Karl Marx's working class under capitalism . Accorded the role of prime vehicle of revolutionary and emancipating change through its formation, ascendancy, and eventual triumph, the proletariat is today diminishing in size, political potency, and (it is sometimes claimed) internal cohesion and identity. It has even lost its headline position in Russia.
Formulated out of Marx's early writings on alienation , the proletariat represented the creation, loss, and eventual re-appropriation of the central defining feature of human essence or species being, namely labour-power (see labour theory of value ). Containing as it did both the needs whose fulfilment drove history along, as well as the powers or potential required to fulfil and generate new needs, labour-power was the means through which humanity was created. Labour so conceived abolished the distinction between humanity and nature, and subordinated the latter to its service. The enslavement of this labour-power (in the form of the productive worker under capitalism generating surplus value), and its eventual liberation after the necessary passage through the various historical epochs, was the core of the historical process. It is the continuous dynamic of the development of labour-power which generates the impetus to the growth in productive forces and their transmission through history which gives that history its coherence. If history is the history of the class struggle then it is a struggle to free this labour-power, and thus also the proletariat, which epitomizes the enslavement of this labour power and whose liberation will therefore be a universal liberation. This is the basis of the Marxist theory of historical materialism .
This humanistic conception of the proletariat is in accord with the ethical thrust of all of Marx's writings, and underpins the subsequent more structurally rigid definitions gleaned from readings of Capital. It suggests that, for Marx, class was a process of becoming, both of the proletariat to maturity, and of humanity to control of its developed capacities forged through the historical process. It was not (as it subsequently became in the so-called boundary debate (see contradictory class location )) the application of rigid formulae or criteria based upon relationships to the means of production, or productive (of surplus value) versus unproductive labour distinction, or supervisory and managerial hierarchies of control or autonomy. These exercises only succeeded in identifying an ever-diminishing category of those who were meant (in Marxist theory) to be growing in size, scope, and intensity.
There are, according to Marx, historical factors which propel the proletariat to take up its historical task. The combination of capital creates for the mass of workers a common situation and common interests. The commodity fetishism , which stands in the way of the individual's attempts to gain true control over his or her ‘social interconnectedness’, is overcome through the multi-dimensional concomitant processes associated with the intensification of the class struggle, the emergence of class consciousness , and its transfer into class action. As the proletariat emerges victorious, on the wings of the proletarian dictatorship, it not only regains political control over the state but also economic and eventually moral control over its productive life-processes.
This image of the proletariat contained in Marx can only be accepted if the premisses spelled out in his ethical writings are likewise taken on board: that is, that labour-power defines humanity, its relationship to nature, and the eventual goals of human development. However, if the proletariat is taken as a paradigm of the human condition at large, then its members continue to be with us in various forms, be it as underclass or racialized minorities, and seem likely to be so for a long time to come.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.


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