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working class

  1. manual workers, i.e. those who labour primarily with their hands, rather than with their brains (nonmanual workers). In this sense, in Britain the proportion of the population that is working class has declined steadily over the course of the 20th century However, an issue exists as to whether, for some purposes, routine white-collar workers should also be included as part of the working class (see also PROLETARIANIZATION).
  2. members of the PROLETARIAT, i.e. all those employed as wage labourers or salaried workers, who neither own nor control the MEANS OF PRODUCTION. In this second sense, the working class embraces by far the majority of the working population (but see also INTERMEDIATE CLASSES, CONTRADICTORY CLASS LOCATIONS).
In either sense 1 or 2 , divisions, and variations in class consciousness, within the

working class have also been a major interest – see WORKING-CLASS CONSERVATISM, LABOUR ARISTOCRACY, CLASS IMAGERY.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Working Class


the basic productive force in contemporary society; the main motive force of the historical process of the transition from capitalism to socialism and communism. The social position of the working class under capitalism differs fundamentally from its position under socialism. Under capitalism the working class is the proletariat, a class of wage laborers deprived of the means of production, earning a living by selling labor power, and subjected to capitalist exploitation. Under socialism the working class, the class of toilers in public socialist enterprises that belong to all the people, occupies the leading position in society.

Marxism discovered in the working class a social force, which, in its historical movement, is capable of bringing about by revolutionary means the destruction of capitalism and of all forms of the exploitation of man by man. There are five reasons for the world historical role of the working class. First, capitalist exploitation, or the appropriation of surplus value by the owners of the means of production, imparts a permanent, inalienable character to the antagonism between labor and capital. The negation of capitalist exploitation and, at the same time, of all exploitation, is rooted in the very conditions of existence of wage laborers. Their anticapitalist aspirations coincide with the basic trend in the development of the contemporary productive forces, which outgrow the framework of private property. Second, the development of large-scale industry, which is directly responsible for the rise of the working class, results in the decline of other toiling classes, such as small-scale peasants and artisans. Drawn from various strata of the population, the working class grows steadily. Third, the workers constitute the class most capable of organization, discipline, and the development of class consciousness, owing to the character of large-scale production, which requires the concentration of labor power, a high degree of labor organization and discipline, and a certain level of literacy and culture. Working and living conditions instill in the workers a spirit of collectivism, mutual assistance, and solidarity.

The fourth reason for the world historical role of the working class is that there are thousands of ties between the working class and the nonproletarian strata of the toiling people, with whose interests the interests of the working class coincide in an objective sense. Consequently, the working class’ role in the historical class struggle is immeasurably greater than its share of the total population. The fifth reason for the working class’ world historical role is the international character of its position and of the conditions of its struggle and emancipation. Proletarian internationalism is precisely the phenomenon that makes possible the rapprochement and unification of the toiling people of all countries, as well as the overcoming of national and racial barriers.

Emergence and formation (to 1871). The prerequisites for the formation of the working class took shape in feudal society, with the appearance of the rudiments of the capitalist mode of production in Europe in the 14th to 15th centuries. Until the 16th century, however, wage laborers made up an insignificant portion of the population. The development of the system of wage labor was associated with the primary accumulation of capital, which emerged first in England (late 15th to early 16th centuries) and later in other countries. The basis for this process, which assumed its classical form in England, was the forced dispossession of the peasantry (enclosure) and the formation of a market of free labor power for the developing capitalist manufacture. The manufactory proletariat of the 16th through 18th centuries developed from the dispossessed peasants and artisans. However, the majority of the manufactory workers were not proletarians in the precise sense of the word, since they owned certain instruments of production and were involved in a more or less patriarchal relationship with their employers. Capitalist discipline was instilled through measures of extraeconomic constraint—the “bloody legislation against the dispossessed,” workhouses, the legislative extension of the workday, and the establishment of a maximum wage. The manufactory proletariat of the 16th-18th centuries was characterized by extreme heterogeneity and diverse forms of dependence. The various trades were isolated and mutually hostile. “At this stage, the laborers still form an incoherent mass scattered over the whole country, and broken up by their mutual competition” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Sock, 2nd ed., vol. 4, p. 432).

The emergence of capitalist relations was accompanied by the onset of a struggle by the workers against capitalist exploitation, which, during the manufactory period, was manifested primarily in latent forms and in isolated actions, such as spontaneous riots and strikes. Harsh laws prohibiting unions of apprentices, as well as strikes, were systematically issued in England as early as the 14th century and in France beginning in the 16th century. The vague, unconscious aspirations of the emerging proletariat, which had not yet definitely separated itself from the general mass of the poor, were to some extent reflected in the theories and views of early communism—from the most primitive Utopian ideas of a communality of wealth in the 16th-17th centuries to the “worker communism” of the late 18th and early 19th centuries (G. Babeuf) and the critical utopian socialism and communism of the first half of the 19th century (Saint-Simon, R. Owen, and C. Fourier).

In the bourgeois revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, wage laborers were the most active element in the urban plebeian masses and the main source of support for the most radical currents, but they did not act as an independent political force. Taking part in the revolutionary struggle, the wage laborers defended, for the most part, interests that were not specifically proletarian but that were essentially associated with the bourgeoisie.

