Front Page Titles (by Subject) WHAT IS THE PROLETARIAT? - The Challenge of Facts and other Essays
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WHAT IS THE “PROLETARIAT”? - William Graham Sumner, The Challenge of Facts and other Essays 
The Challenge of Facts and other Essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1914).
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WHAT IS THE “PROLETARIAT”?
WHAT IS THE “PROLETARIAT”?
The latest social agitation is marked by a fondness for big words and high-sounding phrases. The words which are most in favor are not those which are especially sonorous but those which have a philosophical clink and are a little pedantic; and as for the phrases, it is interesting and remarkable to notice in what mouths one may find a forlorn tatter of Hegelian philosophy. The leaders of the movement have created a dialect all their own, which has a strange and foreign sound to the uninitiated, and which suggests far-reaching observations on social philosophy to those who can find the occult significance of the phraseology. It is certain that it becomes a fashion and an affectation among the adherents of the movement to use the terms and bandy the catch phrases of the sect. They are largely the victims of the “phrase.”
The dialect of a movement, however, is never a matter to be treated with indifference; in its origin, and in the mouths of the leaders, it had a motive and a logical sense. No American artisan can understand what he means when he talks about the “bourgeoisie” or the “proletariat.” The former word certainly is entirely exotic; if it be explained to mean the middle class, it has no application to American society, and it has lost all the side signification which gives it its importance in Europe, when it is so explained. Such words are a part of the foreign dress of a set of ideas which are not yet naturalized. The word, however, cannot be given up by the leaders because the essence of their cause is in it with its acquired and historical side significations.
Proletariat should be a term of reproach. A proletarian at Rome was a man, who, having no property, could serve the state only with his offspring (proles), whom he gave to military service. No class in any modern state could correspond to that class at Rome. The only persons in a modern state to whom the name might perhaps have been transferred with some convenience are tramps and vagabonds, men without homes, family, calling, property, or reputation. The name has, however, been adopted and accepted without any dislike. It is a grand, foreign, classical, pedantic, and mysterious term, into which it is easy to distil all the side significations of class hatred and social rancor which any one may wish to transmit. After all it means nothing but what we used to call the masses, and it has just the same lack of definition and the same vagueness of limit in its social application. The new term, however, already begins to give precision to the social body which it specializes as a fighting faction. Such is the purpose and the utility of it.
If we try to define the limits of the class so named according to the present usage of language, it appears, in the first place, that there is no exclusion at the bottom. The term is most significant when used politically, and there are none who have political standing who are not available allies. Hence the proletariat includes all the dependent and delinquent classes so far as they have not lost political privileges.
It is the upper limit which is vague and undefined. Not all wage-receivers are in the proletariat, for those who get more than some vague limit or whose wages are paid at longer intervals (highly skilled laborers and salaried men) are not included. Not all the employed are in it, for high officials would not be recognized as belonging to it; not all laborers are in it, for we are all laborers except the little group of people of leisure. The President of the United States is an employee and a laborer. Not all capitalists are excluded from it, for many of its members have important savings. Here, however, we undoubtedly come nearest to a definition; for those who have savings would almost all break loose from the proletariat as soon as they recognized the sense of many of its propositions. This fact is so well known that those among the artisan and manual labor classes who have savings are regarded with peculiar dislike in the circles of proletarian agitation. The great millionaires are not denounced with such vigor as the “mean, sneaking workingman who has saved a few dollars which he has laid away in the savings bank, or who has built a little house and rents it for seven or eight dollars a month.” “I have seen that class of men,” said one orator, “march out by the bench-full as soon as I began to talk about interest and rent. I can talk to great capitalists and employers, but I can do nothing with those men.” Still, on the other hand, not all who have not capital would be included; for there are plenty of people who have good incomes, all of which they spend, whose style of life would prevent them from being recognized as members of the proletariat. Peasants in Europe and farmers here do not belong to it; it is a city class quite as much as the bourgeoisie.
At the end of the last century a great revolution took place in which the bourgeoisie wrested political power from the nobles. The peasants and the town mob shared in the revolution and the latter finally got control of it. When the excesses had provoked reaction and order was restored, the bourgeoisie, as the most intelligent and capable section of the population, took control and secured, to some extent, their own ideal of civil liberty and economic prosperity. Their writers have generally agreed, therefore, in regarding the revolution as a great blessing, attended by some most lamentable, but perhaps inevitable excesses. It may yet be necessary to pay a heavy price for the revision of this opinion, for it is now claimed that revolution is a proper and, in fact, the only true and possible mode of social reform; that the bourgeoisie have arrogated to themselves all the gains of the last great revolution, and that another is needed to wrest from them, in turn, what they wrested from the nobles. The proletariat is, in fact, the faction which is formed for this assault. It finds its recruits where it can get them — among the discontented, the hot-headed, the ill-balanced, the ambitious, those who have nothing to lose, the flatterers of rising power, and other such persons who naturally gravitate toward a revolutionary party. It is plain that the thing to be struggled for is political power, not reform; in all great political struggles this is the real object, to gain political power and control of the force of the state.
The government of the bourgeoisie has been faulty enough, and there would be no reason to look with apprehension upon a transfer of the power of the state, if it were sought with the object of more thoroughly doing justice to all. The bourgeois government has threatened, and threatens now more than ever, to degenerate into a plutocracy. If sober and intelligent citizens could see some new power rising in the state, able and intelligently determined to correct and restrain this tendency, they could only welcome its coming. So far, however, the proletariat has uttered nothing but truculent assertions about what it intends to do for itself against every other interest in the state. It seems to have noted all the sins and shortcomings of the bourgeoisie; but when we look to see what promise of reform it holds out, we find that it only cites the misdoings of the bourgeoisie as excuses and precedents for what it intends to do.
All the forces which gave the bourgeoisie the victory over the nobles are working in favor of the proletariat. The real question of moment is: What will they do with the state when they get control of it? That they will be utterly disappointed in the hopes which their leaders are now encouraging as to what they can do, is certain; but before they find it out society may go through a period of confusion and strife in which all the achievements of civilization will be put in jeopardy. Two parties are already taking shape for that contest. Mr. George recently called them, with the felicity which is his chief power, the House of Have and the House of Want; he defined them as those who are satisfied as things are and those who want to reform. Others have understood them to mean that the “land ought to belong, not to those who own it, but to those who want it.” If it should appear upon due study that the latter is the more correct definition according to the facts, it will he another case in which Mr. George's felicity of expression far surpasses his power of analysis. We are indebted to him at least for an excellent terminology, which does away with the old clumsiness of “those-who-have” and “those-who-have-not.”