Skip to main content

"Proletariat" as Social Class[ification]

Since I discussed the category of masses in a recent post, and argued that it was not synonymous for maoists with the category of proletarian, I felt that it was important to briefly discuss what the latter category means––especially since there appears to be so much confusion and contention these days over its usage.  There is, after all, a prevalent desire to reject the proletariat as a category because: a) it claims to be a scientific categorization and it old-fashioned to talk about revolutionary science; b) it is a french word chosen by Marx and thus is nothing but a semantic way to speak about a general working-class; c) it obscures, in its scientific and semantic employment, the reality of "poor people" and their viscerally lived reality.

But I am not ashamed to refer to historical materialism as a science, and I have little patience for the first criticism which, to my mind, is little more than a rhetorical complaint.  Nor do I care very much about the criticism regarding the word's semantic history because, even if it was a french word chosen randomly by Marx, it is the name we have for a concept that is more than a name––Marx could have chosen another title for this category, from another language or even his own made-up terminology, and I believe there is a reason why he primarily used a conceptual category rather than the descriptive "working-class" to speak of the revolutionary class.  Finally, because I think that conceptual categories, though abstracted from concrete reality, are necessary to provide us with a scientific assessment of reality, I think that the third critique––that this word obscures the reality of "the poor" as individuals with concrete lives––is not only off-base but misses the point: Marx was not talking just about a struggle between a collection of rich individuals on the one hand and a collection of poor individuals on the other, but categories of being (that is, classes) that required general conceptualization in order to provide a categorical and scientific assessment of the concretely lived lives of individuals, poor or otherwise.

Still, even amongst those who accept the concept of proletariat, defining this category today continues to result in innumerable sectarian disputes and academic debates regarding a proper definition.  There are historical reasons for this debate: marxism following Marx appears at first to be a confused terrain with multiple tendencies drawing lines of demarcation that sometimes intersect and sometimes diverge.  While there might be a shared fidelity to the root definition of proletariat, this is not enough to provide a thorough definition of the class category––this is why some of us will say "the proletarian in this context is x" and others will reply "no it is y".  Simply grasping the germ of the concept is not enough to locate the category spatially and temporally.  Which is why, in this post, I want to offer a few qualifications towards a thorough definition of this category based, to be fair, upon the marxist understanding of reality to which I adhere.  The point, here, is not to provide a clear definition but only to bring up a few points for consideration.

Before presenting my qualifications/concerns, however, it is probably worth providing the most simple definition of the proletariat that is accepted by nearly every marxist––that is, the foundation of the concept that can be found in the works of Marx and Engels.  The proletariat is the class that produces value through its labour, as opposed to the bourgeoisie which is the class that alienates this value because it owns the means of production.  The proletariat is the exploited class; surplus value is extracted from its labour by the bourgeoisie.  The proletariat is wage-labour, the class that sells its labour in return for wages; "free" labour that was, at one point, wrenched from the land and forced to sell itself as the commodity upon which all other capitalist commodities are contingent. The proletariat controls the means of production, even though these means are owned by the bourgeoisie.  The proletariat permits the existence of capitalism because it is the class upon which whose labour the reproduction of capitalism is possible.  The proletariat is a revolutionary class because, when it is conscious of itself (when it becomes for itself) it is conscious of the fact that, while capitalism requires the proletarian labour in order to persist, the proletariat doesn't need capitalism and, in fact, would be better off without capitalism.  The proletariat is a revolutionary class also because its historical vocation is the elimination of class society and thus the elimination of itself as a class.

The above paragraph might be a gross generalization, but I am trying to condense this category into a single paragraph in the most general way possible.  The point is to provide a general definition that the majority of marxists would agree with, though disagree over its location and meaning in given historical conjunctures.  And with this general definition in place, I want to bring up some of concerns regarding this class category's further elaboration.

1: the proletariat is just the "industrial working class"?

