constitute a) a stable group with characteristics of a class with b) a clear exploited relationship to capital expansion generally c) in such a way that situates them as capable, either structurally, strategically, or subjectively, of overthrowing the rule of capital.
Lenin was the first highly notably revolutionary to remark on the structural trend of the embourgeoification of the working class in imperialist countries and its political implications for the proletarian movement:
“…as the result of a far-reaching colonial policy the European proletariat has partly reached a situation where it is not its work that maintains the whole of society but that of the people of the colonies who are practically enslaved…. In certain countries these circumstances create the material and economic basis for infecting the proletariat of one country or another with colonial chauvinism.”
Against the chauvinism of Trotsky (the O.G. of First Worldism), Lenin in the last years of his life foresaw the center of gravity of the revolutionary movement heading ‘east’ toward the colonized and semi-colonial world comprised of nations oppressed under imperialism. This trend of thought was further systematized in the revolutionary foreign policy line in Maoist China known as global people’s war, which saw the struggles of Africa, Asia, and Latin America as being the foremost threat to US-led imperialism. Both of these lines moved toward locating the ‘proletariat’ as the most exploited and oppressed peoples vis a vis capital accumulation ordered along imperialist lines.
At the bare minimum, and if we want to resort to the rhetoric of the Communist Manifesto, we could consider the proletariat as a class “with nothing to losing but its chains” and “a world to win.” That is, the proletariat has no material stake or class interest in the current order and every reason to move in support of its own empowerment by overthrowing the ruling classes. Yet can this be said of the average First World worker?
In 2012, the U.S. median income was $15,480. In the same period, the gross world product, the monetary measurement of all economic activity, was $71.83 trillion. Divided equally among the population, the economic product of the world amounts to around $10,000 per person (or approximately $12,400 on the basis of purchasing power parity).
That means that if all economic output settled into direct income on an egalitarian basis and that no amount was invested into the public sector or private investment toward the replenishment and expansion of the means of production, most people in the United States would see a decline in their material livelihoods as rated by their ability to consume a certain quantity of labor. In effect, the median USian would go from having a $15,480 income to all USians having an effective income of $12,400, with nothing but individual savings to invest for the following year.
From this, we can see that many First World workers and at least over half of the population of the United States have an immediate material interest in preserving the system of global inequality. Can this material interest be measured in other ways? In some respects, it can. We only need ask if a system could conceptually be build where all people are brought up to a material standard of living equal to today’s First Worlders. Could all people around the world have 2,700 calorie diets and waste upwards of a third of their edible food, or would this impose insurmountable strain on local and global ecologies? Similarly, could all people live in large single family homes, drive personal vehicles 50 miles a day, dedicate huge amounts of resources and space toward sterile and unproductive grass yards, burn through personal technologies hardware (like phones and computers) almost as quickly as fashions, all without accomplishing even wider and more irreversible environmental destruction than we are witnessing today? The obvious answer is no. Thus, we can see how many First World workers have a material stake in the maintenance of capitalist-imperialism. Their relative luxury and privilege, after all, are both dependent on and defined by the exclusion of the majority of the working class.
If we must technically categorize on the basis of economics this section of the workers who are clearly not part of the proletariat, we might describe them as a mass petty-bourgeoisie. Such workers are ‘petty-bourgeoisie’ in that they are sustained both through the product of their own labor and the surplus generated via the exploitation of other workers. Though not a class unto itself (and more aptly described as the hanger-on of imperialism), this section often has its own independent class interest which is tied to the perpetuation of imperialism for its exclusive benefit vis a vis other workers.