The emergence of a factory proletariat was linked with the industrial revolution, that is, with the transition from manufacture to machine production. The industrial revolution, which began in Great Britain in the 1760’s, spread gradually to other countries. Historically, the first detachment of the industrial working class was made up of the workers of the textile mills, such as spinners and weavers. The factory workers were the prototype of the working class, but at first they constituted a minority, and for a long time, the manufactory workers were the majority. The necessity of resisting the factory owners and overcoming mutual competition gave rise to coalitions of wage laborers—the prototypes of the trade unions. In Great Britain, coalitions of wage laborers emerged as early as the last third of the 18th century, and in France, during the French Revolution. In both countries, they were banned shortly after their formation. Nonetheless, the economic struggle of the workers intensified, and strikes became more and more frequent, although in general, during this period the working class expressed its resistance to exploitation primarily in spontaneous acts of violence, such as food riots, arson, and the destruction of machines (the Luddite movement, for example).

With the rise of machine production, the capitalists intensified their efforts to introduce a longer workday (15–17 hours) and to make more extensive use of female and child labor, which accounted for 50–60 percent of the labor force in the English cotton industry in the first half of the 19th century. These tactics led to the growth of the army of unemployed. The increase in work time was accompanied by the decline of wages below the subsistence level. The factory worker was completely without rights and was, moreover, subject to exhausting labor, hunger, slum conditions, disease, and early death. Open indignation against these insufferable conditions gave rise to the first major, independent movements of the working class— Chartism (Great Britain, 1830’s through 1850’s), the Lyon uprisings of 1831 and 1834 (France), and the uprising of the Sile-sian weavers (Germany, 1844). The emergence of independent working-class movements marked the political separation of the proletariat from the bourgeoisie and the development of a mass proletarian revolutionary movement, in which the handicraft and manufactory workers remained the main force during this period. As machines erased the differences between various forms of labor, replacing the skilled labor of the manufactory worker with simple machine labor, the interests and living conditions of the proletariat were leveled, contributing to the formation of class consciousness. F. Engels pointed out that during the Chartist period the advanced workers in Great Britain were aware that “they formed a separate class, with separate interests and principles, a separate way of looking at things” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 463). The first national proletarian party in history, the National Chartist Association, was founded in Great Britain in 1840. In 1842 it had about 50,000 members. A succession of secret workers’ societies emerged in France and Germany. In 1847 and early 1848, K. Marx and F. Engels, who had by that time worked out the basic tenets of the theory of scientific communism, wrote the Communist Manifesto on the invitation of the Communist League and published it as the League’s program. The manifesto revealed the world historical role of the working class and the conditions and goals of its struggle. The establishment of the Communist League laid the foundation for linking scientific communism with the working-class movement, for transforming the working class from a class “in itself” to a class “for itself.”

In the bourgeois democratic revolutions of 1848^9 the working class acted initially as the left wing of bourgeois democracy. The culmination of the struggle of the working class during this period was the June Days of 1848, an uprising by the Parisian workers, which Engels described as “the first great battle for power between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie” (ibid., vol. 22, p. 532). Like a number of worker uprisings in other countries, the June uprising was harshly suppressed.

In the mid-19th century there were 4.1 million industrial workers in Great Britain (1851), 2.5 million in France (1848), 900,000 in Germany (1850), and 1.4 million in the USA (1850). The rapid growth of large-scale industry after the revolutions of 1848–49 in the advanced countries of Western Europe brought the industrial working class to the foreground of the class struggle. Marx regarded the position of the proletariat during this period as the most vivid illustration of the general law of capitalist accumulation, according to which, under the conditions of capitalism “the accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time, the accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation at the opposite pole, that is, on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital” (ibid., vol. 23, p. 660). However, the struggle of the working class created an obstacle to the growth of poverty. The spread of machine production to new branches of industry, such as machine building, gave rise to a need for more complex labor and contributed to the expansion of what had initially been an extremely thin stratum of skilled factory workers. This stratum became the main stronghold for the development of the trade unions, which gradually achieved varying degrees of legality in Great Britain (1824–25), the USA (1842), France (1864), Belgium (1866), Germany (1869), and Austria (1870). After a stubborn, 30-year struggle, textile workers in Great Britain won recognition of the ten-hour day, which became the legal norm for women and the de facto norm for other workers in this branch of industry in 1847. Subsequently, other countries introduced factory legislation. In Marx’ opinion, the development of factory legislation, as limited as it was, during this period marked the victory of the political economy of labor over that of capital (ibid, vol. 16, p. 9). As Marx noted, factory legislation contributed to the improvement of the physical, moral, and intellectual condition of the working class.

The upsurge in the working-class movement in the 1860’s was marked by the establishment of the International Working Men’s Association—the First International (1864)—and by the formation of a number of national workers’ associations, including the British Trade Union Congress (1868), the General German Workers’ Association (1863), and the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany (the Eisenachers; 1869). The first working-class government in history, the Paris Commune of 1871, which remained in power for 72 days, was founded during the political crisis engendered by the Franco-Prussian War. The heroic struggle of the Parisian proletariat under the Commune is one of the most important landmarks in the history of the international working-class movement.