There is an historically orthodox definition of the proletariat the defines it solely as the industrial working class––that is, the workers in factories.  The argument here, which definitely can find its basis in the works of Marx and Engels, is that the basis of capitalism is the industrial factory and so this is the primary point of production for capitalism.  This definition allows for an easy understanding of the proletariat's revolutionary nature because it allows for a clear argument: if there was a general strike across every factory then capitalism would be forced to halt because the workers engaged in the foundational act of commodity manufacturing have the power, as a whole, to disrupt capitalism.

While there is some truth in this assessment, it also fails to provide a thorough assessment of the proletariat's location and excludes class phenomena that, although lurking outside of this so-called "point of production", could also cause severe disruptions to capitalist reproduction through the withdrawal of labour.  And we need to note that Marx's most simple definition of the proletariat as the class who was exploited does not only lead to a definition of the industrial worker; in the third volume of Capital, for example, Marx argues that everyone who sells their labour power for a wage is, in some sense, proletarian… Does this mean that one is conscious of themselves as proletarian simply because there is some exploitation?  Probably not: but there are also factory workers, especially first world unionized factory workers (which I will discuss below) who are also not conscious of themselves as proletarian despite being paradigm examples of the industrial working class.

Autonomist marxism, despite its [significant] problems, has at least done a good job of calling the definition of "point of production" into question.  And though it is true that the autonomist theory of the "social worker", where we are invited to believe that everyone in the world aside from big capitalists are somehow proletarian simply because they work, is too vague and rife with problems to allow for a scientific assessment of this category, it is also true that the autonomist concept of the "circuits" of capitalism is worthy of further investigation.  That is, those whose job is to move capital from one place to another, and allow for the transfer of value and trade between sites, are also necessary for capitalism's reproduction; cities do shut down when transit workers, garbage workers, and truckers withdraw their labour.

Moreover, marxist feminism has a long history of examining the concept of reproductive labour that, while not being labour at the point of production, is the labour upon which even productive industrial labour is necessary.  House work is necessary for workers to persist as workers; womens' wombs are used to bring the next generation of workers into existence.

Then there is the reserve army of labour, which we should also think of as a proletarian faction: the unemployed whose existence creates pressure on employed workers––you can be fired en masse based on the justification that there are thousands of people out there who are willing and ready to take your job.  Labour is disciplined based on the existence of this reserve army, which is why Marx included this population in his category of proletarian even though they were unwaged.  The point, here, is that they exist as a sub-category because of their potential to be waged/exploited labourers and, due to this existence, are a force for proletarianization.

Finally, there is the fact that a lot of global wage labour is performed outside of the traditional "industrial factory" in the agrarian sector.  While there are sites of industrial production plugged into agrarian production when it comes to the manufacturing, packaging, and distribution of commodified food, beneath this there are the massive fields and farm-shares in the third world where people who orthodox marxists would classify as "peasants" are harvesting the raw foodstuffs upon which food manufacture is dependent.

2: the proletariat is located primarily in labour unions?

There is another orthodox analysis of the proletariat, following the above analysis, that claims the proletariat can be found as the proletariat where it is gathered as a class conscious of itself as a class.  Since unions, it is argued, represent working-class organizations that are aware of themselves as such, then unions are the site of the proletariat.  The task of any communist organization, then, is to enter labour unions and work to organize those who, to refer to Lenin, already possess a "trade union consciousness" but need to be pushed towards a "revolutionary consciousness" because the latter consciousness is limited by economistic ideology.  And though a more unorthodox response to this problematic would be to assume that "trade union consciousness" will spontaneously produce "revolutionary consciousness" without the intervention of the Leninist party from without (this is, I believe, Hal Draper's theory of "socialism from below") it still adheres to the orthodox assumption that the proletariat is primarily located in labour unions.