Politically, the ‘class consciousness’ of the mass petty-bourgeoisie makes it a mass base of both social democracy and fascism. Under times of social peace, the mass working petty-bourgeoisie plays a role in pacifying oppressed peoples by injecting into their movements opportunism and revisionism, by sowing a million tiny lies about capitalist-imperialism and the struggle for communism. In times of social antagonism, the mass petty-bourgeoisie becomes the front-line defenders of imperialism and among the most fanatic supporters of reaction. ‘Nuke them all,’ for example, is not considered a valid perspective by the imperialist bourgeoisie. Yet this ultra-reactionary refrain about Third World and sections of formerly colonized peoples, if not a direct product of such petty-bourgeois conspicuousness, is functionally designed to tap into it. The mass petty bourgeois mentality of social democracy and fascism is inherently exclusionary. This comes to the fore when it demands a hand-off libertarian approach toward ‘natural citizens’ simultaneous to tighter border security and ‘tough on crime’ legislation targeting oppressed peoples. Though elements of the mass petty-bourgeoisie can and must be won over to the side of proletarian revolution, they are not as a group natural or consistent allies.
It is accurate to say that members of this ‘mass-petty bourgeoisie’ who do engage in revolutionary work are aiming for revolutionary ‘class suicide.’ That is, they are working to negate through conscious struggle the systems of oppression and exploitation from which they structurally benefit. This class suicide can only be accomplished through actively siding with and advancing the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat at large. Though few and far between, such traitors to oppressive roles have existed throughout history, from the radical abolitionist and martyr John Brown to the revolutionary anti-imperialist and political prisoner David Gilbert. Despite the valuable contributions of handfuls of such ‘revolutionary traitors,’ their effective capacity to alone overthrow capitalism is nonexistent.
Abstractly speaking, it is possible to locate the proletariat in the realm of oppression. Oppression is a social relation external to production which nonetheless functions to mediate the economic relationship of exploitation. In contemporary society, the three main forms of oppression are national, gender, and the generalized hegemony of the worker-owner relationship. These ‘strands’ of oppression function to ‘tie down’ groups of people into subjugated roles thus making exploitation a ‘normal’ reality. Without oppression, exploitation could not function on the social and political level.
When speaking of a modern proletariat, we refer to a group primarily made up of nationally- and gender-oppressed sections of the workforce. In consequence, successful proletarian struggles tend to touch on, attempt to resolve, and combine the struggles against national, gender, and worker oppression. While an individual holding the identity of any or all groups vis a vis oppression may not be exploited, on the structural level such oppression tends to approximate and mediate exploitation.
And this brings us to the final question: what does the proletariat ultimately signify?
In world history generally and through revolution particularly, the proletariat represents the collective potential to end capitalism as a system of exploitation and eradicate oppression. More importantly, in doing so the proletariat synthesizes the long-term interest of humanity at large. This is why the proletarian world-view or consciousness is not simply restricted to the ideas and knowledge of the proletariat, but also utilizes the ideas and knowledge of other classes to advance its own struggle, and therefore qualitatively advances the furthermost interests of human collectivity. In ‘coming into its own’ through liberating itself from exploitation by the bourgeoisie, the proletariat encounters and must resolve a whole host of contradictions internal and external to various groups. And, while various groups may in one way or another be negatively affected by capitalist-imperialism, it is only the modern proletariat united in struggle which has the collective capacity to be the leading force in the resolution of the various contradictions created and maintained under this mode of production.
In the normative Marxist lexicon, the word proletariat has lost its revolutionary meaning and become a convenient term to conceal actual contradictions in favor of a dogmatic and chauvinist view supporting privileged ‘workers.’ For Marxism to have significance as a superstructural force inspiring revolution, it needs to elaborate a clear and relevant understanding of what and who the proletariat – the central collective revolutionary force – is in contemporary society. Efforts to obscure or ignore this question have not advanced the revolutionary cause in any substantive manner, but have in fact done the opposite. For Marxism to remain relevant, it needs to remain clear that the proletariat is that class in society whose exploited labor is a central basis of the expansion of capital, and is not simply ‘all workers.’ The chauvinistic and lazy application of failed and boring verdicts under the guise of ‘Marxism’ will no longer suffice. Instead, when analyzing ‘what is the proletariat,’ we should uphold a remark by Lenin and “always try to be as radical as reality itself.”