Organizational and political maturation (1871–1917). The Paris Commune provided a practical demonstration of the importance of the struggle for political power and clarified the essence of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The defeat of the Communards revealed the immaturity of socioeconomic conditions for the victory of the proletarian revolution, as well as the comparative underdevelopment of the working class. In France and other Western European countries, including Italy, Spain, and Switzerland, where the proletariat had only begun to develop, various currents of petit bourgeois socialism, such as the Proudhonists, Blanquists, and Bakuninists, retained considerable influence. At the same time, the experience of the Paris Commune gave a powerful impetus to the development of the class consciousness and organization of the working class. Mass socialist workers’ parties were founded in most Western European countries after the First International was dissolved in 1876. Marx’ teaching became widely known, winning new adherents among advanced workers. The Second International, which was founded in 1889, adopted, on the whole, a Marxist point of view. The struggle for the eight-hour day expanded, assuming particularly acute forms in the USA, where it resulted in the bloody events in Chicago in 1886. In memory of these events the Second International proclaimed May 1 a worldwide day of proletarian solidarity and struggle for the eight-hour workday. The working-class movement for universal suffrage and other democratic rights and liberties intensified, making new gains. The position of the trade unions grew stronger, and national trade union centers were established in the major Western European countries and in the USA. In Great Britain the number of organized workers increased from 100,000 in the early 1840’s to 1 million in the first half of the 1870’s and 1.6 million in 1892. In 1900 the figure exceeded 2 million; in 1911, 3 million; and in 1913,4 million. In Germany there were 50,000 organized workers by 1878 and about 300,000 in 1890. The figure exceeded 1 million in 1902, 2 million in 1906, and 3 million in 1909. In France the syndicates had 140,000 members in 1890, about 600,000 in 1901, and more than 1 million in 1911. In the USA the trade unions became mass organizations in the 1840’s. In 1885 they had 500,000 members, and in 1913, 2.6 million members. As they became more organized, the workers offered greater resistance to capitalist exploitation. In the last third of the 19th century the average level of real wages rose, but as a result, a tendency toward a greater gap between the better-paid and more poorly paid categories of workers surfaced in a number of countries.

The development of premonopoly capitalism into monopoly capitalism was accompanied, on the one hand, by increased capitalist exploitation, and on the other hand, by an upsurge in the strike struggle and by the spread of socialist tendencies, including left anarchist and anarchosyndicalist ideas, among the lower strata of the working class. At the same time, symptoms of the “bourgeoisification” of the upper, better-paid stratum of workers became evident in Great Britain, where from the mid-19th century the ruling class enjoyed the advantages of colonial and industrial monopolies. The labor aristocracy, which first emerged in Great Britain, developed in other European countries and in the USA, where it also became one of the social sources of trade unionism and reformism. The mid-19th century was also marked by the founding of Catholic workers’ organizations. In the European and American working-class movement the struggle between reformist and revolutionary trends became more acute, increasingly acquiring an international character. At the turn of the 20th century the industrial proletariat totaled 10.4 million in the USA (1900), 8.5 million in Great Britain (1901), 8.5 million in Germany (1907), 3.4 million in France (1906), 2.9 million in Italy (1901), and 2.3 million in Austria-Hungary (1900). The total proletariat was substantially greater than the industrial proletariat in these countries.

With the geographic expansion of capitalist development and industrialization, the formation of the working class began or accelerated in many other countries, including Russia, where the industrial proletariat took shape in the 1880’s through 1890’s. The spread of Marxism in Russia accelerated the formation of an independent working-class movement. The Bolshevik Party, founded at the Second Congress of the RSDLP (1903), was a new type of Marxist party, the first of its kind in the history of the international working-class movement. During the bourgeois democratic Revolution of 1905–07 the Russian working class acted as the hegemonic class, and a new form of workers’ political organization emerged—the soviets. The Revolution of 1905–07 had an enormous influence on the international working class. V. I. Lenin accomplished the task of theoretically elaborating the new problems confronting proletarian revolutionaries during the stage of imperialism.

On the periphery of the capitalist world, in southeastern Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa, the proletariat took shape in the context of the increasing penetration of foreign capital. Owing to the general backwardness of socioeconomic conditions, the development of the working class in these regions was confined in the early 20th century to isolated centers of capitalist civilization. The proletariat was strongly affected by backward conditions in these areas. The spread of capitalism was accompanied by an increase in the objective differences between the positions of the working class of the oppressor nations and that of the oppressed nations.

On the eve of World War I (1914–18) the revolutionary working-class movement matured in many areas of the world. By 1913 a total of 15 million workers were organized. The war was a heavy blow for the European working class. Taken over by the social chauvinist lines, the Second International collapsed. However, a revolutionary situation soon developed in a number of the belligerent countries, including Russia, in the context of the incipient general crisis of capitalism. In February 1917 the autocracy was overthrown in Russia. On Oct. 25 (Nov. 7), 1917, an armed uprising by the workers and soldiers of Petrograd overthrew the bourgeois government. The Great October Socialist Revolution—the first victorious proletarian revolution in history—led to the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, in the form of Soviet power.