Now there is a good reason why this analysis exists and we would be remiss to simply reject it without recognizing, and even agreeing in part with, its foundational principles.  First of all, there is the fact that a social class is a relation and not a thing that is found in nature like a rock or a tree.  That is, the classification of populations (classes) are only classifications insofar as there are people to be classified according to an organizational principle.  Hence, we can argue along with Alain Badiou (back when he was a Marxist-Leninist and wrote Theory of the Subject) that in a certain sense the proletariat does not exist since it is a class struggle category operationalized by the revolutionary party.  What we have before this operationalization are broad masses, most of whom labour to produce the basis of capital's reproduction, and not a class that is, to again borrow from Marx's famous equation, for itself as much as it is in itself: it is not enough to be an exploited worker to the revolutionary class, according to Marx, one needs to be also conscious of the revolutionary positionality exploitation necessitates.

Although there may be possible contradictions with this basis of understanding the proletariat as a social relation, I am not necessarily trying to defend this position here (although I do, in some ways, ascribe to it), only pointing out that such a foundational understanding of class and organization lurks behind the assumption that the proletariat is primarily located in trade unions.  This theory of praxis did not emerge from a void; it is grounded, and sometimes stubbornly embedded to the point of becoming a dogmatism, in the history of marxism.

Moreover, since every revolutionary organization should begin by pulling in the most advanced sectors of the masses, and hence the most advanced faction of the proletariat, it makes sense to have a theory that can provide an easy solution to this basic organizational principle: the advanced (meaning those conscious of themselves as revolutionary subjects) are in the unions because unions are organized according to working-class identity, the corollary of which must be proletarian identity.

I would argue that there was a time when the most organized sectors of the working-class could indeed be found in unions, and obviously Marx and Engels located the basis of the Communist League in workers' associations that were the germ of the modern union movement.  The question we need to ask now, however, is whether the structure of contemporary society, despite being primarily divided along bourgeois and proletarian lines, is completely identical to the way in which the proletariat was dispersed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

For example, the trade union movement at the centres of capitalism has been, for a very long time, a movement that has embraced its trade union consciousness to such an extent that any possibility of a party intervening to produce revolutionary consciousness, let alone the spontaneous development of this consciousness, has been roundly proven to be something of an impossibility.  The history of the union movement in the imperialist metropoles since the "historic concession of labour and capital" has been a history of collaboration where workers have struggled only to achieve a lifestyle, possible because of imperialism, that was thoroughly petty-bourgeois.  Union syndicates traditionally endorse those bourgeois parties that are liberal enough to support, however limited this support might be, basic labour rights; union bureaucracies function to reproduce bourgeois ideology; the rank-and-file are by-and-large resistant to communism and most have even been, since the Cold War, desperate to prove their anti-communist patriotism.

There are of course fissures and gaps in this embourgeoisified union edifice, those exciting and creative moments where locals that practice social unionism challenge the business union discourse.  These moments, however, are more of a throwback to the radical trade union consciousness of the past, that is still removed from revolutionary consciousness and, due to the embattled state of such struggles, are too focused on reclaiming an "authentic unionism" to honestly bother with communism.

All of which is to say that unions are not the primary location of the proletariat because they are not sites of proletarian consciousness.  While it is indeed true that a communist project must ingather those exploited workers with an advanced consciousness, any attempt at revolutionary accumulation focused primarily on trade unions is a waste of time and has been historically proven to be a waste ever since these unions were bought-off.  None of this, it must be said, is set in stone; a different historical conjuncture might transform labour unions back into sites of potential radicalism, but we are not living at that historical conjuncture.  So to locate the hard core of the proletariat we have to disperse broader and deeper and ground our analysis on concrete social investigation rather than accepting dry formulas received from the past.

3: the proletariat is internationally homogenous?

Since Marx and Engels argued that the proletariat was the first truly international class by virtue of being gathered internationally as wage-labourers, and thus we have the maxim that the proletariat does not have a country (its proletarian unity is more significant than national divisions), there tends to be a simplistic definition of this class category that ignores the fact of nationality.  In a previous post I argued that it was important to understand the dialectical tension between the proletariat's international aspect and its contrary national aspect––I stand by this argument and will simply repeat that the proletariat is united internationally but simultaneously divided nationally.  This contradiction is important, and all attempts to claim otherwise are a problem.

