proletariat (prōlətârˈēət) [key], in Marxian theory, the class of exploited workers and wage earners who depend on the sale of their labor for their means of existence. In ancient Rome, the proletariat was the lowest class of citizens; its members had no property or assured income and were a source of discontent and political instability. According to Karl Marx, the breakup of feudalism and the development of capitalism created a new, propertyless class from the dispossessed peasants and retainers who were forced to sell their labor for wages in the new industrial centers. Marx believed that the seizure of power by the proletariat from the capitalist class was a necessary step to a classless society. Under Lenin and the Bolsheviks, this revolution was to be directed by the Communist party, as the vanguard of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
See L. P. Adams and R. L. Aronson, The History of Workers and Industrial Change (1957); J. Kuczynski, The Rise of the Working Classes (tr. 1967); S. Avineri, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx (1968).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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