From the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917 through World War II (1939–45). As a result of the October Revolution of 1917, a qualitatively new revolutionary force emerged—the ruling working class, which exercised power in alliance with the toiling peasantry. The October Revolution gave rise to a powerful wave of revolutionary actions of the proletariat, including the proletarian revolution in Finland (January 1918); the November Revolution in Germany (1918); the establishment of the power of the soviets in Bavaria, Hungary, and Slovakia; and the seizure of enterprises by workers in Italy. Left-wing groups in the Social Democratic movement began to break organizationally with reformism and found Communist parties. The Third, or Communist, International, founded in Moscow in 1919, became the center of gravity for the revolutionary forces of the working class throughout the world. The number of organized workers in the capitalist countries increased to 40 million (1920). However, the proletarian vanguard in the West suffered a defeat. As Lenin observed, “the split within the proletariat of Western Europe [was] deeper and the treachery of the former socialist leaders greater than had been imagined” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 40, p. 203).

The Soviet working class faced an extraordinarily difficult task: to strengthen Soviet power under the conditions of encirclement by the capitalists, to create a material basis for a new society, and to build socialism. This task was meritoriously carried out by means of the heroic efforts and self-sacrificing labor of the working class and the entire Soviet people. Thus, the Soviet working class made an invaluable contribution to the development of the world revolutionary process.

THE DEVELOPED CAPITALIST COUNTRIES. After World War I the working class made a number of important gains in the developed capitalist countries. The eight-hour workday was established, replacing the ten- or 12-hour day, which had persisted in most capitalist countries. The practice of collective agreements was recognized, more progressive social legislation was introduced, and voting rights were expanded. At the same time, the postwar period was marked by a tremendous intensification of labor, stemming from the introduction of the assembly line and other methods of “rationalizing” production, including the Taylor and Ford systems. The level of unemployment was considerably greater in the postwar period than in the prewar period. Between 1924 and 1928, unemployment affected 10–12 percent of the workers in Great Britain, 9–18 percent in Germany, and 2–6 percent in France. During World War I the level of real wages dropped sharply. In Great Britain and Germany the working people did not succeed in raising wages to the prewar level until 1929, when wages finally exceeded the prewar level by an insignificant degree in France, by 30 percent in the USA, and by 50 percent in Japan. During the years of partial economic stabilization, the revolutionary activity of the workers declined, but even during this period various sharp class conflicts took place, including the general strike of 1926 in Great Britain and revolutionary uprisings in Austria in 1927.

The industrial working class continued to grow, but its growth was very uneven, with the most rapid increases in Japan; slower increases in Germany, Great Britain, and France; and the slowest increases in the USA. At the same time, the sectoral structure of the working class changed, as the proportion of workers in light industry declined and the proportion of workers employed in the production of the means of production increased considerably. Owing to the introduction of continuous conveyor lines, the semiskilled worker-operator was increasingly the principal type of factory worker. This trend became noticeable in the USA in the early 1920’s and later in other countries. Between the prewar and postwar periods, the disparity in pay for skilled and unskilled labor decreased considerably. The consequences of World War I, as well as changes in production, gradually undermined the privileged position of the labor aristocracy.

The crisis of 1929 inflicted the harshest misfortunes on the working class of the capitalist countries. In 1932 there were 13.2 million unemployed in the USA, 5.5 million in Germany, and 3 million in Great Britain. Between 1933 and 1939 the average annual level of unemployment was 20.8 percent in the USA and 14 percent in Great Britain. Real wages dropped. As class conflicts became sharply exacerbated, fascism, which was used by finance capital as a shock force against the revolutionary working class, became a greater threat. (In Italy the fascists had come to power in 1922.) Owing to a very deep split in its ranks, the German working class was unable to prevent the Nazi seizure of power (1933), despite the wholehearted, bold struggle of the revolutionary forces in the working class. In Austria the workers, including Communists and Social Democrats, launched an armed struggle against fascism (Vienna, 1934), but they were defeated. The reestablishment of working-class unity (1934) in France and the formation of the Popular Front (1935) on the initiative of the Communist Party made it possible for the working class to achieve major successes in the struggle for democracy and important social gains. In Spain the proletariat became the main force in the National-Revolutionary War against fascism (1936–39). Throughout the world the working class waged a struggle against the impending world war.

COLONIAL, SEMICOLONIAL, AND DEPENDENT COUNTRIES. Under the influence of the October Revolution in Russia, the colonial, semicolonial, and dependent countries experienced the rise of a powerful wave of the national liberation movement, in which the proletariat was increasingly involved. However, in these countries the proletariat took shape relatively slowly. In China the working class emerged during World War I, which gave an impetus to the development of national industry. At the beginning of the 1920’s there were about 2.5 million industrial workers in China, or approximately 1 percent of the economically active population. In the anti-imperialist movement the Chinese working class initially acted as the left wing of bourgeois democracy. Socialist views penetrated the Chinese working-class movement, including, in addition to Marxism, Utopian socialism of the populist variety, anarchism, and anarchosyndi-calism. In China the first workers’ unions were founded by bourgeois and anarchist elements. Later, the Communist Party (founded in 1921) was the leading organizer of trade unions. The number of organized workers increased from 270,000 in 1920 to 500,000 in 1925, when the All-China Federation of Trade Unions was established. During the Revolution of 1925–27 the Chinese proletariat emerged as an independent force, but its actions, including uprisings in Shanghai and Canton (Kuangchou) in 1927, were suppressed. In China conditions were extremely unfavorable for the struggle of the urban working class. The country’s few industrial centers were islands in a sea of peasants. In the late 1920’s the Communist Party, which had depended primarily on the industrial workers, shifted its activity to the countryside, where an antifeudal peasant war was developing.

