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The lowest, or one among the lowest, economic and social classes in a society. In ancient Rome, the proletariat were poor landless freemen who, crowded out of the labour market by the extension of slavery, became parasites on the economy. Karl Marx used the term to refer to the class of wage earners engaged in industrial production only (the broader term working class included all those obliged to work for a living). Another of Marx's categories, the lumpenproletariat (lumpen meaning rags), comprised marginal and unemployable workers, paupers, beggars, and criminals. Marxian theory predicted a transitional phase between the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of communism during which a dictatorship of the proletariat would suppress resistance to the socialist revolution by the bourgeoisie, destroy the social relations of production underlying the class system, and create a new, classless society.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on proletariat, visit Britannica.com.