Increasing Misery of the Proletariat, Marx The Proletariat
What Is The Proletariat

Marx called another contradiction of capitalism that will lead to its collapse the increasing misery of the proletariat. Three separate, though not necessarily contradictory, interpretations of this much-debated doctrine have been offered. (1) Absolute increasing misery of the proletariat implies that the real income of the mass of society decreases with the development of capitalism. If this is what Marx meant, history has clearly proved him wrong. (2) Relative increasing misery of the proletariat means that the proletariat's share of the national income declines over time. Real income could increase for each member of the proletar­iat, yet relative income could decrease. But historical evidence in developed countries indicates that wages have constituted a remarkably constant propor­tion of national income over time; so if this is what Marx meant, he was wrong. (3) A final interpretation of the increasing-misery doctrine is that it concerns noneconomic aspects of life. With the advance of capitalism, the quality of life declines as people become chained to the industrial process. It makes no difference, according to Marx, whether the income of the proletariat rises or falls, because "in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the laborer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse."8 With the growth of capital accumula­tion goes the "accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation."9 Because there is, at present, no accepted measure of the quality of life, this prediction cannot be tested. It is interesting to note that a number of economists from Adam Smith to J. K. Galbraith have questioned whether rising per capita income must be associated with the development of a good society.


Marx actually subscribed to each of these three doctrines of increasing misery at one time or another. The doctrine of absolute increasing misery was advanced in his early writings. But sometime between the publication of The Communist
Manifesto in 1848 and the first volume of Capital in 1867 he abandoned this position. It has been suggested that Marx's long period of study in the British Museum made him aware of the rising standard of living of the industrial worker and led to this recantation. He did, however, continue to maintain that the relative income position of the proletariat would fall over time even though its real income would rise. Marx used the term subsistence wage to identify the lower limit to which wages may be pushed. This refers to a cultural subsistence, not a biological subsistence; he recognized that over time the cultural subsistence level of wages would rise. Finally, and most important, Marx consistently maintained that one of the most undesirable consequences of capitalism is a deterioration of the intangible factors known as the quality of life.