In India the working class had emerged by the second half of the 19th century, but it developed slowly, owing to the colonial economy and British imperial rule. On the eve of World War I there were 951,000 factory workers in India. A quarter of a century later (1939) there were 1,751,000. During the period between the two world wars the total number of industrial workers, including artisans, remained virtually unchanged: in 1921 there were 15.7 million, and in 1941, 16 million. But during this period the proportion of industrial workers in the population of India declined somewhat. In 1925 the Communist Party of India was founded. As a result of its merger with the National Federation of Trade Unions (founded in 1920), the All-India Trade Union Congress united more than 80 percent of the country’s organized workers in 1938.

The working class grew and gained strength organizationally in a number of countries of Latin America, including Argentina, Mexico, Chile, and Cuba. The formation of the working class began or accelerated in many other Latin American countries, including Brazil, Venezuela, and Bolivia. A single continental trade union center was established—the Confederation of Latin American Workers (1938).

During and after World War II. During World War II the working class emerged as an international force and a genuinely national, patriotic force. The Soviet working class endured the difficult tests of the Great Patriotic War with honor, joining the entire Soviet people in making a decisive contribution to destroying fascism. In the occupied countries the working class became the main force in the resistance movement. After the war the sociopolitical influence of the working class increased considerably. In the antifascist struggle the Communist parties considerably expanded and strengthened their ties with the working class, confirming their role as the vanguard of the working-class movement. Toward the end of the war and in the immediate postwar period, the working class played a leading role in popular democratic and socialist revolutions that emerged and triumphed in European and Asian countries such as Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Albania, Rumania, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, China, East Germany, North Korea, and North Vietnam.

In nine Western European countries (Italy, France, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Austria, Finland, and Luxemburg), coalition governments were formed by representatives of workers’ parties (Communists, Socialists, and Social Democrats) and other antifascist forces. A number of progressive socioeconomic and political reforms were carried out in these countries with the participation of the working class. A striving for unity took hold among the working people, leading to the establishment of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU, 1945), which was joined by trade unions from 56 countries with a total membership of 67 million. Later, the working class lost some of its gains as a result of the Cold War, which was launched by the Western powers, and as a result of the anticommunism of right-wing Social Democratic leaders, who helped force the Communists out of governments in a number of countries. The majority of the trade union associations of the West left the WFTU in 1949 and established the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

THE SOCIALIST COUNTRIES. With the formation of the world socialist system, the position of the ruling working class was extended and strengthened. The working class played an even greater role as a creative force. The expansion of socialist construction was accompanied by a rapid growth in the number of factory workers and office employees. Between 1950 and 1970, the total number of factory workers and office employees increased from 40.4 million to 90.2 million in the Soviet Union, from 800,000 to 2.7 million in Bulgaria, from 3.5 million to 6.2 million in Czechoslovakia, from 1.8 million to 3.6 million in Hungary, from 5.3 million to 6.9 million in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), from 63,000 to 201,000 in the Mongolian People’s Republic, from 5.1 million to 10.1 million in Poland, and from 2.1 million to 5.1 million in Rumania. In 1970 there were 3.9 million factory workers and office employees in Yugoslavia.

It was not an easy task to consolidate the power of the working class. The forces of counterrevolution tried to take advantage of the objective and subjective difficulties in socialist construction, but the successful overcoming of these difficulties and the determined struggle against opportunist and nationalistic views contributed to the further consolidation of the position of socialism. The Vietnamese working class made an enormous contribution to their country’s heroic struggle for freedom and independence, which ended in victory in 1975. The working class of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea passed difficult tests, particularly during the Fatherland Liberation War (1950–53).

The victory of the Cuban Revolution, which made the working class of Cuba the leading force in the socialist transformation of the country, was a major success in the world revolutionary movement.

The well-being of the working class and of all the working people has increased considerably in most socialist countries in the course of socialist construction. In particular, social consumption funds have increased. Workers are guaranteed the right to work, free medical care, and education. They have extensive opportunities to improve their occupational skills. The material conditions of the working class are determined by the planned development of the economy, price stability, planned wage increases, and the expansion and improvement of the social insurance system. The cultural, technical, and educational level of the workers is rising steadily. There have been profound changes in the workers’ psychology. Among the working class new forms of social activity have emerged, characteristic only of socialism and reflecting the leading position of the working class in the system of socialist social relations. This trend has been manifested chiefly in the enhanced role of Marxist-Leninist parties as the political vanguard of the working class and of all the working people. The trade unions, which unite the overwhelming majority of factory workers and office employees, participate in the management of production and the organization of socialist emulation. The workers’ growing political consciousness and rising cultural level, as well as the development of socialist democracy, promote the further strengthening of the influence of the working class and its mass organizations in all spheres of life. In playing the leading role in socialist society, the working class relies on its alliance with the toiling peasantry and on the unity of the people. In building a new society, the working class draws closer to other strata of working people, including the intelligentsia, which is recruited from the workers and peasants.