There is a reason, after all, that the Third International spent a lot of time discussing national self-determination and arguing, for a significant portion of its Second Congress, that there was such a thing as revolutionary nationalism that was not necessarily opposed to proletarian internationalism.  Rather, as Lenin was keen to assert, proletarian internationalism was most often expressed through revolutionary nationalist struggles, particularly anti-colonial struggles.  The point, here, is that the proletarian is not homogenous; we can speak of multiple proletarian populations, some of which find themselves at odds with each other.

If anything, the Third Worldist critique teaches us that global populations who sell their labour are not equal and united: the comparative privilege first world labour enjoys is due to the exploitation of third world labour and this should tell us that these two categories of labour are not easily united under the rubric of internationalism when the former collaborates in the exploitation of the latter.  Hence the apparent necessity of locating the proletarian in the third world and, because of this parasitical heterogeneity, arguing that first world workers cannot be proletarian due to the fact that net exploitation prevents them from: a) being properly exploited; b) possessing the revolutionary aspect of the proletariat class––that is, being conscious of their exploitation (hard to do if you aren't properly exploited) and thus being the proletariat for itself.

Moreover, assuming that there is a global and homogenous proletariat is to act as if the world is a single mode of production––like Hardt and Negri's Empire––rather than a system defined by the tensions produced by multiple modes of production.  Any analysis that speaks of a global proletariat and a global bourgeoisie is thus a problem: the proletariat is global insofar as its possible international unity, but it is also not global because the mode of production is not a global phenomenon.  So, in one very important sense there is no such thing as a unified global class struggle because such a struggle would have to deny the existence of nations and imperialism.  Trotskyism, for example, is ultimately contingent on the assumption that the world is a single combined and uneven capitalist mode of production; the corollary is that an internationally unified proletariat, led by the most advanced sectors at the centres of capitalism, will produce a world revolution.  But this world revolution is impossible because the proletarian cannot be united in such a way, it lacks this level of homogeneity, and to assert otherwise would be to deny imperialism which functions precisely to divide the core nations from the periphery.  The proletariat is an international class but there is no such thing as an international proletarian class; it is important to understand the distinction between these two terms since so much wrong-headed theory results from their confusion.  The former holds that the distinctions of nation-states imposed by imperialism must be overcome and recognized as lines drawn to divide and control the global masses; the latter holds that the distinctions of nation-states are meaningless.

So let us speak of proletariats instead of the proletariat.  This is not to say that there isn't a unifying principle to the category of "proletariat"––indeed, I began by giving a crude definition––but only that the universal aspect of the category needs to be understood by its particularization historically and globally.  Similarly, all marxists can say there are some basic principles we share that make us marxist and yet, despite this similarity, there are still multiple marxist tendencies  And some of the more dogmatic marxist tendencies, since they are certain enough of their marxism to call other tendencies "pseudo-marxist", are those tendencies that refuse to think of the proletariat as a complex social relation, preferring instead to imagine it as an essence or something that can be found in nature.


  1. I've been thinking a lot about what constitutes the proletariat in the first world lately so I was glad to see this post.

    One particular question I've been having difficulty with is whether low wage workers in the service industry, e.g. Cashiers ringing up cheap and often completely unnecessary commodities (e.g. video games) produced in the third world for the american (petty-)bourgeoisie constitute a part of the proletariat?

  2. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I'll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.A fantastic presentation. Very open and informative.You have beautifully presented your thought in this blog post. social name

    1. Thanks for the compliment. Assuming this is not a bot-generated comment (sorry, but the general complimentary nature resembles other bot posts I've encountered, so apologies if this is not the case), I post less frequently than I did in the past but still frequently enough.


Post a Comment