The origin and role of the proletariat in fostering the end of exploitative, class-based society is discussed by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in their seminal work The Communist Manifesto. Marx and Engels advance communism as the doctrine that outlines the proletariat revolution and liberation.
In their prediction of the downfall of capitalism and the victory of socialism and eventually, communism, Marx and Engels conducted a historical analysis of the contradictions between the proletariat and bourgeoisie. The proletariat is a class that evolved out of the societal and economic conditions of the Industrial Revolution. The proletariat is defined in the Manifesto as "a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital" (Marx and Engels 51). The proletariat is a class of propertyless people that survives only by selling labor. It lives only when the capitalist has need for its labor; as the power of industry advances and technology has replaced human hands, the proletariat's means of survival is severely affected. Moreover, as competition becomes unbridled in the capitalist system, the proletariat is forced to work many hours for low wages. In a capitalist society, demand for labor is a matter of life and death for the proletariat. Marx and Engels characterize a proletariat's place in a capitalist society as merely commodities which are sold as any object of commerce (53). In the so-called history of class struggles, the proletariat is the exploited and oppressed class in the capitalist society. On the other hand, the bourgeoisie is the social class that is in constant opposition to the proletariat. The bourgeoisie are the owners of the means of production (factories, land, capital) in the capitalist society. Marx and Engels trace the history of the bourgeoisie as the offshoot of the burghers founded by the serfs during the Middle Ages (48). During the feudalist stage of society, the bourgeoisie were the revolutionary class that overthrew the monopoly of the guild masters as production could no longer keep up with rising demand and new markets.
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The proletariat and the bourgeoisie are always hostile to each other in the advanced capitalist society. As capitalism is fueled by the need to derive profit, the bourgeoisie comb the world in search of new markets, revolutionize technology to speed up production, and exploit the workers for additional hours with little or no compensation. It becomes a class that exploits not only workers of industrialized nations, but "all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst" (Marx and Engels 51). As markets become constricted and can no longer accommodate all produced goods, the entire capitalist system undergoes a crisis of overproduction. To contain this crisis, the capitalist system becomes more exploitative and destroys the productive forces (Marx and Engels 54), precipitating the ruin of the capitalism. Just like it earlier destroyed the feudal societies, the bourgeoisie will soon be destroyed by the proletariat.
Marx and Engels also described the evolution and development of the proletariat in relation to its inevitable victory over the bourgeoisie. From its individual struggle with the bourgeoisie, the proletariat will elevate its struggle to destruction of the instruments of production, riots, to eventually mature and recognize its potential strength as a class. As the industries grow, the number of the proletariat increases and its population becomes concentrated in the cities. The mass of workers will eventually form trade unions, and with their collective aim of destroying the exploitative relations of production, be united under one party. Marx says that other classes will decay, but the proletariat will remain. The strength of the proletarian movement is that it is "the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority" (Marx and Engels 58). If the proletariat class stirs up in revolution, the entire strata of society will be torn asunder because it is the productive force. Unlike the bourgeoisie who revolted against the feudal lords to advance their power and position in society, the proletariat, being propertyless, is the only class who can launch a revolution without the taint of self-interest. A proletarian revolution will usher in a socialist society where there is state ownership of the means of production. As other proletarian revolutions in other oppressed countries around the world are won, Marx and Engels believe communism or a classless society free from exploitation will be ushered in.
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Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick. Manifesto of the Communist Party. New York, NY: Cosimo, Inc., 2006.