In China, where the transition to socialist transformations was made under extremely backward conditions and with an enormous preponderance of peasants, the development of the working class was complex. In the 30 years preceding the formation of the People’s Republic of China, the number of workers fluctuated between 2.5 million and 3.4 million. By 1958 the number of workers had increased to 25.6 million, chiefly at the expense of the peasants. In 1972 there were approximately 21–27 million workers in China, which, according to the UN, had an estimated population of 750 million in 1971. The social structure of the population of the People’s Republic of China was reflected in the composition of the Communist Party of China, which had 10.7 million members in 1956, with workers constituting only 14 percent of the total and peasants 69 percent. Under these circumstances, which became even more complicated as a result of the failure of efforts to accelerate industrialization by voluntaristic measures, the leadership of the Communist Party of China adopted a line of reactionary Utopian and barracks “socialism,” a line of struggle against the international communist movement and the socialist commonwealth from the standpoint of great power chauvinism and anti-Sovietism. The Maoists did not succeed, however, in undermining or weakening the solidarity of the working class of the fraternal socialist countries and the solidarity of the Marxist-Leninist parties.

THE DEVELOPED CAPITALIST COUNTRIES. In the developed capitalist countries, postwar economic development was accompanied by a numerical increase in the working class and by substantial changes in its structure and material condition and in the conditions of the class struggle. However, these changes were very uneven, varying as a function of the country or the time. In the USA the industrial working class grew from 22.5 million in 1950 to 31.3 million in 1971; in Great Britain, from 11.5 million in 1951 to 12.5 million in 1966; in France, from 6.6 million in 1954 to 8.5 million in 1971; in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), from 8.2 million in 1950 to 13.7 million in 1971; in Italy, from 4.6 million in 1954 to 8 million in 1970; and in Japan, from 8.8 million in 1950 to 19.7 million in 1970.

The composition of the working class has changed substantially in favor of new branches of industry, such as electrical engineering, radio electronics, and chemicals. The tendency toward the expansion of the working class to include new trades associated with contemporary production has been most clearly demonstrated in these branches of industry. Scientific and technological progress has led to changes in the functions of workers and in the organization of labor, which, in turn, have resulted in a relative and sometimes an absolute decrease in the number of manual laborers; an increase in the number of mental laborers, such as technicians, inspectors, laboratory assistants, and operators of electronic computers and data-processing machines; an increased proportion of highly skilled workers, such as repairmen and operators of semiautomatic and automatic production units; and a sizable decrease in the proportion of unskilled workers. The average level of education of workers has risen. In the USA, workers receive up to 10–12 years of education, and in other developed capitalist countries, five to ten years. More wage laborers are being employed in the service sphere. The number of clerical and sales personnel is growing rapidly. Among these groups and in the service sphere the proportion of women is especially great.

Between 1950 and 1972 the total number of factory workers and office employees in the developed capitalist countries increased from 160 million to 230 million. The number of workers increased from 85 million to 117 million in the industrial sectors and from 61 million to 106 million in the service sphere. In agriculture the number of workers declined from 14 million to 7 million.

Bourgeois and revisionist theories, including the theories of “deproletarianization,” the “new middle class,” and “participation,” deprecate and even deny the role of the working class as the motive force in social and socioeconomic development under contemporary conditions, but the facts support the opposite point of view. Scientific and technological progress promote the growth of the working class and the enhancement of its role as the main productive and sociopolitical force.

After World War II the working class’ struggle for its vital interests assumed an unprecedented scope in the developed capitalist countries: between 1946 and 1966 there were 309,800 strikes. The effectiveness of the strike struggle increased, owing in part to the achievements of the socialist countries. Between 1950 and 1971 the real wages of industrial workers increased by 45.5 percent in the USA, by 66.7 percent in Great Britain, by 145 percent in France, and by 133.5 percent in Italy. During the same period wages rose by factors of 3.0 and 3.2 in the FRG and Japan, where they had fallen to extremely low levels by the end of the war. The growth in the purchasing power of the working people as a result of their successful economic struggle contributed to increased rates of economic growth and higher levels of employment. However, the socioeconomic gains of the working class, including a number of reforms in social insurance and medical care, did not make up for the excessive inten-siveness of labor or for stress and industrial injuries. A considerable proportion of the working people (10–20 percent) lived in poverty or on the brink of it.

In the late 1960’s there was an upsurge in the working-class movement of the developed capitalist countries, with major actions such as the “red May” in France in 1968, the “hot autumn” in Italy in 1969, strikes during the early 1970’s in Great Britain, and the “spring offensives” in Japan. According to official statistics, the average number of participants in strikes increased from 13 million per year in 1966–70 to 17.5 million per year in 1971–75. The bourgeoisie responded with antilabor laws and new efforts to restrict the independence of the trade unions and the right to strike. The world economic crisis that began in 1974—the most acute crisis of the postwar period— had serious repercussions on the working class. Unemployment increased sharply. In 1975 the number of people officially registered as unemployed reached 8 million in the USA, representing an increase from the usual 3–5 percent of the labor force to 9 percent. In Western Europe the number of unemployed reached 5.3 million (4.8 percent of the labor force), and in Japan, 1.3 million. The world economic crisis emerged under the conditions of unrestrained inflation and price increases. In most of the capitalist countries real wages stopped rising, and in certain countries they declined.

The endeavors of large-scale capital to shift the costs of the crisis to the working people encountered determined resistance from the working class. Left-wing forces intensified the struggle for the social and political rights of the working people, for an independent worker policy, and against the neofascist threat. The expansion of this struggle favored international détente, which began to develop as a result of the foreign policy initiatives of the Soviet Union and other socialist countries. In the mid-1970’s the working-class and democratic movement of Western Europe achieved a number of major successes. Fascist regimes were overthrown in Portugal and Greece, democracy was restored in Spain, and the position of left-wing forces was strengthened in Italy, France, and certain other countries.

Changes in the composition, position, and psychology of the working class have been reflected in the development of its political and trade union organization and in the character of its demands and forms of struggle. Increasingly, fundamental social questions, including changes in economic policy and profound democratic transformations, are focal points for militant actions by the proletariat. The trade unions, which had 70 million members in 1975, play an increasingly important political role. However, this role is manifested differently in different countries, and there is not necessarily a correlation between the political role of the trade unions and the level of organization of wage laborers. In France, 20–25 percent of the wage laborers are organized; in the USA, 25 percent; in Japan, 35 percent; in the FRG, 36 percent; in Great Britain, 43 percent; in Italy, about 50 percent; and in Sweden, 75 percent. The proclivity for joint action is growing stronger among workers of different orientations—Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats, and Catholics. There are increasing grounds for an alliance of manual and mental laborers in the antimonopoly struggle and for unity of action by the working class on a national and international scale.

THE DEVELOPING COUNTRIES. In the developing countries the industrial working class grew rapidly after World War II, but the rate of growth decreased in the 1960’s. The industrial workers total about 30 million in the developing countries, constituting 20–25 percent of the economically active population in the more developed countries of Latin America and about 5–6 percent in South Asian and North African states. There are 6 million factory proletarians in Latin America and 8–9 million in the developing countries of Asia. This core of the working class is surrounded by an enormous mass of semiproletarian and pre-proletarian elements in the city and the countryside. In the developing countries the total army of wage labor exceeds 200 million (in the early 1950’s, 140 million). Approximately half of these laborers are employed in agriculture, about 55 million in industry (including handicrafts and cottage industry), and 65–70 million in trade and in the service sphere.

There are many characteristics associated specifically with the structure and position of the working class in the developing countries. Numerous strata of plantation workers (about 15 million) constitute the most concentrated, most organized, and most militant section of the rural proletariat. In the factory proletariat, workers in light industry prevail, but there are also a relatively large number of miners, petroleum industry workers, and transportation workers. The experienced, hereditary proletariat is small. Seasonal work is widespread, particularly in Africa. The developing countries are characterized by the low level of concentration of the industrial working class and by the relatively large proportion of handicraft and manufactory workers (up to 40–50 percent in the manufacturing industries), who are employed in small workshops or at home. (However, individual branches and enterprises, especially those controlled by foreign monopolies, are characterized by a high level of concentration of labor power.) Unskilled or poorly skilled labor power prevails, owing primarily to the low educational level of the population. An excessively large proportion of wage laborers are employed in trade and in the service industries in the developing countries—a manifestation of hidden overpopulation in the cities. As a result of agrarian overpopulation and limited rates of industrialization, unemployment is very high in the developing countries (35–40 million people, and according to some sources, considerably more). The level of wages is extremely low, but owing to the shortage of skilled labor power, a great disparity is maintained between the lower and upper wage rates. Semifeudal and local forms of dependence, such as mediation, debt servitude, and contract labor power, coexist with modern methods of capitalist exploitation. Profound national or ethnic and religious differences make it more difficult to unite the working class and develop its class consciousness.

The conditions of the struggle of the working class in the third world also have a number of distinctive characteristics.

The role of the working class as an anti-imperialist force is increasing steadily, resulting in important social gains for the proletariat, such as legislative restriction of work time and regulation of working conditions. But labor legislation does not affect a number of essential aspects of labor relations. Moreover, it is frequently violated. In most of the developing countries, the material condition of most members of the working class has changed little.

On the whole, the level of organization of the working class in the third world and the scale of its actions are growing. In the early 1970’s there were about 40 million trade union members in the developing countries, and 15–20 million people a year engaged in strikes. However, the working-class movement in the third world faces enormous difficulties, especially in countries with reactionary, pro-imperialist regimes. In developing countries that have a significant capitalist sector but that maintain a generally anti-imperialist position, the working class faces complex tasks. The working class operates under more favorable conditions in countries with a socialist orientation, but conditions vary from country to country.

There are great differences in the level of maturity of the working class. In most countries of tropical Africa there are no independent workers’ parties. Trade unions are primarily elitist and are partially integrated into the party-state system. The advanced detachments of the working class in Asia have reached a higher level of maturity. The attacks of reactionary forces have been directed primarily at the Communist vanguard of the Asian working class (the bloody rout of the Communist Party and trade unions in Indonesia in 1965–66). The working class of Latin America plays a very significant sociopolitical role. Industrial workers were the main source of support for the Popular Unity government in Chile from 1970 to 1973. The economic and political struggle of the Latin American proletariat is expanding, despite the temporary defeat of democratic forces in Chile, where, after the military fascist coup in September 1973, brutal terror punished primarily the working class, and despite the intensification of repression in certain other countries.

The international working class. The international working class is an enormous and steadily growing force. In the mid-1970’s the world total of factory workers and office employees reached 650 million. The majority of them belong to the working class. The trade unions have more than 250 million members. Despite the great diversity of conditions and tasks facing the workers in different countries and groups of countries, the international working class is united by fundamental class interests. The international character of the struggle of the working class demands maximum cohesion and the effective solidarity of the workers of each country with the struggle of their class brothers in other countries. The most significant manifestations of proletarian internationalism in the working-class movement in recent history are the movement in defense of Soviet Russia during the Civil War and military intervention, international aid to the Spanish antifascists from 1936 to 1939, the resistance movement during World War II, actions in defense of revolutionary Cuba, international support of the liberation struggle of the Vietnamese people, and the world movement of solidarity with the working people of Chile.

The International Conferences of Communist and Workers’ Parties of 1957, 1960, and 1969 made an important contribution to the international solidarity of the world working class and all anti-imperialist forces. The documents adopted by the conferences contain a detailed program of struggle against imperialism and for peace, national independence, social progress, democracy, and socialism. In this struggle, the leading role is played by the international working class.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Manifest Kommunisticheskoipartii. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch, 2nd ed., vol. 4.
Marx, K. “Uchreditel’nyi manifest Mezhdunarodnogo Tovarish chestva Rabochikh.” Ibid., vol. 16.
Marx, K. Kapital, vols. 1–3. Ibid., vols. 23–25, parts 1–2.
Engels, F. Polozhenierabochego klassa v Anglii. Ibid., vol. 2.
Engels, F. “K kritike proekta sotsial-demokraticheskoi programmy 1891 g.”Ibid., vol. 22.
Lenin, V. I. Chto takoe ‘druz’ia naroda’ i kak oni voiuiut proliv sotsialdemokratov? Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 1.
Lenin, V. I. “Fridrikh Engel’s.” Ibid., vol. 2.
Lenin, V. I. “Proekt i ob”iasnenie programmy sotsial-demokraticheskoi partii.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. Razvitie kapitalizma ν Rossii. Ibid., vol. 3.
Lenin, V. I. “Karl Marks.” Ibid, vol. 26.
Lenin, V. I. Imperializm, kak vysshaia stadiia kapitalizma. Ibid., vol. 27.
Lenin, V. I. Gosudarstvo i revoliutsiia. Ibid., vol. 33.
Lenin, V. I. “Velikii pochin.” Ibid., vol. 39.
Lenin, V. I. “O diktature proletariata.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. Detskaia bolezn” levizny’ v kommunizme. Ibid., vol. 41.
Brezhnev, L. I. KPSS ν bor’be za edinstvo vsekh revoliulsionnykh i miroliubivykh sil. Moscow, 1972.
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Gauzner, N. D. Nauchno-tekhnicheskii progress i rabochii klass SShA. Moscow, 1968.
Diligenskii, G. G. Rabochii na kapitalisticheskom predpriiatii. Moscow, 1969.
Ershov, S. A. Problemy rabochei sily ν razvitykh kapitalisticheskikh stranakh. Moscow, 1974.
Ivanov, N. P. Tekhnicheskii perevorot i rabochii klass ν glavnykh kapitalisticheskikh stranakh. Moscow, 1965.
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Kuczynski, J. Istoriia polozheniia rabochego klassa pri kapitalizme: Mirovoi obzor. Moscow, 1970. (Translated from German.)
Matiugin, A. A. V. I. Lenin ob istoricheskoi roli rabochego klassa. Moscow, 1974.
Mutagirov, D. Z. Klass-sozidatel’ (Rabochii klass: sostav, struktura i granitsy). Leningrad, 1973.
Pletnev, E. P. Mirovoe khoziaistvo i rabochii klass. Moscow, 1967. Pletnev, E. P. Kosmopolitizm kapitala i internatsionalizm proletariata. Moscow, 1974.
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Rabochii klass—vedushchaia sila mirovogo revoliutsionnogo protsessa. Moscow, 1973.
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Sal’kovskii, O. V. Sotsial’naia politika burzhuazii i proletariat. Moscow, 1969.
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Sotsial’no-ekonomicheskie problemy trudiashchikhsia kapitalisticheskikh stran. Moscow, 1974.
Timofeev, T. T. Proletariat protiv monopolii. Moscow, 1967.
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A. B. VEBER [21–915–2; updated]

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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